Thunderbugs – It’s About Time You Were Mine
You sort of have to admire the music industry in the late 90s for its sheer flash-the-cash excesses. Record labels were overflowing with pop music (some of it really good, some of it not), and at the end of the day if there wasn’t much of a bite to an act, there was no problem in binning them (and all the material recorded). There would be more from someone else tomorrow.
Looking back, it still amazes me just how much money labels would throw at single releases with scarcely a thought of making it back. The cost of all those physical CDs and 12 inches, not to mention those of the video, remixes, massive billboard posters, adverts in magazines and of course those postcards from 3 Alveston Place must have racked up a whopping bill.
In 1999 Sony Music (through Epic) were in the process of funnelling a shedload of cash into one of their latest pop projects, Thunderbugs. This was the second all girl group who played their own instruments that they’d launched that year: Hepburn had gone first and had two top twenty hits under their belt, but with Thunderbugs, Sony were probably hoping for even greater success.
Whilst Hepburn’s slightly whiny and grungy music fitted well with the Buffy soundtrack it appeared on, in contrast the Thunderbugs seemed to be a more traditional pop act – first single Friends Forever was a happy, breezy affair that would have been quite at home on an advert for tampons. With a British lead singer and drummer (Jane Vaughan and Nicky Shaw respectively) and a continental element (French bass player Stef Maillard and German guitarist Brigitta Jansen), a distinctive look (how many pop singers back then performed with glasses on?) and a not-really-that-unique USP of actually playing their own instruments, success was there for the taking. The group had also had 18 months of pre-chart grooming by First Avenue Management (home to Louise, Eternal and the Honeyz) to ensure everything was spot on.
In August 1999 it was “Thunderbugs Are Go!” (as the TV advert said, another costly promotional item) to launch Friends Forever and to preview the upcoming debut album Delicious. An archived article from The Independent alludes to just how much Sony were splashing out.
“Nobody at Epic Records will put a figure to the amount spent on their latest girl group, Thunderbugs. But off-the-record sources claim that it may be the largest amount the label (a division of Sony UK, whose other acts include Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, George Michael and Manic Street Preachers) has ever paid out for a new act. On top of the lucrative recording contract, the band has had 18 months of pre-launch grooming, recording sessions in New York and Los Angeles, and a four-day shoot for their video linked to their single “Friends Forever”.
Add all this together and you have to be talking many hundreds of thousands of pounds, probably millions. As one Sony executive said to me: “You were at the Hilton. We don’t do that for just anyone.””
Friends Forever, with a wonderful guitar rock/pop backing track that Belinda Carlisle would have been proud of, was a hit, blasted its way into the top five, hinting that this was money well spent by Sony. Of course after every hit must come a follow up single, which for the Thunderbugs was It’s About Time You Were Mine, a slower yet jaunty song about turning a friendship into something more.
Whilst not as instant and powerful a tune as Friends Forever, It’s About Time You Were Mine is not by any means a weak follow up. Yes, it’s a rather swift number (we’re onto the second chorus within the first minute of the song), but it shows off some cute backing vocals by the rest of the band, and the change in pace showed that they weren’t going to repeat themselves straight away. An expensive looking video with at least 50 extras was filmed, with the band looking sleek and slick, like the stars they were on the way to becoming.
Back in those days, record companies had to be careful with the scheduling of their various acts and only have so many releasing stuff at any one time. The problem was, in 1999 there had been a pop explosion and there were possibly too many acts to schedule. Come November 1999, the various Sony imprint labels’ time and attention for its pop artists were focused on follow ups to summer breakthrough hits by A1, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Destiny’s Child and, err, Marvin & Tamara. No doubt the Thunderbugs had to wait their turn. But then Autumn slid towards Christmas – and that leads us to the Great Chart Massacre of Christmas 1999.
Christmas is often a good time to release a single, or it was back in the late 90s. Sales were much higher then, and you could very well have a hit that would linger in the higher echelons of the chart for a month, given the lack of new releases over the new-year period. But with pop exploding as it had, sometimes there were too many new releases pushed out in those last couple of weeks before the chart ‘shut down’ till mid-January. Inevitably, something would lose out.
The shelves of the new releases sections of Virgin Megastores and HMV one Monday in December must have been straining with the weight of that week’s new releases by the Vengaboys, B*Witched (another of Sony’s pop acts), Queen & David Bowie, Tom Jones, Leann Rimes, TLC, The Beastie Boys, Len and The Charlatans, as well as big club hits by William Orbit and Progress (presents The Boy Wunda). All this and Daniel O’Donnell’s Christmas single. That’s at least 12 new entries looking for positions high in the Top 40.
But that wasn’t all by any means – also out that week were singles by Lou Bega and Lenny Kravitz (both follow ups to no.1s) as well as the follow ups to top ten hits by Bryan Adams, Enrique Iglesias and of course Thunderbugs. There was also Warner once again reissuing Prince’s 1999 to cash in on the new millennium celebrations. What an awful lot of pop, eh readers?
Come Sunday all of these acts were in for a shock when the new top 40 was announced. In fact such was the surprise of all these chart misfires that Mark Goodier, presenting the top 40 on Radio 1 that week, did something completely unheard of: he actually mentioned the charting positions of these songs.
No doubt there were a lot of crisis meetings held at a lot of record labels the following Monday morning, and while the majority of these acts would live to fight another day, it spelled the end for the fledgling career of the Thunderbugs. Despite having had all that money spent on them, Sony decided there was no point splashing out any more and they were consigned to pop’s great big bargain bin, aka The Dumper. No further singles were released and the album Delicious was only issued in the UK (no doubt due to some contractual obligation) on the flop format of the decade, minidisc.
So what exactly went wrong here? Well, there was no denying It’s About Time You Were Mine wasn’t as instant as Friends Forever. Possibly the breezy and friendly vibe of their debut was lacking and maybe young girls had been turned off (girl bands themselves were experiencing declining fortunes in late 1999, indicating a slight malaise in the pop world – ask B*Witched and Eternal). But most probably this song just lost out in the Christmas rush for promo opportunities, radio and video play. Releasing it in such a busy week was the fatal flaw – had this been held back to January, top 20 would have been a given and the Thunderbugs career extended a bit further.
It was all a bit of a shame really – although to be honest the album didn’t really contain any other single worthy songs. But given the amount of money Sony had already ploughed into the Thunderbugs you would have thought that they would have at least tried with one more single. Heck, even Hepburn managed that.
I wonder if the girls are still friends forever?
Entered chart: 18/12/99
Chart peak: 43
Weeks on chart: 8
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I can imagine a post baby number 2 Kelly Clarkson recording this.