a1 – Ready Or Not

Released: 8th November 1999

Writers: Ben Adams / Christian Ingebrigtsen / Mark Read / Paul Marazzi / Peter Cunnah

Peak position: #3

Chart run: 3-9-16-31-38-47-47-44-52-66-75

a1’s third single adopted the tried-and-tested formula of pairing an uptempo track with a ballad and releasing them as a double-A side just in time for Christmas.

The Christmas chart of 1999 was a significant one for several reasons. It was the first time since 1996 that the Spice Girls weren’t releasing a new single; therefore, the race to claim the Christmas #1 single was ostensibly wide open (although Westlife were pretty much a foregone conclusion by that point). However, beyond that, the occasion also presented a unique opportunity to appear in the final chart of the millennium. Hence, many pop acts staggered their singles throughout November and December, including a1. The double-A side Everytime/Ready Or Not arrived in early November despite being festive-themed (CD2 includes a cover of White Christmas). It also preceded the group’s debut album – Here We Come – offering a chance to showcase more of what they were about.

Except, a1’s early material arguably didn’t do that at all. The band – Paul Marazzi, Christian Ingebrigtsen, Mark Read and Ben Adams – are talented musicians who were heavily involved in songwriting. Yet, under the guidance of manager Tim Byrne, they launched with the uptempo singles Be The First To Believe and Summertime Of Our Lives, both of which were marketed in a way reminiscent of another act he’d formed: Steps. The brightly coordinated outfits and simple-to-follow dance routines helped a1 land two top-ten hits (the songs peaked at #6 and #5, respectively). Both are solid bubblegum pop songs suited to 1999 but which undersold the group’s talent, nonetheless. And, while Everytime offered a change of pace as a sweeping orchestral ballad, Ready Or Not stuck mainly to the blueprint of the preceding singles.

However, This time, the track is a retro-inspired pastiche; the twinkling production is paced to a metronomic beat filled with faintly dramatic disco strings. Yet, it also mixes those influences with more current (at the time) ones, most notably the refrain: “Could you love a boy like me tonight? Come on baby, won’t you take a bite?” which is filtered with robotic distortion. The combination works well, emanating a toe-tapping, feel-good vibe. Moreover, Ready Or Not feels immediately – reassuringly – familiar and accessible to as broad an audience as possible, making it perfect for the Christmas party season.

Some of the lyrics are unashamedly twee (“You’re straight from a movie, but baby, I’m not from Hollywood, by stealing your heart, I’ll be your Robin Hood”), but that fits coherently with the retro influences and the way a1 perform Ready Or Not. Each member of the group takes a lead across the two verses (Ben and Christian on the first, Paul and Mark on the second), giving an opportunity to show the individuality in their voices. At the same time, prominent backing vocals and harmonies sell a1 as a cohesive and capable quartet of singers. The more whimsical moments: “There’s magic within you, there’s magic in everything you do, magic me to the place where dreams come true”, are delivered with a wide-eyed, earnest sincerity that comes off as immensely charming and likeable.

What Ready Or Not shows is that even early on, a1’s songwriting had a strong pop sensibility. The immediately catchy chorus: “Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide from me, hide and seek, run away now, or stay now, ‘cos I’ll keep searching, I’ll keep searching for love”, is composed with deceptively skilful simplicity. It’s frivolously lightweight – certainly compared to some of their later material – but not lacking in any way. Indeed, given a1 were very much being marketed towards a bubblegum pop audience, everything about Ready Or Not is meticulously well-realised to meet that vision.

The accompanying music video leans into the song’s retro influences. It’s set in a present-day (by 1999 standards) nightspot where a1 are joined by a sizeable cast of 45 extras. After one of the revellers plays Ready Or Not on the jukebox, video screens placed around the room show black-and-white footage of the group – dressed uniformly in black tie – performing in a ’60s TV studio. The main focus is very much on the stylised sequences set in the past, which feature mic stands and an obligatory dance routine to accompany the chorus. That could easily have been adopted for the entirety. However, making the concept a video within a video is a smart idea. It creates a layer of self-awareness where a1 can play up a stereotypically old-fashioned boyband performance as intentionally tongue-in-cheek. While it’s likely much of the budget for the single went towards Everytime (filmed in the Sahara Desert), the treatment for Ready Or Not, though far less grand in scale, never comes across as an afterthought.

Everytime/Ready Or Not continued a1’s ascent up the charts, debuting at #3 and earning the group their first top-three hit. Total sales of 148,300 copies made it the 125th biggest-selling single of 1999 and, indeed, also the highest-seller from Here We Come. Thus, credit has to go to Columbia Records for how they executed the campaign because the album could not have been timed better. It subsequently debuted – and peaked – at #20 during the busy festive period when sales were traditionally much higher. And, while the album performed modestly, spending four weeks in the top 40, it was eventually certified Gold for sales of 100,000, which was enough to secure a follow-up.

A final single (Like A Rose) was released to conclude the album campaign, which further cemented a1’s success. Despite Ready Or Not being the biggest-selling single from Here We Come, it’s probably not among their most-remembered hits. Yet all that goes to show is what a solid foundation the group laid ahead of a second album that went bigger and better in almost every respect.

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