Liberty X – Fresh
The legendary music industry figure Simon Napier-Bell probably knows more about creating popstars than Simon Cowell, Pete Waterman and Simon Fuller combined. His career as an artist manager started in the 1960s and saw him steer a diverse roster of successful acts, including The Yardbirds, Japan and Asia, but he is probably best known as the man in charge during Wham’s globe-conquering ‘Imperial Phase’.
As a writer, Napier-Bell has published several books exposing the (sometimes) murky goings on in the music business and, elsewhere, he’s written countless insightful articles on pop and the people who make it. One such piece, for Attitude magazine, told the story of Andrew Oldham, the young (and decidedly flamboyant) manager who looked after the Rolling Stones in the mid-sixties.
After hearing Everyone’s Gone To The Moon by Jonathan King, Oldham had asked to meet the singer, imagining the gorgeous, blonde hunk he might add to his ‘roster’. Oldham complained to friends how extremely disappointed he’d been by the reality of meeting King, who Napier-Bell described (rather unkindly but quite accurately) as looking like “a bespectacled toucan.”
When asked, “What was wrong with him?” by his friend, songwriter Lionel Bart, Oldham replied – and I’m going to paraphrase for our younger readers – “He wasn’t ‘dateable’.”
Quick as a flash, Bart responded, “Not ‘dateable’!! Well we can’t waste our time with people like that, dear, can we?”
While Oldham and Bart might have been wrong about one thing – King would amass half a dozen more top 40 hits in his career – the connection they made between how successful a popstar became and just how badly the record buying public wanted to ‘date’ their brains out, was (more or less) spot on.
And with that in mind, let’s talk about X…Liberty X.
Think back to late 2000/early 2001. To a time before Girls Aloud, Will Young and Michelle McManus, and the dawning of a new era of reality television. Someone, somewhere decided we were ready to have a sneaky peak up the music industry’s skirt (or trouser leg – we’re very equal opportunities around here) and watch a ‘dramatised for television’ version of the creation of a new pop group.
The process of auditioning dozens of stage school graduates to find a perfect combination of boys and girls (or both) had been used by record companies and management teams for years but had become especially relevant again in recent years thanks to a pop explosion which can only be seen as a “thank God that’s over” reaction to the demise of Britpop. What with the likes of Westlife, S Club 7, Atomic Kitten and Blue at the height of their powers, Popstars aimed to go behind the scenes of a fully functioning pop factory (Polydor Records), reveal the magic ingredients which went into the mix (hundreds of young singers eager to become famous) and hand deliver a ready-made pop group (Hear’say) at the end of the series.
It all sounds like good clean fun, doesn’t it? Think again. In order to give Hear’say’s birth a touch more drama and suspense, the newly created band’s five-piece line-up would be chosen from a top 10, with the unlucky rejected five-some left to drown in pop’s discarded after-birth. Imagine going through a three month-long job interview, with every stupid answer you’ve given being shown to nearly 13 million people on television, only to have the interviewer actually come to your home and tell you, in front of everyone, you’ve failed to land the job. There’s no denying it was all fairly brutal. This was The Pop Hunger Games.
Thus, when the dust settled, Popstars hadn’t just delivered one slice of pop perfection…It gave us two (or three if you count Darius –but that’s another story). Just as the Lambrusco started flowing for the triumphant Hear’say – Kym, Myleene, Suzanne, Danny and Noel – elsewhere, from under a pile of rapidly discarded banners reading ‘Congratulations Tony / Kevin / Jessica / Kelli / Michelle’, the (pre-X) Liberty arose.
For Hear’say, victory proved to be less of a rollercoaster ride than a sheer drop into pop obscurity, via a brief period of widespread ridicule, followed by general indifference and eventually leading to a lifetime of touring productions of West End musicals, pantos with Biggins and, for a couple of them, a saved seat near the back at the British Soap Awards.
Surprisingly, considering they were instantly (and rather unimaginatively) branded ‘The Flopstars’ by the British press, Liberty flourished. Signed to the relatively cool, ‘almost Indie’ label, V2, the band scored two top 20 hits with their first two singles. After another group sued them over their name, they returned with a new image and a little extra X appeal. Liberty X was now the complete package – and a big part of that package was the fact that Liberty X were undeniably more ‘dateable’ than Hear’say.
It would seem everyone involved in Popstars‘ final selection process had wanted the winning band to appeal to a fairly young audience, giving them more opportunities to fully exploit the lucrative merchandising possibilities. And, while all the girls who made the top 10 fitted a ‘sexy, but not too intimidating’ template established by the Spice Girls (and steadfastly maintained by Atomic Kitten and B*witched), perfect for those tie-in Barbie-type dolls, it’s clear any toys made in the image of Liberty X’s Kelli, Michelle and Jessica might have to be stacked on a slightly higher shelf. And as for the boys chosen to join Hear’say, they were definitely more Cabbage Patch than G.I. Joe.
While those boys – Danny and Noel – could undeniably sing, they looked more like Blue Peter presenters – and I’m talking Simon Groom here rather than anything approaching Tim Vincent or Gethin Jones – than the kind of pop idols capable of inducing thousands of minor pant-wetting accidents at a Radio 1 Roadshow. When it came to sex-appeal Liberty X’s male line-up – former Riverdancer Tony and tattooed-up bit-of-rough Kevin – had an obvious advantage. So by the time Liberty X released their signature song, the undeniably brilliant Just A Little, it was all skin-tight rubber cat suits, spanky cane action and there was no looking back.
With a fairly solid hit-rate, Liberty X’s most overlooked track – and ‘shoulda been’ hit single – was Fresh, their contribution to a Kool and the Gang tribute album (yes, such a thing does exist).
While it was billed as ‘Kool and the Gang featuring Liberty X’, I’ll give all the Spotify royalties for Duffy’s last single to anyone who can spot the Gang’s contribution. A sure-fire top 10 hit had it been released in 2004, Fresh is a robust, surprisingly soulful and contemporary sounding (for the time anyway) reinterpretation of the Gang’s no.11 hit from 1984. Displaying much of the same cutting-edge production sheen as their Richard X produced collaboration, Being Nobody, it finger-snaps, crackles and pops throughout its three minute running time and would have acted as something of an antidote to the comparatively dour Everybody Cries, the final single released from the Being Somebody album. With a galloping, summery pop sound, it’s also a decidedly livelier and more satisfying affair than their subsequent Children In Need charity single, the rather flat double-header featuring covers of Shalamar’s A Night To Remember and Chic’s Everybody Dance – the group’s last top 40 appearance.
Perhaps inevitably, a comparatively ‘sexed-up’ Liberty X managed to score eight top 10 hits, as opposed to Hear’say’s four, and eventually spent twice as many weeks on the top 40 chart than their (supposed) triumphant rivals. Ultimately, it’s no coincidence that a post-Grease Olivia Newton-John ditched her Sandra Dee prudishness for something a little more ‘physical’ and it would seem some things never change in the superficial world of pop. Relatable and wholesome might work up to a point, but Liberty X’s victory over Hear’say proves that when it comes down to it, as the old saying goes, X does indeed sell.
Entered chart: was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Jessie Ware. I want to see her shake out that pony-tail, lighten up a bit and produce an album of dancefloor orientated pop-soul anthems. I’ve got this and Cheryl Lynn’s Encore earmarked as tracks one and two on that potential masterpiece.