16
Aug 15

ATOMIC KITTEN – “Whole Again”

Popular51 comments • 4,076 views

#890, 10th February 2001

atommick kitan For former stars, a swing back to the separation of singer and songwriter made British pop a land of second chances. 90s and 00s number ones are sprinkled with semi-familiar names – Cathy Dennis, Guy Chambers, and now Andy McLuskey, who went further than most. A conceptualist with OMD, and a believer in electronic pop, his involvement with Atomic Kitten merged the two. Under his management, the Kittens would be a tween-friendly girl group but also a pragmatic – cynical, even – application of what he’d learned in two decades in pop.

This explains why in interviews, McCluskey seemed to relish his svengali role, talking about his discovery of Kerry Katona. She had “Marilyn Monroe syndrome”, McCluskey explained, defined as “you’re gorgeous but you don’t know it”. It’s not hard to read traces of this condescension into the product. The early Atomic Kitten singles – built to push the brassy, extrovert Katona upfront – sound to me like a songwriter deliberately aiming for bubblegum but keen for us to understand that’s what he’s doing. “Right Now”, “See Ya!”, “I Want Your Love” – these were fizzy, bright, entertaining pop singles, but knowing with it, deliberately flat and frothy.

McCluskey identified Katona as a natural star, but he wouldn’t be the one to get her there. His dayglo approach flopped – four singles in, Atomic Kitten were floundering, and Katona quit. In fairness to McCluskey, nobody else was having better luck. His group were part of a third generation of post-Spice acts whose every gimmick – Hepburn’s pop-rock stylings, Sugababes’ teenaged sulkiness, Girls@Play’s fancy-dress wardrobe – seemed set to fail. One of the reasons I was so seduced by American R&B at this point was how moribund British pop and rock both felt, drifting into a state of inertia, running on the fumes of mid-90s successes.

“Whole Again” was one last shot at a hit before the Atomic Kitten project shuttered. Too late for Katona – the single was re-recorded with new Kitten Jenny Frost – it worked. It more than worked. In a chart bobbing with one-week wonders, “Whole Again” was omnipresent, a month-long smash. It was ubiquitous enough and simple enough to earn a filthy pub or playground version – “you can kiss my…” And that simplicity – the song’s unadorned instrumentation, straightforward performance, and universal scenario – were the centre of its appeal.

It’s a vindication of the McClusky approach, in one sense. It’s as deliberately plain, as dimensionless, as any of the in-your-face bubblegum on the group’s earlier singles. But applied to a ballad there’s no trace of archness. At the same time, this doesn’t feel to me like a “Back For Good”, a record of ambition whose songwriter is shooting for the all-time lists. “Whole Again” has one obviously retro move – its spoken-word middle eight – but the rest of it is a collection of simple ideas pleasantly arranged. No showboating – the emphases on “my friends make me smile / but only for a while” is as close as it gets to letting the pain show. No tricks in the arrangement, which sticks firmly to the effective combination of strolling beat and one-note string crescendos. No emotional resolution. The core of “Whole Again” is a big, likeable chorus hook, and it’s happy sticking with that, thank you.

In the context of Westlife – so blustering – or J-Lo – so maximal – or even Destiny’s Child – so aggressive – the modesty of “Whole Again” works, and found a big, satisfied, audience. The downside of the approach is obvious – this is a nice record, a refreshing record, but not an exciting record. The label, of course, was delighted. Their failures were suddenly the country’s most famous girl group. “We’ve got a formula now and it works,” was how McCluskey, squeezed out after his greatest success, put it, “We want Whole Again, Whole Again and more fucking Whole Again”. As a one-off, “Whole Again” was a palate cleanser. Applied as a formula, it was deadening. In the late 90s comedy show Goodness Gracious Me, the most famous sketch involves a bunch of British Asians pouring drunkenly into a restaurant. They demand – in an inversion of the boozed-up white Brit’s macho demand for vindaloos and phals – that the staff bring them “an English”, the blandest item on the menu. The Spice era was over. Bring on the Spiceless Girls.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Andrew on 17 Aug 2015 #

    Sugababes’ video for Overload is quite similar to Whole Again’s.

  2. 27
    JLucas on 17 Aug 2015 #

    It puzzles me that they waited until five singles deep to unleash this. Who at the record label thought ‘Follow Me’ was a safer bet?

    The story goes they were actually dropped by the label but 24 hours later someone managed to convince the label to give them one last shot. I actually don’t think there was all that much goodwill towards them – if anything I think the increased week-on-week sales reflect that the song had to build momentum quite organically. I suspect it didn’t initially get a great deal more radio play than their previous singles, until the demand became obvious.

  3. 28
    swanstep on 17 Aug 2015 #

    ‘Whole Again’ strikes me as a somewhat straightened knock-off of ‘Never Ever’ (I think that this is what lonepilgrim@#10 was getting at too), hence a good but not great #1 (All Saints have really grown on me thanks to Popular). I guess I’d say that ‘Atomic Kitten’ is one of the great silly/flirtsy pop-group names (up there with things like ‘Haircut 100’ and ‘Atari Teenage Riot’ and ‘Arctic Monkeys’) so it’s gratifying that they did get a #1… I think the the plainness of the lyric effectively plays off/balances the flighty group-name and is, I suspect, part of the reason for WA’s success:
    6

  4. 29
    JLucas on 17 Aug 2015 #

    In one respect the band name was genius – they were apparently hugely popular in Japan.

  5. 30
    Andrew on 17 Aug 2015 #

    They were initially The Automatic Kittens, which doesn’t flow quite so well.

  6. 31
    JoeWiz on 17 Aug 2015 #

    4 weeks? Good lord. This has got a certain charm to it, that church organ that accompanies the opening verse gives it a quite hymnal feel which I like, but it’s ‘bontempi’ feel overcomes it for me and sounds almost like a demo in parts to me.
    I can see its vague similarity with the early 60’s girl groups but it’s never brave enough to go as dark as many of those records. ‘I can never go home again’, anyone?
    Katona became a Heat Magazine, ITV 2 shaped embarrassment didn’t she? I seem to recall her making a fool of herself on This Morning or something. Frost I liked much more, i probably would’ve asked her for a coffee or something if I vaguely knew her. Katona I’d have given a more than wide berth.

  7. 32
    Edward Still on 17 Aug 2015 #

    The best of an Average bunch where AK singles are concerned. A 6 seems fair and correct.

    As to their name, why not “Atomic Kittens” I wonder (but not very much)

  8. 33
    katstevens on 17 Aug 2015 #

    #31: Katona suffers from bipolar disorder – unluckily for her, the whole country saw her struggling through a very bad patch and hasn’t let her forget it.

  9. 34
    Mark M on 17 Aug 2015 #

    I quite liked the early singles. This one? Not really – it’s just a bit bland.

    Unfortunately, due to work, I’ve had to follow far too much of the Kerry Katona saga, although in my mind it just merges into any number of other minor celeb life-gone-wrong stories. It obviously doesn’t help anyone to live out their problems in public.

  10. 35
    Kinitawowi on 17 Aug 2015 #

    While I bought the first, Kerry Katona version of the Right Now album, it wasn’t because of this (it was Right Now, I Want Your Love, and what I suspect might be a limited edition Japanese exclusive (#29 was right) version of Cradle – a song off their first album later repackaged for their farewell). Bye Now and Strangers are infinitely better heartbreakers than Whole Again, which is pretty much pure beige. 4.

    Seemingly deliberately positioned as the anti-Sugababes (#26: wrong way round, it’s Whole Again that’s similar to Overload), the Kittens always seemed more bouncy and upbeat than the always-at-each-other’s-throats Babes, although more discussion of them will surely come in due course (sadly without Siobhan in tow by then).

  11. 36
    pink champale on 18 Aug 2015 #

    I’m glad to say that any irony in Teenage Dirtbag has gone over my head – I think it’s straightforwardly wonderful. Just as with its its forbear Pretty Woman, the bit where he gets his girl chokes me up every time.
    No irony in Whole Again either, and not that much fun.
    @33 yes KK is if anything a heroic figure in her struggles to have a decent life in the face of terrible odds (horrific childhood, mental illness, abusive partners) and doesn’t deserve to have shitbags like Frankie Boyle on her case the whole time.
    John Lydon was a huge fan of hers during their time in the celebrity jungle, so she’s alright with me.

  12. 37
    Edward Still on 18 Aug 2015 #

    Seems as good a place as any to point out how great Snog, Marry, Avoid was when Jenny Frost did it – a show I would never have guessed I would like.

    And how poor it is now.

  13. 38
    abaffledrepublic on 18 Aug 2015 #

    #6: I also remember Girl Thing. In fact I remember far more about them than anyone really should do. They included Jodi Albert who went on to appear in one of the soaps (Corrie?) and said in an interview that she was going to be ‘bigger than Posh Spice’.

    They were indeed managed by Simon Cowell who stated with absolute confidence that the next big thing would be his new girl band. Er, nought out of two then.

  14. 39
    JLucas on 18 Aug 2015 #

    Girl Thing pretty much epitomise the limits of Simon Cowell’s understanding of pop music for me. He’s on safe ground playing to the pop-as-basket spend crowd, but any time he ventures beyond that comfort zone the reek of bullshit is so strong even his target audience of 7-13 year olds can smell it from a mile off.

  15. 40
    JLucas on 18 Aug 2015 #

    There really were so many failed Girl Groups either shooting for the Spice Girls or All Saints fanbase around this time though. Rivalled only by the parade of Britney clones.

    The All Saints knock-offs generally had better material. I remember Made In London were hyped to the high heavens with the actually quite good ‘Dirty Water’, but the whole thing felt very contrived (which of course it was).

    Then there were Hepburn and Madasun who scored a handful of top twenty hits each. I still think ‘I Quit’ was great, but Jamie Benson’s voice didn’t really lend itself to anything that wasn’t that song.

    Thunderbugs, SuperSister, Girls@Play… it really does go on and on.

    And of course Precious, initially formed for the Eurovision Song Contest but making an admirable if doomed stab at keeping it going with the fabulous Baby One More Time knock-off ‘Rewind’, and gave Jenny Frost her first break.

  16. 41
    alexcornetto on 18 Aug 2015 #

    Just throwing my contribution to the failed girl groups topic with 21st Century Girls, whose eponymous debut single set out their USP: “guitars and all that make up.” Possibly the only post-Shampoo pop group to dent the charts in the late nineties…

    Also, along with the original line-up of Atomic Kitten, Girl Thing were brought back from the dead to perform on The Big Reunion. According to the show, major claim to fame, aside from being Cowell’s formative flop, was being big in Japan (natch). Also, that their slated third single, before being dropped, was stolen from them (one GT’s backing vocals were allegedly kept in the other band’s version) and eventually became a soon-to-be-dis’cussed bunny for an entirely different bunch of popstars…

    As for Whole Again, the song makes me smile. But only for a while. 6

  17. 42
    AMZ1981 on 18 Aug 2015 #

    If I recall 21st Century Girls were Simon Fuller’s attempt to repeat the trick he’d achieved with the Spice Girls. As it was I believe Hepburn stole their thunder by becoming the first `girls with guitars` group out of the traps and it was eventually Thunderbugs who charted highest. Where the 21st Century Girls project arguably failed was in having a theme song constructed around the concept while their rivals at least had a proper song to sing.

    It’s well worth noting that Sugababes attracted rave reviews in the serious mainstream press, well above anything even All Saints (probably the most highly regarded pop act critically) achieved. At the point where Whole Again was number one they hadn’t taken off quite as strongly as people hoped and internal band tension was already taking its toll – we’ve still got over a year before they gained their second lease of life.

  18. 43
    Mark M on 18 Aug 2015 #

    Re38: Jodi Albert was in Hollyoaks, a show whose primary purpose seems to be to maintain a steady churn of attractive-but-uninteresting fodder for celeb magazines and reality shows.

    Re37: I don’t think they’re making S, M, A? anymore, but of course with today’s TV, old episodes are sure to be circulation. Definitely only watchable in the Jenny Frost era. Not sure about the politics of the show, though: all that makeunder stuff could be read as ‘stop being so vulgar, common and trashy.’

  19. 44
    Rory on 19 Aug 2015 #

    A first listen for me, and I like it: it has a spark that the last few number ones hadn’t. No desire to hear the rehashes that apparently followed, but this is easily a 6, maybe even a 7. I agree with Swanstep, too, that it’s one of the great pop band names. Reminds me of Transvision Vamp: killer name, one or two decent songs.

  20. 45
    JoeWiz on 20 Aug 2015 #

    Someone who was in my year at school was the most recent host of Snog Marry Avoid. True.

  21. 46
    Mark M on 20 Aug 2015 #

    Re37/43: Snog, Marry, Avoid? was trash TV for puritans, in a way.

  22. 47
    Tommy Mack on 21 Aug 2015 #

    The peak of Katona baiting must have been when I stopped reading Popbitch/Holy Moly. It really was bizarrely and pointlessly vicious. I swear when I started reading Popbitch it was nonsense along the lines of ‘Friend of a friend worked on set with Tom Cruise. He is actually a giant lizard who has to keep his scales moistened so they won’t dry out. FoF says Tom only uses San Pellegrino to do this but is actually a really nice guy who pays him $50 to take all the empty bottles to the recycling plant’. Gradually both sites morphed into a yet crueller version of Heat magazine for people who think they’re too cool for Heat.

  23. 48
    crag on 21 Aug 2015 #

    During last years Edinburgh Festival I directed the woman who presented the last series of SnogMarryAvoid to a pub toilet. (Just once- this wasn’t a show on the Fringe or anything..)
    Has anyone mentioned Vanilla yet?

  24. 49
    Paulito on 22 Aug 2015 #

    To describe “Whole Again” as a classic would be something of a stretch, but I do regard it as one of the more superior – and certainly one of the most memorable – hits of its era. The Kittens deliver it with a plaintive sincerity that suits the simple but effective melody and arrangement – there’s a commendable absence of melismatic histrionics. It’s a good example of a singer’s technical limitations working to their song’s advantage.

    What really elevates this track is its classy chorus, where reverb-drenched keyboards and layered, rich yet gentle harmonies combine for an enjoyably gospelly effect. I take the point that in this and other respects the song draws from “Never Ever”, but the effect is more understated here and that’s what I like about it. (I’ll concede that the spoken middle 8 is a bit ham-fisted, though.)

    In conclusion, this is catchy and well-crafted old-school pop of a type that was already becoming rare by 2001 and, sadly, is all but extinct nowadays. 7

  25. 50
    Anti-Markovnikov on 31 Aug 2015 #

    Completely adored by the girls in my London primary school (I was 12 at the time). Watching the video now, I remember a lot of girls with exactly that kind of hairstyle and croptops – it must have helped the connection perfectly. I don’t even remember their competitors. Might ask around to see if anyone else I went to school with at the time did.

    As for the song, almost-classic sums it up. What hampers it are a few will-this-do lyrics: ‘doing what I can’ is the worst, ‘dragging my two feet’ a close second, but they only detract from a perfect tune and warm production. The vocals really do sell it: the empty resignation of ‘you just passed me by’ has this simple percussive impact and the tiny moments of male vocals as it leads into the chorus add an element of surprise you don’t expect in a song this straightforward. Underplaying sometimes works. 7 bordering on 8.

  26. 51
    Paulito on 21 Dec 2015 #

    @50: Yes, I’ll admit those lyrics are pretty ropy. I think the main offender is “Dragging my two feet”, which makes one fear that the narrator is suffering not only the pangs of lost love but also from some awful neurological affliction.

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