Imagine a band with a sultry female singer, an impressive new-wave pedigree, a sound that expertly blends Motown soul with contemporary pop/rock, and oodles of international success over more than a decade. Sign that band to a nice contract and give them a long-overdue Stateside push. Then explain to them, as their new album sends them to the peak of their global popularity, why the largest market in the world will be forever off-limits.
The story’s a true one. The band is Texas.
While writing last week’s column about Robbie Williams, I found myself musing (and in some cases mourning) over some of my other favorite U.K. acts that, despite longstanding popularity on the other side of the Atlantic, never gained traction in the States. Explaining this phenomenon is sometimes easy, as with Robbie and his inability to convince Americans that a self-deprecating irony lurked just beneath his arrogant surface. Then there’s a band like the Manic Street Preachers. Their story was a little too weird (original lead singer Richie James, a depressive bent on self-mutilation, eventually disappeared and was presumed a suicide); their attitude was too wrapped up in radical British politics and class warfare; and their big U.S. break (opening an Oasis tour) was cut short because the fuckin’ Gallagher brothers couldn’t keep from wringing each other’s necks. By the time they released their highest-selling album in 1998 – a smash that won them Q magazine’s “Biggest Band in the World” prize – their American label, Epic, had dropped them from its roster.
Texas was a different, altogether incomprehensible story (at least to me). Despite their Glasgow roots, their music, much of it penned by ex-Altered Images/Hipsway bassist Johnny McElhone, was steeped in American influences – from the slide guitar that gave a bluesy flavor to their sole U.S. mini-hit, “I Don’t Want a Lover” (No. 77 in 1986), to the elegant Supremes-style soul-pop of 1999’s “When We Are Together.” Their sound was breezy and radio-ready, and Americans in fact heard their songs on all sorts of occasions without ever knowing who was doing the singing. Vocalist Sharleen Spiteri could turn on a dime from breathy-romantic to ballsy-aggressive – and she was kinda hot, too (at least for a post-adolescent in the late-’90s world of Britney and Xtina). They were named after a state, for crying out loud, that’s about as middle-America as you can get (though they actually were inspired by Wim Wenders’ not terribly mainstream film Paris, Texas).
Sometimes, though, the stars just never align. Even after more than a decade as one of England’s top acts — and despite three worldwide Top 10 hits and what apparently was a relatively healthy push by Universal (with whom Texas had newly signed specifically in order to break the U.S. market) — their 1999 album The Hush failed to make the Billboard 200 album chart, and its singles never cracked the nation’s Adult Top 40 playlists. It would be, as it turned out, Texas’ last shot on the American goal.
The explanation for this failure probably lies in the xenophobia of American radio, which never seems to offer more than the occasional token slot to a “new” international act. Indeed, the only adult-pop hits (not counting the teen-to-adult-crossover Spice Girls) to cross the pond at all during the late ’90s were one-off successes like Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply,” Eagle-Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight” and Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” – the latter of which, thanks to its two-year ubiquity on U.S. radio, may by itself have cost Texas its chance at receiving airplay on these shores.
Oh, well; your loss, suckers. I was lucky enough to be saturated with Texas’ music during my family’s too-brief tenure in London around the millennium. Their omnipresence on Virgin Radio was similar to Robbie’s during that era, as the anticipation and arrival of both acts’ new albums spurred resurgent airplay for their previous hits. Texas had struggled through a couple of middling early-’90s albums following their breakthrough with the rockish “I Don’t Want a Lover” — which had gained Spiteri a large lesbian following, for some reason — but they scored big-time after shifting toward a more mainstream, soul-flavored sound for 1997’s White on Blonde album. Four Top 10 hits emerged over the next year and a half – “Say What You Want,” “Halo,” “Black Eyed Boy,” and “Put Your Arms Around Me” – and all of them were still on the air in the spring of 1999 when the band returned with the effervescent “In Our Lifetime.”
“In Our Lifetime” was featured later that year in Notting Hill – just as “Say What You Want” had played during the Jennifer Aniston vehicle Picture Perfect, “Put Your Arms Around Me” had graced the Drew Barrymore trifle Ever After, and the band’s earlier “So Called Friend” had been used as the theme song for Ellen DeGeneres’ mid-’90s sitcom. None of this product placement seemed to tip the name-recognition scales in this country; nor did the second major hit from The Hush, “Summer Son,” even though it topped the charts everywhere from Croatia to Lebanon.
After touring the Texas-loving world a couple times during the months surrounding the millennium, the band took a couple years off so that Spiteri could have a baby, leaving behind a greatest-hits album that remains on my Desert Island Discs list to this day. By the time they reunited for 2003’s Careful What You Wish For, the new mom apparently had become a hip-hop aficionado; unfortunately, the rap-sung leadoff single “Carnival Girl” lost Texas a sizable portion of their not-getting-any-younger audience. Rebounding a bit with 2005’s Red Book, they scored their biggest hit in years when Spiteri duetted with the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan on “Sleep.” Hang in for the second verse on this video, when Spiteri and British comedian Peter Kay begin spoofing a series of easy-to-place romantic scenes.
Neither of those last two albums has even seen a U.S. release, but that doesn’t seem to have disheartened Spiteri & Co. Last year they put out an album featuring more than 15 years’ worth of BBC recordings, and Spiteri even guested on Rammstein’s 2005 Rosenrot album. I’d guess that for years to come, Texas fans around the world will join me in continuing to look askance at the American charts and wondering why we’re so crazy.
You know you needed to hear one more version…
Buy Texas CDs from Amazon.