There's a mania for replication at the moment. UNV, SWV . . . the names have a cyborg perfunctoriness, but the technique works. The lush single from SWV (Sisters With Voices) 'I'm So Into You' sold 500,000 copies in the USA and crossed the Atlantic to become the cool record of last spring. Lead singer Coko sounds like Minnie Mouse hitting puberty, but the real fascination lies in the fact that so many artists are putting their vocals and their looks first, and the hell with pretending that playing an instrument looks interesting. (When En Vogue's Maxine says she's left her 'base' on the bus, at the start of Funky Divas, it only takes a minute to realise that she's actually talking about her foundation rather than her Fender Jazz.) This love of glamour and melody is typical of the backlash against the anonymity of so much dance music, particularly house. Silk is a case in point. They were found singing a Boyz II Men number, a cappella, at a Fourth-of-July barbecue by writer / producer Keith Sweat, and came from nowhere (well, Atlanta) into the US Top 10 with their CD Lose Control (Elektra). Their style gets a little hysterical at times as they seek to outdo each other in the sincerity of their protestations, but the R&B market in the US cannot get enough of it.
In the UK things are slightly different, since pop music is nothing like so R&B-dominated, but the urge to clone is still strong. White rap acts such as New Kids On The Block were looked upon as the golden geese for three solid years, and bands such as East 17 (guided by Bros's old manager Tom Watkins) moved firmly into their teenie market. The latest success story is Take That, the pretty boy quintet nominally from Manchester, but with a well-scrubbed look and sound that is designed to appeal to the idealistic suburbanite in everyone. They began the hard way, hacking round the country doing personal appearances at secondary schools and gay clubs, playing their sugary love ballads anywhere that would have them. Some 700,000 copies of Take That and Party and seven Smash Hits awards later, Take That are the ones supplying the ideas to the rest of the industry.
Ian Levine is known for having produced for a lot of the second-division Motown acts when Berry Gordy took off for Los Angeles, and for having practically invented the rushed, percussive variety of disco music called Hi-NRG which dominated the early Eighties gay scene and led directly to house music. However, he is, at heart, a soul fan and a song man, and Levine worked with Take That on three of their Top 10 hits. Rather grumpy at the way 'they then went off and pursued their own musical direction', he sums them up thus: 'Take That are five dancing boys.'
The boys have now drafted in Steve Jervier and his brother's trendy production team, the Ethnic Boyz, to work on their next CD, which is due out in October. The Jerviers are more used to working with black British soul acts. 'I was quite surprised,' says their vocal arranger Mark Beswick. 'Take That were actually quite good at holding their harmonies. Their influences were more pop - lots of major chords - than those we normally work with, but they do have recollection of some R&B artists. I'm just trying to take them in a new direction, and getting them to work on their unison parts. I bring out background vocal parts and melodies from a song that other people might not hear, sing them, and get them to sing them back. We're heading to a more Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes sound.'
Levine, however, has a new project in hand, another band who are going for the image-first-music- second strategy, called Bad Boys Inc. First you see their poster reproduced 10 times down the side of the gasworks, then you hear their single on Top of the Pops. They look suspiciously like a chip off the Take That block, and make a similar noise - crisp vocals, lots of horns and bright synth sounds over the familiar cantering bass and drum. But Levine talks about Bad Boys with the pride of a man who is about to make his money back, and some.
'For years I've wanted to find a group that would hark back to the quality days of the Temptations and the Jackson Five, one that would have longevity,' he says, echoing Beswick. 'I found three good- looking kids who had the talent but we needed a lead vocalist. I auditioned several hundred, went to all the talent agencies and clubs like Singers, and finally found Richard. It was a disaster. They hated him and he hated them. So I started again, and eventually we found Matthew (Pateman). I think he's going to be a great singer, he's got a voice as good as George Michael.' Pateman certainly sounds like he's sung 'Faith' a few times in his car.
Levine goes on: 'To teach them their parts I brought in Billy Griffin, who wrote 'Love Machine' and took over from Smokey Robinson in the Miracles. I wanted them to have that real sound of black America, complex like doo-wop, like the O-Jays. We want to bring good songs to impressionable teenagers, but ones that you would want to sing to yourself again in five years' time. We're looking at the difference between 'I'll Be There' and 'When Will I Be Famous?' This is not an outfit like Let Loose or Worlds Apart.' Bad Boys Inc look the part. Like Take That, they are banking on two strong forces in the chart market: teenage girls and gay men. Another new outfit, Men United, know all about that. They see themselves in the Erasure and Pet Shop Boys tradition - except one of them's straight and they're both handsome.
Clearly, the ground to be captured is, as ever, the catchy pop song sung by youths who look good. The European acts Ace of Base and Two Unlimited have both had 600,000-selling singles in the last year, so the one-off market is still there. The current trend is to fill the creative vacuum with as many similar groups as possible, made up of as many similar-looking kids as possible. At this level of the pop world, the industry will try anything. Fortunately for them, some people will buy anything.