Somehow 15 years have passed since VICE arrived in London and the editors would have to push piles of magazines around the city asking pubs to please take them. Since then we've grown, conceiving tiny content babies that have grown into leading industry voices (see us, here – Noisey – recklessly tooting our own horn). To mark this anniversary, this week VICE UK is throwing a bunch of events and we're running a series of content about a time in British music that most of us shouldn't, but weirdly do, struggle to remember.
The year 2002 was the tipping point before we confined ourselves to a life of irony, before we realised our impending doom and had to pretend we’d known about it all along. This was the year before the invasion of Iraq and before 36 million people across the world marched in protest against that war and were totally ignored. This was also the year that saw us spend time revelling in frivolity, reaching peak Changing Rooms: ennui channeled into statement walls and perspex shelving units. After years of unchallenged leisure, people were looking for an escape from what had happened a few months earlier – 9/11. And so, in waltzed the novelty hit single, banging away like a cunted uncle, knowing we were only too happy to oblige.
Let us consider, for example, Las Ketchup’s “The Ketchup Song”: a quintessential one-hit novelty wonder that should not have gone multi-platinum in 15 countries. Created by a group that consisted of four quintessentially Andalusian sisters, “The Ketchup Song” (which I will heretofore refer to only as “Ketchup”) remains, 15 years later, a gloriously stupid three minutes and 32 seconds, resplendent with who-gives-a-shit good times, and a dance even your dad can do. In 2002, you simply stood on a chair and shouted “PLAY LAS KETCHUP” at a wedding without a care. Looking back on it is to reflect on what seemed to be a more innocent time.
Of course, "The Ketchup Song" wasn’t the first novelty song to put us in a headlock of positivity – animated labourer Bob the Builder beat Eminem to number 1 in 2000 and Cartoons had "Witch Doctor" at number 2 in 1998 – but never before had the novelty genre stood at such a stark contrast to the reality of the outside world. Unlike the experimental novelty singles of the 90s – where Babylon Zoo and Eiffel 65 dragged you into the unknowable abyss of deep space or the colour blue – 2002’s output possessed a more grounded clarity. They weren’t reductive as such, but they didn’t tear up the playbook either: like memes do today, these songs riffed on general leitmotifs and allowed people to cope when things went to shite. But unlike memes, they required little context: the songs just were. They existed to be enjoyed, nothing more.
The narrative of “Ketchup” is simple. A man named Diego enters a nightclub, the DJ plays his favourite song “Rapper’s Delight” and the chorus is simply a nonsensical phonetic cover of the Sugarhill Gang’s classic. Wonder Mike’s final "to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat" becomes "an de buididipí". That’s it. Save for a couple lines of Spanglish exposition and a couple of key-change calls of "ragatanga!" and "con la salsa!" for garnish, that’s pretty much the whole song. The music video – in which four women stand outside a poolside bar and provide frankly inefficient cocktail service – even comes with singalong lyrics at the bottom. It’s a song about nothing, written in nonsense, that urges you to down this lurid screwdriver cocktail with a sparkler in it and sing along. Even the dancing is unashamed, throwing retirement home disco levels of simplified shapes, and brilliant in its total lack of imagination.
Las Ketchup’s world is one of inclusion and fun: a perfect distillation of the lower middle class holiday dream, where you are free to sit under the shade of a brick-built hut by a tiled swimming pool for as long as you like, without a hint of guilt, surrounded by people just like you: people who don’t want to explore the island or learn something about themselves, people who just want to think about nothing for two weeks and come back with a glorious tan, 200 cigarettes, and a bottle of orujo. Nobody in Las Ketchup’s world has read Eat, Pray, Love. Nobody in Las Ketchup’s world has dutifully studied a Lonely Planet guide on their flight, ready to collect "experiences" like they’re Nectar Points as soon as tires hit tarmac. There are no excursions in Las Ketchup’s world. Everyone is already happy here. Nobody has ever had a panic attack at this bar.
I envy the freedom in “Ketchup” like I have envied little else. Las Ketchup are not the progenitor of this viewpoint, though they remain one of the era’s most cherished proponents. In 2002, fun was everywhere in the charts: from The Cheeky Girls’ “Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)” to DJ Aligator Project’s “The Whistle Song (Blow My Whistle, Bitch)”, it was a year unencumbered by second thought; 12 months dominated by desire in all its forms. Their messages were simple – “Have a go on this whistle” or “Touch my arse, please” – and their purview pure. Nigel & Marvin just wanted you to “Follow Da Leader”. Puretone just wanted to give you a word about their weakness: a total, crushing addiction to bass.
Not everything has aged well. There is no way that Ali G could exist outside of a 3AM slot on BBC Three now, let alone be gifted with a film ( Ali G Indahouse) and a hit single in the same year, and yet “Me Julie” with Shaggy – a song where Ali G asks his titular girlfriend to "give it a shave ‘cos me wanna be in ya" – spent FOURTEEN WEEKS in the UK charts, six of those in the top 10. They even performed it at the BRIT Awards, gyrating in gold lamé alongside 30 bikinied women, with Ali G rapping with an erratic flow that flits between excitable Year 7 talent show and nervous laughter. But while our willingness to let certain things slide has thankfully abated, for better or worse, you can’t help but admire the innocence that allowed these novelty songs to so gloriously thrive.
Bad things aside… with a pitched up chorus, Scooter’s Supertramp-remixing “The Logical Song” (above) is another standout from 2002. Frontman HP Baxxter, looking like Neo from The Matrix if he swapped fighting philosophical and technological oppression for bulk-buying eccies, raps: “Pump it up! Aaaah! I ramp? Me no ramp, me no skin, me no play, yeah! When me chant 'pon the microphone and me say with the DJ: junglists in the place, junglists on the case… Scooter, are you ready!?” Now: there is no way that Baxxter knows what he is saying here, and it couldn't matter less – he was presented with a society that wanted nothing more than to be taken thoughtlessly on a ride. Somehow it was down to a man who ends a song with a throaty call of “Stand up!” and “Once again!” and “We're gettin' jiggy!” before screaming “Siberiaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Yay!” and, finally, “Goodbye!” to show us where the good times were hiding.
And yet in this landscape of novelty, it is Elvis, the bloated ghost of pop music past, who features in the year’s most defining song. Of “A Little Less Conversation”, this very website’s Emma Garland wrote that it sounded like “like Shaun Ryder was possessed by Johnny Bravo and someone tried to perform an exorcism with bongos”. To that assessment I say, well, yeah, fair, but also point to the song’s central argument: this is not something that requires you to think; it only requires you to feel. It asks only that you do – something, anything – be this action dancing to breakbeat while mouthing “Come on, come on! (Come on, come on!)” or grazing your chin after attempting a scorpion kick in the playground. It’s this philosophy of carpe-ing the fuck out of the diem before the dying of the light that helped make it a number one hit in twenty countries around the world.
The concept of mindless fun is universal and important: what could be more human than to do something just because? Close your mouth, open up your heart, and, baby, satisfy me. Novelty music never asks you to question the precariousness of humanity or the frailty of its existence. Novelty music never asks you to decipher or unlock. Novelty music is unlike us: operating without the burdens of reason, without the hurdles of strife. And while Big Shaq and Kurupt FM usher in a new wave of music full of sly knowing nods, novelty music in 2002 wanted only for you to come and smile and not be shy. It just wanted you to touch its bum, because this is life.
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This article is part of VICE UK’s 15th anniversary series, presented by VANS.