We all have our nostalgic vices, musically. How else to explain the excitement that erupts whenever someone of my age plays ‘Barbie Girl’, or the continual joy that many of my peers continue to derive from Busted? Their career may have ended before their time when Charlie Simpson decided that Smash Hits wasn’t hardcore enough for him and his eyebrows, and that he’d instead make a hash of forming a heavy metal band called Fightstar, fondly known to its detractors as Shitestar, but ‘Year 3000’ still sounds perfect after 8 years. Many of us still have a soft spot for Steps, the Spice Girls or S Club 7 that comes to the fore during a cheesy girls’ night out, especially during karaoke, despite the aforementioned bands’ negligible talent and heavily manufactured lyrics/sound/image/antics. And, as a result, none of the bands I’ve mentioned so far are still together. But the one exception to this is that of one of pop’s less appreciated bands; McFly.
When I say ‘less appreciated’, I don’t mean in the same way that Jemini (Britain’s infamously disastrous ‘nul points’ Eurovision attempt in 2003) were, that they were unsuccessful; they gained a huge following of pre-pubescent girls as soon as they burst onto the pop scene in 2004 – among them, me. Their debut album hit the top of the charts in June of that year to make them the youngest band to ever have a debut #1 album, destroying The Beatles’ 40-year-old record, and their first two singles immediately topped the UK singles chart (albeit in an age where the Singles Chart has as much importance or prestige in society as the current judging panel of Britain’s Got Talent). They’ve also starred in a $38 million-grossing Hollywood film and sold millions of records worldwide. By this measure, they have been incredibly successful. But in terms of either nostalgic or serious critical appreciation, they’ve been seriously overlooked, particularly given their corker of a debut album.
Their problem was timing. Having followed Busted onto the scene, with a similar-to-the-undiscerning-listener brand of catchy pop, and a similar-on-the-eyes-of-the-undiscerning-viewer image of fairly clean-cut youths wielding instruments, and (most fatally of all) being friends with the members of Busted, they were instantly labelled a Busted rip-off band and never quite received the warmth of reception that Busted received for this reason. The fact that McFly’s first album, Room On The Third Floor, is a pop masterpiece reminiscent of the early sound of The Beatles or Beach Boys (yes, I really did just write that) whilst Busted’s albums are dogged by filler in their second halves has gone unnoticed by all. In terms of each band’s appreciation for the fans that made them rich/famous/never have to worry about not getting laid again, Busted constantly complained in interviews about their being viewed as tween fodder and rejected the demographic that made up much of their fan base, whereas McFly to this day (nine years after they formed and seven after they found fame) take their reputation with a pinch of salt. Whilst it’s true that James Bourne of Busted helped co-write several McFly songs, it’s also true that Tom Fletcher, McFly’s frontman, co-wrote more than several Busted songs – including three of their #1 songs and over half of their second album, A Present For Everyone. Swings and roundabouts.
Admittedly, I can’t pretend their lyrics were particularly original; these were mostly focused on teen love and heartbreak, as you’d expect – again, in the vein of the Beach Boys and early Beatles. Here Busted had the upper hand, with their offbeat humour resulting in some amusing ideas for songs (songs about fancying teachers and BA staff, about one’s girlfriend attempting to become them to the point where “now she stands up to pee”, an ode to Britney Spears and a Return To The Future-inspired paean to time-travel – what’s not to like?), pop-culture references galore and gross-out humour. But these weren’t without shortcomings: references to contemporary culture have a tendency to make songs as dated as a calendar (there’s a reason why N-Dubz were panned for their faux-poignant lyrics about “searching all over Facebook”) and gross-out humour tends to render bands somewhat tacky. Teen angst songs about girlfriends faking orgasms and the subsequent existential crisis about one’s sexual performance may well have forced a few cheap laughs and perhaps struck an empathetic chord in the rare male teenage listener whilst going over the head of the tween fangirls, but wouldn’t have endeared them to older listeners. McFly had no such obstacles; their themes are universal and, while perhaps not ‘timeless’, at the very least have a sell-by date past that of an opened carton of milk. They’re not without charm or humour either, oozing a cheeky charm manifested in eulogy to house parties, ‘Saturday Night’, with its one throwback to crudeness, “And if it’s going to your head/Get behind the garden shed/That’s where everybody goes to get laid”. It’s played with an exhilaration that only the newly-inducted to the world of Sainsbury’s Basics vodka, unsuccessful fumbles with randomers in a friend’s younger sister’s bed and the youthful bypass of a killer hangover can experience, whereas certainly Busted’s later songs sounded like they were written in the midst of said hangover, with themes of promiscuous girls (‘Who’s David’), lack of sexual prowess (‘Fake’) and the desperation/stagnation that leads one to get back with an ex-girlfriend (‘3am’). Even McFly’s songs about heartbreak are chirpy (‘Obviously’, ‘Unsaid Things’, ‘That Girl’) or optimistic (‘Not Alone’). Where Busted are running back to an ex in ‘3am’, McFly are eloping with their girlfriend in ‘Down By The Lake’ to get married in Hawaii in the first flourishes of youthful love.
I really can’t stress the 1960s element enough; but unlike so many bands before them, who have attempted to recapture the sound of that lauded era (as Britpop fan #1, I should know), they pull off a rare feat in managing to both succeed in replicating it but also in putting their own fresh, modern twist on it. It’s not something I can explain, you have to hear it for yourself. Music is so subjective that perhaps you’ll just hear a slightly punkier Westlife (in which case I maintain that you’re deaf) or a Busted rip-off. But they’re so much more than that. This isn’t the sound of an obsequious nostalgic whose childhood loves were never re-evaluated in hindsight, but instead they’re the defence of a truly great pop album, one which never gained the critical kudos it deserved and is now at risk of being forgotten by all but the most fervent nostalgists. As McFly’s sales decrease with every album – despite the three albums following Room On The Third Floor being nearly as good as it (I haven’t heard their fifth album yet, and so can’t comment on it) – they are, in general, becoming irrelevant to all but a new generation of fangirls enticed by their clean-cut good looks. I fear that this article will be shunned by ‘serious’ music fans because of the popular critical opinion of them (i.e. not much), and the tag of ‘boyband’ that hipsters fear so. But if you’re open-minded enough to put those feelings aside, and listen to what I honestly and shamelessly believe is the best pop album of the 21st century so far, you’re in for a treat. Trust me.