12 February 2005
In the future I will be able to tell my grandchildren that I once saw the Spice Girls in concert. They will look up at me, cheeks gleaming, in their tracksuits and Union Jack mini-dresses (for by then the third Spice Girls revival will be in full swing), and for a moment I won’t be just some gnomic old codger but a man who was there when pop history was being made.
The Spice Girls put on a terrific show, and when my glowing review appeared in the Guardian, I got a heartwarming email from their agent telling me how they had all read the review in their dressing room, and how delighted they were to be praised by a newspaper that, for some reason, they normally associated with a sneering attitude to their work. I like to think that, in a small way, I touched the Spice Girls’ lives.
And here is a whole book that celebrates them. Pop critic David Sinclair tells the entire entertaining story, from the first auditions held by father-and-son management team Bob and Chris Herbert (“‘Here’s some expenses. Find some girls,’ Bob told Chris, which must rank as one of the more agreeable tasks a 23-year-old man might expect to be saddled with by his father”), through global celebrity, meetings with Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela, the (excellent) Spice Girls movie, and then the breakup, yoga videos, Becks and Rebecca Loos, and Emma Bunton’s agreeable reinvention as a swinging lounge act.
Rightly, Sinclair is keen to puncture assumptions that the Spice Girls were talentless automata: they could sing, and had a hand in the writing of many of their hits. However, his chivalry leads him, over the course of the book, to make somewhat inflated claims. Did the Spice Girls really “usher in a global renaissance in pop”? Will their music eventually be regarded in the same light as the glistening oeuvre of Abba? Was the “girl power philosophy”, to which Sinclair makes a valiant attempt to add some depth, really a fully fledged system of thinking about the world? (According to one anecdote here, girl power can mean photocopying your tits to get an A&R guy’s attention.)
Sinclair also occasionally betrays a somewhat Alan Partridge tone, as when he explains, of Paul Hardcastle’s 1980s hit “19″, that “Apparently 19 was the average age of the soldiers serving in that brutal theatre of conflict”, or reaches easily for AM-radio clichés such as “the coveted number-one slot”. Still, he disarmingly confesses his motivations: the epiphany came when he had his photo taken with the Girls in Dublin in 1998. “They all huddled around me. Victoria put her hand on my right shoulder and Emma gently pushed her breast into my left arm… I think that moment could be the reason I ended up writing this book.” Yes, it could be, couldn’t it? You have to love that “gently”.
But Sinclair succeeds so well in his portrayal of his mischievous, funny and clever subjects that you cheer them on. Especially when they decide to sack their manager, later Pop Idol impresario Simon Fuller, after he refuses to give them a week off. Curiously, Sinclair treats Fuller, a man memorably described by Paul Morley as a “death dwarf”, with reverence, apparently taking him at his own evaluation: “Critics probably don’t like me because I’m so nice,” Fuller whines. “I’m incredibly articulate, thoughtful and moral, and I think about what I do.” At one point Sinclair excoriates lazy journalists for perpetuating the “myth” that it was Fuller who invented the Spice Girls, for example; and yet Fuller himself cheerfully propagates this untruth. Sinclair jumps to Fuller’s aid with a snide comment after rival producer-mogul Dash refers to him amusingly as “Simon Fullershit”, muses that perhaps the Girls’ final album could have been a success “if it had been subject to the guiding hand of Simon Fuller”, and even tries to defend Fuller, in clotted PR-speak, against rumours that he had an affair with Emma Bunton.
Yet the unmistakable story here is the vicious, seething rage of a man astonished that a group of strong-willed young women could have dared to stand up to him. He is unbearably smug now that most of them have crawled back to him to try to save their solo careers. Geri hasn’t, though, so he bitches nastily that she “can’t sing, so she was always being restricted by her own lack of talent”.
One lasting effect of the Spice Girls’ success was that managers such as Fuller would be very careful in the future to pick the blandest, most malleable characters for their money-raking vehicles: nice kids who wouldn’t answer back. Fuller’s next project was S Club 7, about whom he says: “S Club 7 were a really nice group. I don’t know them as closely as I did the Spice Girls. But I don’t want to.” S Club 7 eventually made around £50 million for Fuller’s management company, of which the band themselves pocketed a grand total of £590,000 each. Where is girl power now?