Stuck in the Middle with Lou

This evening, BBC One’s The Great Sport Relief Bake Off sees the primetime return of the 1990s’ foremost iconic girlband escapee. No, not Geri Halliwell (although she’ll be there too) — Louise Redknapp née Nurding!

Primarily associated nowadays for the majority of the public with her footballer husband, former status as FHM’s Sexiest Woman of the Decade and a presenting gig on Sunday morning television Something for the Weekend, it’s easy to forget that Mrs Redknapp was once a considerable pop sensation.

Before Girl Power, Eternal were the UK’s premier girl group, with Louise Nurding a quarter of their initial line-up. They would go on to enjoy a no.1 as a trio without her, but that first flush of success shouldn’t be disregarded. From October 1993 to December 1994, the pop-r&b four-piece achieved two Top 5 singles, two further Top 10s and two more in the Top 15. The album Always & Forever peaked at no.2 and went quadruple platinum.

Nurding would decide to leave as the campaign ended, with solo ambitions in mind. Rumours persisted, but were denied, that the ladies had fallen out, or — more sinisterly — that a split was encouraged by EMI as a ploy to launch Eternal in the U.S. without the setback, perceived or real, of being a mixed race group (maybe there was something in that. Maybe she just fancied a go on lead vocals.)

In October 1995, just a fortnight before a streamlined Eternal returned with feminist jam ‘Power of a Woman’, Louise (now boldly mononymous) entered the charts at no.12 with her solo debut. Peaking the following week at no.8, ‘Light of My Life’ was a stately and understated ballad, with a video involving lots of rolling around in oily black sand on a beach. Second single ‘In Walked Love’ (a cover of American girlband Exposé) missed the mark, and the Top 10, but there were hits aplenty to come.

My first awareness of Louise was at nine years old, watching Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise as she performed ‘Naked’, her third single and first Top 5 hit. The performance began with Lou reclining on a garden chair, pretending to be asleep. I was transfixed by the dance formation, and the song was great (in retrospect, “I feel your lips, your fingertips / get inside, play with my mind”, is pretty filthy for pre-watershed television, no?). A month before the Spice Girls would emerge to claim the charts and hearts of a generation, she became my first favourite popstar.

I didn’t have access to MTV or The Box, so in 1996 my knowledge of music videos was essentially limited to eight included on a VHS given away free with Top of the Pops magazine. ‘Undivided Love’, Louise’s fourth single, was one of them: a minor masterpiece in black-and-white, replete with underwater swimming and a dance routine involving walking sticks as props. The glamour!

(The next video could even be said to be somewhat pioneering. Two decades before ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Bitch I’m Madonna’, 1996 slow jam ‘One Kiss from Heaven’ boasted a #squadgoals video to die for, starring Michelle Gayle, Martine McCutcheon, Boyzone’s Shane Lynch, Sean Maguire, former bandmate Kellé Bryan and future husband Jamie.)

Louise’s debut tour in 1997 — sponsored by deodorant brand Soft and Gentle, with support acts Cleopatra and Ultra — was my first proper pop concert. I went with my friend Lauren to the Bournemouth International Centre. We screamed, sang along and banged the floor of the balcony with our feet in anticipation of the encore. It was great.

When I took my SATs in Year 6, there was a faintly nauseating tradition of children bringing good-luck talismans to have on our desks. I can still remember the look of bemusement and alarm my teacher plainly failed to hide at mine: a cut-out from TV Hits magazine of Louise winking, with the caption “awright, darling?”

As breakout stars from British bands go, Louise’s success is a lot more impressive than she would often be given credit for, racking up nine solo UK Top 10 hits — that’s more than Annie Lennox, Gary Barlow, Cheryl, or any one of the Spices (yes, you heard. Bow down to your true pop queen, Great Britain). The first two albums, 1996's Naked and 1997's Woman in Me made the Top 10, both going platinum.

Looking back, the music wasn’t particularly innovative or revelatory, but was often very good: elegant, hook-laden and charming in a vaguely coquettish manner, a PG-rated take on the early 1990s r&b modes of Janet Jackson and Madonna.

I still listen to the hits on a regular basis, at least a few times a year. ‘Naked’ and ‘Undivided Love’ are indisputable bangers, as is ‘Arms Around the World’ (a fairly brazen homage to Janet’s ‘Runaway’). Covers of ‘Let’s Go Round Again’ and ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ were characterful enough to outperform the originals by Average White Band and Stealer’s Wheel.

Chart peak ‘2 Faced’ (no.3, from 2000's Elbow Beach), a riposte to gossipmongers everywhere, has a spoken-word section that is, frankly, little short of iconic:

“Who does she think she is?”
 “Do you reckon they’re real?”
 [Lou, bursting in to the room] “Hi girls!”
 [gossiping friends, almost busted] “HI LOUISE! You look great!!”

Q magazine’s review of 2001 greatest hits collection Changing Faces awarded a polite three stars for a career of “cute pop moments”, which is a reasonable assessment. That said, empowerment anthem ‘Beautiful Inside’ proved at least something of an edge, with a sample of the Wu Tang Clan.

If you’re inclined to explore further, there are several album tracks that are distinctly above average: ‘That’s the Way I Like It’, ‘Woman in Me’, ‘Running Back for More’, ‘Love Will Bring You Back to Me’, ‘First Kiss (The Wedding Song)’ and ‘For Your Eyes Only’ come recommended. ‘The Best That You Bring’ is, fittingly, the best.

With the smarts to leave pop behind before success eluded her (or perhaps just satisfaction at a job well done and a desire for new ventures), Louise hung up her microphone in 2003 after a final no.5 hit with ‘Pandora’s Kiss’/’Don’t Give Up’, a charity double-A side for Breast Cancer Care.

‘Don’t Give Up’ made the astonishing move of sampling the Asda advert jingle (a hitherto unrevealed penchant for the avant-garde making for as perplexing a pop exit as Bowie).

These days Louise Redknapp is kept busy by motherhood, make-up range Wild About Beauty, and Instagramming cocktails on Shoreditch nights out. But if she ever decides to “try giving up the make-up” (‘Beautiful Inside’ reference, keep up guys), even if just for a weekend, there’s surely a stage for her (a secret headline slot closing London Pride would actually be the stuff of dreams for more than a few Gays-of-a-Certain Age if you’re reading, Lou).

Tonight on the BBC, I’ll just be happy to hear even a reference to an underappreciated music career. Undivided Loaf, anyone?

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