Ritchie Neville is dead
30 July 2001
Today, the world of pop sheds a tear for one of its favourite sons. 'Ritchie from 5ive', as he was known to each and every tabloid gossip columnist, passed away in the most tragic of circumstances last night, just as he and his band of brothers were preparing for another assault on the popular music charts. So, in Ritchie's honour, we take time out today to mourn his passing and celebrate his brief but glorious career.
Little is known by the general public of Ritchie's background; never one to court the cameras at the best of times, he remained fiercely guarded when questioned about his upbringing. But since his passing, the sieve of public interest has shaken the lumps out of his story. What we give you now is Ritchie: the man we thought we knew but never did.
Ritch would tell anyone who cared to listen that he came from Birmingham and was proud of his West Midlands roots. But in pop, it's never that simple. The self-proclaimed Brummie was in fact born Richard Justin Neville several miles down the A45 from his supposed home, in Styvechale, just outside Coventry. And so we come to the first incredible fact that suggests a guardian angel was guiding Ritchie's career: had he been born 40 years earlier, or had Hitler postponed his bombing of Coventry for a similar period, it is possible that Neville would have perished in the raids along with the old cathedral! A sobering thought indeed, and perhaps the inspiration for the title of his band's best-loved album - Invincible?
After this early near-brush with death, the next few years of Ritchie's life were unremarkable. Then came school, and with it the first instance of Ritchie starting to use music as a defence mechanism against the bullies. When taunted for his resemblance to a terrified girl with too much lipstick, he found the only way to survive was through the use of song and dance to express his 'bad' attitude despite his effeminate form. Soon he gained the respec' of his peers, and was widely tipped as the 'next big thing' to come out of Bromsgrove, now his home. Superstardom beckoned at the tender age of eight and a half.
Then, with the immaculate timing we have come to expect of tragic irony, disaster struck. The double blow of tonsillitis and athlete's foot would have been a death knell for most youngsters' pop dreams; even for one with the inner strength of Ritch, it was a setback that slammed the brakes of reality on his career aspirations. It is a tribute to his modesty that he never spoke of his struggle with the diseases, never tried to win the sympathy of the public with tales of his brave fight. And now, we respect him all the more for it.
The years following the debilitation are recognised as the barren years of Ritchie's creative career. A sulky, listless teenager, he experimented with cider and tobacco, jeopardising the co-ordination and larynx that would make him a star. But this wilderness proved the inspiration for one of his group's best-loved songs, 'If ya gettin' down'; with Neville, every cloud really did have a silver lining.
And the lining came in the form of four fellow dreamers - Sean, Scott, Abs and J. The next section of their communal career is already well documented in unauthorised biographies such as 'Five bad boys' and '5ive Alive'; the initial comparisons with Boyzone and Westlife, soon superseded by a growing respect from all comers for these bad boys made good. Even the setbacks made for comedy; imagine the shock when a children's TV producer, after telling one of his aides to get 'a 5ive star' to appear on the show, came face to face with 80s sensations Five Star in the corridor!
Inamongst all this action, of course, came the first true love of Ritchie's life (after music, naturally): jailbait pop sensation Billie (now Billie Piper-Evans). He voiced his intense frustration at not being able to attend her 16th birthday party, but they were soon together and proclaiming undying love. And dismissed the jibes labelling them a cut-price Britney 'n' Justin N*Sync by forgoing all the religious nonsense and actually having sex. And Billie stood by her man at all times, quashing rumours that he had blue contact lenses and wore make-up. And couldn't sing or dance.
This is generally seen as the happiest time of Ritchie's short but eventful life, providing the inspiration for such classic tracks as 'You make me a better man' and 'Battlestar'. But the rigorous schedules of two international pop stars, and the envious mewlings of nubile 5ive fans the world over, thrust a divisive wedge between the lovers, ending their relationship just in time for Billie's comeback single (Ritchie, ever the gentleman, falsely let it be known that he chucked her to gain her sympathy record sales).
But Ritch treated heartbreak with the same disdain he had shown fungal and viral infections, shrugging off the pain and channelling all his passion into choreography and quasi-rap vocals. And he was still riding the crest of a musical wave when, last Friday, his career was tragically cut short by a picnic table thrown from a roof in East London by a gang of immature drunkards. In his honour, the News of the World yesterday announced a petition of MPs and the public to introduce 'Ritchie's law', forcing all landlords to chain picnic tables to their terraces or risk being exposed in a 'name and shame' campaign. We can only pray that the publicity surrounding Ritchie's death can prevent further such painful occurrences up and down the country.
But this is not a time to mourn. We should celebrate the life we were privileged to witness, and the musical legacy that remains. 5ive's new single, Let's Dance, is out next month, and will surely top the charts in his memory. And, we hope, Ritchie will watch proudly from on high, where Freddie Mercury congratulates him on We Will Rock You. Maybe they'll share a joke about Brian May's hair. That would be nice.
Goodbye, Ritchie Neville. Keep On Movin'. We love you.