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Aug 15

ATOMIC KITTEN – “Whole Again”

Popular51 comments • 5,430 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. 1
    katstevens on 16 Aug 2015 #

    One of the most proportionally mesmerising videos ever, compared to the allure of the song.

  2. 2
    JLucas on 16 Aug 2015 #

    Obviously Post-McCluskey Atomic Kitten would prove to be a lot less fun than their first incarnation despite the significantly escalated success, but I do think this is a magnificent pop song. The production is a bit bontempi, and the vocals undistinguished, but the actual song could be a Bacharach/David standard. One of those wonderfully unexpected shots of quality that cuts through the context of its creation almost entirely. One day, a soul singer will cover this and it’ll get the re-evaluation it deserves.

    10

    P.S. All those playground renditions were dreadful.

  3. 3
    chelovek na lune on 16 Aug 2015 #

    I suppose McCluskey had trodden a variant of these paths before – after obtaining (perhaps in retrospect astonishing) commercial success with electronic music that was, in places, avant garde, and certainly futuristic – and then, admittedly, pushing the envelope just a bit too far on the glorious “Dazzle Ships” – sinking back into, well, not quite commercial complacency (not least as the ensuing records, mostly, did not sell that well), then at least eschewing experimentation – although mid-80s OMD tracks like “Secret” or “So in Love” or “If You Leave”, even “Dreaming” still have an imprint of quality about them….

    ….as does this, up to a point. It’s not a classic by any measure, it’s too insubstantial for that – it lacks the oomph or (err…) x factor – both in the tune and the nature of the performance. It’s all a bit ordinary, unchallenging, middle-of-the-road, safe. Daytime radio fodder, but not of the lowest calibre. (5) seems about right.

  4. 4
    wichitalineman on 16 Aug 2015 #

    The video! They all look like they’re on sedatives and have been given that beigey-gold, greasy-tan S Club look. I’m not sure about Marilyn Monroe, but Kerry was certainly the most distinctive Kitten and they looked superbland without her.

    The song is something else again, though. In my memory I had it down as much earlier, possibly because of that basic, repetitive ’98 drum loop; it feels like a mature variant on the Brit bubblegum of Billie, B*witched et al, an era-closing single in the vein of (but nowhere near as unusual as) the Shangri La’s Past Present & Future – spoken part and all.

    Not exciting, agreed, but certainly yearning. I’m very fond of it.

  5. 5
    AMZ1981 on 16 Aug 2015 #

    Viewed purely in chart terms Limp Bizkit had already raised eyebrows by managing a second week but nothing prepared anybody for what happened here.

    As Tom has already noted, Whole Again was Atomic Kitten’s last shot at a big hit before being dropped and I believe the record company took some persuading to give them that chance but the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. To an extent there were precedents; Goodnight Girl by Wet Wet Wet was a surprise chart topping follow up to several flop singles (at a similar time of year as well) but nobody thought it could happen in the `instant` chart of the early 2000s.

    Of course, once Whole Again seized the top spot there was suddenly no stopping it. They had to fight a close chart battle with Wheatus for a second week and a quiet week for new releases afterwards gifted them a third (Wheatus held two and Jakkata’s American Beauty theme sampling dance record was the highest entry at three). However commentators had noted that not only was Whole Again holding the top spot but it was increasing its sales week on week.

    The following week saw Outkast release their massive American hit Ms Jackson to much anticipation and were generally expected to sweep to number one; when Mark Goodier played Outkast at number two on Sunday it was the biggest shock chart watchers had enjoyed for a long time. With another increased sale Whole Again duly became the first four weeker since I Have A Dream/ Seasons In The Sun which had the benefit of two dead January weeks; discount that and the prior four (plus) weeker was Cher’s Believe almost two and half years previously. It could and should be added that Whole Again increased its sales for a fifth week and would have held number one in most normal circumstances. Indeed if not for a run of three hugely hyped bunnies in as many weeks we’d be talking an eight weeker here; it wasn’t until its ninth chart week that Whole Again finally shot its bolt.

    So what was it about Whole Again that caught the public imagination? The rags to riches narrative of a band about to be dropped and a number one single so nearly missed did help. But I think the song appealed as a slow burner that sounded a bit thin and inconsequential on a first listen but grew on you each subsequent play. Of course Atomic Kitten couldn’t quite follow it; their two bunnies to come are covers and they fell apart messily but after the revolving door of number ones in 2000 Whole Again, the little record that could, restored everyone’s faith in the charts.

    So what of the non bunnies? It’s a shame we don’t get to discuss Teenage Dirtbag here, particularly so close to Rollin’. It was the biggest selling non chart topper of the year (ninth overall) and is probably the biggest selling alternative rock single of the era. It has also endured incredibly well given that it’s a send up not just of its genre but also of its audience. Maybe it proves that teenage dirtbags do have a sense of irony (and our hero does of course get the girl – and the Iron Maiden tickets).

    Rollin’ got barged aside by a trio of new entries and with no Whole Again U2 would have made it two from two with Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of, their eulogy for Michael Hutchence. I’ve only just seen that Last Resort by Papa Roach was actually at three a week later behind Whole Again and Teenage Dirtbag – I thought this came a bit earlier but was obviously mistaken. Amazingly with Rollin’ holding on at four (U2 and Mya’s long forgotten Case Of The Ex falling back) with no Whole Again we would have had a nu metal/ pop punk top three. Also worth mentioning from Whole Again’s fourth week; Melanie B at five (an improvement on Word Up but not the massive hit she desperately needed) and A1 breaking their number one run a place below.

  6. 6
    will on 16 Aug 2015 #

    You forgot the most risible of those post-Spice groups, Tom – Girl Thing! Does anyone else remember…? (No, thought not.)

  7. 7
    Sausagebrain on 16 Aug 2015 #

    @6 I remember Girl Thing. They were all fart and no shit.

  8. 8
    AMZ1981 on 16 Aug 2015 #

    `Hold your body nearer, it’s the end of an era`. Rather depressing how that sticks in my head fifteen years on. Weren’t they managed by a then relatively unknown Simon Cowell? I remember them saying in interview with TOTP magazine, `Everybody knows girls are better than boys` – can you imagine what we’d say about a male pop star saying the opposite?

    Girl Thing – Ecclesiastes 6:4

  9. 9
    mapman132 on 16 Aug 2015 #

    And further into terra incognita for me. Atomic Kitten didn’t get the token one or two US hits that most post-Spice UK/Ireland girl groups and boy bands had until now. Apparently there was a US release planned and a new video made, but 9/11 ended that according to Wiki. It’s amazing what could be blamed on 9/11 at the time…

    Coming to this cold, I was hoping it would be another “Pure Shores”-type revelation. Of course it wasn’t – not even close. But I will say after three or four listens now it’s grown on me a bit. It seems appropriate that it was a slow burning hit – good thing it was released in a sales lull as it probably would have gotten lost in the crowd otherwise. The low budget video is not bad either, even though it seems specially formulated to make it difficult to tell the girls apart (there are three of them, right?). Overall, Tom’s 6/10 seems about right.

  10. 10
    lonepilgrim on 16 Aug 2015 #

    I wasn’t aware of the McCluskey connection when I was listening to this recently, nor did it prompt me to check out their earlier singles. This put me in mind of the Zara and Primark business model where they will take a close look at the new seasons fashions and quickly make a cheaper version to be sold to a mass audience. ‘Whole Again’ sounds to my ears like a cut-price version of All Saints, complete with spoken section and retro drum pattern. It’s pleasant and competent but lacking anything original that makes it stick in the memory.

  11. 11
    wichitalineman on 17 Aug 2015 #

    Re 5: cheers for that, nice stats – the nu metal/pop punk Top 3 (minus AK) is a shock. I don’t think I’ve knowingly heard Papa Roach.

    Teenage Dirtbag made it onto Nigella Lawson’s Desert Island Discs.

  12. 12
    Tommy Mack on 17 Aug 2015 #

    Did Kerry Katona rejoin after they hit big then? Or is she an anti-Pete Best, cursed to suffer in public rather than brood in obscurity?

  13. 13
    JLucas on 17 Aug 2015 #

    Kerry didn’t rejoin until long after their commercial fortunes had waned.

    It’s worth noting that in addition to saving them in the UK, Whole Again broke them all over Europe and around the world. Some chart positions:

    #1 Germany
    #1 Austria
    #1 New Zealand
    #2 Switzerland
    #2 Australia
    #4 Belgium
    #4 Sweden

    None of their previous singles had any appeal outside the UK & Ireland, so this was definitely a crossover success.

  14. 14
    23 Daves on 17 Aug 2015 #

    McClusky did say in some eighties interviews that OMD wasn’t something he had to do – that he could write big pop hits if he really wanted to, but chose to do other things he found more fulfilling and interesting.

    “Yeah, right,” I thought. Then came Atomic Kitten, evidence that he obviously meant it. The signs were there all along, I suppose. OMD wrote some staggeringly good songs, and had a pop suss that was somewhat undermined by their rather bland presentation. OMD could put huge, haunting hooks in their songs – “So In Love” and “Forever Live And Die” being but two examples – or deliver chilling synth pop which was, nonetheless, a lot more detailed and fleshed out than a lot of the minimal approaches of the day. “Enola Gay” had a lot more flourishes and embellishments than Depeche Mode or the Human League would have bothered with (at first), for example, meaning a song named after the plane which dropped the bomb on Horishima seemed more intricate and pretty than “Love Action”.

    “Whole Again”, obviously, doesn’t push its luck in such a way. It’s McClusky jobbing. But still, it sounds like it must have come from the pen of a wealthy Transatlantic songwriting team, and it’s very well-written – I never have any urges to listen to the track, but when I do hear it, I find myself admiring the fact he got from “Electricity” to this (and via “Dazzle Ships”). I can’t think of many other examples of that kind of successful leap.

  15. 15
    weej on 17 Aug 2015 #

    I thought Atomic Kitten phase 1 were just about ok. ‘Right Now’ is good enough to escape its disco-homage straightjacket and achieve some sort of pop immortality, ‘See Ya’ is a bit of a formulaic retread, not terrible for it though, ‘I Want Your Love’ is a frankenstein’s monster of a song, constantly fighting against an intrusive sample which doesn’t fit with anything else – but for all that it’s interesting enough to work. ‘Follow Me’ is almost entirely befeft of ideas, and it’s understandable that it flopped.

    Whole Again marks the start of phase 2, and the end of my interest in the group. Jlucas at #2 is right that it sounds like a Bacharach/David song, but I’d say that’s because it sounds like Andy McCluskey has constructed it from non-copyright-infringing paraphrases of various Bacharach/David standards – the first verse, for example, is almost but not quite the first verse of ‘Walk On By’. I find this so distracting that I’m not really able to enjoy it at all. The “mature” approach presented here along with the bland beigey-gold look spotted by Wichitalinman at #4 was something of an excitement vacuum, and while Kerry Katona’s voice wasn’t particularly distinctive, she did look like a star of sorts, something they really missed in the next few years.

    2001/2002 was, of course, their commercial peak, indicating once more that I and the record-buying public now had some fundamental differences in what we wanted from our pop music. 3.

  16. 16
    tonya on 17 Aug 2015 #

    I have a soft spot for this: it was number 1 the first time I visited London, and I saw Atomic Kitten perform at G.A.Y. during that visit. They seemed like a group that would have no chance in America.

  17. 17
    Andrew on 17 Aug 2015 #

    #8 “can you imagine what we’d say about a male pop star saying the opposite?” Well, yes, but then it would be quite a different proposition – the structure of sexism/patriarchy would make it quite sinister. This is quite harmless boy-baiting.

  18. 18
    Andrew on 17 Aug 2015 #

    Another great review, Tom! (perhaps worth noting that Jenny Frost’s re-recording was on the re-released album and the re-shot video, but that the version on the CD single and at the top of the charts was definitely Kerry! She has mentioned that at the time it was like there were four members in the band. I also think she quit primarily because she was expecting a baby with Briyan Westlife, rather than the band’s falling fortunes)

    Given that the two AK bunnies are cover versions (and both of number one songs already written about in Popular), now seems as good time as any to look at the rest of their discography.

    “‘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.”

    Too right. Along with first cover-bunny (and to a lesser extent, the second, which had a bit more pep to it) the following songs all use variations of Whole Again’s basic drum beat: Follow Me (which had preceded Whole Again), You Are, It’s OK, The Last Goodbye, Love Doesn’t Have to Hurt and If You Come to Me.

    It’s OK! is the best of the bunch: a charming, summery, Stargate number. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0debAXDUmpc

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 17 Aug 2015 #

    As much as I easily recognise “Whole Again”, I find anything else by Atomic Kitten absolutely impossible to recall. Two bunnied covers you say? Not a scooby!

    I’m still scratching my head over Andy McCluskey becoming some kind of pop Svengali, but it’s only for the same rockist reasons I railed against Feargal Sharkey becoming a corporate stooge. So be it. You can’t be William Morris today and be a wallpaper salesman tomorrow? But of course you can, and be a roaring success at both.

    WA is pleasant, but vanilla (essence, not seed pod). 6 is about right.

  20. 20
    flahr on 17 Aug 2015 #

    No, Vanilla were 1998.

  21. 21
    Mark G on 17 Aug 2015 #

    I guess “sticking to the formula” was in hope or expectation that the AK could become the female Westlife, but the problem there is that girl groups don’t generate that same sense of “loyalty” that the boy bands do (or, at least, that one).

  22. 22
    anto on 17 Aug 2015 #

    A few years ago a friend of mine went for a modelling audition at a place called the H Bar in Liverpool. The single letter name was the giveaway – Natasha Hamilton had opened this bar with the cash from her time as an atomic kitten. The H Bar was aimed at footballers and the Merseyside glitterati – Within a year it was frequented by mobsters and sundry lowlife, and it closed. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

    ‘Whole Again’ is perfectly agreeable and deserved to go to number one, but it’s clearly a mediocre group getting it right, just this once.

  23. 23
    Mark G on 17 Aug 2015 #

    My abiding memory of the phenomenon of the Kittens was one audition for X-Factor, where some girl group auditioning had said “We don’t just want to be another Atomic Kitten” at which Simon shuddered and said “Well, that’s the last thing I want.. Louis?” and Louis replied “no, me neither”..

  24. 24
    Steve Mannion on 17 Aug 2015 #

    The cover reminds me of AK’s casual ‘uniform’, looking directly influenced by All Saints although feeling less contrived and lazy with the latter.

    I recall frustration at the success of this and AK in general while Sugababes just seemed so much better but struggled for certain reasons. At that point, as with Kelis back then it felt like both were being unjustly ignored and misunderstood and the Dumper beckoned. But eventually…

  25. 25
    Chris on 17 Aug 2015 #

    “Whole Again” was helped to the top by a combination of the song itself, a lot of goodwill & a well-judged video.
    I sensed at the time there was a lot of goodwill in the pop industry for Atomic Kitten to succeed – maybe that was due to their force of personality and looks,to Andy McClusky or the fact that so many of their rival pop acts were devoid of charm. Their second and third hits did ok but were forgettable froth… Whole Again built on the promise of their debut single over a year earlier.
    Furthermore, the video broke the track. I got Sky Digital in January 2001 & on MTV permanent rotation at the time were J-Lo, Mel B and this… And Whole Again never seemed to go away (well, not until Shaggy took it’s crown on the perma-playlist). The original video and single both featured Kerry, though both were remade later to feature Jenny Frost – but this track was a showcase for the vocals of Natasha Hamilton.
    Re: Wheatus – I can confirm that amongst the people I know in their early 20s, Teenage Dirtbag is an anthem but, alas, in the true Americanised ways of that age group most of the irony didn’t
    translate….

  26. 26
    Andrew on 17 Aug 2015 #

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

  27. 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.

  28. 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

  29. 29
    JLucas on 17 Aug 2015 #

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

  30. 30
    Andrew on 17 Aug 2015 #

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

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