Last night I got to be part of something pretty special. After 10 years, one of pop’s greatest boybands returned to the UK for their first gig as a reformed group. A1 broke up in 2002 after Paul left the group, and none of the members saw solo success in the UK. However, as Norwegian member Christian remained popular in his home country, the band (except for Paul) reunited in 2009 for a few gigs, which eventually led to a brand new album and four hit singles in Norway. Last night, two years after reforming, they finally performed again in the country where the group originated, and while they may not be selling out The O2 like Take That or Steps, the response from the audience showed there’s definitely still a lot of love for A1.
When Ben, Mark and Christian took the stage, playing their second no.1 hit Same Old Brand New You to an ecstatic crowd, I felt oddly emotional knowing how much this moment must mean to them. Since A1’s heyday I’ve learnt a lot about the ups and downs of pop. When I loved A1 and their contemporaries I looked in from the outside, but now I know people who are currently part of successful groups, and others who have had it and lost it. Anyone who watched Steps’ recent Living TV series will know how quickly a pop career can be taken away. Only the most established band members can succeed alone, and even then that solo success doesn’t tend to last long – see Gary Barlow, Rachel Stevens and Brian McFadden for just a few examples.
With A1 only releasing three albums and lasting for three years, there was little chance for them as soloists, but as a group they had gone out on a high with one of their biggest hits, Caught In The Middle, as their penultimate single. It may not have felt like it when the follow-up Make It Good (which I actually loved!) entered the chart at no. 11, but the doors were always open for A1 to make a comeback when they and their fanbase were ready. And when Same Old Brand New You began to play last night, both parties were more than ready.
Usually when bands reform and record a new album, they play more of their new material than their hits, especially if their earlier music could be considered dated or cheesy. But not A1! They knew exactly what their fans would want to hear, and made sure no-one went home disappointed. I couldn’t believe it when they played their first two cheese-tastic singles Be The First To Believe and Summertime Of Our Lives, and later ditched their instruments for dance routines to perform Ready Or Not. They even played fan favourite album tracks Learn To Fly and One More Try, and their one rubbish single Like A Rose, which Ben confusingly introduced as their best song. On reflection, I have concluded that he must have been joking. The gig ended with an encore including their biggest Norwegian hit from the new album, Don’t Wanna Lose You Again, and the songs they are most remembered for: Take On Me and Caught In The Middle.
While A1 weren’t my biggest obsession the first time around (I was more of a BSBs/*N Sync fan), I listened to their music regularly in the intervening years and was even more impressed by their 2010 album Waiting For Daylight. I reviewed it on release and have been persuading people to listen to it ever since. It’s a great comeback album as the new music acknowledges that they and their fans are now ten years older, while also retaining enough of the sound that made them successful in the first place. Plus it was produced in Norway, which automatically puts them a couple of years ahead of the musical trends. The first thing I thought when I heard The Wanted’s music was “ooh, it sounds like the new A1 album!” and no-one can deny that the vocals on the new One Direction single sound just like Ben.
Although last night’s audience were naturally not as enthusiastic for the new music as the classics, every conversation I overheard on the way out was about how to get the new album and whether it would be released in the UK. While I think Waiting For Daylight is a great pop album, A1 don’t have enough clout to simply put it out in the UK and expect success, especially as most of their big fans will already have it. They will need a platform to make sure that all their old fans (and hopefully some new ones) know they’re back, and that the new music is worth a listen. I suggest getting themselves on the Steps tour as a support act, and getting a few new songs on the album for the UK release. This will ensure hardcore fans buy another copy and give them a chance to find a lead single, as the album is currently full of 8/10 tracks but no 9s or 10s.
Regardless of what happens next for A1, whether their new album is released here without fanfare or leads to a great new chapter of their pop story in the UK, they have made a dignified return and found a place for themselves on the current musical landscape. Not one person could have left last night’s gig without thinking it was a success, so there will undoubtedly be more UK gigs and I’ll definitely be in attendance. I highly recommend you join me!