Angel of Mine
Friday, 3 October 1997. Another horrible day at school. The only thing I was looking forward to was that Eternal’s new single, ‘Angel of Mine’, would be charting that Sunday. I’d had two action-packed weeks of Smash Hits Q&As and interviews on Live & Kicking and Blue Peter. And Louise had released the first single — ‘Arms Around the World’ — off her second album, Woman in Me, the week before. I’d been spoilt.
Maths was the last lesson of the week. One final boring hour of Pythagoras’ theorem before the bell would ring and I’d be free. Mum picked me up in her clapped-out Polo from a side road a few minutes’ walk away: her carefully chosen location, away from the chaos of hundreds of parents picking up their juvenile offspring at 3.40 p.m. I was happy for her to park as far away as possible to spare her overhearing the shower of names I was heckled with on my walk out. If there’s one thing worse than being called a ‘faggot’ by acne-ridden adolescents outside the school gates, it’s your mum hearing it and confronting the tormenters.
At home I made myself my usual platter of Golden Syrup sandwiches before plonking myself in front of our beige-grey Hewlett Packard computer. I dialled up the Internet, with its loud whirring beeping sounds. ‘Don’t be long, please! You know it’s expensive before six!’ Mum bellowed from the lounge. ‘Okay!’ I shouted back, as if that was going to stop me catching up on the day’s gossip on the Eternal and Louise mailing list emails. Everyone was excited about Louise’s Top of the Pops appearance later that night, and how well we all thought Eternal would do in Sunday’s charts.
Mum threw together an early dinner of pork pies and cold baked beans (which was, bizarrely, one of our favourites) before she took Sophie swimming. I settled down to watch Top of the Pops, vigilantly making sure I had the video player and my ‘MALCOLM’S LOUISE TAPE — DO NOT TAPE OVER’ VHS ready to record the performance I’d been waiting all week for. I was surprisingly organised and always ready with my finger on the button by 7.25 p.m., patiently sitting through a pre-facelift Anne Robinson and co-presenter Alice Beer keenly reading out the final updates on a defective Hoover recall or mis-sold Teletext holiday insurance on BBC1’s Watchdog.
Louise’s Asian-themed performance of ‘Arms Around the World’ was the highlight of my week thus far. To capture the song’s eastern influences, in one corner there were women doing Bollywood dancing on the spot, and in another, a man pretending to play a sitar. Louise was dressed like Lewisham’s answer to Princess Jasmine, with a high ponytail and gold jewellery up her arms and around her neck. It was a cultural mishmash that at the time I thought was so cosmopolitan.
My sister Anja sat on the sofa behind me, giving her two-pence worth during the whole thing. Her main gibe was that the song was a ‘blatant rip-off’ of Janet Jackson’s hit the previous year, ‘Runaway’. I told her at the time to piss off; they were totally different. Since emerging from the blind adulation and unwavering love for Louise, I can now admit that the two songs are a tad similar!
We ended up having an argument about it. Anja loved making fun of the things I held dearest in my life. But then I slagged off her beloved Newcastle United whenever I got the chance, so we both knew how to torment each other. I stormed upstairs to listen to Louise and console myself. What did she know? For Christ’s sake, don’t get me into all this worshipping-of-pop-queens malarkey, then tell me how shit they all are!
♦ ♦ ♦
After fifteen minutes shut away in my room I heard the phone ring. Probably one of Mum’s friends — it was never for me. Then I heard a knock at the door.
‘Malcolm!’ Anja called.
‘What do you want?!’ I snapped, still not over our Louise spat.
‘Is there a girl in your class called Kelly?’
‘Go away, I don’t care!’
‘IS THERE OR ISN’T THERE? There’s someone on the phone for you.’ Anja upped her sense of urgency this time.
‘Well, yes… But she wouldn’t be ringing me.’
‘Then I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think Kelle from Eternal is on the phone for you,’ Anja announced, in the most serious face I’ve ever seen her make.
My brows started trembling and I looked straight into Anja’s eyes. ‘My letter. She must have got my letter!!!’ I screamed, as I ran past her, swooping down the stairs towards the grey handset resting on the kitchen table, its curly cord stretching over to the grubby phone on the wall.
I clutched it close to my chest, whispering, ‘I wrote her a fan letter last week. I never thought she reads them!’
‘QUICK — speak to her!’ Anja yelled.
‘Hellllllo?’ I said suspiciously.
‘Kelle who?’ I asked, biting my lower lip, looking up to the ceiling in disbelief.
‘Kelle from Eternal?’
She paused. ‘Yeah. It’s me! How are you doing? I got your letter, I’ve got it here in front of me.’ She sounded so friendly and calm compared with the manic euphoria I was going through.
‘We just arrived back from Holland this evening, where the girls and I were doing promo for “Angel of Mine” and I stopped by the label to pick up my mail. Your letter was so lovely and I just wanted to pick up the phone and say hi.’
As if this was actually happening to me! I couldn’t contain my delirium. I’d never had any interaction with a pop star in my life. In the days before Twitter and Instagram, the popstar-fan relationship was totally different — completely one-sided. This was blowing my mind! There I was, sitting in our shabby kitchen in Ottershaw, talking to one of the people I admired most in the world. A glitzy pop star was taking time out from her showbiz life to ring ME!
We chatted for twenty-five minutes about all sorts. She told me about how she liked to hang out with her mum, then I told her about how I liked to hang out with mine. She told me about Eternal’s recent trip to Holland and I told her about learning Pythagoras. We even had an in-depth discussion about Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam and the peace process. I loved every surreal second. And I really wanted to hang out with her and her mum.
As I hung up the phone I fell on the floor in a heap and cried uncontrollably for a very long time. I was a lonely kid going through dark times at school, and it meant so much to me that this international pop star, my idol, had chosen to ring me to chat about Sinn Fein and Woking. Anja put her arm around me, grinning, ‘This is amazing! Your dreams have come true!’
Mum and Sophie arrived home from swimming class and I was still crying hysterically, almost hyperventilating. I walked out into the street, where they were getting out of the car, and Mum worriedly asked what the hell was going on. I just kept crying. ‘What’s happened? What’s wrong?’ she shouted. Anja intervened, explaining the events of the last thirty minutes and that I was, in fact, very happy.
Mum rolled her eyes and said, ‘Thank God — I thought something serious had happened to you both!’ Sophie was less restrained, screaming with bloody murder, ‘AAAAAAH! OH MY GOD!!! What?!!’ We all laughed about it in the street and once I’d calmed down later on, I told the whole family in minute detail every last thing that had been said.
I also explained that with the most recent letter I’d enclosed a butchered photo of me and Mum on holiday in Cornwall that I’d cut out of the family album. I don’t think she has quite forgiven me for that, but I’d have sacrificed many a photo of us looking our seaside-best for the chance to relive that phone call.
That Sunday, ‘Angel of Mine’ charted at Number 4. Never mind… Kelle, you’re still my angel!
♦ ♦ ♦
While speaking to Kelle, I told her I’d been chatting to other Eternal fans on the unofficial email list. The Internet back then was the preserve of tech geeks and obsessive teenagers on fan sites. Some others online said they were planning to watch Eternal record their appearance on Top of the Pops the following week. I told Kelle I was thinking of coming. ‘Yeah! Come down and say hi if you can. Definitely!… As long as your parents are okay with it’ (Spoiler alert! This is not a book about me being groomed by a sixty-eight-year-old man masquerading as a devotee of the Bennett sisters. We were all much more naïve and innocent back then.)
The few lucky classmates of mine fortunate enough to have 56 kbps streaming into their PCs were all addicted to Yahoo! chat rooms. It was a gateway to every corner of the globe, chatting about the Spice Girls and homework with kids from North Dakota, or Barrow-in-Furness, or a suburb of Dortmund. Mum and Dad were happy for us to chat on there, but they certainly didn’t want us to arrange to meet these total strangers. They definitely wouldn’t want their fourteen-year-old son travelling to the other side of London to spend a day with a whole group of people he’d met online discussing what Louise’s favourite breed of dog is. Particularly on a school day. Hmm, how could I possibly convince them? I went for the classic teenage tactics of guilt trips, badgering and tantrums.
Over the next five days, after endless tears and pleading I finally wore them down. Mum begrudgingly agreed to let me have a half-day at school, provided I didn’t tell my teachers where I was going and caught up on the lessons I would miss. Dad even had to book the afternoon off work. I was extremely appreciative and respecting of the conditions: Yeah, yeah… blah blah… OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO THE ACTUAL TOP OF THE POPS STUDIOS! Someone slap me, this can’t be real!
I checked with the fans on the email list where it was: ‘Elstree Studios in Borehamwood’ someone had written. Where the hell’s that? That’s not the place with the bouncing ball on the opening credits of Live & Kicking! I finally tracked it down in the very top corner of a page of the out-of-date A–Z Dad kept in his glove box. Turns out Borehamwood is not round the corner from Mayfair, it’s not even on the Tube. In fact, it’s so far out of London, it’s in bloody Hertfordshire! It made me even more curious to visit this mythical land that must be jam-packed with A-listers, like the Home Counties Hollywood.
♦ ♦ ♦
The morning of the recording I nervously prepared myself for the expedition ahead of me. I shoved some supplies into my school rucksack: Club biscuit: tick; camera and a spare roll of film: tick; CDs to get signed: tick. Then, in a moment of genius, I realised that I needed to get noticed — I had to stand out from the crowd. I scoured my wardrobe for something that would make me visible to ensure Eternal, and the TV cameras, couldn’t miss me. Blue Adidas T-shirt? Too dull. Grey Joe Bloggs shirt? No. Massive lime green Day-Glo T-shirt? Perfect! I then rummaged through my other drawers and pulled out a lime green woolly hat. And some lime green trainers (same ones that Mel C was currently wearing for the ‘Spice Up Your Life’ CD artwork). I was to be a vision in lime. Subtle it wasn’t, and perhaps a bit premature for Nu Rave, but at least everyone would see me.
Dad and I then set off around the M25. I followed the journey all the way on his A–Z. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of visiting Borehamwood, it’s a prime example of nominative determinism. Yes, it’s home to some of the best-known television shows in Britain, but the studios are not surrounded by the mansions of the rich and famous, as in Hollywood. Instead, it’s a rather ordinary suburban town wedged between the M25 and the last straggling fringes of London. This came as something of a shock to me as Dad pulled off the motorway and we drove along the high street, where, stood outside the local branch of Superdrug, was a man in a black fleece selling laminated posters of Melinda Messenger and the Spice Girls in bikinis for £2 each. We turned down a residential street and my heart filled with a combination of excitement and bewilderment as I realised that the studios were just at the end of the road. Was this really the home of Top of the Pops? Was it really the location of the MDF Albert Square?
Barely at a halt, I jumped out of Dad’s Vauxhall estate. ‘Okay, bye! Yeah, I’ll call your office from a payphone later!’ I shouted as I leapt out of the passenger seat. Standing on the roadside opposite were three nervous misfits staring at me. I immediately recognised them from the one lo-res photo each of them had put online: late-twenties, practically dressed, socially awkward. We weren’t exactly similar, but they took me under their wing and the fact they loved Eternal made me think I’d found some kindred spirits. And they really loved Eternal. They could recount endless inane facts about them, from their shoe sizes to Taiwanese chart positions. In 1997, fourteen-year-old me thought that I was the first person ever to meet someone from the World Wide Web. I was crazy! I felt more futuristic than a feature on Tomorrow’s World. They were very different times; unlike today, there wasn’t the fear about meeting people from the Internet because no one really did it back then.
We huddled together against the drizzle by the gate like a group of penguins, but with fewer social skills. The TV studios were surrounded by a high metal fence with all the staff and stars within it, and, unfortunately, we were stood on the wrong side of it. I gawped with amazement as Pat Butcher (Pam St Clement) rolled past in a Volvo on her way to film some gripping storylines at the Queen Vic. And just a few moments later Pauline Fowler (Wendy Richard) gave us a royal wave from a Ford Mondeo. What kind of parallel universe was this?
Some rival Eternal groupies also rocked up, who clearly thought they were bigger fans than us, as they strutted through the car park in their puffer jackets with greased-back ponytails. I recognised these four girls — Tracy, Lisa, Anthea and some other hard-looking late teen — from watching Top of the Pops. They would always be on the front row whenever Eternal were performing. And the band knew them. I wished the whole band knew me too. These four adolescent Eternal groupies seemed so much cooler and more streetwise than me — shy and nervous, dressed head-to-toe like a bloody citrus fruit! Inside, I just kept thinking, Let me in your gang and I’ll ditch the Millets-clad misfits. I’m one of you!
My fellow Internet dweebs knew the story of Kelle ringing me, as I’d plastered it all over the email list that same evening in glee, but I recounted it once more for the other groupie girls. They were notably less-impressed but still happy for me. ‘Yeah, that’s a very Kelle thing to do,’ Lisa said. It didn’t take a genius to see that Kelle was not as popular among these girls as Easther and Vernie, the Bennett sisters. I couldn’t really get my head around this, as to me, Kelle was the one with the beaming personality and permanent grin, whereas the two sisters had a reputation in interviews for being the ice maidens of UK pop.
The Groupie Girls gloated to me, ‘Kel’s not all she seems. I can see why people think that from TV and stuff, but she’s not really like that in person.’ I bit back, ‘She might have bad days! Maybe you caught her at the wrong time?’ Lisa kept going, ‘Yeah, well, she doesn’t have many groupies who really like her now, so I think she’s trying harder with people.’ How dare she suggest my beloved Kelle was ringing me out of desperation!
After lunch, some of the bands started arriving. A car with three long-haired blonde girls turned up — it was the Hanson Brothers. Members of post-Britpop band The Seahorses strolled in and out to down Carling and pork scratchings at the pub around the corner in between rehearsals. Finally, the Eternal girls were driven past in their blacked-out silver Mercedes. I nearly soiled myself with excitement. After an hour or so the Bennett sisters came out and said ‘hi’ to us all as they were being ushered to another rehearsal. Kelle wasn’t with them, which was gutting. Perhaps the Groupie Girls were right — maybe she wasn’t interested in the fans. Maybe she thought she was better than us. Easther said she didn’t even know where Kelle was. I was starting to realise how divided the band was. I was desperate to see Kelle and tell her it was me — the boy she rang last Friday night. Would she remember me? Or was she too busy being a pop star to actually care?
♦ ♦ ♦
As the day drew on and the studios got busier I became increasingly nervous that I wouldn’t actually get in to watch the show. We needed to find people with spare tickets, but were clueless about where to wait. The rival Groupie Girls got theirs pretty quickly — they just casually strolled up to the nearest guy and nonchalantly asked him for tickets. Soon, there were hundreds of audience members, but there were also now loads of other chancers playing the same game as us. As time passed more and more glammed-up late teenage girls from Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead got dropped off by their dads, scavenging for tickets. Shit! I don’t think this is going to happen! I thought. Every time we asked people arriving they gave us a pitiful smile and shook their heads with expressions that said ‘No chance, mate’. Hope was ebbing away. Was seeing Wendy Richard drive past really going to be the highlight of my day?
Night fell and there were swarms of men in horrible shirts and women in horrible skirts in a queue going right around the street. I felt increasingly out of my depth, a schoolboy in an adult’s world. I was standing tall, my chest pushed out and less smiley, to try desperately to look older, like a real bloke who’d be going to Top of the Pops with his girlfriend, but inside I felt like a vulnerable fourteen-year-old with his school bag. Even if we scored some spare tickets, would my doctored birth certificate even pass as ID? As the queue finally started to disappear through the gates into the studios, I prepared myself for disappointment and a sad call home to Mum and Dad.
Apparently, they cut the queue off when the studio gets too full anyway. However, that evening, they were still slightly under capacity as the last cold girls in boob tubes, denim jackets and strappy heels filed through. Security were minutes away from shutting the gates and I was gutted I’d come this far and wouldn’t get to see Eternal perform, to tell Kelle I made it all the way to see her.
With two minutes to go, two girls and a guy ran around the corner. We begged them for any spare tickets, pleading like our lives depended on it. One of the girls rummaged around in her handbag, eventually pulling out a brown envelope. She flicked through the contents and unceremoniously handed us three spare tickets. ‘There you go! Have a good night!’ I looked down at my hand to check I really had that ticket and hadn’t either (a) imagined it, or (b) been handed a blank bit of paper by someone taking us for a ride. They seemed to be the genuine article. Overjoyed, we stood nervously behind them in the queue as they were flagged through by Security. And then it was our turn: we did our best to look hopeful (but not too desperate) at the gate. Our ticket numbers were cross-checked and the emotionless security guard waved us through. ‘You’re the last ones. Very lucky!’ he said as the green steel gate clanged shut. ‘Follow them and put your stuff in the cloakroom. Quickly, please.’
We grabbed each other’s arms in glee and let out a silent scream as we finally ventured beyond the big iron gates we’d been staring through longingly all day. We were about to be a part of the most iconic music TV show of all time. I thought of the decades of bands through the ages, the classic image of Jimmy Savile smoking a cigar (little did we know…), the icons of pop doing dodgy mimes to the biggest songs of the last fifty years. I’d watched religiously every week for the last two years, obsessing over every performance and piece of trivia fed to me through the television. I was just an imposter kid out on a school night. Was this really happening?
♦ ♦ ♦
Inside was a large room with bright fluorescent lighting. This was basically a holding pen for girls touching up their lip gloss and twisty-hair ‘up-dos’. It was wall-to-wall Kookai tops, a plethora of feather boas, with the odd bored-looking bloke in an ill-fitting Ben Sherman shirt interspersed among them. The atmosphere was a cross between a provincial nightclub and the boarding gate for a Thomas Cook flight to Faliraki.
People were already queuing around the outside of the room to get into the studios. We quickly checked in our bags and coats, then joined the back of the queue. Two women at the far end of the room opened a set of doors and everyone was marched through a maze of cold concrete corridors to the studio. Fragments of TV backdrops were dotted around us. I was star-struck as I passed The Arches — home of the Mitchell brothers’ mechanics, and bits of the Kilroy set, casually dumped out in the damp passageway. My mum had little interest in my pop obsession, but I’d found the one thing that would excite her when I got home.
At the end of the concrete wind tunnel were the studio doors, the comforting sound of breakbeat reverberating out from within. Again, we were led through more corridors, this time made of high, black curtains: a never-ending labyrinth into the inner sanctum of pop. We turned a corner and there it was. Like I’d gone through the television set and ended up on the other side, right there in my favourite programme. The crowd were herded around the main stage as dark and grimy speed garage anthem ‘Gunman’ was blasted out to the buzzing crowd. Immediately I was struck by the unbelievable cold — I just wished I’d worn a couple more lime layers to insulate me.
Two warm-up guys, cockney geezer double-act Mark and Danny, got the audience dancing immediately to the heavy bassline as they talked us through what was in store that evening. They insisted, despite the intolerable coldness at the start of the night, we would all get significantly warmer as the evening went on. There was a lot of screaming as the acts were read out, then more when we were told that the best dancer would win… wait for it…TEN CDs. TEN! Holy shit, we’d better crack out our best moves for this challenge!
At this point I’d never set foot in a nightclub before, but imagined this was sort of what it was like. I thought if no one at school was ever going to invite me out clubbing, maybe I could just come here instead for nights out. Despite my lack of clubbing experience, I’d still studied the way the audience moved on Top of the Pops every week, so I broke into a nineties sidestep bop-and-occasional-clap (I thought it more suitable than my full Pan’s People-esque routine.)
Mark and Danny complimented the girls in the audience as they also bopped clumsily from side to side. Some of the compliments were a little gauche. They were half-Beavis and Butthead, half-Chas and Dave, cracking shit jokes we all laughed at as we carried on throwing shapes, this time to chart-friendly drum’n’bass, courtesy of Adam F’s ‘Circles’.
The studio had four stages — the main stage where the biggest bands would usually perform, the ‘White Stage’ (reserved usually for the alternative artists), another one opposite which seemed to be mostly for urban acts and one at the back tucked in the corner for pure pop. Occasionally they’d get a big name artist to perform on the floor, invariably perched on a bar stool, surrounded by the audience.
As the last ones into the studio, we were stuck right at the back. Yes, we’d made it, but even in the most garish clothing in the whole room, I was never going to be visible on TV behind two hundred people. Imagine my delight then when the crew asked everyone to turn around to face the second stage, where the first band would be performing. I rotated to discover I was now on the front row: my small-screen debut was about to commence.
The first band on were Catch, a totally forgotten British boy band consisting of three posh sixth-formers who played their own instruments (still quite a revelation in the pop industry in 1997, after trailblazers Hanson had conquered the world that summer). As the opening bars of their song ‘Bingo’ were played, it didn’t matter that I’d never heard it before, this was it! My lime green pixelated image would be beamed to ten million households across the nation.
As they burst into the chorus I listened to the lyrics and felt like they were singing about me, there and then…
Yes, I went there… BINGO! … and I found out.
Yes, I discovered… BINGO!… what the fuss is about!
It all felt so deep and profound to fourteen-year-old me. Shortly afterwards, I discovered that this deep and meaningful song about self-discovery was in fact a tale of losing your virginity in a red-light district. I felt cheap and used. It will forever be the moment I lost my Top of the Pops virginity. Simultaneously life-changing and memorable while also slightly awkward and disappointing. And it only lasted three minutes and twenty seconds.
They were basically an early Busted prototype, spanning the gap between a genuine band, in the ‘school mates jamming in their parents’ garage’ mould, and a manufactured attempt by a big label to replicate that in a more saleable format.
This was Catch’s first — and last — Top 40 hit. Clearly, the world wasn’t quite ready for a Britpop boy band. Except, it seems, Indonesia — where they were massive. They do have one reason to for ever be a footnote in musical history — their video for ‘Bingo’ was being played in the graveyard slot on ITV in the early hours of 31 August 1997, only to be rudely interrupted by a newsflash announcing the death of Princess Diana. I don’t actually remember their follow-up single, ‘Dive In’, which didn’t make the Top 40 — they pretty much disappeared without a trace. Alas, their legend burned out long before their candle ever did.
As ‘Bingo’ faded out, rather than a seamless ten-second link fronted by the evening’s presenter, Mark Lamarr, the studio audience were subjected to grumpy floor managers herding us around like cattle as we did our best to avoid tripping up on the miles of camera cables strewn across the floor. Meanwhile, Mark and Danny were back, desperate to keep everyone upbeat and looking cheery while the technicians prepared the next act on a stage at the other side of the room.
Eventually, Hanson were ready to perform. Teenage me was excited to see them as they were the boy band of the moment. Now, when one gets the opportunity to see Hanson play, there’s only one song you want to listen to. Unfortunately, this being Top of the Pops, you just got their latest single and sadly for us, ‘MMMBop’ was months ago. Desperate not to be a One Hit Wonder, the boys were playing their third single that night: a rousing, wintry ballad, ‘I Will Come to You’. Harmonies, key changes and even a string section.
Luckily for us, they weren’t coming back to these shores for a while and after filming their performance, the group announced they were also recording their Christmas Top of the Pops performance of ‘MMMBop’! Hurrah! Sorry to spoil the magic, kids, but sometimes for the purposes of television, celebs are forced to don jumpers and scarves in mid-June and sweat their way through a set filled with fake snow and mince pies, all to save the BBC a bit of cash. Hanson’s performance of ‘MMMBop’ was exactly as you’d imagine: energetic, fun and lyrically indecipherable. The Millets crew and I loved it.
As we crowded around the front of the stage, an angry cameraman in a polo shirt, wearing an earpiece, starting yelling from behind us to move out of the way. An unwieldy two-ton camera on a crane, mounted on a makeshift railway track, was hurtling towards us. It was a mad rush to save ourselves, pushing over nineteen-year-olds in stilettos to avoid losing a leg.
Britpop dregs The Seahorses followed them, with their atmospheric indie tune, ‘Love Me and Leave Me’ on the White Stage. I hated Britpop at the time — that was more Anja’s bag — but to me, just being there and seeing anyone was mind-blowing.
In between takes, a blonde woman would run on stage to touch up the performers’ foundation and lipstick. Imperceptible on screen, most bands, however masculine, were caked in the stuff: like half a dozen skinny pantomime dames dressed in Fred Perry and parkas. Just as we’d been promised, the studio heated up. Seriously. Even in the depths of winter, the lights and crowds of people would turn this black box into the biggest sauna in Borehamwood.
Ordinarily, Top of the Pops would end with a performance from whoever was that week’s Number 1. However, this was halfway through Elton John’s seven-week stint at the top with his inescapable tribute to Diana, ‘Candle in the Wind 1997’. Instead of a live performance, the programme would cut to a sombre video of news footage. The Princess’s death had thrown the entire nation into a period of mourning and wreaked havoc on the House of Windsor. It even led the Spice Girls to postpone the release of their new single, ‘Spice Up Your Life’, as the world wasn’t ready for an up-tempo party number just yet.
♦ ♦ ♦
The penultimate act on was rock ’n’ soul act Roachford, on one of the side stages, but by this point most of us Eternal fans were getting distracted by the crew setting up three microphone stands on the Main Stage. The Groupie Girls had no interest in watching his performance of ‘The Way I Feel’, choosing instead to pitch themselves at the front row of Eternal’s stage in preparation. They were Top of the Pops regulars, so weren’t awestruck by every act like I was. I diligently stood there through Roachford, enjoying his performance with a growing sense of anticipation for the main act.
As his performance ended and everyone broke into applause I knew I had to quickly get my lime-green arse across the studio floor if I was to get close enough to the front to get on telly. I managed to squeeze myself to the front, opposite the left-hand mic — the one that Kelle had used in other performances of the song on TV. Please God let it be the one she’s using tonight! After a few final minutes of bullshit jokes for the crowd and the girl with the biggest tits in the audience being awarded the ‘Best Dancer’ prize, the moment of truth had arrived.
‘Right, can you put your hands together, please… a massive round of applause for our very special, last act of the night. The one… and only… ETERNAL!’ Danny, the warm-up guy, announced. The crowd went crazy one last time and my heart raced as the girls strutted out onto the stage; visions in white under the heavenly blinding blue lights. My three angels!
Their new-look wardrobe was questionable. They’d gone from baggy armywear for their first album to sassy for the second, then mumsy chic for the recent one: lots of long coats. Fans were underwhelmed, especially as the Spice Girls were decidedly more jazzed up. Dorothy Perkins would no longer suffice. Even new girls All Saints had been branded with a trademark look: evoking early Eternal with their vest tops and combat trousers. That night though, the Eternal girls had obviously made an effort: they’d clearly upped their game, each with a stylish variation on the theme of white, as though they were taking part in the Daz Doorstep Challenge.
The Groupie Girls gossiped with Easther and Vernie, as Kelle smiled and looked on, without joining in. There was definitely something going on here. She looked isolated in the corner while the sisters lapped up the attention of their small army of self- proclaimed ‘biggest fans’. There wasn’t time for me to try to get Kelle’s attention though; the next minute we were cheering again and the opening guitar strums of their breathy, current smash ‘Angel of Mine’ were played out. For those three minutes I was in ecstasy, swaying in the crowd as the girls sang their heavenly pop. Well, the backing vocals looked to be mimed, but this was the nineties — a live vocal in any form was a rare treat.
After they had performed it once, Mark and Danny came on to let the band know if they’d got what they wanted. The girls smiled at the quiet crowd again, as they waited to get the all-clear. Right, this was my chance. Now or never…
‘Kelle!’ I screamed.
She looked around to see where the shouts were coming from, partially blinded by the glare of the stage lights. ‘KELLE!’ I bellowed again. I caught her attention finally.
‘You phoned me!’ I said with a beaming smile. Easther and Vernie were now staring at me, as well as the surrounding crowd, who had turned to see the brazen fan trying to talk to them. She looked back blankly and gave a vague, awkward smile. ‘It’s me! Malcolm! You rang me last Friday!’ I yelled, using my little finger and thumb to mimic a telephone, worried that my one chance to connect in the flesh and prove it had all happened was falling apart around me very fast. The audience started giving me weird looks and murmuring. FUCK! If she didn’t remember, everyone would think I’d made it up. That’s worse than never getting to talk to her! She looked me in the eye for a few more seconds (which felt like an eternity), the cogs turning in her head. Then suddenly the penny dropped.
‘OH! Oh, it’s you! Sorry, I was miles away. You made it here!’ Now her smile was beaming back at me. ‘It’s so nice to see you, thanks for coming down. Give my love to your mum!’ The audience and the Bennett sisters looked on in bizarre bewilderment as I let out a huge inner sigh of relief. We swapped knowing grins and I told her how happy I was to get to see them perform.
‘Wow, she phoned you?’ the girl next to me said. ‘That’s so lovely!’ For a moment, I felt like I was the famous one. There was more murmuring from the audience, who’d now turned back to talk to their friends. Mark and Danny apologised and said they wanted to record another take to get some more shots. They launched into the song again and this time Kelle looked at me throughout, smiling and singing me my own private concert. It was overwhelming. We cheered and they bade us goodbye, Kelle giving me one last wave as she left the stage.
It was over, I had done it! As soon as Eternal had cleared the stage, a rotund man with a clipboard ushered us out of the studio as unceremoniously as we’d been let in. We’d barely left the room before the crew were clearing the floor of cameras and cables, the fluorescent strip lights destroying any illusion that I was anywhere other than a warehouse by the M25 on the very edge of London.
Once outside in the dark night again, I stood with my Internet buddies, recounting every last moment of the night, all of us on such a high. There was talk of people going to the ITV studios the next day to try and see the girls record their appearance on Light Lunch (featuring two lovely young presenters called Mel and Sue).
Sure enough though, like the mom in Almost Famous honking her car horn, picking her young son up after his first brush with fame at a rock gig, there was Dad, politely beeping. Time to return home to my black-and-white life in Kansas.
♦ ♦ ♦
Back at school I had a spring in my step for a change as word spread that I ‘reckoned’ I’d attended Top of the Pops the night before. No one’s insults or doubts could hurt me. I’d already seen the light at the end of this tunnel; experienced a world way bigger than they knew about. They would see me on TV and wonder how the most bullied kid had pulled something like this off, with almost no friends.
That Friday night, as I settled into my TV dinner during Top of the Pops, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much had happened since Kelle’s call. Watching my lime-green self in the audience, with the whole family crowding around the TV set, was the icing on the cake. There I was, forever recorded in time: my lanky body bopping side to side in my massive T-shirt. Even Anja and I called a truce during those hallowed thirty minutes. No arguments; just laughter. Mum and Dad said I had a knack for blagging. Maybe this was my true calling?