It may seem hard to believe, what with our clan of Kardashians and Byneses, but the UK and Ireland have always had a more intense love affair with celebrity than America . In the ’90s in particular, when Top of the Pops was at its most influential height, and rag publications like Hello! and The Sun were delivered daily to households of a loyal, willing mass of consumers ready to suck up whatever bits of pop funneled through the channel. And in the years before the Y2K scare and GIFs, boy bands originating from the isle rode their blissfully innocent demeanors and unforgivable snakeskin suits to become the dominating force of celebrity obsession in the UK. You could hardly pass an antiquated newsstand or explore BBC’s limited television platforms in the ’90s without seeing puppy-eyed, crooning faces staring right back at you.
There were two strange phenomena of boy bands active in the UK and Ireland during that time that distinguished them from their American counterparts. Though any grownup with a penchant toward classic rock nostalgia might disagree, in America, we selected a relatively small, immovable lineup of groups–you were either Team Nick Carter or Team Justin Timberlake and other, lesser choices painted your taste as undignified. But in a culture that was already so obsessed with celebrity, the UK was able to proliferate boy bands like pound coins and chip shops–and most of them rose to moderate and oftentimes continuing success, as if the Queen herself stamped them with the royal seal right on their bums.
Stranger still was that in British boy band fame, an overwhelming number of the innumerable groups’ hit singles were cookie-cutter ballads. There were few pop numbers with a remix-ready hook available to be played at 18+ club nights–that job was left to the already governing force of the vibrant UK dance scene. Instead, boy bands made croony, muzak-worthy ballads for wedding first dances and community center events for the elderly.
The UK isn’t a place known for its sensitive side, but in the ’90s, there seemed to be a lot of feelings going around–all a little cheesier and more well worn than the last. And years later, few of those feelings have extinguished: Boy bands like Boyzone and Westlife are still active today, drawing out near twenty-year careers by pouting into cameras and harmonizing beatifically. In honor of the One Direction (pictured above) show tonight at the Izod Center, the list below enumerates the best of those chart-topping singles from the ’90s, and are all performed by either Irish or English groups–unfortunately 3SL of Wales were dropped from their label before their highly anticipated record was released. And the Scots, well, they had the good sense to watch this all go down from fortressed castles on high.
“Every Day I Love You,” 1999. Still active.
Boyzone, who suffered the loss of co-lead singer Stephen Gately in 2009, were a perennially famous Irish boy band, from which side projects, solo careers, and a series of dis-then-re-banding unfurled. This ballad, “Every Day I Love You,” was the last single the group released before their first split in 2000, and lyrically it was a symbolic nod to their initial and most painful breakup. It’s also important to bask in the perfect eyebrow sculpting of Boyzone’s playful bad boy, Shane Lynch.
“Swear It Again, 1999. Disbanded in 2012.
Being from the same small island, with Dublin to the southeast of their Sligo, Westlife were often pitted against Boyzone in a fabricated territory war. Having two blond members to spar against Boyzone’s one, and incorporating what was likely an expensive string section for “Swear It Again,” Westlife made grand gestures to posture to a landscape rife with emotional balladry. “Swear It Again” is a classic of the genre–a ballad that proclaims that no more promises will be broken–and despite their insistence, their coy smiles belied future secrets. A Westlife CD from a Dublin Tower Records cost me £26.99 in 1999.
Take That (British)
“Back For Good,” 1995. Still active.
In the tradition of Jackson 5 before them and precluding *Nsync’s later single, Take That sang “Back For Good” about really screwing up a great thing and not knowing how to fix it. Exhibiting the typical male trait of not even remembering what was said, “Back For Good” is apology in its finest form. The group was most notable for their drug-addled rebel member, Robbie Williams, who eventually launched a successful solo career and partied hard with the Gallagher brothers. They are also remembered as the first boy band to dance in the rain wearing preposterous fur coats.
“Until The Time Is Through,” 1998. Still active.
5ive is a rare gem on this list, not only because of the frustratingly difficult nature of pronouncing their name, but in that they actually were able to achieve nominal Stateside success. Through their hits “Slam Dunk (Da Funk)” (shamelessly exploiting America’s love of basketball!) and “When the Lights Go Out,” 5ive all but defined themselves as a British-American crossover act. “Until The Time Is Through,” 5ive’s best ballad, didn’t make it to American soil … maybe it’s because it has literally the exact same backing track as the Backstreet Boys’ “As Long As You Love Me.”
“The Journey,” 1999. Still active.
Besides the obvious problems with their name, 911’s slowburning ballad track “The Journey,” which comes from their full-length debut of the same name, sounds like it was more fitting for an alt-country artist than a trio from the grey, soggy island to our east. It could even work well as a Christian rock anthem: the tremolo on the guitar and the gospel-inflected vocals are surely proof enough. The best part about 911, though? After The Journey came Moving On, which was followed by their final effort, There It Is. A better discography of spiraling downward has never since been titled.
“Heaven By Your Side,” 1999. Still active
A little known fact about A1 Steak Sauce is that–though Americans dump it all over cooked meats countrywide–it was patented and designed in the UK. A1, bewildering though their name may be, had one truly great song, “Heaven By Your Side,” which would’ve been a perfect soundtrack to an A1 steak sauce commercial that sadly never got made: a close-up shot of a steak, followed by a dump of brown sauce to its left, and A1’s Ben Adams crooning emphatically, “But when we touch, I realize that I found my place, in heaven by your side.”
East 17 (British)
“Stay Another Day, 1994. Still active.
As Love Actually exemplified for Americans, Christmastime in the UK is a big deal not only for finding your sweetheart or cheating on your wife, but for the longevity of pop singles. Hitting number one on Christmas day is a guaranteed entry into England’s pop culture canon, and when “Stay Another Day”–a song supposedly about suicide–made it to that peak in 1994, East 17 began embracing their pop music permanence. They’ve since gone on to sell 18 million records worldwide, and after hearing it you’ll never, ever get the punctuating “Stay now/ Stay now” echo out of your head, no matter how hard you try. It will, with certainty, stay another day. (Sorry.)
Ant & Dec (British)
“Falling,” 1997. Still active with other platforms.
Ant & Dec are easily the most successful performers on this list, if only because they were able to somehow shed the shame of boy band stardom in order to pursue acclaimed comedy and TV presenting careers, with new generations of watchers not even knowing their storied past. The last single the duo put out, “Falling,” stirred a bit of controversy after it was alleged that the single was stolen from another pop duo called (bewilderingly) And All Because . . ., forcing the song to be pulled from circulation. Thanks to the Internet and freedom to do whatever the hell we want, “Falling” is back and more melancholic than ever.