During the summer of 1996, when I was leading a team about to launch Popscene, a music television show for teenagers, I first heard mention of The Spice Girls. All manner of new music would arrive into the office on a weekly basis from well-meaning pluggers and publicists, much of it of dubious quality, even for our target audience. But there was something very immediate and zesty about The Spice Girls, and I was reeled in right away.
By way of context, this period was characterised by a return to moderate prominence of the British pop single even if, in hindsight, this was more the last sting of a dying wasp. On the one hand, Oasis and Blur slugged it out in what was quite possibly the last ever genuine race to the top of the singles chart while, on the other, one makey-uppy boy-band after another
battled for the amateur lightweight belts.
The Spice Girls were an all-girl group in a market dominated by young men. They were a fully-formed antidote to Boyzone’s oily cabaret shtick and, immediately on landing, already had a couple of pretty ace singles in their locker. The way I saw it, three minutes of the girls meant three less minutes of the Boyz, and this was a good thing.
Almost twenty years on, no one remembers a single Boyzone song apart, maybe, from the covers and the one with Rowan Atkinson in the video. But while The Spice Girls may have eventually burned out as quickly as they once burned bright; it’s fair to say that they’ve hardly been forgotten. Everyone can hum one of their tunes, if pushed; – pop songs rarely come better than ‘Wannabe’, ‘Say You’ll Be There’ and ‘Two Become One’.
But even as their debut album was emerging, The Spice Girls were already off-limits. Although most of the big international record companies still operated local offices and centres of distribution in Dublin, the band’s publicity was so controlled that the closest Popscene came to them was when we recorded a Spice Girls tribute act in a nightclub in Leicester Square in London. I subsequently worked with Mel C and Emma Bunton during my time on the bigger RTÉ entertainment shows, long after the band had split. Both were decent, affable and excellent company, even if their solo material was far less memorable.
I wrote at length and with no little gusto about The Spice Girls in The Sunday Tribune throughout 1996 and 1997. Apart from the opportunity to proselytise, I also had the chance to land a few decent reducers on Louis Walsh and his charges, who were badly exposed in ‘Wannabe’’s after-glow. This may often have amounted to simply shooting fish in a barrel but I welcomed any chance to harpoon the country’s self-styled Svengali and his ten-legged squid.
Matt Cooper had recently been appointed editor of the paper when he asked me to knock out a long feature on The Spice Girls for the issue of November 24th, 1996, and we’ve re-produced most of it below. This cover story was splashed across three pages inside under the headline, ‘The Spice Of Life’. With the band out of bounds and the internet still in its infancy to most of us, the piece is comprised largely of opinion, bulked out with various quotes from elsewhere, especially from Amy Raphael’s excellent book, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks – Women Re-Write Rock’.
I also quoted Simon Price, whom I met when we were both working at Melody Maker magazine and who, as well as being the definitive authority on The Manic Street Preachers, was also a serious advocate of Engine Alley. And in the original piece, also quoted Stephen Dalton, whose interview with The Spice Girls had run in a recent issue of Vox magazine.
The piece was augmented by a support-column on the great all-girl bands of our time. Headlined ‘Girls On Top’, much of it was written by my colleague, Paul G. Sheridan, whose knowledge of popular music history and whose store of factual information is encyclopaedic. And who, because of this, did what I shamefully failed do in the body of the main piece :- mention The Supremes, the greatest all-girl group in popular music history.
The Spice of Life
Popular music has always been about ever-decreasing novelties, about the moment meeting the idea and about clever opportunism having it’s five minutes before it implodes. These days, with an apparent re-birth in the role of the pop-single and in the power of the song, pop has never been more easily bored. As movements and poses come and go far more frequently, so too are many more songs far too easily forgotten and lost.
It’s the chance that you take, of course, it’s the price that you pay and it’s the primary rule that seeps right through popular culture. Popular music waits for no one, so tough.
Given the almost incessant swarm of manufactured pop bands over the last six years, most of them exclusively boy-led, it seems strange that it’s taken so long for the all-girl alternative. That said, popular music has traditionally been a man’s world, with few women ever acceding to power at managerial, directorial and production levels. But as Amy Raphael wrote over two years ago in her quite stunning study, Never Mind The Bollocks ; Women Re-Write Rock, ‘rock needs to be constantly challenged by women. With the 1990s hot-pot of sexual confusion, women are able to construct their own images in a way they couldn’t before. The fact is that gender will remain an issue as long as the music industry is dominated by men, and female musicians remain an exception to the rule’.
As the end of the year looms then, and as the last 12 months are seen in some sort of linear context, two band names will dominate any worthwhile form reports. Those names are Oasis and The Spice Girls.
Everyone knows Oasis of course and, come the beginning of The New Year, one domestic household in three will have one or both of the band’s albums. But in terms of achievement and delivery, particularly given popular music’s established and stuffy red tape, the year belongs largely to The Spice Girls, this decade’s defining girl-band and pop’s shiniest and brightest new toy.
They are, to those who’ve been buried away, a five-strong, garrulous pop thing that have casually sauntered to the top of the British singles chart with both of their first releases, ‘Wannabe’ and ‘Say You’ll Be There’, and with their already platinum first album, ‘Spice’. The intensity and scope of their impact has even surprised their record company, Virgin Records, and while The Spice Girls are still officially un-released in America, they have already been play-listed as an import act on several pivotal radio stations. So that even now, in its first week of release, it would seem that ‘Spice’, unlike recent records by Boyzone and East 17, does actually travel well and translates easily onto a world market and the bigger pop picture.
For the sake of reference, however, The Spice Girls are no casual or over-night arrival. Aged between their late teens and their earliest 20s, all five girls – Emma, Victoria, Melanie C, Geri and Melanie B – know too well the fringes of showbusiness. They have all worked the circuit variously as dancers, session singers and actresses and at least one of them has porn-modelled. But contrary to many of their mascara-soaked pen profiles, they do actually sing, they do actually play and they do actually write for themselves. And in a genre that has traditionally played the passive role and that has more often than not chosen the safest and most-tested road, they shine like diamonds in the mire.
New Musical Express has already labelled them ‘the Take That it’s alright to like … if you’re a bloke’ but The Spice Girls’ appeal, based largely around New Laddism and saucy street-sass, has already broken through pop’s most rigid gender definitions. Their sales figures and market breakdown spit blatantly in the eyes of form and type, and they have defiantly impacted on the teenage girl audience as they have done on the teenage boy one, selling themselves as role models to those, particularly girls, who are kicking against the pricks.
Simon Price, reviewing ‘Spice’ for Melody Maker magazine concluded that ‘with their crayon-simple, girl-power self-sufficiency, The Spice Girls are infinitely more useful than anything that’s come from the indie sector to the vast majority of teenage girls who a) aren’t lesbian and b) don’t like lo-fi guitar music. Like Cyndi, they just wanna have fun. Like En Vogue,
they’re saying you ain’t never gonna get it’.
And he’s right to a point, because while The Spice Girls deliver brazen, dance-floor pop music that’s mildly familiar and still very positively doused in spice, they also run far deeper, playing noble wordgames and kicking sand at the industry as they go. ‘We wanted the whole philosophy of The Spice Girls to be just like a cult’, says Geri, the band’s central focus and mouthpiece. ‘We’ve just tapped into how girls are feeling. It’s like feminism, but you don’t have to burn your bra’.
This is arguably the first time that British popular music has come across anything as genuinely unique as The Spice Girls and their approach to the culture’s manners. Granted, the last 15 years has thrown up a cluster of irregular girl band one-offs, from Girlschool to The Belle Stars to Bananarama to Elastica, but none have managed to stick for so long and so quickly.
But then England has never saved any real all-girl pop traditions of note. Throughout the early and mid-1960s, as America’s Shirelles, Shangri-Las and Ronettes seriously ran The Beatles in terms of sales and market share, where three-way girl-pop had all of the best tunes, England pushed the solo option – people like Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw and Lulu, none of whom have either dated as gracefully or impacted so loudly.
But as Amy Raphael concedes, ‘pre-punk, women had a much more defined and confined role in pop music. Behind the girl group sound were male songwriters, managers and Svengalis who shaped and engineered their careers and who dropped them as soon as they passed their sell-by date’.
But while The Spice Girls are managed by one of popular music’s leading male shakers, Simon Fuller, virtually everything else, from their songs to their attitude to their approach, would appear to be genuinely homespun. ‘We generally do all of the writing’, says Victoria. ‘We just work with different producers. But even on the production side of it we have a lot of input. We say what we want, basically, and producers are there to twiddle knobs. We haven’t got the time to twiddle knobs’.
‘We’re trying to break down all of that history, from Phil Spector and The Ronettes onwards’, Geri adds. ‘There was always the producer, he was the guy, and then there were the three different puppets doing what he was saying. So with us, times are certainly changing’.
The Spice Girls would certainly like to think, from their press-pack clippings at least, that they’ve shaken the industry to the point where they have reversed the traditional roles, squarely to the point where they very positively call the shots. Which, history has taught us, doesn’t really happen of course, not now and not ever. Instead The Spice Girls have added a brand new dimension to their art, stuffing their records and their approach with a personality that has traditionally been deemed far too dangerous for the genre. Unlike, say, Take That and Boyzone, The Spice Girls hit far harder and way farther beyond mere opportunism and safe-bet cash-ins.
Playing largely on their own sexuality and on traditional values and perceptions they have, with their words, poses and the sheer vigour of their pop music, very definitely challenged the pop stereotype. So that while Boyzone come over all true to form, accepting all of the house-rules and playing the tired card, never once venturing the risk, The Spice Girls are in a boat drifting outwards and onwards. Virtually all of their songs smell of the spirit of the streetwise teen, brassy takes on safe sex, cheating boyfriends and the new girls’ struggle.
Melanie B claims that ‘we make a proper point of making sure that we have something there in our lyrics that is slightly opinionated, that is giving off a vibe or giving off a message because otherwise, to us, there would be no point in writing a song’. ‘Obviously, primarily we’re doing this for the girls’, Geri pops, ‘because we feel that they needed it’.
Even this country’s opportunistic emphasis is trained right now to ‘girl power’ and already a handful of all-girl, power pop gangs like Syren, Just Girls, Four Available Blondes and D’Sire have posed for their debut photographs and unveiled their debut dance-steps. However all of them, sadly, are on a train marked ‘nowhere fast’, if only because The Spice Girls have set such a mammoth, instant precedent. A band that, to all intents, only ever happens once.
Like The Village People somewhere back in the mists, there really is one Spice Girl for everyone in the audience. As Simon Price points out in Melody Maker ‘every great pop group has you arranging your favourite members in order’ and The Spice Girls [or, if you like, The Sporty One, The Posh One, The Cute One, The Mad One and the sussed Ginger One] are already up there with, say, Duran Duran, The Bay City Rollers and Oasis. They have also tapped viciously into a particular set of primal if neglected mind-values and call life like they see it, however fashionably or not.
‘Men don’t rule our lives’, Melanie B told Smash Hits’ Damon Syson earlier this year. ‘They should be like mates and they should never try to come between you and your friends. Boyfriends don’t last forever but girlfriends do’. It’s as worthy a starting point as any. And while The Spice Girls, behind the hyperbole and the well-placed one-liners might easily be less than the sum of their parts, they’re at least challenging the easy perceptions of pop’s norms, and the role of women therein.
Ultimately of course they’re on a restricted time-scale and have, arguably, three years before the market gets over-familiar, over-bored and simply moves on elsewhere. But then The Spice Girls have already paid in at the door, and know the drawbacks of where they are and what they’re doing. Their aim has long-since been ‘to conquer the world, have fun and spice things up a bit’ and, on those terms, they’re on their way. They may never get to change the world but they’re very definitely the sound of today and tomorrow, next week and next year.
As Melanie B says, ‘we’ve got so many things that we want to show, we’ve got so many things that we want to give to people. We’re here to stay, whether you like it or not’. Time and distance and pop’s fickle market deciding exactly how long and how far, one assumes.
Girls on Top: Fore-runners to The Spice Girls : a guide to the all-girl bands of our time.
The Shirelles :- The New Jersey quartet, formed in 1957, covered the Five Royales’ ballad, ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’, which was to become a huge, world-wide hit for The Mamas And The Papas eight years later. In early 1961 their biggest hit, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, penned by Goffin and King, was the first all-girl single to top the U.S. chart. ‘Soldier Boy’ was their second in 1962 and the group, who never officially disbanded, still tours the oldie circuit.
The Bangles :- This Californian four-piece group featuring Susannah Hoffs, sisters Vicki and Debbi Peterson, and Michael Steele, had their first big hit in 1986 with the Prince-penned ‘Manic Monday’, which topped the U.S. charts. Follow-up in the same year ‘If She Knew What She Wants’ did well but next single, ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’, became their biggest hit to date in the Autumn of ’86. All singles up to this point were taken from the album, ‘Different Light’. The hits continued with notable successes ‘Walking Down Your Street’  and a re-working of Simon And Garfunkel’s ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’  and the 1989 chart-topper on both sides of the Atlantic, ‘Eternal Flame’. That same year, the group split, but lead vocalist Susannah Hoffs has enjoyed moderate chart success since.
Wilson Phillips :- Carnie and Wendy Wilson, daughters of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, and Chynna Phillips, daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of The Mamas And The Papas, won the Tokyo Song Festival in 1990 with their performance of ‘Hold On’, which went to the top of the American singles chart later that year. Their follow-up, ‘Release Me’, gave them a second U.S. chart-topper later that year, while they completed the hat-trick with ‘You’re In Love’ in 1991. They have remained largely silent since.
The Crystals :- One of the groups from under the wing of legendary producer, Phil Spector, The Crystals came to prominence towards the end of 1962 with ‘He’s A Rebel’, a U.S. Number One, and followed up with the evergreen ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’, the following year.
The Ronettes :- Formed in 1961, sisters Ronnie and Estelle Bennett, and cousin Nadra Talley, came to the attention of Phil Spector and from that liaison came their first two hit singles, ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby I Love You’. The next three singles were not quite as mammoth but remain popular, even now – ‘[The Best Part Of] Breaking Up’ , ‘Do I Love You ?’ and ‘Walking In The Rain’ – all released in 1964. 1965 saw the group have two further minor hits and also saw Ronnie Bennett marry Phil Spector. The group disbanded in 1966.
The Shangri-Las :- This New York group featured sisters Mary and Betty Weiss and twins Marge and Mary-Ann Ganser who, in 1964, had their first hit with ‘Remember [Walking In The Sand]’, followed at the beginning of 1965 with the world-famous, death-orientated ‘Leader Of The Pack’ becoming an even bigger success, despite a BBC Radio ban because of it’s lyrics. They continued to issue singles until 1966, but most were only minor hits in the U.S.
Martha And The Vandellas :- Martha Reeves and two ex-high school partners had their first big hit in 1963 with the Holland-Dozier-Holland composed ‘Heatwave’, followed by ‘Quicksand’. The following year, however, they enjoyed their biggest hit to date with the William Stevenson/Marvin Gaye composed ‘Dancing In The Street’, to this day one of the most popular dance records of all time. Other notable successes included ‘Nowhere To Run’ , ‘Jimmy Mack’  and ‘Forget Me Not’ .
Bananarama :- The most successful girl-band of the 1980s with a total of 27 hits to their credit, Sarah Dallin, Siobhán Fahey and Keren Woodward enjoyed 10 Top Ten hits – but never a chart-topper. These consisted of a mixture of cover versions of classic ‘60s and ‘70s hits as well as Stock/Aitken/Waterman material. In 1982, the year they came to prominence, they enjoyed success with The Fun Boy Three thanks to ‘It Ain’t What You Do [It’s The Way That You Do It’] and ‘Really Saying Something’, and achieved a major Top 5 hit by themselves with ‘Shy Boy’, as well as numerous hits between 1983 and 1984. In 1986 they were recruited into the dreaded Stock, Aitken and Waterman stable, with all their records sounding the same as those from Kylie Minogue, Sinitta and Rick Astley etc. In 1988, Siobhán Fahey left the band, and Jacqui O’Sullivan stepped in, only to depart three years later. There were no more hits after 1993.
The Supremes :- The most successful all-girl group, comprising Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, had no less than 12 chart-topping hits from 1964 to 1969 in their native U.S., notably ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ and ‘Baby Love’ , ‘Stop [In The Name Of Love]’ , ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ [both1966], ‘Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone’ and ‘The Happening’ [both 1967], ‘Love Child’  and ‘Someday We’ll Be Together’ . But none reached the top in Ireland and only ‘Baby Love’ reached No. 1 in the U.K. Most of these hits were penned by Holland, Dozier and Holland. Always the focal point of the group, Diana Ross was elevated to featured status in 1967, the group now billed as Diana Ross and The Supremes. That same year, Cindy Birdson replaced Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross left in January, 1970, for a solo career. Jean Terrell replaced Ross, and the trio reverted to simply The Supremes to enjoy hits in their own right. From 1972, the group went through many personnel changes, and the hits dried up by the mid-1970s.