Is Julie Burchill correct when she says that Girls Aloud are the most important pop group since the Sex Pistols? She may well be, if for no other reason that Girls Aloud have hit upon an uncomfortable truth about pop which only the Pistols have previously managed to express so bluntly. We ought to have known, of course, from the real “underground” of discomfiture which underpinned their debut single “Sound Of The Underground” (“Crank the bass, I’ve gotta get some more/Water’s running in the wrong direction”) which describes an addiction to music which is more clinical than celebratory. And it is now confirmed on their second single “No Good Advice.” Ostensibly another post-Shangri Las anthem in favour of not paying attention to your parents, there is something considerably more disturbing going on in this record. It is the parallel to the clenched teeth irony of Bill Fay’s “Some Good Advice” (the final line of which advises, “But don’t listen to anything that anyone tells you”), but its “My Sharona”-gone-wrong groove points to someone who is actually past the point of help, the dying screams of an incurable addict. Ms Dynamite’s “stereo” motif is echoed, but this is not a lifeforce but a needle which will eventually kill the consumer. “I don’t need no special fix to anaesthetise me” howl the singers unconvincingly. “Shut your mouth!” snarls one of them (Cheryl? Kimberley? Sarah? Nicola? Nadine? Can anyone truly tell them apart? And what would be achieved if we could?). “I’m already wasted” they go on to proclaim; and finally there’s the astonishing anonymous soliloquy at the song’s close, which culminates – in a direct echo of “Pretty Vacant” – in a malevolently grinning “’Cos frankly, I don’t even care.”
It is supposed to be a euphoric blast of teen liberation, but in fact it’s one of the most terrifying moments in pop since “Death Disco” – that point where Lydon/Girls Aloud suddenly turn to face the camera and sneer murderously at the consumer, as if to laugh, “You think that pop is supposed to matter?” It is terrifying precisely because the consumer is expected to applaud it as a masterstroke of subtextual subversion, though it is really an undisguised truth.
(Consider the closing sequence of the “Dance Of The Dead” episode of The Prisoner wherein Mary Morris, a last-minute substitute for an unwell Trevor Howard as Number 2, laughs through Patrick McGoohan, through the camera, through our screens, directly at us, as behind her the disconnected teleprinter continues to print indecipherable data. The real terror here lies in the possibility that McGoohan, off screen, is participating in, or even initiating, this laughter. As systematic and lethal as the knife which proceeds to bisect Waldo, the geek progenitor of the Velvets’ “The Gift”)
On the cover of the debut album by Girls Aloud, also entitled Sound Of The Underground, there is a pink sticker which proclaims “YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS CAN BE THE VOICES OF GIRLS ALOUD!” This turns out to be a device whereby if you plug a microphone into your PC and programme the CD correctly, you can sing into the microphone – significantly over a section of “No Good Advice” – and depending on whose name you click, your singing will be reproduced as a recreation of one of the five band members’ voices. That’s how much they matter, of course. They are pictured on the cover, lined up, straight-backed, clutching microphones, wearing silver foil outfits – a touch I can’t resist; I remember what the silver foil-clad Suzi Quatro on the cover of her 1974 single “Too Big” awakened in me as a ten-year-old – but they are unsmiling, their eyes almost entirely obscured by liner and mascara. They might as well be drawings, or puppets – they have been curiously de-sexed. On the reverse of the cover there are simply the five abandoned microphones against a pitch black background. Yes, it’s true enough, you, your friends, anyone really, could be the voices of Girls Aloud. But does it matter?
As a pop record it’s great, of course. The gilded emptiness at the core of “No Good Advice” is not sustained – could not possibly be sustained for the value of anyone’s life or sanity – but as pop it gleams immaculate and is forceful in expressing its modest pleasures. The two singles come first, of course; when we arrive at “Some Kind Of Miracle” and its opening line of “Baby baby won’t you give me a chance” alarm bells momentarily ring, but it is superb post-1981 pop (think Ultravox’s Rage In Eden if Trevor Horn had been available to produce/mould it out of its essential naffness) with a heartbreaking Brian Wilson-via-Kim Wilde descending minor chord vocal harmony sequence 2/3 into the song which both confirms and justifies the song’s worth. The brilliantly-titled “All I Need (All I Don’t)” is determinable electro, better than the similarly-titled Basement Jaxx track on the latter’s last album, if only for the necessary parenthesis in the title. “Mars Attack” and “Boogie Down Love” both essentially rejig the components of “Sound Of The Underground” in entertainingly minutely different ways. “Stop” expands from its opening staccato pulse to another sunset of a descending minor chorus, somewhere between Kim Wilde’s “Stay Awhile” and All Saints’ “Black Coffee,” while “Girls Allowed” (heheh!) revisits the always welcome world of Now! Dance 1988 with a terrific old-school pop-house groove (and how quickly or slowly did that particular avant-garde become a tradition). One notes the presence of the Beatmasters and Betty Boo among the writers and producers, and indeed “Girls Allowed” is worthy to sit alongside masterpieces like “Numero Uno” and “Don’t Make Me Wait” (especially when aligned with its rapid-fire lyric which shreds Shania’s “That Don’t Impress Me Much” to a twain). There are the obligatory naff ballads – “Forever And A Night” and the vaguely unsettling “Life Got Cold” with the latter’s world-gone-wrong lyric (“We smoke as we choke and snatch another Coke”) which disturbingly suggests that, as women barely out of their teens, life fled long ago (“summer slipped away”). And the chorus only just avoids being the bridge of “Wonderwall” – as well as the equally obligatory naff shot at R&B (“White Lies”) but even a comparatively run-of-the-mill track like “Don’t Want You Back” is rendered interesting by what’s going on behind it (those oscillating squiggles sound queerly like Evan Parker’s soprano – indeed John Coxon of Springheel Jack is apparently playing guitar on some of this record, though the sleeve indicates one “Shawn Lee”). “Love Bomb” is great, though, and though the rapper here sounds very much like Ms Boo herself rather than any of the group, it’s a cheerily cheesy mash-up of Kid Creole and Man Parrish. The album is generally a welcome addition to the tradition of intelligent girl-group pop last exemplified by All Saints (though, as I mentioned in Uncut, the Appletons’ surprisingly good debut album should not escape your attention either). Like all great girl-group pop, however, there’s a cancer at its centre; but the malignancy identified and diagnosed so accurately in “No Good Advice” would be hard for anyone to treat.
posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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