Happy 20th Anniversary to Geri Halliwell’s debut album Schizophonic, originally released June 7, 1999.
It was the statement—read by Geri Horner’s (née Halliwell) then-lawyer Julian Turton—heard round the world on May 31, 1998: “Sadly, I would like to confirm that I have left the Spice Girls. This is because of differences between us. I'm sure the group will continue to be successful and I wish them all the best. P.S., I’ll be back.”
While the reasons for Horner’s leaving would be made clear years afterward, the accepted assumption at the time was that irreconcilable differences of a creative kind had fractured the Spice sisterhood. For many fans of the quintet, Horner’s announcement impacted like an epitaph—of course, this proved to be premature as the Spice Girls forged on without Horner. One thing that is as true today as it was then is that the Spice Girls story has never followed a straight path.
Consider, Horner has now recently graced stages in Dublin, Cardiff and Manchester with three of her four groupmates as part of a second Spice Girls reformation tour—Victoria Beckham opted out of this reunion round. Looking back twenty years beforehand, no one could have predicted this development, especially Horner herself who was then readying the launch of a fledgling solo career.
In the post-Spice Girls slipstream of 1998, Horner kept busy as an author, an activist (briefly) and a willing documentary subject—all these engagements divorced Horner from her “Ginger Spice” persona. In that same year Horner inked a deal with EMI Records, but kept her cards close to her chest as to not reveal her hand about her forthcoming debut, Schizophonic.
An ingeniously playful portmanteau designation—“schizo” (split, divide) and “phonic” (sound)—did evince right off that Horner was a woman with a command of a pen. That confidence as a writer led Horner to keep company with an intimate cast of creatives—former vocalist turned pop scripter Tracey Ackerman and the Absolute Boys (Andy Watkins, Paul Wilson). Ackerman’s co-write credits extend to three sides of Schizophonic, but Watkins and Wilson figure a bit more prominently into the project. Having worked with the Spice Girls on their first two albums, the duo had history with Horner. They co-wrote with her and produced the record it in its entirety.
But, on four of the six Schizophonic outtakes—all utilized as B-sides to the eventual four singles lifted from the LP—Horner does slightly venture out from the Watkins/Wilson/Ackerman bubble for sessions with Colin Campsie, Steve Power, Phil Thornalley and Steve Fitzmaurice.
Free to indulge in a rich and erudite pop style without any limitation, Horner opens the album with “Look at Me”—a satirical ode to the human ego done up as a modern-day Bob Fosse-esque Broadway spectacle. It sets the exuberant tone for the rest of Schizophonic.
Horner’s love of her musical influences—namely George Michael and Madonna—shines through on much of the material affectionately. Whereas another artist might find themselves overwhelmed by tapping into the ethos of those that inspire them, Horner’s strong personality couldn’t be subsumed; she takes only what she needs while maintaining artistic dominion over her own songs.
From the demure adult contemporary vibes of “Lift Me Up,” to the jazz sprawl of “Goodnight Kiss,” around to the Bollywood excursion of “Let Me Love You,” Horner drapes these various aural textures onto their corresponding songwriting frames effortlessly. This same lyrical framework also gifts an assortment of moods to Schizophonic: sensuous (“Mi Chico Latino”), caustic (“You’re in a Bubble”), and confessional (“Someone’s Watching Over Me”). Regardless of the emotional hues coloring the content, Horner balances hooks with substantive verse and bridge work as a writer.
Even with the fetching original song stock present on the record, Horner doesn’t shy away from the art of reinterpretation. And while there are no covers on the LP, three of those six Schizophonic leftovers-turned-B-sides are tributes to more of her own heroes and heroines. Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” are rendered in a faithful and fun manner. Not only do these selections grant further insight into Horner’s tastes, incidentally, they serve as an introduction to a bygone era of pop music that much of the youth culture following Horner hadn’t been exposed to.
Often written off as the weakest vocal link in the Spice Girls, here Horner takes her husky instrument and places it within compositions that showcase its smoky, coquette charm. In fact, it is Horner’s unique vocal approach that binds the arrangement and words together on the wax—this is particularly true of Schizophonic’s centerpiece, “Bag It Up.”
A raring disco-pop “battle of the sexes” number, Horner is a firestorm on the track when she sings, “I don’t take sugar on my color tv / but he likes it loaded with eye candy / I need some space / and he needs a room / but then he keeps me waiting a little bit too soon!” Without Horner’s tone, “Bag It Up” wouldn’t have the acerbic funk that made it a perfect single to represent the long player once elected to do so.
Prior to the global release of Schizophonic in early June of 1999, Horner’s former colleagues had already dressed the stage for her. Melanie B’s “I Want You Back” and Melanie C’s duet with Bryan Adams “When You’re Gone” had manifested in 1998 to positive notices and sales, but Horner’s song cycle was to be the first standalone Spice Girl record. Greeted with mixed-to-positive reviews—an expected outcome given the jaundiced perspective of the music press toward anything Spice Girls-related—Schizophonic still locked in solid platinum returns. Its four singles—“Look at Me,” “Mi Chico Latino,” “Lift Me Up,” and “Bag It Up”—made huge gains on the U.K. Singles Chart; three of the four landed in the number-one spot sequentially.
Coming behind Horner’s triumph, her fellow Spice Girls’ individual works were finding equal chart favor too—the “Age of Solo Spice” was most assuredly in full swing.
Two decades on, Schizophonic is as witty and spirited as it has ever been; it remains one of the better pop albums of its day. Sadly, Horner has forgone any other formal solo endeavors with the shelving of her fourth album in 2017. But, as Spice Girl lore continues to dictate, nothing is ever truly set in stone for these women. As for what that means for Horner’s own dormant musical ambitions, one may not want to count out a comeback just yet.
Quentin Harrison is the author of ‘Record Redux: Spice Girls,’ the first written overview of the Spice Girls’ musical history spanning 1996 to 2016. For more of his perspective on their collective and individual recordings, his book is available physically or digitally now. Additional books in his Record Redux series cover the discographies of Carly Simon, Donna Summer and Madonna. Harrison’s forthcoming book ‘Record Redux: Kylie Minogue’ will be available in November 2019.