Released: 13th January 2003
Writers: David Sneddon
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-1-3-8-10-20-26-30-35-46-54-52-56-48-36-58-68-74
David Sneddon was an early TV talent show winner when the genre was measurably impacting the chart while still finding its feet as a format. Stop Living The Lie is an oft-forgotten relic of that era, but quite possibly one of the best singles to emerge from it.
Fame Academy was the BBC’s attempt to cash-in on the reality TV craze by merging several popular concepts into one. It was part-Big Brother, featuring 12 contestants inducted into the ‘Academy’ with cameras following their every move, and part Pop Idol as they were whittled down week-by-week via public vote. The show probably didn’t need to be any more complicated than that, but took the school-theme even further by having the judges – Carrie Grant, David Grant and Robin Gibb – as teachers, overseen by Richard Park as the headmaster. They would pick three contestants (or ‘students’) to put on probation and sing in the live shows, with the public saving one and their peers deciding who should leave. All of these elements – including roping in pop acts as guest teachers in exchange for promoting their latest release – would feature on other formats, so in some ways Fame Academy was groundbreaking. But in truth, it seemed slightly convoluted, tried to be too many things to too many people and required a significant commitment from the audience, with content screening across BBC One, BBC Choice, BBC Prime, BBCi, CBBC and Freeview.
Fundamentally, what Fame Academy’s wanted to do was move away from the Popstars/Pop Idol format, which was more akin to a karaoke competition with a predetermined prize. Instead, the focus was on diversity and nurturing talent, with each student given a musical education and encouraged to develop their own singing and songwriting style. The immediate outcome of the show was, however, the same. After ten weeks, David Sneddon was crowned victorious and released his debut single Stop Living The Lie. However, it was not a cover version, and Fame Academy remains one of the few TV talent shows to culminate with a completely self-penned winner’s single.
Fortunately, as a piano-playing singer-songwriter, David Sneddon’s material lent itself well to the growing trend of using lighters-in-the-air ballads as the ceremonial chart inauguration. And certainly, Stop Living The Lie hits many of the right beats (the keyboard-synth line is gorgeous), which justifies the show’s premise in giving accomplished musicians a foot up. But it does so while staying true to the authenticity it was supposed to represent. It’s a love song – albeit a desperately bleak one – but there are also parallels which convey the experience of many musicians struggling to break into the industry: “And he’s tumbling into his thoughts, his memories are all tied in knots, who is going to save him, no-one wants to know him”.
This was an era of the charts where the image of artists sitting in their bedrooms scribbling down autobiographical lyrics became increasingly favoured, which is probably why Stop Living The Lie wasn’t immediately workshopped by a host of co-writers before being released. At times, it’s a little clunky: “He sits alone and looks up to the eyes of an angel, she catches him staring and smiles the smile of an angel”; but that roughness is all part of the charm and what sets it apart from something like Will Young’s Evergreen. It also takes an absolute age – well, a minute and a half, at least – to reach the first chorus; and there are only two in the song.
The slow-burn is so worth the wait, though. The soaring: “I can’t believe that you’d pull on a sleeve when you cry, you stick in the knife then give the kiss of life, live the lie…” melody is every bit as triumphantly rousing as the occasion demands. Despite threatening to, Stop Living The Lie never tips over into becoming an overblown cliché; the backing vocals and twinkling piano riffs remain firmly in check. It’s not often we subscribe to the notion that less is more, but it’s true in this case. The track manages to function both as a winner’s single and as a believable product of David Sneddon’s journey.
Visually there are no surprises with Stop Living The Lie, other than the fact that so much effort appears to have gone into wiping the video from existence on YouTube. It is what it is: a nicely shot performance of the song that was assembled reasonably quickly to accompany the release of the single. It’s not a bad effort within the TV talent show realm, in part because many of the critical elements would probably have remained much the same in an entirely different context. The only parts that look slightly awkward are David Sneddon performing at a microphone stand in front of a scenic backdrop. Fame Academy had gone to painstaking lengths to firmly assert that it was launching an artist, not a ‘pop star’, so the inclusion of anything that suggested otherwise was entirely superfluous here.
With so much invested in the show, the BBC had set high expectations for Fame Academy; alas, it was plagued by reports of disappointing viewing figures. The final was watched by 6.5 million viewers, which is huge by today’s standards but way down on the 13.34 million who watched the final of Pop Idol. This set a bit of a precedent for the BBC, who have never had the best of luck with their TV talent shows translating to chart success. But David Sneddon is an exception to the rule, because Stop Living The Lie had one of the best first-week sales of 2003, shifting 108,312 copies to debut at #1, where it remained for a fortnight. There’s no doubt the track was helped along by the fact that such was the demand for reality TV at this point, even a show considered to have underperformed was still watched by an audience big enough to make a sizeable impact on the chart. But it wasn’t solely down to that; this is an excellent ballad with all the elements – including the slight imperfections – which appealed to the market at this point.
Like many TV talent show alumni, David Sneddon’s debut single was his biggest hit by a considerable distance. But despite his success being confined to 2003, the fact that he was so quickly able to release a debut album where he wrote or co-wrote every song is a freedom that many other artists in a similar situation would look enviously upon.