Changing boyz 2 men
Ahead of their Irish tour, rock critic ed Power asks: are Boyzone due a makeover?
Boyzone's Shane Lynch struck a chill note through music fans' hearts this week when he was reported as describing his band's new sound as "Coldplay meets U2". Aside from answering the pub quiz question "what would the world's most boring band resemble?" the statement carries the faintest ring of desperation.
Having built their careers upon an almost oppressively wholesome image -- all cloying warbling, lad-next-door looks and shaved under-arms -- why on earth would Boyzone wish to suddenly plunge into the unknown by attempting to re-invent themselves as the lip-quivering offspring of Bono and Chris Martin?
Such a mash-up would amount to a sandwich of sanctimony, a pile-up of pretension, an orgy of egos of the sort you would not ask your bitterest foe to sit through.
The answer lies in the sales figures for the group's comeback album, Brother. Released with fanfare in March 2010 (whilst the foursome were still mourning Stephen Gately) the LP shifted a non-too shabby 400,000 units -- more than enough to keep Mikey Graham out of panto and, let us rejoice, stave off the next Ronan Keating solo project for a good half year.
But how quickly the taste of success must have turned ashen as, a mere six or so months later, Boyzone's return was blasted emphatically out of the water by their old rivals Take That.
Unleashed amidst a publicity blitzkrieg, their Progress album was the second fastest moving in UK music history, eventually achieving sales of close to 1.5 million. More than that, Progress sealed the unlikely rehabilitation of Take That, which began with their 2006 LP Beautiful World and carried through with 2008's The Circus.
Derided through the '90s as lip-synching gym bunnies, Take That 2.0 have achieved the genuinely miraculous feat of becoming vaguely credible. With a guitar-based blueprint that owes more than a little to the anthemic bleatings of bands such as Elbow and, yes, Coldplay, Gary, Howard, Jason, Mark and (eventually ) Robbie have wriggled free of their pop-star manacles, re-inventing themselves as elder statesmen of mid-tempo rock.
You might not go outside with one of their LPs under your arm, but announcing an intention to attend one of their sold-out summer shows in Croke Park certainly won't invite the derision it once might have.
Take That will never be cool. However, grizzled by a decade in the wilderness and looking all the better for it, they're no longer figures of fun -- a state of affairs Boyzone can only envy.
And the tastily attired Mancs have welcomed back to the ranks their prodigal bad boy Robbie Williams, whose solo career was fizzling out in scenes of high farce (in recent years, Robbie had become as well known for his Jim Corr-grade barking bonkers opinions on the presence of aliens amongst us as for his increasingly dreary sonic output).
Adding to their rock mystique was the revelation that the angelic Mark Owen was -- who'd have imagined it! -- rather a cad, cheating on his then fiancee no less than 10 times (including a hook-up in the glittering environs of Preston train station).
Not that Boyzone's most talented member is exactly a slouch when it comes to sleazing about. In conducting a fling with backing dancer Francine Cornell and getting temporarily chucked out of the family home for his troubles, Ronan Keating demonstrated he could stand toe-to-toe with Mark Owen in a love-rat face-off.
Alas, it is Boyzone's curse that, what might feel like perfectly appropriate rock star behaviour from anyone else, seems a bit icky when they're involved. Mark Owen arranging a closet fumble with a fellow commuter on the 8am to Manchester is conduct entirely becoming of an out-of-control celebrity. When Keating strays from the marital bonds, it just makes that altar-boy persona even harder to warm to. Call it the Chris de Burgh effect -- the more you know about Keating's personal life, the harder he is to take as a pop star.
There is also the suspicion that, in contrast to Take That, Ronan is keeping his options open. Certainly he isn't staking his entire future on Boyzone's continued popularity. Just this week his quest to become the Daniel O'Donnell you want to throw your knickers at was ratcheted up with the announcement he is to record a syrupy Mother's Day album with the high priest of easy listening, Burt Bacharach.
Of course, for Boyzone there's an added complication. Take That may be back for good with a rejuvenated Williams. For their Dublin rivals, the challenge is coping with the loss of arguably their most charismatic member, Stephen Gately. On their current tour, they are at pains to acknowledge their loss. Sepia footage of the singer in his prime accompanies several songs, whilst a video sequence accompanying the ballad 'One More Song' includes a touching message from his nephew.
Given all of this, the post-Gately comeback tour, which rumbles into Dublin on Tuesday, has a lot riding on it. With middle age tapping on the door, the days when the band can trade on their looks and physique are surely dwindling (why do you think Take That have been made over in Marks and Spencer evening wear and fashionable stubble?). A certain amount of residual fan loyalty can probably be taken for granted.
Nevertheless, to command any sort of mass following in the future, Keating and company are going to have to convince the world that, like Take That, they can transition from pop totty to serious artists. Stating your wish to sound like Bono and Chris Martin represents an unsteady first step, but at least it's a start.
Boyzone play The O2, Dublin, March 15; The INEC, Killarney, Co Kerry, 16; and The Royal Theatre, Castlebar, Co Mayo, 17.