Released: 2nd October 2000
Writers: Sean Phillips / Tom Chester
Peak position: #16
Chart run: 16-29-41-54-74
As bubblegum pop trundled into the new millennium, no subject matter – from the outlandish to the everyday – was out of bounds as the relentless flurry of new acts continued in their attempt to crack the charts. But how do you write a three and a half-minute pop song about a hot beverage? Easy, gather together every known double-entendre and create one of the most salacious tracks of the era.
If Coffee was never really about the drink, then Supersister themselves were never really the focus of their debut single. The trio was formed with the back-story of Eleanor and Tina having started a band when they were kids and then meeting Louise while working in promotions and travelling from Sheffield to Norwich. With such banal detail, this was a group who clearly knew they were going to encounter the critical snobbery projected towards any manufactured pop act at the time. And a song like Coffee was the perfect target for people who claimed that pop music was becoming increasingly derivative.
But such a dismissive view fails to contemplate that not all acts were created and launched with the same intention. Of course, chart success was a common goal for any single, but was there any real long-term ambition with Supersister? Of course not. This is a classic case of having a great pop song first and working backwards to find a group who could perform it. Coffee was well-timed, reading like the musical script from a low brow episode of Sex and the City but arriving during a period where pop music was broadly tarred with the same brush of being innocuously inoffensive. Moreover, while tea might be the staple quaintly British tradition, coffee was much cooler, which gave Supersister their edge.
It’s probably a good thing that nobody was really scrutinising the content too closely because this song is absolute filth. The central analogy is inoffensive enough: “I like my men like I like my coffee, hot, strong and sweet like toffee, oh, so you know that I can’t let you go”. That’s it. That’s the gimmick right there. And the remainder of the track is built around that same theme. It’s probably fair to say that Supersister’s target audience would have taken the more adult references at face value as a commitment to the caffeine metaphor. But in hindsight, it’s difficult to believe that lyrics like: “Then in popped my lover, I pulled back the covers, ‘cos I like my coffee with cream” and: “Then I felt a stirring deep inside (you stir me up inside), fill my cup (fill my cup) ‘til it’s flowing down the side” didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow.
Even though Coffee has a one-track mind and doesn’t miss an opportunity to strike a suggestive tone, what saves the song from turning into a kitsch one-trick pony is that it also takes the time to build a decent production around its suggestive musings. This is frothy pop music of the highest order. The track zips along at a rate of knots with its pseudo-disco beat and growled vocals. Supersister never take themselves seriously (how could they?) but they treat the whole thing seriously enough to ensure that Coffee – while shamelessly superficial – never short-changes its audience.
Indeed, there’s even a slightly unexpected bossa nova-flamenco turn thrown in for good measure during the middle-eight, where the group ruminate: “Men like my coffee, really turn me on…” – which probably isn’t meant quite as it sounds. We all love a coffee, but not that much. There’s no shift in lyrical tone as such, but the slightly sultry delivery and the sheer ludicrousness of: “…Sometimes espresso, sometimes he’s too strong; then there’s Costa Rican, mellow but he’s rich, but never give me instant, ‘cos baby, he’s too quick” is delivered with such panache. It’s almost Geri Halliwell-esque in its quirky brilliance.
The music video for Coffee is the point at which the intention for Supersister becomes crystal clear. For yes, it’s a lot of fun and was clearly never going to be one that strove to make a profound point of its subject matter. As a whole, the visuals look costly. However, the extravagance is unevenly distributed, which benefits the start of the video – think azure skies, infinity pools, yachts – but leaves the rest appearing a little more modest. It’s an unusual sequence of events for a pop video since they usually work in the other direction. There’s a creative use of close-ups and dim lighting during the latter half to conceal the fact that Coffee moves in a different direction. As an accompaniment to the song, it’s perfectly functional as a one-off venture. But in a post-Spice Girls world, there’s no real attempt to structure any personality around the individual members of Supersister that they could build on with subsequent singles. Indeed, at times the video is backwards in the way that it frames the group (shots of Louise in her office are not exactly the most flattering portrayal of a woman in the workplace). However much Supersister commit to the performance, it consistently feels like the overall aim was to sell the track – which is probably true – with any longer-term vision for the group left as an after-thought.
Coffee peaked at #16 in the UK, which feels like a fair result. It was big enough to ensure the track earned its dues, but not so successful that it put Supersister on a par with the pop heavyweights who were dominating the charts at the time. It was a performance that allowed the single to be a fun, frivolous endeavour without putting it in a position where anyone was seriously expecting a follow-up to deliver anything more substantial. All things considered, it didn’t necessarily feel like a second single was even planned, such is the sense that it felt like Supersister had achieved precisely what they set out to and had wholly served their purpose with Coffee.
However, if there was one thing you could rely on in the ‘90s/’00s, it was for record labels to bleed a concept dry; just a few months later the group returned with the similarly-conceived follow-up Shopping.