The Boys are Back in Town

5 May 2015 Alan Attwood

The Boys are Back in Town

When The Beatles had their first big hit in the UK with ‘Please Please Me’, early in 1963, the youngest of the ‘Fab Four’, George, was only 19. Paul was 20; John and Ringo were both 22. In other words, they were all young – and looked it, too.

Did this make them a ‘boy band’? The term wasn’t used at all back in the 1960s. Had it been, it might have been affixed to The Monkees, the made-for-TV group conceived as a kind of American Beatles. They ended up achieving similar popularity, though only for a while. And what of The Rolling Stones? Mick Jagger and Keith Richards both turned 20 in 1963, the year the Stones signed with the Decca record label. Boys or men?

In the US, meanwhile, The Beach Boys had already released their album Surfin’ USA. But even with ‘Boys’ in their band name, nobody called them a boy band – certainly not in a derogatory sense. Go back further: the big bands led by Duke Ellington, say, or Glenn Miller. All blokes. But not ‘boys’. Ditto Bee Gees, R.E.M. or even Nirvana. Somewhere along the line it became the apposite term for New Kids on the Block, say, or NSYNC (while Justin Timberlake was still there), or Backstreet Boys (soon to tour Australia) or, more recently, One Direction (one of whom recently decided to head off in a different direction). Is it just the age thing? Can you only be a boy band until you hit a certain age? Whatever the magic figure is, members of BSB sailed past it long ago. And yet they go on. And on…

As for girl groups, well, there was a golden era in the 1960s – The Shirelles, The Ronettes, The Supremes. It was the decade of big hair and close harmonies. Then came the 1990s and the Spice Girls. Lately? Not so much. Certainly not since the splintering of Destiny’s Child, with Beyoncé going on to even bigger things. You can bet that a Serious Person is now working on a PhD thesis exploring the rise of boy bands and the decline of their female equivalent over recent decades. At Big Issue Mission Control we’re not so serious. Though, in a telling blow for gender equality, both of our stories on boy bands (starting on p14) are written by women – Sophie Quick and Clem Bastow. This suggests a) they know their stuff and b) at one time in their pasts they might, just might, have had some embarrassing posters on their walls. (Then again, we all did… Ask me about Slade, a raucous bunch of English lads who were never called ‘boys’.)

Perhaps the key thing here is the irrelevance of labels. The Jackson 5 are seldom lumped into listings of boy bands, even though lead vocalist Michael Jackson was indeed a boy, just 11 years old, when ‘I Want You Back’ became the group’s first hit in October 1969. Why weren’t they a boy band? Because they had soul, they had style, they had…Michael Jackson.

A kind of snobbery is at play here: both Sophie and Clem have the courage to declare that within the boy band tent there can be found some very catchy songs. Clem’s credibility is questionable, however, because of her inexplicable affection for Huey Lewis and the News (a man band, she insists).
What happens at BB concerts? Young girls scream. That happens these days (so I’m told) at One Direction shows. As it did, in long-gone decades, at concerts by The Beatles and the young Frank Sinatra. In the 1970s, it was the Bay City Rollers who attracted the screamers. Were the Rollers a BB? Absolutely. Does anyone remember anything they recorded? Probably not. The BB baton is passed on from one group to another. And the beat goes on.

Alan Attwood, Editor