Released: 21st June 1999
Writers: Peter Cunnah / Ben Adams / Christian Ingebrigtsen / Paul Marazzi / Mark Read
Peak position: #6
Chart run: 6-17-19-27-37-45-54-63-68
As debut singles go, Be The First To Believe was an intriguing premise, with a title that sounds more like a tagline created to give a1 an air of mystique than it does a song lyric…
a1 got an early break as a support act for Steps in 1999, and while at first glance the two acts didn’t appear to have an awful lot in common, there was a significant link between them: Tim Byrne. During the time he helped put Steps together, one Paul Marazzi had auditioned for the group but failed to make the cut. It’s no coincidence that when the time came for Tim Byrne to look at forming a new boyband, Paul was hastily recruited and later joined by Ben Adams, Mark Read and Christian Ingebrigtsen. a1 were born, and when it comes to their debut single, in particular, it’s hard to ignore that it recycles and reuses some elements of Steps’ early career. Even if by pure coincidence.
There aren’t many pop songs that knowingly opt not to put their best foot forward, but that is true of Be The First To Believe, and it seems deliberate. The track belies a1’s considerable talent as musicians. Indeed, it was that which allowed them to competently evolve with pop music as it moved towards a more organic sound in the early ‘00s. But here, none of that is evident whatsoever, and arguably it wasn’t important in mid-1999. Instead, Be The First To Believe is primarily concerned with establishing a1 as a boyband that could keep pace with their local pop peers. And in that respect, it does rather well.
What is immediately evident from Be The First To Believe is how well put together a1 were. Sure, there are the usual boyband tropes: Ben with his cheeky smile and curtains or Mark with his lean, toned physique (flaunted within the first 20 seconds of the video). But there isn’t one member immediately nominated to do the heavy lifting in terms of vocals. This is very much a group effort and with just about enough distinction between their voices to lend some varied tones to the track. And although you don’t feel any vocal enhancement was required here, Be The First To Believe still gets treated to a smattering of distortion. The vocoder effect is duly applied with aplomb to the: “It’s magic when you hypnotise” line during the second verse in suitably non-subtle fashion.
But actually, Be The First To Believe doesn’t need any production gimmicks to elevate it; the song does that itself with a great transition into the chorus. The: “Believe in me baby” hook is a total rush and, arguably, teases much more than it delivers. The cries of: “You got to believe!” are delivered with appropriate vigour and enthusiasm; but a1 quickly demonstrated they’d much more to their songwriting talent than this, so represents something of a formative effort (there is a compliment in there…), even if it was early days.
The music video for Be The First To Believe is where the Steps connection becomes more apparent. The: “Just one on one, that’s the way we do it baby, just one on one, that’s the way we do it” hook is accompanied by a dance move that seems intended to sit within the same realm as One For Sorrow. As a1 established their own identity, this particular aspect of the group was rapidly abandoned in favour of dance routines that weren’t explicitly choreographed to be mimicked. Easily the most puzzlingly entertaining shots of the video, however, are those that see the group using some sort of magic power (activated by performing their “one on one” dance routine, naturally) to improve the lives of the civilians they come across. At first glance – and certainly, by ’90s standards – there’s nothing to question. But, in hindsight, it doesn’t seem to do much more than give the recipient a change of clothes so that they can go and watch a1 perform at sunset where the dress code was – evidently – very strict.
Overall, Be The First To Believe isn’t a bad pop song by any means; it’s perfectly competent as debut singles go. But a1 were much more than just a competent pop act, and in that sense, it does feel lightweight when compared to the material that followed afterwards. The single debuted at #6 and went on to sell 139,100 copies, making it the 133rd biggest hit of 1999. In the grand scheme of things, this is most certainly one of the more enjoyably disposable singles a1 released, and even so, is saved from being totally forgettable by the group themselves, who elevate it.
If you weren’t a definite believer in a1 after this single, there was enough here to create a natural curiosity. With the charts full to the brim and close to bursting with pop acts, that was success enough, for now.