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After the end of OMD MK II following the poor reception of “Universal” in 1996, Andy McCluskey found himself at a crossroads. It was the height of Britpop in the UK and guitar bands he thought were dinosaurs for the last 20 years were lording it over him on the charts. Nothing could have been less fashionable than synth pop in that environment. Elsewhere, by the time that OMD had petered out, the hottest thing on the UK charts were the manufactured “girl band” The Spice Girls. Believe it or not, we can blame what happened next on Karl Bartos, formerly of Kraftwerk.
McCluskey was active with Bartos in a writing and performing partnership that saw them penning songs for each other’s albums in 1993-93. Bartos had opined to McCluskey that the best pop bands were all female, traditionally. When nursing his wounds after ending OMD, that thought came back to this notion and he realized that while no one was going to play a 37 year old man’s pop songs on the radio, he could still write them. So he and OMD partner Stuart Kershaw decided to manufacture their own pop band as the Death Of Rock® was almost complete by 1996-97. Labels hated dealing with ego-tripping, drug-taking miscreants who fancied themselves creative. The whole late 60s-70s rock era was a case of bands tipping the control factor in their favor and the labels had no choice but to follow along as that was the zeitgeist. They had to indulge their signings in the hopes that they would have a “Rumours” delivered after several millions of dollars invested in the recording of albums that took years to make.
Punk took control issues even further away from the label’s grasping hands with bands being conspicuously D.I.Y. to the point of releasing their own records with no actual label involved. Obviously, this was terrible [if you were a label]. The European market was always apart from the UK/US rock hegemony. There you could still get away with a Boney M style manufactured pop band; the label’s wet dream. Actually, it’s how the entirety of pop was before The Beatles changed everything. Labels had A+R/producers and songs from sweaty guys in brownstones who sat at a piano eight hours a day cranking out tunes. Labels matched up song/producer/singer to create the pop hits that they wanted to have. End of discussion.
The mid-late 80s saw Stock-Aitken-Waterman dominate the UK pop scene with a plethora of manufactured bands and stars; all produced on an efficient assembly-line basis. Pete Waterman started out working with fringe artists like Dead Or Alive and realized he could be writing the songs as well as producing them and control the whole enchilada. His team grabbed soap stars and made them recording acts. And they sold heaving bucketfuls of discs. Needless to say, they did not have the field to themselves forever. Others wanted a piece of that action. By the late 80s, moves were made to manufacture boy bands for the all important girl tween market. The New Pop image bands that had been self-made in the early 80s [Bananarama, Haircut 100] gave way to groups like Take That who were, in the very traditional fashion, assembled by management companies. By the time OMD threw in the towel, The Spice Girls, a female answer to Take That, were the biggest trend going. It didn’t take an Einstein to see that McCluskey, always a cynical chap, eventually realized that this could be his way out of his conundrum.
“His” band were called Atomic Kitten and though they were formed by the behest of songwriter Colin Pulse, McCluskey finessed his way into the writer’s seat, along with Stuart Kershaw. The first two singles went top ten but the album, released in 2000, languished at #36. Just look at that cover [see right] … would you touch it? Their label [Innocent – I kid you not] were about to drop them but one more single was released. “Whole Again” went to number one for a month in the UK and went top five all over large portions of the globe not in North America. This changed everything. When it cam time to record the pressure cooker followup album, McCluskey and Kershaw saw themselves under attack by the label who wanted “Whole Again, Whole Again, and more ****-ing Whole Again,” according to an alienated McCluskey who was forced out of the package by a confluence of management, artist, and label issues before the second album was even finished. At least The Industry had taken 20 years to chew OMD up and spit them out. This drama played out in a fraction of that time.
Needless to say, I have avoided Atomic Kitten like the plague in the last 20 years. Aware of them, but taking care to know as little as possible abut them. Like much of the popular culture in the last 30 years. Heck, before this post, I had ever even seen their pictures. Images like these [see left] need little commentary. This whole exercise looked like a huge leap backward for females as well as men! At the very least it gave a naïve McCluskey an up close and personal look at the dirty business of manufactured pop. Wiser and emboldened, he went out and created his own band, this time managing them as well.
McCluskey spent a few years after 2002, banging his head against the wall, trying to get The Genie Queen [see above] signed but all they have to show for it on Discogs is a promo CD-R on White Noise Records, McCluskey’s production company imprint. These adventures kept McCluskey preoccupied while his old label, Virgin Records, was beginning to burnish the OMD legacy with some judicious reissues. Even cobwebbed nostalgia had to be better than this horror.
Next: …Peel, and we don’t mean Emma