We’re #2! – Boyzone’s “Love Me for a Reason”

“Don’t love me for fun, girl.  Let me be the one, girl.  Love me for a reason, let the reason be love.”

Inspired by Tom Ewing’s “Popular” (which traces the history of UK #1 singles) and Tom Breihan’s “The Number Ones” (which does the same for US #1s), “We’re #2!” looks at the history of those songs which almost but not-quite managed to reach the summit of the UK Singles Chart, beginning a quarter century back from this column’s inception (March 2019) up until whenever the Present Day comes about.

015] Boyzone – Love Me for a Reason

Reached #2: 1st January 1995

Weeks at #2: 1

As a once-beloved TV show that flamed out spectacularly (and then continued on to mild indifference) famously bequeathed the meme gods, time is a flat circle.  As a much better once-beloved TV show that flamed out spectacularly (and I have actually watched) more directly put it, all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.  That mantra is nearly always relevant when examining the pop charts, where things operate in cycles regardless of the nebulous “pop” genre’s attempts to make like a shark and constantly move forward, and it’s specifically relevant to today’s entry for two reasons.

The first is that nostalgia always wins out in the race for pop supremacy.  Oftentimes that comes about due to sample work – a trend we’ll be seriously arriving at in just a few short years – but mainly that came from slavishly faithful covers.  That comforting twang of familiarity in an era before every single song ever made was just a ten second Spotify/YouTube search away and oldies stations on the radio dial, whilst still a thing, weren’t the bustling and non-grandparent-stenched propositions they are now.  It’s that song you liked as a child, but Now!  We got through a lot of these types of covers in the UK during the 90s and we’ll be getting through plenty more before the series is done.  “Love Me for a Reason” was originally written and recorded by former-Motown star producer Johnny Bristol for his big transition to a singer-songwriter under MGM Records in 1974, Hang On in There Baby, only for his new labelmates The Osmonds to get their hands on it and score their last major hit – peaking at #10 in the US but going all the way to #1 in the UK.  (Tom Ewing has a write-up on The Osmonds’ version for Popular.)

The second reason why “time is a yadda yadda” is specifically relevant to today’s entry comes from a tale as old as pop music itself: there is no genre of music that adult-contemporary won’t eventually water down into its blandest and most lifeless form.  Blues, rock & roll, jazz pop, reggae, R&B…  Of the three versions of “Love Me for a Reason” we’ll be covering, Bristol’s is easily the best.  Sure, it may skirt right up to the line of kitschy ornate-pop parody with that intro and the friggin’ harpsichord twinkling all over it, but it carries the orchestrated soul of a Motown deep-cut and Bristol sings that chorus with tangible passion and urgency; begging, nay, demanding that his partner not play around with his heart.  Love him, dammit, for a genuine reason!  He’s been played too long and hurt too much to have this happen to him again.

The Osmonds’ version, in addition to replacing “hon” with “girl” in a manner that both changes the narrator into coming off as more of a dick than in Bristol’s original – “hon” implies affection which is what makes his fear of being strung along so emotional, “girl” is condescending and dismissive which implies that the guy isn’t all that interested – and feels like subtle racial coding, tidies up all of the song’s rough edges and removes all urgency.  They suck the soul out, slow it down a tad, and play the results as a bland inoffensive non-threatening love song, complete with added Last Chorus Key Change cos did you really think we were getting out of here without one of those?  The strong original song is still there and the results are agreeable, but the cover lacks that certain something which otherwise makes the song.  There’s precious little soul in what is clearly meant to be a soul song.

That’s an example of what I’m talking about in the micro form.  In the macro form: the late 80s and early 90s saw the pop scene, partly spurred on by the mega-conquering successes of Jacksons Michael and Janet in ’87 and ’86 (respectively), attempting to figure out how best to subsume the rising excitement of R&B, its offshoots like new jack swing, and the rising underground club scene into mainstream non-threatening pop radio.  New Edition didn’t make sustained waves in the UK – and you may be shocked to discover that “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe topped out at #19 – but their influence on early boybands and the music they were putting out here was palpable.  Bros. worked in hi-NRG, New Kids on the Block set the template that many boybands would follow for the next half-decade, and then the combined might of Take That and East 17 proved that Britain could replicate the American formula for themselves.  Both acts crossed light club, light hip hop, and light R&B strands together to create something with the hooks and cool sexual iconography of all three subgenres and none of the, shall we say, “urban” colouring.

(This is a whole can of worms I’m opening up, admittedly, and we don’t have time to go into proper depth on it.  But we’ll be coming back to race and UK pop charts a lot throughout this series, so we’ll hopefully get to do a proper deep dive into this thorny issue as time goes on.)

But thorny can of worms relating to racial undercurrents aside, there’s at least a mild sincerity to their existences.  Both artists would happily make a play for crossing over into the adult-contemporary scene and charts, largely due to the genre having somewhat softened its hardline-conservative attitudes towards the signifiers of the R&B and hip/trip-hop genres that pop had spent a good half-decade pillaging from, but much of the time it felt genuine.  A necessary response to where pop was going, as befitting the genre’s paradoxical existence – wanting to keep out the hardness, sexuality, politics and non-Whiteness of the pop scene (a decision which helped shape soft rock as a genre) but also not wanting to be seen as totally lame and backwards-looking.  A Take That ballad, for example “Pray,” didn’t feel like a cynical move to soften their image in an effort to appeal to the radio stations outside of their core teenage fanbase, and their eventual stately moves (one of which we’ll come to shortly) was a natural progression from Gary Barlow, the boys and their fans growing up.

Adult contemporary, therefore, doesn’t have to be a dirty word so long as there’s inspiration, passion, and quality musicianship on display – after all, you’re reading the words of somebody who thinks that Savage Garden’s two records are examples of the absolute best 90s pop had to offer (we unfortunately will not be meeting Savage Garden in this series).  It’s just that the genre at its absolute worst has a stench that cannot be avoided: a soul-sucking vanilla-isation which goes about ruining every other genre it touches.  Back in the late-60s and early-70s, that was The Osmonds going around systematically ruining pop-rock and pop-soul by laying the foundations for unlistenable chintzy dreck like Captain & Tenille.  In 1995, the harbinger of doom for agreeable MOR pop music in a decade that couldn’t figure out exactly what kind of MOR pop music it wanted was Boyzone.

We’re going to meet Boyzone a bunch throughout this series, so I’ll save the history lesson on these guys for later – don’t want to burn through all my material for our first major recurring players in one go, plus the next time we’ll see them is when their origin story will actually be the most relevant – and focus mainly on the song, the British public’s first major exposure to the reason why Louis Walsh has a career.  But a little additional context is necessary.  In 1994, Take That were one of the biggest groups in Britain with their sophomore record Everything Changes having scored four straight #1 singles and even a Mercury Prize nomination.  But those in the know (and tabloid papers) got wind of the fact that Take That may not have been long for this world, with Robbie Williams becoming more and more chafed by the restraints of the group and his ego clashes with Barlow.  Despite currently riding high on “Stay Another Day,” neither were their perennial #2s, East 17.  Undoubtedly, there would soon be an opening in the market for a new Biggest Boyband in Britain, so the question was who would fill that void.

And then, right on cue as Take That were gearing up to release their world-conquering third album and also completely disintegrate whilst doing so, up popped Boyzone.  Formed, as these things usually were, by newspaper ads across Ireland and specifically pitched as the Irish Take That, they actively bit the style and moves of the current-Biggest Boyband in Britain with a total lack of shame.  I mean, Christ, look at this goddamn video!  The candles, the soft-focus, the cross-dissolves, the fact that only two members of the group get any actual focus time on the mic (one of which would end up being the primary writer for and de-facto leader of the group as time went on), the producer (Ray Hedges) having worked with Take That before, aiming for the big breakthrough to be a cover of a song originally written by a Black soul artist but made famous in the UK by a substantially inferior White artist – Take That’s breakthrough single was a cover of Tavares’ “It Only Takes a Minute,” a song which went nowhere in the UK until covered by convicted paedophile Jonathan King (performing under the One Hundred Ton and a Feather alias) in 1976 who took it to #9.

Nobody could accuse Louis Walsh of false advertising, then.  But Boyzone, for all their naked biting of their forebearers, were a substantially more chaste and “sophisticated” act than Take That.  Their outfits in the video consist of ill-fitting suits with, at most, just two buttons undone in an effort to communicate maturity and respectfulness rather than the sexual lust of many a Take That song.  Ronan Keating and Keith Duffy later wear knitted turtleneck sweaters and all five of them partake in this ridiculous awkward dad-swaying rather than actually dancing, gesticulating wildly like not a single one of them or their team has any idea how they’re supposed to look or move when performing a song like this.  If these five were presented with a shower a la the “Pray” video, you get the feeling that they’d Tobias Fünke the endeavour rather than even remotely entertain the idea of expressing some raw animal magnetism.  They are the Non-Threatening Boys Magazine of boybands.

And I harp on the image so much because the song is similarly so beige-ly dull and humorously inept.  The tempo has been picked up a slight bit from the Osmonds’ take, at least, and it’s genuinely nice to hear a boyband/girl-group where each vocalist has a distinct voice, delivery and series of tics/affects that means I can individually tell them apart – not always a guarantee in this line of pop music and the main reason why the song escapes with more than just a 1.  I may get a laugh from the double-tracked falsetto ad-libs in the pre-chorus that constantly push in out of nowhere, and all five members (especially when paired together on the chorus) are aiming for bland power rather than emotional feeling which means that the lyrics still don’t have the earnest meaning imbued by Bristol’s original, but the vocals are indeed agreeably pleasant and technically fine.  Keating’s yet to settle into that overwrought baritone which renders him somewhat comical, whilst Stephen Gately’s alto also hasn’t quite settled yet so he sounds rather charmingly thin at times (the sound of somebody trying really hard to nail those high notes and settling for a half-step down).

What really kills the cover, besides the performers yet again failing to grasp that this isn’t a love song and is in fact full of anxious paranoid pain, is the production.  Frankly, I imagine this sounded dated and cheap even back in 1994 yet alone 25 years on.  Sure, there had been major hits in 94 that had similar audible touchstones and soundscapes, major hits that I even liked such as “I Swear” and “Breathe Again,” but the difference is in intent and limitation.  Both of those songs have a similar synthetic programmed sound to them, but they lean into that fact.  They make an art out of that negative space, the juxtaposition between the programmed (or in the case of “Breathe” programmed-sounding) beats and the human voices cooing romantic sentiments; songs to slow-dance to and, for better or worse, feel contemporary with that time.

“Love Me for a Reason,” however, sees Hedges desperately attempting to replicate the soundscape of an ornate 70s soft-rock number entirely within the chintzy package of a few Casio presets.  The results are an absolute embarrassment.  The drums have far too harsh a snap for the mood of the song, the vocal production is blaring, and the instrumentation often gets lost in a clattering miasma.  There’s a synthesised woodwind in the verses that reminds me way too much of the audio guide tracks they add to karaoke versions of songs to help out those too drunk or overconfident to remember the melody.  A post-chorus trumpet and string solo is replicated entirely through the key presets and the results come way too close to new-age health spa music for their own good.  The Last Chorus Key Change is still kept except that it now comes less than 20 seconds from the song’s end and therefore involves a hilarious emergency fade-out halfway through as if either nobody actually wanted the Change in there but it was 1994 and there were laws in pop music against not having one or they ran out of tape and couldn’t afford to record for even a second longer hence this slapdash fix.

That’s what I mean by “humorously inept” and why, honestly, I think I may have developed a mild ironic fondness for the Boyzone take over the course of writing this belated entry.  Sure, it’s deeply cynical and lifeless pop music made solely to chase trends and abuse the “time being a flat pizza” concept – it’s that thing you liked as a child, but Now and completely safe of anything non-virtuous that could get you banished to hell!  But it’s deeply cynical and lifeless pop music made solely to chase trends and abuse the “time being a flat frisbee” concept made by people who at the time quite possibly had never actually heard pop music before and were just fumbling through their best approximation.  Like when an Englishman goes on holiday to foreign countries where they haven’t bothered to learn the language and so just spend their time pointing at the thing they want and yelling its name progressively louder in the hopes that somehow transcends the language barrier.  Plus, as mentioned, Johnny Bristol’s song is low-key great and if it was able to survive the sterilised mangling of The Osmonds then it could withstand Boyzone.  “Love Me” probably would’ve also ended up hitting #1 again in this form had it not launched right as the East 17/Mariah Carey Christmas scrum was getting underway; it certainly sold consistently enough to have done so under different circumstances.

Still, hits weren’t exactly going to be in short supply for Boyzone.  We will be seeing them in this column again very soon.

Bonus Beats: In 1999, presumably just after Boyzone announced their first break-up, punk record label Damaged Goods put out a limited edition 7’ single attributed solely to a group called Oizone (with no listed members or any further information) which turned “Love Me for a Reason” (plus another song we’ll cover soon) into a hardcore pub-punk thrashabout.  I have absolutely no clue as to why this exists and I think I love it.

The #1: “Love Me for a Reason” was held off its attempted surge to the #1 spot by the fifth and final week of East 17’s “Stay Another Day.”  We will end up covering East 17 and their swift decline and violent implosion after this single roughly 18 months in-universe from now.  “Stay Another Day” is still a 2.

A new entry of We’re #2! will be posted every Saturday.

Callie Petch is the lyrical gangster (MURDERER), dial emergency number (MURDERER).

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