In the late 90s, Tonight Show host Jay Leno once cracked a joke in his nightly monologue about this time when boyband N Sync sat in the seats of the Backstreet Boys at an award ceremony and no one could tell the difference. Earlier in the decade, this mistake would never have been made with regard to UK rival boyband acts Take That and East 17. If Take That was the bunch of clean-cut lads groomed for a girl to take home to her parents, East 17 was the bunch of lads that parents would want to keep their daughters locked away from. Back in the 90s, most conversations about pop music that involved Take That, invariably included more than a mention of their musical rivals East 17.
East 17 were diametric opposites to Take That. Musically, their offering was a perfect hybrid of rap music and R&B. Image wise, they were strikingly different. They hailed from the working class London neighborhood of Walthamstow. They embraced their working class roots with pride shirking even the slightest iota of pretentiousness. They shaved their heads bald and wore oversized clothing and huge hats. Pop music fans in the UK were divided sharply into two camps – the East 17 camp and the Take That camp.
The credibility of East 17 manifested itself in the form of beautiful ballads such as “Stay another day”, “Thunder” and “If you ever” (duet with Gabrielle) as well as beat-heavy uptempo dance tracks such as “House of Love”, “Steam”, and “It’s alright”. Their debut album topped the UK charts, and their popularity spanned all the way from the UK, the rest of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, all the way to Australia. With lead singer Brian Harvey’s smooth vocals and songwriter Tony Mortimer’s exceptional ability to craft a hit song, the band was a force to be reckoned with. Despite being a 4-member band, the band’s image was tied almost exclusively to that of its lead singer Brian and songwriter Tony. The relationship between the two was a tumultuous one and it erupted into disaster when Brian proudly admitted in a radio interview in 1997 that he had taken “ecstasy pills” in large doses and that there was nothing wrong with the drug – thus spurring a media uproar. This interview marked the beginning of the end for East 17. Brian was sacked from the band. This had a debilitating effect on the remaining members and they disbanded. Tony Mortimer became estranged from his former bandmates. Brian Harvey, John Hendy, and Terry Coldwell reunited as E-17 with an R&B album titled Resurrection in late 1998. The album showcased Brian’s vocal abilities better than previous efforts of the band and yielded the brilliant R&B slow jams “Each time” and “Betcha can’t wait”. Unfortunately, the lackluster performance of “Betcha Can’t Wait” and the album “Resurrection” caused the band to be dropped from their record label putting a definite end to East 17. Brian’s efforts at a solo career never materialized in the way that he had hoped.
In 2006, just as every band from the 80s and 90s was starting to reunite, a thought was planted in the mind of Tony Mortimer (songwriter and brains behind the songs that propelled East 17 into stardom) to reunite with his former bandmates. Furthermore, with his earnings from songwriting royalties, he was the only one from the band that could single-handedly fund a reunion of the band for a one-off gig at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The show sold out and brought back great memories for those that were teenagers or young adolescents in the 90s. There were rumors of a new record deal being put together for the band. Unfortunately before dreams of a comeback nearly as big as that of rival band Take That, old hostilities surfaced and ended up in a “punch up” between Brian Harvey and Tony Mortimer essentially ending any prospects of an East 17 comeback. While the members have reconciled and performed together at a charity event recently, they will never perform together (or so they say). So does not that mean East 17 is officially over?
As a matter of fact – no! They are doing the unthinkable and their detractors are standing on the edge rooting for them to fail but I cannot help but be optimistic despite how non-ideal circumstances are for this newly conceived East 17 return. Brian Harvey has opted out of the new incarnation of East 17 and has been replaced by a new singer named Blair Dreelan. The band has a signed a new record deal with Canada-based FOD records and their new single “Secret of my life” is slated for release in late July. There are some questions that are bound to come to the minds of both fans and detractors so I think they are worth addressing right here. Here goes:
a) Given that Brian Harvey is considered the “voice” of East 17, will fans accept an East 17 sans Brian?
The acceptance of Blair Dreelan as a replacement for Brian is highly debatable. He is known in the UK but is largely unknown outside the UK. He undoubtedly has big shoes to fill as the new lead singer. If he can breathe new life into the band with his vocals (his vocal ability is yet to be seen), it is very likely that he might alleviate some of the skepticism that fans have with regard to a “replacement for Brian”. Furthermore, the band’s label FOD records is probably very cognizant of the fact that they have to rely on something more substantial than nostalgia to relaunch the band – especially since one of the defining pieces of the nostalgia (i.e. Brian Harvey) is no longer part of the equation. I am sure they have done their due diligence prior to signing the band. Either way, there is a high risk of polarization of East 17’s fanbase.
b) Can East 17 have a stellar comeback?
East 17 definitely has the capacity to sell out arena tours in the UK but whether they will have a stellar comeback is a debatable question. Their ability to have a large-scale comeback hinges around two key aspects:
— Having a large fanbase that is holding their breath for an East 17 comeback: This is a situation that could have been created by the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” phenomenon. Unfortunately, East 17 were never really absent. The three-piece band consisting of Brian, Terry, and John started playing small clubs in the UK and Europe thus being very accessible to fans. While this helped them earn a living, it may have undermined high levels of anticipation for a huge return. Furthermore, with two attempts at reigniting their career having failed, detractors are split between being indifferent to East 17 and rooting for their failure. It is a rather unfortunate reality.
— Being playlisted by BBC Radio 1: Despite the rising surge in worldwide popularity of satellite radio and internet radio, terrestrial radio still holds the reins to a band’s prospects for success. In the UK, that powerful gatekeeper is BBC Radio 1. In addition to having an ageist bias, they have in recent times also demonstrated an increasingly poor judgment while putting together playlists by ignoring stellar singles by veteran artists. They have written off artists that are very much in their musical prime. This might just be the single largest determinant to East 17’s future.
c) Does it matter that East 17 is NOT signed to a major record label?
In recent years, we have seen the number of major record labels shrink from six to two with Sony Music and Universal Music being the only real players in the record label sphere. Having the backing of a large label used to mean funding of large-than-life concert tours and music videos, access to high-reach promotion channels, and most importantly having a powerful promotional platform. That trend seems to have changed these days. The obsession with the youth market has forced major record labels to invest solely in artists that can generate immediate monetary returns – even if they are only in the short-run. Their ability to invest in acts that will generate revenue in the long-term has plumetted substantially. For the most part, they struggle to market an artist over the age of 30. Furthermore, the increasing employee turnover at major record labels is a potential indication of the fact that the major record labels may have lost their way over the years. FOD records understand what they are getting into. Furthemore, they might not be prone to some of the bureaucracy and bottlenecks associated with a large record label. It is likely that they also have a better idea of East 17’s competencies as a band. Hence, East 17 is probably better off with FOD records.
d) Given that music videos do not play the important role they used to back in the day, is East 17 shooting their new video in Southern Italy a drain on monetary resources?
Possibly. But it is an unavoidable drain. East 17 was a band created for music video. Their music videos had more than a little to do with their overall image and appeal. Not making a music video would essentially mean rejecting a big component of what made them famous to begin with. It is true that they are starting as a new incarnation but creating a music video would allow them to tap into a significant aspect of their artistic legacy.
e) Will Radio Creme Brulee feature the new East 17 material?
We are definitely rooting for East 17. We are not interested in the band’s PR nightmares or internal conflict in the past. The reality is that this band made some amazing music in their heyday. Artists have peaks and troughs in their creativity. That is just plain reality. Given the rather generic crop of music being put out by many new artists (of course there are several exceptions too), we do not believe our optimism is misplaced when we say we look forward to the new East 17 single “Secret of my life”. If it is a good song, we will definitely feature it on high-rotation. After all, it would be fun and interesting to see a “listener ratings war” play out on our station between East 17 and Take That. It would be like reliving a 90s “pop culture war” on an American radio station.
Whether or not the new incarnation of East 17 will be successful is yet to be seen. The question is, are you rooting for them or not?