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.