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Preston – Dressed to Kill

White vest

Over the years, the relationship between reality TV and the pop charts has been a bit of a rollercoaster to say the least. Most obviously, there’s the endless parade of pop hopefuls who ‘graduate’ each year from singing competitions such as The X Factor, The Voice and American Idol, all of which now resemble some sort of ‘musical colonic’ rather than ‘the search for a superstar’ we were promised way back in Idol’s 2002 debut season. While that season uncovered pop’s greatest motivational speaker – Kelly Clarkson – and subsequent series gave us Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson, ‘searching’ amongst the post-show output of more recent victors feels more like a delicate medical exploration or a nutrition check-up carried out by Gillian McKeith and I’d be wary of getting involved without rubber gloves and tweezers.

In the UK, The X Factor still has the power to sell a few albums – even if it is just around Mother’s Day and Christmas – but The Voice’s track record in finding and nurturing genuine musical talent makes you wonder if they’d be better off just grabbing someone randomly from the studio audience and handing them a support slot on Steve Brookstein’s next tour of Butlins’ holiday camps. What is fascinating however, is the effect other, non-music based shows, such as Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity…, have had on the UK singles chart.

The concept of launching a pop career on the back of little more than some primetime TV exposure is hardly a new one. As far back as 1980, when Esther Rantzen’s The Big Time – a documentary series which gave struggling amateurs a TV assisted ‘leg-up’ in their chosen profession – not only launched Sheena Easton’s singing career, it also gift-wrapped the Scots someone else to disown – aside from Lulu and Sean Connery.

On reaching UK television screens in July 2000, no one could have predicted just how much of a phenomenon Big Brother would become. Virtually everyone involved in the show’s first series enjoyed Warhol’s prescribed 15 minutes of fame and over the next few years some notable celebrity figures were born, with a few – such as Alison Hammond and Brian Dowling – still maintaining a reasonably high profile on television today. It’s hardly surprising some of them decided to give music a shot. ‘Do you want to release a single and make it into the charts?’ is typically the next thing to come out of a PR company employee’s mouth after ‘Darlin’, I’m gonna make you a star.’

Season one winner, Craig Phillips, reached no.14 with his Christmas single, At This Time of Year, his fellow-housemate, Nicola Holt, managed to spend one week at no.72 with The Game and Nadia Almada, the show’s first transgender winner in season 5, had a ‘hit’ with A Little Bit of Action, which peaked at no.27 in December 2004. It’s with deep shame I admit to owning all three.

Reality TV not only turns its hand to creating new ‘stars’, it can give a struggling pop career the necessary goose and reignite interest in those who might be dangling perilously close to the edge of the Popvoid. Take Peter Andre – please, just take him – a stint on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here proved to be a double edged sword. It delivered an upswing in his pop fortunes – a no.1 for the re-released Mysterious Girl and a new deal with the East West label which set him on the road to sell-out arena tours and a brace of top 20 albums – but on the downside he did end up married to Katie Price.

But today’s Popvoid entry doesn’t come from this rich breeding ground of talent. Instead, let’s examine the rise, fall, rise again and the almost inevitable untimely fall of Ordinary Boy and Celebrity Big Brother contestant Sam Preston, and his quite brilliant, but largely unheard, Dressed To Kill.

In recent years, Celebrity Big Brother has become the ‘healthy option’ when compared to a fortnight spent gorging on marsupial genitalia in ‘The Jungle’, with several fairly decent pop stars (and Kavana) attempting to rekindle interest in their music and pump up their deflated pop egos. Back in 2006, after finishing fourth in Celebrity Big Brother’s fourth series, Preston exited the house to find his previously floundering band, The Ordinary Boys, back in the UK singles chart with the track Boys Will Be Boys – a song which had peaked at no.16 six months earlier. Within days he was appearing on Top of the Pops – I know, ‘cos I was there – propelling the single into the top 3 and helping it spend more than four months on the chart. The reinvigorated Ordinary Boys went on to release another top 20 album and scored a trio of top 10 singles in late 2006/early 2007 before splitting the following year.

As the front-man and principle songwriter, Preston was perfectly placed to launch a solo career and while the extra exposure garnered from CBB, countless Hello! photo-shoots and “in-depth” Heat magazine interviews had turned Preston into a household name, it did nothing for his credibility as a musician.

When the album was finally ready, at the beginning of 2009, Preston’s reputation was in tatters and he found himself fighting a losing battle to be taken seriously. Lead single Dressed to Kill came barrelling out of the traps like an excitable puppy, giddy with misplaced confidence and over-flowing with energetic bluster. Co-written and produced by Mark Taylor – the man behind Cher’s Believe and Enrique’s Hero – the song glimmers with the same pop sheen which sent Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy’s Kiss Me into the top 5 almost 25 years earlier. Built around a trippy sample from Siouxsie and the Banshee’s Happy House it’s a real ‘kitchen sink’ production, with a 30-storey chorus and vary-speed vocal hooks worthy of Cher’s afore-mentioned mega-hit. Unfortunately no one would play his record and Preston’s album was eventually shelved. Like Cathy Dennis before him, Preston has since given up trying to make it as a pop star himself, preferring to write songs for other artists – including Olly Murs’ no.1, Heart Skips A Beat and the Enrique/Kylie duet, Beautiful. In a (not so) strange twist of fate, producer Mark Taylor also recycled the song when he produced Cher’s 2013 comeback album, Closer to the Truth. Dressed to Kill provides one of the album’s (very few) highlights.

Perhaps the wisest words and greatest lesson to be learned when dabbling with the unholy world of reality television and any attempt to corrupt the natural order of things and extend your fleeting pop life span comes from original Big Brother contestant Nicola Holt, whose The Game offered us these undeniable truths: “I know you’ve been watching me (Hey Hey) / You know I’ve been watching you / It’s only a game / It’s only a game / Show me the way / To carry on.” Eat your heart out Gershwin!

preston copy

Entered chart: did not chart

Who could sing this today and have a hit? – Well-produced pop – tick, prominent 80s sample – tick, completely ignored on its initial release – tick. This would obviously be a perfect single for Brandon Flowers.

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