Sugababes’ re-revamp: how will the girl group survive without any of its founder members?
On the 2007 Sugababes tour, an official T-shirt bore the names of all its members, past and present: “Keisha & Mutya & Siobhan & Heidi & Amelle.” In an amusing – if perhaps tellingly catty – acknowledgement of the group’s chequered history, the second and third names on the list were roughly scribbled out, as if one of the girls had crossly taken a marker pen to the design.
Four days ago, it was announced that Keisha Buchanan, sole survivor of the original lineup, had been replaced by Jade Ewen, last seen in fifth place at this year’s Eurovision. In a troubling week for long-suffering fans and overstocked merchandising companies alike, the Sugababes have gained admittance to a small, strange subset of acts, whose only shared characteristic is a desire to continue working, despite containing none of their original members.
If its fourth incarnation survives long enough to score another UK hit, the Sugababes will have achieved a rare feat indeed. Discounting occasional dabblers such as the England World Cup squad, Liverpool FC and Manchester United, only two British groups have charted with wholly different lineups. Having cracked the top 10 in 1970 with United We Stand, an all-new version of Brotherhood of Man returned six years later, with the all-conquering Save Your Kisses For Me. The same lineup is still touring today. And in early 1982, after an absence from the charts of just four months, the anonymous session musicians of Tight Fit – a hastily assembled outfit, cashing in on the Stars on 45 medley boom – were replaced by a markedly more photogenic trio, whose cover of The Lion Sleeps Tonight topped the charts.
Away from the mainstream, the world of progressive rock has demonstrated equal fickleness. Mike Ratledge, the last remaining founder member of the Soft Machine, quit the band in 1976, leaving Karl Jenkins to take over as leader of a band whose original sound had mutated out of all recognition. A similar mission-creep affected the late-70s incarnation of Gong. Under the command of drummer Pierre Moerlen, the new lineup jettisoned all lingering traces of pothead pixies and flying teapots, in favour of a stern jazz/rock fusion.
Many acts continue to ply their trade on the live circuit, long after their more bankable members have departed, secure in the knowledge that a brand alone can draw a crowd. In this respect, death is no obstacle. Dr Feelgood, Thin Lizzy and “Mud II” have all ploughed on, long after the passing of Lee Brilleaux, Phil Lynott and Les Gray – and of the three, only Lizzy – in the form of guitarist Scott Gorham – have a member who contributed to any of the hits (and he was not an original member). As for the act that tours as T.Rex, 32 years after the death of Marc Bolan, its only direct connection to the 70s lineup is with a drummer who joined in 1973. Nevertheless, they can still claim one founder member … of Saxon, that is.
In fairness to these anonymous journeymen, many have served for decades, extending the life span of their adopted bands many times over. Would that we could say the same for the current incarnation of soul legends the Drifters, who are now reduced to a mere franchise, the British legal rights to their name secured by the daughter of their original manager. Amazingly, their two longest-serving members joined as recently as 2005. (In other territories, other Drifters remain available.)
For some acts, constant shifts in personnel have been no block to success. The Three Degrees lost their last original member in 1976, but notched up major international hits for the rest of the decade. There have been 21 documented members of Napalm Death over the years, the band’s lineup even changing between sides one and two of their first album (only the drummer appears on both). And for the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, whose members were routinely booted out on their 16th birthdays, this rigorous, Logan’s Run-style approach provided a significant boost to the group’s shelf life. With this in mind, perhaps our newest Sugababe should check her contract carefully before signing.