Alisha’s Attic – Pretender Got My Heart
As Donna Summer (memorably) and Sophie Lawrence (less memorably) pointed out, Love’s Unkind – but if there’s one thing more unkind than love, it’s pop. And specifically pop’s footsoldiers, i.e.) us. Generally speaking, unless there’s vested record company interest in killing a career stone dead, we determine whether someone enjoys a long and fruitful chart life or not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that we are NOT TO BE TRUSTED with this responsibility, because we frequently lose all interest just as someone’s really hitting their stride.
No act better demonstrates this regrettable point than Alisha’s Attic, who achieved a respectable level of success during the 1990s, often requisitioning the no’s.12 – 14 positions in the UK singles chart with a brace of good quality, quite inventive pop tunes, among them I Am, I Feel, Alisha Rules the World and The Incidentals. Sisters Shelly and Karen Poole wrote their own songs and were a demonstration of Girl Power that was slightly more robust than that of their contemporaries The Spice Girls, although sadly less likely to inspire a range of dolls.
One of the more interesting facts about Alisha’s Attic is that this was the second time the sisters had attempted to embark on a pop career. It was very successfully airbrushed from their history at the time, but in 1988 they went by the charmingly of-the-streets name Keren & Chelle and released a terrible Hi-NRG single called Sugar Daddy. Produced by the shadowy figures who first launched Sinitta on an unsuspecting world, it has a video that was clearly filmed during a Spanish package holiday (it features lots of exciting shoulder dancing) and a melody that is reasonably catchy but ruined by a production that sounds like it was cobbled together from things found in the bin round the back of PWL. Thankfully, a total absence of chart action put paid to Keren & Chelle‘s immediate dreams of stardom and they were able to go away for a few years, rethink things and come back, presumably a bit more on their own terms. It does, however, provide an interesting glimpse at their evolution, so for that reason and not for LOLZ let’s have a look at it now.
Thirteen years later, and without an off-the-shoulder ruffled floral crop-top in sight, the group was on its third album, and it was clearly make or break time – their debut Alisha Rules the World had made UK no.14 and sold quite a lot, while follow-up Illumina had reached no.15 but sold substantially less. This kind of sales trajectory leads a record company to one of two specific courses of action – a big push, or The Big Push (out the door). For Alisha’s Attic, Mercury – to their credit – chose the former, and Karen and Shelly decamped to California to work with industry heavy hitter Bill Bottrell, who’d previously produced Michael Jackson, Madonna and – no doubt the selling point at this time – Sheryl Crow. The resulting album, The House We Built, was a huge leap forward in terms of songwriting and production. Mercury appeared to have such confidence in the project that they hired the presumably-not-inexpensive Sophie Muller – who’d previously created stunning visuals for Eurythmics, Annie Lennox and Shakespears Sister – to direct the videos for the first two singles. Sophie’s rule of thumb seems to have been “slap on the eyeshadow and up the dramatics” and this suited the band perfectly. But despite all this, when the album’s lead track Push It All Aside topped out at no.24 it fell to the follow up, Pretender Got My Heart, to decide Alisha’s Attic‘s future.
Of course we all know how that turned out, and we never heard from Alisha’s Attic again after this peaked at a ridiculously low no.43. But what a song to go out on. Opening with a spooky, spoken-word “Thought the heart was worth something / I just sold mine to somebody / For nothing”, it’s another stunning example of one of my favourite sub-genres – music for spies – only this time with a lovely Latin twist. Mandolins and zithers weave in and out – there’s also apparently a percussive wine glass in there somewhere – and there are beautiful tiny string flourishes that pleasingly recall Siouxsie and the Banshees‘ Face to Face. But my favourite bit of the whole song is the buried-in-the-mix, clipped backing vocal “ten-der” that crops up in the chorus – it’s gloriously creepy.
Taken as a whole, Pretender Got My Heart is just a brilliantly off-kilter pop song, with an astoundingly good video that saw Karen and Shelly larking about in sunny climes once more, only this time they’re dropping bags of tomatoes and rubbing themselves suggestively against a metal fence while a hot labourer shovels the world’s largest pile of cocaine. Fun times.
So what was the problem? Well, around the turn of the millennium pop had taken itself off down the route marked “fun” and was enjoying one of its more vacuous periods. S Club 7, 5ive and Steps all barrelled through the doors opened by The Spice Girls and revelled in the short-term pleasures of partying as a lifestyle choice. And because apparently we can only give our full attention to one thing at a time, the more considered, adult branch of pop was sidelined – and Alisha’s Attic became one of the first casualties. Sugar Daddy would have probably stood a better chance at the time.
Just like that, it was all over, and it was entirely our own fault. Thankfully Shelly and Karen went on to highly successful careers as songwriters for other people, and Pretender Got My Heart found a second home on the soundtrack to Bridget Jones’s Diary, so at least it probably made them a few “bob” in the finish up. Hooray!
Entered chart: 28/07/2001
Chart peak: 43
Weeks on chart: 2
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Hey, Lana Del Rey!