Untouchable: Why The Return Of Girls Aloud Is So Exciting

They’re back! Back!! Back!!! Laurence Green recalls just why the return of Girls Aloud is so important for British pop music.

The whole concept of ‘the reunion’ is a funny old thing. Just like meeting up with that friend you haven’t seen in years, however exciting the prospect of it all might be, it’s always tinged with just that little dash of trepidation too. Will it be everything you hope it will be? Could it all be one big disaster?

The rumours have been circulating for a while now regarding Girls Aloud getting back together, each interview with one of them always containing the obligatory ‘When’s it happening?’ followed by the equally obligatory response of ‘Well, it’s been ten years since we formed, so we’ll be doing something…’ A classic case of cat and mouse, the speculation and question-dodging following each-other round in a cycle, all building towards the inevitability that something will actually finally happen. Because, y’know, pop music and reunions go together like strawberries and cream…

And if we’re talking Girls Aloud, well, then we’re talking the crème de la crème of the pop world. Even the mere mention of their name brings that kind of glossy-eyed rapture to your average pop lover, the memories of such unbridled classics as the beauty-parlour whizz of ‘Biology’ and the space-age synth-rock of ‘Untouchable’ still fresh in their minds. It’s telling that even ten years on, the girl-group’s spy-movie guitar meets drum n’ bass debut single ‘Sound of the Underground’ remains the finest winner’s single ever to emerge from a talent show.

Girls Aloud weren’t just a great pop band – from the moment they first formed on Popstars: The Rivals to the last time all five were pictured together - on-stage, supporting Coldplay at Wembley Stadium – they took every opportunity to prove to the world that the merits of an incredible chorus could be just as credible as any avant-garde indie release. Words of praise for the band from the likes of the Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Patrick Wolf weren’t cocked-eyebrow statements of irony, they were genuine. Girls Aloud mattered, and like all great musical outfits, it all centred around a beautiful relationship between them and their producer.

The Beatles and George Martin, U2 and Brian Eno – Girls Aloud had their very own genius in the form of Brian Higgins and Xenomania. For any other act, it might have been considered career suicide – sticking to one songwriting outfit for every one of your five studio albums. But for Girls Aloud, it resulted in what can only be described as a bonafide formula for chart success. There are very few ‘sure things’ in the music industry, but Girls Aloud’s remarkable run of twenty consecutive top ten singles was one of them – an unbroken chain tying an era of pre-download pop still coasting on the aftermath of the Spice Girls and Steps with a digitally enabled culture where Girls Aloud were both an established chart-topping entity and critical darlings. Going by the devotional coverage afforded to them at their peak, at times it started to feel like they’d become the Guardian’s very own pet-project – such was the adulation for them among left-leaning circles and the more open-minded sectors of the credible music press. They’d become more than just a group, but a kind of movement that people identified with; helped in no small part by how damn relatable and straight-up charming the five girls were.

Cheryl - the eternally dubbed nation’s sweetheart, a face to send the hearts of millions all aflutter; a figure almost more princess-like than Kate Middleton herself. Kimberley, the reliable one – the glue at the heart of the band, with her jaunts onto the West End stage and Strictly Come Dancing showcasing a multitude of talents. Nadine, the ‘diva’ of the band – the voice, the legs, the bombshell. So mysteriously elusive (all those trips to America…), yet for so long, the figurehead of the group. Sarah, the rock chic – because every great girl group should have one. And Nicola… Oh Nicola…

We’ve had the great pleasure of meeting Nicola on quite a few occasions, and there’s no one quite like her in pop music. Not only a beautiful, effervescent English rose of a young woman, but an intellect; an engaging, principled example of how wonderful a popstar can be when released from the shackles of industry execs pointing and saying ‘be like that’. This fairytale story of a northern suburb girl now embroiled in all the excitement of the London fashion industry and Mayfair club circuit – to us, and we’re sure to many other young fans at the time, Nicola and the other girls were a shining case in point that individuality and determinism could triumph over anything. Prejudice, the anti-talent show brigade, snooty rock-loving critics; Girls Aloud took them all in their stride and trampled any doubters beneath stiletto clad feet.

Whether it be Nicola’s fervent anti-bullying campaign supported by an appearance on high-brow politics show This Week or Cheryl’s branding of David Cameron as ‘slippery’, Girls Aloud felt keyed into the complications of a modern world – working class heroes to counter the machinations of out of touch politicians and showboating Katie Price types that seemed like they were only in it for the money. Indeed, when Girls Aloud released their platinum selling third album ‘Chemistry’ in 2005, fronted up as it was by a scathingly ironic intro of ‘It’s all about the flashlights… don’t ask me to share my fame’, it felt like their finger was on the pulse of the pop-culture corpus, extricating the finer details and dressing them up in the sparkle and thrill of what the group’s most ardent fans dubbed a concept album. That’s right – a talent show girl-group releasing a concept album on the seedy underbelly of fame, all its excesses and the hedonism of ‘Swinging London Town’. But that’s the kind of record ‘Chemistry’ was, the kind of symbiotic wonder-creation the Girls Aloud/Xenomania partnership continued to prove itself to be.

And unlike the increasingly heavy stream of American import pop, Girls Aloud’s take on the genre was always refreshingly ‘pure’. Xenomania’s production style - honed on records by Dannii Minogue and the Saint Etienne - was almost clinical in its precision; few ad-libs, no vocal showboating, just slipstreamed hooks and a heck of a lot of synthesizers. In the ongoing Xenomania partnership, there was a kind of consistency, a trademark sound that stood apart from the fickleness and trend-chasing of other groups, a keen edge to Girls Aloud’s records that culminated in their collaborations with Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr and the Pet Shop Boys on 2008’s ‘Out of Control’. What other mainstream pop group could lay claim to accomplishments like that?

It might sound churlish to suggest it, but if we consider Girls Aloud as the mouthpieces and muses for Xenomania’s incredible pop constructions, then we see no reason to not suggest the band as the natural successors to the synth-pop greats of the 80s. Just as the likes of Depeche Mode and New Order married commercial and critical success three decades ago, so too did Girls Aloud in the 21st century –gift-wrapped New Romantics for the X Factor generation, pushing outré electro workouts like ‘Sexy! No No No…’ into the UK Top 10 at the drop of the hat.

At the time of writing, Girls Aloud’s website has just been updated with a countdown; ticking away to a moment, a few short days from now, when we’ll find out once and for all if the wait has been worth it. If these three long years of ‘hiatus’ (has that word ever felt so bittersweet?) will be capped off with the greatest pop-payoff of recent times. Forget Take That, forget the Stone Roses – ‘The Return’ of Girls Aloud as the five-piece we fell in love with all those years ago will be a moment to cherish like no other. If anything else, it’ll probably generate more column inches – and for an act that always felt inextricably woven into the fabric of the British red-tops, that somehow feels rather apt.

Whether or not any newly recorded material lives up to the lofty highs of their pre-existing studio albums, there’ll be the sense of tying up unfinished business. When the group effectively ‘parted ways’ at the tail end of 2009, they were at their absolute peak. Cheryl was doing her thing on X Factor, affording the group the promotional platform to ensure they became a multi-platinum recording outfit to match their celebrity status. It felt like they couldn’t put a foot wrong. Three years on, with all five of the girls having nurtured their stardom and pursued individual projects like the shrewd business women they are, the thought of a reunited fivesome presents a fearsomely powerful prospect.

Everyone has that one band that meant something special to them when they were going through their ‘teenage period’. You know what we mean. The one you plaster posters of all over your walls. The one you memorise the lyrics to and fork out hundreds on to see every live date in their calendar. To us, that was Girls Aloud. These days, with the X Factor churning out a production line of identikit boybands - so plastic they might as well by wrapped in cellophane – the concept of devotion toward a pop group feels as if it’s been cheapened a little; become the kind of sniping, in-fighting tween phenomenon that doesn’t really do justice to the music itself, or the personas of the band as genuine identities. Girls Aloud were in many ways the last defenders of an older order of pop, one birthed before the cynicism of declining album sales. Now, wisened by ten years in the industry, it feels like they’re getting back together for sheer love of what they do. Because, frankly, going by how busy they’ve all kept themselves, they hardly need the money.

And the poignancy of that first love remains just as strong – no matter how long they’ve been away. Call it part of a well-established ‘comeback’ industry if you will, but there’s a reason why thousands flock to arenas to see their teenage sweethearts again. In times of recession and hardship, we turn to our idols for reassurance, comfort, the simple pleasures of a peerless back catalogue. If pop music is an escape, a fantasy, a beautifully painted fiction; then it’s one we find ourselves returning to again and again. Like Peter Pan flying over Neverland, there’s something about Girls Aloud’s music and its paeans to ‘No Good Advice’, ‘Love Machine’s and ‘Long Hot Summer’s that feels redolent of eternal youth; a feckless attitude of living in the moment and drinking every drop of enjoyment from life when you can.

A week or so ago, bright young things Little Mix debuted their new single. It’s called ‘DNA’ – and for all intents and purposes, it sounds quite a bit like a Girls Aloud song. There’s a lyric about biology, lots of synths, a weird choral bit in the middle-eight. A great pop tune by any mark, but it was a sign of just how embedded Girls Aloud have become in the fabric of contemporary British pop that on first hearing, we felt consumed by an overwhelming rush of nostalgia for just how good Girls Aloud could be at their best. Suddenly, those three years felt like an eternity.

The music industry, by its very nature, is littered with success stories – the kind of rags to riches turnarounds that keep successive generations of budding talent fired up and aiming for the stars. But if ever there was an opportunity to say fate played its part in fashioning a group, Girls Aloud would be the prime candidate. There’s just something about those five girls, Xenomana, and their resulting musical offspring that feels ‘right’ in a way only the greatest icons of pop-culture do.

Has any lyric summed up the juxtapositions, bright-lights glamour and machinations of the record industry better than ‘Untouchable’’s rightly hailed ‘Without any meaning we’re just skin and bone / Like beautiful robots dancing alone’. We think not. And when the comeback rolls round, Girls Aloud will be there, still beautiful, still dancing, alone on that pedestal they and Xenomania carved out for themselves, flicking the finger to the world below. And that’s the way it should always be.
Buried Treasures: The Kills

Buried Treasures: The Kills

The Kills are back with a newly-compiled rarities collection, looking back on their formative years and all the ‘Little Bastards’ they created along the way.

Rebel Girls: Big Joanie

Rebel Girls: Big Joanie

London punks Big Joanie have been tipped by every artist in the scene worth their salt. Now, it’s time for the wider world to get to know them, too.