Pop Essays #1: Ultra, ‘Rescue Me’

Firstly a happy new year to you all, albeit one that seems to be starting suspiciously just as the last one did globally speaking. But no matter, I’m a firm believer, in the words of D:Ream, that things can only get better. Especially as today, I write both my first blog post of 2021 and first in a new continuous series. Welcome to Pop Essays…

So what’s it all about? Well basically, it’s my new series of posts where I hope to enthuse and write long form about pop music, but specifically the songs or bands only I seem to still enthuse about or have a fondness for.

Consider these the hidden gems, if you will; this is my opportunity to make them shine and stand out and have their moment that for one reason or another they had but was swiftly forgotten about or didn’t have their moment at all.

In fact, the ‘lost gem’ quality is the only rule here. Anything goes otherwise; be it single, album track that never was a single, B-side, digital only exclusive. If I love it, I’m writing about it in detail.

Unlike The Story of Pop series, I hope to make this a continuing project, not just limited to one specific year. But just like that series, there’ll be video and Spotify playlist accompaniment that will be regularly updated. Perhaps you’ll discover something new – or maybe even rediscover an old favourite that was lost in the mists of time.

So speaking of which – let’s not waste anymore time, and get straight down to it, with the first of what I hope will be many Pop Essays. Hope you enjoy them…

  • Artist: Ultra
  • Song: Rescue Me
  • Release Date: 04/01/1999
  • Writers: James Hearn / Jon O’Mahony / Keri Schmidt
  • Producers: Phil Harding / Ian Curnow / Steve Robson / Bob Kraushaar
  • Chart Run: 8 – 16 – 31 – 38 – 56 – 75

One phenomenon of the charts of early January that seems to have been lost in more recent years is the “anything goes” factor. Once upon a time in the mid-late 90s, the music industry didn’t really tend to bother with releasing any major new product or launching major priority new acts until at least the end of February.

It was in effect, their own hibernation period, to rest and take stock after the usually intense and competitively dominant Q4 market running up to Christmas (see, some things have never changed). What this meant was that some unexpected moves could occur – a fluke chart topper that wouldn’t have got there under any ordinary circumstances for instance. Iron Maiden at #1 at the start of 1991 anyone? Yah huh.

You could view it as the music industry equivalent of those languid slipstream days between Christmas and New Year – where staying in your PJs all day, playing jigsaw puzzles and eating cheese and crackers with pickled onions for breakfast was perfectly acceptable. But it also afforded record companies the chance to give a breakthrough to hitherto struggling signings from the previous year.

Ultra were one such case. Launched by EastWest Records in the spring of 1998, the four piece boyband with instruments – with becurtain haired James Hearn on lead vocals, Michael Harwood on guitar, Jon O’Mahony on drums and Nick Keynes on bass – had had a modest start. With aspirations of becoming a new millennium Wham, they had supported Louise Redknapp on tour, and followed this with a smidgen of self penned and not unpleasantly catchy top 20 hits to their name. Debut release ‘Say You Do‘ had made #11 in April, ‘Say It Once‘ followed it at #16 that June.

However, the wheels had fallen off slightly in September when their third single – the somewhat ill titled Motown throwback ‘The Right Time‘ – had stalled inside the top 30 at #27. Playing to the crowd in a pure pop market that was fast approaching a glass ceiling in terms of new acts to produce and successfully launch to an ever more easily distracted audience, their self titled debut album that had been due for release in October was quietly postponed whilst the label had a rethink.

And thus, quite unusually for a pop band at that time, they played the downtempo card for their fourth single, ‘Rescue Me’. Traditionally for pop acts, such a move to hit the ballad button came at the single before that. Initially touted as a festive release, but sensing it had the potential to get lost in a market dominated by slower seasonal releases (in most cases by more high profile acts), EastWest instead decided to give it a shot during the first full sales week of 1999.

Thus there was the slightly awkward sight of Ultra promoting and singing their Christmas-y sounding ballad, snowy promo video and all, in January, at a time when most people had packed away the decorations and had put the remaining turkey trimmings into their Tupperware and into the freezer for future bulking up of curries and pies in the coming weeks. And yet, even the notion of that is doing something of a disservice to what is actually a sneakily fine pop single in the event.

‘Rescue Me’ is as at once far removed from the brighter, bouncier offerings that had come before for Ultra as it is in keeping with the charm that those earlier singles possessed. It’s a wistful offering from the get go, James’ opening lines of ‘I can’t believe that I ever let you go / And assumed your heart was broken / I wanted love where I could come and go / Now the door’s no longer open’ striking a chord and being delivered with just the right amount of regret needed for the vocal here. See also the opening lines of the second verse: ‘I’ve realised that it’s hard to be apart / You discovered it could be easy’.

It builds more steadily too, the chorus hook of “You gotta come on and rescue me” even now being surprisingly effective, and the drums not kicking in until the second verse. And there’s a sense of losing the need for recriminations and wanting to fight for the relationship by the time the middle 8 kicks in: ‘Oh woah woah, you mean the world to me / I just wanna get up (get up) / Make up (make up) / Only you know how to save me / I need ya now, I need ya baby’.

It is quite fitting therefore, with all these things considered, that ‘Rescue Me’ ultimately had the desired effect, delayed release or not; it became Ultra’s first (and only) UK top 10 hit, when it debuted at #8 in the first full chart week of January 1999, staying in the top 40 for four weeks in all.

But it seemed as if there was no long term plan to build on this – at least, not where EastWest was concerned. The Ultra album finally hit shelves a couple of weeks later, but crashed in at a dismal #37 before disappearing – along with the lads’ career – to bargain bins the land over, only resurfacing for a self released second album titled The Sun Shines Brighter in 2006.

Perhaps ‘Rescue Me’ wasn’t destined to be a bigger launchpad for Ultra. In some ways, it’s a shame that it wasn’t – this single is actually executed with far more conviction than some of their better starred contemporaries of the time would have managed. However, to see it right their commercial wrongs – even if for a very brief moment – was nothing short of lovely. And that’s why the charts of a cold bleak January in the late 90s were often cockle warming to peruse too.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new Pop Essays playlist on Spotify, which includes all the songs we’ve written about. What are your memories of this week’s featured song or band? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or message us on our Instagram.

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