Released: 29th April 2002
Writers: Cathy Dennis / Mike Percy / Tim Lever
Peak position: #19
Chart run: 19-43-75
For their fourth – and (spoiler) final – single, the allSTARS* ostensibly went down the route of maturing their sound. Which is to say, they gathered a team of songwriters with a proven track record and released their best single yet.
Despite achieving a long overdue top ten hit with The Land Of Make Believe, the pressure never seemed to relent for the allSTARS* as – once again – they found themselves in make-or-break territory. This time around, it was because Back When preceded the release of their self-titled debut album. If it was to have any hope of being a considerable success, then it needed another shot in the arm to galvanise sales. There was an unspoken understanding around Back When that if it didn’t reach the top ten, then the allSTARS* were in serious trouble. Mainly because they were playing their ace with a song written by Cathy Dennis, Mike Percy and Tim Lever, all of whom who had been instrumental in many of S Club 7’s biggest hits – although the only other song all three had collaborated on together was the S Club Juniors’ One Step Closer. Evidently, there was some hope that this could be the allSTARS* very own Never Had A Dream Come True (or even Two In A Million) moment. As an added contingency, the single was released as a double-A side with Going All The Way, taken from the Thunderpants movie soundtrack. And yes, that is exactly as it sounds, a film about a child with uncontrollable flatulence. Oh, the indignity.
While this was mooted as an attempt to move the allSTARS* in a more mature direction, that’s not really true. The only significant difference is that Back When is a song any major pop act of that era would have snapped up if they had half a chance, unlike Best Friends or Things That Go Bump In The Night, which – while varying degrees of brilliant – were more gimmicky. This, however, would be top quality by any other standard as the obligatory ballad/mid-tempo release from an album campaign.
Given the reliable consistency of the songwriting team, it’s little surprise that Back When is packed with hooks. Even so, there’s an embarrassment of riches on show here as the track hangs together with a gratifying, almost nursery rhyme-esque flow that feels soothingly familiar yet not so much that it’s a blatant copy of anything in particular. In the best way possible, every aspect of the track tugs on the pop sensibilities of the late ‘90s, like the gently emphasised pre-chorus which is crafted with utter perfection: “It’s your TOUCH, it’s your KISS, every NIGHT that I MISS; when the stars shine above, that’s when I miss your love, oh baby”. The shimmering, twinkling production is almost ethereal in its prettiness. It creates a sense of Back When having been composed and recorded while all involved were gazing wistfully into the night sky: “Staring at the moonlight just another lonely night, wishing you were back in my arms; underneath the starlight dreaming of another time, back when your sweet love was mine”.
Back When somehow manages to set a new bar for the dissonance between its melancholic lyrics and the remarkably upbeat way they’re performed. It was characteristic of the time, but even so, you’d struggle to find a more cheerful reading of such woe: “Can’t forget you, don’t you know that it’s tough, my head’s still aching and the pain is too much”. Yet, even though they’re pulling at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, the allSTARS*’s vocals are immensely likeable, brimming with warmth and personality. Their status as pop’s underdogs makes it impossible not to root for them. They deserved a big key change (which arrives with typically un-subtle inevitability); they deserved a song as good as Back When anddeserved to believe that this was going to be the single that changed everything. The palpable earnestness that the allSTARS* bring – particularly in some of the latter ad-libs – might not be the obvious or logical approach, but the end product would be far poorer without it.
The music video for Back When is every bit as stunning as the song itself. We find the allSTARS* in the obligatory setting for just about any ballad or mid-tempo at the time: an uber-modern, luxury apartment (or the set of one, at least). The shadowy colour palette is gorgeous and pulls out the nighttime theme of the lyrics with lots of twilight oranges and blues, while the group appear in various sequences where the action fast-forwards and rewinds around them. Photos uncrumple, vases un-smash, water pours backwards; it all looks really stylish and perfectly complements the track’s theme. Indeed, the video is so artistic it should be hung in a museum to be watched and enjoyed; it’s that effective. The only thing lacking here is any shots of the allSTARS* together; for all intents and purposes, this is a patchwork of solo shots, which wasn’t necessarily an issue in of itself. However, in hindsight, with this being their final single, it’s a shame that they aren’t seen together as a group for what would be the last time.
Alas, rather than Back When/Going All The Way asserting that the allSTARS* were a viable pop act, it merely underlined the uncertainty of their position. Having improved on their chart positions with each previous single, this one debuted and peaked at #19 in the UK, essentially putting the group back where they started a year earlier when Best Friends reached #20. It was perhaps the most unsatisfactory outcome that could befall a pop act. They didn’t spectacularly implode or see their popularity gradually diminish; instead, the allSTARS* essentially spent the best part of 12 months going around in a circle (although they did create the definitive Halloween anthem in the process, at least).
So, all eyes turned to the album where the group found themselves in an alarmingly similar situation to Scooch a few years earlier. Once again, a record label waited and waited to launch an album – missing the boat with the allSTARS*’s most successful single in the process – and ultimately had to press ahead in less-than-ideal circumstances. It was with grim inevitability that allSTARS* peaked at #43 and promptly marked the end for a group who had put their best foot forward every step of the way but just couldn’t catch a break. Fundamentally the more significant issue is that even if Back When had reached the top ten, releasing an album after four singles doesn’t leave room to extend the campaign much further than another one or two (at the very most), even in the best-case scenario.
The painstaking thing about the allSTARS* is that there was a good idea in there, somewhere. It wasn’t remotely unique, but it still had stacks of potential and a solid template to emulate. S Club 7 set the benchmark; their first three albums were neatly aligned to the respective series’ accompanying their release and contained (almost) all of the music featured within them. However, the synergy between allSTARS* and their TV show had more or less peeled apart by this point. There was two seasons worth of material from STARStreet, and while some of it appeared on their debut album, there was enough left over that a soundtrack was also planned for release. That never went ahead – for obvious reasons – but even if it had, what would it have achieved other than confuse the allSTARS* brand further by separating the music they recorded as a pop act from that which they performed as TV personalities? Somehow, the whole thing ended up feeling unnecessarily convoluted.
Yet, whether the allSTARS* concept genuinely had any mileage or not, one thing is for sure: Back When deserved so much better. It’s a brilliant track by any measure, and while it may not have been enough to change their fortunes so late in the album campaign, at the bare minimum, it should – unquestionably – have been the group’s biggest hit.