The Story of Pop: 2002 (Chapter 17)

This is The Story of Pop: 2002, our weekly retelling of the stories behind the biggest hits and the artists behind them, every Thursday at 9am. This week: how one underground mashup reactivated the career of the most successful all female act of the 21st century…

  • Artist: Sugababes
  • Song: Freak Like Me
  • Released: 22/04/2002
  • Writers / Producers: Eugene Hanes / Marc Valentine / Loren Hill / William Collins / George Clinton / Gary Numan / Richard X
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #1
  • Weeks on Chart: 18

There’s going to be a couple of instances in this series to come where we discuss records that helped redefine the definition of pop in the new decade. So brace yourselves, because this one really was a game changer.

The bootlegging movement had been steadily gaining ground at the start of the 00s, first breaking through with “Toca’s Miracle“, the merging of two previously underperforming dance singles by Nottingham based DJ Vimto, and eventually re-released as a huge selling number one hit for Fragma in 2000.

Over the next 18 months, more inspired efforts followed, such as The Freelance Hellraiser’s “A Stroke Of Genius” (The Strokes and Christina Aguilera, anyone?) as well as some downright awful efforts (no one, but no one needed to hear Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” and Modjo’sLady (Hear Me Tonight)” sledgehammered together with the screams recorded, Stuntmasterz).

But the most innovative were by far coming from a mysterious set of white labels by a man from Whalley in Lancashire, called Richard. In fact, so enigmatic was he, that he was simply credited as Richard X. Under the alias of Girls on Top, he had produced “I Wanna Dance With Numbers” – an unusual mix of Whitney Houston and Kraftwerk.

But the biggest buzz he was creating was with “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends”. It merged together the melody and synth riff from “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”, previously a 1981 chart topper for Gary Numan and Tubeway Army, with the vocals from “Freak Like Me”, which was the debut hit for US soul singer Adina Howard in 1995.

Over there it had been a huge hit, peaking at #2, but here in the UK it was a bit of an also ran, only reaching #33 in May of that year. However, there was a degree of knowledge of the track prior to 2002 in Blighty, thanks to a UK garage / 2-step cover by Tru Faith & Dub Conspiracy that had made the top 20 in September 2000.

When “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends” started to get spot plays not just on dance and R&B stations, but on the more alternative likes of XFM, it was clear that a hit was in waiting. Alas, as with most bootlegs in their original form at this time, clearance to use some of the original elements of the mashup (in this case, Adina Howard’s vocals) was not immediately forthcoming, thus preventing a full official release.

It’s at this point that Sugababes entered the equation. Things had started promisingly for the fledging all-female teen trio from North London. Their debut single “Overload” had won both critical and commercial plaudits, reaching #6 in September 2000 and being nominated for a BRIT Award.

However, this success hadn’t quite continued over into their debut album One Touch, which, for all its musical praise and adulation, was lacking in sales to back it up, and so despite three more top 30 hits, London Records had passed on their option to do another album with the girls.

But matters were complicated further, by the sudden departure of Siobhan Donaghy from their fold in July 2001, whilst on a promo trip in Japan. A member down and without a record deal, the odds seemed to be against them. Not for the last time in their career, a new member was duly bought on board, in the shape of Liverpudlian born, one time Atomic Kitten member Heidi Range, to join original founding members Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena.

Island Records however, still saw potential in the band, who had already demonstrated that, quite apart from other pop acts of the time, they had potential and appeal way beyond the more teen-y end of the market, and signed them up in October 2001, as they reconvened in their new lineup to record a make-or-break second album. Darcus Breese, their A&R at their new label, suggested the mashup of “We Don’t Give A Damn About Our Friends” to be re-recorded by them for their first single, as “Freak Like Me”.

It’s growing popularity from underground word of mouth, coupled with a distinctive vampire themed promo video directed by Dawn Shadforth (who had not long been behind Kylie Minogue’s iconic music video for her worldwide chart topper “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”) suggested that all the signs were building up to a massive number one single.

Which is precisely what Sugababes achieved on the release of “Freak Like Me”, on Monday, 22nd April 2002, shooting straight in at the top the following Sunday to give them their first ever number one hit. Signs that it had crossed them over into the more credible mainstream also came later that year, when Q Magazine named it as Best Single at their annual awards ceremony. They even received their trophy on the night from Gary Numan himself, who gave them his blessing on the use of one of his most famous hits.

We’ll be meeting Keisha, Mutya and Heidi later on again this series, but “Freak Like Me” was such a special record, and happily still is two decades on. It not only reactivated the career of Sugababes in a way that had seemed impossible just nine months previously, but also ushered in a new wave of out-of-the-box, electronically driven British pop in the 00s that they helped to pioneer – and that many others would follow them down the route of.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new playlist on Spotify – updated weekly so you never miss a song from the story of pop in 2002. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments, Tweet us or message us on Instagram, using the hashtag #StoryofPop2002.

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