Released: 21st January 2002
Writers: Ben Adams / Paul Marazzi / Chris Porter / Rick Mitra
Peak position: #2
Chart run: 2-3-7-11-21-28-41-47-52-45-52-74
When an act announces their new album and describes it as “more mature”, alarm bells start to ring for even the most ardent pop fan. But that’s exactly the territory we found ourselves in with a1 as they geared up to release their third album Make It Good; opting to ditch the sound of their previous material in favour of something more organic. It was a road well-travelled by pop acts of the ‘90s – and one that rarely ended well.
Before that though, we had the first single from the album: Caught In The Middle. And if ever there was a glimmer of hope that a1 could pull off their reinvention as an adult contemporary act, then this was it.
Whilst the group had been heavily involved in writing the majority of singles released throughout their career, Caught In The Middle was the first that didn’t sound like it had been engineered to hit a series of predetermined audio cues – there’s no instrumental breakdown, no climactic rush of synths and no key-change. Instead, the song relies solely on the quality of the composition – and it doesn’t disappoint.
Opening with a driving guitar-strum melody that repeats throughout the verses, it’s immediately evident that a1 didn’t need the bells-and-whistles to deliver a solid pop song. Structurally, it still hits the marks of a traditional pop song – but the natural crescendos towards the chorus are achieved through the vocals, rather than a flourish of production trickery. And whilst the group had never really been known for their distinctive voices, on this track you start to hear the tones of the individual members – and they have a quality that amply holds the listener’s attention during the song’s less distinctive moments.
The crux of Caught In The Middle though is undoubtedly the chorus. It’s an absolute earworm that crucially retains a1’s pop sensibilities, with an immediately memorable melody that effortlessly flows from one line to the next. The immensely satisfying, singalong chorus seems so simple in its construction, you wonder how no-one had come up with it before. But therein lies the skill of a good songwriter: to make the complex seem incredibly simple. And that’s exactly what you have here. As radio-ready pop songs go, it could hardly have been more perfectly packaged.
Moving on she brings me brighter days
Thoughts of you are in my mind always
Like a memory that I can’t erase
It’s here to stay
The music video for Caught In The Middle, however, is where the transition to adulthood didn’t serve a1 so well. You can’t help but feel the director was probably handed a brief to portray the group as “serious artistes” and thus proceeded to hammer home the fact that they were all grown up now at every available opportunity. Looking more like a Hollister winter advertising campaign, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of solo shots featuring the individual members of the group gazing wistfully into the snowy landscape and emoting with fist-clenching intensity. If the intention was to sell the credentials of a1 as a band, separating them for the duration of the shoot and removing any sense of how they would function in this new light was a bizarre choice.
Despite misgivings over the visuals, Caught In The Middle was a solid chart hit for a1, peaking at #2 but spending longer in the top ten than either of their chart-toppers from 2000. It also garnered a reasonable amount of airplay in America – not enough to create any significant impact on the chart, but certainly more than they’d ever enjoyed before. And it went on to become a signature hit of sorts: although not an enduring act in terms of airplay, if you ever do hear an a1 track on UK radio, it’ll almost definitely be either this or Same Old Brand New You.
Not even the most pessimistic pop naysayer could deny Caught In The Middle. It was certainly a successful evolution, but overall one that still felt like it might yet be happening quicker than anyone (besides a1 themselves) really wanted…