Reach for the Stars by Michael Cragg review – hot gossip from pop’s golden age
In 1996, Take That, Britain’s biggest pop act, broke up. This was headline news. It prompted tears, the rending of garments and, according to Michael Cragg, left a vacuum that needed swiftly to be filled. Britpop still reigned, of course, but Britpop “was a bloke-heavy swirl of guitar-led authenticity, coke-sweat and lad mags”.
Cragg craved the more giddy delights of pop and, courtesy of the Spice Girls, Steps, 5ive, Blue and S Club 7, duly got it. Its ubiquity carried him through adolescence, and later facilitated his becoming a pop music writer (for the Guardian, among others). Now convinced that 1996 to 2006 represents a golden age – after which, he suggests, the genre became drearily “post-ironic”, with everyone making “Billie Eilish-adjacent mope-pop” – he’s written a book arguing for its enduring cultural significance.
Reach for the Stars takes the form of an oral history, which allows its vast cast of band members, producers and other key figures of the time to provide their own personal testaments, often at great length; more than once over the course of its 500+ pages does the line between the exhaustive and the exhausting seem a fine one. But Cragg mostly pulls off an admirable balancing act, because his book’s a hoot. You don’t so much read it as inhale it.
A lot of it, like the music itself, seems throwaway, the stuff of gossip. We learn, for example, that even in the early stages of the Spice Girls, Victoria Adams was far more interested in shopping for clothes than she was in recording vocals. “She just wasn’t there,” co-member Geri Halliwell says of the Wannabe studio sessions. “Bless her.”
It’s revealed that Russell Brand once auditioned for the boy band 5ive, but has denied it ever since
Of course, the Spice Girls’ contribution to 90s pop culture has already been pored over endlessly, but it’s a story that bears retelling. Their impact was immense, though not everyone was initially swayed. “I felt the creation was a hideously cheap effort in exploitation,” says Shirley Manson of the rock act Garbage, before relenting later, realising just “how much of an influence they were”.
Elsewhere, it’s revealed that Russell Brand once auditioned for the boy band 5ive, but has denied it ever since, “which is funny”, says member Scott Robinson, “because he’s done some dodgy things in his career, and auditioning for 5ive isn’t the worst”.
Fellow boy band Blue, meanwhile, were tickled to find themselves the favourite band of fashion designer Donatella Versace, who flew them out to Milan on her private jet. When they met, however, she wrinkled her nose, and turned promptly on her heel. There’d been a misunderstanding, it later emerged: Blur were her favourite band, not Blue, the “r” and the “e” so perilously close on a keyboard.
According to producer Pete Waterman, the proudly cheesy Steps were supposed to be “Abba on speed”, a claim to which Abba might well take offence: their debut single, 5, 6, 7, 8, was ostensibly a nursery rhyme based around line-dancing. “One of the girls who auditioned [for the band originally] was quite deep and spiritual, and said it hurt her soul to sing that song,” Steps’ Claire Richards says. “I’m not that deep.”
And so on.
Cragg’s central thesis is that, essentially, they don’t make pop like they used to. It’s a convincing one. Acts today are neither quite as DayGlo nor as recognisable. There’s no Top of the Pops for them to appear on, no Smash Hits magazine to feature them. Mental health is now centre stage, and there is at last slightly less objectification. The book reminds us of the treatment towards Kym Marsh, member of reality TV band Hear’Say, about whom producer “Nasty” Nigel Lythgoe said: “Christmas is coming, and the goose is still fat.” It points out, too, that Sugababes’ Mutya Buena was required to work throughout her pregnancy, and then, in time to film a new video just a couple of months later: “I was the skinniest I’ve ever been.”
At one point, Boyzone manager Louis Walsh says: “Why do people like you always try to overanalyse things?”, but there’s compelling evidence here that people did routinely confuse the making of pop songs for rocket science. Either way, it mattered to a great many, irrespective of the harm it caused its main characters, who mostly lost money and burned out and became sad, as pop stars do. This, ultimately, is a cautionary tale.
“The hours were brutal, and the schedule like no other,” says Hear’Say’s Myleene Klass. “No rock stars would be able to keep up. It’s hardcore.”
She’s not wrong.
Nick Duerden is the author of Exit Stage Left: The Curious Afterlife of Pop Stars (Headline)
• Reach for the Stars: 1996-2006: Fame, Fallout and Pop’s Final Party by Michael Cragg is published by Nine Eight Books (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply