POP WILL EAT ITSELF

I’m standing on a desolate runway somewhere in Eastern Europe, far too overtired to process the concept of individual location. It is freezing here. I am surrounded by squat white buildings that look like caravans rooted to the concrete, their decades old frame stained nicotine brown. Everywhere I walk I am ambushed by patches of natty shrubbery that arise from the metre long fissures beneath me. Somewhere in the distance, a titty bar billboard flashes neon pink and blue. Night has begun its courtship. 

I am struck by two thoughts. One is that in all my years of journalism, I have rarely encountered a more uninviting place. The second comes with a wave of astonishment, as I contemplate just how loyal I’m With Cupid can be toward their fanbase. It is a dedication that can only border upon the insane. 

Later, in the warmth of the tour bus, I will ask Laura Satchell why it is that the group feel compelled to visit such bleak locales. Is she worried that the tour might not be as popular as planned? 

She raises one perfectly sculpted eyebrow, like a needle perched upon her forehead, and puts me in my place. ‘We go where people want to see us,’ she says sternly. ‘We’ve been bloody lucky really. We don’t want to get full of ourselves. Even when you’re really pissed off ‘cause there’s no heating or something, you have to remember that there are bigger things than you out there.’

You mean other bands? Or the fans?

She turns her head to the window to watch the maudlin countryside. ‘When I was a little girl,’ she says, ‘I used to worship loads of bands. I mean I can see how people get like that. Some people wouldn’t say it’s important, but …’

At this, her voice trails off. The people around us have fallen silent. ‘You have to accept your place in time,’ she says, and swiftly falls asleep.

<*>

When I meet her for the first time, Laura is grouchy from the flight. She tells me that she prefers to travel by sea, but “that doesn’t really happen anymore.” Despite their share of recent troubles (to put it mildly), I sincerely doubt that I’m With Cupid would have any trouble getting what they want.

Just eight years ago they were the most successful female group Britain had ever produced. This, by itself, is no mean feat. Each of their 17 singles entered the top ten, seeing off competition from an assortment of ragtag indie soldiers and middle-class poets, most of whom have since disappeared. Thanks to an uncanny knack for mining perfect pop gems and an insatiable delight for stirring controversy, the five girls found themselves hailed as glitterball goddesses, as untouchable as they were familiar. Not bad for a group of reality show rejects that Simon Cowell refused to touch with a diamond encrusted barge pole. 

But this is eight years later and things have changed, in more ways than the obvious. Here’s where I step in, stuck on a bus in the backend of Europe in search of the path of divergence.   

First up is the legendary Laura Satchell (30, from Brighton, famed for her flawless bullshit detector and an inability to keep her trap shut. “What’s wrong with being a bitch,” she says. “I’m a bitch.”), followed by Kim Crawford sitting two seats behind her (28, from Taunton, has just finished reading Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and describes it as “fucking mental.”) alongside Roxanne Ward (26, from Edinburgh, nicknamed Emergency Ward by her bandmates for her legendary drunken escapades), all three of them attempting not to rouse the sleeping Alex Marsh (29, from Portsmouth, renowned by the press as the slightly disturbing one with the freakishly pale skin. All of this up close proves remarkably precise – from the instant she awakes, I can scarcely recall ever seeing her blink. She has a new pixie haircut for the tour. It’s cute, though I cannot tear my eyes away from quite how small her ears are revealed to be).

I ask her about the image overhaul back at the hotel, itself a far more luxurious venture than I’d expected. Legs up on the sofa, I notice a strange, opulent necklace that beckons my eye closer as she tucks into a bowl of tuna pasta. Later, I am to discover that all of the girls are dripping in this kind of jewellery, a present, I assume, from Alex to her comrades.

‘I’m used to being weird and white,’ she giggles. ‘I spent years in the beginning trying to look like a proper pop star, but then I just thought fuck it; this is me.’

‘Alex!’ shrieks Kim as she enters the room, ‘It’s after six! Carb-o-hy-drates.’ She taps out each syllable on her hand for emphasis. 

‘I’m starving,’ says Alex. ‘I haven’t stopped.’

‘She eats all this stuff,’ moans Kim, ‘And she never puts on any weight.’ She moves in closer and narrows her eyes. ‘She’ll eat anything,’ she says to me conspiratorially, ‘I’ve seen her eat a lot of weird shit.’

Her bandmate laughs. ‘It’s true,’ she says, ‘I should go on …Get Me out of Here. I’d be up for eating fish eyes and crocodile balls.’
‘We’re always eating fish,’ says Kim. 

‘Yeah,’ nods Alex. ‘For protein. I always feel sad when I look at their eyes though.’

She stares at the floor, lost in some distant memory. I hold my breath and wonder if this is a good time to ask about Chantelle Reilly. 

<*>

The conversation, it turns out, occurs at lunch the next day. It’s not easy to broach the subject. Nor is it especially simple to break through the wall of non-stop chatter that seems to follow their every footfall. You may as well take a feather duster to a hurricane. In the days to follow, I come to memorise the boozy cackle of Roxy Ward as a sign of impending smut.

Once the box is open however, I find that it proves nigh-impossible to shut. The girls are as passionate and inflamed about their missing band member as they are about the latest gossip. I don’t know why I expected anything less.

Two years ago (one year, ten months and twenty-four days to be precise), the I’m With Cupid story was dominated by the tragic tale of Chantelle Reilly. For one long summer it was truly inescapable, and for those left behind, it remains so to this day. Today is the first day in a long time that the band has publicly mentioned her disappearance, following the curtain of silence that hung over the group after the initial announcement of this tour.  

‘People would bring it up on the street,’ says Laura, visibly on edge. ‘They would write all sorts of shit online like we were responsible because we were pissed off or whatever. I just wanted to fucking lamp them. The audacity of it.’

Ah yes. Prior to Reilly’s disappearance while visiting friends in Portsmouth (still unsolved as of the time of writing), she had of course, embarked upon a solo  career that threatened to extinguish her past glories and leave Cupid trailing in the dust. It must have been difficult; I put to the group. 

‘Not really,’ shrugs Roxy, ‘I mean, we never wished her anything but good luck when she left. It was like, when we started, we just got chucked together in this studio and didn’t have a clue what was happening. Nobody believed in us. We had to believe in each other ‘cause nobody cared what we thought. So we were all really close you know? We really cared about Chantelle, we just wanted to stick together a bit longer and she didn’t. So it was alright that day and then fucking horrible a bit later.’

As she pauses to prod at a plate of salad, I return to Laura, long regarded as the den mother of the troupe. Hedging my bets, I ask her if it was true that Reilly was pushed out rather than electing to leave. She seems to struggle with an immediate answer. As she does, I note the golden nautiloids dangling from her ears.  

‘It’s true that we weren’t getting on at the end,’ she sighs. ‘She was into different… practises by then. She had different ideas about how things should be run. What she wasn’t prepared to do anymore.’

What kind of practises. Business practises?

Laura falls silent at a glance from Alex that I suspect I’m not supposed to have seen. ‘Just backstage stuff,’ she says. ‘I can’t really talk about it.’

‘This isn’t a nice little fantasy,’ says Alex. ‘The reality of it isn’t always that nice.’

At this, someone I take for a manager - I realise I have met very few of the associated personnel – wanders over to inform the group that it is time for a soundcheck. They mutter their apologies and leave. 

After talking to them, I sense that there is something far deeper than mere camaraderie between the girls, intensified perhaps in the wake of their loss. Still, I find it hard to warm to them. Despite their willingness to accommodate, I cannot shake the feeling that something is being held back from me. I rationalise my doubts as the jaded reservations of an ancient hack who has known far too many dead musicians. As I return to the hotel and wait for the show, I find myself haunted by the pungent odour of fish. These girls, I think, are packing some serious protein. I’d hate to get on their bad side. 

<*>

Shortly before they are due to arrive onstage, I find the four of them gathered in the dressing room, arranged in what I guess to be some kind of meditative circle (or square if you want to be a pedant). I catch a few lines of oblique dialogue before I barge through the door and am entirely baffled, if not a little chilled, by the peculiar air they seem to conjure. After being ushered away by a flat-nosed roadie (I mention it as the mental imprint I fixate upon to shake the unnerving nature of those words), I find myself skulking in the corridor, unsure of what my feet will elect to do. After a minute’s deliberation, I shuffle away to the press pit, wondering how exactly I will spell the word ryl-yeh when the time comes to write this article. 

By the time Roxanne Ward finds me to apologise, I am once again composed. Madonna has Kabbalah. Tom Cruise, scientology. The deep, spiritual cleansing is merely another prop for a star to lean upon, as much a part of the modern archetype as a mildly dodgy childhood or a stint inside the Priory. 

Roxy’s hair seems to have doubled in size since the last time I saw her, reminding me of some liminal point between Christina Aguilera’s Parisian tranny phase and the Bride of Frankenstein. Amethyst trenches form in the garment she has folded across her arm, tracing the thin straps of leather that bolster its rubber hide. They will be opening the show with a Halloween theme she tells me excitedly, albeit a Halloween that seems to take place within some kinky acidic dream. Don’t you get tired of all these themes and costume changes I ask her?

‘Actually,’ she shrugs, ‘I’m quite into all this weird shit.’

A blank-eyed roadie coughs politely. Showtime.

<*>

The stage consists of two large metal stairways on either side of the stage, leading up to a revolving dance floor that raises and lowers depending on the performance. In the background, a huge screen constantly plays an assortment of layered film clips, many of them seeming wholly inappropriate for this audience, composed as it is mostly of frantic, screaming children. While I am confused by the choice of hallucinatory media (looking now, I see a geometrical symbol of unknown origin followed by repeat images of deep-sea trenches and Alex Marsh’s otherworldly grin), I am equally confused by the sheer cost of the spectacle. As Kim Crawford is lowered into place upon a giant swing, she is heralded by a cloud of metallic confetti. A single blue light captures its descent, creating the illusion that she is caught beneath some roaring silver waterfall. The overall effect is stunning. For a moment I am able to believe the bold words of Alex Marsh when she told me backstage that she was going to live forever. 

But how can they afford this I ask myself? This is a band that has not had a palpable hit in some time, playing in the bog-end of Europe for reasons that still elude me. I tell Laura (who has a reputation in her own words for “buying any old shit” she lays her eyes on) much later on that the money must be rolling in. I ask about sponsorships. I ask about ticket sales. She takes a moment to answer. 

‘We just made some good investments when we were younger,’ she says. ‘I’m sure most people think I’m just some blonde slapper or something, but we’ve all been pretty shrewd.’ An odd expression crosses her face. ‘You’ve got to be willing to put the work in,’ she says. ‘You’ve got to be willing to make sacrifices.’

As the show rolls on, I find myself alternating between admiration for the energy that the girls are able to sustain and a bleary kind of bewilderment brought on by the repeat influx of bizarre imagery. I am sure that once or twice I catch glimpses of things that I cannot wholly define, the merest hints of which are enough to send shivers up my spine. The kids don’t seem to mind. Perhaps I am growing old. I might find all of this entrancing, alluring even, but there is something genuinely cold about the performance. What it is, I cannot say, save that it hurts my head and calls upon some unnatural pseudomemory that I would prefer not to confront. I wonder if the grief that must lay in waiting beneath the veneer of every show might be playing upon my nerves.     

Despite all of this, it would certainly take a more foolish man to fault the music. We get sixties-tinged pop, throwback electro, Dick Dale’s hand-me-down’s as re-imagined by Primark and even an honest to god attempt at a Nirvana cover (a tad dated, let’s be honest). And of course, we get Eternal Lie. Chantelle Reilly’s Eternal Lie.

‘We like to think of it as a tribute,’ says Alex. ‘We always think about her whenever we do it.’ 

What about rumours that the song was originally targeted at the group? That they were the ones being accused of duplicity rather than some mystery lover?

Alex clears her throat and smiles. ‘I don’t think that’s what it’s about,’ she says. Behind me, I see Laura echoing her grin in the mirror, her eyebrows knitted in wicked mirth. I’m either being mocked or allowed in on some family secret. 

‘We just want to spread our message,’ says Kim, barely able to contain herself. ‘The same one Chantelle believed in.’ When I ask what it is they giggle, eventually dissolving into fits of hysterical laughter. I elect to cut my losses and return to my hotel, a drab concrete box far removed from the glitter of pop biz. As I roll into bed, I fight not to admit to myself just how spooked I really am.

<*>

I dream that I have left my room and am heading down into a passage beneath the building. The stairway is dark and faceless, a marginal journey of narrow slabs hung between kitchen and basement. The walls are smooth concrete and loping beam, a wooden banister fixed to the right hand side allowing little space to manoeuvre. As the steps descend, the ceiling tightens, its horrific physics threatening to collapse the passage at any moment. I am breathing very hard and then I am not breathing at all. I am adrift within the ocean.

A field of coral opens before me. Black fissures of orbicular energy pulse across the horizon, like a sky dusted with coal. The field deepens into a canyon, its stratified innards riddled with a syphilis of glacial tide. Across the desolate floor a giant slumbers, it’s every breath a momentary aeon. Its body is a thousand shields; midnight black and leprous green, loathsome and wholly blasphemous and crowned by an infinite eye. Its fingers stir like pistons, as darkness carries me away.

<*>

At this point, I must confess my reluctance to complete this article. As I sit here, hunched over my laptop in this miserable hotel room, I am forced to contemplate the morality of inflicting what I have learnt upon some unknowing reader. I’m not stupid enough to believe that this will ever see print. The very notion is ludicrous. But someone – I have to hold on to hope that there is someone out there who can make sense of this ordeal.  

The shadows wax and lengthen, like stains I can no longer ignore. In their black phantasmal bodies, I see menageries and portents, prehistoric strategies. The stench fishguts thrums through the straining, pellucid walls. This must be what losing your mind in Hollywood is like, all colours and visitations. 

I go to see the girls at their hotel an hour or so before they are due to depart. I am searching for pithy quotes and soundbites, anything to wrap up this mystery. 

I do not care about Chantelle Reilly. I am tired of bad food and bad dreams. I do not care if she drowned in Portsmouth. I do not care if she killed herself. I care only about their willingness to dismiss her and what I can bleed from their words. 

I’m greeted by Laura Satchell. She is wearing a white jacket lined with wrinkles, like a very expensive sheet of paper. On the way to the room, we somehow fall to talking about politics. Laura tells me how much she admires Margaret Thatcher. I feel my toes curl inside my shoes. ‘I admire strong women,’ she tells me. ‘England needs to recognise strength more often.’ I nod, vaguely masking my discomfort. 

Inside the hotel, Roxy is rearranging the plastic letters upon a small box refrigerator. I crane my neck, wondering what telling word she may have just erased. ‘Heaven,’ she coos, squinting at the peeling white sheen, one finger resting upon a shabby red L. 

I must record all of this. I must get it down.

There is something in the middle of the room. On the table. Everything smells of fish, rotten and all-encompassing. A man laughs quietly behind me. I imagine his flat-nose, his scabrous skin. I imagine waves crashing on a distant bluff, the sound
reverberating through my body as though it seeks to own me. 

There is a thing perched upon the table. Fetid breath wheezes through the gills that decorate its scaled neck. The gills palpitate swiftly, as though desperate for more obscene life. I think of the junkies I have seen, of the maniacal wasters suspended in teenhood, fixing for another hit of an ever-diminishing spotlight. 

It makes a noise, somewhere between a croak and a long, languid moan. It is excited, I realise. Its fat white belly wobbles in delight, teased by a slender set of fingers, each of them as spotless and delicate as a cherub’s. Kim Crawford rises from the floor and lays a kiss upon its skin. 

In the far corner, I watch Alex Marsh adjust her nose, prosthetic as it obviously is. 

I hear the sound of wet lips upon bulbous flesh, smell brine and fetid mudflowers.

I run.

I sit here now, in this shrinking room, typing these words as though they are the last I shall ever write. Perhaps they are. 
Someone must know, I tell myself. Someone must know.  

My hands are shaking. My stomach hurts. Something terrible inside of me imagines the kiss of a waterlogged girl. 

I think of Chantelle Reilly slipping away, down into the bottomless depths where the world shall not recall. I think about the sounds outside my door. The smell upon my clothes that has grown so suddenly stronger.

Bloody celebrities. Think they can get away with anything.