Back to the Future
At the peak of their international touring days, McFly picked up something of a ritual before they would go on stage.
As a nod to the crew that this was the last song before the house lights should go down and the band would make their entrance, the pulsing horns of the Village People's "YMCA" would sound through the stadium speakers. Fans quickly caught onto the fact that whenever they began pulling those rousing disco moves, McFly were sure to follow.
Last November, seven years after the group’s last single, McFly found themselves back in the underbelly of the O2; a one-off date that sold out in a record four-minutes. The catalyst for the return? Their manager of the last 18 years, Matt Fletcher booked the venue to lure the band back together which, as guitarist and vocalist Tom Fletcher points out with a wry smile, was, “a bit more than a little bit of help. Booking the O2 is quite extreme”.
Deep in the press trail again and joined by fellow frontman Danny Jones and bassist Dougie Poynter in our virtual Zoom room, he continues: “So we're all under the stage and they're about to call the house lights and we haven't played ‘YMCA’. No one had it on their iPhone. We all suddenly became really superstitious. Like what does this mean?”
“This is us 10 minutes before…” Jones interjects. He presents his phone to the video camera showing a black and white photo of the band huddled together from their Instagram page. “Suddenly, we’re under the stage going ‘Fuck, YMCA, YMCA”. Poynter picks up: “We were 15 seconds from coming out of a man lift with all this smoke. We all just thought, ‘Well, if we've forgotten that, what else have we forgotten?’” Pre-gig rituals aside, the moment cemented the fact that McFly - much like their namesake Marty - were heading back to the future.
Whatever your preconceptions of a band like McFly, their musical accolades are undeniable, racking up seven UK No. 1 singles, five top-10 albums, six sold-out tours, and 10 million in record sales worldwide. But, as the saying goes, even the dizziest of heights can be followed by swooping lows. Drummer Harry Judd, who now enters the call remotely on his drive home, certainly felt the cracks beginning to form after their last release. “It felt like I was doing my very best to manufacture the situation to get to a point where we were happening, but it just wasn’t working. So I had to get more philosophical about it and go with the 'It'll happen when it's ready to happen' vibe”.
It first happened for McFly with their debut back in the early aughts, when they were quickly absorbed into the fangirl frenzy of label buddies Busted. It’s not surprising when you consider that the foursome shared the band’s management, record label and, rather inevitably, their fanbase. But where Busted took their pop-punk sensibilities of our teenage angst years, McFly occupied a more unique position. Rather than school discos and questionable lusting after Miss Mackenzie, the band’s two-pronged songwriting force Fletcher and Jones leaned on their elders for a more nostalgic sound. Room on The Third Floor threw open the doors to a pop masterclass through the ages. Breezy coastline ode "Surfer Babe" took its skiffle bop straight from the late ‘50s while the harmonies in "That Girl" were brewed from the same medley mix as America’s preeminent pop group, The Beach Boys.
While the popularity of the boy band hasn’t changed much since the days of Brian Wilson and The Beatles, the perception of artists like them certainly has. Both bands garnered mainstream listeners and critical acclaim well into the ‘70s. This was ‘popular music’, after all. By the nineties though, pop was beginning to pick up this saccharine flavour - manufactured vocal groups rising the charts in their low slung pants - and many would question McFly’s longevity. They needn't have worried; at the heart of a band like McFly is a tale of decade-spanning friendship rather than some conveyor belt membership like the Sugababes faced.
Fletcher and Jones notoriously wrote much of Room On The Third Floor from the Intercontinental Hotel in London, with Jones fresh from relocating out of his hometown of Bolton (his broad Northern accent on our call is a dead giveaway for that). While that might sound like a romantic setting for a songwriting break, the pair found themselves reflecting on humility and not getting too carried away by the bright lights of the big city. As Jones sings in the eponymous track, "My eyes are hurting / From the cheap nylon curtains / That let the sunlight creep in through from the crowds / Guess it’s times like these that remind me / That I’ve got to keep my feet on the ground."
The notion must have been hard though as the band quickly became a mainstay in the Top 20. By 2005, Busted had disbanded after frontman Charlie Simpson’s radical departure to form “proper rock band”, Fightstar. This presented an interesting opening in the market for a band like McFly. But, with US stalwarts Green Day reclaiming the pop-punk mantle with the politically charged American Idiot, the band wisely toned down that angle in sophomore release, Wonderland. Instead, we find scents of early Brit-pop in the loose chord shifts of "Ultraviolet" and bow out with "Memory Lane" and its half-time singalong chorus filled with heartfelt reflection.
Motion In The Ocean followed Wonderland 12 months later, the same year the band made a cameo in Lindsay Lohan’s hugely underrated rom-com, Just My Luck. Then came the darker Radio:active which artfully bridged the band’s transition out from their Island Records deal, serving up a shortened version through a newspaper freebie before releasing the full-length weeks later. But at the end of a fairly prolific decade marked by 2010’s Above The Noise and four sold-out shows for the band’s anniversary tour at the Royal Albert Hall, McFly entered into an unconscious parting of ways. “It wasn't like there was one of us that didn't want the band to happen or that we had a big fall out,” explains Fletcher from his home studio, multiple hard cases propped up against its door frames. “That was almost what made it more difficult. We were all still best friends. We just weren't talking to each other properly, and had literally stumbled into this hiatus”.
During the years that followed, the four friends began exploring other creative endeavours. Not necessarily in the ways we might have come to expect from the traditional “boy band” mould either. Numerous group figureheads have risen from the ashes to form illustrious solo careers (hi, JT and Harry Styles) but Judd is quick to assure me that’s not really the dynamics of this foursome. “The thing with N*Sync, right. [Justin Timberlake] is by far the best in that band, isn't he? The reason why McFly works is because of the four of us together. For any of us to have a…” he hesitates slightly, smiling. “Well, let's be honest, Danny...to have a chance at that sort of take-off solo stuff, he would have had to have done it around Wonderland time. What we love about being in a band is that you share the responsibility. You share the fame, you share success and you share the failure”.
The members’ time away from the band was far from unsuccessful though. Fletcher and Poynter both entered into the world of publishing, releasing a string of children’s books about defecating dinosaurs. Meanwhile mums across the UK swooned as the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing crowned Judd the winner of the ninth season. Jones took more of a production role working on remixes for Rihanna and One Direction, and Poynter also joined as a touring musician with noughties Kerrang-favourites A (frontman Jason Perry has produced McFly in the past). It wasn’t necessarily that music-making and McFly had ceased to be the band members’ lives but that life had sort of rolled on without it.
As Jones explains, “The thing about bands that people don't realise, especially ones that have lasted a long time, is that you're a family. But then it's having a business with your family. You've got to be professional but you've still got to have a laugh and you've got to be able to take constructive criticism on a creative level. There are all these things that you have to balance out. It's kind of taken us 15 years to learn that. You know, like 'Oh, God, you don't like my song? Oh, that means you don't like me'”.
“Actually, the best thing for us was to not have the band and for us to all see how much we needed it,” Fletcher adds, poignantly.
Ironically for a songwriter who has penned ten UK number one singles and twenty-one top ten singles, it was the songwriting element that Fletcher found the most difficult. In the year that McFly played their final shows, Fletcher wrote hits for 5 Seconds of Summer, The Vamps, and One Direction. He’d hardly lost the knack for crafting a hook but there was an added pressure with McFly. The band had become bigger than just the four bandmates, with an intricate production team and an unquestionably loyal fanbase. “It's a lot easier writing for other people because you don't overthink it, you know? Most of the time, we were writing with people who we're fans of or someone or a project that we genuinely like so it's like you know what you would want to hear from that band,” he says, knowingly. “When it's you, you don't have that perspective, because we're in it and we're living it. You can't help but overthink it. That's been a big challenge over the years”.
Earlier this year, the band signed their first record deal since 2009. Before the world headed into a global lockdown, Fletcher, Jones, Judd and Poynter came together to begin work on their first full-length release in ten years (if you exclude their McBusted era and last year’s attempts of a regroup through The Lost Songs series). But this time, they played things a bit differently. Former studio stints had centred around a riff or melody provided by Fletcher, now they’re working with a more organic process. “I wanted to go to the studio with nothing. I've done that before and been terrified of it but this time I didn't want to start coming up with songs without having been with these guys. Not having anything to show was kind of liberating because each day it builds. You come up with a few ideas and then a couple more and then the ideas that you come up within the studio start to influence the next ideas. That made it a lot easier and a lot more exciting this time”.
Fletcher’s a bit distracted at this point as Judd has made it back home from his drive and seems to be hovering at his front door. “Are you standing outside your house, mate?”, he jokes. “Mate,” Judd protests. “My reception is so shit and there are builders in my house so I can't go in there because it's really loud”. We battle on with Judd patiently holding the phone aloft under the porch. In one of the many moments through our time together, I try to wrangle the foursome back to the original question. How it hasn’t just been tricky due to distancing over the last few months but getting into a rhythm that now must work alongside other, unavoidable, commitments. Not exactly an uncommon feeling for 30-somethings.
From under his concrete canopy, Judd agrees. “The annoying thing is that McFly was always the most important thing in life. Then when you have children and stuff, it's like, ‘Ah, that's kind of a bit more important annoyingly’. And then there are other work things. But we're in a good place now because it's back and it can't go anywhere again”. Even if they might have got a bit lost on the way to get here, McFly always knew where to find one another really. It’s a subject they’ve embraced in new album track, "Growing Up" which features a choice cameo from a man who knows a thing or two about maneuvering from goofball gags into a grown-up rock album - Mark Hoppus. The song takes its cues from Blink 182’s self-titled record, complete with bonus electronic samples. As they admit in the track’s chorus, ‘There’s not much we can do about growing old / But there’s plenty we can do about growing up’.
"You've got all these amazing artists who grew up on everything. They’re just hybrids. That's what the industry is like, we're like a hybrid car now." - Danny Jones
Despite the name, Young, Dumb Thrills is a product of how the things that have changed around McFly dictate what this next chapter looks like, particularly the music scene. Light years away from the days of giving away your CDs on the front of national broadsheets or meeting certain elements of a prescriptive formula to send you up the charts. “There was a period where your only option was to try to kind of conform to have any sort of success. You had to try and get radio play, otherwise, you would never have a hit single,” Fletcher agrees. They’ve joked as much previously in 2018’s hero single, "One For The Radio" taking potshots at the naysayers: ‘Don’t pretend you hate us and then sing along’.
Instead, thanks to shapeshifting artists like The Weeknd and Post Malone, there’s a fluidity of genres that didn’t exist before giving the band a certain sense of liberation, as Poynter posits: “Genres are definitely less of a thing. When we were growing up, even within rock, there were so many subgenres. And if you are part of one tribe, then you couldn't dabble in the other tribe. Now that doesn't really seem to be such a thing. There are no real boundaries or anything and it's so much more fun to be in a band like that”. Jones shares his viewpoint: “You've got all these amazing artists who grew up on everything. They’re just hybrids. That's what the industry is like, we're like a hybrid car now”.
McFly have certainly flexed their hybrid capabilities on the new record. Unbelievably catchy, horn-heavy lead single "Happiness" shares the balmy sounds of George Ezra and demonstrates a similarly inherent skill for writing Radio 2 friendly hits. "Head Up" showcases a carnivalesque riff inspired by the band’s massive following in South America, with a samba sample even making an appearance. It’s fair to say the musical reference points are vast, but the lyricism remains rooted in gratitude. These aren’t traditional love songs as we know them rather odes to one another as they sing in the chorus of "Tonight Is The Night"; "Might have wasted the tears but I won’t waste the years."
This carpe-diem clarity also influenced the record’s production process. Unlike some of their later discography that found the band settling into a sound that they weren’t necessarily comfortable with, Young, Dumb Thrills tackles those feelings head-on. “Above The Noise kind of threw things a bit for us," Judd recalls. "We'd really experimented and we weren't particularly happy with the sound that we had become as a band. The way that we approached an album worked for some band members but didn't work for others. There was often a bit of friction in the direction of the way we wanted to go.With this album this time, no one wanted that again. There's been a real openness to this process without having to compromise. Some of our music, post-Radio:active maybe felt a little bit compromised”.
To deliver a sound that the band were happy with, they looked to Guy Massey who’s also behind the back catalogues of Richard Hawley, Spiritualized, and Ed Sheeran. From early on in the recording process, Massey seemed to understand the band’s previous reservations around wearing a sound that didn’t quite fit properly, as Jones explains, “Sometimes when [a song] goes to a mix, it can come back and it loses a little bit but Guy, he's captured that essence and the energy of it. He's not overdone the gimmicks of it just because we're in pop music, but we're a band. This mix is organic and it's allowed the music to breathe a bit more rather than crushed and smashed”.
While the rest of the world came to a standstill, 2020 is the year that things started moving for McFly. The year that they found their footing again, taking the steps together into a relative unknown. No longer reliant on former recording rituals, it’s the four of them back within four walls like the early days of Fletcher and Jones grappling with a dodgy heating system at the Intercontinental. “You've got to keep moving forward, but it's doing that in a way but managing to retain what is special about McFly in the first place. I think we've struggled with that and I think this album we've managed to hopefully, well we feel, achieve that,” Judd reflects.
"There's no worse feeling than going into a studio and nothing happening but this time around it was different. This is definitely our best album in 10 years." - Dougie Poynter
Of course, there is still that "YMCA" tradition which brings our conversation back to the infamous O2 show last year. Turns out, superstitions aside, there really was no need to be down because everything has fallen right back into place. “Within five minutes, it was like we were in the middle of a tour and nothing had ever happened. It was just like, ‘Where's all this time gone?’ You can kind of put pressure on yourself or have concerns about the fact we haven't done it in so long. But within a few minutes, it just felt like this is just what we're born to do. Like we were made to be here on stage with each other”. And the fans, it seems, have happily weathered the storm.
“Do you know one really cool moment was at the O2 in November?” Judd asks. “Tom and Danny were playing the acoustic section and we decided to play ‘Guy Who Turned Her Down’ which was a B side on our first album. To be able to play an album one B side at The O2 seventeen years later and everyone’s still singing all the words, that’s a pretty good metric for how dedicated and hardcore our fan base is”. “Cut to two hours earlier and I’m still learning it,” Jones jokes, with a proper guffaw.
“It was a fucking miracle that Danny nailed that acoustic section because he got the order of songs, the lyrics wrong, the chord change wrong. The only time he got it right was on the night!” Judd admits. I check in with Poynter who - despite his hyped-up onstage persona - is probably the quietest of the group on our call. What does he think has marked their success as a band over the years? His response is fittingly more inward-facing. “Making the recent album and coming home every night having just written a little chorus and I can’t sleep that night because I am so excited about all our ideas. There's no worse feeling than going into a studio and nothing happening but this time around it was different. This is definitely our best album in 10 years”.
“We should put that on the cover,” chuckles Fletcher, as the band descends into jibes between one another. And with that, my time is up in the virtual Zoom room. I say my goodbyes and leave the four of them there, joshing back and forth like they’ve never been away.