Westlife remain one of Ireland's best-selling musical acts. They set a new chart record for having their first seven singles go to number one and had massive merchandising sales. The boy band genre is one of the most difficult and demanding areas in the music industry, with many casualties who have been unable to keep up with the workload, the clean-cut image and the derision from serious music fans. Within the parameters of the genre, Westlife achieved excellence.
– The Irish Times, 20 October, 2011
In 1998 pop mogul Simon Cowell did a little tweaking with the line-up of Westside, a group of young Irish male singers who went to school together. Their musical influences were Michael Jackson and the Backstreet Boys. The band were brought to Cowell's attention by his friend Louis Walsh, who had been badgered by Mae Filan to hear her son's group sing. Cowell initially rejected bleached-blonde Shane Filan, who returned to audition again after reverting to his natural dark hair. He must have chosen a better tune to sing as he was immediately selected for the new boy band. The final line-up included original Westside members Kian Egan, Mark Feehily and Shane Filan, with the addition of Bryan McFadden and Nicky Byrne who made it through the audition.
A different name had to be chosen for the new group because there was already an American band called Westside. The five lads, as Westlife, released their debut single 'Swear It Again' in 1999. It hit the #1 spot in the UK and they had their first appearance on Top Of The Pops within nine months of Westlife being created. Singer Ronan Keating of fellow Irish band Boyzone was touted as being Westlife's manager, but this was later revealed to be a publicity stunt, their actual manager was Louis Walsh.
Off to a Flying Start
The band's second single, 'If I Let You Go', quickly followed and that also made #1. 'Flying Without Wings', the group's signature tune, was a smash and brought them worldwide fame. It stayed in the UK chart for 13 weeks and was 1999's 'Record of the Year' – voted for by the public. The Irish lads were off to a flying start with their musical career, with three consecutive number ones. Their appeal spanned the generations, with women of a certain age enjoying the good-looking lads whose music was being played by their grandchildren. Westlife's self-titled debut album contained five singles which topped the UK charts, although the album itself reached only the number two spot in the UK.
Their second album, Coast to Coast debuted at #1 in the UK album charts. It provided four singles, one of which, 'Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)' featuring Mariah Carey, gave the band their 6th UK #1. Two of the songs on this album, 'Fragile Heart' and 'Nothing Is Impossible' were written by Westlife members. The Where Dreams Come True Tour to promote their album Coast to Coast saw the lads visit the UK, multiple cities in Europe, Beirut in Lebanon, Tel Aviv in Israel, Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan between February and June 2001.
The group released their cover version of Billy Joel's 'Uptown Girl' as a single to raise funds for Comic Relief 2001. The video which accompanied it starred model Claudia Schiffer as the bored 'uptown girl' who enters a fast-food restaurant with toffs Robert Bathurst, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Ioan Gruffudd, Tim McInnerny and James Wilby. The Westlife lads are all workers in the restaurant and the boorish newcomers make fun of them, requesting 'posh nosh' such as foie gras which isn't on the menu. Although she doesn't speak in the video, gorgeous Claudia is a knockout, flirting with the Westlife workers and eventually leaving the restaurant with them, thus dumping the well-heeled bores. Sales of the single surpassed platinum1 status and logged their greatest sales to date, providing a fabulous boost to the Comic Relief total.
Pennies from Heaven and the Pope
Westlife were involved in the Pennies from Heaven campaign, a charity drive aiming to collect IR£5 million in coppers before the euro changeover on New Year's Day 2002. The lads offered to put on a concert for the winning school, drawn at random between all participating schools. St Killian's School in Cork was the lucky winner, headteacher Mary Minihan said: 'A lot of the children were Westlife fans before this – they all are now'. In December 2001 Westlife flew to Italy to perform at the Vatican Christmas concert. They sang 'World of Our Own' and duetted with Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries for a special version of 'Little Drummer Boy'. Afterwards the lads got to meet the Pope, His Holiness John Paul II, which left them 'shell-shocked and tongue-tied'. The Vatican Christmas concert was recorded and broadcast to the world on Christmas Eve.
By Royal Command
Over the next three years Westlife recorded three albums, World of Our Own, Unbreakable: The Greatest Hits Volume 1 and Turnaround. World of Our Own featured ten original songs, two of which had been penned by bandmembers. This included the soulful 'I Wanna Grow Old With You', written by Egan/Filan/McFadden, which is arguably one of Westlife's best. Unbreakable: The Greatest Hits Volume 1 was released in November 2002. It spawned two singles, 'Unbreakable', a #1 in the UK, and the double-A side 'Tonight'/'Miss You Nights' which only managed to reach #3. Westlife appeared at the Royal Variety Performance in 2003. Turnaround disappointingly contained covers of pop songs, slow ballads and the odd upbeat tune. Three singles were released from it, 'Hey Whatever', 'Obvious' and a cover of Barry Manilow's signature tune 'Mandy', which won them their second 'Record of the Year'. Westlife paid a visit to a children's cancer hospital in Sutton, Surrey, where they apparently juggled and performed some magic tricks to cheer the young patients up.
Despite the lads' squeaky-clean image, boys will be boys. Touring is hard, and the pressure to perform well night after night, as well as the constant travelling, led to some erratic behaviour and high jinx. The lads liked their booze, and closeted together in another soulless hotel in yet another strange country gave them opportunities to let their hair down. During a documentary about Westlife, Bryan was filmed asking the other lads if it was okay to snog good-looking fans who were queuing for autographs. When the others were being interviewed, a dog could be heard barking off-camera, putting them off. The 'dog' was, in fact, the joker in the pack, Bryan. When it was his turn in front of the camera, he complained of missing his wife and kids2, and said getting blathered was the only way he could cope.
There were newspapers and magazines printing gossip about glamour model Jodie Marsh dating Kian. He retorted that she was making up stories about a relationship between them to raise her own celebrity status, and there was never anything in it. When Kian announced that he was dating Jodi Albert (his future wife), Jodie Marsh was photographed wearing a T-shirt which rated the prowess of her previous lovers. Kian scored just 2/10.
Five Become Four
The band did a Turnaround Tour in 2004, which was to be Bryan's last live performances with Westlife. All five Westlife members had appeared on the Richard and Judy TV show on 27 February, 2004, and, when questioned about their future, they denied that the line-up was going to change, with one member planning to leave the band. Richard Madeley persisted, citing 'the rumour mill', and eventually, 'for a future scoop', got Bryan to announce his departure. Coincidentally or not, Bryan left Westlife a month later, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family3 and concentrate on a solo career. The four remaining members of Westlife supported the Blood for Life Week 2004 campaign for the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, posing for publicity photographs wearing the 'Give Blood for Life' T-shirts, hoping to make people aware of how important it is to donate blood regularly if you qualify.
Ain't That a Kick in the Head
The new quartet Westlife's first musical offering was a swing album, Allow Us to Be Frank, which was totally different from anything the group had churned out before. This was an indulgence on the part of Simon Cowell, whose favourite music comes from the 'Rat Pack' generation. Cowell hired a 60-piece orchestra to be Westlife's 'backing band' in the studio. Allow Us to Be Frank peaked at #3 in the UK album chart and two singles were released from it, 'Smile' and 'Ain't That a Kick in the Head'. Another track on the album was unique because it featured Westlife fan Joanne Hindley, who recorded 'The Way You Look Tonight' with her favourite band. She had been chosen from thousands of hopeful entrants for the show She's the One, during which the Westlife lads acted as auditioners and judges. Although Allow Us to Be Frank was a commercial success, the swing tunes with big band backing weren't well received by their younger generation fans, so Westlife returned to their previous popular format.
You Raise Me Up
Westlife got together with Motown diva Diana Ross to record a new version of her 1991 solo #1 hit 'When You Tell Me That You Love Me'. This appeared as a track on the 2005 album Face To Face, and was also released as a single which made the top spot in the UK. The only other single released from the album was their version of 'You Raise Me Up', which is surely one of the most-covered tracks of all time, but it went down well with the public who voted it 'Record of the Year'. The tour which promoted the album saw the lads performing in China for the first time, and they also fulfilled several dates in Australia.
In August 2005 Mark Feehily proclaimed in an interview that he was gay and romantically involved with fellow musician Kevin McDaid. Such an honest admission would have been disastrous in times gone by but Westlife's mostly-female fan base were not fazed by the announcement. Generally the public reaction was positive, with good wishes bestowed upon him and his partner. The rest of the group and Mark's family had been previously aware of his sexuality and were supportive.
To Africa and Back
In November 2005 Westlife performed in Johannesburg, South Africa, for a charity concert in support of African charities, including the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and Unite Against Hunger. Westlife were awarded the Freedom of Sligo by its Mayor, Cllr Rosaleen O'Grady, during her term 2005-6. 'I know them from when they were growing up as children. They're very special to me', she enthused. The group appeared at the charity Popworld gig at London's Wembley Arena on 2 December, 2005, to raise money for refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan. Westlife's next studio production was The Love Album, released in 2006. Although it only contained covers of old love songs, it still reached #1 and gave them their 14th (and last) UK number one single, 'The Rose'. This achievement made them the third-most successful chart-topping artists in the UK behind 2nd-place The Beatles and the king Elvis Presley. The Love Tour began in Australia and then they moved on to South Africa.
Terrific Ten Years
Their 9th album, Back Home, entered the UK chart at #1. It contained nine original songs, although none were written by the group themselves, and three covers. This was backed up with a tour which included New Zealand and two singles which charted in the UK, 'Home' and 'Us Against the World'. Another track, 'Something Right', was also released but it didn't chart. Just before Christmas 2007 Westlife fans were treated to a two-hour special of their idols, with some of the songs voted for by them in an online poll. In June 2008 the lads staged a special anniversary concert, 10 Years of Westlife, in front of a packed-to-capacity Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland. They then announced that they were going to take a year off. A DVD of the 10 Years of Westlife concert was released that November.
Even though they were, in Friends-speak, 'on a break', Westlife guested on Cowell's show The X Factor, performing a special arrangement of 'Flying Without Wings' with eventual runners-up JLS. Not many people could afford to hire Westlife to entertain at a private party, however the lads were booked by Wayne Rooney and Coleen McLoughlin to sing at their wedding in Italy. Mr and Mrs Rooney did recoup some of their costs though, because they'd signed a £2.5m deal with a glossy magazine for exclusive pictures.
Recording for their next album Where We Are began in June 2009. The track 'What About Now' was released as a single just before the album; it peaked at #2 in the UK. The album became available to buy in late November 2009, just in time for the lucrative Christmas market. It reached #2 on the UK and the Irish album charts. Westlife's promotional tour of the UK was cancelled when Nicky's 60-year-old father Nicholas suffered a heart attack and died on 3 November. Nicky immediately flew home to Ireland to support his family. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Nicky's father-in-law, and Nicky's bandmates attended the private funeral.
In December 2009 Westlife appeared in the line-up at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert at the Oslo City Hall in Norway. The Laureate was President of the United States Barack Obama, but he didn't attend the concert. Hosts Will and Jada Pinkett Smith (with help from their children Jaden and Willow), also introduced Donna Summer, Lang Lang and Natasha Bedingfield, among others. Westlife sang 'You Raise Me Up' and 'What About Now'. The finale featured all the performers who gave a moving rendition of Michael Jackson's 'Man in the Mirror', a tribute to the 'king of pop' who had died just six months before.
At the 2010 Meteor Awards, Westlife won Best Irish Pop Act for the 10th consecutive year. The single 'Safe' was released in November 2010, entering the UK chart at #10. The album it was taken from, Gravity, went on sale in November 2010, again, just in time for a stocking-filler option. Gravity, which contained ten original songs, topped the album chart in Ireland but only made #3 in the UK.
That Christmas the lads took some time out to play Santa for some very special children. They visited Great Ormond Street Hospital and handed out gifts. Shane said it broke his heart to see how poorly some of the children were. Nicky fought back tears when he met a little girl who had leukaemia, she was exactly the same age as his own twin sons. Kian gave a young Irish boy a cuddle and Mark commented that even though he's gay that didn't mean he didn't want kids.
Writing on the Wall
In early 2011 Westlife left Cowell's record company after they felt let down by his lack of support. Cowell's unwillingess to issue a second single from the Gravity album probably influenced their decision. Westlife headed off for their Gravity Tour, this time taking in the countries of Vietnam and Namibia, among others.
The band returned to their original label RCA Records, signing a one year album contract. They announced that their next album would be called Greatest Hits and it was scheduled for release in November 2011. Meanwhile the 'rumour mill' began spouting that McFadden was going to reunite with Westlife but this was denied by bandmembers. When it was released, Greatest Hits reached #1 in the Irish and #4 in the UK album charts.
Westlife announced on 19 October, 2011 that they were going to split up after a farewell tour in 2012. Their most ardent fans were devastated. Sligo's Mayor, Cllr Rosaleen O'Grady, said she was shocked, but Westlife had been wonderful ambassadors for Sligo. Another charity commitment was undertaken on 12 November when Westlife, along with The Wanted and Jedward, appeared at the Cheerios Childline Concert at The O2 in Dublin. The Greatest Hits Tour covered Asia and Europe over 41 dates. They kicked off in Beijing, China on 22 February and ended the tour, appropriately, on home turf at Croke Park in Dublin. Their final performance on 23 June was beamed live via satellite to selected cinemas all over the world.
Crashing to Earth
Despite the fact that Westlife are one of the most successful bands of the 21st Century, selling an estimated 45 million albums and making the lads multi-millionaires, Shane Filan was declared bankrupt in 2012. He cited the Irish property crash as the reason for his financial difficulties, but he was hoping to become solvent again when he signs up with a record company and he releases his first solo album. Blessed with good looks, a heartbreakingly-beautiful soulful voice, a talent for songwriting and Irish charm, with the right support the father-of-three has the potential to become a megastar in his own right. One can only wish him, and his ex-bandmates, all the best for the future.
Many artists have collaborated with Westlife bandmembers, including Boyzone, Delta Goodrem, Secret Garden, Donny Osmond, Lionel Richie, Kevin Spacey, Donna Summer and Leehom Wang. With modern technology it is now possible to team up with a deceased artist and perform a duet with them. In 2006 the late, great Roy Orbison had been dead 18 years, but he was watched by TV viewers playing the guitar and singing 'Pretty Woman' with Westlife as his backing group. This was achieved using an Orbison lookalike on stage with the close-ups using archive footage of the real Roy Orbison. Duet Impossible was an experiment which could have been labelled tasteless, but the skill that was employed to allow the TV audience to witness such a collaboration ensured success. The TV special also featured the much-missed soul legends Marvin Gaye and Dusty Springfield.
What They Say About Westlife
- 'They know how to ham it up for the ladies and are masters of the sentimental power.' (BBC Music)
- 'It's a case of if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Westlife have certainly found their niche in pop, and by statistics alone look like becoming one of the all time greats. It's just a shame the actual musical legacy displayed here is so wet and uninspiring.' – review of Unbreakable: The Greatest Hits Volume 1(Yahoo Music)
- Fellow Irishman Pierce Brosnan criticised Westlife for making an album of Rat Pack covers. Ex-James Bond star Brosnan stated that pop groups shouldn't attempt to copy the music of the likes of Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.
- 'Whilst we wouldn't choose to go out and buy a Westlife single we can understand why people would. There's something so familiar about a Westlife track that the minute it starts you feel like you're sat with an old friend you hold very dear.' (Entertainment Focus)
If you have never heard of Westlife, some recommended tracks to seek out to have a listen to are: 'I Wanna Grow Old With You', 'I Don't Wanna Fight No More', 'You Don't Know', 'I Do (the Best is Yet to Come)', 'Flying Without Wings', 'Moments', 'What Makes a Man', 'Angel's Wings', 'Soledad', 'Fragile Heart', 'In This Life', 'That's Where You Find Love', 'To Be Loved', 'You Light Up My Life', 'If Your Heart's Not In It', 'When A Woman Loves A Man', 'Unbreakable', 'I'm Already There', 'You Must Have Had A Broken Heart', 'Close Your Eyes', 'Safe', 'The Dance', 'Please Stay', 'No Place That Far', 'Too Hard To Say Goodbye', 'I'll See You Again'.