Howdy! Firstly before we start a quick Happy Easter to you all. Secondly – time for this week’s Pop Essays, as we revisit another lost gem of a track from the mists of pop time. This week: one of the greatest songs you’ve probably never heard by the greatest pop production team of the 00s…
- Artist: Frank
- Song: Never Left A Girl
- Release Date: 07/08/2006 (on ‘Devil’s Got Your Gold’ album)
- Writers: Miranda Cooper / Brian Higgins / Lauren Blake / Helena Dowling / Bryony Afferson / Hayley Wardle / Tim “Rolf” Larcombe
- Producers: Brian Higgins / Xenomania
I tend to not subscribe to the theory that pop’s key players – the mega producers behind massive hits that have powered artists to being global phenomenons – only save their best stuff for their most notable clients. To me, it seems to be media/industry shorthand for ‘I only know the hits and can’t be bothered to appreciate the craft and genius of their wider work’.
Yes, your common or garden pop geek can enthuse till the cows come home about the genius of Max Martin’s work for Britney Spears, or the winning combination of Madonna and William Orbit. Lord knows I’ve done it myself. But to mine into the dustiest, untouched corners of a notable hitmakers’ work offers some perspective that can’t be gleaned from the other, more wider commentary and analysis that’s out there.
The work of Brian Higgins, founder of the mega pop writing team at Xenomania, is no exception to this rule. Since my mid teens, I have made no secret of the fact that many songs bearing the writing credits of him and his chief songwriter, the brilliant Miranda Cooper, are some of the best pop songs ever written and recorded.
And sure, there are untold amounts of think pieces online about the amazing work they did with Girls Aloud and Sugababes – as a massive fan of the former I can testify I’ve got a few of my own waiting in me to write. But whilst most people appreciate just how great they were now, it was a very different story back in the mid 00s. For Girls Aloud in particular, they were operating and releasing music at a time when being an out and out poptastic girl group was very much verboten, with the resistance from certain other quarters you might expect.
It was around the time of their second album, What Will The Neighbours Say?, in 2004, that the girls’ label Polydor and Xenomania were engaged with another girl group project that they hoped might bridge some of the gap between the pop audience of GA and a more contemporary one, in partnership with Channel 4’s teen programming strand T4.
The production company Endemol, who were already the brains behind another hit for the channel in the form of Big Brother, were looking for a band of female musicians and actresses to star in Totally Frank, a comedy drama series in the stylistic vein of the critically acclaimed As If, that was about a fledgling band struggling to make it in the music industry. So far, so grittier S Club 7 / The Monkees. (Or at least, that was the aim. One of the episodes is still on YouTube and – let’s call a spade a spade – it’s not aged well in terms of acting and writing.)
Hundreds of girls – including a pre-fame Laura Whitmore, it turns out – auditioned, before a final line-up was decided on of Lauren Blake on vocals, Hayley Wardle on drums, Bryony Afferson on guitar and Helena Dowling on keyboards and programming. Originally called 4ofUs, they finally settled on the name from which their TV show was taken. Enter Frank, with Brian and the Xenomania team set to work on producing the songs for the show and thus their debut album, Devil’s Got Your Gold, on which the girls would end up co-writing seven of its twelve tracks.
The first series of Totally Frank, launched in the autumn of 2005, proved a hit from the off, at one point beating popular US imports like The OC and One Tree Hill in the ratings. However, unusually the music they’d made wasn’t released at the time this went out, which did seem to be rather undermining the whole point of the exercise for life to imitate art and for them to cross over into the music industry for real.
When the second series launched in the spring of 2006, said music was finally ready to go. And to add to that, they were also going to be supporting label and producer mates Girls Aloud on their arena tour for their third album Chemistry – their journey of which was chronicled for a one hour documentary that’s still on YouTube.
However, with hindsight, their choice of first single, ‘I’m Not Shy’, was a risky one. Originally recorded by Xenomania’s in-house vanity project Mania for their unreleased album two years previously, it was a slow burning mid tempo that took a couple of listens to ingratiate itself in one’s brain. Perfectly fine for Girls Aloud or Sugababes at that point in their careers, who were well established enough that they could afford to take such risks. But ‘Sound of the Underground’ or ‘Round Round’ it most certainly wasn’t.
And really, it’s the first single you need to make an impact with from the off when launching a new pop band – a role that would have been better suited to ‘Turn It Up’, a grimey, industrial sounding yet catchy banger that was also the opening theme for the second series of the TV show, that audiences were probably more familiar with. But the fact it was barely promoted and failed to be playlisted by the usual channels – Radio 1 and Capital – should offer explanation as to why ‘I’m Not Shy’ eventually stuttered into the charts at #40 in August 2006 before disappearing forever.
With the Devil’s Got Your Gold album making no dent at all when released a week later (it peaked outside the top 75 of the album chart), no one was surprised when Frank were eventually dropped and parted ways a month later. It thus meant the world at large didn’t get to hear how promising tracks like the proposed second single, ‘Never Left A Girl’ were.
A thundering, guitar driven electropop rock stormer with a relentless energy, it had enough of an edge to make it stand out and yet had the same instant hooky wit and charm as say, Girls Aloud’s ‘Something Kinda Ooooh’ that led off their million selling hits package The Sound of Girls Aloud a couple of months after this.
In fact, you put the two side by side and this song is practically the early blueprint for the latter. But it should also act as definitive proof that some of Brian and Miranda’s best work wasn’t just for their star muses – in fact, it oftentimes informed what direction they would moved in. Viewed in that light, a song like ‘Never Left A Girl’ is worthy of adding to your Xenomania Deep Cuts playlist.
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.