S Club 7 are back! And here’s why I’ll always be thankful to them…

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Regular readers among you may know two things about me by now: 1) that when I’m an uber-fan of a particular artist, it’s hard for me, when discussing my love for that artist, to form any coherent stream of logic other than that of a slightly gawky 12 year old fanboy.

And 2) the eagle eyed amongst you may know that once upon a time (ie 15 or so years ago) I was a hardcore fan of the motley lot you see pictured above. Who can probably be held responsible for the whole “coherent logic” conundrum. And yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So the news that S Club 7 are, in fact, finally reuniting for a special comeback performance next month for the BBC’s annual Children in Need appeal, has reverted me to my gawky 12 year old fanboy self all over again. What I hope this blog post will do therefore, is to try and explain why.

I’m of the firm belief that every music lover has that one experience – that one, or maybe two or three artists – where they discover an artist that is their baby, their group, their little finding. Now for most people, this is usually some hip, cool indie band or amazingly gifted singer songwriter. The kind you casually throw on at a dinner party and say, with a knowing and smug smile to your mates, ‘Yes, I discovered them’.

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I also realise most people have these formative experiences in their twenties, and not generally when they are, as I was back in the late spring of 1999, 9 years old. But here’s the thing. All the music I’d ever listened to up to that point was someone else’s discovery.

This included, but was not limited to: my mum and dad’s old Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel LPs. My eldest sister’s Blur and The Prodigy albums. My other sister’s cassette of the first Spice Girls album. And, about a year previous to this, my best friend Jack at primary school, introducing me to the Spices’ combat wearing and slightly more sultry rivals, All Saints.

All amazing music, but stuff that wasn’t completely my own ‘discovery’. That all changed on the afternoon of Thursday, 8th April 1999. It’s a date that’ll forever be ingrained on my brain. It was by all accounts, a fairly normal day. It was after school, and I’d been helping my sister with a ‘Motte and Bailey castle’ (don’t ask) model she’d been making for a class project.

A quick sconce at the Radio Times listings for that day also reveals that Children’s BBC was a mostly uneventful one that afternoon – ‘Help! It’s the Hair Bear Bunch’ and ‘Goosebumps’ anyone? Then, at 17:10pm, came the following:

17.10: MIAMI 7

First in a new 13-part comedy drama. With great songs and dazzling dance routines, pop band S Club 7 are ready for fame, fortune and fun.

And from the moment they burst onto that TV screen, a bright, tropical, technicolour haze of poptastic glory, I was suddenly hooked for those 30 minutes and every single one of the 12 Thursdays after that – for two reasons. Firstly, of the pop acts I knew so far, it was rare to have one with a mixture of boys and girls, let alone so many members.

Secondly, that they had their own TV show. True, this was not the BBC’s first attempt at a ‘kid’s com-dram vehicle starring real life pop band’ – see ‘No Sweat’ starring the clever but not quite big boyband North and South that had come two years before, and indeed The Monkees who had done it some 30 years prior to that – but the concept, the story of a seven piece pop group struggling to make it into the music industry working in a rundown Florida hotel, was still a genius way to launch a new pop act.

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Of course, none of it would matter if it wasn’t for the music being so darn good either. The show’s theme tune and their debut UK #1 ‘Bring It All Back’ was a blast of sunshine soaked pop that spoke to 9 year old me like a pop song had never spoken to me before. At a time at school when I wasn’t blessed in the popularity stakes, and had minimal friends and was constantly being told I belonged in a remedial class, ‘Bring It All Back’ gave me the hope that maybe I wasn’t doing it all wrong. Take this set of verses, for example:

Hold on to what you try to be, your individuality
When the world is on your shoulders, just smile and let it go
If people try to put you down, just walk on by, don’t turn around
You only have to answer to yourself

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S Club 7 was as much a group of mates mucking about and who made you wanna be part of their gang, and taking on the world together as it was a pop group. A hard concept to the snotty few who think a supposed ‘manufactured’ pop act could never achieve that, but they really did. Which is partly what drew me to being such a huge fan of theirs in the first place.

Whatever was going on in my life that wasn’t so pleasant, I knew that my seven mates – distant, but ever supportive – Tina, Jon, Paul, Hannah, Bradley, Rachel and Jo were ready for me to escape with them to that Miami or LA sunshine for half an hour after school or with their albums and singles for longer than that in those weird transitional years of primary and secondary school in the early 00’s when I still felt a bit lost and unsure of myself.

And most importantly of all – they were my discovery on that April afternoon in 1999, they were the first band who I could say felt like my band. Hence why I’m all the more excited about their imminent return. And the testament that held true 15 years ago has stuck: that there really ain’t no party like an S Club party.

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#CrazyStupidBook: François Lelord – ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’

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I’ve spoken about happiness and making the world a better place before on this blog. But it was after writing that post, dear readers, that I began to think about the most common reference point for people in search of the more, shall we say, elusive elements of life: the ‘self-help’ book.

It’s a genre of the book world only rivalled by children’s books in terms of yearly sales, revenue and exposure. I’ve read a couple of the most fêted of these in the course of my perusal over the past month or so. One of these was ‘Eat. Pray. Love’ – a somewhat syrupy, ‘well I could have told you that’ Oprah advocated tome that went onto become a box-office smashing movie starring Julia Roberts and which I swiftly returned to my library in frustration at how awful it was. To quote Phoebe from Friends, it was like ‘Santa Claus at Disneyland on Prozac. Getting laid.’

So Ihe other book, then, was the adventures of Hector. No, not the slightly psychedelic and gruff dog from 60’s kids TV who spied on his neighbours (pre-dating ‘Big Brother’ by about 40 years. I digress). Instead, he is the creation of François Lelord, whose books were originally published in French before being translated into English and becoming a hit, topping the New York Times bestseller list into the bargain.

Frustrated at suddenly being unable to answer the problems his clients face on a day to day basis, and on advice from a good friend of his at his office, Hector sets out on a round the world trip to try and trace what it really means to be happy, leaving his bewildered clients and the potential love of his life, Clara, behind. His ventures take him to China and Africa along the way, and he learns some startling lessons that surprise even him.

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Namely, he sees the less pleasant side of happiness and human beings’ unending quest for it in the modern world. An odd proposition you may think, but what Lelord does so cleverly here, due to the structure of the book – short, segmented chapters that read like short stories but that do ultimately follow a story arc of their own – is to make you forget that you’re reading, in essence, a ‘self-help’ book, and you’re so much more enlightened for it without feeling like you’ve just been cheated out of £50.

You become engrossed completely in Hector’s journey, and learn things along the way with him without even realising it. Whilst it’s true to say some of the book gets a bit lost in translation – particularly when matters concerning drugs and sex come into the equation, and Lelord tries to impart comment on the matter with all the subtlety of Kylie Minogue in the Agent Provocateur adverts – it’s charmingly written, with a wonderfully mellifluous undertone throughout.

Two more books about Hector have been published, in which he searches for the elusiveness of love and time. I am going to be borrowing these as soon as I can and advise anyone to read the original book first. Like all great reads, Hector’s quest challenges him and the reader, to the point we are a part of that world. It’s a gift and character Lelord should be proud to have created.

On his return to music, why Olly Murs is British pop’s best male.

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Anyone who knows me – be it from reading this blog, seeing me on a day to day basis or perhaps following me on Twitter – will know that, for the last few years, I have been and still am a huge fan of fellow Essex boy, Olly Murs. Ever since his first ever X Factor auditions, his music, tours and much more besides have happily soundtracked some high and low points in my life over the last 5 years.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet him several times, appear on TV with him, have him follow me on Twitter, and, of course, I also run and edit another little corner of the web all about him that’s been online for three of those five years. And I’ve also made some true friends for life through being a fan of his and attending many signings and tours.

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Which is why his return to the public eye this week after almost a year away from the spotlight, with the announcement of a brand new single and fourth studio album (more on which later), has been rather like welcoming home a good close friend or loved one from a long trip abroad. As my mum pointed out a couple of weeks ago when she asked me what he was up to, ‘he has been noticeable by his absence’.

His eternally sunny outlook – no matter what clouds come along the way – and gentle, down to earth nature combined with a strong work ethic and a real talent and passion for what he does are just some of the reasons why I’m as loyal a fan as I am. Yet even in spite of all this, I know and accept that not everyone probably feels the same. I don’t dispute that he probably knows this too.

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Olly came along into the public conscience on The X Factor’s 6th series in 2009. It was at such an interesting point for pop music, when suddenly, the lines between what constituted as ‘cool music’ and ‘cheesy music’ became more grey than black and white. Fellow graduates of the show, JLS, for instance, were winning BRIT and MOBO awards and covering Lily Allen and The Killers songs for Radio 1’s Live Lounge.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, contemporary artists like Arctic Monkeys and Coldplay were covering Girls Aloud songs and inviting them to support them at Wembley Stadium on their world tour. But, the omens on paper weren’t good for Olly in spite of this. History dictated that male X Factor contestants did well in the immediate flush of doing the show, true, but they were almost never liked beyond the mums and teen fan girl market, and usually petered out after a flop second album to obscurity once again.

Nor were they to ever dare to hope for a long, successful career or – dare anyone suggest it – actually perform and write good music. But with such optimistic determination, Olly saw things differently. As did the people around him, then and today: Simon Cowell, his mentor during his time on the show who said he was the ‘easiest yes’ he’d ever given to a contestant. Nick Raphael, the former boss at his label, Epic Records, who was on the phone with a deal for him the day after he came second in the final. Claude Kelly and Steve Robson, the award winning songwriting duo who, even with all Olly’s other songwriting collaborations in between have mentored him and continued to be a part of every album and virtually every single he has made since his debut #1, 2010’s “Please Don’t Let Me Go”. The truly dynamic pair of Sarah Thomas and Mark Murphy at his management team, Modest. His lively 10 piece band, who have been kept relatively the same since his first theatre tour in 2011. In a world, and industry that looks down upon ambition and a desire to succeed, Olly has done and continues to do just that.

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It has thus resulted in some amazing statistics that sadly, seem to often get met with faint praise or worse still, ignorance: 9 million record sales worldwide, four UK #1 singles (three of which, ‘Heart Skips a Beat’, ‘Dance with Me Tonight’ and ‘Troublemaker’, are arguably three of the finest pop singles of the last 10 years), as many sold out tours (one of which, last summer, supporting his idol and mentor, Robbie Williams) and an extremely unique feat: the only graduate from a show such as The X Factor to better the sales of each previous album, and now, to have fulfilled their original record deal and have it renewed.

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Popstars – particularly the unashamedly so ones – have always had a history of being easy targets by the ‘serious’ side of the music press at large. As I pointed out with The Script’s new album the other week, the notoriously snotty likes of The Guardian and NME continually refer to him with derision for his past and in inverted commas of judgement. True, even Girls Aloud and Will Young were met with the same disbelief and mockery in their earliest days, for daring to transcend their primetime telly roots and to actually become world beaters. But they possessed the same thing that Olly too has: the drive and the desire to move forward, to get bigger and better with each new milestone. Those statistics haven’t happened as a result of being total rubbish.

If you listen to the (brilliant) new single ‘Wrapped Up‘ that premiered this week, you can hear that drive and that quiet but charming confidence in spades. He sounds a lot louder, even more soulful, and it’s a fun statement of intent heralding his ever growing maturity and improvement. If the new album ‘Never Been Better’, out the end of November is anything to go by, it’s gonna be more of the same. Even rock legend Paul Weller has collaborated with him on a song called ‘Let Me In’, and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder on the song ‘Seasons’, both touted by those who’ve heard previews as some of his best songs to date.

So whilst he doesn’t sullenly pick his fingers dry over a guitar, or dismiss success or genuinely enjoying their job as beneath him, now is surely the time on this new album campaign, that Olly Murs is cemented and respected as British pop’s best male. Even with his success to date he has, to quote his own song ‘Army of Two’, only just begun.

Olly’s new single ‘Wrapped Up’ featuring Travie McCoy is released via Epic on 16th November. The new album ‘Never Been Better’ follows on 24th November. www.ollymurs.com

The spider challenge: they’re only scary (cos’ they’re hairy)…

There’s one sure sign of how I know one of my favourite seasons of the year, autumn has arrived. You see, apart from the changing colours of the trees, and the slightly nippier air in the mornings, it’s meeting one of these little guys on my travels, hanging off such an exquisitely melded web on a hedgerow or bush.

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Now, for the arachnophobics among you reading this, I understand that this may not be reciprocated. People’s fear of spiders has fascinated me for many years now, more so living in this country. After all, even with all the Daily Express fuelled horror stories to the contrary, chances of death by a spider in the UK are virtually zero, as is the likelihood of an encounter with a particularly harmful species outside of your average town or city zoo.

For all the squealing and squishing and shooing off with a broom or feather duster our eight legged friends endure, no coverage seems to be given to the fact that your average common or garden spider is actually the best insect there is. They keep away and eat all the truly nasty, irritating insects like flies and aphids. They generally mind their own business and are actually very clean to boot.

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I think my appreciation and love of the average spider probably stems from my childhood. In the early 90’s, Children’s BBC ran a 13 part animated musical series called, appropriately enough, ‘Spider!’ which charted the adventures of a house spider and a 5 year old boy (who I thought looked a lot like me). In the first few instalments, the title character makes several futile attempts in his plight to be understood by the human boy, but as the series progresses, they grew closer and more understanding of each other and become ‘true friends’.

A naive proposition that maybe, but it’s said that the writer and composer of the songs for the series (who, after a bit of internet research I did apparently lives in Feering, just up the road from me) wanted to help his young daughter overcome her fear of spiders. But even if it didn’t work on her, it almost certainly worked on me, and even on my beloved niece and nephew when I showed them the series on YouTube recently (my niece in particular sings all of the song ‘Just a Spider’ with great gusto).

So if you are indeed arachnophobic and reading this today, my challenge to you is to either A) watch ‘Spider!‘ on YouTube or B) practice being kind to spiders just for this week. Even if your view doesn’t change completely, it may change for the better.