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Dec 20

WESTLIFE – “Mandy”

Popular11 comments • 2,953 views

#965, 26th November 2003

The tears are on their mind and nothing is rhyming. Sometime between previous single “Hey Whatever!” – a very non-Imperial number 4 – and this cover version, Brian McFadden decided it was time for the dream to end and handed in his notice. Sometimes when boys quit a band it’s a shock – a profitable enterprise cut cruelly short. But Westlife shedding a member felt like part of an ongoing process, a group winding gently down.

Even “Mandy”, their 13th Number One and by some way their best, was a surrender of sorts. In their prime, the ‘Life had taken soupy, anonymous Hector/Mac ballads to the top on a conquistador’s whim. Charity records aside, it had been a long time since they’d had to stoop so low as to cover a song to eke out a week at the top. And they’d never tackled a song quite so, well, obvious, so firmly in their wheelhouse as “Mandy”. When Oasis covered The Beatles, they had the basic self-respect to put it on a B-Side.

And yet it’s because Westlife doing Manilow is such an obvious idea that it makes for their most bearable number one. It’s not that Team Westlife don’t try to sabotage it – slapping on an inevitable key change and some pointlessly fussy harmonies at the end. But “Mandy” is a perma-tanned battleship of a song, impervious to damage. Nobody who could hold a tune could entirely fuck up that chorus once it starts on its triumphant procession of stresses, “you CAME and you GAVE without TA-king”.

Westlife’s only sin is that they are no Barry Manilow. Next to his version they sound callow and uncommitted, unwilling to indulge in the AOR showman’s kayfabe of plunging into a song and acting as if every gloopy word of it matters. Their take is wistful, a gentle lapping of sad memories on the smooth shores of the Westlifian consciousness; Barry’s is an armageddon of the suburban soul. Since Westlife began their reign, “song choice” had become a make-or-break factor in the reality TV auditions for their successors. An unpopular or unsuitable pick could end a budding career. But Westlife’s too-suitable pick was just as wrong-footed, exposing the limits they had always been working under. This wasn’t just as good as they get – it’s as good as they could get. The game was almost up.

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Comments

  1. 1
    AMZ1981 on 1 Dec 2020 #

    This was actually Westlife’s 12th number one, not the 13th. Fortunately there are just two more to go. Unfortunately there are still two more to go.

    The most frustrating thing about Westlife is that they did have one thing going for them, namely they were all more than competent vocalists. Had they been given a song that allowed for complex arrangements they could have punched far above their weight. But of course they didn’t, because it was so much easier to wheel out a by numbers cover instead.

    In the runner up slot this week was a rather better pop group also with a by numbers cover version – to be fair they were marking time and their imperial phase was still to come.

    One place below in a top three of new entries; Alex Parks (winner of the second series of Fame Academy) with Maybe That’s What It Takes, which I’ve just revisited on youtube. It’s nothing special but has a certain rough diamond feel about it. It was definitely the best record in the top three that week but it sold the least. A by numbers cover for a cheap buck – maybe that’s what it took!

    Parks would go on to be one of reality TV’s first duds, quickly disappearing off the radar and it seems her whereabouts now are a matter of some speculation. Maybe the market was already over saturated and in Parks’ case you got the impression she didn’t really want the fame. It’s a shame though, because it was a rare case of an artist who could have done more, if only she had been given time.

  2. 2
    ThePensmith on 1 Dec 2020 #

    I recently read Shane Filan’s autobiography ‘My Side Of Life’ during the first lockdown, with the chapters covering this era of their career making for interesting reading. Chiefly because none of them saw Brian McFadden’s departure coming, even if it seemed – pardon the pun – obvious with hindsight.

    I speak as someone who’s a relatively new fan of Westlife from their 2019 comeback, but even back in 2003 I actually quite liked ‘Hey Whatever’, the single that came before this. For me, it’s one of their better singles – a sort of rewrite of Relish’s ‘Rainbow Zephyr’. It felt like an easy progression into a sound that didn’t alienate their existing fans but opened them up to a slightly more contemporary audience that was still identifiable as a single by them.

    It was just unfortunate to have been hoisted by the very petard that they had built their run of number ones on – namely choice of release week (it peaked and debuted at #4 in that exceptionally busy September week behind Dido, Rachel Stevens and Black Eyed Peas we discussed before on the entry for ‘Where Is The Love’). I dare say a quieter week would have seen it peak at #2 at least which would have been less of an issue – they’d had singles do worse than that (‘Bop Bop Baby’, anyone?)

    I remember when this was announced as their follow-up single, a fair few eyebrows were raised, claiming the panic button had been pressed, and when Mark Feehily appeared as a guest on the ‘Hotshots Review’ feature of CD:UK, Cat Deeley proceeded to tear him a new one over them releasing “Mandy” when so much of the chat in the press from them a few months before had been about how “Turnaround” was going to be bereft of covers and power ballads, and here they were doing a Barry Manilow number in suits with a key change again. It’s still on YouTube and is an awkward watch.

    That said, it is one of their better covers, and one that just so happened to be fresh in the public’s mind at the time due to its use on the second series of Pop Idol – something that Simon Cowell would also be adopting two years down the line when their next bunny came out during the second run of X Factor. Other artists have done worse and more blatant backtracking than they when a career diversion doesn’t go to plan, but if I had been a fan at the time I probably would have been a tad aggrieved at the return to something they did in their sleep in 2001. One could argue that they never quite recovered from such a U-turn in many people’s eyes, obviously balking at the first sign of commercial indifference and retreating to what was ‘safe’. 4 is about right.

    A career U-turn of a different kind was at #2 that week. After three top 3 hits with universal acclaim and adoration for their original material, Girls Aloud also pressed the ‘cover version’ button with their bouncy take on the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” for the soundtrack of Love Actually. The full reasons for this weren’t entirely clear until years later, when they wrote in their book ‘Dreams That Glitter’ that, even with the success of the previous singles, there was a chance that Polydor were considering dropping them because of the initially slow sales of their debut album (which were a drop in the ocean compared to Hear’Say’s success) and Cheryl’s then impending court case reaching its conclusion, which they all feared would send them off the proverbial cliff. It does make you wonder what would have happened if things went differently. Alas, this went onto become one of their biggest hits, and a re-release of the ‘Sound of the Underground’ album with this and a cover of Duran Duran’s ‘Girls on Film’ tacked on saw it to platinum sales and that they were ensured of making it to a second album, where as Amz1981 pointed out they began their true imperial phase.

  3. 3
    Lee Saunders on 1 Dec 2020 #

    I generally agree with the consensus on GA covers but for me Jump’s an exception to the rule. Regardless of knowledge about the original it still doesn’t feel like a ‘proper’ Girls Aloud record to me because of the verses, which sound a bit anonymous – at least I think that’s what I mean. Something of their ‘Aloud’ is missing in the breathy want- me… heart- beat…, smothered over by the chrome beats. Which is strangely compelling, a sort-of Euro-disco dynamic in my ears, but then the bridge goes all familiarly wide-eyed for the chorus – a slimy post-electroclash synth-bass slashing itself around like loose electricity, which I know is a headache for some (the noisiest thing on any of their singles?) but sounds pretty awesome to me. Although, leaning so heavily on a musical hook rather than a vocal one does come across like X not quite knowing how to add their flare to a song people already know, before later conceding to a hands-off approach.

    All of which is to say Mandy is little more than *another* Westlife number one to me. Practice tells me I rather prefer boybands covering disco covers of Barry Manilow to covering the real thing. Though the thought of Westlife doing disco anything isn’t helpful to me or anyone.

  4. 4
    Shiny Dave on 2 Dec 2020 #

    Westlife covering Manilow was one of the most inevitable things in the history of pop music, as Westlife were essentially aiming at the same market but with a relentless emphasis on safety. And when they tried something less safe and failed? They doubled down. Not the only highly successful Irish act to do that, but Mumpop always gets a worse rep than Dadrock, so a retreat to the former is far more attacked.

    I’m the resident Westlife defender here, and I’m going to defend them again – the added bit at the close may seem superfluous but for me it’s as urgent a moment as they ever had, and pretty too. Covers like this may seem superfluous but every time I hear the original “Mandy” I want to sing the Westlife ending over the gargantuan string instrumental that left the gap for it. As for the key change, it was already there – not like Manilow wasn’t infamous for them himself, it was a big part of why covering them was beyond obvious for Westlife!

    And of course they picked one of the best songs in his catalogue. The original is better – the piano is much more fluid, and being a solo it has a coherent vocal line which the pass-the-parcel cover doesn’t (the second verse in particular doesn’t feel right to me) – but both have the gorgeous oboe into the bridge, and that chorus is indeed almost impossible to fuck up.

    For once, though, I can’t go above Tom’s mark for a Westlife track; it is definitely worse than the original in most ways even as I think it has the odd bit that’s genuinely better. 5 it is.

  5. 5
    Coagulopath on 4 Dec 2020 #

    “you CAME and you GAVE without TA-king”

    Yeah, the chorus’s power is 90% stress and emphasis – the melody line doesn’t matter that much.

    It’s an interesting example of how porous the line between singing and rapping is. It sounds absurd to compare this to hip-hop, but if you sped up “Mandy” and replaced the arrangement with a trap beat, those vocals would probably still kind of make sense.

  6. 6
    Paulito on 11 Dec 2020 #

    @5: The accompanying chord changes give that line a melodic undertow.

  7. 7
    Jan on 18 Jan 2021 #

    We’re not gonna end the countdown on a Westlife song, are we??

  8. 8
    Ben on 18 Feb 2021 #

    Apparently Simon Cowell disagreed with the group regarding putting out Hey Whatever as the first single – they were desperate to put out an up-tempo original song. And when that didn’t go to #1 Simon basically said “told you so, now we’re putting out Mandy as the second single”.

  9. 9
    Winterborn on 27 Feb 2021 #

    Surely not the death of popular?

  10. 10
    MUSICALITY on 31 May 2021 #

    Was there ever a band more derided than Westlife? Not where my secondary school was concerned.

    I don’t know a single person who bought their product, or was willing to admit as much in the entire school, including the female population.

    Despised as a lazy, glorified covers band, who made no efforts for over TEN YEARS! Their lack of progression, challenge, ability to perform/entertain and diversity being truly shocking.

    What I find fascinating about Westlife is how such a dour band of non personalities could fend off *deep breath* Boyzone, Five, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, A1, Busted, Blue, McFly among others.

    It took a one-two knock out punch from fresh faced newcomers JLS and the returning domination of original much loved heirs to the throne Take That to finally end their tyranny.

    Their lack of airplay in the years since the initial split proved telling. Was it all a dream or rather nightmare?

  11. 11
    Gareth Parker on 3 Jun 2021 #

    Not great, but no particular feelings of intense dislike here. I think 3/10 would be reasonable here.

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