Wannabe at 25: How Spice Girls’ debut single changed the pop landscape
“So here’s the story from A to Zee, you wanna get with me you gotta listen carefully…”
There was nothing else quite like Wannabe on the radio back in summer 1996. There was lots of dance music, there was plenty of guitar rock, a few boybands here and there, no shortage of R&B, a smattering of rap, and even a bit of reggae thanks to Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl. But what was missing? Pop! Enthusiastic, unashamed, gutsy pop, and with an all-girl band behind it. This was something new.
Sure pop wasn’t dead, but you could argue its definition as a genre had become confused over time. And then the Spice Girls came along. Their nicknames would come later, thanks to Top Of The Pops magazine, but for the moment, the women known as Victoria, Melanie B, Melanie C, Emma and Geri were about to change the pop landscape in just three minutes.
Debut single Wannabe was a breathless, energetic romp through rules on friendship, romance and, of course, in that middle-eight rap, the kind of chat you might see on a Twitter bio. Imagine: @easyV – doesn’t come for free, she’s a real lay-deeeee.
Penned by the girls in conjunction with Biff Stannard and Matt Rowe, Wannabe was a wonderful introduction to the spirited fivesome who would enjoy unprecedented, relentless chart success all over the world in less than two years.
The story with Wannabe goes that Victoria Adams (as was) had to miss the writing session and so gave her feedback over the phone, something she's always regretted. The track was done and dusted in about half an hour, but the record company thought it could do with some more work and sent it off to the US to be mixed as an R&B track, then the hot sound for pop. In what would become a common theme throughout their career, the girls rebelled, and mixing duties went to Spike Stent, who’d worked with Madonna.
Wannabe was a hit all over the world, but it was very nearly never their debut single at all. Label bosses and their manager Simon Fuller reckoned another song was the perfect launch single (conflicting reports say it was Say You'll Be There or Love Thing) but the girls disagreed and Mel B and Geri – a formidable duo at the best of times – led another coup that saw Wannabe finally released.
Helped by a fantastic, one-take video – in which Emma appears to steal a hat from a homeless man – set on what was then the unused chambers of the hotel in London's St Pancras station, Wannabe went in at Number 3 on its first week on sale. It then deposed Take That star Gary Barlow the following week, sending his debut solo hit Forever Love flying, and remained at the top for seven straight weeks. See the chart the week Wannabe climbed to Number 1 here.
Spice Girls (Richard Young/Shutterstock)
During its tenure at the summit of the Official Singles Chart, Wannabe sold over 879,000 copies – 148,000 in its third week at the top alone – and kept some big names off Number 1. Robbie Williams’ debut solo hit Freedom had to settle for second place, as did Los Del Rio’s holiday hit La Macarena, 3T with uncle Michael Jackson and Geri’s future BFF George Michael, with Spinning The Wheel.
It was the summer of Spice and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it.
The rest, as they say, is history. Music channels couldn’t get enough of the video, and the girls went on the promo trail in a big way. In the UK, they scored their very first TV appearance on Surprise Surprise. You can see here that even though the girls don't seem polished, the images they would eventually carve out for themselves were already well on their way to completion.
Prepare yourself for some iconic footage here (skip to about 3:00 in if cheesy hosts and surprised, mortified teenagers are not your thing.
Wannabe shifted 2 million UK chart sales (including 1.4 million pure sales), would take the BRIT for Best British Single, and bagged an Ivor Novello Award too. Their debut album Spice went on to be a massive seller worldwide and there’d even be another million-selling single to come in 2 Become 1.
But this week in 1996, it really did feel like friendship would never end.
Image: Andre Csillag/Rex/Shutterstock