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E’Voke – I Believe

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Pop music, on the whole, is so deeply personal, resonating at such a profoundly emotional level, it becomes almost entirely critic proof. And for the purposes of this discussion, I refer to ‘pop music’ in the broadest terms – ‘popular’ songs which get played on the radio and sell enough copies to end up on the chart. It’s old-school, but that’s how I roll. It’s been happening since the UK singles charts began in 1952 – if enough people hear a song, like a song and buy a song, it will chart. With their hive brain seemingly disengaged, the masses would flock to their local record store, sending abominations like There’s No One Quite Like Grandma, Crazy Frog’s Axel F and Mr Blobby to number one on the UK charts. No bad review in NME or The Guardian is going to stop Black Lace’s Agadoo spending 35 weeks in the UK top 100 singles chart. And it’s not merely a question of taste. What’s the point in trying to stand in the way of the wildebeest herd when instinct is telling it to cross that incredibly fast moving river, right? But what that really means is the majority of ‘serious’ music critics consider pop music, by its very nature, to be far too disposable and culturally insignificant to be held in the same high regard as, say, rock music (or virtually any other genre of music for that matter). Of course, it’s all subjective, but if there’s one thing virtually all music critics agree on, there’s nothing less worthy of in-depth analysis than dance music, with dance cover-versions encrusting the base of that particular barrel. For some, the dance re-make is pointless and for many, downright offensive. Of course, I have to disagree. Sometimes you just have to succumb to the overwhelming power of naff.

I got my first ‘proper’ job working in a record store in 1989. Black Box’s Ride on Time hit no.1 during my first week ‘behind the counter’, triggering a new wave of commercial dance music which, along with the emerging Britpop scene, became the defining sound of my first decade as a singles buyer. As the vocal sampling, piano-driven, Italo sound gave way to Chicago house and Euro-beat, a host of young British acts began to embrace sampling and ‘bedroom studio’ set-ups to create their own unique spin on the genre, creating a new breed of (sometimes unlikely) rock stars. As acts like The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers began to blur the lines between dance and more traditional rock acts, while redefining where dance music was headed, the same principle was being applied to mainstream pop acts.

The more astute pop producers were keen to cash-in on this dance boom, with many attempting to follow in the lucrative footsteps of Stock Aitken Waterman’s ‘Hit Factory’ and create their own signature sound which could be liberally sprinkled on top of virtually any song. S/A/W’s seemingly magic formula had involved the hijacking of a sound which was more or less synonymous with underground gay clubs and, with only a few minor adjustments, they’d successfully managed to turn the previously ghettoised hi-NRG sound into the new normal, becoming the defining sound of pop for much of the late 8-s and early 90s.

Thus, even the most mainstream UK pop acts were happy to take a back seat as the studio boffins and remix wizards cast their spell, transforming even the most heartfelt ballad into a dancefloor smash and, more often than not, removing large chunks of the vocals. The next logical step was to cut out the middle man, create your own records without having to deal with inflated popstar egos and hire a couple of good-looking session singers to front the project. Evidently, convinced that writing their own songs might slow down the process and derail any thoughts of ‘striking while the iron is hot’, the UK charts were soon inundated with dance versions of classic songs, some more obviously deserving an ‘update’ than others. While new versions of Please Don’t Go (KWS, no.1 in 1992) and Stayin’ Alive (N-Trance, no.2 in 1995) almost make sense, who knew we were desperate for up-tempo covers of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street, Bryan Adams’ Run to You and The Cranberries’ Zombie? It was a phenomenon which paid huge dividends in Scotland, where ‘The Kids’ liked their pop fast and furious and “If it wisnae bangin’, it wis hangin’” (roughly translated: “Slow music is pish”).

So, as the 90s progressed there was a widening gap between the dance music which was ‘big up north’ and the type of club records which were charting high on the national singles chart. While the rest of the UK was falling under the spell of a new wave of R&B and hip hop stars, it was house, trance and happy hardcore filling the dancefloors of Scotland.

All of the above seems to converge with the creation of E’Voke, a pop-dance hybrid and their debut single, a dance cover version of Stevie Wonder’s I Believe. Born from an attempt to splice vaguely credible dance music aesthetics with the basic DNA of a female pop duo in order to create the perfect 90s chart act, E’Voke were the ultimate pop experiment. But, as Marie Curie once said, “Damn it, I really thought that was gonna work.”

In its original form, I Believe acted as the emotional climax of 1972’s Talking Book, an album which many uphold as Stevie Wonder’s breakthrough as a ‘real’ artist and his creative tour de force. It’s almost sacrilegious to imagine anyone thinking it was a good idea to attempt to recreate it in a pop-trance style, but this is 1994 we’re talking about, and we’ve already had DJ Miko’s What’s Up in the top 10 and Chaka Demus & Pliers’ Twist and Shout at no.1.

I Believe is proper cheese. So typically mid-90’s, it’s as rooted in the moment as the rise of New Labour and ‘The Rachel’ hairstyle. It’s so of it’s time, it’s almost impossible for me to listen to it now and not be swept back to Glasgow circa 1994, to a time and place where anything released on the Almighty label outsold most of the top 10 and Mary Kiani had virtually been crowned the ‘new’ Mary, Queen of Scots. Any thoughts of inappropriateness are jettisoned as you begin to experience the song on a purely emotional level. Your mood is propelled uncontrollably upwards, lifted by its euphoric joyfulness, within a cyclone of cheesy synth riffs and a chorus, which in this context, is so exhilarating and overwhelmingly positive, it’s virtually spiritual. It would seem, in Scotland at least, God was actually a DJ as early as 1994.

To illustrate just how wide a gulf had opened up between what was selling on opposite sides of the border, the week that E’Voke’s I Believe charted (and peaked) at no. 77 on the national singles chart, R Kelly made his major breakthrough with She’s Got That Vibe, debuting at no.10, ahead of a six week residency inside the top 20. However, on the Official Scottish Chart, those positions were more or less reversed, with E’voke landing at no.26 and R Kelly languishing at a decidedly less impressive no.66.

Of course, E’Voke would eventually crack the national charts too, spending a grand total of three weeks inside the UK top 40 over the course of the next couple of years, but in a perfect illustration of the idiosyncrasies of the UK singles chart (and Scotland’s fickle record buyers), by the time they’d gotten their act together –  literally, by recruiting a couple of Sylvia Young Theatre School graduates to front the band – and released a couple of genuine hits – Runaway reached no.30 in November 1995 and the ‘should’ve been bigger’ The Arms of Loren, landed at no.26 in August 1996 – both of these singles actually peaked a few places lower in the Scottish charts and their moment in the spotlight was more or less over.

This sales discrepancy phenomenon undoubtedly reached its tipping point when So Solid Crew’s 21 Seconds entered the UK singles chart at no.1, in August 2001. In the Glasgow, Argyle Street store, the 25 or so copies I ordered to cover that single’s release were spread wafer thin across the numbered chart wall spaces for its entire chart run, and the same handful of CDs were boxed up and returned a few weeks later. If only E’Voke had stuck it out, their cover could have been an absolute smash, with the lyrics perhaps prompting an ironic discourse on the 21 days they’d previously spent inside the UK top 40 singles chart. Maybe I’m over thinking it. It is just pop music after all. Sometimes it doesn’t have to say or do anything profound and it can just as easily be consumed with the brain switched to ‘power saving mode’ and your emotions turned up to 11.

1200x630bfEntered chart: 22/10/94

Chart peak: 77

Weeks on chart: 2

Who could sing this today and have a hit? I suppose the ‘appropriate’ thing to do would be to ‘Live Lounge’ this back into a ballad, but I think I’d rather hear another full-on dance cover by Sigma,  perhaps featuring one of their interchangeable female popstar vocalists. Honestly guys, don’t worry about it too much, either Rita or Paloma would be equally effective.

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