They’re moving, they’re coming: my thoughts on the glorious return of All Saints

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I’ve spoken many a time on this here blog before about my formative experiences with being introduced to music. And with the return this week of All Saints, the sassier, streetwise and grittier alternative to many of their 90s and 00s pop contemporaries, now seems like a good time to breach this very subject again.

The question ‘What was the first record ever you bought?’, is I find, one that people try and attempt to prevaricate around for fear of not being cool or for having made musical choices that it was completely fine for a nine or ten year old mind to make. I am not one of these people, nor have I ever attempted to be.

My first recollection of being introduced to the quartet of Shaznay Lewis, Melanie Blatt, and sisters Nicole & Natalie Appleton, was from my best friend at primary school, Jack. His parents were quite well off and as such, he had access to the now defunct Smash Hits magazine as soon as it came out and the latest singles on CD, which were more expensive back then.

I had to make do quite contently with the ex-chart singles counter in Our Price and Woolworths, and the same issues of Smash Hits once they were a month out of date and reduced to clear on the old magazine stall in Chelmsford market. However, having a friend like Jack was cool because he more often then not, let me used to read his copy at lunchtime and keep the songword cards I wanted.

It was on one such lunch time when we were about 8 or 9 that he introduced me to All Saints, and on his Walkman we listened to his tape of their first single, ‘I Know Where it’s At’. Sultry, slightly cool and a bit more R&B led then what I’d been aware of – keep in mind this was late 1997/early 1998, and the Spice Girls (who I also loved) were the dominant playground currency at this time – I was instantly hooked.

A couple of months after this, with my Christmas money that year, I duly went to the big Woolworths in Braintree high street – which is now an Iceland – and marched up not to my usual stomping ground of the ex-singles bargain bucket, but instead to the main, full price singles chart, and purchased their break through UK chart topper ‘Never Ever’ on CD. This was the very first record I bought.

Looking back now it’s a very grown up choice for a 9 year old’s first single, certainly when you listen back to it, as I indeed am whilst writing this very post. Written by Shaznay with the legendary Cameron McVey (Massive Attack, and then later Sugababes) at a time when a relationship with her boyfriend was falling apart, its wistful, reflective nature backed with a rousing, almost gospel like new swing beat was like audial manna from heaven. Even now, when the song starts quite simply with Nicole speaking her lines in a Shangri-La style over the piano melody: ‘A few questions that I need to know / How you could ever hurt me so’, I’m entranced.

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Such was mine and Jack’s love of the Saints, that on non uniform days we took to dressing in their common attire of combat trousers and black t-shirts with Timberland boots thinking we were dead cool. In a class topic about mini beasts (read: insects), we also captured, wrote about and ultimately dissected for supposedly scientific purposes, a wasp and a slug that we christened Shaznay and Natalie respectively. (Shaznay and Natalie, if you are reading this, I apologise on behalf of mine and Jack’s 9 year old selves. We were very weird.)

So apart from naming insects for lame school projects and forming one of my strongest childhood friendships, what else did All Saints bring to these ears? Well, as I touched on with ‘Never Ever’, they were always aimed at a slightly cooler and older class then my own dear one. That’s the funny thing about when you’re young: you spend half your time attracted by the idea of being older and more grown up, and ultimately wishing your life away, only to find years later it was all just a lie to seduce you into thinking that way.

Of course, All Saints were happily not all just a lie, and I remained a fan of theirs as the years went on, when they came to release their second album ‘Saints & Sinners’ in 2000, on which lay both of their dream like, ambient and lush William Orbit helmed chart toppers ‘Pure Shores’ and ‘Black Coffee’, when they split acrimoniously over a jacket in 2001 and then branched out into solo careers (duo in the Appletons’ case, for their brilliant 2003 effort ‘Everything’s Eventual’), and when they reformed briefly in 2006 for the criminally underrated and commercially underperforming ‘Studio 1’ and its marvellous lead single ‘Rock Steady’.

Now joining that list of ‘whens’, is the ‘when’ from this week, as after a 10 year absence they unveiled their first new material, ‘One Strike’, off their fourth studio album ‘Red Flag’ due for release in April. Musically, so much of the elements that drew me to buying ‘Never Ever’ with my Christmas money all those years ago drew me to ‘One Strike’ when I heard it for the first time this week. That same poised, Kohl eyeliner stained but majestically harmonised setup is all present and correct.

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It nods respectfully to what made them such a runaway hit the first time around, but unlike other music comebacks of recent years, there is something about All Saints returning which feels more like this is a return which has every right to be happening. The second you hear them sing together again, there is a natural and honest chemistry that is undeniable on record as it is when you see them together.

That’s a very rare thing, something that was rare even back in 1997, and to have retained that nearly 20 years on is not only rare but quite special. I’m just kicking myself that their comeback show at Camden KOKO sold out so fast on Friday just gone. Until then, here’s hoping a full tour gets announced, whilst I wait feverishly with anticipation for what I think is going to be one of the pop albums of 2016. All Saints have marched back in, and they know fully well where it’s at.

All Saints’ new album ‘Red Flag’ is out via London/Fascination on 8th April. The first single ‘One Strike’ is available to download and stream now. They play Camden KOKO in London for a one off gig on 4th April, and will play V Festival and Cornbury Festival later this summer. Twitter: @AllSaintsOffic

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Dear Cat & Fi: The One with all the Soup

Dear Cat & Fi,

Hellllooo thar! Firstly my apologies. This is the first and long overdue ‘Dear Cat & Fi’ of 2016, which we are now a whole month and a bit into. Scary how fast the year has gone already that we are now approaching spring (although looking outside right now as I write this with the gale force winds, you probably wouldn’t know any different). I can only say that #reallife put paid to me writing a new entry to you both, but tonight seemed like a good time to so, better late than never etc.

So as I write this, I am listening – perhaps somewhat unseasonably some may argue – to the album which I have often cited as my ‘happy and alone on an island’ album. The album in question being ‘In Between Dreams’ by Jack Johnson, my copy of which, I was working out yesterday, I have now owned for 10 years. 2006 is now 10 YEARS AGO. Where the hell did that go?

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It’s made me feel somewhat reflective of the 10 years that has passed, and how much has happened to us all in that time. Thankfully, the only pictures in existence of me from that time is minimal – probably best for everyone’s sake. I’m truly one of those people that still talks about 2006 like it was yesterday, but perhaps this is one of the signs of my ever advancing years. I mean I’m three years off turning 30 for God’s sake!

So where was I? Oh yes, Jack Johnson. I find myself listening to his album at this time of year more than any other. We’re not quite near spring yet, and summer is still so far away that you find yourself wanting a lilting hit of laid back sunshine. And one listen to songs like ‘Better Together’, ‘Breakdown’, and – yes, there really is a song on there called this – ‘Banana Pancakes’ suddenly gives you a warming sense of comfort that the world is a better place.

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Elsewhere, I am living up to Mum’s new nickname for me of the ‘Soup Dragon’ – only less scaly and cute – and have become addicted to soups whilst the cold weather rages on. My particular new favourite is the above ‘Chicken Broth’ from Scottish based Baxters. Especially as I’m on a health kick at the moment, it’s difficult to find good soups that keep me going through to dinner time, but this actually tastes and reminds me of Mumma Mac’s now famous kitchen sink soups she used to rustle up on snow days when we were kids.

I think it was Nigella Lawson who once said that any form of chicken soup was like Jewish penicillin, but this is like restorative heaven in a bowl, just enough chicken and stock, but plenty of vegetables and risotto rice. Utterly yummers and naturally low in the naughty stuff.

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So what else have I been up to? Well, I had a mini Herts Uni reunion last weekend when my best girl Amy Warner was in town. We went for lunch together at Hungry Horse along with her sister Jennie and her fella Graham – or Rossy as he’s more commonly referred to – and had many laughs and a good catch up. They are in fact moving slightly near your neck of the woods to Maidenhead in April, Cat, so I may even kill two birds with one stone to see you both next time.

I also a few weeks ago, as you may have seen, posted a new poem on here. It’s my intention now this new year is under way to showcase more of my writing on here this year, which means lots more poems, and also other stuff I’ve been working on, so all feedback and comments are welcome etc. I will in fact be showcasing a project that’s been three years in development in the next couple of blogs so that’s rather exciting.

Anyway, hope you are both well and keeping safe and warm in this horrible weather. Speak to you both next week, for now, in the words of the late Sir Terry Wogan (RIP) at the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Who knows what hellish future lies ahead? Actually, I do. I’ve seen the rehearsals.’

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Luv-oo, Alex

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