‘God bless them for singing “Let’s go Eskimo” without question’: How Girls Aloud made Britain’s best 21st-century pop album

‘We were all trying to make this thing a success, and we actually did’: The seminal British pop group Girls Aloud in 2004 (Getty/iStock)
‘We were all trying to make this thing a success, and we actually did’: The seminal British pop group Girls Aloud in 2004 (Getty/iStock)

In November 2002, the British public voted a fivesome of aspiring singers into a pop group. It was not immediately obvious that they would go on to become the UK’s biggest-selling girlband of the 21st century. Formed on the ITV talent show Popstars: The Rivals, a boyband versus girlband spin on a format that had one year earlier birthed the speedily vanished Hear’Say, Girls Aloud immediately differentiated themselves from the sanguine radio pop of peers such as Atomic Kitten and Westlife.

Most significantly, Girls Aloud – comprised of Nadine Coyle, Cheryl Tweedy, Nicola Roberts, Kimberley Walsh and Sarah Harding – were cool. Their debut single “Sound of the Underground”, with its surf guitar and jittery drum-and-bass lines, sounded like nothing else at the time of its release. Their sound as a band would be polished and pop, but with an edge that always veered into the utterly bizarre.

It wasn’t, however, a smooth ride. “Sound of the Underground” rode a wave of ITV hype to top the charts for four weeks, but sales of their debut album of the same name had underwhelmed their label Polydor. A second album – and there was no guarantee they’d even get one – would need to alleviate fears about the band’s longevity, their musical identity and the ambiguity of the five women in the group.

As the band prepare to embark upon a sold-out reunion tour of arenas across the UK and Ireland – which also serves as a celebration of Harding, who died from cancer in 2021 – we sat down with many of the players involved in the making of what would become 2004’s What Will the Neighbours Say?

Just released for the first time on vinyl, the album housed smashes including “The Show” and “Love Machine” – pop oddities honed by the maestros at production house Xenomania, which at first confused Girls Aloud themselves but came to define who they are as artists and figures of Noughties Britannia.

‘Fifty per cent of the first album wasn’t good enough’

In the autumn of 2003, the future was unclear for Girls Aloud. Despite massive investment from Polydor and ITV, sales of the group’s debut album were lower than anticipated, their last hope being a cover of The Pointer Sisters’s “Jump” for the soundtrack to romcom ‘Love Actually’.

Colin Barlow, head of A&R at Polydor: It felt like the audience wasn’t quite sure what they were.

Peter Loraine, head of marketing at Polydor: In those days a lot of the artists signed to the label were selling a million albums [and] the Girls Aloud album [sold] only around 300,000. The concern from higher up was, you’ve had this opportunity – how can you make it grow rather than decline?

Nicola Roberts: I remember just before “Jump” getting a call and it was suggested, quite blasély, that the label might not be picking up the option for the second album. [I thought] Oh my god, this literally could all be over…

Nadine Coyle: I was being so dramatic, and my mom was like, “Well – you didn’t have an album deal last year and you were fine?” So I calmed down a bit and thought, even if [a second album] doesn’t happen, it was a great run. We had a number one for four weeks with “Sound of the Underground”!

Poppy Stanton, marketing manager at Polydor: Peter and I had to fight quite hard for the girls.

Barlow: What was a massive change was when we did “Jump” for Love Actually, and it became huge. I think that really solidified Girls Aloud.

Loraine: The first album was this hodgepodge of songs. I would put my neck on the line and say probably only 50 per cent are good enough.

Barlow: What we’d learnt from the first album was that Xenomania should do everything.

Brian Higgins, producer at Xenomania: Colin Barlow phoned me and said: “You’ve got to make this whole album for it to work”. It was a shock to me because we were used to competing with producers from Sweden left, right and centre. He said that if we didn’t agree now to make the whole album, he couldn’t guarantee the outcome.

Barlow: I sat with Brian and Miranda and said “You are Girls Aloud. No one else is going to write with the girls.” We all very much felt like they were part of the group.

Miranda Cooper, songwriter at Xenomania: It was absolutely not a given that the girls would be making this record, and so that very much bonded us with them.

‘We had to fight quite hard for the girls’: The group in December 2002, celebrating their Christmas No 1 ‘Sound of the Underground’ (Tim Anderson/Shutterstock)
‘We had to fight quite hard for the girls’: The group in December 2002, celebrating their Christmas No 1 ‘Sound of the Underground’ (Tim Anderson/Shutterstock)

‘You can’t have a pop group where the average person on the street only knows two of their names’

With the production team in place and the second album officially greenlit, Polydor execs set about deciding how the group would be reintroduced to the public – and how they could be established as bona fide pop superstars.

Stanton: The feedback was that people didn’t really know who they were. Some still didn’t know the girls’s names, and felt like they were perhaps a bit serious.

Loraine: I’d come from editing Top of the Pops magazine, and we’d spend hours sifting through mail bags of letters from teenagers letting us know what they liked and what they didn’t. I felt like I had a good handle on what ingredients made up a good pop group. Fans want to be able to have their favourite member in a group. You can’t have a pop group where the average person on the street only knows two of their names.

Barlow: Peter Loraine was the marketing genius behind the band. He had named the original Spice Girls so he understood what it took to really establish a brand.

Roberts: I think they spent thousands on market research asking, “Can you name them? Which one do you like? What do you like about this one?” We just automatically assumed we were going to be products because it’s part and parcel with what we do. As much as it might have been uncomfortable and a culture shock, it was the deal you made.

Paul West, art director at the branding and design agency Form: Our brief was to make the girls household names, as individuals as well as a band.

Stanton: I sketched out an idea which was a stage with director’s chairs with the girls’ names on them, to reinforce their names to the public.

West: One of the ideas we put forward was the idea of filmic, larger than life visual references – things like Russ Meyer films, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Modesty Blaise, Charlie’s Angels, very much “women in control”. The girls were all so up for what we had in mind. The cover of One Step Beyond by Madness was another reference.

‘Our brief was to make the girls household names’: An early promotional billboard for the group (Courtesy of Form)
‘Our brief was to make the girls household names’: An early promotional billboard for the group (Courtesy of Form)
Kitsch: The cover art for the band’s single ‘Love Machine' (Courtesy of Form)
Kitsch: The cover art for the band’s single ‘Love Machine' (Courtesy of Form)

‘The girls had to navigate the knife edge between the falling-out-of-a-taxi vibe and being seen in the right places’

Parallel to the label’s efforts to establish each of the girls as stars in their own right, another force was at work that helped to serve this goal – the press. By the turn of 2004, the group had become British tabloid fixtures, with the press commenting on their personal lives to their nightlife antics and often their appearances.

Roberts: I think we were naive. The public had voted us into the band, so you’re kind of the public’s property. Us being five young girls – as an entity – is incredibly marketable within the tabloid press. Equally, [the label] probably thought, well, press is going to sell records – “the more famous we can make these girls, the more records they’re going to sell.”

Coyle: It was unavoidable. It felt like we couldn’t do anything without paparazzi or without there being a story.

Stanton: The girls were young and wanted to go out – which obviously added to their visibility, but it was a very fine line. Sundraj [Sreenivasan, then-head of press at Polydor] helped the girls navigate the knife edge between the trashy nightclub, falling-out-of-a-taxi vibe and being seen in the right places whilst also having a controlled interaction with the paparazzi.

Coyle: I remember there was a conversation around boy bands saying they fancied us, and there was a conscious decision to not respond because they didn’t want to alienate female fans that liked boy band members. We weren’t interested in any of them anyway!

Loraine: The one story that to this day makes me feel horrendous when I think about it was in Heat. They did a feature where they compared a photograph of the girls with another photograph taken one year later and basically just said, “Look how fat they’ve got in a year!”

‘You’re kind of the public’s property’: The group at a press event in 2003 (Getty)
‘You’re kind of the public’s property’: The group at a press event in 2003 (Getty)

‘I never really worked in the studio with the other four girls at all. I rarely saw them’

As the label heads began to plot the album’s visuals and marketing campaign, the band were spending their days and nights being put through their paces at Xenomania HQ in Kent.

Roberts: We knew we were basically at the mercy of Brian and Xenomania, but we didn’t mind – everything they were producing and writing didn’t sound like anything else.

Coyle: I remember Brian saying that second albums were notoriously difficult because usually sales drop, and we need to have much more of a vetting process.

Roberts: He had this big house in Kent. They made us feel so welcome. We’d throw our bags and coats on the couch, wander through to the kitchen and make tea. It felt like a safe, comfortable space. We’d all sit around the TV watching music videos on The Box or Kiss – these big, cool R&B artists. Then we’d be upstairs singing “Jump” or “Disco Bunny”. Polar opposite to where our individual personal tastes were, but we understood that was the sound of our brand.

Tim Powell, co-producer at Xenomania: What I really enjoyed about the era was that it felt like we could just do whatever we wanted. They trusted us, but they were more into R&B acts like Usher. “Love Machine” was… a bit different to that.

‘She has an astonishingly powerful voice’: Nadine Coyle performing in 2004 (Getty Images)
‘She has an astonishingly powerful voice’: Nadine Coyle performing in 2004 (Getty Images)

Coyle: Brian and I would work together until like five or six in the morning. He realised that I could work really quickly in the studio during the first album. He said to the girls they could leave but could I stay in the studio if I didn’t mind and work right through. I can work hyper-fixated like that, I don’t need a drink of water, I don’t need air or sunlight, and Brian was the same way. Hours just disappeared.

Higgins: Nadine has an astonishingly powerful voice – she’s a real rock singer. If we wanted to see how far we could push something creatively, we might get Nadine in and say, “Can you do this type of thing or is it too mad, too out there?”

Coyle: Then he would bring the rest of the girls in. I never really worked in the studio with the other four girls at all. I rarely saw them in the studio.

Roberts: The recording process meant that you never heard the song in full until it was done. “Love Machine” would have been 18 parts long, and we’d sing it in five different keys. You couldn’t fall in love with a song while you were recording it because it’s not even a song at that point.

Higgins: It was a proper, art-driven pop factory.

Roberts: People don’t know that’s how the songs were made. Brian sat in his purple chair going, “There’s that chorus from that song we wrote eight years ago, let’s see if we can make it work with that pre-chorus we wrote 10 years ago that Cher recorded, or that one Britney did.”

Higgins: We were given a guarantee to record with them for eight weeks unbothered so we said, “Let’s go really left of field.” Two weeks later, the label was on the phone saying, “Right, where’s the first single, we want to hear it.” I think my hair nearly fell out.

‘I don’t get it – it’s like four songs in one?’

The writing was on the wall – Girls Aloud needed a hit (or three!). Xenomania treated label execs to a sample of what they’d been working on, playing early cuts of “The Show”, “Graffiti My Soul”, “Wake Me Up” and eventual B-side “Androgynous Girls”. From first listen, all parties were aligned that “The Show” – with its odd pre-chorus/verse/chorus/WTF?? structure and slightly nonsensical lyrics – was the obvious choice to mark the beginning of the album cycle.

Higgins: It took about six weeks to nail the structure “The Show” – all the parts are so odd.

Cooper: I was obsessed with the “shoulda known, shoulda cared, shoulda hung around the kitchen in my underwear” part. I was such a stickler with the diction and the timing on that. It was actually Nicola who was finally able to get it and then they were tracking to her vocal.

Roberts: If Miranda had demoed something, you had to copy every small inflection, where she stopped the note, where she took her breath. When you’re copying someone else’s delivery… it’s not how you envision being a singer, but then equally, the song wouldn’t be what it is without that.

Stanton: You’ll notice in the video they have their names embroidered on their tops – that was us again trying to reinforce their names among the audience. So they stopped being, like, “the Geordie one”, or “the blonde one”.

Higgins: We were listening to Radio 1 one day and they had a panel of commentators discussing new singles – including “The Show”. [All Saints’s] Shaznay Lewis was on and she said, “I just don’t get that one, it’s like four songs?” I started to get inquiries from New Order about working with them. It was “The Show” that hooked in New Order. They loved it, even Peter Hook. It will never sound dated because it’s so odd.

‘At one stage the song was 7 minutes, 42 seconds long’: The group in the video for ‘Love Machine’ (Polydor)
‘At one stage the song was 7 minutes, 42 seconds long’: The group in the video for ‘Love Machine’ (Polydor)

‘Why are you trying to make us into the female McFly, this is so cringe’

If audiences were perplexed by the stuttering beats and cool, unbothered energy of “The Show”, nobody was prepared for the extraordinary absurdity of single number two “Love Machine” – not least the girls themselves…

Higgins: I knew I wanted to have some sort of tribute to “Ballroom Blitz”, sort of a “Light That Never Goes Out”, Smiths-y thing. “Love Machine” was one of those songs where it was going against the grain but I knew if we could get it right, it would be amazing.

Cooper: I had so many draft lyrics. “Doughnuts and gasoline”, “kisses and gasoline, I’m dancing in between” – all of these variations. “Love is my gasoline, beating my drum machine”. God bless ‘em for singing “Let’s go Eskimo” without question!

Higgins: At one stage the song was 7 minutes, 42 seconds long.

Cooper: I read on Wikipedia yesterday that people think “What will the neighbours say this time?” is a reference to “Sound of the Underground”… It might well have been, but not consciously.

Loraine: Everybody, myself included, was like, “god, really?” No one was particularly into that song but Colin was very, very determined.

Barlow: I always thought “Love Machine” was one of the most important records that Girls Aloud ever did, but the girls were scared at first. I really fought hard to make that a single because I believed so much it could change their trajectory. And I think it did. I think a lot of people who don’t like pop music love “Love Machine”.

Roberts: We went into Colin’s office and were delivered the finished “Love Machine”. We were just like, “We can’t do this. Why are you trying to make us into the female McFly, this is so cringe.” And Colin being like, “You have to trust me.” That was probably our lack of musical perspective at that time. We couldn’t see the bigger picture.

Coyle: We were collectively against doing it. It just didn’t seem like we would be cool – but we were wrong. We were so uncool that it was cool.

Barlow: There’s an amazing bit in that video where Cheryl does a kiss to the camera. I remember thinking it so solidified who they, and she, are as characters.

Stanton: I still have on my pinboard a single review of “Love Machine” from Time Out that’s just a collection of words. It just says “Pete Burns. Bananarama. Topshop. Lipstick. Nights out.” That’s the entire review.

Barlow: Seeing Arctic Monkeys cover it proved how fresh it was.

Roberts: It’s annoying that you’ve got five girls singing this really well constructed, amazingly produced song, and it gets a certain reaction, but then you get Alex Turner singing it and you hear it in a different way and everyone’s like, “Oh, this song is actually really good?”, and we’re like… mm-hmm.

‘Sarah was up for it all – she was up for life’

The girls rounded off the album campaign with another pair of wildly contrasting songs. The first of which was their next number one record, a cover of the Pretenders’s “I’ll Stand by You” in support of Children in Need, followed by “Wake Me Up”, an utterly raucous, pop-rock punch with lyrics lamenting a man’s “vice-like grip on my sherbert dip”.

Roberts: We never liked the covers. Brian hated them as well. He had bags and bags of creativity, so why do covers? I guess they were just safe bets for the label.

Loraine: Had we not had “I’ll Stand by You”, we probably wouldn’t have got Children in Need. Without the exposure from Children in Need, we wouldn’t have had the number one single. Without the number one single, we wouldn’t have had the retail confidence in the album, and if we hadn’t sold all those albums, we probably wouldn’t have got [the third album]. Apparently, sometimes when Chrissie Hynde performs “I’ll Stand by You”, she says, “Well, I’m going to do a Girls Aloud cover next,” which is quite sweet.

Loraine: Sarah was obsessed with “Wake Me Up”. From the minute they started recording the album she was like, “Is ‘Wake Me Up’ going to be the first single? Is it gonna be the second single?”

Higgins: We finished “Wake Me Up” on one of the crazy last days of recording. We weren’t going to see them again. We were firing them from studio to studio and Sarah just loved the chaos of it all and the track being so mad. When we were at our most hectic and our system was creaking, Sarah would be the person in the group that would be just pushing everyone along, loving all the chaos and not questioning it.

Cooper: She was up for it all. She was up for life. The rock chick [reputation] is so one dimensional, because she was a real homebody as well. She loved being in the country. She had such a warmth to her. She had a wicked sense of humour and an amazing energy, but she was fragile too.

Higgins: I remember writing with Sarah, she was absolutely determined to write a fantastic song.

Cooper: I was going through old notebooks of lyrics and found the page where we wrote “Hear Me Out” [an album track co-written by Harding – she would later name her memoir after the song.] It just stopped me in my tracks because I thought, gosh, we didn’t know when we wrote this... And actually, a lot of the lyrics are quite fitting. It was so lovely that the song had its own moment before she passed.

Coyle: If Sarah could have done pop rock all the time, she would have – that was her favourite style. She had that really powerful voice and wanted to just be free to just blast.

‘If Sarah could have done pop rock all the time, she would have’: The group at the London premiere of ‘Freaky Friday’ in 2003 (Getty Images)
‘If Sarah could have done pop rock all the time, she would have’: The group at the London premiere of ‘Freaky Friday’ in 2003 (Getty Images)

‘I think Britney’s voice is still on our version of the song’

Beyond the album’s four Top 10 singles, ‘What Will the Neighbours Say?’ boasts a number of fondly remembered album tracks, including fan favourites “Deadlines & Diets” and “Graffiti My Soul”, which was originally recorded by Britney Spears. The record as a whole is a true smorgasbord – it’s sometimes whiplash-inducing in its clashing of genres and styles, but always threaded together by Xenomania’s signature idiosyncrasy.

Barlow: “Graffiti My Soul” was one that was always talked about being a single, I wish it had been.

Roberts: As soon as we heard “Graffiti”, we were obsessed. I remember being in the big green room at the back of the kitchen, where everything was mixed, freaking out over it because Brian told us Britney didn’t want it so he’d see if we could record it.

Higgins: I think the song made one of Britney’s A&R men quite angry because it was so not what he was expecting from us.

Cooper: Britney loved the audacity of it – it definitely wasn’t like other tracks she was vocalling at the time. I remember I was so excited because she said I reminded her of Gwen Stefani and she liked my bangs which was awesome! She sounded amazing on it.

Coyle: I think Britney’s voice is actually still on our version. She’s buried deep in the stems.

Roberts: I think we recorded “Deadlines & Diets” for the first album and it wasn’t used until the second one.

Coyle: The lyrics are “You left no number, left your wedding ring/ Nothing left to do but kick back and sing”. I think I was about 18, you know? I didn’t really know anybody with wedding rings. I remember feeling really sad for the person that was going through that, thinking that is some rough stuff... you need to get rid of that man!

Roberts: Brian came in one day and asked if we wanted to join in the writing process. He put us in a little room and gave us maybe 10 tracks to choose from – we picked our favourite and wrote to it. We all really loved that we were getting to contribute.

Barlow: We wanted them to have ownership, so it was very important that we got them to write with Brian and Miranda.

Roberts: The constant thread was Miranda’s lyrics. It’s as if she just understood every aspect of life perfectly. That’s what always blew my mind. Even if it was a life she wasn’t necessarily living herself, she was able to paint such a picture and it’d be so intellectually written. I think she’s probably the best lyricist in the world.

Cooper: I was simply soundtracking what it was to be a twentysomething young woman in London, navigating life, love, success and failure, making a bit of money and muddling our way through. That’s also what the girls were going through.

‘We all loved it – but I think at the time it just didn’t feel appropriate’

One track that didn’t make the album was a long-fabled cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”, which was at one point announced as a single before being quietly scrapped. The song has been mythologised by fans ever since, and has finally been released on the reissued What Will the Neighbours Say?

Higgins: “Wicked Game” was for an album reissue. The album went double platinum, but they’d run out of stuff that they felt confident releasing after “Wake Me Up”.

Coyle: I believe the song was going to be pitched for a movie. We were at the Capital Radio Awards. Brian was in LA at the time, so I got a call asking if I can go to LA tomorrow. I was 19 and so I was like, “Hmm, let me think.... Yes, I can go to LA tomorrow!”. Sarah, Nicola and I flew over to record it, I’d never been before. Me and Sarah went to Vegas right after.

Roberts: I don’t even remember hearing a version of it, and then I heard it had been scrapped. I think they probably felt it was a bit too mature for us?

Barlow: “Wicked Game” was one that we all loved but I think at the time it just didn’t feel appropriate. I’m so glad it will finally be heard by people.

Coyle: It didn’t feel very us. It was very slow paced. I enjoyed recording it. I could look out the window at the Hollywood Hills as I was singing – it made me feel very like, “Is this what it’s like to be a pop star?”

‘We achieved the wildest things’: The album artwork for the group’s second record (Polydor)
‘We achieved the wildest things’: The album artwork for the group’s second record (Polydor)

‘We were just kids singing songs’

‘What Will the Neighbours Say?’ would go on to be certified double platinum in the UK and spend a total of 17 weeks in the UK album chart. “The Show” and “Love Machine” both charted at number two on the UK Singles Chart, and the latter was later named one of the 100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time by Billboard Magazine. “I’ll Stand by You” remained at number one for two weeks, while “Wake Me Up” peaked at number four and also won the Popjustice £20 Music Prize, an award established by pop music critic Peter Robinson and awarded by a panel of judges that aims to counter the elitist nature of the Mercury Prize.

Twenty years later, the record is regarded as being a pivotal moment in the band’s trajectory, the point at which the signature Girls Aloud sound was cemented and the band proved they were far more than another act on the conveyor belt of talent show winners.

Coyle: It was a time of such innocence. It could have gone great, and it could have gone horribly wrong. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain. We were just kids singing songs.

Roberts: I look back on it really fondly. I can see and feel the vulnerabilities and how naive and fresh out the gate we were, not really knowing what we were doing. Brian was even trying to figure it out with us. We were all trying to make this thing a success, and we actually did. We achieved the wildest things, more than we could have ever imagined.

Higgins: What Will the Neighbours Say? is the album by which we relied completely on our creative system. We never talked about hit records or what the next single should be. We just relied on the Xenomania system and out [it] popped.

Higgins: There was such resistance to Girls Aloud’s music on a structural level. I remember NME saying there is some “dark pop wizardry afoot” because these records are incredible. When I read that, I thought we’ve nailed it – we’ve got people who should be devouring us saying we’re brilliant.

Barlow: People should never forget how special those five girls were and are. They made you believe that those records were from another planet.

The reissue of ‘What Will the Neighbours Say’ is available now on UMR/ Fascination. Girls Aloud’s 30-date UK tour begins on 17 May