"You really couldn’t make this up. But they did. And it’s fantastic": 5 Xenomania tracks producers need to hear

Girls Aloud in 2005
Girls Aloud in 2005 (Image credit: Getty Images/Dave Hogan)

This weekend, Girls Aloud take to the stage and kick off the first date on their latest greatest hits tour. So what better time to take stock of the remarkable output from the writing and production team that crafted all their classics?

And this isn’t just a Girls Aloud gig. All told, the multi-headed Xenomania writing and production monster has been responsible for some of this century’s most innovative pop hits for multifarious artists. It’s all too easy to dismiss pop as trivia, but perhaps more than any outfit, Xenomania has earned the business of crafting the perfect pop single its rightful place as the ultimate artform.

The multi-headed Xenomania writing and production monster has been responsible for some of this century’s most innovative pop hits for multifarious artists

Xenomania’s songs are a delve into the dressing up box. Random pieces are plucked out because they’re great enough to stand alone, then smashed together to create a whole new outfit. Sure, that doesn’t go with that. Yes, all the rules say ‘no you can’t’. But pin these gems together on a single style and the look is fabulous.

While very much the brainchild of Brian Higgins – hot from co-writing Cher’s global smash Believe – and regular writing partner-in-crime Miranda Cooper, the Xenomania production team swelled over the years, at one stage occupying a country house commune in Kent, bulging with writers rooms and hits in the making.

One has to wonder if the songs with the most elements and inventive twists were simply those that had a full team’s turnout that day with protestations of “but you can’t…” becoming all the endorsement that the rest needed to do precisely that – tenfold. If you don’t like it, simple, you’re just plain wrong and the more you complain the more we’re going to do it.

Like the songs he creates, Higgins himself is a mismatched mash of talents. At once musical, full of excitement and enthusiasm for the artistry and creation, you nevertheless feel like he’s always mounting music from its business end. Yes, we know that making great pop music is a matter of life and death, but man, can you just lighten up a bit?

For every nailed-on hit the team have supplied there are 10 ‘interesting experiments’

But buoyed up on Higgins’ endless rip curl of enthusiasm his team are equally able to create the ‘five songs in one’ Franken-songs that they're most famous for but equally happy to keep plugging away at a nagging riff so that when the wave finally breaks and a new chord crash lands, it smacks you in the face like a jet of frozen cologne.

But the Xenomania stamp isn’t a guarantee of success. For every nailed-on hit the team have supplied there are 10 ‘interesting experiments’ that either pushed the formula past brazen bravery or broke the wall into territory where the artist or their fans didn’t actually want to go. There are just as many curious failures where egomaniacal hubris sent songs and artists off half-cocked and moments where magic was successfully caught in the bottle only to be tipped down the dumper by a feckless fanbase.

So we’ve taken stock of the lot – the hits and misses – and here’s our pick of Xenomania’s most unmissable moments…

The Saturdays – All Fired Up

Let’s come out fighting. “We’re all animal, so get your claws out,” but what an odd beast this is. On the surface it’s all fizzy synths and hold-your-glass-up, stiletto-shod rave, but the cantering, toybox-contents-tumbling-down-the-stairs rhythm renders it completely undanceable for all but the most persistent Sugar Hut resident.

The automation is flawless, the filters open and close to perfection but the low-impact beats only ever enrapture and entertain rather than excite and ignite

Instead it's a captive, glassy menagerie of EMD tropes tailor made for The Saturdays to sway, vogue and shimmer in front of while middle-aged pop pundits and synth scientists swoon and nod appreciatively at the arrangement. The automation is flawless, the filters open and close to perfection but the low-impact beats only ever enrapture and entertain rather than excite and ignite. Thus attention is grabbed, jaws are dropped but any kind of sweat remains unbroken.

But it was a winning formula that made UK number three in 2011.

The track is basically Calvin Harris's I'm Not Alone driven to its final destination (with an overnight stop off at Chris Brown’s Yeah 3X). Being a song with one verse (repeated twice), no chorus and an unfathomable three bridges it’s easy to lose your way during its 3:13 playtime.

In fact, it falls to the first, “We’re all animal” bridge (which mercifully drops at just 1:02 in) to deliver the lift that you’re looking for, then, seemingly with all its cards played, a second bridge (“We’re so close to the edge of desire”) allows its makers to spin the track back to the start and play the same set of tricks on you for a second time. Wait, isn’t that just the first verse again? Yup. Surely we’re all spent by 3:31? Nope, that “Keep me on your radar” third bridge is just the ticket to take you the rest of the way.

And when you chuck in Frankie Bridge that makes four…

Saint Etienne – Lightning Strikes Twice

Being a band who’s entire output feels like ‘B-sides and rarities’, Xenomania productions have buzzed in and out of Saint Etienne's output over the years. While popping up via the excellent single Action in 2002 with matching tracks on their Finisterre album of the same year, their best get-together has to be the Lightning Strikes Twice co-write and production, elegantly tossed away as track three on 2005’s Tales from Turnpike House.

Being the siren call of pop in amongst Etienne’s obligation to the experimental and surprising, the band’s Xenomania collabs ground their work back in the realm of the commercial. And while Lightning Strikes Twice is suitably menacing and odd, with a discordant, inevitable chord progression that draws you in it’s easy to imagine Nadine and co giving it an angular and curt Girls Aloud treatment (with synchronised hand gestures, of course).

Meanwhile, what light from yonder window breaks? Tis Burnt Out Car, a dazzling song with a tortuous upbringing that – while merely a Xenomania production than a co-write – just has to sneak into this list too.

Dating back to 1996 the song was earmarked for single status but the remixes of the time never quite gave it the star quality it needed to shine. Instead it languished until 2008, before being given the Xenomania treatment in a complete re-record and deployed as the lead single from 2008’s London Conversations: The Best of Saint Etienne.

Mini Viva – One Touch

Mini Viva represents the emergence of Xenomania as puppet masters following their career as writers and producers. And it turned out to be an uncomfortable change of outfit.

Tired of having bands handed to them by the labels they wanted to put something together and truly own something for themselves and by now had got their multi-headed schtick together with a never ending procession of collaborators, musicians and artists passing through their Kent commune to contribute.

The wheels were soon to fall off this particular Viva...

Instead of just songs and productions, how hard could it be to perfect the whole package?

Spotted, scooped up and plucked from obscurity by the Xenomania machine, the combination of ambitious and talented wannabes Frankee Connolly and Britt Love seemed all set to reset pop at the end of the naughties. Debut single I Left My Heart in Tokyo paved their way for stardom, and driven by remixes from Fred Falke and 80’s legend (and Stock Aitken Waterman mixmaster) Pete Hammond it's all finger-wagging sass ‘n’ jumpsuits. Colourful and popping with energy, the band’s look and sound earned them comparisons with 80’s loveables Mel and Kim and with that debut single reaching a thoroughly Respectable number seven in the UK, their future – like their outfits – looked bright.

However, the wheels were soon to fall off this particular Viva, as follow-up single, the arguably superior I Wish, only reached number 73 sending the nation’s pop pundits popping their bonnets and scratching their heads. They looked great. There was a yawning chasm left by the implosion of The Spice Girls and they had the Girls Aloud masterminds pulling the strings. What gives?

But it’s Viva’s final failed stab at stardom that’s easily their best. One Touch (co-written by Xenomania labelmate Florrie) shimmers and excites, at once rocking stuttering synth chords and stabs on loan from Dead Or Alive’s You Spin Me Round over a bassline that’s basically Farley Jackmaster Funk’s Love Can’t Turn Around. It’s all teasing and taunting performance, but at the end of the day it’s the track’s rock solid reward of a chord progression that seals its deal.

Thus Mini Viva’s short career across three singles is Xenomania firing on all cylinders but unable to get this racecar off the starting line. And while the number of co-writers sharing the credits only increased across their short-lived output (five, six and eight) their corresponding chart positions only ever headed in the opposite direction (7, 73 and 124).

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” they bellow as they collectively crank the pop machine and keep its plates spinning, but post-Girls Aloud Xenomania are an odd beast, at once able to cook up pop nuggets easily as good as their prime time best but seemingly unable to pick the right vehicle to drive them home.

And as pop’s knee-jerk rulebook dictates, plans for Mini Viva global domination and an album release were quickly iced following the double helping of failure. Meanwhile, perhaps by virtue of being closer to the source of the magic, Florrie’s career and stabs at stardom were allowed to rumble on (and continue to rumble) for over a decade (career analysis below).

Yes, One Touch takes too long to get to ‘the good bit’. Yes, those verses are little more than a single note that the girls chant over, and the rebirth of Hi-NRG in 2010 was never going to happen. But when One Touch’s chorus strikes it’s like the sun exploding. Glorious.

Florrie – Call 911

Ah, the eternal mystery of Florrie. The artist who never was and sadly still isn’t.

OK. For perspective. Indulge us… It’s a popular misconception that Pete Waterman founded PWL in order to sign Kylie Minogue. The truth is far stranger. Waterman created PWL to sign Mandy Smith, the teen temptress who, circa 1986, had just had a barely legal fling with Rolling Stone Bill Wyman. Waterman was so convinced that he could turn her into a star that, when UK record companies wouldn’t touch her with a bargepole, Waterman advocated creating a company just to get her out there. A notion so barmy that even Stock and Aitken refused to sign on.

Sure enough, despite pumping time, energy, money and some of their best tunes into Smith, after five flop singles and an album that didn’t even earn a UK release, she was shelved. Instead it was Kylie Minogue (and subsequently Jason Donovan) that proved to be PWL’s money spinners, making Waterman millions and ultimately driving the killer wedge between the trio as Stock and Aitken looked on with envy.

Heavy with talent Florrie joined the Xenomania fold as their in-house drummer in 2008

Florrie is – basically – Xenomania’s Mandy; a star-in-waiting with all the backing and hit-factory head start, but who has inexplicably never sparked into life, meaning that, unlike Waterman, writers/producers-turned-manipulators Xenomania have – post Girls Aloud – never had their real Kylie moment of breakthrough vindication. Since the Girls it’s all been po-faced pop masterplan with no proper pay-off.

Heavy with talent Florrie joined the Xenomania fold as their in-house drummer in 2008, playing on hits for Kylie Minogue, The Saturdays and Alesha Dixon and notching up co-writing credits on Girls Aloud’s Something New and The Saturday’s What Are You Waiting For? among others.

And yet, despite being part of Xenomania’s inner circle, a winning and able performer, a talented writer, a model who’s worked the face of Nina Ricci, Dolce & Gabbana, H&M and more, and by virtue of all of the above, the darling of every hip pop outlet there is, 16 years on from her first steps to stardom, Florrie still can’t catch a cold.

Rather than follow a conventional singles/album tick tock, Florrie’s output has been a confusing parade of EPs and singles. Breaking the mould by often giving away new releases for free online, Florrie's taskmasters have instead played the social media game and while attracting attention and dogged and dedicated fans, there just has never been enough of them to tip the balance into a conventional crossover, Lily Allen-style.

In fact, the appetite for ‘doing things differently’ in the Florrie gameplan seems to have overtaken any conventional notion of star creation at all, meaning that in the 16 years that Florrie has banged on the glass, Adele, Rita Ora, Anne Marie, Charlie XCX, Becky Hill, Jess Glynne, Dua Lipa and more have broken through via far more boring ‘spend = success’ campaigns, becoming certified stars in the process. Instead Florrie’s fame has hung in the balance, left teetering forever in teaser mode rather than ever being made to front up, work hard and take it over the top.

The fact that Florrie’s debut album, The Lost Ones, is out on June the 14th 2024 – over 13 years since the release of her debut single, kind of says it all. The album’s release – while welcome by fans and featuring some of Xenomania’s best post-Girls Aloud work from her impossible-to-keep-up-with drip-fed single output – smacks of ‘now or forget it’ rather than Florrie finally getting the breakthrough moment she deserves.

But – arguably – were Florrie’s singles ever up to Xenomania snuff? Call 911 – her debut – is therefore perhaps included here more because of lifelong love rather than any certified ‘banger’ status. We could just as easily have heaped attention and affection going back through time to 2021’s Communicate, 2019’s Borderline, 2012’s brilliantly building Shot You Down or 2011’s Experimenting With Rugs as all are equally great. At the end of the day, all the songwriting and production hallmarks are there, but that spark? For whatever reason, for Florrie, that remains elusive.

Girls Aloud – Biology

Best til last? Yeah, you got us. We tried hard not to give in to the multi-headed, episodic cerberus of Biology, but it slays us every time.

Best til last? Yeah, you got us

Girls Aloud were and are – famously – pure fabrication and it’s highly arguable that without debut detonation The Sound of the Underground to blast them into the collective consciousness we’d be writing about runner-ups One True Voice instead.

While the majority of the girls debut album – also titled Sound of the Underground (the surefire sign that they would be one and done) – was handled by Xenomania, the band’s label threatened to drop them unless Higgins and co. agreed to helm the follow-up in its entirety. Thus by album number three – Chemistry – the team and the girls had this dance down by law.

And following the minor stumble that was lead off single Long Hot Summer only making number seven in the UK (their first to miss the five) all the stops were pulled out to right the ship.

You really couldn’t make this up. But they did. And it’s fantastic

Biology – Chemistry’s second single (we’re still eagerly awaiting Physics, by the way) – needs very little introduction, nonetheless it has one of the best. Being a straight riff lift from George Thorogood and The Destroyers’ Bad to the Bone it sets the tone for a nifty 50’s throwback before magically doubling the tempo and flip-reversing into an extended synth-led verse (“I got one Alabama return”)… Which goes on for too long… Before arriving at the chorus (“We give it up…”) at last… Only that’s not the chorus… That comes a whole 26 seconds later with “You can’t mistake my biology!”. It’s like a never ending motorway exit ramp with a whole other planet waiting for you at the end.

And then we’re slammed back to the half tempo rock ‘n’ roll intro… After which… a second verse? Nah, screw it, let’s go straight to “You can’t mistake my biology!” and the chorus again. Another intro and we’re out. You really couldn’t make this up. But they did. And it’s fantastic.

Girls Aloud-plus-Xenomania are all killer no filler. The perfect personality + talent vehicle for brave and surprising songs. Each influenced the other to up their game so while the girls worked harder to please their puppet masters, the team pulling the strings increasingly couldn’t disappoint.

Is there a Xenomania: Greatest Hits album? Yes, it’s called Ten by Girls Aloud, and it contains every time that the team got it right and left zero cash on the table. Their 2012 compilation released to mark the girls’ last gallop through their hits, marking the tenth anniversary of the release of the debut single, is – simply put – the best thing Xenomania have ever done.

But we can’t stop The Show yet...

Room for five more?

Girls Aloud – Sexy! No No No…

Time for the encore. So we could have gone with The Promise, Call The Shots, The Show, Something Kinda Oooh, or gone right back to second single No Good Advice, but just looking at Sexy! No No No written down is enough to raise a smile. The exclamation! The ellipsis… You can’t call a song that. Oh yes you can! This robo-voiced heavy metal headlong dash for the horizon very nearly made our top five… But no no no…

Alesha Dixon – The Boy Does Nothing

In which, after establishing that the boy has two left feet and is therefore unable to dance, Dixon goes on to address his further failings at even the most basic of household tasks. It’s a blistering litany of home economic criticism. And “if the man can't dance, he gets no second chance”. Harsh.

However, it should be noted that Dixon herself was no high flyer before this single either. TBDN sees her engaging a career gear switch after her role as Mis-Teeq’s sassy MC (special props to their sublime, Stargate produced Scandalous btw). The Boy proved to be just the jackknife this vehicle needed, sending her star power careening along a whole new Saturday teatime trail.

The track? It’s basically Lou Bega’s Mambo No.5 (a Little Bit of…) with some more interesting chord changes. And Florrie on drums. This Boy certainly does something. But washing, cleaning, brushing? Forget it.

Paige Cavell – Predators & Monsters

Yes! What a banger! After being originally recorded and unreleased by Tove Lo, Cavell chews and miaows her way through every line, taking the Xenomania drill to ‘make it your own’ a little too close to heart. Once you get over standing in the naked blare of her voice, all the hallmarks of a smash are plain to see. But was it a hit? Nah…

Likewise, while the label were insistent as launching this as being by ‘Xenomania Presents Paige Cavell’, by this time, standing in the steely glare of Xenomania’s master plan was starting to feel more like a career kiss of death than any passport to success. See also Cavell’s 2019’s should-be hit Figure It Out for further WTF evidence.

Pet Shop Boys – King of Rome

Notably the Boys co-wrote The Loving Kind for Girls Aloud with Xenomania and for this list we should be picking one of the three co-written tracks from their 2009 album, Yes, but we have to plump for the merely Xenomania-produced King of Rome instead. If you like your Pet Shop Boys on the miserabilist tip then help yourself to perhaps their most grandiose, saddest, most tragic song ever.

Sugababes – Round Round

We can’t quit this list without special mentions to Round Round and Hole in the Head. Obviously. They’re both pop classics but by virtue of not really taking it to that next level musically (or, let's face it, going anywhere beyond a blinding beat and a hooky lyric) they’re remaining on our reserve bench.

Speaking on the BBC’s Secrets of the Pop Song, Higgins explains Round Round’s construction. "We had a drum track which was just stunning and so I sat down with Miranda [Cooper] on the one day we had the Sugababes in the studio and said 'Right, you know, this is a hit. This piece of music is a hit… but we don't have any song attached to it. So what are we gonna do about that?'".

Three hours later Cooper and the Sugababes handed him the hit. "What Miranda had very cleverly done is she'd gone back through all the songs that she'd written over the last two or three years and sung the chorus of every single song against this particular piece of drumming and sang to me 'round round baby round round'," recalls Higgins. "I said, 'That's it. That's amazing.'" Hit. Done. Next!

Daniel Griffiths

Daniel Griffiths is a veteran journalist who has worked on some of the biggest entertainment, tech and home brands in the world. He's interviewed countless big names, and covered countless new releases in the fields of music, videogames, movies, tech, gadgets, home improvement, self build, interiors and garden design. He’s the ex-Editor of Future Music and ex-Group Editor-in-Chief of Electronic Musician, Guitarist, Guitar World, Computer Music and more. He renovates property and writes for MusicRadar.com.

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