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Dec 14

WESTLIFE – “Flying Without Wings”

Popular28 comments • 2,488 views

#838, 30th October 1999

westlife wings If the abundance of Westlife could be narrowed down to a mere one signature hit, “Flying Without Wings” is it. Written by British ballad king Wayne Hector, it’s the one original song of theirs to become a reality pop staple and be picked up by other singers. It’s audibly more effortful than either “Swear It Again” or “If I Let You Go”, and it pushes Shane and Mark – who, yet again, do most of the vocal work – a lot harder than before. Mark especially takes this as an opportunity to go the Full melismatic Monty, turning his lines into chest-thumping note-drenched cascades of passion. (Their raw gospel power slightly undermined by his pronouncing “morning” like Officer Crabtree off Allo Allo).

On every level, it’s a whopper: the arrangement sounds like someone has finally persuaded Simon Cowell that to go large you have to spend money sometimes, and the sentiment – everyone has something that makes them happy – is as big-tent as Westlife have ever managed. And it’s this blunderbuss simplicity that makes it the first Westlife single I’ve really disliked. It’s well-constructed, efficient at what it does, but it lacks even that slight grain of the specific that their first two hits had. The song builds up to the reveal of what it is that makes the boys themselves happy – surprise! It’s “you” – and their close-harmonied frenzy on this point thrashes the song to bits. There was a tension in “Swear It Again” and “If I Let You Go” that “Flying Without Wings” drops completely: it’s homily, and massively overwrought homily at that.

But at the same time, it’s an obviously more confident and viable sound for them than the second-division boyband pop of “If I Let You Go”, and a bigger blockbuster than “Swear It Again”. And it suits them as vocalists – just imagine Ronan painfully growling his way through this, and be thankful. In fact, it seems to me that a lot of the band’s subsequent career will be spent hunting for songs as universal in theme and broad of base as “Flying Without Wings”. But this is where being outside that intended base is a disadvantage for me: the more Westlife find themselves, the less I appreciate them.

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Comments

  1. 1
    Rory on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Whatever it is I want from a pop song, this is pretty much the opposite.

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I think I might have said in a previous Westlife thread that they sounded like Contemporary Christian music and this fits the same template to me. If the non-specificity of this drives you wild it’s even more infuriating in a religious setting where, whether you believe or not there is a long tradition of complex and meaningful lyrics (along with some drivel to be fair). This song is pleasant to the ear, very well arranged and utterly bland.

  3. 3
    katstevens on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Blogging Without Wings verdict: not their best :(

  4. 4
    JLucas on 8 Dec 2014 #

    #2 makes a good point about Westlife sounding like contemporary Christian. I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t actually a Ronan-esque cover of a little-known US country hit, and that it didn’t become one afterwards. It feels tailor-made for that market to me.

    It was a hit in America for Ruben Studdard – released as his winners single from American Idol. He gives it a more soulful reading (there’s a curious interpolation with The Carpenters ‘Superstar’ in the intro of the video), but the gloopy production means it still sounds like third-rate Boyz II Men.

    Like No Matter What for Boyzone, I see the appeal here, but it’s a no from me. In retrospect, this was the ruining of them from a musical perspective – not that they were especially inspiring before, but this established an insincere Mothers Day pop template that they rarely deviated from. My critique of Christina Aguilera in the last post applies to Westlife too, albiet for slightly different reasons – this is pop music with no feeling for the essential joy of the genre.

  5. 5
    glue_factory on 8 Dec 2014 #

    The title, style and sentiment meant that this always seemed to me like a particularly weak take on R.Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly. It has none of Kelly’s desperate will to believe in himself, nor any of that song’s restraint (just a facsimile of restraint, where swelling strings or a heavily reverbed drum come in early, making sure you feel what your meant to be feeling). Instead, there’s a vague happy-clappy sense of victory, without any real battle having been fought.

  6. 6
    mapman132 on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Already mentioned @4 that this was used for American Idol winner Ruben Studdard’s first single. It had the dubious distinction of being beaten to the top of the Hot 100 by his own runner-up (Clay Aiken). The song’s not great, not terrible, pretty much a textbook 5/10.

  7. 7
    wichitalineman on 8 Dec 2014 #

    OK, so they finally sound like the Westlife we remember – “blunderbuss simplicity” nails it.

    Good points already made re R Kelly knock-off and its Christian feel (surely intentional).

    Not much to add except that it feels closer to Here In My Heart/Cara Mia pre-rock than any other 60s-onwards Popular entry to date; very much the past and (gawdelpus) the future of pop.

    One other thing. The scanning is occasional dreadful. “Some find it in the face of tha-air children” – four syllables where there should only be one. Even the Manics would wince at that one. Also, it suggests all their children share a single face, which is a bit Aphex Twin.

  8. 8
    flahr on 8 Dec 2014 #

    I think it was Mark Watson: “I can’t imagine ‘Flying Without Wings’ being your favourite song. It would be like your favourite thing being carpet.”

  9. 9
    thefatgit on 8 Dec 2014 #

    Possibly one argument against Westlife is this: FWW’s ambition towards Pop stateliness actually undermines its own ambition by actually trying to be stately. They hit upon a formula for success, mistook it for stateliness and hamstrung themselves continually trying to emulate something they thought they achieved in the first place. It’s a theory. (2)

  10. 10
    Ronnie on 8 Dec 2014 #

    The way Shane tries for rock-and-roll grit towards the end is good for some unintentional comedy at the least. “Well for me it’s waking up besAHHd you!!”

    Other than that? 2.

  11. 11
    James BC on 9 Dec 2014 #

    Flying – Wings = Plummeting.

  12. 12
    Shiny Dave on 9 Dec 2014 #

    I’ve mentioned before that there’s a Westlife bunny that I was going to write about once we got there, and here we are.

    The story sends us skipping past 1999 and into 2002. I’m out of my secondary school with a bunch of good GCSEs and am at the sixth form of the quasi-selective 13-19* school in the next town, waiting at the bus stop with several others in the same boat, one of whom had an mp3 player at a time when these weren’t exactly common. His collection was one of teenage guitar pop at the time – and rubbing shoulders with Linkin Park and their bunnied rap-rock contemporaries was the somehow-unbunnied Avril Lavigne. Now, I’ve mentioned my autism on here before, and I think I may have mentioned impersonating Britney at secondary school when “…Baby One More Time” was unbunnied. With a longish wait for the bus (actually a coach from a local company – it probably spent its weekends taking retired Tories on day trips), and an accent that was every bit as impersonation-inviting in its twang as Britney’s, I would sing along to “Complicated” in particular every morning. And I’d do so on the bus. Some people on there hated it. Most, however, loved it enough that they insisted I did it all the time. Fun story, glad that I didn’t have to hold it back because of the bunny (“Complicated” was marooned at #3), but what on earth makes me mention it here?

    Well, there’s a fundraising concert for Children in Need at the school that November. It becomes very clear that people want me to perform “Complicated” there. I’m quite happy to oblige, especially for charity, and go out the whole hog with a really dubious drag outfit involving a wig and charity shop clothes, which I likened to looking like (2003 bunny) raiding (bunnied daughter of 2003 bunny)’s wardrobe. A small band is assembled to accompany me – the song’s not hugely difficult to play – and the hype gets to the point that I end up entering to dry ice and everything. For all I know, it was all laughing at me rather than with, but I coded the cheers as sincere, at least some of them undoubtedly were, and it’s still one of the most exciting moments of my life, the moment I knew that music – performing generally – was indeed something I could embrace on my own terms.

    And one of the other performers is a singer-actress – who’s now relatively successful as a theatre director – from my year group, who does a solo of “Flying Without Wings.” I must have been familiar with the song in some form – because a) I listened to the radio, b) mum was a Westlife fan – but I definitely genuinely liked it in this form. Though not as much as her a capella cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” – mercifully, the Westlife version isn’t a bunny – which she did as a duet with someone else in my year. We spoke a lot backstage, got on well, and concurrently I ended up writing (fairly terrible, I suspect) song lyrics in the AVCE Business classes that went over things I already did in AS Economics. A few months later, she would become my first singing teacher. Anyone who doubts how far I threw myself into that one needs only look at my comments on the last entry…

    I keep going back to that because I really do think “Flying Without Wings” is a genuinely decent song if it’s a solo. It doesn’t have the “studs-up key change” of “If I Let You Go” and most of the eleven Westlife bunnies to come, it’s got a decent and slightly unusual structure, and the melody is pretty strong. Hearing it sung by an actually talented member of the standard boyband audience – this song locked in once and for all that Westlife’s actual target audience skewed a whole lot older and broader than that – put it in a context I can’t help but enjoy more. And as much as this sort of pop orchestration is something I genuinely like, hearing it as a simple piano ballad didn’t hurt further extracting it from “massively overwrought homily” – the worst of the Irish Model, perfectly summed up in three words.

    5, I guess.

    * Mostly 13-18, but there were a fair handful of students who stayed on an extra year for myriad reasons. Myself included – going to university (or to be more accurate, living on my own whilst autistic) wasn’t seen as an option just yet, so I stayed on to neaten up the mess caused by a botched attempt to study the aforementioned AVCE Business course in one full year instead of two.

  13. 13
    mrdiscopop on 9 Dec 2014 #

    I always got this mixed up with Wind Beneath My Wings and I care for neither. The lyrics have the clumsy over-sincerity of a Eurovision entry. Mark and Shane’s clunky phrasing doesn’t help matters. Then the saccharine production tips it over the edge. It reminds me of the hottest girl in class being chatted up by a desperately earnest exchange student.

  14. 14
    AMZ1981 on 9 Dec 2014 #

    Westlife again, their third chart topper from three releases and the eighth act to do so. However they did so with a pathetic 92, 000 sale. I laboured this point when discussing If I Let You Go and I’ll make it again; any other week they would have been crushed in the race for number one. Given that the lowest it dropped between IILYG and this was 123,000 for Christina’s second week and the lowest we’ll get before the next Westlife bunny is 120,000 they could have missed out very badly.

    Obviously this was down to careful timing of releases and Westlife (or more accurately their management) can’t be blamed for playing the game well. However as Blur and Oasis proved; a like for like battle between similar artists make good copy and the next bunny along would have had a good incentive to go head to head with Westlife (bearing in mind Westlife couldn’t really have moved their own date without looking frit) – and all other things being equal would have smashed them out of site.

    However, even at the time, only an anorak like myself (ok, and an accountant) would have focused on the sales figures. Westlife got the chart toppers, they got the hat tricks and made themselves look like the biggest sensation of the moment when in reality they were nothing but.

  15. 15
    swanstep on 9 Dec 2014 #

    @5, Glue Factory. Exactly; FWW is a thinly disguised rewrite of ‘I Believe I Can l Fly’ (a track whose charms have always eluded me). Unrateably horrible.

  16. 16
    wichitalineman on 9 Dec 2014 #

    Thanks commenters for explaining why it doesn’t work for me. I Believe I Can Fly (best performed in pub singer mode) and Wind Beneath My Wings (icky but effective) are both perfectly decent songs. This melds the two shamelessly, adding nothing new except badly scanned Hallmark platitudes, just leaving that hollow sensation of neither liking it or hating it.

    Re 14: Given the lead time necessary for a physical release, I’d say they were extremely lucky. Of course they could avoid the big guns (Spices, Oasis, etc), but if a huge debut (Xtina) or club hit (Blue) had come out this week Walsh/Cowell would have been crushed.

    And they had this luck HOW many times? Pact with the devil, I’d say.

  17. 17
    Tom on 9 Dec 2014 #

    #16 presumably after a certain point (probably this, or the next bunny), other acts started avoiding THEM too, which will have helped. They had an aura of invincibility – not quite by this point, but later – which meant it was a surprise when they didn’t get to #1 (despite the singles being manifestly shit even by their standards)

  18. 18
    wichitalineman on 9 Dec 2014 #

    Good point, I hadn’t thought of that! I’m surprised at the low first week sales for this, because it felt like the ur-Westlife song as soon as it came out (if that’s possible). Certainly the first pan generational one, and much bigger than the first two.

  19. 19
    JLucas on 9 Dec 2014 #

    One thing that really irked me about Westlife – but which was certainly an effective tactic – was that they always, always released their albums in November. I just checked their discography and the sole exception is Face To Face – which was released on the 31st October. That’s 12 albums, all released within the same 3-week period of their given year.

    What that meant was that once they’d established their mumpop formula, they were able to sustain what seemed to me to be an inflated level of popularity simply by tapping into the ‘unimaginitive Christmas gift’ market. Obviously their number one singles and massive tours attested to a genuine appeal, but the cynicism was breathtaking. Don’t let all those befuddled X Factor non-sequiturs fool you, Louis Walsh is an evil genius.

  20. 20
    Tom on 9 Dec 2014 #

    It also won Record Of The Year on ITV, which – as I think I said in the Swear entry – is the cultural platform I really associate with Westlife, more than the charts, radio etc.

  21. 21
    Tom on 9 Dec 2014 #

    #19 yeah, a topic for later years on Popular is the extent to which the ‘sewn up’ nature of the Christmas No.1 in the X-Factor era started to get extended back into November too – this year in particular it felt like a buggins’ turn of worthy but dull singles being lined up for a slot at the top, though I was quite gratified by how this hasn’t actually happened: the John Lewis Beatles cover and – surprisingly – the BBC’s God Only Knows slebfest both failed to get there.

  22. 22
    Mark G on 9 Dec 2014 #

    I note that at the time of posting, a certain single has now been issued on an actual CD single, a compilation of four versions of the same song ostensibly the same group name but only one actual singer has managed to be on three of the four, and one other person has appeared on all four but wasn’t particularly vocal on the second one….

    Anyway, in the expectation that it will soar back up the chart and dislodge the current combatants.

    Will they? Won’t they?

  23. 23
    punctum on 9 Dec 2014 #

    There might be some uptown funk getting in the way of that happening.

  24. 24
    Mark G on 9 Dec 2014 #

    Good.

  25. 25
    The Muppet on 10 Dec 2014 #

    #14

    The big advantage Westlife had is that there weren’t many other acts who were going to be anywhere near as cynical about having No.1’s. There were plenty of big American acts who could have had loads more UK No.1’s if they were bothered but they had no reason to. The same goes for a lot of Dance hits from Europe and bands who generally did better in the Album charts. Boybands seemed to need No.1’s more than anyone else which is why this and the (far superior) next No.1 would be kept apart.

  26. 26
    ciaran on 15 Dec 2014 #

    #20 – Watched that alright. Think Denise Van Outen presented. They ran away with it IIRC.

    If Our Tune was still around in 1999/2000 this would have been ideal for it.

    The type of record that earned Westlife a bad name and sets the scene for the deluge that followed. 2

  27. 27
    wichitalineman on 23 Dec 2014 #

    So it’s goodbye to Larry Henley, writer of Wind Beneath My Wings. He had previously been in the Newbeats, famed for their freakish falsetto pop that sounded nothing remotely like Westlife.

  28. 28
    MUSICALITY on 24 Apr 2017 #

    I liked this track it builds and builds and is more memorable than what followed from them.

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