In July, the launch of Secret Cinema’s Back to the Future event was a comprehensive debacle. But not every reboot inspired by the time-travel franchise fared so badly. For McFly and pop-punk trailblazers Busted, the decision to join forces was one of 2014’s more surprising success stories.
In a management office in south-west London, as McBusted’s first full year together draws to a close, I put it to the six members that their merger could easily have been a fiasco.
“Hold on,” says Dougie Poynter, one of the supergroup’s two bassists. “Define fiasco.”
“Well, it could have been really embarrassing,” accepts his McFly bandmate Tom Fletcher.
“It really was a huge gamble,” agrees Busted’s James Bourne. “We put everything on red. If it had gone badly, both bands would have looked shit.”
That bet paid off. Having tentatively announced 11 arena dates, the band ended up selling out 33 on a tour whose set-pieces included spaceships, giant inflatables and a flying DeLorean; in the summer, they headlined a 65,000-capacity Hyde Park show. More recently, McBusted released their first album, and announced a second arena tour.
“Even NME did an all right piece about us,” announces drummer Harry Judd. “Whereas 10 years ago they captioned a photo ‘From left to right: Cunt, Twat, Dickhead and Wanker.’”
“I remember us all standing on a UFO, hanging from the ceiling of the O2,” Poynter says. “And I was just shouting to the other guys, ‘How did we get here?’”
It’s a complex story. In 2000, Bourne and Matt Willis formed the band that would become Busted. Charlie Simpson joined, but Busted’s management kept in touch with another auditionee, Tom Fletcher, who formed McFly with Poynter, Judd and Danny Jones. Busted helped launch McFly; Fletcher wrote for Busted, Bourne wrote for McFly. Between them, the two acts scored platinum albums, numerous No 1s and record-breaking tours, and helped to introduce an entire generation of teenagers to guitar music.
When Simpson left Busted and that band came to an abrupt end, McFly continued, but by 2013 their success had plateaued. McFly and Busted never received huge radio support, but they broke through thanks to a network of institutions such as Smash Hits, CD:UK, and Top of the Pops, all of which fell away during McFly’s decade together.
“It gets hard,” Fletcher says today. “It’s the same for a lot of pop bands. You start at No 1. All your singles are No 1s. But then you have a No 2. Then a three. Then another band comes along.”
McFly were smart enough to buoy their profile with individual appearances on shows such as I’m a Celebrity …, Popstar to Operastar and Strictly Come Dancing. But three attempts to record their sixth album had proved frustrating. “We’d go away, write, feel happy with what we’d done, then come back and realise that the music wasn’t as good as we’d thought,” Judd admits. “And then we’d go off on tour.”
Busted’s former members encountered their own difficulties. “I had no Plan B,” Willis recalls. “During the final weeks of Busted, there were whispers in my ear: ‘You’re going to be a solo artist!’ I was like: ‘Er, I don’t know if I want to do that – but OK!’ I didn’t really care. I’d never thought it through. I had no idea what I should be doing.”
Against the odds, he made a rather good solo album, but it sold poorly. He says now that following Busted’s demise his main highpoint was “finding a dealer who’d deliver wherever I wanted – I had ‘Gakman’ on speed dial”. A typical night, he admits, would involve his mates sitting around his phone bellowing an amended version of the Batman theme. Meeting future wife Emma Griffiths was “the only thing that helped”.
For Bourne, whose own post-Busted project, Son of Dork, also failed, there was a problem. “People would just say: ‘What happened to your band?’ Record labels saw me as a guy who used to be successful. When I was 22, an A&R at Atlantic Records told me I was too old to do music.”
Bourne moved to America to pursue his songwriting, but even after he had launched his own musical Busted, being in a band was an itch he needed to scratch. In 2008, he and Willis came close to signing a new deal as Busted, but Simpson still owned a third of the band’s name, and without the name that deal fell through. (Six years on a song from that period, What Happened To Your Band?, became one of the McBusted album’s more poignant moments.)
More recently, Bourne was fielding calls from ITV’s The Big Reunion. “I’ve got friends in bands who did The Big Reunion,” he says. “It’s worked for them, and that’s fine. But The Big Reunion would have taken our band to the bonfire and burnt it. It would have flushed everything that was good about our band down the toilet.”
Avoiding that Busted flush proved a wise move, even if McBusted eventually happened by accident.
In 2013, Bourne was back in the UK to see his family, and made a last-minute decision to see McFly perform in Manchester. Before the support act, McFly suggested it would be fun for James to go out and sing a few numbers. The audience went berserk. “I came off,” he remembers, “and everyone backstage was going crazy, too.”
What happened next is proof that the often lackadaisical music industry can move surprisingly quickly when a large sack of cash is on the horizon. “It was very strange that night,” recalls Danny Jones from McFly. “After the gig I said to our live agent: ‘Do you want to come for a beer?’ And he was like: ‘Sorry, I’ve got a meeting.’” Later that night, Bourne says: “There was a knock on my hotel room door. It was our manager, with a list of potential tour dates.”
McBusted began to take shape. The next step was for Willis and Bourne to join McFly on stage at their 10th anniversary shows at the Royal Albert Hall. The surprise union of two bands with such a powerful shared history prompted social media meltdown. Subsequently, the pair met Simpson to discuss buying his portion of Busted’s name. It was the first time the trio had been in the same room since Busted’s final press conference; the smalltalk, Willis laughs, was fairly excruciating, but a deal was done and McBusted was go.
Willis and Bourne didn’t ask Simpson to join McBusted, which in theory means he has not refused, which in turn does not rule out a future return. Bourne phrases things slightly differently: “He hasn’t been invited.”
The chap who inspired McFly’s bandname would no doubt point out that it’s hard to predict how going back into one’s own past can affect your immediate future, but McBusted seem unfazed by what their own future might or might not hold. “We’re basically making this up as we go along,” Bourne cheerily reports.
“And that’s the awesome thing,” Poynter says. “It’s like driving in fog: there could be a pileup ahead, or it could be a nice straight road.”
This would be the ideal point for one of the band to note that where McBusted are heading, they don’t need roads. Instead, talk turns to the red carpet run at that night’s Cosmopolitan awards, where they are due to win the Men of the Year gong. The defining McBusted image – the one that captures precisely how thrilled both bands were to have found a way to move their music forward – was taken on the red carpet at a Hunger Games premiere where the sextet formed a human pyramid. Tonight, they say, they have an even better idea.
A few hours after I have said goodbye to McBusted I check Twitter to see what, exactly, they achieved. And there it is: a photograph of the band on the red carpet. Two are on their knees with their heads bent back, three are standing, one seems to be falling into another. Between them, Busted and McFly have managed to spell out the word “dick”. It might not be the height of sophistication but it’s entertaining, distinctive, and neither band could have done it alone.
• The album McBusted is out now on Island. McBusted tour the UK in March and April 2015. Details: mcbusted.com