It was not perhaps the most impressive of starts a band ever had, but it was one of the most memorable - for all the wrong reasons. Making their first TV appearance on Ireland's top talk-show, The Late Late Show, six young lads, with neither a song to promote nor an act of any sorts, danced (over)enthusiastically while the show's host - the legendary Gay Byrne - barely masked his embarrassment for them. Yet just a few years later, and with a slight reshuffle of the band members, that same act became Ireland's most successful chart act to date, entering the Guinness Book of Records and becoming ambassadors for their country across the globe.
This is the story of Boyzone...
How To Make a Band...
Manufactured pop acts have long been a part of the music industry. The Monkees, for example, came out of American TV executives' attempt to out-do the British invasion started by The Beatles (and although they didn't quite succeed, the Monkees did eventually become a credible band in their own right). The British music scene of the early 1990s was dominated by a series of manufactured bands, specifically boy-bands - groups of young men, predominantly white and working class (or faking it as such) assembled as much for their looks and outward appeal as their talent. American group New Kids on the Block had been around since the tail-end of the 1980s; English band Take That had taken up their mantle with a collection of cover versions of (largely) forgotten 1970s songs such as 'It Only Takes A Minute' (previously a minor hit for Jonathan King) and 'Could It Be Magic' (an up-tempo version of a Barry Manilow ballad).
In November, 1993, club-owner Louis Walsh decided that it was about time Ireland had their own 'Take That' and set about putting together a band. Holding auditions in Dublin, Walsh put over 300 young hopefuls through three waves of auditions before he felt he'd found the right mix of boys that might appeal to a wide range of teenage girls' tastes. Schoolboys Ronan Keating and Stephen Gately, architecture student Keith Duffy, Richie Rock (son of Irish crooner Dickie Rock), and friends Shane Lynch and Mark Walton began their transformation into a new pop act - 'Boyzone'.
Throwing the boys in at the deep end, Walsh booked them for that infamous appearance on The Late Late Show. Many viewers - and, it has to be said, even Gay Byrne himself - assumed that would be the last anyone would ever see of Ireland's new 'pop sensation'. Within six months of the band being put together, Mark Walton left, unable to cope with the pressure and Richie Rock was sacked after skipping rehearsals and some early gigs. But Walsh was determined to make Boyzone a success. Mikey Graham, who had failed to get past the first round of auditions, got a call back and found himself part of the band. Finally, the line-up was complete.
At the auditions, 16-year old Ronan Keating (born 3 March, 1977) sang 'Father and Son' - the old Cat Stevens song 1 - and George Michael's 'Careless Whisper'. Coming from a large Catholic family, Ronan's religious beliefs gave the press something to gossip over when he announced that he intended to remain a virgin until he got married - not the coolest of admissions from a pop star, but one that won him respect from his fans.
17-year old Stephen Gately (born on 17 March, 1976) chose Lionel Richie tune 'Hello' and Richard Marx's 'Right Here Waiting' for his auditions. Prior to Boyzone, Stephen had worked in a bar and done a little modelling.
Shane Lynch (born 3 July, 1976), also 17, had dropped out of school the previous year to work as a mechanic in his Dad's garage. Like Ronan, Shane sang George Michael's 'Careless Whisper' at his audition, but whereas others did three auditions, Shane only did one.
In addition to studying architecture, 18-year old Keith Duffy (born 1 October, 1974) had been a drummer for the bands 'The Burning Effigy' and 'Toledo Moon'. His audition consisted of renditions of Billy Joel's 'Piano Man' and a dance routine to Right Said Fred's 'I'm Too Sexy'.
The last to join Boyzone, 20-year old Mikey Graham (born 15 August, 1972) was the oldest member of the band. When he got turned down after the first set of auditions, Mikey wasn't too downhearted. At the time, like Shane, he was working as a mechanic, but he was so determined to make it in showbiz that he knew not getting into the band wasn't the end of his chosen career - even if he'd not expected to get a second chance with Boyzone! At the auditions, Mikey revealed different musical influences to the rest of the boys, singing 'Layla' by Eric Clapton and Meatloaf's 'Two Out of Three Ain't Bad'.
When All's 'Said and Done'
The band worked through 1993 and the early part of 1994, playing to whoever would listen and travelling all over Ireland in a battered old transit van. The played in dingy clubs while all the while hoping to be signed by a major label. Though Polygram eventually signed them, there was still a lot of work ahead of them. Due to lack of finances, their first single - a cover of the Detroit Spinners' 'Working my Way Back to You' would only receive a release in their home country. Surprisingly, considering what would follow, it was Stephen and Mikey who sang vocals on the single, largely thanks to comments made by producer Ian Levine2, who allegedly pointed at Ronan and told Louis Walsh that 'the blond guy can't sing.' Despite this, 'Working My Way Back To You' was released with Ronan's favourite party-piece 'Father and Son' on the B-side. Within weeks of release, it had reached number three in the Irish charts.
Their first appearances in the UK were as part of the Smash Hits Road shows, and by the end of the tour their popularity was so immense that they were voted 'Best Band on the Road' by their new fans. This accolade catapulted them onto the televised 'Smash Hits poll winners' party, with an audience of over 11 million. By the end of 1994, 'Love Me for a Reason'3, featuring Ronan on lead vocals, had reached number two in the UK charts and number one in Ireland. By the following year, two further singles, 'Key to my Life' and 'So Good' had also gone top three in the UK, followed by Said and Done, the boys' first album, which got to number one in both the UK and Irish album charts. Said and Done achieved worldwide sales of more than 1.5 million units. Promoting the album, the boys embarked on their first full-scale tour, performing to over 300,000 fans in the UK before performing in more than 30 countries within one month. Such a punishing schedule took its toll on the lads, with Ronan in particular missing home. Still, it had been an exceptional end to their first year as a household name. And when 'Father and Son' was finally released as a single, Boyzone were rewarded with their second number two single in the UK.
Playing to 'A Different Beat'
The release of 'Coming Home Now' on 9 March, 1996, coincided with the release of 'How Deep is Your Love', the final single from leading boyband Take That. With Take That out of the picture, their pop crowns were there for the taking. However, the ever-fickle music press were already suggesting that Boyzone would be over before they'd really begun. Early that same year, it had been revealed that both Mikey and Keith's girlfriends were pregnant; considering the traditionally squeaky-clean reputations that boybands always aspired to cultivate, many expected such a 'scandal' would mean the end of Boyzone.
Instead, the lads confounded their critics with a successful UK tour, including four sell-out performances at Wembley Arena. In October, 1996, they released their second album , A Different Beat prior to the band's first World tour, taking in India, South-East Asia and the Middle East. A Different Beat produced five hit singles, including two number ones, the album's title track and 'Words', a cover of a song originally by the Bee Gees.
Finding Out 'Where We Belong'
In 1996, shortly before Boyzone's World tour, Ronan's mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In February, 1998, Marie Keating lost her battle with the disease, leaving Ronan distraught. Two weeks later, he lost his grandmother and just over a month later his 16-year-old cousin also died. Such loss, coupled with the tough schedule of the band's touring commitments took their toll and Ronan decided to take a short break from the band. In April, 1998, he took his girlfriend Yvonne to the Caribbean island of Nevis where the couple were married. Love was definitely in the air, as Shane had only recently got married to his girlfriend, Esther (singer in the group Eternal), Mikey announced his engagement to his girlfriend, and in June, Keith married Lisa, his long-time girlfriend and mother of his son, Jordan.
In the middle of this turbulent time in the boys' lives, they released their third album, Where We Belong, which contained their version of Tracy Chapman 's 'Baby Can I Hold You' (which had been a hit for the boys the previous December), as well as a number of tracks written by the boys themselves. 'Picture of You', which had been on the soundtrack for the movie Bean, subsequently earned Ronan an Ivor Novello award (a prestigious award given for excellence in songwriting), while 'All That I Need' would become their third single to reach the top of the charts4. They even found time to make a guest appearance in the video for 'The Sweetest Thing', a romantic song from Ireland's biggest international export apart from Guinness, the band U2. As 1998 came to a close, the lads' hard work was rewarded with one of the record-buying public's highest honours as 'No Matter What' won 'Record of the Year'.
Greatest Hits - 'By Request'
In March 1999, the boys released a charity single, 'When The Going Gets Tough' (sung originally by Billy Ocean), the proceeds of which would go to the BBC's bi-annual telethon, 'Comic Relief'. Although the single featured lead vocals shared between Ronan and Stephen, for the live performance on the Red Nose Day show, Mikey stepped in to replace Ronan. The reason - Ronan's wife, Yvonne, had just given birth to their first child, Jack.
Having already survived those early scandals over pregnant girlfriends, the band would endure a further test of their fanbase when, after mounting tabloid pressure, Stephen revealed to the world that he was gay and had a boyfriend (Eloy De Jong, who at the time was also in a boyband, Dutch combo 'Caught in the Act'). Though Walsh and the other band-members knew that Stephen was gay, this was kept from the public until Stephen himself was ready to come out. In this past, such an announcement might have meant the end for any band whose main appeal was teenage girls, but Stephen's confidence and honesty won him much praise. When Stephen appeared at the live event 'Party in the Park', he received the biggest cheer of the day, and, later that year, readers of Smash Hits voted him 'Hero of the Year'. That their next single, 'You Needed Me', went straight to number one, was proof that the sexuality of a pop star mattered more to tabloid journalists than to the fans.
But already, signs were showing that perhaps Boyzone's days as a band were numbered. In the summer of 1999, Ronan's first solo single, 'When You Say Nothing At All' (which appeared on the soundtrack to the hit film Notting Hill) got to Number one. Soon, the boys announced to the fans that they intended to take time out to pursue solo projects for a year. The final nail in the coffin was the release of the Greatest Hits CD By Request, usually seen as a sign that the end of a band's life is in sight.
Solo At Last...
Boyzone had enjoyed four number one albums and six number one singles (as well as breaking the record for most amount of unbroken top three singles by a band - 16!), completed sell out tours all over the world, found partners and become husbands and fathers in between. Having enjoyed the first taste of success with his solo single, Ronan then surprised the industry by announcing he was to manage5 a new boyband (along with his former mentor, Louis Walsh), which he was calling Westside. Westside followed the route set out by Boyzone, travelling the British Isles supporting top bands, including Boyzone. History began repeating itself as Ronan's new project won 'Best Band on Tour' at the Smash Hits awards. After learning of a number of American bands with the same name, the new band name was changed to Westlife prior to the band's first single. Westlife would go on to be even bigger than Boyzone6
The following year, Ronan released his first album - entitled simply 'Ronan', scoring a number one hit with 'Life Is A Rollercoaster'. However, a second single from the album, 'The Way You Make Me Feel' (written by Phil Thornalley and Bryan Adams), only reached number six. Ronan has, though, forged a second career as a TV presenter, fronting, amongst others, Top of the Pops, the 'Miss World' beauty pageant and the Irish-hosted Eurovision Song Contest.
Like Ronan, Stephen has presented TV shows, including the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party. He also achieved his childhood ambition of singing a song on a Disney movie with 'Shooting Star', which appeared in Disney's Hercules (a single of the song was released in Ireland). Stephen's solo recording career began well with the release of his first UK single, a double-A side of 'New Beginning' and 'Bright Eyes' (which he'd recorded for a new animated version of the book Watership Down) which made it to number 3 in the UK. But after the follow-ups 'I Believe' (from the soundtrack for the high-profile British film Billy Elliot) and 'Stay' both failed to make the top 10, Stephen and his record company parted company.
Not to be left out, Keith found himself hosting the Channel 5 Pepsi Chart show and co-presented the Saturday morning children's show FBi before becoming a 'celebrity for hire' for shows such as Celebrity Big Brother, a week-long version of the hit gameshow with minor celebrities forced to live with each other in aid of the Comic Relief appeal (Keith came third, emerging from a house during a major downpour to a small crowd of cheering fans - most of whom had voted for his Big Brother rival, comedian Jack Dee). His old mate, Shane, has all-but turned his back on music, preferring the fast pace of rally racing for Ford (beating British Rally car champion Alistair McRae in his first ever race!). However, performing under the mantle 'Keith 'n' Shane', the two former bandmates released a cover version of Milli Vanilli's hit 'Girl You Know It's True' in December, 2000. Perhaps because too many people remembered the scandal that surrounded Milli Vanilli (who, it was later revealed, didn't actually sing on their own record), perhaps part of a backlash from Westlife fans unhappy at sideswipes in the rewritten lyrics at their new idols, or perhaps because it, um, wasn't very good, Keith 'n' Shane's single reached number 36 before the inevitable slide. The lads didn't mind - they'd only done it as a joke anyway.
A cameo appearance in low-budget Irish film Fatal Deviation has so far not tempted Mikey Graham into becoming an actor. Unfortunately, his music career seems to have stalled too; In May, 2000, Mikey launched his own record label, Public Records, and released his first single, 'You're My Angel' (dedicated to his daughter), on the same day as Stephen's debut release. It reached a disappointing number 137, while a second single floundered at 63.
Rumours of behind-then-scenes clashes between individual members of the band suggest the 'year off' the fans had been warned about might be extended indefinitely. One news report claimed that Keith had voiced his disappointment that Ronan has pursued his solo career to the detriment of his former band-mates; another claimed (erroneously) that Mikey had fallen out with Stephen. Meanwhile, with his attention now focussed on Westlife and solo singer/actress Samantha Mumba, former Boyzone manager, Louis Walsh seems convinced that Boyzone, at one time the most successful Irish pop act ever, are unlikely ever to return.
But then, stranger things have happened in the fickle world of pop...
|'Love Me For A Reason'|| #2|
|'Key To My Life'|| #3|
|'So Good'|| #3|
|'Father and Son'|| #2|
|'Coming Home Now' || #2|
|'Words' || #1|
|'A Different Beat' || #1|
|'Isn't It A Wonder' || #2|
|'Picture of You' || #2|
|'Baby Can I Hold You' / 'Shooting Star' || #2|
|'All That I Need' || #1|
|'No Matter What' || #1|
|'I Love The Way You Love Me' || #2|
|'When The Going Gets Tough' || #1|
|'You Needed Me' || #1|
|'Every Day I Love You' || #3|
All four albums spent time at number 1 in the UK album charts. Where We Belong was rereleased with additional tracks, and also reached number 1.
|Said and Done|
|A Different Beat|
|Where We Belong|
Note: The official site for Boyzone and Stephen Gately's individual site are both offline at the time of writing.
Boyzone on BBCi
1 Little did he know that it would later become one of Boyzone's first singles.
2 Levine also produced early singles for Take That (though ironically, the band only started having hits after they left him) as well as working as unofficial advisor on the BBC science fiction TV show Doctor Who in the 1980s.
3 A previous number one hit in 1974 for The Osmonds.
4 When the album was later rereleased, containing the tracks 'I Love The Way You Love Me' and 'No Matter What' (which had been another number one for the band) the album went to the top of the charts for a second time.
5 Though, at the time, it was claimed Ronan was Louis Walsh's co-manager, Walsh later confessed that this had been a publicity stunt and that Ronan had, in fact, had no say in the management of the band.
6 Boyzone got their first 16 singles into the top three, while Westlife managed to get their first sixteen singles to number one, simultaneously breaking a record previously held by the Spice Girls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Gerry and the Pacemakers for getting their first run of singles to top the charts (The Spice Girls had managed just six number one singles in an unbroken stretch, Frankie and Gerry Marsden managed just three apiece).
7 Such a poor result could also be attributed to the over-hysterical press reaction to Mikey's admission that he'd once smoked cannabis which prompted large supermarket chain Asda to pull the single from their stores.