Welcome to this week’s Pop Essays, my series of blogs shining light on the golden nuggets of pop’s yesteryear that fell through the cracks but I am now resurrecting like some gilt edged Phoenix. I’ll desist with this fictional bird analogy now, and move onto this week’s essay, and a favourite pop love of mine: girl groups!
- Artist: Girls Can’t Catch
- Song: Echo
- Release Date: 18/01/2010
- Writers: Viktoria Hansen / Chris Braide
- Producer: Alan Nglish
- Chart Run: 19 – 32 – 49
When Girls Aloud announced they were taking a year’s hiatus in the summer of 2009, they were doing so at a time when, on paper, it didn’t seem like the logical time to do so; commercially and critically, they were at their absolute zenith, and at a peak they’d never return to in quite the same way. The twelve months previously had finally seen them gain universal adoration, seven years after emerging triumphant from Popstars: The Rivals, topped off with the release of their fifth chart topping album Out of Control, and its first two singles, ‘The Promise’ and ‘The Loving Kind’, giving them their fourth number one and their 20th consecutive UK top 10 hit respectively – the most ever for a girl group still to this day in UK chart history – as well as the former winning them their first and only BRIT Award for Best Single.
And in a further marker of how far they’d come, Coldplay had also picked them along with Jay-Z to open for them at their Wembley Stadium gigs of their world tour. But in practice, the hiatus was rather needed. Both Cheryl and Kimberley Walsh’s post-band autobiographies have revealed just how strained things got once their de facto lead singer Nadine Coyle upped sticks to Los Angeles, and was commuting between there and London from the Tangled Up album campaign onwards, forever keeping the rumour mill about an impending split/departure going. If you believe their accounts, it was her bringing her ‘American manager’, Bruce Garfield, on the tour for said fifth album, that broke the camel’s back. It was a ‘year’s break’ that eventually lasted for three, before their brief reunion in 2012 for their 10th anniversary.
Even though in hindsight, a natural pause had been coming for all concerned as soon as 18 months prior to this moment, one could argue that two of the vital components that kept the now well oiled GA machine running were ill prepared for such a moment. I’ll explore in another essay later down the line how their long standing producer from ‘Sound of the Underground’ onwards, Brian Higgins and his team at Xenomania, had responded. Meanwhile, Fascination Records, the pop division of Polydor looked after by their marketing manager and girl group guru, Peter Loraine, had in a sense been preparing for this moment for well over a year. On their previous Tangled Up tour, The Saturdays had supported them and were effectively launched onto the same audience via much of the same team.
But despite being four top 10 hits and a platinum album into their own career, as well as touring under their own steam and about to release a second album, looking back I’m sure all would agree that The Saturdays were pushed a little too soon into the vacant slot occupied in the autumn release schedules where a new GA album usually sat with said second album Wordshaker, when they were still finding their own feet and consolidating initial success. True, Cheryl’s solo career and the immediate phenomenon that was ‘Fight For This Love’ and her slot on The X Factor subsequently filled the gap, but that wasn’t a given, especially as statistically, when anyone goes solo from a very successful group it’s less likely they’ll be a guaranteed hit. But Fascination’s troubles weren’t just limited to now former support acts; it was also evident with the newer ones too.
Formed from auditions in 2008, and adopting a name that had almost been given to The Saturdays, Jess Stickley, Daizy Agnew and Phoebe Brown, collectively known as Girls Can’t Catch, were the support act on the Out of Control tour. Phoebe was a survivor of Hope, a five piece girl group that had made the live shows of The X Factor in 2007, whilst Jess and Daizy had been discovered on unsigned talent contests for MTV Base and Motorokr respectively. Coming from pop of the more R&B/soul centric background, if The Saturdays were the late 00s equivalent of the Spice Girls, all bouncy electropop, coloured tights and S Club Juniors alumni, then Girls Can’t Catch were definitely being pitched as the All Saints quotient – a little bit cooler, more sophisticated and cutting edge.
This in spite of having a band name which sounded like a playground insult (my goodness I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in that brainstorming meeting for names), and which prompted teen mags and websites the land over to interview them on their launch via means of lame ‘catching tennis ball’ type games that still survive their memory on YouTube. Said launch was in the very same month the Girls Aloud hiatus began, in July 2009. They released their debut single ‘Keep Your Head Up‘, a snappy, catchy slice of electropop that sounded like… well, ‘Up’ by The Saturdays. With its rubbish tip video (I’m really not making this up) with a budget of approximately £1.50, it stalled outside the top 20 at #26 – faring poorly compared to the immediate top 10 debut The Saturdays had enjoyed with their first single, ‘If This Is Love’, exactly a year previously.
A chart shaped spanner thrown in the works, a rethink was immediately needed. And, as you might have deduced from the information above, it was that old chestnut again we discussed with Ultra; the post-Christmas reactivation of a failing new signing. Yep, it was still happening as recently as 11 years ago. But prior to that, Fascination decided to set about doing some further audience building for the trio. Cue them being the support act for another set of bigger starred labelmates, in the form of Jonas Brothers, for their UK tour that autumn, and also ‘Keep Your Head Up’ being used as one of the main songs for the second of the reactivated series of St Trinian’s films, titled The Legend of Fritton’s Gold. Fascination had also overseen the soundtrack on the first revived film in 2007, where Girls Aloud had played the school band, so it seemed like a logical step.
All of this was nicely setting the groundwork for what was to be their second single, and – an attempt at least – at a more proper landing. Written by Danish songwriter Viktoria Hansen, ‘Echo’ was an entirely different proposition, and one which actually better illustrated the budding prospect that was there with Girls Can’t Catch. An almost siren-like synth line, galacial, yet epic, opens the song, and from the get go there is more of an emotional investment, vocally and lyrically, than anything that might have been on their contemporaries’ efforts, such as in Jess’ opening lines: ‘Did you honestly think that this is all it takes? / To be my boyfriend, can’t you hear my heart break? / Can’t you tell how your silence is making me feel? / When you’re always away even though you’re right here?’
And as Daizy’s lines kick in on the bridge: ‘Everytime that I try to discuss what’s going on / Everytime that you don’t wanna tell me what is wrong / Feels like I keep giving all to you / But I never get anything back’, you know you’re dealing with something that’s on a more universal theme – being in a crap one sided relationship. It’s distinct with the repeated ‘All I get is my echo echo (ECHO)’ chorus, and you can hear the anguish but you can also hear the strength coming through as the song reaches its climax: ‘Why don’t you put all your cards on the table? / Can’t read your mind, and I’m just not able / To keep a smile when it feels like you’re letting go’.
‘Echo’ is, without question, the song Girls Can’t Catch should have launched with. It’s powerful in so many ways that their first single wasn’t, and the video – shot to look as if the girls are performing atop the white cliffs of Dover like a more glamorous trio of 21st century Dame Vera Lynns – certainly won me over more in any case. And the chart position it eventually received – it peaked at #19 – does suggest that it won more pop fans over too. Alas, a seven place improvement on an underperforming debut single is hardly the vote of confidence needed for further major record label investment, particularly when new pop groups were still expensive things to launch and market successfully.
Their cancelled debut album – which I eventually obtained when it was leaked onto the interweb in the spring of 2010 – was so full of further promise and lost bangers. I remember when Little Mix came out a couple of years after Girls Can’t Catch split, and saying that much of their first couple of albums could have easily had a lot of their unused tunes repurposed for it. Amongst them, cancelled third single and sassy breakup bop ‘Happy Alone‘, a genuinely beautiful ballad co-written by Shaznay Lewis from All Saints called ‘Another Day‘, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, a blinding cover of Santigold’s ‘L.E.S Artistes‘, a left of centre choice which could have easily been to them what All Saints’ version of Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ ‘Under the Bridge’ was.
That ‘Echo’ has managed to survive online for both streaming and YouTube purposes, in order for me to be writing and enthusing about it 11 years on is nothing short of a miracle (I have recently discovered to my horror that another act I’m intending to write about from the same time as them have partly vanished digitally). But it has allowed us the opportunity to give Girls Can’t Catch their rightful airing in the hazy lights of pop yesteryear, a potentially brilliant girl group project sadly curtailed by numerous factors around them, but mined deeper held so much more promise than their chart positions and misguided marketing would belie.
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