@ The Times

The Trojan horses of pop

From The Times
October 20, 2006

Girls Aloud can't write songs. So what? They turned pop on its head, argues Pete Paphides

It's been a whole day since a divot on the pitch cruelly took the ball away from Paul Robinson and with it England's hopes of mounting a comeback against Croatia. A dark moment for English football but, let's be honest, quite a funny one, too. Gathered in a dressed-down huddle around the sofa of a Camden restaurant, Girls Aloud beg to differ. "I don't think it was funny," says Cheryl Cole, straightening the cuff of her new Stella McCartney Adidas jacket. "Goalies have the worst job of the lot. And besides, anybody can make a mistake." The 23-year-old Geordie who married Ashley Cole would rather not be drawn on the eccentricities of Steve McClaren's team selection, but she says that when Ashley called her after the game "he was gutted". Ideally, she would have flown out to watch them. Instead, she and the other four Girls had to go to the Vodafone Live awards, where their new label-mates Take That won in the Best Live Return category.

While her husband was attempting to run off a sprained ankle in Croatia, Cole was discussing the vagaries of pop stardom with Gary Barlow. "We spoke for a long time," she says, "but there was one thing he said in particular that really stuck in my mind. He said it's not the things you do that bring it home. It's the things that other people do." Barlow was referring to Arctic Monkeys' recent version of Girls Aloud's 2004 hit Love Machine, which the girls say they prefer to their own version. "Pop is in a funny place at the moment," says the group's phlegmatic, baby-faced 24-year-old, Kimberly Walsh. "We've seen so many groups come and go. Bands like Arctic Monkeys - they're the new pop."

It's a telling admission that might account for the mood of vulnerability in the Girls Aloud camp at the moment. A new album The Sound of Girls Aloud - The Greatest Hits serves to reiterate a run of Top Ten songs that eclipses those of any other girl band, Destiny's Child and Spice Girls included. And yet, with "manufactured" groups in sharp commercial retreat, you can't blame Girls Aloud if they seem uncertain who their audience is any more.

Four years after emerging victorious from Popstars - The Rivals, their most talked-about show this year was an appearance at the V2006 festival. Such was the clamour to see them sing a canon of wonky pop beauties such as The Show, No Good Advice and Biology that the area around the tent had to be sealed off. And all this at a rock festival attended predominantly by grown-ups.

If pop seems to be undergoing a demographic shift not dissimilar to the plot of Freaky Friday, the man whose name appears all over the credits of their Greatest Hits album says it's not a moment too soon. "I think we came along for each other at the right time," says Brian Higgins, whose Xenomania production team oversee everything that Girls Aloud release.

At the beginning of their working relationship the prognosis was poor. Girls Aloud were considered doomed in industry circles - the next Hear'Say. As for Xenomania: "We started doing this in the 1990s - an era when pop was dominated by this awful, generic joke music," Higgins says. "And we thought there was room for something a bit more challenging."

Challenging is the word. Not since Adam Ant has a group gone for the mainstream jugular with such a bizarre run of hits. If you've never stopped to notice that it takes more than two minutes for Biology to get to its chorus or that Sound of the Underground is the only No 1 record to whack a surf guitar riff over a drum and bass rhythm, therein lies the genius of the whole project. It takes a Trojan horse as photogenic as Girls Aloud to pull it off.

Higgins says the moment that bonded him to the girls came at the beginning of the sessions for their second single, No Good Advice, the song that the Xenomania lyricist Miranda Cooper still cites as her best lyric. Cheryl Cole (then Tweedy) was awaiting trial for the assault on a lavatory attendant in a Guildford nightclub, and Higgins observed that, in spite of Louis Walsh's involvement with the band, "they weren't getting any real guidance. When we started working on No Good Advice we played them some of it, and they said: 'That's not our sound.' I objected to the use of that phrase 'our sound'. I told them they had five minutes to talk about whether or not they wanted to continue with me. They went away and spoke about it and since then it's been fine. They come in expecting to work, and there's a trust there which, I think, dates back to that day."

"A pretty unusual guy" is how Nicola Roberts, 21, describes Higgins. The red-haired Scouser, whose current bedside read is, impressively, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, describes a painstaking recording process in which the group are asked to sing fragments from several unfinished songs, often to backings that will have completely changed by the time they get to hear them again. "Love Machine was one of those, wasn't it?" says Sarah Harding, turning to the rest of the girls. "That one took a long time for us to get our heads around."

Of course, Xenomania's work isn't just restricted to Girls Aloud. Sugababes, Texas and Rachel Stevens are among the other recipients of the production team's work. But 20-year-old Nadine Coyle's contention, delivered in her strident Derry brogue, that "we're the driving force in front of Xenomania" is borne out by statistics. Almost half of Higgins's Top Ten hits have been with Girls Aloud. When Charlotte Church launched her pop career with Crazy Chick, its desperation to emulate the febrile rush that comes as standard on Girls Aloud songs was almost painful to behold. When Cole heard it, she didn't hesitate to say so.

"I was on a radio show and someone asked me if I was devastated that we hadn't got a chance to record it," she recalls. "I just felt like that was an insult, because we had made good records. I just said, not maliciously, that we're moving on now, so if Charlotte wants to do that sound, she can. Then she started ranting and raving, and I didn't take too kindly to the fact. We've yet to kiss and make up, but I'm open to the idea."

Girls Aloud are finally learning to exercise a little restraint. Since her 2002 brush with the law, Cole's promotion from chav notoriety to the Wag Premiership finds her third only to Posh and Coleen in OK! inches. What did 120 hours of community service teach her? She says there was a certain amount of sanding benches, "but I already knew how to do that because my dad's a painter and decorator". This year it was Kimberly Walsh who became the subject of tabloid attention when she was photographed smoking a joint. Though perturbed by the notion that one of her friends sold the picture to a newspaper, she adds, not unreasonably, that "it hardly makes me Pete Doherty".

Mention of the troubled Babyshambles frontman elicits an "eeeuurrgh!" from the rest of Girls Aloud. Doherty, it seems, is an endless source of fascination for the whole band - not least because Kate Moss, the world's most iconic supermodel, still appears to fancy him. "I guess that if you like brown teeth and mouldy fingers, he's your guy," says Walsh. Coyle, meanwhile, is more perplexed by the nature of Doherty's "gift" . "He's supposed to be this musical genius, but has anyone heard him sing? I've heard a Babyshambles album and it was like, 'What am I listening to?' We could make a record that sounded like that, but could he make one that sounded like us?" Higgins highlights the depressed market when he says that "retrospective admiration" is not enough to stop a group like Girls Aloud operating at a loss. "Everyone talks about Biology and Love Machine like they're pop classics, but Radio 1 didn't A-list it at the time. And that's been the case with all of their singles. That's why, once in a while, we put out a cover. A song like I'll Stand by You or Jump will get the lowest common denominator, and do the business for radio, keeping us in the frame for the ones which are slower to get airplay."

If V2006 signalled the shift for Girls Aloud from guilty pleasure to national treasure, Higgins hopes that The Greatest Hits will seal the deal. The signs are promising. A new single, Something Kind of Ooooh, has been A-listed by Radio 1.

The girls refuse to be drawn on a future beyond their 2007 tour. Pressed for an answer, it's mock yawns all round. "We have been denying rumours of a split since the first week we got together," Coyle sighs. "I'm beginning to think it's what keeps us together."

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