The Story of Pop: 2002 (Chapter 51)

After 51 weeks, 27 different number ones and pretty much every genre of music under the sun that the UK charts offered you 20 years ago, today we bring you our final chapter from The Story of Pop: 2002. And battle commences – as it often does at this time of year – for our last installment, as one of the greatest British girl groups of the 21st century make their sensational debut, with one of the best Christmas number one singles of all time…

  • Artist: Girls Aloud
  • Song: Sound of the Underground
  • Released: 16/12/2002
  • Writers / Producers: Miranda Cooper / Niara Scarlett / Brian Higgins / Xenomania
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #1
  • Weeks on Chart: 22

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock and not read this series since March (in which case, you have nine months’ worth to catch up on), it won’t have escaped your notice that new chart stars found on reality TV talent shows such as Pop Idol and Popstars have featured highly across this series. In fact, for 18 separate weeks in 2002, the UK number one single came from an act who got their start on such a show, with Will Young, Gareth Gates, Darius and Liberty X all enjoying debut, or in some cases multiple, chart toppers. And the last chart week of the year was no exception, as success continued for that year’s festive rundown.

In the autumn of that year, the second series of Popstars was launched on ITV. Inspired by the progress of both Hear’Say and Liberty X after the first series, and the viewer interactivity that Pop Idol had bought to the table, the producers decided that the new series – titled Popstars: The Rivals – would have several twists.

This time, not one but two new bands were to be created: a boyband and a girl group, the finalists for which would be voted on weekly by the viewing public over a series of live Saturday night shows. And then, once formed, both bands would release their debut singles simultaneously in a battle of the sexes, to try and grab that year’s Christmas number one single.

And in a case of role reversal where the judging panel was concerned, it was announced that 80s pop mogul and Pop Idol judge Pete Waterman (more famed for his work with Bananarama, Kylie Minogue and Steps) was to be put in charge of the boys, whilst Irish boyband guru Louis Walsh (Boyzone, Westlife) was to look after the girls, with Geri Halliwell joining the panel as the third and final judge, and Davina McCall overseeing hosting duties for all those moments of victory, struggle and tears (of which there were plenty).

By the end of November, both bands had been formed by the public vote after an intense round of auditions, boot camps and live shows, their band names were registered and confirmed, and their debut singles were in the can and ready to go. It was now time to see which of them, if any, were to come out victorious in the charts.

Strange to relate then, that it was the winning boyband – sorry, Pete Waterman, “male vocal harmony group” – One True Voice, who had been tipped by bookmakers to be the winners, even before a single note had been recorded, or any members of the bands were chosen. Looking back, you can see why that was the natural conclusion to make.

Not only had the final three on Pop Idol been all-male, but historically, voting statistics from that show – and on shows like it – seemed to suggest that the vast majority of the viewership and the people voting were predominantly girls and young women. It wasn’t hard to do the logical maths. Except the logical maths was about to be completely flipped on its head, with the formation of the show’s winning girl group.

Consisting of Cheryl Tweedy, Nicola Roberts, Nadine Coyle, Kimberley Walsh and Sarah Harding, on Saturday 30th November 2002, Girls Aloud were formed, and were now on the map. And they were about to unleash a song that was not only to flip the very idea of pop bands formed from reality TV shows on its head, but girl groups and pop generally for the 21st century.

Not for them was there to be a victory lap ballad of the ilk of an “Evergreen” or “That’s My Goal”. Even Hear’Say’s “Pure and Simple”, whilst having a tad more groove than both those songs, still had an epic key change and a pyrotechnic finish. For whilst the boys, One True Voice, signed to Jive Records, were to go ahead with a safe and pedestrian cover of a song by The Bee Gees (“Sacred Trust”), Polydor Records, where the girls were signed, had arguably spotted the way the wind was blowing when their head of A&R, Colin Barlow, sourced a little song called “Sound of the Underground”.

Written and produced by Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper at Xenomania, who had not long taken “Round Round” to the top of the charts for Sugababes, it was actually one of 60 songs written and recorded with their own girl group project in mind, called Orchid. Miranda had written the lyrics with Niara Scarlett, the melody line of the chorus coming from them singing “The wheels on the bus go round” into dictaphones. And whilst Colin Barlow ultimately put Orchid on the back burner, he asked if “Sound of the Underground” could be the winning girl group’s song, to which Xenomania – somewhat baffled – agreed.

Presented by them to the girls when it was down to the final 10 after they moved into the house they all shared during Popstars: The Rivals (they all recorded vocals for it before the competition started, with the eliminated girls’ vocals being deleted week by week as they were voted off), it was something of a shock – especially to some of the finalists, who were expecting a big ballad in the Mariah Carey vein of things. What they instead heard was a fizzing, cutting edge concoction of surf guitar, disco and drum’n’bass, with fun and quirky lyrics (“Water’s running in the wrong direction / Got a feeling it’s a mixed up sign”) about celebrating, partying and having a good time “where the girls get down to the sound of the radio” that was utterly infectious.

And its iconic video, directed by Phil Griffin and filmed just two days after the band was formed, with its pink and black aesthetic wardrobe, was set in a cage in an industrial warehouse, complete with a mic stand dance routine choreographed by Paul Roberts (who had worked with All Saints and Billie Piper). It all meant that, far from looking like a bunch of lucky winners, they instead sounded and looked like a fresh new British girl group for the 21st century. It was little wonder that, even with the early foregone predictions, One True Voice suddenly stood no chance whatsoever.

And after an intense couple of weeks of promotion on TV, radio and live appearances to drum up support, led by another genius marketing move with their cheeky yet combative “Buy Girls, Bye Boys” slogan, it all came down to those last few days before Christmas. Live on the show’s final episode, Neil “Dr” Fox, in a simulcast with the Pepsi Chart commercial network countdown on the radio, revealed that, firstly, for the first time ever in UK chart history, one TV show (Popstars: The Rivals) had produced the entire top 3 – failed auditionees The Cheeky Girls were at #3 with their own novelty hit “The Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)”.

Secondly, he then confirmed that One True Voice, meanwhile, were at #2 with “Sacred Trust”, after selling 147,000 copies. Meaning that, after selling 213,000 copies, the UK’s Christmas number one for 2002 was Girls Aloud with “Sound Of The Underground”. But that wasn’t the only feat the girls had managed to achieve.

With this, they also set three unique records; being the quickest a band had ever gone from being formed to getting a number one, being the first band to have a Christmas number one with their debut single, and being the first all-British girl group ever to debut in at number one. And when the single continued on at the top spot well into January 2003 to remain there for four weeks in all, staying on the chart for over five months, it was clear that the song had crossed over from festive chart topper from a reality TV show into a 21st century pop classic.

But whilst One True Voice were to ultimately fall apart without their reality TV stabilisers and split following one more top 10 hit, over the next 10 years that followed, Girls Aloud were to continue to grow and flourish. And whilst that debut single is still rightly regarded as an era defining classic, in the context of their own career, it was just the tip of the iceberg as to their own brilliance. As with Xenomania completely at the controls, they continued to knock hit out after hit; “No Good Advice”, “Jump”, “The Show”, “Love Machine”, “Wake Me Up”, “Biology”, “Something Kinda Ooooh”, “Call The Shots”, “Sexy! No No No…”, “Can’t Speak French”, “The Promise” and “Something New” were amongst the many highlights of their 21 consecutive top 10 hits that followed over the next decade – still the most to date for any girl group in UK chart history.

And to think that all of this had come from the five girls who had started as wide eyed, eager competition winners. And yet they were to eventually go on to charm over the likes of Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys, have critics salivating, sell out six nationwide tours and have five studio albums (plus two greatest hits albums) as well as winning a BRIT Award. But the reason why they had that career and why people – present writer included – still love and enthuse about them 20 years on, is because they weren’t like other pop groups.

In fact, we’ll leave the last word here to Peter Robinson, the editor of Popjustice, a website I read and devoured so much as a teenager, partly because it was one of the few places in mainstream music media that championed the girls’ every move. Writing in the sleeve notes for a 2013 boxset of their five studio albums, he said “At some point, pop groups stopped trying … But Girls Aloud, and the team of pop obsessives with whom they surrounded themselves, did try. They tried ridiculously hard … But it was worth it.”

Thank you so much for reading along and following The Story of Pop: 2002 – we hope you’ve enjoyed it! Don’t forget you can revisit all the songs we’ve covered on the series any time you wish by clicking here, and listen to them all again anytime you like with our Spotify playlist above.

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