Wednesday, 22 February 2006



I just wanted to express (and therefore get rid of) the growing fear I have about my upcoming grading. I'm going for my orange belt soon (I'll let you know when it was if I pass!). It's the third belt (blue, green, orange, purple, brown, black) and I will be immensely chuffed if and when I get it as the whole process has been so unexpected.

When I got into kickboxing I did it merely to get fit. I'd recently come through the traumatic break-up of a three year relationship and needed something to take my mind off it and fill my life. I'd always wanted to take up a martial art or similar (I had a brief dabble with Tae Kwon Do at university) and saw my new-found freedom as the perfect opportunity to do so.

Kickboxing was perfect for me. An inspirational exercising of both body and mind that allowed me to get to know myself in a way I never thought possible. It made me realise just how little I knew the limits of my body (and mind) and how I could push and improve them. And it was (and still is) a massive source of confidence. I'd gone into it with what was my usual attitude - just do as much as I can, if I don't like it bail out. But I discovered I had something of a talent for it and the teachers taught me a new attitude - do as much as you can and if you find something hard, keep trying until you can do it better.

Armed with this new attitude I embarked on the grading journey. What was amazing about this was that I didn't have to. Our school caters for people of differing attitudes to the sport, you can become as involved (or not) as you like. But with the encouragement of my teachers - they tell you straight up whether you're good enough to grade or not - I decided to take a chance and see what happened. I got my blue belt. I was so proud. I told everyone I knew.

Now I'm on a journey that I can't turn back from, and what surprises me is that I don't want to. I want that orange belt more than anything. It will be my biggest achievement this year, no doubt. But there's the little fear that I'll have travelled on this road that little bit too far, and that what I want to achieve is beyond my reach. I've gotten very good at ignoring that fear - it's easy when you have someone who has practiced martial arts for over 20 years telling you that you're good enough to grade. But it's still there.

My technique is good but my speed needs improving. The reason I'm slow is less to do with power and more to do with the fact that (this is where it gets a bit grose) my feet don't sweat as much as other people's. I can't get a good grip on the floor. I need to find something that gives me a bit of traction (we can't wear footwear). But I do worry about the power aspect as well. Will I have enough stamina to get through two hours of non-stop frenetic physical activity? My breakfast that morning will be bananas. Lots of them.

I know I can do it. I'm just nervous. Old insecurities are niggling. It's all about preparation, and working hard towards a goal that is absolutely achievable if I put my mind to it.

Aah, I feel better now. Wish me luck.

Monday, 20 February 2006



Today I am learning shorthand. I started learning in my first year of university but back then I was a lazy student and so stopped cos it was a bit hard. Now I am an adult (sort of, officially anyway) with a longer attention span and am not scared of hard things (he he).

Also, as my flatmate Jen insightfully pointed out, it is cool and like a language for spies. Which is good as I would love to be a spy. This is one step closer.

Did I mention my name? The name's Marlow, Wil Marlow.

Wednesday, 8 February 2006

total:spec - Sugababes

The annals of music history are littered with girl groups who’ve gone through line-up changes. The Supremes, for example, went through numerous changes of staff both before and after Diana Ross. Since then we’ve seen bands like Destiny’s Child, Atomic Kitten and the Sugababes go through the same upheaval and continue on to enjoy more chart success. But while no one blinked an eye at one Supreme being replaced by another, these days it’s more of a story.

In the 80s Bananarama changed how everyone viewed girl bands. They were the first female group to espouse the gang ethic that had long been the domain of only rock bands. Keren Woodward and Sarah Dallin had been mates since school, and Siobhan Fahey was a mate of theirs from college. And so when Fahey left in 1988, to be replaced by Jacquie O’Sullivan, it didn’t work. There was no longer the sense that these girls were tight, a gang of mates that gangs of girls across the land could relate to.

They set a precedent that UK girl groups have felt the need to stick too ever since – the Spice Girls refused to replace Geri Halliwell on her departure, All Saints split up rather than get new members in (and have now gotten back together with the original line-up), Girls Aloud retain a united front despite rumours of in-fighting. There have been the exceptions, such as Atomic Kitten, but they never gained any credibility throughout their tenure in the charts. And the American girl groups – En Vogue, for example, or Destiny’s Child – have remained unaffected by Bananarama’s influence.

And then there’s the Sugababes, who are an exception all of their own. They may have gone through two line-up changes during their eight year career, yet they have retained an impressive amount of credibility. While Girls Aloud are a guilty pleasure, Sugababes are the girl band it’s okay to like. They may obviously be a product of skillful management but somehow they continue to exude that gang mentality that allows young girls to relate to them, and other music lovers to respect them.

“What’s the secret to our success? Communication,” says founder member Keisha Buchanan, 21. “You can't be successful if you don't get along. Especially girl bands – most of the time when they break up, that's the reason why. I think once you find your common ground, you know and respect each other. And I guess holding your mouth on a lot of occasions does help. I'm not the only child, but when I was growing up, I used to be bossy and spoilt 'cos I got everything I wanted - and being in a group, you learn how to share.”

Buchanan’s comments are telling. Rumours of in-fighting have dogged the band since their formation, and seemed to be confirmed when another founder member, Siobhan Donaghy, left in 2001 amid reports she was being bullied by Keisha and third member Mutya Buena. When Heidi Range (an original member of Atomic Kitten no less) joined to replace Donaghy. The reports of fighting and bullying continued, and have done now that Buena has left to be replaced by Amelle Berrebah.

“That's what [the press] did when I joined,” says 22-year-old Range. “There've been all these stories about two of us not getting on with the other one for ages so it's nothing new to us. It’s just them trying to keep a story going."

It’s a common tactic of tabloids when females work together in the public eye. Whether it’s girl bands or groups of actresses (see the coverage of the alleged in-fighting amongst the Desperate Housewives cast, and Sex & the City before them), the inevitable story will be that they don’t get on.

But it’s helped the Sugababes in a way. The fact that they’ve soldiered on and the band has held together for longer than the rumours would suggest is possible, has given them an enormous amount of credibility. The girls themselves acknowledge how the tabloid coverage has helped.

“We've never said anything bad about them - we just wish they wouldn't pick on us,” says Buchanan. “But then for this album, they've been pretty cool.”
“It's not all the tabloid press - it's just a few people that we've never even met,” adds Range.

“I think it helped that we took a break [there was two years between this album and the last],” says Buchanan. “When we left the public eye, the rumours [of in-fighting] were at their height so it was better for us. [The tabloids] do help a lot with publicity though. And that helps with our success.”

So four albums in and they’re still going strong. Taller In More Ways, their latest opus, was released last October and gave the band their first No 1 album. It followed a No 1 single with Push The Button, their fourth, and heralded an exciting 2006 for the band. Not only did they have a big tour of their own planned, but it was announced that the girls were to be supporting Take That on their reunion tour.

As such, when Buena left at the tail end of last year, it was seen, understandably, as something of a crisis. But after her departure was announced on December 21 (for ‘personal reasons’ which we’ll go into later), new member Berrebah was drafted in with startling efficiency. Two months later and the girls (now Buchanan, Range and Berrebah for those getting a little confused) have got the girl gang act, if it is an act, down pat.

We meet in a north London rehearsal studio where they are about to start rehearsals. Mike Skinner is wondering about reception on his mobile phone, taking a break from working on the new The Streets album. Buchanan is late. You get the feeling from the record label PR that this is not unusual. When we finally get together they display an easy camaraderie that certainly doesn’t seem forced. There’s plenty of knowing looks and giggles, particularly when the subject gets on to boyfriends. Range and Berrebah have obviously bonded over the fact that both have been going out with their respective boyfriends (TV presenter Dave Berry and former tree surgeon Freddie) for over two years and share the exact same anniversary.

Talk immediately turns to the sudden departure of Buena, and arrival of Berrebah. Buena’s departure, it seems, was on the cards for some time. She gave birth to her first child, a daughter Tahlia, in March last year, and it was this that most assumed she was referring to with her statement saying she was leaving for ‘personal reasons’.  Buchanan and Range say it was nothing to do with Buena wanting to spend more time with her child.

“It was just that she wanted to leave something that she'd been doing for most of her life,” says Buchanan. “She wanted to go and do her own thing. How do we feel about it? We're cool because we have Amelle now and we're in a better position now than we've ever been. It's nice because it feels like a kick up the butt. I think that at every point in everyone's career people get complacent. To have this happen in the middle of promoting an album, even though it's a sad thing, at the same time there's something positive about us getting Amelle."

"It wasn’t a shock,” adds Range. “We knew it might happen. But when she actually said it, it was a shock to hear."

"We weren't expecting it that soon,” agrees Buchanan. “We didn't know when to expect it really, but we knew it was coming."

And so Buena has already begun working on her solo career, even recording tracks before the announcement about her departure was made.

“My friend heard one of her tracks," says Buchanan. “He said it was cool. It was one of his friends that did the track with her. He said it was quite different to the Sugababes, more R&B."

Buena’s departure has especially been a wrench for Buchanan. She has been friends with Buena since they were nine, and in the band with her since they were 11.

“It still is hard,” she says. “She hasn't really been out for that long and the change happened so quickly. It's strangely weird and there are going to be days where I get down about the whole thing, just because I'm not seeing her there, not because I want her back or anything. I'm 110% fine with Amelle being here and I love this new line-up, and just the energy around it is great. But at the same time, obviously when you've been with someone every day for so long - I've seen her more than my own mum - it's a bit weird. If someone says her name I'm still a bit like, where is she? It will take a little while but as long as I know she's going to be in my life and that she’s happy I’ll be fine."

There was never any consideration given to ending the band?

“It was one of those things where you just have think, is this what I want?” says Buchanan. “And this is what I want to do so we just have to get on with it. Life goes on."

“We love what we do,” says Range. “And that we've got something good here."

"Sugababes were never held together by one person,” says Buchanan. “The reason we got Heidi in in the first place was that we wanted to carry on the name. It wasn’t like Mut was holding the whole thing together, same as I'm not and Heidi's not. If two people want to carry on the name, why not? We all wrote equally and we all sang equally, so there was no reason to stop."

The impressive machinations of the Sugababes’ management team that have made the band such a success were clear for all to see with the quick arrival of Berrebah. They had spotted her some two years ago when she had performed at a showcase in America with her sister in their group Boo 2. She was thrown in at the deep end with the Sugababes however.

“When they called me, they didn’t tell me what it was about first of all,” says 22-year-old Berrebah. “They just said, ‘We've got something big for you’, and that I couldn’t tell anyone. I was in London the next day to meet the manager. He told me in the car and I nearly had a heart attack. I couldn't take it in. As soon as I got out the car I was in the studio recording a song, to see if my voice fitted in. It was literally that quick. It's just sort of sunk in now."

Berrebah has re-recorded the entire Taller In More Ways album, and it’s been re-issued with new artwork featuring the new member. Buena is quickly being consigned to the past. All three of the girls are excited about going on tour, in their overwhelming positive, media-trained way. But it seems genuine.

The secret to their success is communication, not just between themselves, but to the outside world. While the ‘girls together’ image has been ruined twice by members departing, what the Sugababes are good at is rallying together quickly with a new member. They might fight, but you’ll never truly believe they’re not friends.