It’s funny how much has changed in ten years. Not least of all The X Factor. Once the cornerstone and an unmissable powerhouse of Saturday night entertainment on ITV, pulling in 16m viewers at its peak, it actually once did what it said on the tin and produced stars. Nowadays, it’s a pitiful and irrelevant shadow of its former self, that seems to be solely giving a platform to those who already have varying degrees of public recognition, thus missing the original point of the show entirely.
But of course, there was one stage where, even though it was a ratings hit, it wasn’t yet producing stars of longevity beyond the inevitable Christmas number one and subsequent cash in album for Mother’s Day for Betty in Dunstable who’d voted the winners to their ‘moment like this’ before obscurity and panto stints beckoned. And even after the show discovered Leona Lewis in 2006, who did actually go onto have a global career of note, there was no guarantee anyone else would follow suit. Least of all, a group who hadn’t even won the show.
But JLS are and still remain the prime example of how perfectly timed they were. Formed by Oritsé Williams and consisting of himself, Marvin Humes, Aston Merrygold and Jonathan ‘JB’ Gill, they had been wanting to bring the all singing, all harmonising and all dancing boyband back a whole two years before they auditioned, when the skinny jeaned landfill indie band and faceless dance and hip hop records reigned supreme in the chart wastelands of the mid 00s, slogging themselves around the unsigned act and open mic circuit of London like no one’s business, being told over and over by anyone important at the time that boybands were dead and didn’t sell in this day and age.
As Aston once observed, they were rehearsing in studios in Fulham, managerless and labelless, for nothing, other than preparing themselves for a potential future. But you look at their first audition from the 2008 series of the show, and then new judge and Girls Aloud starlet Cheryl hits the nail on the head: ‘I love you! I think the industry is missing a boyband … and I hope I get you in my category!’ And as their subsequent journey on the show proved, many others agreed. The difference as well being that unlike previous woeful attempts at boybands on the show, who were almost always out the live stages by Week 4, they were actually properly good.
They came with a fully formed image (who could forget their colour coordinated hoodies with their logo on it?), a likeable charm, an obvious brotherhood and a genuine talent. Heck, even Dame Judi Dench and Pet Shop Boys were fans. All they really needed, win or no win, was the professional backing to take everything to a bigger level. That fortunately came in January 2009, about a month after they came second in the final to Alexandra Burke, in the form of a million pound record deal with Epic Records, the power house behind ABBA and Michael Jackson.
Overseen by then label bosses Nick Raphael and Jo Charrington, the A&R bods who had masterminded the careers of Jay-Z, *NSYNC, Another Level and had a hand in the very early development of Blue (Marvin, incidentally, had been a member of a short lived boy/girl pop quintet called VS, managed by Blue’s own Simon Webbe), and would later go onto launch Paloma Faith, Olly Murs and Sam Smith, they saw the potential to launch something rather big indeed.
Following the Leona template for launch, for the first half of 2009, they were largely nowhere to be seen, save for their public appearances kept up by a club tour up and down the UK, and then a support stint with Lemar on his UK tour, slowly building a following and ultimately, the first bubbling waves of hysteria. All the while, they were beavering away on the killer tracks that would make up their debut album.
No one expected what came next when the summer months arrived. Instead of a dull cover version that suggested a lot of stool sitting and suits, ‘Beat Again’ was a very hip, hot and funky slice of current sounding R&B pop that slotted in nicely alongside Tinchy Stryder and Taio Cruz, and even Stateside players like Ne-Yo and Justin Timberlake, but not in a reductive way.
With it’s utterly bonkers and OTT lyrical declarations about ‘love CPR’ and the still dramatically brilliant line ‘If I died, would you come to my funeral?’ and a heart pumping, pec flashing, backflipping dance routine that caught on like wildfire, it was the sound of that summer, and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it on the radio or seeing the video on the music channels. It was a big pop moment at a time when these platforms still mattered.
Little wonder then, that ‘Beat Again’ crashed straight in at the top of the charts upon its 13th July release, with one of the fastest first week sales for a number one single that year. As their public profile and following expanded rapidly, tales of hysterical mobs of fans following their every move abounded, from full to capacity Christmas light switch ons to TV and radio studio mobs, it escalated to the point that JB likened them to ninjas in an interview, able to penetrate all surfaces but glass. JLS mania had landed. Population: in the hundreds of thousands. Their first two MOBO Award wins that September – a first for any boyband, let alone one from the nation’s biggest TV talent show – confirmed their arrival.
But concerns they might have peaked too early were swiftly eradicated that October with the release of their follow up single. Produced by then man of the moment JR Rotem (Britney Spears, Jordin Sparks, Jason Derulo), ‘Everybody In Love’ was a classy but endearing and well harmonised sweet boy jam with not one but two choruses, and an actual rave horn signalling it’s introduction. Even now it’s become a classic to rival ‘Back for Good’ and ‘I Want It That Way’. A storming homecoming performance on that year’s series of The X Factor saw to it that they gained their second number one single with ease.
All this helped to set up the release and runaway success of their self titled debut album, exactly ten years ago on Monday, 9th November 2009, sailing to the top of the album chart and shifting a million copies inside three months. It’s very easy for certain critics to be glib about boybands. Their careers are considered finite and of lesser worth because of their core audience, making them easy targets for musos who’d rather spend their time wibbling on about chord changes by dullard guitarists or feteing trendy songstresses who sound like an owl locked in a wind chime shop. But with ten years passed, the significance of JLS and what they achieved at the turn of this decade is worth remembering and recognising.
For starters, nine of the thirteen tracks on it saw them all put pen to paper. That’s rare for any band, let alone a boyband as all singing and dancing as they. And it was full of some properly good songs mixing, as their name befitted, contemporary pop and R&B with an old school new jack swing edge, worked on with a roll call of talent, from Fraser T Smith (James Morrison, Taio Cruz) to Steve Mac and Wayne Hector (Westlife, Ed Sheeran) via Soulshock and Karlin (Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton). From the icy synthpop of ‘Keep You’, to the flamenco tinged sad banger ‘Heal This Heartbreak’, the properly good floorfillers ‘Private’ and ‘Kickstart’, and the acoustic slow jam of ‘Close to You’, it had it all.
Released the following February, as they embarked on their first theatre tour and picked up two BRIT Awards – still the first artists to have come from The X Factor to achieve this feat – third single ‘One Shot’ was perhaps the biggest revelation of all, and a moment of crowning glory that its #6 chart peak belies. It merged a reflective piano ballad with a rave synth that dragged it onto the dancefloor, via an affirmative chorus lyric (‘You only get one shot, so make it count / You might never get this moment again’) and with another memorable video worked on with Marty Kudelka (Justin Timberlake’s choreographer, no less) it immediately proved another pop classic of its time.
Their career continued on for the next four years after that, to countless more sold out tours, hits and albums, even a 3D movie and a line of dolls, before they knocked it on the head with a tearful farewell show at London’s O2 Arena in December 2013. But what they achieved in that small window of time – five years – undoubtedly broke down the barn door for a lot of what followed. Without them, the subsequent careers of The Wanted, One Direction and even Justin Bieber wouldn’t have happened.
They ultimately overcame their doubters to prove there was an untapped generation out there who wanted pop with a capital P, and they delivered with bells on in all respects. We should know, we went to all the tours and witnessed it first hand. Whether they reconvene again in the years to come is anyone’s guess (although a sold out run at The O2 in the diary for say, December next year wouldn’t go amiss), but ten years on from their meteoric rise to the top, it’s right that we remember what JLS achieved and what an impact they made on 21st century British pop music.