McFly – guitarist and singer Danny Jones, guitarist and singer Tom Fletcher, bassist and singer Dougie Poynter, and drummer Harry Judd – had seven number ones in the UK. With their 2004 debut Room on the 3rd Floor, they became the youngest band to ever have a number one album, a title previously held by the Beatles. And I hated them. I hated them in the shallowest way imaginable. I was a Kerrang! kid, dressed in black, listening to pop punk and emo and nu-metal. Genres were much more stratified then, and I thought pop music was more or less inherently suspect. I thought McFly were a boy band, so I turned my nose up at them on principle.
I was a dumb kid, but I wasn’t alone. “[A]ll the usual credibility-gap closers – numerous Beatlesque albums, gigging at the Barfly, releasing on an indie label – still haven’t quite shifted the perception of McFly as Busted Club Juniors,” Iain Moffatt wrote for the BBC in 2010. McFly were a punching bag, more often than not: dissing McFly was a shorthand to credibility. Kasabian went after them, calling them a “pop band for kids”. An extremely young Daniel Radcliffe went after them, lamenting that the kids at his school like McFly instead of The Libertines. Someone who came fifth on RTÉ’s talent show You’re A Star in 2005 went after them. They were nominated four times at the NME Awards… for Worst Band and Worst Album.
All these years later, pop music is taken seriously by default. Rock is basically dead, and everybody listens to everything now. Calling something “pop” as a way to dismiss it seems like a relic of a time long past. No-one would claim that Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna or Ariane Grande aren’t serious artists, even when they’re criticising them. Rolling Stone declared One Direction one of the greatest rock bands of the century this year, tongues barely in their cheeks.
Yet McFly have not gotten the re-evaluation they deserve. I got into McFly as an adult, basically by accident, and discovered a yawning gap between the band McFly are and the band they were, and still are, perceived to be.
Part 1 – the boys in the band
McFly have spent pretty much their whole career being referred to as a boy band. But were they ever one?
They were certainly marketed as a boy band. They were propelled forward on the same teen-pop infrastructure: asked about their favourite ice cream and most embarrassing moment in Smash Hits!, asked which Hollyoaks actress they most fancied on Popworld and T4, performing their singles on CD:UK and Top of the Pops. But then you watch Danny Jones play guitar with his teeth and it seems like there’s something weird going on.
Everyone knows what a boy band is, but it’s surprisingly hard to define. Like pornography or a kangaroo, you know a boy band when you see it. But when a group is called a boy band, it’s usually because they have a lot of these features:
- They’re manufactured by a management company or record label,
- The members are boys/men in their teens and early twenties who are supposed to be attractive to teenage and pre-teen girls,
- The members usually fit into “types” accordingly: the cute one, the shy one, the bad boy, the funny one,
- They make pop music, mostly love songs,
- All the members sing, at least nominally,
- They have choreographed dance routines, or choreographed sitting-on-a-stool-then-standing-up routines,
- They do not write their own songs,
- They do not play instruments.
I definitely think these are the ideas we think of when we think of boy bands, but they’re all negotiable. It’s trivially easy to come up with exceptions to basically any of them that are still obviously, intuitively boy bands.
Boy bands are manufactured, but bands of brothers like Hanson weren’t manufactured by anybody, except, I guess, their parents. Boy bands definitely start out as teenagers and twenty-somethings, but as much as everyone tried to make “man band” happen, Backstreet Boys and Take That didn’t stop being boy bands because they got older, and their fans for the most part aged with them. Boy band members fit into types, prompting infinite favourite-member debates, but lots of boy bands – less successful ones, admittedly – are made up of essentially interchangeable cute boys. Boy bands make pop music, but pop music can be almost anything: there have definitely been R&B boy bands. Hip hop collective Brockhampton insist that they’re a boy band for some reason. All the members of a boy band sing, but exactly two members of Boyzone sang ever. Boy bands have dance routines, but One Direction never danced in their lives. Boy bands don’t write their own songs, but Take That was built around Gary Barlow as a songwriter. “They don’t play instruments, otherwise they would just be called a ‘band,’” Maria Sherman, author of the boy band history Larger Than Life, writes, “Actually, some boy bands do play instruments. Much like organized religion, boy bands are full of contradictions. Learn to deal with it.”
Tom Fletcher and Danny Jones, McFly’s guitarists and lead singers, met at an audition for a boy band that fit all the boxes. But Tom was there working – videotaping the auditions for the management company – and Danny turned up by mistake. Everyone around him was doing stretches and practising dance moves, and there was Danny with his guitar. “His sister printed the audition notice off the internet,” Tom told The Telegraph, “but she cut off the bit where it said ‘No rock songs’. He came in and sang some Richard Ashcroft and they said, ‘Do you know any pop songs?’ and he said, ‘I know some Paul Weller.’ We hit it off straight away!”
Danny, a working-class teenager from Bolton, played Oasis covers in local pubs and was the proud owner of one of Bruce Springsteen’s mouth organs. Tom, meanwhile, had attended stage school on a scholarship, and once played the title role in a West End production of Oliver!. He had auditioned for Busted – put together by a management company as a kind of boy-band-with-guitars – and although he didn’t make the final line-up, management kept him around as a songwriter. He co-wrote a lot of Busted’s second album, including the hits ‘Air Hostess’ and ‘Crashed The Wedding’. When he met Danny, they decided to write songs together: Danny would get the train down to London to work with Tom on the weekends, and in between, they would send each other minidiscs in the post of what they were working on. “[The songs] continued to feel different to the material I’d worked on with Busted,” Tom said in the band’s autobiography Unsaid Things, “A bit less gimmicky.”
Tom and Danny worked on songs together for about a year and a half, staying in the Intercontinental Hotel in London for weeks at a time, writing what would become their first album: Room on the 3rd Floor. They signed to Island Records – the same label as Busted – and recruited a drummer and a bassist through classified ads in NME. They found Harry Judd, a cricket-playing private school boy who’d been playing drums for about a year, and Dougie Poynter, a skater who bred and sold lizards to pay for his first bass and, at fifteen, lied about his age to get into the band. And so McFly was born.
From the outset, McFly don’t meet most of the usual features of the boy band. They weren’t manufactured: their formation seems somehow both laborious and fated. They wrote their own songs and played their own instruments, and look for all the world like a regulation rock band: two guitars, bass, drums. Tom also plays piano, and Danny occasionally busts out a harmonica. There was no dancing. As Danny once said, “The nearest we’ve got to choreography… is ‘Don’t go that way, ‘cause a firework’s gonna go off.’” The only boy band criteria they have ever really met is being young men in a pop band, appealing primarily to teen and pre-teen girls.
But the press seemed to look at it the complete other way around. McFly were seen as unquestionably a boy band, and anything about them that didn’t fit with contemporary boybandom – the Westlifes and Blues of the world – was considered suspect. They were regularly described as manufactured, and doubt was always cast on whether they really wrote their songs or played their instruments. (In 2017, Danny said that he was flattered by the suggestion that he was miming to a backing track: “It must have been good.”) Rather than listening to McFly’s music, looking at their public image and evaluating where they fitted in the grand scheme of boybandom, they were misconstrued and misrepresented to slot neatly into a recognisable box, one they always chafed against the confines of.
The thing about boy bands is that the term is – historically, at least – almost always a term of disparagement. Boy bands have generally been objects of derision outside of their fanbase. Calling something a “boy band” usually is tantamount to calling it shit. And lots of boy bands are shit: everything Westlife recorded other than ‘When You’re Looking Like That’ and maybe ‘World Of Our Own’ is unlistenable drivel, and that still puts them head-and-shoulders above Boyzone, JLS or Union J. But the way the term boy band is deployed seems pretty divorced from pure contemplation of the quality of the music.
As a term of disparagement, it’s sometimes a critique of capitalist modes of production, with boy bands as the purest example of how music is reduced to consumer product. I do have some sympathy for the anti-consumerist argument – even if I think it’s essentially wrong, not least that it imagines that the music you like is not consumer product. But other times, derision of boy bands amounts to barely concealed sexism against boy band fans: the “hysteria” of screaming fangirls is always a spectacle to be mocked. I don’t have any sympathy for mocking teenage girls for being excited, but you can definitely take that too far the other way, too. Attributing hostility to boy bands primarily to sexism against their fans – conceptualising the marginalisation of young women as somehow adhering to the object of their fandom – is a fundamental misunderstanding of power that can get you into some really weird places really quick.
But all of this is extremely contingent on what definition of boy band you’re working with. The people who complain about boy bands as consumer product and the people who defend them on anti-sexist grounds are clearly thinking about boy bands in fundamentally different ways. I think there are basically two definitions: one is meeting all or almost all of the criteria – all-singing, no instruments, songs written by some guy from Sweden, probably – and the other is meeting only the most basic criteria: being boys in a pop band that appeals to teenage girls.
The first, narrower definition describes a very, very specific thing in pop history, beginning in the late 1980s and going through peaks and troughs ever since: New Kids on The Block, Backstreet Boys, Take That, East 17, *NSYNC, Boyzone, Blue, Westlife, JLS, One Direction, BTS. There’s an obvious danger with applying this definition too rigidly – between Gary Barlow’s songwriting and their unforgettably horrible cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Take That mightn’t make the cut, which is absurd – but it describes groups put together in the same mould, riffing on an established formula. The music matters; sometimes it’s even good. But these boy bands are more like personality-driven multimedia projects. Thinking about boy bands using this definition is the root of anti-consumerist arguments against them, since it’s essentially tracing the history of a genius marketing move. It’s a story that takes place largely in boardrooms.
The second, broader definition encompasses all of those boy bands as well as much of the best music ever recorded. It creates a much richer, more interesting history: connecting a particular kind of teen girl music fandom (there are, of course, other kinds) from the mid-twentieth century to the present. It’s a history of favourite-member debating, fanfiction writing, scream-singalongs, and hysterical sobbing (with joy at concerts, and in mourning when the band break up). It’s a history full of passion and friendship and glorious harmonies. With the broader definition, you find the historical root that you can’t get to with the narrower one: the Beatles. Obviously.
A lot of people get really touchy about the idea that the Beatles were a boy band. Particularly if you’re operating from a narrow definition of the term, it sounds like a slight. It sounds like imposing contemporary boy band rubrics onto a past where they don’t fit. Acts of pure desperation – like calling Paul McCartney the lead singer – are performed for the sole purpose of defining the Beatles out of boybandom.
But the Beatles were a boy band. They are the classical boy band. They were, firstly, a group of very young men with a rabid, screaming teenage girl following. Isn’t every unjustly mocked group of screaming fangirls just a pale imitation of the fans chasing the boys in A Hard Day’s Night? The Beatles had a cute one, a serious one, a goofy one and a quiet one, and every fan had a favourite. They made pop music, mostly love songs. All four members sang, although John and Paul sang the most. They had matching outfits and haircuts, as chosen by Brian Epstein, their manager.
The history of boy bands makes no sense without the Beatles, because basically every boy band is an attempt to copy the Beatles – starting with the Monkees, who were literally a direct attempt to copy the Beatles. But even when people call the Beatles a boy band, it’s usually with a bunch of caveats and apologies. “[T]hey were arguably a boy band in terms of marketing for a couple years, then inarguably not a boy band for the bulk of their run,” according to Billboard. “[T]hey STARTED as a boy band and then morphed into just a band,” according to KQED. The Irish Times argues they met the definition of boy band “before they took to the LSD”.
They may have started out as a boy band, is the basic argument, but then they became the great, important rock band we remember them as today. Their early work is the silly, boybandy stuff that sent teenage girls wild, and their later work is important art, with the teenage girls who loved them presumably disappearing into the ground or whatever. It reminds me of an argument I had with a man who claimed the Beatles only “got good” mid-career, to which I countered that ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ is track one on their first album and is probably the most perfect song ever written. He scoffed and called it a pop song, as if I was under an illusion of it being something else. As if it being a pop song and being a great song were contradictory.
There’s a general unease with the idea that the Beatles were both a boy band and great artists. It usually comes out in people – even Beatles fans – denigrating the artistic achievements of their early career: Billboard says, “few under the age of 65 mainly associate them with “’She Loves You’” as if ‘She Loves You’ isn’t one of the most universally recognisable songs in the world. Even apparent defences of early, teenybopper Beatles still buy into a fundamental dichotomy between the band that wrote ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ and the band that made Revolver, like when Salon insanely argued that Sgt. Pepper is for men. (Someone really should have let the Apple scruffs know!)
But that dichotomy – the silly boy band for girls and the serious artists for men – isn’t real. Their sound changed massively, but their early career is full of artistic achievement, and their later career is full of silly love songs. The chorus from ‘She Loves You’ kicks in at the end of ‘All You Need Is Love’, and it’s a celebratory moment of pure joy that unites the band they once were and are and would still become. My heart soars every time. They didn’t so much stop being a boy band as they became the greatest, most important boy band of all time. Part of the beauty of the Beatles, as Jillian Mapes writes, is that they “proved that revolutionary, capital-A Art can come from teen heartthrobs.”
If we think of boy bands in this broader way, with the Beatles as the north star, then McFly suddenly snap into focus. McFly are a boy band in the classical sense mistaken for a boy band in the contemporary sense. They’re a boy band in the way the Beatles or the Beach Boys were, and not at all in the way that *NSYNC were.
McFly’s first album places them squarely in that classical boy band tradition. Room on the 3rd Floor is basically Surfin’ USA on A Hard Day’s Night. While Busted were essentially a pure-pop repackaging of Sum 41, McFly’s music was, as The Telegraph put it, “a step forward in sophistication and several steps backwards in time.” There are some of the same pop punkish influences as Busted – Green Day and Weezer certainly have some fingerprints on Room on the 3rd Floor, especially in how they play the songs live – but it is primarily, overtly, dramatically a forty-year throwback. If the Beach Boys influenced California punk which influenced pop punk which influenced Busted, McFly aren’t the Diet Busted knock-off at the end of the line. They’re a return to step one.
Room on the 3rd Floor is surf rock with a helping of Merseybeat: jangly guitars, three-part harmonies, soaring middle-eights. ‘Five Colours in Her Hair’, the opening track and lead single, opens with a delicious retro surf guitar riff, and closes with a sixties trilled, harmonised “Doooooo!” In the just-under three minutes in between, there’s hook after hook after hook: the do-do-do-do-do-DO earworm, the punctuating harmonies, the insanely catchy chorus. Even if I had never gotten into McFly, I would have gone to my grave with “everybody wants to know her na-a-a-a-a-a-ame” tucked away crystal clear in my head, threatening to take over at any moment. The whole song is an irresistible confection. Sometimes I think the middle eight doesn’t work – it abruptly becomes a story song, as the girl with five colours in her hair shaves her head because she can’t deal with the fame – but then that surf riff kicks back in and I fall right back in love.
‘Five Colours’ is leagues ahead of anything Busted recorded on musicianship alone, but it does have that slightly gimmicky quality. It’s fantastically silly, but silly nonetheless. Luckily, their follow-up single – and second track on the album – is one of the best pop songs of the past twenty years.
‘Obviously’, an ode to a girl who’s out of their league, is the kind of thing the Beatles or the Kinks or even the Who would have knocked out in the early 1960s. It’s clearly influenced by Britpop and maybe some 1990s pop punk, but it reaches back through those influences to their 1960s forebearers. It’s wonderful. It’s got very charming, teenage lyrics – “She’s got a boyfriend / He drives me round the bend / Cos he’s 23 / He’s in the marines / He’d kill me” – and very classic song structure, but the instrumentation is sophisticated, even lush. It opens with acoustic guitar, then claps for percussion when Tom starts singing. Then halfway through the first verse, the band comes in; it’s so uplifting, and I grin like an idiot every single time. Like ‘Five Colours’, it’s full of lovely harmonies – the harmonies are the heart of McFly’s sound, the way Danny’s gruff rock voice and Tom’s poppy musical theatre voice and Dougie’s nasally, pop punk backing vocals play off one another. But ‘Obviously’ is particularly elevated by its use of strings. The violins on it sound like golden sunshine. The chorus after the bridge has everything cut out but the drums and the vocals – it’s hard not to clap along – and when the band crashes back in for the last line of the chorus, the violins kick in at the same time. It’s that uplifting feeling from the first verse times a thousand.
The whole song feels perfectly formed, from the way the drums punctuate the lead up to the chorus to how, for a song about being into a girl who’s not interested because she’s got a boyfriend, it never strays into self-entitled pity-party territory. ‘Obviously’ is such a transparently great pop song that it’s kind of insane that it didn’t become an instant classic, let alone get treated as inherently less credible than contemporaneous landfill indie. Alternate history is dumb, but it’s hard not to imagine how differently ‘Obviously’ would have been received if it was written by a Britpop band a few years earlier.
It’s easy to expect the rest of the album to sound basically the way pop music sounded in 2004, with those 1960s touches as twists of flavour running through it. But it is wholly committed to the bit: ‘Saturday Night’, ‘Down By The Lake’ and ‘Surfer Babe’ could be dropped virtually unchanged onto an early Beach Boys record. Sixties-style close harmonies abound throughout. The title track swells to a na-na-na section, ‘Hey Jude’-style, and ‘That Girl’ is basically a Beach Boys song with a Chuck Berry guitar solo in the middle. There isn’t a song on it that I could imagine Westlife or any other narrow-definition boy band recording, except maybe ‘She Left Me’, although it’s much easier to imagine it in the hands of the Five Satins.
But critics, the media and dumb Kerrang! kids like me talked about McFly like just another 2000s boy band. Even when critics acknowledged the influence of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, it was as a mild curiosity, and usually with a condescending sneer, particularly towards their fans. In a gig review, The Irish Times notes that the “bob of Merseybeat, the pogo of pop-punk, the sway of surf-pop” is “a curious throwback for a band largely in their teens”, but “in the shrieking wind tunnel of pre-pubescence that was once The Point, they could be playing free-jazz, polka or even blackjack for all the difference it would make.” Entertainment.ie concluded that McFly’s “boyband-with-guitars schtick” lands closer to the Monkees than the Beatles like that’s a total own. In another gig review, The Guardian – after saying there’s “something very silly about the band” as they’re “known to use hair straighteners” – hits us with this amazing sentence: “When they play the Beatles’ She Loves You to a crowd who have never heard the original, it’s clear that an entire generation could grow up thinking the Fab Four sounded like chipmunks.”
(There are two big problems with this: 1. Rather than McFly sounding like chipmunks, Danny in particular had a notably deep, gravelly voice, even as a teen, 2. Everyone under 50 came out of the womb knowing all the words to ‘She Loves You’. It’s a song so famous that the idea of anyone of any age never having heard it is absurd.)
If McFly weren’t dismissed as just another boy band, if critics had taken them seriously instead of making snide comments about how the girls who liked them didn’t care about the music anyway, they could have been dismissed as hollow pastiche. That wouldn’t have been fair, either, but it’s a lot closer to the mark. There’s a very overt artifice to Room on the 3rd Floor, as McFly spend much of the album cosplaying as a band from California in 1963: lyrics about sun and surfing, and casual mentions of LA and Hawaii, as if Danny Jones from Bolton didn’t think going to London was basically like going to Australia. (There was, of course, artifice when the Beach Boys did it, too: Brian Wilson doesn’t know how to swim.)
But because McFly got put in the boy band box – into a narrow definition of boy band that they never fit – the conversation never even got that far. Gig reviews treated their audience like a strange zoo exhibit. Analysis of the kinds of songs they were writing was dwarfed by questioning if they even wrote them. The positive press they received, in Smash Hits! or on Popworld, hardly engaged with their music at all: “We’d put all this effort into making our new album but nobody ever asked us about the music,” Dougie says about the teen press in Unsaid Things, “they just asked us what our favourite pizza topping was.”
It’s all the more frustrating because Room on the 3rd Floor is practically a guide to what kind of boy band McFly are: that, like the 1960s bands they emulate, they’re just boys in a band, making pop music that’s especially popular with teenage girls. But it was apparently really difficult to join those dots. So many reviews of Room on the 3rd Floor or McFly’s early live shows make fun of the line “When she walks in the room / My heart goes boom” from ‘Met This Girl’. They’re so eager to dismiss McFly that they somehow didn’t catch that’s a reference to ‘I Saw Her Standing There’: “My heart went boom / When I crossed that room.”
Part 2 – all novels are sequels; influence is bliss1
McFly followed Room on the 3rd Floor with Wonderland in 2005. A decade before Bruno Mars started doing it, McFly were pastiching their way through music history, and on Wonderland, 1963 gives way to 1968. The surf rock gets swept away by baroque pop. It is not at all surprising to learn that the McFly boys were obsessed with the Who when they wrote the album, right from the ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’-ish intro on the opening track, ‘I’ll Be OK’. It is surprising that they were allowed explore those influences, rather than shoved all the more tightly into a boy band box with a big “don’t fuck with the formula” sticker on it. Wonderland’s sound is a natural progression from Room on the 3rd Floor – it’s the same progression a lot of the bands that influenced their first album went through – but with such a quick turnaround, it feels like a radical reinvention. It’s darker, more complex and much more ambitious.
Take ‘Ultraviolet’: it’s straight out of the flower power era, with pseudo-trippy lyrics – “Mrs. Halloween / Is drinking at the bar again in New Orleans” – and prominent use of a sitar. I think it might sound even more retro than the surf rock on Room on the 3rd Floor, because at least that’s vaguely adjacent to pop punk. Music – at least, top 40 pop music – literally hadn’t sounded like ‘Ultraviolet’ in the guts of forty years. And it’s great. The cues it takes from the Beatles are obvious. It evokes the Beach Boys’ ‘Surf’s Up’ in its repurposing the sun-and-surf lyrical style in a new, melancholy context. “These summer girls are really something else,” Danny sings on the chorus, “Our lives are short but the nights are long / The nights go on and on.” Yet it’s joyous, too: a bittersweet pop song that’s simultaneously uplifting and aching.
Graham Gouldman of all people turns up to co-write and -produce ‘I’ve Got You’, a charming bit of Britpop with crunchy guitars. ‘The Ballad of Paul K’ – inspired by Danny and Dougie’s fathers leaving their families – is a Paul McCartney or Ray Davies-type of look at a man having a mid-life crisis, tackled with surprising emotional maturity and streaks of humour: “He’s been a drunk all his life / Two kids, a dog and a wife / He doesn’t know / And in the daytime he just sits and watches television shows.” ‘I Wanna Hold You’ is symphonic rockabilly about wanting to fuck so bad it feels like the world’s ending. ‘Too Close For Comfort’, sonically the heaviest thing on the album, is a great big melodramatic break-up song.
Wonderland’s big hit single was ‘All About You’, a song Tom wrote as a Valentine’s present for his future wife. I’ve toyed with the idea of making a “McFly aren’t the band you think they are” playlist as part of my proselytising efforts, but it usually just circles back around to “listen to ‘All About You’ again, like, really listen to it”. It’s almost certainly better than it is in your memory, not least because reducing it to the broad strokes doesn’t do justice to the details. It’s easy to remember as a basic white-guy-with-an-acoustic-guitar song, something in the vein of ‘Little Things’, probably the worst song One Direction ever recorded. ‘All About You’ is deceptively simple that way. Then you actually listen to it and remember it opens on an orchestra. That it’s got a woodwind break featuring some very lovely Spanish guitar. That it’s really, genuinely romantic, where this type of song so easily comes off as insincere. It is somehow both a very intimate acoustic guitar ballad and a lush, orchestral piece of chamber pop. Not only does that not feel incongruous, it makes it seem vaguely absurd that every intimate acoustic guitar ballad isn’t also a lush, orchestral piece of chamber pop.
‘All About You’ marks the halfway point of Wonderland, and it sets the tone for what’s to come. It’s immediately followed by ‘She Falls Asleep’: split into two parts, it forms the centrepiece of the album. ‘Part 1’ is instrumental orchestra music, flowing seamlessly into ‘Part 2’, a baroque pop song about a young woman’s suicide. The whole thing is stunning, and I mean that literally. The first time I listened to it, I was walking to work, and I had to stop and lean against a wall for a bit while I picked my jaw up off the floor. It’s ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Shangri-La’ and a Disney Renaissance film score and the climax of Act 1 of a stage musical. Almost every McFly song is a duet full of harmonies, but only Tom sings on ‘She Falls Asleep’: he sells the narrative of the song where the lyrics are relatively sparse on detail, shifting from urgent to soft to tortured. And in the context of the album, it emerges so naturally from ‘All About You’, expanding on its musical themes with its dramatic, orchestral production and lyrically acting as its dark mirror: “She falls asleep and all she thinks about is you / She falls asleep and all she dreams about is you.” It’s heartrending and tragic and beautiful.
There’s more solid guitar pop with ‘Don’t Know Why’ – written by Danny about his father and featuring some great driving acoustic guitar – and ‘Nothing’, which brings back the Who’s Next keyboards from ‘I’ll Be OK’ on the middle eight.
Wonderland ends with ‘Memory Lane’, a fantastic piece of powerpop that builds to a two-minute coda of the boys sing “so much has changed” over strings, brass and marching band drums, until the song fades to a close. It ties the whole album together: the bittersweetness of ‘Ultraviolet’, the joyful guitar pop of ‘I’ve Got You’, the fantastical scale of ‘She Falls Asleep’. The return of the orchestra makes the pain and joy of nostalgia – the emotional complexities behind the lyrical simplicity of repeating “so much has changed” – swell to bursting. In Alexis Petridis’s review of Wonderland for The Guardian (after spending half the review calling McFly a manufactured pop act for eight-year-olds, admittedly), he writes that if ‘Memory Lane’ was released by an obscure band on a tiny indie label, it “would have your average Uncut reader pulling out the superlatives and comparing it to the Raspberries.”
While Petridis spends most of his review debating how McFly have to calibrate their sound to maximise appeal to small children or writing what I can only assume is a fictional account of McFly being the only manufactured pop act “in the old fashioned, late 1990s, ain’t-no-party-like-an-S-Club-party sense” left in 2005, what he says about the actual music is interesting. There’s a smattering of compliments – the Raspberries comparison for ‘Memory Lane’, or praising the chorus of ‘Ultraviolet’ as something Teenage Fanclub would have written – but he also lands a pretty decent body blow: “In these post-Oasis days, when everyone nicks tunes with impunity, there’s certainly no shame in signposting your love of the Who by rewriting the riff from Substitute or the intro to Baba O’Riley, but it’s probably pushing it a bit to do both, twice, on the same album.”
Probably the most cogent argument against McFly – one critics made when they occasionally took them seriously – is that it’s just hollow pastiche. It’s the argument people would later use against Bruno Mars for his tours through the history of funk and disco. There’s no reason to listen to McFly when you could listen to the very famous influences that they wear very much on their sleeve. Sometimes this was framed as a backhanded compliment: Richard Banks writing “to many youthful ears this will no doubt sound just as good as it did in the 60s” is basically an argument that McFly are okay for pre-teens, but not those of us who are actually familiar with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks and the Who.
It’s easy to argue that pastiche is inherently vacuous and creatively bankrupt. It’s “the act of replicating cultural artifacts devoid of the urgent context that bore them.” But it’s also patently untrue – a gross simplification of how art relates to history, how genres are constructed, and the act of creativity itself.
All art – and maybe pop music most of all – constantly recreates and reinterprets what came before. All artists are massively influenced by art from the past. Sometimes that’s a wild alchemy melding genres and techniques in never-before-seen ways, but mostly it’s simpler stuff than that. Almost all art fits within prescribed forms. In How Music Works, David Byrne argues that, rather than art being primarily created through the artist’s conscious, creative intent, it is created primarily by its context: medieval church music didn’t have key changes because the notes would hang in the air of the cathedrals where it was played; crooning came to exist because of the invention of microphones; pop songs are three to four minutes long because that’s what fitted on 78 records.
Pastiche – attempting to recreate or imitate early Beach Boys, say, without transforming it in any major way – is an important way that we engage with the art of the past. It is a way to preserve and honour and continue what was once great about the form the artist works in. Surely anyone who loves an artform pines for ways that form was practised in the past that have died out: matte-painted backgrounds in film, the theatrical confined spaces of old television, the summery sunshine of surf rock or complex instrumentation of baroque pop. And when you consider that, as Michael Chabon points out, “for at least the past forty years – since (take your pick) the French New Wave, or the Silver Age of Comics, or rock and roll’s British Invasion – popular media has been in the hands of people who grew up as passionate, if not insanely passionate, fans of those media,” it makes sense that they would attempt to recreate those things.
Maybe they can’t be recreated, and contemporary artists can only pay tribute. But the idea that attempting to continue old forms even if they have fallen out of popularity is necessarily artistically suspect is very strange to me. “Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music, and that music is ‘better’ now than it used to be,” David Byrne writes, “is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present.”
The line between “pastiche” and “being within a pre-existing genre” is extremely blurry. Genres are created through a process of repeated recreation. Aren’t all slasher movies pastiches of John Carpenter’s Halloween? First-person shooter video games used to be called Doom clones because the rise of the genre was so influenced by Doom. Critics called the Coen brothers’ 1994 film The Hudsucker Proxy a pastiche of screwball comedies, but isn’t it just itself a screwball comedy, made long after the genre peaked in popularity in the 1930s?
To my 21st century ears, Jan and Dean weren’t doing a Beach Boys pastiche when they recorded ‘Surf City’ in 1963, they were just making surf rock when that was popular. But McFly make surf rock forty years later – with a more distinctive sound of their own than Jan and Dean had, honestly – and it seems like Beach Boys pastiche. You could make an argument that McFly are removed from the context that birthed surf rock in a way that Jan and Dean weren’t, but it’s not like surf rock was born from some urgent, nuanced context that it can’t exist outside of. Brian Wilson rewrote Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ to be about surfing – asking his girlfriend’s brother for the names of all the surf spots, since Wilson was never a surfer – and boom, ‘Surfin’ USA’.
The question, then, is if all art needs to be innovative and push its medium forward to be worthwhile, or can it be “merely” well-made, enjoyable, engaging, fun, and moving? Innovative, boundary-pushing art is great and important and all too often pushed aside in favour of soulless formula, sure, but can something not be great by simply being an excellent example of the form? I could say there’s no point listening to Wonderland when you could listen to the Who and late-60s Beatles. But it’d be dumb, because Wonderland is an excellent album, full of passion and joy and cleverness, finding its own footing in styles most-practised decades prior. And you can still listen to the Beatles and the Who alongside it: I’d argue that Wonderland actively invites you to do so. It’s not like McFly don’t want you to get the references. Their passion for music history fizzes in their work as well as in interviews (even if the questions were often much more banal).
The thing is: basically everyone actually agrees that all art is inextricably indebted to its influences and that it doesn’t have to formally innovative to be great – except Harold Bloom, I guess. But it’s an idea that gets applied extremely selectively, and largely on the basis of personal taste. Usually, you call something derivative because you don’t care for it. I still catch myself doing it. It’s a shortcut: a way to dismiss something without having to engage in substantive criticism. If something you do like is highly derivative, it’s evoking the classics of the genre. It’s “fondly” or “warmly” nostalgic instead of “merely” nostalgic. If it’s in a style that’s well-regarded but no longer popular, it might even be praised for its ambition.
In 2008 – three years after McFly released Wonderland – Panic at the Disco (having dropped the exclamation mark) released their second album, Pretty. Odd. Like McFly, Panic were a very young, vaguely pop punky band with an even younger, largely female fanbase. Like McFly, Panic were elevated to instant success by their association with a then-bigger band (Busted in McFly’s case, Fall Out Boy in Panic’s case). Like McFly, Panic’s second album is unstuck-in-time 1960s baroque pop. It’s not a perfect comparison – Pretty. Odd. is more influenced by Pet Sounds than the Who, and more devoted to overt artifice like imitating record scratches or the sound of a wireless – but the albums are similar enough that the gulf in their critical reception is baffling.
Pretty. Odd. got a fairly mixed critical response, but the tone of that response – and particularly on how it relates to its influences – is totally unlike reviews of Wonderland. Entertainment Weekly praised Pretty. Odd. for its ambition, as did Alternative Press, as did USA Today. The AV Club said the harmonies and baroque orchestration demanded more than casual listening, as did Billboard, and Rolling Stone said it “does honor to the noble legacy of ELO mastermind Jeff Lynne.” NME practically orgasmed about how Pretty. Odd. would infuriate record executives and alienate Panic’s teenage fans – calling it a “victory for artistic ambition over cynical careerism” – even as they acknowledge that it’s basically a straightforward Beatles pastiche: “Who would have thought that the War On Emo would eventually be won by Sgt Pepper? If it weren’t for the near-omnipresent orchestra parping away for much of this album, you’d probably be able to hear the execs’ jaws hitting the boardroom floor.” They call it a more conventional album than its predecessor as more or less straightforward praise, saying “all Panic have ‘dared’ to do is craft a clutch of joyously uplifting, God-isn’t-it-great-to-be-young-and-in-love-and-alive pop songs.”
Just three years earlier, NME nominated Wonderland – with its orchestra, its Beatlesy sitar, its “joyously uplifting, God-isn’t-it-great-to-be-young-and-in-love-and-alive pop songs” nestled among the darkness – for Worst Album of the Year. (It lost to James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam.)
The most negative reviews of Pretty. Odd. focus on it being too derivative. (Q said, “Ultimately, you’re left wishing that Panic at the Disco had more to say about their own generation, instead of mimicking that of their parents’.”) But criticisms of Wonderland being too derivative are in the most positive reviews. Most critics are so eager to establish that they think McFly are strictly for babies that dismissing them for ripping off the Who would be giving them too much credit. Entertainment.ie says “lyrics tackling such subjects as suicide and middle-aged depression” however clumsily add “a welcome depth to a package that’s in danger of becoming too processed and predictable”, as if every boy band record has an instrumental orchestra track at its centre.
The only real, substantial difference is in marketing. Panic were in Kerrang!, McFly were in Smash Hits!. It adds up to little more than snotty condescension toward McFly, because they’re a pop band.
“The genius of the marketing behind McFly is that here you have what is essentially a good old fashioned rock pop band reaching a mass teenage audience by using the same packaging as the manufactured pop machine,” CMU Beats Bar wrote in one of the only pieces of criticism to give McFly their due, “The… problem, of course, is that the pop machine is known for being good at style, less so at substance, which means some people will be put off your band as soon as they see that teen orientated packaging.”
By 2011, Rolling Stone was calling Pretty. Odd. one of the boldest moves in rock history. But Wonderland hasn’t gotten any re-evaluation at all. Its initial reception was so behind where it should have been – almost deaf to the music – that it would take a revolution in perspective to correct. If Wonderland is remembered at all outside McFly’s fanbase, it’s as just another bit of manufactured 2000s pop. Its ambition, its scale, its indelible hooks, all lost to time.
“I remain convinced that if McFly can stick around long enough those that currently can’t see past the pop machine will eventually realise just how good a pop album Wonderland really is,” Beats Bar concluded. We wait in joyful hope.
Part 3 – the potential for unvanquishable joy2
Attitudes towards pop music have changed pretty radically since McFly’s heyday. Genre snobbery is dead, thanks to both the rise of a different style of music consumption – omnivorous listening without concern for genre, due largely to the internet – and the dominance of a new critical ideology: poptimism.
Poptimism is, at the most basic level, a belief that pop, R&B and hip hop are just as worthy of critical interest as rock. It developed in the 2000s as a response to rockism – the privileging of rock over other types of popular music – that had long been the prevailing ideology in music criticism. One of poptimism’s foundational texts is an essay Kelefa Sanneh wrote for The New York Times in 2004: “Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.” Sanneh also points out that the kind of music rockists treat with disdain is not-coincidentally associated with women, people of colour and LGBT people, going right back to the anti-disco movement. Poptimism, by contrast, is meant to be progressive, inclusive and anti-snobbery: it sees popstars as being as artistically worthy as indie rockers, a singles-driven discography as being as significant and substantial as an album-driven one, and “guilty pleasures” – music that you only enjoy in spite of yourself – as simply pleasures.
By the 2010s, the poptimists had won. The Ringer attributes this to the near impossibility of “denying the wit and the vibrance and the craftsmanship of ‘My Love’ or ‘Bad Romance’ or ‘Teenage Dream’”, but it seems much more likely to me to be rooted in the near-total collapse of the magazine and newspaper industries, meaning seasoned critics were replaced by an army of young freelancers and attracting clicks became the major incentive in criticism. Poptimism didn’t just win the battle for music criticism; it bled into other forms of criticism too. It seems crazy to remember the intensity of Siskel and Ebert’s ire against the Friday the 13th films, now that film critics can’t even muster snobbery against the soulless behemoth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Poptimism is, at its root, a good thing. Great art comes in all forms and genres, and I obviously don’t want to go back to a time where hip hop and slasher movies could be dismissed out of hand. I love One Direction and splatstick horror comedies and am literally writing this giant fucking essay about McFly. I earnestly believe that there is no such thing as high art or low art. But poptimism so valorises anti-snobbery that it can overcorrect and misattribute sincere, well-considered dislike for snobby reflexive dismissal. This was one thing when rockist snobs were a major force in criticism, but once poptimism won, it didn’t develop a new playbook. At its worst, it demands cheering louder for the winners – the best-selling artists who already dominate the conversation – as a show of fealty. At its worst, it validates existing tastes instead of encouraging audiences to seek out the fresh and challenging. At its worst, it casts every argument about pop music as a battle between straight white men and the rest of us, regardless of the strain involved. At its worst, people get accused of snobbery, jealousy, fun-hating and straight-up lying when they give a fair and thoughtful negative review to a major star – or even give the new Taylor Swift album “only” eight out of ten.
It’s tempting to say that poptimism has gone too far, and the pendulum needs to swing back the other way. But if anything, poptimism hasn’t gone far enough. It got halfway there and then, having vanquished its enemy, curdled.
Poptimism was developed so much in opposition to rockism that it’s never moved past some of the core problems with rockism, just reoriented them. Where rockism glorifies the past, poptimism glorifies the present; rockists are obsessed with how much better and more authentic music was in the past, so poptimists show little interest in the past at all. (And so imagine that ‘Teenage Dream’, unlike all that pop music that rockists dismissed out of hand, was just so good that no-one could resist.) The idea that there’s no such thing as guilty pleasures has led people to ardently defend the importance of everything they like, rather than abandoning the idea that art has to be “important”. Poptimism superficially argues for centring pleasure in how we evaluate art but is all too willing to turn art into a kind of homework: critically overburdening the work of major stars until it seems exhausting to keep up with. A thousand thinkpieces about what it means for feminism that some popstar blew her nose. Poptimism is still in thrall with “seriousness” as an inherent good, just redefining what constitutes seriousness. Instead of rawness and authenticity, it’s the diversity of the performers, the softly liberal messaging (blown up in significance in a way genuinely political music never is), or the apparent hard work put into the performance. These problems are magnified a thousand times over by a click-driven media climate that inevitably prizes the current over the retrospective, the contentious over the considered, and the United States over the world.
But considering today’s pop music as worthy of critical attention is not enough. Claiming that apparent guilty pleasures are actually “important” is not enough. Redefining seriousness is not enough. If you care about poptimism’s core belief – that everything is worthy of critical interest, regardless of genre – then selectively applying poptimist arguments to defend individual examples as actually serious and important and challenging is close to useless. It’s not that there isn’t serious, important art that has been critically dismissed for superficial genre reasons (Weekend at Bernie’s is a brilliant satire of Reaganomics, fuck you) or art that has been critically praised for being superficially serious (see: the latter days of prestige TV), it’s that it seems to have almost nothing to do with why people actually like art. It gives a language to praise Into The Spiderverse for its racial politics but no way of explaining how great The Lego Batman Movie is. It’s why defences of boy bands or young adult novels focus myopically on sexism against their fans instead of the aesthetic qualities of the music or books. It puts such a premium on meaning that it leaves no room for beauty.
The pop music that I love, it’s not because it’s secretly “important”. I love it because it elicits joy.
Motion in the Ocean, McFly’s third album, is one of the most joyful things I’ve ever known. It’s an infectious delight, the kind of album I couldn’t wait to listen to again even as I listened to it for the first time. Inspired by Queen, Jellyfish and the art of Drew Brophy, it both reacts against the darkness of Wonderland and tops its musicianship. There are places where – like Stewart Mason wrote about ‘Band on the Run’ – you don’t notice how complex and intricate the songs are because they go down so catchy and melodic. Even on sad songs, Motion in the Ocean is joyous. It’s a total, earnest commitment to fun – they opened the album cycle with a charity cover of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and played ‘Fight For Your Right’ on the tour – with a dick joke for a title. It makes me so happy I get a little dizzy. I love it. I love it, I love it, I love it.
Motion in the Ocean was the first McFly album to be produced by Jason Perry. “Jason had been lead vocalist in a band called A, who’d been big on the Kerrang! scene, and had had a big hit with a song called ‘Nothing’ – a favourite of all of ours back in the day,” Danny says in Unsaid Things, “Pretty cool, then, when it transpired that Jason was a big McFly fan, who saw us as serious musicians and not just bubblegum pop.”
When the boys talk about Jason Perry – or when he talks about them – you can practically feel his confidence in them. “When I first met the boys,” he told Sound on Sound, “because they come from the pop world, they always seemed a bit insecure and almost apologetic about themselves. I was like, ‘You’re one of the best bands in the country’. I don’t think people realise they write the songs and actually play them. You go and see them live and it’s like, ‘Wow, they’re amazing.'” Management tried to tell him that Tom wasn’t allowed eat chocolate in case it made him lose his voice, and Jason told them that Tom could eat chocolate if he wanted – he could take up smoking if he wanted – because the reason he was losing his voice was that he was worried about it. He told them, “He’ll never lose his voice again when I’m around.”
Motion in the Ocean reflects the confidence Jason was instilling in the band. It’s not serious, but it takes their musicianship seriously. It takes being fun seriously. The opening track, ‘We Are The Young’, acts like a mission statement for the album. It’s a jolt of adrenaline perfectly moulded into a pop song. You can hear Queen’s influence, and the lyrics overtly reference the Who (“We’re the young / We’re all right”). It’s so hooky that it’s verse/pre-chorus/chorus structure feels more like the song has three different choruses. Right from the keyboard intro, it’s exhilarating. “We are the sunshine nation,” Tom sings, and it feels like a declaration of an evident truth. So does “It’s the time of our lives / And baby, we won’t ever die.” They ask, “Is it my imagination or do you feel good?” and my answer isn’t in doubt for a single second.
Hot on its heels is ‘Star Girl’, Motion in the Ocean’s big single, and it’s about as good a time as you can have in three and half minutes. The “Ooooh, ooooh, ooooh, ooooh” hook in the chorus might be the catchiest thing ever written. The whole song is irresistibly bouncy, and full of a dozen great touches: the little drum roll that leads into the chorus, the trumpet break after the middle eight, the way a NASA-style countdown leads into Danny counting in the beat. It’s a great example of being musically sophisticated while also unabashedly silly: it’s about being in love with an alien – “And I was afraid when you kissed me / On your intergalactical frisbee / I wonder why, I wonder why / You never asked me to stay” – and most importantly, about fucking her up the arse: “There’s nothing on Earth that can save us / When I fell in love with Uranus.” I remember mocking that line when ‘Star Girl’ was a hit, and I can only assume I was an insufferably humourless dry shite, because that’s an amazing lyric. The whole song makes me grin stupidly, but that lyric most of all.
The same year Motion in the Ocean was released, McFly appeared in Just My Luck, a romcom starring Lindsay Lohan and Chris Pine. As an attempt to break America, it was useless – Just My Luck was a critical and commercial flop, immediately deleted from the collective memory – but it gave us ‘Please, Please’, an exuberant pop punk ode to Harry’s (alleged) tryst with Lohan: “Please, please, please! / I wanna get with you! / Please, please, Lindsay please!” It’s got these perfect ba-ba-ba backing vocals and earwormy stuttering in the chorus: “C-c-c-c’mon with me now.” Tom’s vocals approach heretofore unknown levels of snottiness, and it rules.
After that, you’re into ‘Sorry’s Not Good Enough’, probably the most Queen-inspired song on the album, except (maybe) the cover of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ that appears as a bonus track: it’s got the swing rhythm of ‘You’re My Best Friend’ and the layered vocal harmonies of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and the power chords from the outro to ‘Killer Queen’. Then there’s ‘Bubble Wrap’, a beautiful piano ballad that starts off all twinkly and builds to epic melodrama.
The best song on the album – maybe the best song McFly have ever recorded – is ‘Transylvania’, Dougie’s pocket 1970s art rock opera that Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian said “has them sounding for all the world like 10cc”. It opens with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on the organ before launching into an epic tale of Anne Boleyn attempting to run away with a commoner, with screaming hard rock guitars. It has all these different sections, using the boys’ contrasting vocal styles to have them represent different characters in the story. There’s the four of them mock-operatic chanting in unison – “We’re sorry but we disagree / The boy is vermin, can’t you see? / We’ll drown his sins in misery / Rip him out of history” – and the perfect call and response of Tom (and in parts, Dougie) singing, “Who is your lover?” and Danny answering, “I’ll never tell.”
At the centre is Dougie: “People marching to the drums / Everybody’s having fun to the sound of love…” Dougie doesn’t take lead vocals often, but I love his voice, and not just because a steady diet of pop punk has made me develop a Pavlovian response. Tom and Danny’s voices contrast each other beautifully, but Dougie’s voice is like the secret sauce that makes it all work, somehow both a bridge between Tom and Danny’s voices and a third point of contrast. Like several songs on Motion in the Ocean, ‘Transylvania’ is so replete with hooks that it’s hard to identify the chorus: lyrics websites split out a pre-chorus, chorus and post-chorus, but to my ear it has a pre-chorus followed by two separate choruses: the “people marching to the drums” one and the “who is your lover?” one. In the final section, the “who is your lover?” chorus is layered over itself in a round, and the “people marching to the drums” chorus is layered over that. It’s so good it’s absurd, and it delightfully ends on the word “stop”. It astonishes me that a song as weird as this went to number one in 2007, right alongside ‘Umbrella’ and ‘The Way I Are’ and the Girls Aloud vs. Sugababes cover of ‘Walk This Way’. And without even making a dent in popular misconceptions about McFly.
‘Lonely’ is a lovely bit of sunshine pop, replete with angelic harmonies and lush strings. ‘Little Joanna’ continues with the basic sunshine pop formula but elevates it into something much more ambitious even as it dials the sincerity up to eleven. It’s full of pleasingly nonsensical lyrics – “And that’s why I’m a kissaphobic / Where cellulite dreams were made, like lemonade” – and has so many key changes that McFly didn’t play it live for seven years. It’s the most Wonderland song on Motion in the Ocean, without a single ounce of Wonderland’s darkness: it brings back the ELO influence – the baroque orchestral arrangements – and melds it with Queen, who you can hear in the layered vocal harmonies and some of the guitar parts. The a cappella “sun, sun, bum-ba-bum-ba-bum” harmonies that close the song wouldn’t sound out of place on Pet Sounds. It’s an extraordinary song, building a bridge from the Beatles through the Monkees to ELO to Queen to 1990s pop punk to McFly, like all of pop rock was a path to these four minutes. It’s perfect. And when they finally played it live, that was perfect too.
‘Friday Night’ is brilliant stomping rock song that would have prompted dozens of “is it better than ‘Mr. Brightside’” debates if the Killers had recorded it. ‘Walk in the Sun’ is a low-key breather –Danny, his guitar, a smattering of piano, and a sweet ballad – before we’re sent off with the big, Bon Jovi arena rock of ‘Home Is Where the Heart Is’. Their cover of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, recorded for Sport Relief and released as a double A-side with ‘Please, Please’, is included as a bonus track: it’s faithful to a fault, making it seem vaguely pointless. But then you get to the hidden track (remember those?): a live recording of a song Dougie wrote called ‘Silence Is A Scary Sound’, and an indication, if you were looking for it, that McFly could have been a Kerrang! band in their sleep if they wanted to be. (Definitive proof was still to come.)
It’s a great album. Sullivan said as much in her Guardian review, saying McFly “produce guitar pop of a standard that would have been a credit to the young Supergrass” and advising the reader to “Enjoy without guilt.”
The fact that Sullivan had to say “enjoy without guilt” speaks to the prevailing attitudes towards McFly. Jack Foley of IndieLondon declared, “There can be few things more depressing than listening to the sound of McFly”, calling Motion in the Ocean “a lamentable listen that belongs at the bottom of the ocean” (Sick burn!). The album, he writes, is “so full of sickening ‘oh, oh, oh’ or ‘oooh, oooh, oooh’ melodies that it becomes frequently nauseating” – by which measure he must surely be nauseated by a huge percentage of music ever recorded – and that ultimately “it plays things so safe” (‘Transylvania’ included). My problem with this isn’t that Foley didn’t like the album – people can like whatever they want – but his super-dramatic dismissal of it reads like he set out to hate it. He even calls ‘Star Girl’ “forgettable” – and you can make a lot of complaints about ‘Star Girl’, but it would make a lot more sense to complain about it getting stuck in your head.
Other negative reviews, more smartly, call ‘Star Girl’ infuriatingly catchy. But they still maintain this weird distance from the music itself. Irish Times reviews of the album’s singles devoted their very limited space to weird, unfunny jokes: saying “OK, stop that now” about their ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ cover without acknowledging the original track it’s released with, or saying ‘Friday Night’ sounds “like the theme tune from the bestest American teen TV show . . . ever.” The closest they get to doing actual music criticism is calling ‘Star Girl’ “’Got to Get You Into My Life’ in the style of the Friends theme”. Meanwhile, Entertainment.ie suggests McFly are suddenly “trying to endear themselves to the parents of their target audience” because of Queen’s influence on the record, which would make a lot more sense if that wasn’t the most modern primary influence they’d had in their career so far. AllMusic attempts to chart a course through the band’s discography to this point, but it’s one that reads like they didn’t listen to Motion in the Ocean so much as read a three-word description of each track: “Having experimented on the previous album, Wonderland, with some orchestral sounds and relatively classy tracks, McFly reverted on Motion in the Ocean to what their fans were expecting, a mixture of fun pop tracks with catchy hooks and soft piano-led ballads.” To make this make sense they have to pretend that ‘We Are The Young’ sounds like a Merseybeat-era Beatles song. It doesn’t.
Critics, for the most part, didn’t even consider if Motion in the Ocean might be a great album because they prejudged it on the teen pop packaging. It’s letting marketing dictate how you think about art. This is exactly, literally the situation poptimism was made for. But poptimism hasn’t secured Motion in the Ocean’s place in pop history because poptimism’s field of vision – though wider than rockism’s – is still suffocatingly narrow. The point of it should be to reclaim the dismissed, but instead its sights are aimed squarely at highly acclaimed, insanely popular, world-conquering behemoths: fantasising that Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or, God forbid, the Walt Disney Corporation is an underdog. Its sights are aimed squarely at the present. Its sights are aimed squarely at the United States. Even as Rolling Stone breathlessly praises One Direction for going back to the source and incorporating Beatles or Monkees elements into boy band music, there’s no mention of another so-called boy band that did the same thing better a decade prior, even though members of McFly have writing or producing credits on multiple One Direction albums. McFly’s original, pre-poptimism reception is left standing, and so they’re written out of history – or at least, written out of their rightful place in history.
There are songs on Motion in the Ocean that, if they were released by someone “respectable”, I have no doubt would have been in consideration for being among the best songs of the 2000s. Instead, McFly were seen as a boy band, and so easily dismissed on the grounds of authenticity. I mean, do they even play their own instruments?
Part 4 – bury me with my guitar
Debates about authenticity in music feel like a bit of a relic at this point. In these latter days of poptimism, nobody cares about authenticity. The dizzingly artificial is valued as much or more than the artificially authentic. But that old dichotomy – between manufactured pop and “real” music – is still buried in how we think about McFly, even as it’s become essentially irrelevant. It’s like how every conversation about the Monkees is about them not playing their instruments, even though nobody cares about whether today’s artists play instruments, and besides, the reason we even found out that the Monkees didn’t play their instruments was Mike Nesmith leaking it to the press as leverage to gain creative control.
“Authenticity” is basically a fake idea, at least in the context of mainstream music (mainstream in the broadest sense). Any projection of yourself on that scale is necessarily curated: it might be a version of yourself, but it cannot be your whole self. Authenticity is just another type of performance. I think this is basically the consensus now, and all the biggest popstars overtly play with their personas. Old rockist critics thought indie bands and singer-songwriters were authentic and popstars were fake, but they’re all playing a part. When Lady Gaga went from wearing a meat dress to singing standards with Tony Bennett, she wasn’t becoming something more “real”, just choosing a different kind of performance.
But I’m reluctant to give up the idea of authenticity altogether, and it’s not just because I’m always going to prefer drums to drum machines. Losing it exacerbates an already too-prominent tendency to reduce art to consumer product – exemplified by the pushback Martin Scorsese received for stating the obvious truth that Marvel movies don’t really feel like movies – or leads to weird shit like thinking the more overtly synthetic something is the better, because of self-awareness or something. Just because a performance is never wholly real doesn’t mean it’s better for it to be wholly fake. Authenticity is a type of performance, but it’s as legitimate a type of performance as anything else. Like any other type of performance, it can have truth and beauty in it.
When a premium was placed on authenticity, boy bands probably got it the worst, right back to the Monkees. Even more than lip-syncing pop starlets, boy bands were seen as synthetic product, moulded from clay in a marketing department. Not so much musicians as a collection of haircuts.
So if you have a boy band who write their own songs and play their own instruments, and then they leave their major label to go independent, where do they fit in the authenticity vs. manufactured pop debate? Because the answer sure seems obvious.
McFly chafed against Island Records’ wishes for a while: wanting them to work with other songwriters, say – attempts that abruptly ended when a songwriter told Tom he thought the Beatles were overrated – or declaring that only one of them could wear shorts at a time (Dougie, naturally). But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when, after Motion in the Ocean, Island released a greatest hits compilation against their will. “Record companies love Greatest Hits records because they cost them nothing. To us it made no sense at all,” Tom says in Unsaid Things, “We’d only released three albums, and we were constantly coming up with new material… We worried that people would think we were following the usual manufactured pop-band trajectory: a few albums, a Greatest Hits and then split up.”
(The lead single from the greatest hits album, ‘The Heart Never Lies’, is a love song that doubles as a love song to the band. When they play it live, “Another year over / And we’re still together / It’s not always easy / But I’m here forever” becomes “It’s not always easy / But McFly’s here forever.”)
So McFly left Island Records, and released their fourth album, 2008’s Radio:ACTIVE, independently. They decamped to Australia with Jason Perry to record and came back with a great stomping rock album. It feels all at once like a natural progression and an arrival and (with song titles like ‘The End’ and ‘The Last Song’) an ending. It rules.
Radio:ACTIVE, to my mind, opens with five basically perfect songs in a row. There’s the brass-fuelled ‘Lies’, a fuck-you song to a girl that’s scientifically impossible not to bounce to, and then straight into ‘One For The Radio’, a gloriously petulant fuck-you song to their haters: “So here’s another song for the radio / And here’s another line from the heart / So don’t pretend you hate us and then sing along / ‘Cause we all look the same in the dark.” Songs against haters can go south really quick – seeming self-pitying and oversensitive – but I think that after years of being misconstrued, misrepresented and misunderstood, McFly more than earned it. If NME caption a photo of you with “From left to right: Cunt, Wanker, Dickhead and Twat,” you’re entitled to respond. And even though Tom literally sings “We hope you drop dead,” the singalong gang vocals of “We don’t! We don’t care!” makes it as much an invitation in as a fuck you.
Next is ‘Everybody Knows’, which is ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ by way of 1970s power rock, and which I could happily listen to every day for the rest of my life. It’s as exuberant and catchy as anything McFly have recorded, but shot through with – if not the darkness of Wonderland – a more grown-up grit. “The sun is in the sky and it is going to be a glorious day,” Tom sings, “So pour yourself a coffee, put your clothes back on and tell me your name.” The big, singalong chorus with a “whoa!” hook is about how we’re gonna die in this town. The second verse adds these perfect little na-na-na’s in the background, while Danny sings “My voice is gone from screaming and my body aches from giving them hell / You’ve gotta know the truth that we’re not in this for the cash but it helps.” While they were touring Room on the 3rd Floor, Danny once said, “I’d like us to be appreciated, like, ‘He did a good guitar solo,’ rather than people screaming at me, ‘Look at his hair!'” I always think of that when, two minutes into ‘Everybody Knows’, Tom calls on Danny for a guitar solo, his voice radiating pure joy.
‘Do Ya’ sounds like a 1950s rock ‘n’ roll song as covered by The Darkness: it’s a delightful bit of silliness rich in harmonies, with Tom showing off his falsetto on the verses and Danny asking “Do ya, do ya, do ya love me?” on the chorus. Then there’s the melancholy, Springsteenian ‘Falling in Love’. Even though the title uses the word “falling”, the song is about a different kind of longing: “I could have fallen in love / I wish I’d fallen in love.” It’s beautiful. The American touches – “Wishing I could be in California” – feel less like the costume they do on their first album: I’m not sure if the lyrics are more evocative, or Danny’s delivery is just so soulful that it feels like they are. It has the prettiest bridge of McFly’s career, which is saying something for a band obsessed with bridges: Tom repeats “Sick of waiting, I can’t take it, gotta tell ya” while Danny, louder in the mix, sings “I can’t take another night on my own / So I take a breath and then I pick up the phone” and then repeats “She said oh…” It aches. It makes my heart swell and my throat tighten, like I might cry. It’s wonderful.
I don’t think Radio:ACTIVE reaches quite those heights again, but the rest of the album is good enough that I might change my mind about that at any moment. ‘POV’ is symphonic rock bordering on nu-metal, and ‘Corrupted’ blows right past Kerrang! to the melodic end of Scuzz. Then ‘Smile’ comes in, with its finger clicks and its barbershop harmonies and its great big trumpet and saxophone riffs: the whole song is telling us to smile, which is about as easy to make obnoxious as any concept for a song could be, but it gets me every time. It’s a delight. (Entertainment.ie said it sounded like it was written for a toothpaste ad, but I can’t imagine what kind of demented ad for toothpaste would want Danny Jones growling “Come on and show us your teeth / And what you got underneath.” Their loss.)
If ‘One For The Radio’ is about the band McFly were perceived to be, ‘The End’ feels like a song about going independent, this moment of ending and beginning, and it’s full of dramatic violins: “Everybody knows the end / Don’t wanna get there wishing that you’d given more / It’s not over, till it’s over / So how do we begin?” ‘Going Through the Motions’ is a 1970s hard rock song about having a breakdown, and ‘Down Goes Another One’ is a semi-sequel to ‘She Falls Asleep’, from her lover’s perspective in the aftermath of her suicide:
Living fast, dying young
But I’m living with what you’ve done
Now I face accusations, I won’t run, no
I’m starting to remember things that you said
I’m unravelling what they meant
But the world moves on
You’re just another one
‘Down Goes Another One’ isn’t sonically much like ‘She Falls Asleep’ – it’s more or less hard rock – but the violin and piano pull the songs into conversation with each other musically in addition to lyrically. It makes the contrast in style feel like part of the story of these characters, not just the sound that fit best on each album – although that too, obviously.
Since ‘Down Goes Another One’ is so heavy, it makes sense that it’s followed by ‘Only The Strong Survive’, as punchy a bit of pop rock as they’ve ever written. It’s something breezy to enjoy before ‘The Last Song’, the multi-sectioned, tempo-shifting album closer. If ‘One For The Radio’ is about the band they’re perceived to be and ‘The End’ is about this inflection point in their career, ‘The Last Song’ feels like a miniature rock opera about the band they are and always have been. It feels definitive. It’s a love song to the fans – “I’m dying to thank you all” and “Let me hear you / Sing it all once more / With feeling” – and a joyous love song to music itself: “If this is the last song / I’ll ever sing,” Tom sings, “Then I’m giving it everything / I’m giving it all.” When Danny sings “Bury me with my guitar / And all the way to hell I’ll play,” it feels so earnest. Like nothing matters more to him than making music. The whole song is like that – it’s so much, and I would dismiss it as overwrought if it didn’t get me right in the gut.
Radio:ACTIVE is the ultimate rebuttal to the idea that McFly are manufactured and inauthentic and not a real band: not, as you might expect from the topline “boy band leaves major label, goes independent”, by being a sharp break from what they did before, but by validating the band they’ve been all along. Radio:ACTIVE is heavier than their previous work, but it emerges from it totally organically.
Critics had a hard time with this, since they’d been so dismissive of McFly before and going independent was a big enough move that it couldn’t be ignored. Caroline Sullivan in The Guardian had been fair to them, so could evaluate Radio:ACTIVE fairly: “[A]s a declaration of independence, Radio:ACTIVE does them proud. Writers of exuberant solid guitar-pop, there’s little separating McFly from Supergrass except, well, credibility,” she writes, “Time to class them as more than just a guilty pleasure, perhaps.”
But many critics imagine that Radio:ACTIVE is a radical departure, in ways that require them to misrepresent McFly’s earlier records. Entertainment.ie said McFly would “probably be more interested in emulating Blink-182 than Busted these days”, which is about as terrible a summary of McFly’s changing influences as you could get, especially considering how famous and overt those influences have always been. IndieLondon was several degrees less snotty than they were about Motion in the Ocean, saying “there are a handful of decent songs when it sounds like the boys aren’t simply content to stroll through the easy pop-rock numbers”, but then it gives ‘Do Ya’ as an example because of its retro pop vibe, as if McFly’s entire career up to this point hadn’t been various flavours of retro pop. AllMusic say it “finds them taking themselves more seriously as an album-oriented power pop band, rather than a singles-driven boy band,” as if ‘She Falls Asleep’ never existed.
“Watching a boyband grow up is never pretty,” the Sunday Times said, “especially the kind of boyband that thinks it never was one.” Other critics might disagree with the relative prettiness involved, but agree with the historical account: that McFly were once a manufactured boy band, and with Radio:ACTIVE, were becoming something authentic. This is bullshit, obviously, but it presents a possible inflection point in their critical reception and public perception. The moment that people realised McFly were a “real” band, and a great one.
It just never happened. This might be due in part to some own goals – Radio:ACTIVE was given away in truncated form with the Mail on Sunday, which in 2008 might have seemed like a clever way around the rise of music piracy but from 2020 has a real “dying industries going down hand in unlovable hand” vibe – but I think it’s also because McFly were always good. It’s hard to concede how good Radio:ACTIVE is and not concede anything to Wonderland or Motion in the Ocean. And as the reviews for Radio:ACTIVE show, nobody in 2008 wanted – or had the self-awareness – to do that work of re-evaluation.
The crazy thing about the authenticity vs. manufactured pop debate is that McFly meet every criteria someone could want for authenticity and it was still used as a way to dismiss them. When people complain about rockists, they talk about how they love guitars and drums and think it’s bullshit not to write your own songs and almost mindlessly prefer stuff released on indie labels. Rockists are obsessed with rock history, especially the 1960s and 1970s. They, as Senneh put it in his essay, love the live show and hate the music video. And yet there’s McFly: two guitars, bass and drums, writing their own songs, in love with rock history, going independent, and to top it all off, a great live band. Watch them play ‘That Girl’ at the Manchester Apollo, so energetic it might set your screen on fire, and try not to grin like an idiot when the guitar solo becomes two guitar solos. Watch them play an acoustic version of one of their early B-sides and marvel at the beautiful harmonies and note how the audience eats it up. Watch them play ‘Everybody Knows’ and go into a medley of just about every song you’ve ever heard and tell me Danny Jones isn’t one of the best frontmen on earth. Danny comes to life on stage, commands it like it’s his birth right, and plays the audience like an instrument. He so clearly loves it that it’s infectious. I’m pretty sure that in a just world, he would be considered the millennial Mick Jagger, or Freddie Mercury, or most especially, Bruce Springsteen. I would give an arm to see them live, and until that’s possible, I will scour the internet for live recordings. Look, it’s McFly: The Musical!
I would go so far as to say that McFly are primarily a live act, over and above a recording act. “Everything we do, it always changes, and we always put new little parts on, which are quite exciting. Like ‘Star Girl’, there’s a different ending on, you know, it doesn’t really sound like the record anyway,” Danny once said, “Live is where we sort of, you know, shine, I think. That’s our best ability.”
In the same interview, Harry says, “I think the thing… with McFly, is that if you don’t know us, I’m pretty certain you’ll enjoy it live.”
“But if you know us,” Tom adds, “You’ll hate it.”
And rockists did hate them. I hated them. For being “manufactured”, a thing they never were. There’s this interview where Paul Morley of The Guardian asks Tom and Danny if it’s possible to be a rock group, “with the authenticity and potential integrity that involves,” while also playing the role and function of a boy band. Danny – correctly – says that that’s what McFly is.
McFly are proof that rockists don’t care about the things they claim to care about: authenticity, great songwriting, live music. McFly are proof that poptimists don’t care about the things they claim to care about: giving proper critical attention to work unfairly dismissed on genre, recognising great art in all its forms, upending established canons. McFly are proof that all too often, we passively let marketing dictate how we think about art. McFly are proof of all we stand to lose if we do.
Coda – we were so much younger then
After Radio:ACTIVE, McFly returned to their major label and released Above The Noise, their worst album. It was produced by the American R&B and hip hop producer Dallas Austin, and it’s as drastic a change in sound as you could expect. The album’s first single, ‘Party Girl’, is the nadir: it’s a wannabe Lady Gaga cast-off, and it reminds me of everything I hated about pop music in 2010. It’s horrible. Above The Noise isn’t all as rotten as that – there are definitely a few bright spots, like the admirably lusty ‘I Need A Woman’, Tom’s vocals on R&B slow jam ‘I’ll Be Your Man’, the violins on ‘Foolish’ – but too often, the band get swallowed up by synths. I heard ‘Shine A Light’ – featuring Taio Cruz! – probably three hundred times in 2010 and was shocked to discover a decade later that it was a McFly song. Even when they were doing Beach Boys cosplay on Room on the 3rd Floor, they sounded like themselves.
“[W]e’d achieved so much with Radio:ACTIVE. Songs like ‘One For The Radio’ had made it on to Kerrang! Radio and XFM. Guys, realizing that we were a proper guitar band, had started getting into us,” Dougie says in Unsaid Things, “But with ‘Party Girl’ we’d released something bland, a record that any other boy band could have produced… we’d done all this work on the new record and had ended up sounding like everybody else.”
And it got the best reviews of their career. Straightforward praise for “embracing pop sensibilities” or emulating Prince and Michael Jackson. It was the first McFly album NME deigned to review, and although they said “the music is absolute shite” (citing ‘Party Girl’), they also say, “People used to think McFly were a boyband, but Above The Noise is not boyband turf.” (Nothing they’ve ever recorded is more “boyband turf” than Above The Noise single ‘That’s The Truth’.) “McFly have done the unthinkable,” IndieLondon declared, “they’ve delivered a good album!”
I think this is less indicative of critics living in opposite land than of the poptimist takeover of criticism having come into its own by 2010. How people were thinking about pop music was changing, enough to not pre-emptively sneer at a new McFly album. Just not with enough self-awareness to prompt another look at their earlier work.
And then, for ten years, wilderness.
It’s not that they didn’t do anything; they did loads of stuff. Dougie got sober and won I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Harry won Strictly Come Dancing and when the McFly boys stormed the stage Bruce Forsyth yelled at them. They did another greatest hits album – the lead single for which, the just-this-side-of-unbearably-twee ukulele song ‘Love Is Easy’, is as much of a reaction to Above The Noise as you could get – and an autobiography and briefly started wearing matching outfits for the first and only time. Tom, Danny and Harry all got married, and had the other McFly boys as joint best men. Tom’s wedding speech went viral. They played a couple of nights at the Royal Albert Hall for their tenth anniversary as a band, and you haven’t heard girls scream like that for someone playing an organ since 1 December 1736. They formed a supergroup with members of Busted, called McBusted. Then they spiralled into a basically unplanned hiatus. Tom, Danny and Harry all had children. Dougie became a model and actor and started a post-punk band and briefly played bass for A, who seem to go through bassists like Spinal Tap go through drummers. Tom wrote a bunch of children’s books and Harry toured in a dance show. Danny released solo music and became a coach on The Voice Kids.
But there was no sixth album. They recorded two albums worth of material in this period, and at some point Album Six became Boy Band Chinese Democracy.
And now they’re back. They played a reunion gig in London’s O2 late in 2019 – it sold out in less than fifteen minutes – and released the demos from their shelved sixth album: The Lost Songs.
It’s easy to be that little bit generous because The Lost Songs isn’t really an “album” – their accompanying video series where they discuss each song frequently talk about ways completed versions would have been different, e.g. adding a horn section – but there’s so much good in it. ‘Josephine’ isn’t the best McFly song ever but it might be the most McFly song ever, with its big, rapid tempo shifts, its Americanisms (“Fresh out of high school / Thought I was so cool”) and its absolutely gorgeous harmonies. ‘Red’ is great dance music in all the ways ‘Party Girl’ wasn’t. ‘Those Were The Days’ is a very pretty Simon and Garfunkel-style duet featuring Mexican singer Ximena Sariñana: “We were so much younger then / Those were the days.” (Harry says she only agreed because she didn’t know who McFly were: “She thought, oh, they’re cool, they’re a cool band. Little did she know!”)
The video series that goes with The Lost Songs is great, not only because of how interesting I find their self-critique (“Why were we so into vocoder back then?” “It’s like I turned up late for that song – oh, just in time for the middle eight!” “You think the gospel choir is gonna save it, not even God could save this song”) but because of how nice it is to hear these four guys talk at length about their music, instead of being asked about their favourite pizza toppings and most embarrassing moments. To hear them talk like the serious and brilliant musicians they are.
McFly’s tour has been postponed due to COVID, but they’re releasing a new album this year. The long-fabled album six. The world is very different now than it was when McFly were first popular, in ways to their benefit and not: guitar music is dead, genre snobbery is dead, the teen pop infrastructure on which they rose to fame is dead. It feels like the moment where either McFly will be unjustly forgotten or justly understood.
Because what hasn’t changed is that they’re a great band.
 Michael Chabon. “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” Maps and Legends.
 From this (possibly apocryphal) quote from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats: “One thing pop music is good for is remembering that somewhere inside us is the potential for unvanquishable joy; clearing a space for that remembering, broadening that space.”
3 thoughts on “We Are the Sunshine Nation”
Thank you for writing this wonderful piece! It was such a joy to read!
I have liked them since they first emerged and it was always such a mystery to me why no one else outside my circle of friends ever knew about the band or why they never received any praise outside the UK.
This has opened my eyes and made me appreciate McFly even more.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Ciara! I’ll admit I also looked down on McFly when I was younger (mainly because my younger brother liked them tbh). However, after having read the meticulous yet passionate (not to mention hugely witty and entertaining) case you made for them, I took the time to listen to all of the first four albums multiple times and was blown away by just how great they were. Songs such as “Obviously”, “All About You” and “That Girl”, which I’d filed away years ago as largely forgettable processed cheese (in spite of the fact that I had in fact remembered them all these years) turned out to be absolute bangers, perfectly written, crafted and sung. To say nothing of the ones I hadn’t heard! I especially like the ones about sex (“Please Please, “I Wanna Hold You”) or regret (“Too Close for Comfort”, “Down Goes Another One”). However, I don’t think there’s a single song on those albums I don’t wholeheartedly love now. So many thanks for having taken the time to write such an excellent piece of music scholarship and I can confirm that you have certainly given one former sceptic a great deal of “unvanquishable joy”! (Also shout out to Dean for his fantastic article on Assassins, which is now one of my favourite musicals).
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Ben, thank you so much for your kind words! A very lovely thing to wake up to. And welcome to the McFly club, haha. What you said about writing songs off as forgettable cheese in spite of having remembered them all these years is spot-on. (And thanks from Dean, too.)