Gossip’s roots are in punk rock and the riot grrrl scene, but over the past few years they’ve gradually become fascinated with the producer-and-vocalist-driven side of radio pop, as anyone who’s seen frontwoman Beth Ditto burst into an Aaliyah song on stage can attest. With their new album A Joyful Noise, they’re diving into that scene, and specifically into the British end of it: The album’s produced by Brian Higgins, who also co-wrote a couple of its songs, including the first single, “Perfect World.”
Higgins is a massively successful hitmaker in nearly the entire English-speaking world, aside from the U.S. — a lot of the records written and produced by his pop collective Xenomania haven’t even been released in America. Still, you almost certainly know his breakthrough song: Cher’s “Believe,” which he wrote in its original form. (The chorus is his; nearly everything else was apparently tweaked to some extent or other after Higgins’ demo recording.)
Higgins had been operating under the name “Xenomania” (as in, the opposite of xenophobia) for a few years, but following the success of “Believe,” Higgins set it up as a production house — a group of songwriters and producers working together under his direction in a country house in Kent. Over the past decade, Xenomania has been outlandishly successful in the U.K., and the first of their 35 British top 10 hits was Sugababes’ 2002 single “Round Round.” It started out as a drum track, to which Higgins added a chorus hook that one of his associates had come up with a few years earlier. Then Xenomania assembled more bits of it piecemeal, including lyrical input from the three Sugababes, and before they knew it they had a #1 record whose co-writers numbered in the double digits.
The group that’s most closely associated with Xenomania, though, is Girls Aloud — a girl group that was assembled on the reality TV show Popstars: The Rivals, and 19 of whose 20 British Top Ten hits are Xenomania productions. Supposedly Higgins’ favorite recording he’s worked on, Girls Aloud’s 2005 single “Biology” kicks aside a lot of the rules of contemporary dance-pop: The chorus doesn’t show up until the song’s already been going on for two minutes; the introduction is a piano-and-guitar blues riff, of all things; the lyrics seem more free-associated than written (“So I got my cappuccino to go/ And I’m heading for the hills again…”). But it works spectacularly, especially in the context of a group with five singers: it sounds like five different songs that happen to sound great when they’re played at the same time.
Their 2007 single “Sexy! No No No…,” despite a title that makes it look like a badly translated Italian comedy, might be even better. It’s got a sample from Nazareth’s mid-’70s cowbell rocker “Hair of the Dog” in there somewhere, as well as some acid-house keyboard bleeps, stuttering, whooping, and a lyric that rhymes “toffee” and “coffee.” Despite all of that, Girls Aloud have yet to chart — at all — in the States. Maybe America just doesn’t like songs that mention toffee.
Alesha Dixon is another name that’s very familiar in the U.K. and basically unknown in the U.S. — she was a member of Mis-Teeq in the early 2000s, and subsequently a judge on the reality shows Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent. She’s also a solo singer, and had a #5 single in the U.K. with this 2008 Xenomania collaboration, a mambo-ish song called “The Boy Does Nothing.”
16-year-old Australian singer Gabriella Cilmi’s first single was “Sweet About Me,” for which Xenomania surprisingly didn’t go the over-the-top route they’d taken with Girls Aloud and Sugababes. Instead, they wrote a gentle, ‘60s-inflected soul tune that played up the slight harsh edges in Cilmi’s voice with its hook (“nothing sweet about me”). It went to #1 in Australia in 2008.
A handful of established rock bands–even some known for writing their own material–have tried to work with Xenomania too, although Higgins’ attempts to collaborate with New Order and Franz Ferdinand didn’t work out. He worked with Pet Shop Boys on their 2009 album Yes, and Xenomania has also produced a handful of tracks over the years for Saint Etienne, including their 2008 single “Burned Out Car.”
As strange a combination as Gossip and Xenomania seems to be on its surface, it does make some sense. Beth Ditto’s got the kind of odd but thrilling voice that Higgins gravitates toward; both groups are very fond of messing with verse/chorus conventions of songwriting (as in Gossip’s 2006 single “Standing in the Way of Control,” below). And it also might be significant that Gossip are the rare American band who are a much, much bigger deal in Great Britain than they are back home.