Thursday, 11 March 2010

Sugababes — a band or a brand?

Sugababes — a band or a brand?

The current Sugababes lineup: Heidi Range, Amelle Berrabah and Jade Ewen
Pete Paphides 4 Comments
Recommend? What makes a band? It’s a small question, but, in Mike’s Café in Portobello, the feelings it uncorks are anything but small. Ron Tom, the producer and songwriter behind the original lineup of Sugababes, is talking about the part he played in creating the band that, on Monday, releases its latest album. Sweet 7 is the seventh by Sugababes — although, since Keisha Buchanan was replaced by the former Eurovision entrant Jade Ewen last year, the line-up features no survivors from the one that released One Touch, their debut album, in 2001.

Tom may describe himself as “the Suga Daddy”, but the 47-year-old has, he says, been a mere spectator of the group’s latest line-up changes. “It’s a personal thing,” he says. “I’ve been working with Siobhán [Donaghy] and Mutya [Buena] since they were 9 and 11 respectively. Keisha and Mutya were best friends since they were 5 — I helped to put them through school. The three of them : that was the sound. Even after Siobhan was replaced by Heidi [Range] it still sounded like Sugababes.”

Tom’s sadness at what Sugababes have turned into seems to be shared by Buena. The singer, who left in 2006, recently wrote on Twitter: “It all started so innocently ... a love for music and a dream. Look what it’s become.” A legal firm representing her has since applied to the European Trademarks Authority for the right to use the Sugababes name.

If you thought that the personnel developments of the group known for hits such as Freak Like Me and Push the Button had become a little messy, an hour with Tom leaves you thinking that you might not have witnessed the half of it. With litigation over the ownership of the name pending, Tom — godfather to Buena’s child — chooses his words carefully.

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Sugababes were his brainchild, he says — a “younger, fresher” version of All Saints, whose original line-up he also put together. The sonic blueprint established by Sugababes’ debut single Overload yielded immediate results — a Top Five hit in 2000. Not least for the uncoached air of teenage testiness that seemed so refreshing in a post-Spice Girls world, critical acclaim chimed with commercial success.

Tom’s case appears to be strong in one sense. Two thirds of the most successful Sugababes line-up — the one that scored four No 1s between 2002 and 2005 — dates back to his period of involvement. If he is once again in dialogue with the three original singers of an imprint that he originated, could he — or Buena, whose application seems to have his blessing — really be denied the name?

If it sounds messy, says Leslie de Chernatony, “it’s because a name has powerful associations”. The honorary professor of brand marketing at Birmingham Business School, de Chernatony has a well-developed understanding of what is at stake here. A band name isn’t just a band name — it’s a brand. And a brand, de Chernatony says, “is nothing more than a cluster of functional and emotional values”.

The humbling news for Stereophonics, Dave Matthews, Dire Straits and every other self-styled sweat-of-my-honest- brow rock artisan is that “the functional values [the songs] can be replicated. Emotional value, however, is the bit that’s more difficult to copy.”

De Chernatony argues that too many changes in too short a time erode the emotional value. Find yourself invested in the ongoing narrative of a group who have lost a key member and you instinctively will them to rally. It happened with Pink Floyd following the departures of Syd Barrett and Roger Waters. Waters may have written and sung most of the songs, but he didn’t bank on the emotional clout of the Floyd brand. Could it also happen with Britain’s second-biggest female vocal group of the past decade? When we watch the current line-up of Sugababes singing Freak Like Me — a record that two of them had no part in making — will we care?

That said, to a certain sort of music fan it doesn’t matter who is in the band at all. The day Damon Albarn realised that was the case was the day that the possibility of cracking America — something that Blur never quite managed — became a possibility for Albarn’s animated group Gorillaz (12 million albums sold and a new one, Plastic Beach, just released). “There are 13-year-old Gorillaz fans who haven’t got the foggiest idea who Jamie [Hewlett, the visual arm of the project] and I are,” Albarn says. “The band is the band that you see in the videos and the artwork.You could have a Gorillaz show without Jamie and me.”

Just as you could have a Girls Aloud show without the production team responsible for all their hits? “Well yes. It’s about the sound, isn’t it? Within the general sound of Gorillaz a lot of things are possible — different vocalists, etc — and it still sounds like a Gorillaz song.”

On the seventh floor of the Grosvenor House hotel, Duke Fakir, of the Four Tops, tells a story about a visit his group made to Britain five years ago. “We were being interviewed on some show,” says Fakir, now 72, “and they had a viewer phone in to say that we were imposters — she had seen us a few weeks previously at a Spanish resort and there was no way we were the same group. We spent $100,000 (£66,000) taking the bogus group to court. It was money that we never got back, because they didn’t have it.”

Fakir might feel that bogus versions of his group “are taking food from our table”, but in 2010 he is the sole surviving member of the group who recorded Reach Out I’ll Be There, The Same Old Song and I Can’t Help Myself. When his group and the Temptations — who also boast only one original singer in Otis Williams — start their forthcoming joint British tour, will they be so different from the tribute groups making money from the goodwill accrued by their back catalogues? Fakir believes so. Furthermore, he sees Laurence Payton Jr — the son of a founding Four Tops singer — as the heir to the group’s legacy. He says his “dream” is to see it continue.

Seated beside him, Williams nods effusively. “I would equate the Temptations and the Four Tops with Kellogg’s or Coca-Cola. They’re great American brands, and you have a duty to make sure that people get a standard of quality that you would associate with that brand.”

Could this latest version of the Four Tops ever sound as magnificent as the one in which Levi Stubbs lit the emotional touch paper to the words of Eddie Holland? Perhaps not. So why is it OK by me for them to continue, when the continuation of Sugababes’ current line-up leaves me indifferent?

De Chernatony thinks that it might have something to do with the fact that we can stomach only a certain number of changes over a particular time-frame. “What you have seen with the Four Tops and the Temptations is a brand that has evolved, and the generation that grew up with them has maintained a relationship with them. It’s an amoeba that has changed its shape beautifully.”

Fifty years from now, will the authenticity of a fourth-generation Four Tops be an issue? If no one remembers the original Led Zeppelin, will a tribute version be deemed inferior to the real thing? The composer and pianist Stephen Hough points out that we don’t hold classical music to account in the same way. “In the time of Chopin composers and performers were one and the same. No one had a career just playing other people’s music. They gave concerts to showcase their own. But during the 19th century, as more and more music had been written down and more public concerts were taking place, things changed. In the early 20th century a reverse trend set in. Now few performers compose and vice versa.”

At the beginning of the 21st century a similar transition may be happening. Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus makes the salient if self-deprecating point that his group’s continuing appeal is predicated on “a memory people have of the Seventies that doesn’t correspond entirely to our music”. It’s this view that has informed Ulvaeus’s long-held insistence that anyone keen to see Abba in their prime would be better off going to see a tribute band.

As for Sugababes, with no one singer or songwriter binding together their different incarnations it’s unclear rwhat they stand for. But if their creator has his way, that may yet change. “This was never a manufactured act. We’re talking about three girls that grew up together,” Tom says with an air of finality. Be that as it may, the fact remains that each party has something that the other sorely needs. Two thirds of the most recognisable Sugababes are free to work together again. Does it follow, though, that they’ll get the name? Tom describes a reunion of the original line-up as “inevitable”. What might constitute an appropriate stage for the reunited Sugababes is another matter. At this rate, the courts look a likely bet.

The Four Tops, the Temptations, the Drifters and the Three Degrees tour from March 14-26 (; Sweet 7 is released on Monday by Universal; Plastic Beach is out on Parlophone

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