It’s been described as “insanely infectious” – an “undeniably perfect pop single” boasting “intoxicating rhythms” – and there’s little doubt that EMF‘s Unbelievable, released thirty years ago today (3 November 1990), helped light the touchpaper for the vicarious energy of the decade to follow.
Unbelievable was the debut single from the Gloucestershire-based group, and would go on to define both their career, as well as, arguably, the crossover indie scene of the Nineties.
Both Unbelievable and the accompanying album, Schubert Dip, also enabled the group to achieve what countless British rockers had tried, and failed, to do, and conquer the United States.
As frontman Mark Atkin – he of the oversized baseball cap – told FutureMusic a few years back, Unbelievable was written by the band’s guitarist, Ian Dench (who would go on to pen hits for Shakira, Beyoncé and The Prodigy, among others), and was demoed at a band meeting in keyboardist Derry Brownson’s front room.
“It sounded funny cos it had completely different lyrics, and it had all our mates in the background singing. I didn’t really think that much of it at the time,” he said.
The decision to get Ralph Jezzard, who had worked with Bomb The Bass and other Rhythm King acts, onboard as producer of the track was an inspired move, however.
“He’d just done 20 Seconds To Comply with Silver Bullet, which we thought was great,” said Atkin. “[Unbelievable] went to number one in America. It was mental,. It’s still knocking around now. It seems to get used for adverts all the time. It’s nice to get all the syncs. That’s kept us going over the years.
“We used to be choosey about what it could be used for, but as you get older and you have mortgages and kids. We let Coco Pops use it for an advert. I wish we’d made another five records like that! I’m a schoolteacher now – I teach music. If you asked the kids if they’ve heard Unbelievable, they’d say ‘yeah, the Coco Pops advert’.”
The origins of EMF’s name led to some controversy during the group’s formative years – was it really an acronym of ‘Epsom Mad Funkers’ or something more contentious, as urban legend would have it’?
“Everybody thinks it stands for Ecstasy Motherf**ker, but it doesn’t,” Brownson told Music Express in 1991. “We’re just stringing people along. We never do things to shock: we’re just taking the piss.”
However, the group’s storming debut – Unbelievable hit number three in the pop charts at the start of December 1990 – led to the group gracing the covers of much of the mainstream music press, as they set out for world domination.
“I don’t know how to feel about being big in America,” Dench told SPIN magazine in September 1991. “Our manager’s just come back from sorting out the next tour, and she says it’s crazy. Everyone wants us to play their club. Hundreds of offers.”
At the same time, some international audiences, fresh from the experience that led to the downfall of Milli Vanilli, questioned the band’s use of sampling and tape loops in their live performances – somewhat quaint given the level to which sampling is now embedded in popular music.
As author David Quantick puts it in the same SPIN article, ‘Derry’s habit of throwing his keyboard on the floor, with no perceptible effect on the live sound, added fuel to the rumours of contrivance’.
“Everyone uses tapes,” was Dench’s reply. “Depeche Mode uses tapes, Pop Will Eat Itself uses tapes, Jesus Jones uses tapes. We use them, but it’s a very small part of the sound. We’re trying to use technology. The drums and the bass and the vocals and the guitar are live, so’s the samples.”
The energetic video, directed by Nathan Richards, was filmed in The Guildhall, Gloucester, in September 1990, with tickets for the shoot labelled with a quote from the NME, describing the band, “Lock yourself firmly into your trousers and go see them before they form a world government”.
The official Gloucester Guildhall website marked the 30th anniversary of the shoot a couple of months back, chatting to some of those that were there on the night.
“EMF didn’t play much more than Unbelievable – over and over again,” recalls one attendee, Steve. “They played it through fully more than a couple of times and then broke it down into sections so the film crew could get the cut-aways and close-ups that they needed.”
Elsewhere, another attendee, Pat, recalls, “See all that glitter fluttering down from the ceiling? It got stuck to the floor when the lake of beer dried out. I was the lone Duty Manager at 7am the next morning, trying to scrape it off before the Craft Fair traders turned up. Fifteen years later there were still a few little metallic squares hanging about behind the radiators. Heady days…”
While Unbelievable has long been held up as a perfect pop song – three minutes and thirty seconds of unadulterated energy – back then, the group were eager not to be labelled in the same bracket as New Kids On The Block or other throwaway acts.
As Dench told SPIN: “It disturbs me how people talk of pop, as if pop is not serious and pop is not genuine. I’ve always been into accessibility. Songs are very important to me, and I don’t understand why that should be any less credible than something that’s underground or manic.”
Or, to put it another way, unbelievable… 🙂
[Images taken from EMF’s official Facebook page]