'If you are weak, you are going to be broken' - Boyzone reveal life in a manufactured boy band was not always fun
Their ballads sold millions. But as the Irish foursome bow out, they tell Neil McCormick life in a manufactured band was not always fun
When Boyzone made their Irish TV debut in 1993, host Gay Byrne was scathing. "You don't play, you don't sing and you can't write music," he pointed out. "There's no talent whatsoever." He jokingly concluded: "They'll go far."
And indeed they did. Over the next decade, Boyzone scored five UK number one albums, 18 top 10 singles and six number ones. They went their separate ways between 2001-2007 but, over a 25-year career, have sold 25 million records. Now, Ireland's first boy band are finally calling it quits.
"We were young when we started," points out the heavily tattooed Shane Lynch, now 42. "We didn't know what we could or couldn't do."
"And by the time we found out, it was too late," chortles 44-year-old Keith Duffy.
Their final fling comprises an album, Thank You And Goodnight, and a farewell tour next year. "We want to go out in a blaze of glory," insists frontman Ronan Keating.
The break-up has evidently not been caused by internal frictions. Working on choreography in a dance studio in north London, the four surviving members are full of affectionate in-jokes, reminiscing about their unlikely career among a flood of more poignant memories.
This includes the time they stayed overnight in a church with the body of bandmate Stephen Gately, who died aged 33 of a congenital heart condition in 2009.
"His mother didn't want him left alone," explains Duffy. "So we got locked in with the priest."
"We certainly did get locked with the priest," laughs Lynch. "I think it was the communion wine."
"Comedy and tragedy, that is the story of this band," notes grizzled Mikey Graham.
At the time of their formation, there was no home-grown pop scene in Ireland. Local manager Louis Walsh assembled the group after 300 youngsters turned up for the audition, including future Hollywood star Colin Farrell. The final five spent the next year driving around Ireland in a van, performing to mostly indifferent audiences. They only had two functional microphones (and three dummy mikes), which they swapped about between songs, singing to backing tracks supplied by Walsh.
"Even at our height, we were never very polished," notes Keating.
They must have been doing something right because by 1994, they had scored their first UK number one, a version of The Osmonds' 'Love Me For A Reason'. By that time, Keating and Gately had been identified as frontmen capable of holding a tune, the others supplying backing vocals and dance moves.
They were always perceived as rougher and cheekier than rivals like Take That, perhaps because they never really disguised the fact that Duffy and Lynch, in particular, had more charisma than musical ability.
"We were a working man's boy band," says Keating. Their biggest hits were a cover version of the Bee Gees' song 'Words' and 'No Matter What' (originally written by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his musical Whistle Down The Wind). The latter was the biggest-selling boyband single of the 90s.
They have conflicted views of their profession. "They call it promogeddon," says Graham, who has battled with depression. "It turns into an endless marketing campaign. And while you're getting all the applause, you're getting all the criticism too. That's not easy for a young person to take."
"So if you are weak, you are going to be broken," warns Lynch. The members of Boyzone also had to fight for their individuality, he adds.
"There were rules. You had to be squeaky clean, no drinking in public, no fighting, no girlfriends. Young, male, single and available - that is what a boy band had to be.
"Initially, when Louis told us that, I thought he wanted us to be gay," recalls Duffy.
In fact, Gately was gay but under strict instructions to keep it quiet. "It was very challenging for him," recalls Graham. "He always feared the press would find something that would destroy his career."
In 1999, Gately was coerced by The Sun newspaper to reveal his homosexuality in a front-page interview. "They said, 'We've got this story and we're going to run with it'," recalls Duffy.
"Stephen was distraught. But the support he got was unbelievable." Gately's voice features on Boyzone's final album, on a rediscovered track, 'Dream', that the other members completed.
Walsh will play no part in the band's farewell, however, having frequently disparaged Keating since he stopped managing Boyzone in 2011. "It's unfortunate," says Duffy. "He says things in the spur of the moment. Then you meet him and he goes, 'I was only joking'."
Officially, Boyzone's reasons for stopping involve platitudes about "writing the end of the story ourselves". Behind the press release, however, is a group of surprisingly well-adjusted middle-aged men for whom a boyband is no longer the centre of their lives.
Only Keating has carved out a successful solo career in music. Duffy has been a regular on Coronation Street, Lynch drives for a motor racing team and appears on reality TV, and Graham works in music production. "It's hard to keep putting your life on hold every few years," says Lynch.
"You create your own world, and then you have to undo everything, break working relationships, pull out of commitments. So we're gonna enjoy it, and we will enjoy hanging up those boots."
They have watched the rise of South Korean boy band BTS with interest. "Being Irish, I guess we brought something fresh, even if it was just naivety," suggests Duffy. "It's the same for these Korean boys. It's a new angle. As long as there's teenage girls, there's going to be boy bands. They have to have someone to scream at."
Yet they are ambivalent when considering whether it is a good career path for a young, wannabe star. "There is a reason there are so many alcoholics and druggies in this industry," says Lynch. "If it is your dream, your love, your talent, then definitely follow that road. But it's a hard road."
At the end of our interview, a mother, who is in the same dance studio as us, brings her toddler over for a photograph, but the child starts crying and wriggling away. "I don't think he wants to be in a boy band," says Keating.
"You're right, kid. Stay away," says Duffy. "Get a proper job."
Boyzone's final album Thank You And Goodnight is released on Friday by Warner Music. Their farewell tour starts on November 25; boyzonenetwork.com.