Andy McClusky has pop music running through his veins. As the lead singer of 80s synth group Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, he wrote and performed on a string of hits including Enola Gay, Souvenir, Joan Of Arc, Sailing On The Seven Seas and (Forever) Live And Die.
But as the hits started to dry up for OMD in the mid 90s, Andy’s love of songwriting did not.
“I just felt like I was fighting a losing battle being in a band that was perceived as an early 80s synth pop band at the time of Brit pop and grunge,” he says.
“The last time OMD did Top Of The Pops was the first time the Spice Girls were there in person,” Andy says.
It was a lightbulb moment for the musician.
Frustrated with OMD’s dwindling returns and lack of radio support, but keen to still make music, Andy was encouraged to find an outlet for his pop songs from a very unlikely source.
“I had become quite friendly with Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk. I was bemoaning my fate to him going, ‘What’s the point? I’m wasting my time. Nobody buys my records’.
“I said to Karl, ‘I’m just going to write, give them to my publisher and maybe they’ll get somebody big to sell records’. He said, ‘No, no, no. Don’t do that. You’re just going to become a songwriting whore. Why don’t you create a vehicle for your own songs?’”
The pair agreed that, given the huge global success of the Spice Girls at the time, a girl group was the most viable option.
“Karl Bartos said to me, ‘Create a three piece girl pop group’,” Andy reveals.
“Kraftwerk invented Atomic Kitten.”
After a false start with another girl group, Andy reunited with his OMD bandmate Stuart Kershaw to write all of the songs for what would become Atomic Kitten’s debut album, before they’d even auditioned a single girl.
“A friend of ours who was a DJ had a techno pop group called The Pawn Kings,” Andy recalls. “He came by the studio one day and said, ’you’ve got to meet this girl. She’s a star.’”
That girl was Kerry Katona. She made an immediate and lasting impression.
“Within 60 seconds of walking through the door she whips out her topless photographs,” Andy remembers.
“I just thought, ‘This is a remarkable audition. Is this what normally happens in auditions?’ The reality was we knew she was going to be a star.”
At the time, Kerry had dreams of becoming a Page 3 girl, but Andy had other ideas. He told the teenager to “keep your clothes on” and to “give us a year and we’ll make you a pop star”.
Andy admits Kerry had the looks and star quality, but couldn’t hold a note.
He immediately got to work to find two girls who could. “I wanted a cross between baby Spice Girls meets Manga cartoon,” he says.
After auditioning 35 girls, Liz McClarnon signed up for the band and, after a false start with Heidi Range (who would later become a member of the Sugababes), more auditions were held, and Natasha Hamilton was discovered.
“Suddenly, we had a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead without even trying,” Andy says.
As recording got underway with the three girls, Andy remembers Kerry’s vocal shortcomings well.
“Kerry would not have been able to be in the band and have her vocals used if there was no such thing as auto-tune,” he says. “But she’s on all the records.”
Despite her vocal limitations, Andy insists Kerry was the band’s “secret weapon”.
“You lob Kerry into a room for half an hour and she explodes,” He says. “When she comes out, she’s everybody’s new best friend. I know a lot of people find her... She’s a bit like Marmite, but she was incredible.”
After recording an entire album, showcases were set up in London after Andy’s own publishing company showed little interest in his new project.
“I was really crestfallen,” he says.
He shouldn’t have been. After performing short sets for several record execs there were five offers on the table and, after a bidding war, Atomic Kitten were signed.
But despite scoring three top 10 singles in the space of a year, including Right Now, I Want Your Love and See Ya (all with very expensive videos), the girls’ debut album limped to number 39 in the chart.
After investing £1.5 million in the group, and unbeknown to Kerry, Natasha and Liz, the record company dropped them.
Undeterred, Andy hedged his bets and told the record company they were going to release another song from the album independently.
Thinking Andy had another record company lined up to sign the band, the girls’ label caved and gave him and the group one last chance, albeit on a limited budget, to make a video for a track called Whole Again.
“That’s why the Whole Again video looks so cheap,” Andy explains. “Out came the single, and boom, it went straight to number one. We never told the girls they were dropped. They never knew.”
Whole Again was a huge hit, selling more than two million copies and topping the charts throughout Europe. Their record label wasted no time in repackaging the album, complete with brand new tracks. It went on to sell one and half a million copies.
Andy reveals the version of the song we know today was very different to the the original, which actually featured very little singing, with all three of the verses spoken.
“It was all like a Motown talky thing, and then the swingy soul chorus, and then back to the talking,” Andy explains.
“They actually gave it to another production team, who changed the chords slightly in the verse, took our lyrics and made a tune out of them. Obviously, they got Natasha to sing the first verse and Liz to sing the second verse. Kerry spoke the third verse.”
“I recorded Kerry 39 times and then chopped it all up, syllable by syllable to get the feel I wanted, and then she learned how to do it from how I sculpted it.””
Despite Kerry only needing to speak her verse, it still took some studio wizardry to get it just right.
Andy explains: “I recorded her 39 times and then chopped it all up, syllable by syllable to get the feel I wanted, and then she learned how to do it from how I sculpted it.”
He remembers the song being many people’s “guilty pleasure” at the time.
“The song was number one despite being by Atomic Kitten,” he says. “That was what people were saying to me. ‘We don’t like them, but we love the song’.”
Despite the girls’ increasingly demanding schedules, they were hellbent on having as much fun as possible.
“They had a tour manager, Helen, who was basically their chaperone,” Andy remembers.
“She would go and get them, and make sure they were in bed by midnight, and walk up and down the corridor making sure they stayed in their rooms, because they had to get up at 5:30am.
“As soon as Helen left the corridor, they’d be straight out to a club until five in the morning, come back to the hotel, have a quick shower, and go and do Ant and Dec on no sleep. Totally, totally crazy.”
As Whole Again took off, Kerry met and fell in love with Brian McFadden from Westlife. One day, completely out of the blue, Kerry announced that she wanted to quit the band. It did not go down well with Natasha and Liz.
“She just said, ‘I’m leaving the band’,” Andy recalls. “Me and the manager just sat her down, and she went, ’No, no, no, no. I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it.’ Her quote was, ‘If ever I’m asked to fly to Japan again first class, I’m going to scream’.
“Natasha’s just sitting there and goes, ‘I’m really good friends with Jenny Frost from Precious and they’ve split up. I’ll ask Jenny to join the band we’re in. I’ll get up and phone her’.
“Natasha was ruthlessly driven. A great singer but seriously ruthless. She’d been wanting to be a famous singer since she was four years old and Kerry leaving the band was not going to stop her.”
With Kerry out and Jenny in, the group got on with promoting their biggest hit to date.
“The first TV show they did was Jenny Frost’s first ever time in the band. She only knew two hours beforehand. They always had to sing it live because we only had recordings with Kerry on,” Andy says.
“The whole thing was just unbelievable. There’s no way this should’ve been a hit. It was a catalogue of catastrophes.”
Andy says that as soon as Whole Again was a hit, other artists wanted to record it for release in America.
“We turned down Britney Spears and Celine Dion,” Andy reveals. “They would’ve had a hit in another 50 countries around the world. We turned them down because it was our song for our babies. We were standing by our principles.”
Keen to capitalise on the girls’ success, Andy set to work on their second album.
“I must admit, we did feel under pressure because we had written that album over a space of about three years,” Andy says.
But after delivering the new songs to the record label, things began to turn sour when the head of the label wanted to stick to the group’s winning formula.
“He just looked at me and said, ’Andy, we have a formula. It’s Whole Again. I just want you to write me Whole Again, Whole Again, and more fucking Whole Again. If you don’t, I’ll get somebody else to do it’.”
“The next thing we know, six months later, we have our contract ripped up and we can’t talk to the girls for four years other than through lawyers."”
“The next thing we know, six months later, we have our contract ripped up and we can’t talk to the girls for four years other than through lawyers,” Andy says.
“It was really sad. Everything just sounded like more cover versions… like that same plodding Whole Again beat.”
Twenty years on, and with plenty of water under the bridge, how does the writer of one of the biggest pop songs of the millennium think it holds up?
“A lot of people tell me it’s a great song. A lot of people would shake their heads and go, ‘I cannot put together in my head that you are in OMD and you made Atomic Kitten’.
“I will put Whole Again up there – and I know most people will be horrified – right up alongside [OMD singles] Walking On The Milky Way and Electricity. It’s one of the top 10 singles I’ve ever written.”
And despite becoming estranged from the girls, two decades later, Andy has no hard feelings.
“I love them to bits,” he says. “The last time I spoke to Kerry, I did take the opportunity to apologise to her. I said ‘I’m really sorry. I had no idea I was throwing you into shark infested waters’, because it was a totally different experience to the one that I’d had. She has had the shit kicked out of her.
“Sometimes you don’t want your dreams to come true because if they do, you might just suddenly go, ‘Oh my god, this is not what I expected. I’m going to scream if I have to fly Japan first class one more time’.”