The Story of Pop: 1998 (Chapter 2)

Welcome once again to this week’s instalment of The Story of Pop: 1998. Now it’s at this point we should tell you that the UK charts of 25 years ago was full and plenty with girl groups, so here comes our first of two encounters with one of that year’s biggest…

  • Artist: All Saints
  • Song: Never Ever
  • Released: 10/11/1997
  • Writers / Producers: Shaznay Lewis / Robert Jazayeri / Sean Mather / Cameron McVey / Magnus Fiennes
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #1
  • Weeks on Chart: 26

One thing that 1998 can certainly be remembered by is the continued impact that the Spice Girls had had on the industry. When they launched in 1996 with “Wannabe”, they were the only girl power game in the pop world. Over the 18 months that followed to this point, they had made girl groups a thing once again – and how.

Alas, it’s going to be a while before we meet and discuss them properly on this series – much later, in fact. But we will be meeting several of the acts for whom the Spices arguably broke down the barn door – this week’s featured artist perhaps being one of the biggest beneficiaries of this. And a special one for me too, because the song we cover today was in fact the very first record yours truly bought.

In 1993, at Sarm West Studios in London, Shaznay Lewis, a budding singer and songwriter from Islington, and Melanie Blatt, a former pupil at Sylvia Young Theatre School from Camden, met and formed a trio with Simone Rainford. They called themselves All Saints, an amalgamation of the name of the road the studio they met in was based and the year they were born.

They released a couple of singles on ZTT, the famous label that gave the world Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Grace Jones. But both were commercial flops, and so, following the departure of Rainford from the fold, they were dropped by the label. Around about this time, Mel reconnected with her best friend from school, Canadian born Nicole Appleton, after her dad came into The Sports Cafe at Piccadilly Circus, where she was working as a waitress at the time, to watch an Arsenal match.

Very soon, Nicole joined the fold, and along with her sister Natalie Appleton, the new band – now simply known as All Saints – were formed. Scouting a demo tape of their songs written by Shaznay around to various record companies, in late 1996, it landed at London Records, the label that had seen huge success for both East 17 and Bananarama, and caught the attention of Tracey Bennett, then head of A&R.

They promptly signed them up, and by the following August 1997, their debut single, a soulful, sassy and streetwise Steely Dan sampling party jam called “I Know Where It’s At” had put them on the map, hurtling into the charts at #4. With their dark eyeliner, crop tops, Timberland boots and camo combat trousers, they immediately established themselves as the edgier alternative to the Spice Girls.

That said, the initial success of this single aside, there was one song on that demo tape that you suspect had made London Records so keen to sign them up in the first place, and which was the obvious choice for a follow up single to lead in the release of their self titled debut album. Speaking on a Top of the Pops documentary for the BBC just last year, Shaznay said “I feel like that was the song which everybody was kind of waiting for us to get to.” And that song was “Never Ever”.

The demo was just the girls singing to a simple drum beat and the piano chords from Sunday worship favourite “Amazing Grace”, giving it a kind of – pardon the pun – saintly, almost heavenly feel. But it was the song’s final production by Cameron McVey (who had worked on Massive Attack) and Magnus Fiennes which elevated it into the song that is so well known and loved today.

As soon as Nicole’s folorn and softly spoken intro starts – “A few questions that I need to know / How you could ever hurt me so / I need to know what I’ve done wrong / And how long it’s been going on” – it’s one of those times when you instinctively know it’s something special.

Written by Shaznay about the end of a relationship she was in at the time, over six and a half minutes (or just under five minutes if you were listening to the radio edit) the song perfectly captures that crushing feeling of first heartbreak and helplessness of wanting to know why true love has come to an end so suddenly: “Never ever have I ever felt so low / When you gonna take me out of this black hole? / Never ever have I ever felt so sad / The way I’m feeling yeah, you got me feeling really bad / Never ever have I had to find / I’ve had to dig away to find my own peace of mind / I’ve never ever had my conscience to fight / The way I’m feeling yeah, it just don’t feel right”.

It existed in a plain all of its own quite unlike any other pop songs of that time, and when released at the beginning of November 1997, it debuted at a very respectable #3. But it kept on selling consistently, and was a mainstay of the top 10 for all of the Christmas period, to the extent that it was one of the top 20 selling singles in the UK that year.

Come January, and having already sold well over 700,000 copies, “Never Ever” suddenly gained a second wind in its ninth week on the chart, and climbed back up to give All Saints their first ever number one single – and the first brand new number one of 1998 to boot, eventually going onto become one of four songs by a girl group to sell over a million copies in UK chart history.

In fact, such was the continued ongoing success of the single, that it meant that the release of its follow up – which we’ll discuss later on this series – was pushed back several times. And with it, came success at that year’s BRIT Awards, where they picked up both Best British Single and Best British Video for the song’s explosive promo clip, with Shaznay memorably tearfully observing in their acceptance speech for the former award that “It’s funny how something so good can come out of such a bad situation.”

Fundamentally, “Never Ever” continues to be both a timeless classic and an example of pop at it’s finest, because of its soul, its honesty and its vulnerability, that made it so identifiable for so many people. Only one other song in All Saints’ back catalogue – which we’ve already covered on The Story of Pop: 2000 in “Pure Shores” – had the same level of impact as this single did. But even then, it stands in a league of its own. And that’s why I’ll always be proud to say that this was the first single I bought.

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 1998. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments, Tweet us or message us on Instagram, using the hashtag #StoryofPop1998.

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