Andrew Ryce tells the story of a UK garage classic.
A few weeks ago, the reunited UK pop group Sugababes performed on The Graham Norton Show. They didn't play one of their own songs. Instead, they chose their cover of Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers," one of UK garage's biggest crossover tracks.
The original version of "Flowers" was an R&B ballad produced by Cutfather & Joe, the duo behind hits from groups like Westlife and Ace Of Base. It took a ground-up rework, released on the same 12-inch, from Ceri Evans, better known as Sunship, to make the track a hit. This version would land at #2 in the UK singles chart, part of a crossover blitz that led to garage burning out. Yet "Flowers" remains one of UK dance music's most enduring hits.
There's an air of happenstance around "Flowers." Even the group's formation was a fluke. As core member Leanne Brown once recounted to The FADER, she stumbled into the role after her friends covertly signed her up for an audition at a talent company that she was covering as part of a journalism program. The group switched configurations a few times until Brown was the only member left. Another round of auditions brought in second singer Catherine Cassidy. The unlikely duo recorded "Flowers," then promptly went back to their regular lives. They were shocked to discover, later, that Sunship's new version was a pop hit.
These circumstances give "Flowers" a homespun charm. Brown and Cassidy weren't groomed to be pop stars (they spoke out against being marketed as "real-size girls" as well as being pressured to slim down), and they were talented but untrained performers. Even the video for "Flowers" looked like it was filmed at a school dance. The track was sincere, joyous and easy to love.
Much of that has to do with Sunship. Formerly a member of the pioneering '90s band Brand New Heavies, Evans was UK garage's second-in-command artist after Artful Dodger. His early tracks helped define what would become UK garage throughout the '90s, especially in the way he chopped vocals, adding a distinctive edge to the established style.
In terms of vocals, "Flowers" is Evans's masterpiece. His rework reimagines the original, adding a jerky 2-step beat and a sugary vocal chop. But the real genius is in the verses, where Evans flattens some notes, twisting the voices into sine waves—"Let's talk about it," or "I can't deny that." It's a jarring device that works because it jolts you to attention. The rest of "Flowers" is bottled elation. The lyrics are cute and the verses are delirious, as if Brown and Cassidy are racing each other to get to the next chorus. The drums feel like lightweight metal, sharp and trebly without rumbling in your stomach, a sound Brown herself has described as "a fluffy girly song." It expanded on the sensuality and brightness heard on earlier garage tracks like Kelly G's 1997 remix of Tina Moore's "Never Gonna Let You Go," not the darker speed garage that would eventually mutate into dubstep.
But in 2000, "Flowers" was one of the most powerful examples of UK garage at its height. Shanks & Bigfoot's cloying "Sweet Like Chocolate" beat it to the punch (and to #1), and Craig David had already teamed up with Artful Dodger for "Re-Rewind." David's solo debut, "Fill Me In," came out the same month as the official release of Sunship's "Flowers" edit, which reflects the musical climate at the time. But what made Sweet Female Attitude a smash hit at home—simple, happy and distinctly British—kept them from crossing over into America like Craig David's early hits.
Sweet Female Attitude were a one-hit wonder, though their smash inspires excited cheers instead of eye rolls. (Leanne Brown still tours under the group's name.) Other gems in their catalogue, "8 Days A Week" and "DJ Play It," both assisted by Sunship, are forgotten garage bangers. Their debut album, In Person, was also surprisingly smooth, but it landed with a thud when it was released in 2001. "Flowers" had come and gone, and the UK garage craze was thinning out after massive hits from artists like So Solid Crew and Daniel Bedingfield. But "Flowers“ lives forever. Timeless and universal, Sweet Female Attitude created something that outlasted trends and scenes.