Released: 15th December 1997
Writers: Richard Burton / Bob Wainwright / Don Guinow
Peak position: #14
Chart run: 75-X-X-X-X-14-19-19-27-35-47-71
No Way No Way is one of the most notorious singles released during the bubblegum pop era in the late ‘90s. Was it an in-joke, the result of a record label bet? Or was it a genuine attempt to create a new pop group that went wildly awry?
As more and more record labels sought to capitalise on the growing dominance of bubblegum pop in the late ‘90s, finding an angle for each new act became vital. Vanilla were no exception to that rule, although the rumoured idea behind their inception – a bet between record label executives over who could score a hit with the most objectively rubbish group and song possible – was as unusual as it was dubious. It’s certainly true that a lot of money was being thrown around during this time, and decision-making became increasingly questionable (Fe-M@il’s Flee Fly Flo springs to mind). Yet, even an act like Girl Thing – whose launch was obscenely expensive – was created in good faith, and Vanilla pre-dated all of this by several years. So, back in 1997, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that a major label like EMI went to the time and effort of creating an intentionally naff group.
Whatever the thinking, there’s no doubt that the group – Frances Potter, Alison Potter, Alida Swart and Sharon Selby – had a distinctly rough-around-the-edges quality (though much of the commentary at the time was far more derogatory). However, giving them the benefit of the doubt, rather than being inherently bad, Vanilla appeared to exist as an example of what might happen if a label hired four aspiring pop stars and then didn’t bother developing the concept any further than that. The group were almost an antithesis to the slick, preened stage school personas that graced the pages of Smash Hits, instead representing a product that was comparatively raw and unpolished by late ‘90s standards.
Early on, Vanilla were informed that their first single was to be based around Piero Umiliani’s Mah Nà Mah Nà. The song peaked at #55 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969 (reaching #8 in the UK some eight years later), later gaining wider recognition as a musical accompaniment on The Benny Hill Show and – most famously – The Muppets, which it continues to be strongly associated with. The track remains woven into the public consciousness, having been consistently interpolated and licensed since its release. No Way No Way thus became the latest iteration. There was a novelty aspect to the single, something Vanilla were not immediately enamoured with. Still, they went with it, given many debut singles could be regarded as gimmicky; indeed, Aqua’s Barbie Girl and Steps’ 5,6,7,8 were both top 20 at the time.
The theory behind No Way No Way might not have been so preposterous, but the execution most certainly is, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Almost everything about it: the throbbing bassline that resembles a nauseating electro-belch, the shrill, grating Mah Nà Mah Nà instrumental riff or Vanilla’s flat vocals is presented in the least appealing way imaginable. Yet, despite all that, the song deserves some credit for so derisively flouting the strict – often unrealistic – conventions about how pop music should look and sound. Admittedly, it’s probably a stretch to consider No Way No Way satire; however, there must, at some stage, have been a decision for the track not even to begin to try and conform because it surely can’t have fallen so wide of the mark by accident…could it?
No Way No Way is spun from the same friendship-never-ends ethos as Wannabe: “We’re always together, never apart, sisters through and through; we’re only out for fun, to give the boys their run, we can get a kick out of you, boy”, which, in itself, is not a criticism since Vanilla weren’t the first or last girl group to do so. However, where the Spice Girls sold their message with infectious, rambunctious energy, the lyrics here are delivered in an aloof, matter-of-fact way that suggests any kinship between the group is grounded primarily in obligation. Similarly, a stilted spoken exchange during the middle eight: “D’you’ ear what that guy just said to me? Haha. Oh, don’t tell me, I could have any girl here, but it’s YOUR lucky night. No WAY! He said that to me last week. Well, actually, I think he’s kinda sweet…EURGH” is laughably void of chemistry, as though Vanilla are reading the words aloud for the first time.
Yet, there’s evidence of a better song hidden within. Novelty or otherwise, the refrain: “No way no way, mah-na mah-na, no way no way, mah-na mah-na, no way no way, mah-na mah-na, not today, don’t get fresh with me” is naggingly catchy and readily quotable for the market it was predominantly aimed at. Furthermore, a message around consent: “If you tempt with your charms, you can hold me in your arms, but if you force yourself on me, things are gonna get nasty” wrapped up in the pre-chorus is surprisingly profound, even if it’s dealt with in a throwaway manner. The subtle backing track that floats innocuously behind the verses is pleasantly dreamy, while the: “Ah-ah-ah”s during the pre-chorus are catchy and (almost) pass for tuneful. Even the playful: “We’re lookin’ for the guys who can take us to new highs” – punctuated with a cheekily whispered: “Sex appeal…intelligence too” – borders on charismatic. Looking further still, the Xenomania (yes, that Xenomania) remix shows how a more diligent production can work with the composite elements – which still are what they are – rather than exposing them at every stage. Thus, it’s hard not to conclude a certain degree of deliberate sabotage.
The music video for No Way No Way is, at least, consistent with whatever logic was guiding the strategy with Vanilla in as much as it’s a not-terrible concept, realised in a lacklustre fashion. Having the group frolic around a swimming pool in the sunshine is fine – if slightly ill-timed for a single being released in December – but the styling is unflattering, while the choreography looks like it’s being made up on the spot. Even the attempts at cinematography are amusingly hapless; a reflective glare from the water is frequently cast upon Vanilla’s faces, but it’s at the wrong angle since the pool is behind them. While the video is, in essence, no worse than the song, in hindsight, criticism of the group from a visual perspective was often much more demeaning. So, there is a sense that some of the creative choices made here were designed to encourage such responses, which wasn’t necessary when the song already provided more than enough ammo for critics without making it overly personal.
No Way No Way first appeared on the chart in November 1997, debuting at #75. That seems to be erroneous – perhaps caused by a change of release date and/or the single reaching retailers early – because five weeks later (certainly not enough time for a complete re-release to have been planned), the track re-entered and peaked at #14, spending five weeks in the top 40, three of them in the top 20. Whether that can be classed as a success depends entirely on the parameters for a song like this. If this were almost any other act on a major record label, EMI would probably have cause to be underwhelmed. But Vanilla were somewhat unique in that regard, and many people would – in fact – deem No Way No Way to have done far better than deserved. It did enough to earn the group a follow-up single, at least, which is more than many expected.
If No Way No Way was a joke, then it wasn’t a very funny one. If, however, this was a semi-serious attempt at launching a pop act, then the results are spectacularly farcical. The truth, ultimately, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Even if Vanilla were under the impression that the finished product would sound a little more…finished, there’s undoubtedly an element of them leaning into the performance. Either way, it’s best not to know. The fact that the mere existence of No Way No Way – let alone the group themselves – remains a baffling mystery is all part of the song’s enduring infamy, and long may it continue.