Released: 14th January 2002
Writers: Andy Hill / Pete Sinfield
Peak position: #9
Chart run: 9-17-19-25-39-52-65-X-74
A well-timed cover version was the staple of any ‘90s/’00s pop group. Some were strokes of genius leading to unprecedented success (see: Tragedy by Steps), some were completely unnecessary (we’ll get onto Britney’s I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll at some point) whilst the majority functioned only to prop up a flagging album campaign – The Land Of Make Believe being the perfect example of this particular phenomenon.
allSTARS* had always felt like the product of a record label brainstorming session that went on a bit too long. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that 2002 was not the time to try and establish a Steps–S Club 7 hybrid (a five-piece group with a TV show) – Steps had just called it a day and S Club 7 were gearing up for the fourth season of their TV series. Essentially, the proverbial ship had sailed and was already making its return trip.
Nonetheless, despite having already released two (criminally) underperforming singles, Island Records seemed determined to make allSTARS* happen and the obvious next move was to source a cover version. Unfortunately, that pool was looking somewhat shallow after the preceding five years of pop activity and the end result was this: The Land Of Make Believe, a chart-topping single for Bucks Fizz 21 years previously.
Even by pop music’s unashamedly bonkers standards, this was a bizarre choice. Firstly, Bucks Fizz were (and still are) best known for the “skirt rip” at Eurovision. They enjoyed a lot of chart success in the ‘80s but very little of it permeated popular culture or provoked fond nostalgia, unlike the ‘90s resurgence of acts like ABBA and the Bee Gees. Secondly, the lyrics contain references that by 2002 had aged badly: Superman gets a namecheck, but the character’s most recent movie was likely older than the majority of the allSTARS* fanbase.
That’s not to say The Land Of Make Believe isn’t bloody enjoyable (otherwise why are we here?). It’s a very faithful retelling of the song but naturally beefs up the production values to ‘00s standards, indeed the original now sounds a little anaemic by comparison. In hindsight, the production is actually quite interesting because there’s a lot going on; the synth electric guitar riff still induces a feverish delirium (and awkward glances if you sing along to it in public). But check out the verses; there’s a squelchy, throbbing electro bassline bubbling away that has a lot more in common with the pop music of the future, rather than the past.
Despite its whimsical appearance, The Land Of Make Believe is – in reality – a bit grim and the allSTARS* version isn’t oblivious to that. Lyrics like: “Shadows, tapping at your window, ghostly voices whisper will you come and play” are buoyed by distorted shouts, creating an uneasy listening experience at times. That is no more evident than during the song’s spoken coda, which borders on terrifying.
I’ve got a friend who comes to tea,
And no-one else can see but me,
He came today,
But had to go,
To visit you?
You’ll never know
Obligingly, the accompanying music video is set within a circus – and not the jovial, fun-for-all-the-family kind. No, this one features stilt walkers and contortionists; it’s the sort you might expect to see in a budget horror movie, to the point where you spend the entire three and half minutes waiting for the ringmaster to start picking the group off one by one. The allSTARS* themselves even get involved in the magic – and you’d definitely chalk that up as a weird day at the office when one of your colleagues gets sawn in half. The music video does pop though, and there’s a moment during the middle-eight when the song and visuals work incredibly well together.
The Land Of Make Believe did serve its purpose for allSTARS* in that it gave them their first (and only) top ten single. It remains a bit of a curio though, given the tone and context of the song – you simply can’t ignore the fact that it was a second-hand effort and ultimately you were enjoying someone else’s memories. That said, it’s certainly a worthwhile track and production-wise much more forward-thinking than was immediately evident at the time and for which it’s ever been given credit.