Polydor Records, 1999This month sees the return of a pop band that signifies my generation is now firmly in the category of ‘nostalgia marketing’ in the eyes of the music industry: S Club 7. The announcement last November that Tina Barrett, Paul Cattermole, Rachel Stevens, Jo O’Meara, Hannah Spearritt, Bradley McIntosh and Jon Lee would be returning – with a reunion performance on BBC Children in Need and a 2015 UK tour – sent ripples of ecstasy through my Facebook feed (occupied, as it is, nowadays by engagements, work outings and the occasional overboard night out).
S Club 7 hold a special place in the hearts of today’s 20- and 30-somethings. These fresh-faced teens, fronting a catchy, sweet-natured variety of Europop, arrived at a formative time for this generation. For me, personally, S Club entered my life while I was still in primary school – which had big effects on goings on at the time that I’ll get to further on.
Stars of the small screen
For a start, S Club was much more than a band. They had their own TV series. Beginning with Miami 7 (1999), children and teenagers got a window into the (fictional) lives of the pop group, and their music, through this age-appropriate sitcom. And it’s this that was even more of a masterstroke than the group’s formation by ex-Spice Girls manager, Simon Fuller.
The S Club TV shows, which spanned four seasons, specials and, eventually, a feature film, were effectively 25-minute slots on national television (CBBC in Britain) that the group’s creative team used to market the members’ personalities and story to a captive audience. That audience ended up being mighty big, as the shows were sold to 100 countries and viewed by 90 million people.
But, on a more human level, the shows were also ideal entertainment for young minds whose understanding of the world and relationships was only just beginning to form. In the first season alone, the episodes were about the group’s attempts to get themselves noticed in the ever-competitive music industry, overcoming knocks to their self-esteem and, most riveting of all, teenage love tales that were lighter in tone and more fantastic than Byker Grove’s, but no less absorbing.
Boy problems; girl problems; chat-up lines; first kisses; little white lies; cheating; big teases; and the search for true love. Yes, with its tales of handsome photographers, sexy scuba instructors, and, of course, the vibrant, young honeys (ahem, and hunks) themselves, Miami 7 was a subconscious bridge to the hormonal conflict that had begun, or was about to begin, in so many of those that watched the show. In school, the hottest topic of conversation – save for seeing who knew all the words and dance moves to ‘S Club Party’ – was which group members you reckoned would date each other, and which member would you date if you could? (Rachel was always the popular choice among the boys back then. Personally, I had a soft spot for Hannah.)
Besides the kiss-chase plotlines that were so much fun to gossip about at school, the music and dance routines that featured in every episode had a real effect on playtimes. Once one member of a classroom, or social group, had seen the TV show and heard the music, S Club fever would spread quite effortless to other members in the same vicinity. The result was clusters of children practicing S Club dance routines in playgrounds, learning the songs for talent shows, pestering their teachers to let them listen to the group’s album in school, and generally expressing an excitement for the pop group that took on a life of its own.
There weren’t no party like an S Club party… in the 90s
So what of S Club’s debut album? The pop market was pretty crowded in 1999. The Spice Girls, then the symbols of girl power, were on the wane after Geri ‘Miss Union Flag’ Halliwell departed, but there were plenty of other pop acts to fill the void. Britney Spears had made her debut and was sitting high in the charts. B*Witched held onto their Irish luck to score their fourth consecutive No 1. The Backstreet Boys were sweeping the globe. And things were percolating for Steps, Westlife, Robbie Williams, TLC, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child and Jennifer Lopez, among others.
Into this space came S Club, an album which was unequivocally about celebrating one another and holding on to good times. Before you knew it, ‘S Club Party’ hooked you with its enthusiastic dance-pop, where even the chorus chants felt supersized. Norwegian pop production duo, Stargate, produced that song, as well as some of the albums other highlights, including ‘You’re My Number One’. ‘Bring It All Back’, the group’s debut single that started it all, complete with its piccolo phrases, summery melody and message to “don’t stop trying”, is great fun even now.
The album, written primarily by a cross-section of professional songwriters and producers, still ignites warm emotions in those old enough to have seen the TV shows, but, in hindsight, S Club was a pretty pedestrian debut (hits ‘Reach’ and ‘Don’t Stop Movin’’ featured on later albums). Outside of the singles, it’s a snore: there’s plenty of earnest singing and examples of group chemistry, with different members taking the lead vocals – and, occasionally, sharing verses – while the remaining members harmonise, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard on any other pop record of this era. The most striking thing is its samba-influenced music – lighter on ‘I Really Miss You’, and more obvious on ‘Viva La Fiesta’ and ‘It’s a Feel Good Thing’ – which reflects a snippet of the late-90s Latin fever, which could be seen on cinema screens, in adverts and heard in pop music.
Bring it all back
S Club 7 are now in the midst of their reunion tour in the UK. It’s both exciting and slightly disheartening to see the seven of them back together to do their thing one last time. Exciting because the group were such a big part of growing up for so many that danced about their living rooms and practiced their songs in playgrounds during the 90s. Disheartening because it means that those same fans, myself included, are that much further away from their childhood.
Still, what this little look back at S Club 7 has reinforced for me is just how special that time was for children and young teens. A cursory scan of the comments underneath YouTube uploads of the old TV shows suggests that many people from this generation share the belief that children’s TV just isn’t what it used to be.
The age of innocence has been, and will probably forever be, argued without end. The fictional S Club sitcoms could be accused of perpetuating stereotypes about body image and celebrity. And I’m not saying that the stars of S Club haven’t used their assets and status in controversial or provocative ways since their 2003 split. Nevertheless, these light TV shows, that had personality and fun at their heart, are several steps down from what today’s kids can be exposed to via our always-on media and services, such as YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.
S Club was the pop group it was cool to like, because they had the looks, personality and innocence to captivate a generation.
For classic albums, rarities and more, see my Choice Cuts archive.
Image: Polydor/Universal Music/Sean McMenomy