Listen to this track by London-based hit-single generating vocal group All Saints. It’s “Never Ever”, their smash 1997 single as taken from their self-titled album All Saints, their debut full-length. The group had been together since 1993, led by members Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis, along with former member Simone Rainford, after serving as back-up vocalists for ZTT recording studios. With this song, and with then-new members in Canadian sisters Nicole and Natalie Appleton joining them, they managed to score a number one single that would eventually become the second best selling single by a British girl group, just behind The Spice Girls “Wannabe”.
Like their spicy contemporaries, All Saints (named after a road in London) sought to appeal to a pure pop audience with a decidedly R&B flavour. With the kind of hooks their material featured, they were certainly able to get the attention of commercial radio, although perhaps with a bit less cultural impact than The Spice Girls initially. But one thing that All Saints had was an instinct for writing their own material. Shaznay Lewis wrote this song with writers Robert Jazayeri and Sean Mather. “Never Ever” was released in Britain in November of 1997, becoming a smash hit and remaining to be their biggest charting single to date with scores of accolades attached to it.
But like many hit songs, it was based in some very real struggles, specifically on Lewis’ part. Its success and its positive impact on the group struck her as ironic, rooted as it was in the pain of a real break-up. Beyond its undeniable commercial value and appealing pop hooks, there is a lot of darkness swimming below the surface that brings out some pertinent questions about break ups, and how they can very often skew our perceptions of ourselves.
This song was obviously aimed at the pure pop charts, and at the time fit right into that slot. It sounded contemporary. But at the same time, it took R&B back to its roots in American gospel music, too. This song is practically a church hymn when you take the production flourishes away from it. In this it struck a balance between what was expected in pop music by 1997, as well as including elements that can be found in classic soul music, too. Of course like so many of the best pop songs, it also dealt with themes that were very relatable while everyone was singing along.
This is a break-up song, but more pointedly it’s a song about being jilted unexpectedly while being young and vulnerable. The lyrics are full of anguish, of feelings of inadequacy and confusion. Many of us have been there; why did they dump me? What did I do? If they’d only just tell me, then maybe we can reconcile if I never do it again, whatever it is. All of this certainly stood in contrast to the aforementioned Spice Girls, who traded in triumphant and positive “girl power” messages which may or may not have reflected the realities of their young audience. “Never Ever” is more down-to-earth, more raw in it’s emotional content. It also reveals a lot about relationships, particularly those one has at a young age during a time when one is just coming to grips with one’s own identity when external forces are at their most important to our sense of self, that if someone thinks something of us, it must be true.
Besides the pain of rejection in this song, this is another source of conflict; fighting against the idea that the failure of a relationship is the responsibility of one person. The stand-out line for me in this song, which I think serves as one of its hooks in general, is the “I’m not crazy!”, with that accusation very often laid at the feet of women in the context of a soured relationship being understood. In this, for all of the “girl power” messages that were being broadcast at the time, this one line in “Never Ever” serves to defend women’s positions in so many relationships better than most. The song starts out by owning all the fault, and by the end makes it more obvious that the narrator is seeing things more clearly; “I’m not crazy.” The underlying message here is that the narrator comes to a place where she knows that she deserves the truth, and not to be simply abandoned with no explanation as to why the relationship is ending.
The payoff in “Never Ever” is that there is a real sense of emotional progression, with the spoken word intro that begs for clarity, to the process of digging away to find her own peace of mind, to a more assertive demand for the truth by the end. All the while, the pain remains to be acknowledged and respected. It’s just her attitude that changes. The request to know what happened that kicked off this song changes too; no longer a plead, but more of an assertion of her rights. In this, as much as this song deals in dark emotional territory, it’s ultimately very empowering. This is the story of a person who thought at first she was weak. By the end, you know that she’s strong.
After a series of gaps in their output and association, All Saints is an active group today. You can learn more about them at allsaintsofficial.co.uk.