Hello and welcome to this week’s Pop Essays, your weekly series where we bring new light to those forgotten pop gems of years gone by. This week: anyone fancy a British invasion of America? Then read on…
- Artist: BBMak
- Song: Back Here
- Release Date: 16/08/1999 (Original) / 12/02/2001 (Reissue)
- Writers: Christian Burns / Mark Barry / Ste McNally / Phil Thornalley
- Producers: Oliver Lieber / John Shanks
- Chart Run: 37 – 65 (Original) / 5 – 13 – 19 – 27 – 39 – 49 – 61 – 67 – 59 – 70 – 97 – 78 – 86 – 82 – 90 (Reissue)
One of the lovely things about not doing another series of The Story of Pop is that instead of almost contractually (if not legally binding, then certainly mentally) writing about the biggest hits of a given week that might not necessarily be of my own preferences, I am instead afforded the opportunity to focus in on some songs from 2001 that I actually genuinely love and want to give a second wind to, and this week’s forgotten gem is most certainly one of these.
The British press had a bit of a weird obsession 20 years ago – and arguably still do – with huge performing acts here on home turf going after the Holy Grail that was cracking America. There’d been one notable exception in the shape of the Spice Girls when it came to Stateside success, but otherwise, in the five years following ‘Wannabe’ hitting the top of the Billboard Hot 100, everyone else from Robbie Williams to Oasis was kind of an afterthought, or viewed to be a failure because of their lack of cracking the nut over the pond.
And yet, what is forgotten now is that, without almost anyone realising it, we actually did have a mainstream pop act smashing it over in America two whole decades ago. But to tell the story properly, we need to rewind our wayback machine to August 1999. Comprising Christian Burns, Mark Barry and Ste McNally, BBMak – so called because of the first letter in each of their surnames – hailed from the North West of England, and had come together two years previously, having busked outside the offices of Telstar Records, where they eventually ended up signing their major label deal.
No mere boybanders were they however; it seems stupid to suggest a pop act playing instruments and writing their own material was revolutionary at the turn of the millennium, but you have to remember that this was a time pre-Busted and McFly. In a land where Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were still the reigning kings, it wasn’t yet an accepted currency. So when their debut single ‘Back Here’ was released, it came out almost unnoticed, with a top 40 entry of #37.
Ordinarily, this kind of performance would make record labels pull the plug instantly, but then, BBMak were too unique a proposition to cast aside after just one single. And then, within the 18 months that followed, came two things happening in quick succession. The first was the decision to get a more guiding hand to the album’s production, as the original version of the single – produced by Oliver Lieber, who had not long been part of The Corrs‘ multi million selling Talk on Corners album – was very much in unfinished demo territory.
Whilst all this was going on, some extremely favourable noises were emanating from across the Atlantic, specifically from Hollywood Records, who signed them on the strength and potential of ‘Back Here’. With their first US deal in place, their debut album Sooner or Later was buffed and polished up by John Shanks, a man whose CV included work with Stevie Nicks, Jon Bon Jovi and Rod Stewart, and within the decade that followed would eventually become well known here in this country for his work with both Take That and James Morrison.
It was his work that undoubtedly lifted the early potential of the single and turned it into the pop anthem it became. Straddling somewhere between the emotive moments of Backstreet Boys – cf. ‘I Want It That Way’ – with some of the Dawson’s Creek-friendly rock of Savage Garden, ‘Back Here’ is an instant earworm, a melody so charming and lyrics so pleasingly memorable that with two decades’ distance, means that when you do hear it again, it is a joyful experience.
It wastes no time getting to the chorus, the verses and bridges taking just roughly 30 seconds to reach it, but the way it does is so clever, almost like a mini chorus: “Here I am, so alone / And there’s nothing in this world I can do’ Then that chorus itself: ‘Until you’re back here baby / Miss you, want you, need you so / Until you’re back here baby, yeah / There’s a feeling inside I want you to know / You are the one and I can’t let you go’.
What this ‘get to the chorus’ approach also does is bring out another key facet of the band’s immediate appeal: their ear for a three part harmony. If hearing on sound alone for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from the opposite side of the pond to ours. The rebuffing of ‘Back Here’ was also applied to its promo video. The original (above) was a fairly uninspiring ‘performing in generic motel and empty pool’ effort, that didn’t exactly scream major priority new pop band launch.
Hollywood Records however, saw within BBMak the potential to launch them as the new ‘British invasion band’ (watch any of their US TV promo slots and it’s referred to in all of them), so ‘Back Here’ was also given a new video to match (above), with them busking on the platform of the DLR station for Canary Wharf, and iconic London landmarks such as the London Eye, Big Ben and along the River Thames by Tower Bridge.
What came next was almost unprecedented; within the next year, and following extensive touring on support slots with both *NSYNC and Britney Spears, ‘Back Here’ slowly climbed up the Billboard Hot 100 on a 31 week run, eventually reaching a top 20 peak, #1 in the Adult Contemporary chart, and sending sales of their debut album past the 1 million mark. With all this success, they suddenly had a story to come home and relaunch themselves to UK audiences with.
Re-released in February 2001, ‘Back Here’ returned to the UK chart in style with a top 5 entry, whilst the Sooner or Later album reached #12 and produced one more top 10 hit ‘Still On Your Side’, which made #8 in May. It remains just as fascinating a tale to look back on now, because the surprise success of BBMak in the States whilst being relative unknowns in their home territory just wouldn’t happen today. But it’s proof that sometimes, a good song will always find an audience with the right approach, no matter where in the world they are.
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.