Released: 10th January 2005
Writers: Mark Topham / Karl Twigg
Peak position: #16
Chart run: 16-32-50
It came as a surprise to absolutely no-one that as 2005 dawned, Pop! were staring down the barrel of a make-or-break single. But if nothing else, they went out on top. Or, as close to the top as they were ever going to get.
You can only really admire the tenacity of Pete Waterman, who was almost single-handedly fighting the corner of pop music in the mid-’00s long after most other acts had packed up and gone home. His utopian vision of a mixed-gender pop group topping the charts was bold but futile. The moment had passed and even the most ardent fans of pop music had reluctantly accepted that things were shifting. R&B, indie and rock were growing in dominance and pop was an increasingly dirty word, as the genre tried to distance itself from the bubblegum sound of yesteryear. All of which was rather unfortunate for Pop!, for that was the very fibre of their DNA. If Steps had been ABBA on speed, then Pop! were Steps on speed; their first two singles drew immediate – and obvious – influences, albeit as a hi-NRG take on the template. Neither track managed to crack the top ten, which left the group needing to pull something out of the bag for their third single. And that’s the real shame with Serious, for the odds were so stacked against Pop! that there was a sense of inevitability about whatever they did next. But if anything was going to change their fortunes, then this was it.
The track is a rather dramatic change of pace, but probably the sort of thing the group should have been doing to start with. Of course, as with any new single from a mixed-gender act, we must start by comparing it to other headline acts. But with Serious, there is no immediately obvious parallel to draw. At a stretch, it could just about be a distant relative of S Club’s Seeing Double album, if you require a reference point. Unlike the previous singles, which were more suited to high-intensity aerobics, this is a slightly mellower effort, which sits in that grey area somewhere between mid-tempo and uptempo.
The production is a veritable cacophony of sounds from the outset; Serious opens with a jangly, shimmering synth melody, which eschews that same, timeless ABBA-esque quality that Pete Waterman was so good at emulating. It never quite becomes a prominent feature of the track, though. Instead, Serious opts for distorted sirens and scratchy keyboard riffs that give it a dramatic neon-infused late ‘80s/early ‘90s flavour. Maybe it’s just the association with the video (and that eye-catching single cover), but it feels like the sort of track that could have popped up in Baywatch. This track is big. It’s bold. And it’s a playful pastiche that stays on the right side of parody. Indeed, all of the elements together give Serious an almost tropical-pop vibe. Well, if you’re going to arrive late to jump on one bandwagon, you may as well board the next one early.
What is also striking about the track is the vocals. By this point, it was commonly accepted – although not entirely true – that most mixed-gender pop acts had one lead and the rest of the group would prop them up as and when required. Pop!’s first two releases seemed to apply that logic a little too literally; they’re brilliantly performed but could have been solo singles. That is not true here; Jade McGuire and Jamie Tinkler share the lead and sing together as opposed to just taking it in turns, which isn’t commonplace within the genre. Serious is a track that utilises the components of the act that will be singing it and is all the better for it. Special mention to Jamie downheartedly replying: “Hey…” to his statement of: “I used to see you on the street” at the start of the second verse. Brilliant.
In case you weren’t aware that Serious was a make-or-break release for Pop!, the music video puts it beyond any shadow of a doubt. It’s slightly frustrating that the label waited until this point to try and construct a proper identity for the group, but at least they did get their moment. The video looks great and puts its best foot forward by opening with gratuitous shorts of Glenn Ball in tight black shorts. The general narrative is slightly vague, but there’s a bit of undercover action going on, which sees Pop! involved in a high-speed car chase. It ends at a casino, where the group use their collective hustle skills to get their hands on a wad of cash. It’s interspersed with some neat moving cutaways featuring silhouettes, full-body shots and close-ups of the individual members. It’s all a bit style over substance, but arguably that’s what needed to happen here. It’s a snazzy package; the video is bright, it’s eye-catching and, did we mention, it features Glenn Ball in tight black shorts.
Considering Serious was Pop!’s final single, we barely need to say that it wasn’t the breakthrough hit that they needed. But actually, it did mark a reversal in their fortunes, to some extent. The track peaked at #16, a significant improvement on their previous release. It was also their first single to spend more than a week in the Top 40. But this was all clutching at straws; the simple fact is that there was just no place for an act like Pop! anymore, through absolutely no fault of the group themselves. If a measure of success is that a single can spend a fortnight in the chart, then it would take a shedload of optimism – if not delusion – and a bottomless pot of money to make Pop! a viable commodity for the record label.
And that’s the real same about Serious because it’s a superb little pop song. But the group was swimming against the tide. In tight black Speedos, apparently. Having made it this far, we held onto the hope that we’d at least hear Pop!’s debut album, which was desperately needed during the bleak mid-‘00s. Alas, it was cancelled along with their planned fourth single (a cover of Xanadu, no less) and just like that, they were gone. If ever there was an appropriate metaphor for the year ahead, where single sales plummeted while indie acts (and Elvis Presley) swarmed to the top spot, then Pop!’s demise was it…