Hear’Say – Pure and Simple

Released: 12th March 2001

Writers: Tim Hawes / Pete Kirtley / Alison Clarkson

Peak position: #1

Chart run: 1-1-1-3-5-12-20-24-26-28-35-38-41-44-48-53-50-52-42-36-36-49-64-66-67

At some point, we had to get there: Hear’Say. The first major winners of the TV talent show phenomenon that swept the ‘00s. It was a watershed moment for pop music as the inner workings of the industry played out on camera, which wasn’t always easy to watch.

Direct comparisons with subsequent TV talent shows – even Popstars: The Rivals – are largely trivial since the original Popstars was markedly different from everything else that followed. It was primarily an exposé of the pop industry, documenting the formation of a new pop group from auditions through to releasing their debut single. The process was presented in a glamorised format that made it compulsive Saturday night viewing on ITV; but there were no sing-offs, no established singers on the judging panel and no live vote. The drama instead came from the brutality of the inner workings of the pop machine, such as Kym Marsh hiding the fact she had two kids in order to be considered for the group, and then later being told she needed to lose weight. No-one had failed to notice that the industry had very strict ideals when it came to pop stars; nonetheless, it was uncomfortable to see them enforced in such an unapologetic and uncompromising manner.

As weeks went by and the Popstars contestants were whittled down to form the act known as Hear’Say, attention started to turn to the group’s eventual debut single. The challenge of translating viewing figures into sales figures was fairly unprecedented territory at this point. And although it soon become customary for TV talent show winner’s singles to be ballads, that wasn’t the case here. Enter Pure and Simple.

An original song (albeit one previously recorded by the group Girl Thing, who had been dropped just months previously), it was perhaps inevitable that the excitement and furore surrounding the newly formed Hear’Say eclipsed any discussion over the merits of the track itself. Which is a shame because Pure and Simple is a brilliant song. It’s a slightly more demure take on pop music, but that’s unsurprising given Hear’Say had to cater to a much wider audience than their peers. The jaunty mid-tempo beat is tinged with traces of R&B, giving the song an immediate edge in its presence. There’s perhaps a sense that the producers weren’t ever in a position to rely on the strength of the song alone because the beat is joined by a plethora of sound effects, as if someone was mashing the SFX button on the mixing desk for the duration of the song.

You’ve been sayin’ I’m drivin’ you crazy
And I haven’t been around for you lately
But I had a few things on my mind

If anything, the production gimmicks serve as more of a distraction than anything else, because Pure and Simple has exactly the kind of rousing, power-pop chorus that a song of its ilk needed. If performed at the climax of a live televote, the track would deliver a spine-tingling rush as the key-change hit and confetti poured from the ceiling. Even without the pomp and ceremony of a grand finale, this was still a fist-pumping triumph.

Vocally, Pure and Simple is fairly rough around the edges; there’s a definite sense that Hear’Say hadn’t quite settled into their group dynamic, which is understandable given they went through the whole formation process at double-speed. Nonetheless, there are still times when it sounds like five people doing a solo audition within one song and the attempts at harmonising (Noel and Kym during the second verse, for example) don’t really work. That said, the vocal discord works well in the chorus with the “Yeah yeah” and “I’m always gonna be there” chants. The intention was probably not for Hear’Say to sound like a rabble, but in this instance, it gives the main body of the chorus a catchy, singalong response.

The music video is standard fare in terms of talent show winners’ singles in that it’s essentially a performance of the song in a generic studio set – or in this case, a very flammable warehouse. It’s marginally better than the montage videos given to X Factor winners but considering Hear’Say had a longer turnaround time for their single, that’s not really a compliment. There are some nice shots – like the group silhouetted against a shower of sparks – but the majority of the video seems more concerned with using rapid jump-cuts to disguise the fact that after months of watching the formation of a pop group, they’re not quite yet an all-singing, all-dancing quintet. Instead, they still appear as five individuals who would probably not have come together under any other circumstance.

It was a given that Pure and Simple would reach #1, such was the intense coverage on Hear’Say and the single. The only real question was by what margin: a record-breaking (at the time) 550,000 sales, as it turns out. The moment the single topped the chart also doubled as the culmination of Popstars, in a live episode presented by Davina McCall. Of course, given the single had been smashing sales records all week, the moment everyone stood around nervously awaiting the announcement feels more than a little staged (if nothing else it gave Kym Marsh an early opportunity to showcase her acting skills). But it was a necessary moment to complete the narrative of Popstars.

Pure and Simple remained at #1 for three weeks, eventually selling over a million copies and winding up the 9th biggest single of the ‘00s. It was also later joined by the album Popstars, making Hear’Say the first group to simultaneously top the chart with their debut releases. And so, the entertainment industry now knew how to turn a TV ratings juggernaut into a chart-dominating pop act. The only problem would be what on earth to do with them next…

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