Westlife is living its best life, having recently headlined Wembley for the first time and with two gigs at Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh to look forward to this weekend.
The aging process can be tricky for boy bands and their audiences aren’t always there for them (just ask East 17, Blue or 5ive – now a trio). But it was a triumphant return from Westlife since their reformation in 2018 after a six-year absence. Their 2019 album Spectrum hit number one in Ireland and the UK, while last year Wild Dreams reached number two in both markets.
For fans, the concerts in Cork will be an opportunity to reconnect with one of the most successful pop groups of the past 25 years. But there’s more to Westlife than jaw-dropping ballads and syrupy harmonies. Read on to find out more.
Kian Egan, Mark Feehily and Shane Filan all went to school together at Summerhill College in Sligo. They starred in a production of Grease, alongside classmates Derrick Lacey, Graham Keighron and Michael Garret (Egan had previously starred in the punk outfit, Skrod). They formed a boyband, Six as One, later renamed IOU, and were led by choreographer Mary McDonagh.
The late 1990s was a boom time for boy bands. And through the efforts of Filan’s mother Mae, IOU caught the eye of Boyzone manager Louis Walsh. He in turn contacted Simon Cowell, who worked in A&R at BMG Records and had orchestrated the rise of singing actors Robson and Jerome (as well as the UK hit Big Breakfast-era Zig and Zag).
The future X Factor bigwig recognized the group’s potential but insisted on major changes. “They have great voices, but they’re the ugliest band I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told Walsh. On Cowell’s instruction, only Egan, Feehily and Filan were retained, and auditions were held in Dublin at which Nicky Byrne and Brian McFadden were recruited. McFadden would later change his name to “Bryan” because the “y” made signing an autograph easier.
Before Westlife, Byrne was a promising footballer. He played as a minor for Home Farm and St Kevin’s Boys in Dublin, then signed as a goalkeeper for Leeds United in 1995. He was with them for two years, before moving to Shelbourne and then Cobh Ramblers, to who he played 15 matches in 1997. A year later he joined Westlife and his pop career took off.
From U2 to Boyzone, every big name Irish band has cut their teeth on Late Late. It was no different for Westlife, who in November 1998 performed their future number one Flying Without Wings.
Songwriter Wayne Hector was working in Los Angeles with Danish rapper Ezi Cut when a tune came to mind. “I found a few lines for the first verse, then I phoned my mom’s house, left it on the answering machine, and said, ‘Don’t get rid of that!’ Back to the UK, he sat down with producer Steve Mac and pondered the rest of the song. “It’s about our women,” he said. “It’s about the things that make our lives complete. ”
Louis Walsh was featured with Flying Without Wings and thought it would be a perfect solo single for Gately. However, when Simon Cowell heard it, he heard a mega-hit – and took it away from Gately in order to give it to Westlife.
“I’ll be completely honest, I missed it, but as soon as Simon heard it he went nuts,” Walsh commented. “It was really difficult because Westlife was on tour with Boyzone, opening for it.”
With Cowell as a mentor, Westlife recorded hit after hit – seven of his first eight singles reached number one in the UK (the odd one out was What Makes A Man, which died out at number two). But their fortunes faltered when Cowell focused on The X Factor. The nadir was when they recorded Gary Barlow’s track Lighthouse after it was rejected by a number of other artists – in 2011 it duly plummeted to 33 on the charts.
“It was the A&R man’s fault,” Louis Walsh told the Guardian. “When Cowell left, nobody gave anything. And this song – well, Gary wrote this song for Elton John a few years ago. And he gave it to the producer, and the producer gave it to the guys because they had nothing else.”
Sheeran covered Flying Without Wings during the warm-up shows he played in Dublin ahead of his world tour in April. He also penned their 2019 comeback single, Hello My Love, which reached number 13 in the UK charts (and number two in Ireland).
The backing of one of pop’s biggest names has been a huge boost to the group’s confidence, says Shane Filan. They had worried if anyone still cared – but Ed Sheeran certainly had. “Having Ed Sheeran involved on the first album…it kind of made us realize that if he’s a fan and he loves our music, then there’s no reason why we can’t be cheered on and sit in the charts alongside him and he had the most successful current artist in the world at the time, so even that gave us a boost.
To make known the group, Louis Walsh and Simon Cowell had the idea to entrust them to Ronan Keating of Boyzone. In their first Smash Hits broadcast, Westlife even dressed as a schoolboy, with Keating as the stern teacher. It was a ruse to convince Boyzone fans that it was good to be in Westlife too.
“Ronan was not involved in the group”, explained Louis Walsh. “We used his name, he used us, that’s all. Because at that moment he wanted to say something.
“Everybody knows the style,” Mark Feehily told the Guardian. “A piano intro, Shane starts the song, the drum beat kicks in for the second verse. I sing the second verse and maybe the middle eight, then there’s a key change, a gospel choir and some ad-libs, the end.