Cosmic Slop #117: Cheering Up A Broken World

Depressed at the state of the world as we know it, Shaun Ponsonby tries to cheer us up by delving into one of pop’s forgotten back pages. 

By Shaun Ponsonby
Fri 18 August, 2017

I really don’t know what to tell you this week.

Bitching about Justin Bieber, Gary Barlow and James Corden seems kind of moot when we appear to be edging closer and closer to oblivion with each passing week. If nuclear Armageddon doesn’t do it, we are safe in the knowledge that we can tear ourselves apart quickly enough, thanks, so long as there are still Nazis holding rallies and terrorists keep being twats.

I very nearly didn’t write anything. I can’t add anything to this discourse, and we’ve hit a slump in interesting goings on.

But, I thought “No, Shaun, you can’t do that. Your adoring public (hi, Steve) will be disappointed, and they have put you were you are today, even if that is your mother’s basement next to a leaking sewage pipe.”

So, I instead tried to find something to cheer us all up, and I think I’ve found it thanks to a late night conversation with our friends at The Bickering Press.

Cast your mind back to the late 90s. Britpop was dead and buried, after the industry realised it wasn’t really selling much outside of the UK and bands like Menswear were replacing bands like Suede in the charts.

The new thing? Pop groups! The Spice Girls had become a bona fide worldwide phenomenon. All Saints had a couple of Top 40 hits in America, including a number four hit with Never Ever. Steps achieved hit after hit, as did B*Witched. Clearly British girl groups and boy bands were going to be the next thing, right? It fit in with what was going on in America; the boyband wars, Britney Spears, Daphne & Celeste. It made total sense.

Right in the middle of it came Vanilla.

What? You don’t remember Vanilla? Let me remind you – they were responsible for this anti-masterpiece.

Oh, yeah. That is real. It is not a Smack The Pony sketch. It is an actual song that was released and charted in the Top 40.

So, let’s unlock this from the beginning.

The name of the group is probably the worst name you could probably give a pop band. Vanilla? What does “vanilla” mean? Well, yeah, it’s a flavour of ice cream. But it’s the boring flavour. It’s like calling a band Ready Salted Crisps or Beige. It hardly makes you sound like the most exciting new pop act in the country.

Then there’s the song. Who thought it was a good idea to base this song – their debut single that was going to introduce them to the world – on Piero Umiliani’s Mah Nà Mah Nà? The song is probably best known for two things; The Muppets and an advert for the French biscuits BN. Some genius record company executive noticed “Hey! That advert is popular at the moment! Let’s use this to launch our new girl group into orbit!

So the lyrics now go “No way, no way, mah nà mah nà/Don’t get fresh with me”. What does that mean? It sounds like they couldn’t be bothered to write a second line, and put “Mah na ma na” in as a place holder and couldn’t be bothered to change it.

They’re singing it in a cheap video that tries to look like it was filmed poolside in Spain, but is quite clearly a studio in Brixton. Meanwhile, the group themselves possess all the charisma of a spatula. Not even an exciting spatula – just a regular old spatula.

They’re trying so hard to match Spice Girls levels of sass and confidence, but it is coming off somewhat…weird.  Like hungover cast members from Club Reps. They are there, but are they really there? I think it’s the juxtaposition at the attempts at sexiness and self-confidence, whilst being soundtracked by Mah Nà Mah Nà.

They even try to re-create the Spice Girls with the verses, which at first seem to have little to do with the gibberish chorus; “We’re always together, never apart/Sisters through and through”.

But then, it becomes clear – they have each other, so they don’t need no man. And if you wannabe their lover, you gotta get with their friends, yeah?

This is also the days before widespread autotune. That much is apparent when the blonde Vanilla sings the line “You can hold me in your arms”. Go on, watch that bit. I dare you. It’s about 58 seconds in. I’ll wait.

Now, aren’t you glad you did that? It’s probably the nadir of the vocal performance, although the spoken word section nearly matches it.

It’s an abominable example of the sheer depths of desperation that record company executives will sink to try and latch on to fads, and end up basically contributing to the death of said fad. Vanilla weren’t signed to some small start-up label, they were on EMI. If EMI are signing a girl band during the apex of girl bands, they’re looking for it to be a success.

Or are they? There is a pretty strong rumour that it was the result of two executives who made a bet that they could make a hit out of an almost offensively terrible song.

It would make sense. Nothing about this worked, and yet it reached number 14 in the UK chart, and also went Top 40 in Australia. It is still regularly voted among the worst of all time – as you can see from the clip above, TMF named it the worst song of all time, ITV’s The Chart Show called it the worst music video ever, and Channel 4 viewers placed it at number 26 in their Top 100 Worst Pop Records.

It does almost look like a parody of the Spice Girls. If it was a bet between executives, it seems pretty cruel. Not only does it cynically mock what groups like the Spice Girls meant to young girls of that time (would they have made the same bet with a borderline Oasis parody? Nope), it does so with what should be an empowering feminist message (i.e. you don’t need a man in your life to be happy) and possibly takes advantage of a group of young girls.

But, at the same time it could merely be rumour based on the fact that anybody thought this song was anywhere near a good idea. The majority of me thinks this is more likely.

Besides, the group themselves have laughed this off. Alida Stewart (I don’t know which Vanilla she was, but she was one of them) laughed off the rumour in a 2014 interview with The Guardian. She also stated that it just so happened that their manager had recently bought the rights to Mah Nà Mah Nà.

She continued; ““When we first heard it we just laughed. Then we looked at each other. Two of us wanted to be doing R&B. But we thought: ‘We might as well do it.’”

They released one more single, titled True To Us. It was a little better than No Way, No Way, but it still wasn’t very good. Kind of like a bad Eurovision entry. It just about scraped into the Top 40, and Vanilla were dropped.

So, there you have it – a brief history of Vanilla. Hopefully something fun will happen next week so I don’t have to go back two decades for inspiration.