Arts: Thunderbugs are go!

They've had months of careful grooming, a launch at the Hilton and corporate investment to the tune of millions. The latest all-girl group is poppy and presentable, but it's no promoter's creation. David Thomas listens to a girl-band that can actually play

Nobody at Epic Records will put a figure to the amount spent on their latest girl group, Thunderbugs. But off-the-record sources claim that it may be the largest amount the label (a division of Sony UK, whose other acts include Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, George Michael and Manic Street Preachers) has ever paid out for a new act. On top of the lucrative recording contract, the band has had 18 months of pre-launch grooming, recording sessions in New York and Los Angeles, and a four-day shoot for their video linked to their single "Friends Forever".

Add all this together and you have to be talking many hundreds of thousands of pounds, probably millions. As one Sony executive said to me: "You were at the Hilton. We don't do that for just anyone."

Indeed not. Thunderbugs made their live debut at Windows on the World, a spectacular bar on the 26th floor of the Park Lane Hilton hotel. It was a strictly invitation-only event, for the music business, the media and retail hotshots (including some flown in from Europe). Sony's chairman and chief executive, Paul Burger, was there, checking on his latest investment.

The place was packed with thirty-something men hoping that their shaven heads and geeky specs made them look young enough to appeal to all the pretty girls in strappy summer dresses. As I forced my way through the throng, I overheard someone say, "Don't worry. The towering inferno's only a movie."

Word was, Epic was going to all this trouble because Thunderbugs were something new: a girl band that could actually play. The pre-publicity said they were not another pre-packaged product assembled by a managerial Svengali. They had got together the old-fashioned way - a bunch of mates who met in clubs, rehearsed, hung out and formed a band. They had all been in bands before. They'd paid their dues. They liked the Police and Led Zeppelin. Forget girly pop, this was almost rock'n'roll.

The stage alone said big-money rock. Beginner bands do not have kit as slick as the Thunderbugs' gleaming amplifiers. Nor do they work with earpiece monitors, instead of the traditional bins on the floor. Nor do they have wind machines to give their hair such life and body. But Thunderbugs had nothing but A1 gear as they made their fashionably late entrance.

There are four of them: two blondes - Stef Maillard and Nicky Shaw, on bass and drums - with Sheryl Crow lookalike Brigitte Jansen on guitar, and singer Jane Vaughan, a slender brunette with black Nana Mouskouri glasses (not a style detail, she is genuinely bat-blind). They wore clean-cut clothes that had a slight Sixties, modish look. On the stage sides, two men were lined up with guitar and keyboards.

"Thank you so much for giving up your evening to come and see us," said Jane. It was a sweet thought, but this was just a showcase, rather than a full concert, so there wasn't too much of the evening to give up. They sang a poppy number called "Walking on Air", then a cover of the old PP Arnold track "Angel of the Morning", then a ballad about love. I didn't catch the title, but the lyrics went, "If I could wish upon a star / Id wish for no more broken hearts / I'm waiting for the sun to shine through the rain / No more pain," before asking the question, "What is love? / Do we really know?"

The music sounded as familiar as the lyrics, but that's just an old man's complaint: white pop/rock long ago stopped squeezing new ideas out of those three old chords. And I'm probably being picky, not to say bitchy, to note that I spent the entire set watching who played what, and saw the lead instrumental lines were almost all played by the men at the side of the stage, not the women in the middle.

That said, the rhythm section was tight enough, and Jane has an excellent voice. Besides, none of this will matter to the young people buying Thunderbugs' music. The girls' sound is jangly, poppy, prettily harmonic. Their last song that night was the forthcoming single, "Friends Forever", an upbeat paean to the joys of female bonding whose singalong chorus lodges in your brain, whether you want it to or not.

It was greeted with enough enthusiasm to prompt an encore. "We've only got one more song," said Jane, as the band launched into the crunching riff from Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water". This was a brilliant, surreal choice. But after a few encouraging bars it stopped. It turned out that Thunderbugs did not have another song after all. So they played "Friends Forever" again.

When I spoke to Thunderbugs a few days after the show, Nicky told me that they were hoping to be a modern-day version of the Bangles - in which case they are not far from their target. And when I played my daughters (aged 10 and 11) and a couple of friends the video for "Friends Forever", which has a sort of groovy, tampon advert vibe - girls hang out together, share secrets, make fun of boys, while singing about the joys of mutual friendship - they thought it was brilliant.

My informal focus group was actually rather younger than the market aimed at by Thunderbugs. "We're looking at the older part of the teen market, up to about 25," said Cara Harrison of First Avenue, the management company that snapped up Thunderbugs in December 1997 within weeks of their first full rehearsal. First Avenue are expert at handling girl groups. Eternal, Honeyz and Louise Nurding are all on their books. They added Thunderbugs to their roster partly because they liked the idea of a girl group that could play live. Harrison added: "We saw something missing from the market. And we liked the fact that they were a Euro group, too."

Stef, who comes from Brittany, and Brigitte, who grew up in the German town of Aachen, had met one another a year or so previously at a songwriters' night at Subterranea, the London club. A few months later, they met Nicky, whose band was playing the same club. Nicky said she had heard of a singer in Stratford-on-Avon - Jane who was then living in a barn there - so they piled into Nicky's Land Rover to go and meet her. They played, they gelled, and they became Thunderbugs.

"We were all having a drink on a warm summer night and Nicky said, `What are all these bugs?' and I said, `They're just Thunderbugs'. She goes, `That would be a really good name for the group', so we have stuck with it ever since. These little bugs come out just before the storm, just to let you know you're in for a change. And with it coming up to the millennium, and this computer bug going round, it's a really strong name."

Talking to the Thunderbugs, all of whom are aged between 24 and 26, what comes across more than anything is the unsullied enthusiasm of bright, ambitious performers who have yet to be ground down by the relentless pressure of pop star life. They are still at the point where the hard work is a far better alternative to the lack of work that went before. It's still a thrill to schmooze with the suits after that showcase at the Hilton - "Oh, the queue of middle-aged geezers lining up to be photographed with their arms around the girls!" - to play a Saturday morning TV show and sign those first autographs.

"You think they're joking at first, but they actually mean it," said Nicky, remembering the children clamouring for autographs at a recent television promotion. "And you can't say no to those little faces," added Jane. "They give you a good vibe," agreed Stef. "It's really amazing." Like a footballer with a multi-million pound transfer fee, Thunderbugs are all too aware of the money that has been spent to put them where they are (or where they hope to be). "We definitely feel a sense of responsibility," said Nicky.

At this stage in the game, they seem happy to do what they're told. "First Avenue liked our basic concept," said Nicky, "but they had a lot of things to say. They gave us a lot of help with our image and our direction and songwriting. We took a lot of advice." You can't imagine Liam and Noel Gallagher ever being that compliant. But a willingness to listen is probably a sign of good sense rather than any lack of ideas.

The production and co-writing credits on their forthcoming album, Delicious, list Simon Climie, who works with Eric Clapton. While the Thunderbugs were recording in London, the Clapton band was passing through, so Climie asked them to work on a couple of backing tracks. At the moment, it is hard to imagine Thunderbugs breaking out of the teen market into the older, more sophisticated territory occupied by, say, Sheryl Crow, and Alanis Morissette. They don't yet seem to have the musical chops to satisfy a more demanding audience.

To my mind, Thunderbugs are perfect representatives of a squeaky-clean period in chart pop, in which hard-working, bright-eyed wannabes aim unashamedly for stardom, and no one even considers rebellion. Like the Steps, they look great, sound fun, and are the perfect package for those growing up in a period of mass affluence.

But Thunderbugs do want more than this. They want to be taken seriously. As Jane said: "It's harder for women because they've got to prove themselves more as musicians. It is harder to get credibility."

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