Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
It’s hard to believe it’s already been a decade since the dawn of Richard X Presents His X-Factor (released on August 23, 2003), mainly because it continues to sound about ten years ahead of its time. One part greatest-hits collection, one part Bizarro World NOW! compilation, His X-Factor had nothing to do with the televised talent competition of the same name (a mere coincidence that nonetheless caused record company headaches) and everything to do with forging a new and exciting pop sound.
At the height of an early-’00s UK Pop Renaissance, the producer found himself behind two of the charts’ biggest singles: Liberty X’s “Being Nobody” and Sugababes‘ “Freak Like Me.” Both singles were dark, dirty re-imaginings of classic dance hits, but with a little something extra. Although the word “mash-up” would go on to become a cultural buzzword — meaning stick this Celine Dion flop atop Blondie‘s“Heart of Glass” and resend it to radio — what Richard X was pioneering had more to do with the spirit of re-purposing bits of the old to make something entirely new.
Join us below as Richard X joins us to discuss the first (and last?) volume of X-Factor.
Richard X says of his mindset at the time, “I liked soul and R&B records, and bringing that into pop — mainly electronic synth pop. It was also as much about the imagery and how that fitted or created a new aesthetic, and that was more important than if tracks just fitted in the same musical key. Bootlegging became a bit of a creative dead-end for me. It became very literal and all about the big bits of other peoples music, whereas I think the ‘cut and paste’ idea is more evident on X-Factor, and that’s one way I still work today.“
At once sleek and grimy, past-referencing but forward-looking, and filled to the rim with amazing guest stars, the album was nothing short of a revelation to pop heads. That X-Factor didn’t catch commercial fire is one of the great pop injustices. Although Richard X himself puts on no airs and remains modest in the face of our gushing praise — “‘Ahead of its time’ is great shorthand for ‘didn’t sell much’!” — he did agree to speak to us about the collection and recount some of the stories behind its making.
The set kicks off quite appropriately with “Freak Like Me,” the single that started it all. In 2002, the Sugababes were coming off a hit debut and looking for material for their sophomore player. Enter Richard X and his underground hit “We Don’t Give a Damn About Our Friends,” which cleverly meshed Adina Howard’s salacious anthem “Freak Like Me” and Tubeway Army’s new wave anthem, “Are Friends Electric?”
“‘Freak Like Me’ was a separate event from X-Factor,” Richard X explains. “Virgin signed me up because of the Whitney Houston/Kraftwerk bootleg ‘I Wanna Dance With Numbers’. They thought they could clear that, and the classic feedback I heard was Kraftwerk thought it was the worst record they’d ever heard but in the best sleeve. I was happy with that, but i’m not sure if Virgin were. With ‘Freak’ it was more a production for [Sugababes'] record. It was ultimately their single.”
Sugababes — “Freak Like Me”
“I remember Keisha and Mutya looking me up and down when we met as I’d done nothing else they’d ever heard of or liked, and Heidi had just joined,” X continues. “And also with them signing to a new label, it was like a new thing for everybody. But they were ultimately cool and sounded great, as they still do. Several versions were done. I saw them playing it at Top Of The Pops, and then didn’t see them again for ten years! It was licensed for my album and fitted in with the aesthetic, and enabled Virgin to add another hit to the sticker on the front of the CD.”
The single smashed in at the top of the UK chart in 2002 — a first for the ‘babes — and soon other artists came looking for the Richard X touch.
“It was my idea for what pop could be at the time,” X explains. “There wasn’t much pop that sounded like it then, or certainly had my sort of ideas woven into it. Yes, retro-influenced, but I was more keen to explore the sounds of those modern records, keep some of the electronic rawness whilst making use of all the recent technology that was available, computer effect plugins and the like.”
Liberty X, a pop outfit consisting of non-winning contestants from Britain’s turn-of-the-millennium reality series Popstars: The Rivals, soon found themselves in the studio with Richard working on material for their own sophomore album. What resulted from those sessions was a remodeling of Chaka Khan’s club classic “Ain’t Nobody” grafted onto a hot bit of the Human League’s “Being Boiled.” Ten years later, “Being Nobody” still sounds like a monster: big and beat-filled, and a lot more daring than anything an American Idol alum would put out ahead of their second album.
Liberty X — “Being Nobody”
Liberty X (previously known as just plain old Liberty until “Being Nobody”) took the single to #3 on the UK chart.
“I’d spend ages programming the music, and then, as they were great singers, they’d appear in the studio and do their vocals in no time at all,” Richard remembers. “The band were down to earth people, a good laugh and really professional — which I then realized was a skill in itself, and a huge part of what makes pop records work, and ultimately successful.”
He continues, and reveals an interesting tidbit for all the Liberty X fans out there: “The original sleeve for the single was going to be amazing. Ian Anderson and Designers Republic, who did all the X-Factor artwork, were a big part of the visual/conceptual side. They’d wangled a budget from the label. Myself and the band went to Rotherham, to a working car plant and set up for a photo shoot there. The band’s mouths were stretched with string into ‘Joker’ style gaping grimaces, and an actor was hired to present them with a prop recording contract for a staged shot on the factory floor. Yes, really — this sort of thing was tolerated at record labels then. It looked amazing, so far away from what a pop sleeve was at the time. Then V2, the band’s label, vetoed it.”
And, for the first time ever, here’s that single cover!
Credits: Concept / Art Direction Ian Anderson / The Designers Republic™ . Photograph: Carl Johan-Paulin
Building from those two hits, Richard set about assembling a rainbow array of guest vocalists for His X-Factor. The results would not disappoint anyone who knew their pop! Contemporary chart stars like Kelis and the aforementioned Liberty X and Sugababes slotted easily next to club denizens Annie and Tiga, all of them equally down to get dirty and try something new.
“The main idea was ‘what if X did Y?’ — the thought that you could not only get new vocal on a backing track but play with some of the artists’ iconic-ness, their baggage, and make the record you wanted to hear as a fan,” Richard explains.
“Javine was a hot pop starlet at the time, this was going to be single number three from the album. But it was canned due to hesitant radio support. The video featured me stroking a sausage dog watching young women dancing. Not sure that really came across as intended.”
Richard X featuring Javine — “You Used To”
Alongside those younger faces were some legendary and offbeat icons: Jarvis Cocker of Britpop scenesters Pulp and Deborah Evans-Strickland, the notoriously deadpan diva behind The Flying Lizards.
“Jarvis I had met as I was DJ-ing some small parties,” the producer says. “Actually I think it was Steve Mackey from Pulp who inadvertently named me, I sent him a letter with a vinyl as Rich with a ‘X’ — a kiss — on it, and it got printed as that on a flyer. Virgin couldn’t initially find Deborah Evans-Stickland even though she was an ex-Virgin artist, and it turned out she lived half-a-mile down the road. She insisted on having a music stand and printed musical score for all the studio recordings we made, even though she didn’t read music.”
Confession: my favorite track on X-Factor is the stunning cover of Lil Louis & The World’s “Club Lonely,” as sung by ex-Soul II Soul chanteuse Caron Wheeler. The languid beats, hypnotic synths, and pensive vocal combine to create something unlike anything I’d heard before or since. Per Richard, Caron “sang one take amazingly on ‘Lonely’, bought us a bagel and left.” Pure class!
“Finest Dreams,” which dipped into the SOS Band’s “The Finest” with guest vocalist Kelis, was the set’s actual third single. It peaked at #8 on the UK chart exactly one year ago, and has gone on to become one of our favorite things of the ’00s.
“When ‘Finest Dreams’ was a hit, I was asked to go on Top Of The Pops,” Richard recalls. “Kelis couldn’t or wouldn’t do it, so I asked Samantha Fox if she’d appear instead and sing the track. It was exciting, and the sort of baffling idea that would have worked in my world, and the world at large would have a great talking point. Unfortunately she was committed to filming a reality show so couldn’t do it. On the back foot, Virgin hired some roller skaters who did a sterling job, and also printed up numerous life-size cutouts of myself and Kelis, dotted around the TOTP stage. We just about got away with it.”
Richard X performing “Finest Dreams” on Top Of The Pops
We’ve often wondered if, among this crop of talent, there was anyone Richard considered for the album but couldn’t get into the studio. Indeed, there were a few ideas that didn’t make it to the album stage.
“One omission was Billie Piper,” Richard reveals. “The version on the album was made for Annie, but the song ‘Just Friends’ originally was going to be less experimental and was meant for Billie. The lyrics for the song were based on a letter printed in a UK tabloid that had turned up in a crime case where a celebrity was murdered. That’s the sort of thing I thought was a good idea for a pop song at the time!”
He continues: “Another track with Kelis called ‘One Last Kiss’ came out of a session where Diddy kidnapped me and took me to Ibiza. There was a version of Justin Timberlake‘s ‘Like I Love You’ with Deborah Evans-Stickland that was never completed. Sadly there was a Janet Jackson backing track that she was going to write over but that meet-up disappeared in a puff of smoke.”
As for later collaborations following the release of Richard X Presents His X-Factor, like Annie’s “Chewing Gum,” he explains, “That song and [Rachel Stevens'] ‘Some Girls’ are sort of honorary X-Factor LP tracks — not that they were made for that, but it was that mentality of doing something different, and being retro, modern, knowing, perverse and fun all at the same time. I think everything good I’ve done post-X-Factor is kind of honorary Volume 2, if that makes sense. ”
Annie — “Chewing Gum”
Despite some really great singles, a lot of star power, good pop press (PopJustice, for instance, has always been a champion of the Richard X sound) and great word of mouth, the album didn’t break any sales records. When asked if this dashed any hopes of a Volume 2, Richard explains, “Well, the idea for that for a while was ‘Sweet-X’, the girl band that never was. During the album process, I was still free to write or produce for other people, and so I started doing more of that. I co-wrote tracks like Bertine Zetlitz‘ ‘Girl Like U’ in that era and I also around then met co-writer Hannah Robinson, who I’ve gone on to do a lot of work with.”
Richard continues: “By the end of the album-making process, it was pretty evident that I was better off behind the scenes. I could write, create and do what I do without having to go on kids’ TV and scare the children. So ‘Sweet-X’ was to be a group that could front things and be a vehicle — but it never even got to audition stage. There was a great pretentious advert asking, ‘Do you like Beyonce and The Art Of Noise?’. Bearing in mind this was 2003; this was a piece of demographic wishful thinking. We had about ten applicants. I’d love to know if any of those people ever ended up in bands.”
“That went on until April 2004, demoing ideas and going to meetings to talk about other meetings. When you’re signed to a record deal there are ‘option periods’, and a day comes when the label has to agree to give you more money for the next record or stop working with you. On that day, I had a conversation with Philippe Ascoli, the label boss, who said if I wanted he would take up the option. I was pretty cheap as a deal, but having just been down the unproductive Sweet-X route, we didn’t really know what to do with the idea of ‘me’ on a label like Virgin. So we parted ways and that was that. I took the phone call in the studio whilst recording ‘Some Girls’ with Rachel Stevens, and I knew that it would all be okay”
Upon looking back, it’s clear now that Richard X Presents His X-Factor Vol. 1 put forth that pop can be grimy, eccentric, electronic and still totally chart accessible. And the music world has since followed in its footsteps.