At a fraught time for young women in pop, the UK trio’s 2000 debut elevated candid songs about teenage girls’ hunger for experience by mining the sounds they might actually like.
In the rabble-rousing pantheon of UK girl groups, only the Spice Girls have had more domestic No. 1 singles (nine) than the Sugababes (six). The mutable British trio were a defining band of the 2000s—and yet this 20th anniversary reissue of One Touch, the debut album by the original line-up (held a year due to the pandemic), honors the potential future that founding members Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena, and Siobhán Donaghy were denied the chance to live out.
Their story is UK pop lore. Their debut single “Overload” arrived in September 2000, a “Starman”-on-Top-of-the-Pops moment for pre-teens fatted on the nation’s surfeit of trite post-Spice kid-pop and awed by their slick U.S. counterparts. It sounded like nothing else—perhaps the All Seeing I or Cornershop, not that we 11-year-olds knew that—with a bassline that skipped like a stuck record, a scrawl of a guitar solo, and an air raid siren climax in lieu of a middle eight. Its relentless tempo explained the seductive nihilism of the girls’ lyrics about hormonal overwhelm: There was no escaping its undertow.
And they were girls—Buena and Buchanan 15, Donaghy 16—lending the song an extra shade of unease. “Strange fear I ain’t felt for years/The boy’s coming and I’m close to tears,” Donaghy sings, her intimations of worldliness undercut by the sudden realization that she could very well be referencing playground games of kiss-chase. “Train comes/I don’t know its destination,” they sing in blithe harmony during the chorus, with a disquieting hint of sourness; “I’ll sleep with any man,” Buena exclaims between lines, deserted by reason.
In the video, the camera pans past their faces on a white background: aloof, unshowy, often conspiratorially cheek to cheek, staring out pityingly. Theirs was evidently a lower-budget operation than Destiny’s Child and TLC, their closest peers, and lightyears more laissez-faire than cheerful UK peers S Club 7, who pulled double duty playing themselves in a kids’ TV show. Their harmonies were understated, their UKG-tinged R&B off-kilter, their demeanor unruffled. In an interview for the irreverent TV show Popworld (another dearly departed UK pop cornerstone), Buchanan comments that they really should nail their choreography someday: “We can’t bother to remember it.” Sugababes were cool—to fans, critics, and members of Arab Strap alike.
Then less than a year later—four decreasingly successful singles, one album in like a bullet at No. 77—they were over, at least as we knew them. Said to be unhappy, Donaghy left and Buena and Buchanan were accused of bullying, a tenacious narrative with clear racist undertones that the group’s management did nothing to challenge. They were dropped from London Records owing to low sales of their debut but then signed to Island and bolstered by a new member: The video for the refreshed trio’s comeback single, “Freak Like Me” (itself a mash-up, a meta wink), depicted the original two subjecting blonde Heidi Range to a hazing ritual in a club. The lineup remained steady through 2005, providing the bulk of their commercial success, and then Buena was replaced; four years later, Buchanan was kicked out (her final album with the band was 2008’s tackily titled Catfights and Spotlights), leaving a full lineup of new brooms. Their distinctiveness waned accordingly.
The tumult made the band into a cruel punchline. As with so many pop women of their era, it took more than a decade for the original Sugababes to publicly reckon with forces way beyond their control as teenage girls, whose sometimes standoffish image clearly concealed no small amount of nervousness. Buchanan and Buena were childhood friends; the band was created by managers (despite being told to say they all met at a party), and the career hot-housing didn’t leave much room for bonding with Donaghy, who was also a school year older and studied separately from her bandmates. As they became commercially viable, their management team inflated from two to eight. (“We were like: Who are these people?” Donaghy said.) They played the trio off against one another, Buchanan recalled: “They’d whisper to one of us: ‘You should go solo.’ And to another of us: ‘So-and-so doesn’t like you.’” Child labor laws meant they were legally only allowed to promote their debut album 72 days a year, to the label’s disappointment. One Touch eventually peaked at No. 26, and that was it. Buchanan and Buena claimed that management made them hold auditions for Donaghy’s replacement when, unbeknown to them, Range had already been hired. The shifting sands told a bleak story about the precariousness of a girl’s status.
Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding their debut, One Touch remains the clearest place to hear the original Sugababes’ voices as young artists. One person the trio said really did listen to them was the album’s primary producer, Cameron McVey (husband of Neneh Cherry; dad of R&B singer Mabel, who slept through Sugababes studio sessions as a little kid). He sent them home with tracks and encouraged them to write, leaving them with credits on nine out of 12 songs. It feels symbolic to their fate that most of their lyrics negotiate a moment that’s slipping away, one where desire exceeds maturity (as well as their parents’ curfew). “I’ve got time and you can have it all,” they sing on the flinty, suspicious “One Foot In.” “As long as I’m not home too late.” Their contributions are self-evident: The three songs they didn’t write, “Soul Sound,” “Lush Life,” and the title track, lean towards bland aspiration.
The millennium was a complete shitshow when it came to public mores about young women’s sexuality: professionally sexualized by older men, yet pilloried for exploring it on their own terms. Sugababes’ songwriting explored a more truthful paradox, candid about the realities of a teenage girl’s hunger for experience, and the conflict between confidence and naivety. “Look at Me,” the first song they wrote together, is an icy plea for their parents to let them make their own mistakes. Some of the singing is barely in tune; added to the chorus, a glacially slow, direct appeal drenched in minor-key harmonies, the song becomes a stark confrontation, insisting to be accepted on one’s own terms.
They demand clarity from flaky guys and assert their worth (“I’m not your fashion accessory,” they sing on “One Foot In”) but later question whether they can trust their own feelings on “Real Thing,” a dreamy Janet Jackson echo in which the chorus melody rises in parallel with their hope that this might just be true love. Sometimes the friction occurs within a single song: “Just Let It Go” is a Destiny’s Child-lite debate over whether Buena should leave her bad boyfriend; her verses about needing this wastrel are notably more convincing than Donaghy and Buchanan’s rebuttals advising her to get over him and “find the sweetest rainbow,” which sound ripped from a teen magazine advice column. The tension, about not yet knowing enough to know what you might be missing out on, feels arrestingly true.
That beguiling awkwardness distinguishes One Touch musically, too. Sugababes’ prickly R&B wasn’t as boundary-pushing as anything by Aaliyah, a breakout artist in the UK that year, nor Destiny’s Child, but it revelled in introversion, discomfort, and intensity in a way that their fully neutered, jazz-handsy UK pop peers couldn’t. (Its closest spiritual predecessor in that sense might be Robyn’s 1995 debut, Robyn Is Here.) The album thrived on mining sounds that teenage girls from northwest London might actually like—UK garage, boom-bap, lilting West Coast pop—and rarely hewed to neatly resolving pop conventions. Sometimes that leaves it undercooked, and a few tracks are too self-consciously street—it’s peppered with wiki-wiki record scratching—which undermines the trio’s innate ability to sound worldly and terrifying.
Although they’re capable of beauty—the lovely, almost a capella “New Year” and “Soul Sound”—their harmonies are best suited to wraithlike taunting, often embodying a nagging conscience. Buchanan flits nimbly around the two-stepping “Same Old Story,” then the trio come together for one of their distinctively tapered and intimidating choruses. The synth tones of “Promises” shift uneasily between keys, the girls’ layered, downward-spiralling vocals assuring some fiend that their treachery is “coming back to haunt you.”
They reveal the weight of withstanding these pressures too: “Overload” and “Run for Cover,” both about feeling overwhelmed, bookend the album. The latter’s nervy piano, grave strings, and distorted drums are dramatic and isolated, grounding another discomfiting, unblinking chorus about shutting down in the face of emotional intensity. The album ends with a warning and a strike of self-protection: “You never seem to wonder/How much you make me suffer/I speak it from the inside,” they sing in severe harmony. It establishes a distance, making them tantalizingly unreachable.
That’s where they would remain. The swift dissolution of the original trio left them with a mythic status in UK pop: What might have been? Buchanan once said she had to stop listening to their “adorable” demos because it became too painful: “I would think, ‘Oh, if we were just left to it, we could have done so much.’” Maybe she’s referring to the songs that come with this expanded edition: Several are generically poppy, filled with banal lyrics about partying and devotion (and strangely affecting samples of era-specific mobile phone chimes). If anything, the fact that they didn’t make the original album makes its weird audacity that much more impressive. A couple push that strangeness further: “This Is What You Need,” with its Daft Punk-style vocal processing, post-Missy energy, and blurting production, could be a proto-Danny L Harle track.
True to that spirit, a (fairly unilluminating) disc of remixes and alternative versions features MNEK, Metronomy, and Blood Orange, the progressive, artist-first UK pop producers who worked with the trio when they reformed as MKS in 2012. Getting back together was a personal decision, Buchanan said: “People didn’t allow us to enjoy the experience the first time round.” Despite a few singles, a promised second album hasn’t materialized: Various songs were leaked online and then filleted for use by other artists, including Bananarama and James Arthur. Donaghy also cited “major legal complications,” and admitted that it had taken time for the trio to reckon with their relationships to one another.
The ongoing saga can feel somewhat like history repeating itself, ambitious women caught in an unwinnable system. The One Touch reissue isn’t so much a chance to revisit a classic album—it isn’t one—but an overdue gesture of respect for a group of girls whose long shadow defies any abiding idea that they were disposable.
Buy: Rough Trade