If you passionately followed chart pop in the early 1990s, chances are you found yourself in one of two rival camps: as either a Take That fan or an acolyte of East 17. One from the north, one the south; one with ballads enough to soundtrack a thousand first dances, the other a clutch of swaggering, R&B-indebted cuts which got listeners hot around their school shirt collars. The bands were very different, yet both experienced amazing success.
But which act was the ultimate boyband of the time? Perhaps, indeed, of all time? Clash finds out in the only way we know – by pitting one against the other across a series of categories, in the hope that one emerges victorious. And if not, um… Look, one will, okay?
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Take That – ‘Do Wut U Like’ (July 1991)
East 17 – ‘House Of Love’ (August 1992)
Take That started slowly: a dance-pop makeweight, ‘Do Wut U Like’ peaked at 82, the band’s formula yet to settle into the platinum-selling style that would come to define them. The track got the Take That name out there, but was far from representative of what Gary Barlow and company had up their collective sleeve. It wasn’t until 1992, with ‘It Only Takes A Minute’, that Take That would crack the UK top ten.
East 17, meanwhile, managed that at the first attempt, ‘House Of Love’ landing at 10 and hitting the top spot in Finland and Sweden. Taking cues from the likes of The KLF and The Shamen, it’s a dance track that still sounds great in any club – assuming the right amount of juicy booze has been consumed first. First blood to the Londoners.
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Take That – ‘Take That & Party’ (1992)
East 17 – ‘Walthamstow’ (1993)
Again, Take That’s slow start to their pop journey plays against them here – ‘Take That & Party’ is a patchy collection, and its successor, ‘Everything Changes’ (Clash Spotlight feature), would ultimately confirm them as a major force in their market. Nevertheless, ‘…& Party’ has some bona-fide Take That classics amongst its assortment of rather-more-forgettable efforts – ‘Could It Be Magic’ and ‘A Million Love Songs’ are housed here. Okay, so the former’s a cover – this is pop, so we’ll let that slide.
‘…& Party’ peaked at two, but ‘Walthamstow’, named after East 17’s home neighbourhood (like the postcode moniker wasn’t a clear enough marker of geographical pride/loyalty), was straight in at one. Tracks like ‘Deep’ and ‘It’s Alright’ ensured it was a commercial success – but it couldn’t match the performance of ‘…& Party’ in the long term. ‘Walthamstow’ is certified platinum, but ‘…& Party’ takes that sales figure and multiplies it by three, and some.
So how do we call this? East 17’s record is probably the cooler of the two, but Take That’s performance at the tills knocks the southern upstarts’ efforts into a cocked hat. A draw? Nah, draws are for losers – so we’ll let the Mancs take this one.
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Love For The Streets
Ask a silly question… Just look at East 17 in 1993. This was a boyband designed exclusively to appeal to the renegades at anyone’s primary school. Mums liked Take That – they still do. (Dads, too, of course. We just don’t like to mention it so often.) But something about East 17 set them apart – their songs felt more dangerous than those from the Manchester five.
Take a track like ‘Steam’ – this wasn’t an innocent sing-along for the pre-teen set. The lyrics… they’re not actually about condensation, you know. The track also beat Backstreet Boys at their own R&B-goes-pop game, two years before the Florida boyband arrived in the UK. Clever boys… East 17 run away with this category.
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Love In The Streets
Thousands of girls bawling versus… versus… something rather less ‘public outpouring’, more ‘kill it before it kills itself’. Main songwriter Tony Mortimer’s decision to quit East 17 in 1997, after Brian Harvey’s self-destruction began in earnest, effectively ended the group, despite the remaining three’s attempts at a Mortimer-less third LP in 1998. Said record, ‘Resurrection’, was a disaster, and that was that. A fizz followed by the tiniest, tinniest of pops. Over.
Take That’s pre-comeback ‘final’ single, their 1996 cover of the Bee Gees’ ‘How Deep Is Your Love’, was a global hit, shifting over 600,000 copies in the UK alone. Need we say more?
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Take That had Robbie. They have Robbie. The newspapers loved Robbie. The newspapers still love Robbie. Robbie’s fun. He’s happy. And when he’s not, we somehow sympathise with the sometimes-trivial concerns of a multi-millionaire. But seriously: to Robbie’s credit he met his demons, spanked them hard and sent them packing.
East 17 had Brian Harvey. Had, because although East 17 are active today – they put out the album ‘Dark Light’ in 2012 – Harvey’s relationship with Mortimer became so toxic that the pair could not operate together in the late 1990s, and still don’t. He’s a magnet for troubling circumstances and subsequent stories – from being knifed in Nottingham to failing at the first hurdle at Eurovision and allegedly falling behind in electricity bill payments enough to necessitate the forced installation of a pre-paid meter (see the video below). Then there’s the whole thing about getting run over by his own car. Not pleasant.
No doubt Harvey has suffered from legitimate problems – he was diagnosed with depression in 2005 – but he’s brought much of the tabloid heat on himself. Being a pop star appealing to kids and then stating that taking a load of ecstasy is a perfectly sensible pastime, just a year after Leah Betts’ widely publicised death from the drug… that ain’t cricket, Brian. It’s a certifiable PR f*ck up.
Does that make East 17 the winners here? Of course not. This category is rendered void on account of the unrivalled idiocy of one participant.
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Really? In 2011, while Brian had the cops trespassing, or not, and his ex-bandmates were appearing on the Romanian version of The X Factor, Take That were doing this…
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So Take That win this Boyband Battle, by our reckoning. But if you’re on East 17’s side, why not tweet us your reasoning? We’re just over here – or you can simply comment below, of course.
This piece is part of Take That Tuesday. Find more content as follows:
Our exclusive interview with Gary Barlow.
A special Spotlight feature on Take That’s ‘Everything Changes’ album.
7 Of The Best: Take That Solo Singles, with tracks from Mark, Robbie, Gary… and Howard.
Clash’s Pop Issue is out now, with more lovely pop-drenched articles like the above beneath its glossy cover – find out more here.