If you had seen the four lads sipping pints in a Kuala Lumpur hotel bar, you might have thought – if you couldn’t see their faces – they were just four Irish lads, abroad for work, catching up over a beer; chatting about going home, about the families, wives, partners and babies they had left behind, about the future.
What you couldn’t have known – even if you could see their faces – was that these four fresh-faced young men with pints in their hands had just agreed to break up the most successful boyband in decades.
In doing so, they were waving goodbye to millions of euro; closing the book on a 14-year collaboration that had brought them 14 No.1 singles, 44 million album sales, 10 sellout tours – and riches beyond the dreams of (as their manager once labelled them) ‘some cute culchies and a Dub’.
They were also turning their back on a £5m deal from RCA, the giant record company that also boasts talent such as Alicia Keys and David Bowie. And, of course, they were breaking the hearts of millions of fans worldwide – and none more devoted than those at home in Ireland.
But the truth is that the break-up of Westlife, while a shock to their devotees, had been brewing for more than a year. The group had been torn apart by concerns about their direction; a wedge had been driven between them by Simon Cowell’s record label, Syco; and they were finding separation from their families increasingly unbearable. Despite all the money, the adulation and the achievement, Westlife, quite simply, had had enough.
While all bands experience various strains and stresses on the way – U2 recently admitted nearly breaking up during the recording of Achtung Baby in 1991 – Westlife had proved remarkably resilient. They had easily weathered the loss of Bryan McFadden… to the extent that it was he who was begging to rejoin them last week. The fact that three of the members – Shane Filan, Mark Feehily and Kian Egan – were all from Sligo had given them a strong bond, without ever suggesting that the fourth man, Nicky Byrne, was an outsider. They were still selling out Croke Park and their lustre appeared undimmed.
During 2010, however, they began to have serious problems with their longtime label, Syco – owned by Simon Cowell, the most powerful man in pop. Even the fact that they were managed by Louis Walsh, a close friend of Cowell with an unparrallelled track record, didn’t help.
Westlife felt Cowell and his label had lost interest in them and were unwilling to co-operate with the singers’ plans. The band felt the last two Westlife albums, Where We Are and Gravity, contained some of their best work, so good they felt that there were three singles on each – but the label seemed unwilling to back them up.
The first release, Safe, limped into the British charts at No.10, their weakest-ever position. Beautiful Tonight had been earmarked as the second single but Cowell pulled the plug on any further releases.
‘This was when the cracks started forming within the band,’ said a well placed source. All four felt Gravity was an ‘incredible’ album but Cowell wouldn’t release any more singles. Cowell knew Westlife fans would buy the albums anyway so why waste money on videos and promotions for singles? It was February and the British leg of the Gravity tour was under way but only one single had been released.
‘Mark was very upset by this, having written on four tracks,’ said a source. ‘He desperately wanted the group to take control back from the Syco and made it clear to the others that if they didn’t leave, the band was doomed. So they phoned Louis and told him the situation. The future of the group and their friendships were in jeopardy.’
As the band began touring Britain earlier this year, the atmosphere had deteriorated to such an extent that the four members were not leaving their dressing rooms. Because of increasing frustrations, tempers were often lost backstage before gigs. Shane and Mark had chartered a private plane to fly them home to Sligo each night after shows – allowing them to make it home no matter what happened. Nicky was spending more and more time working with 2FM on the radio and was in constant demand. Kian’s girlband, Wonderland – whose members included his wife, Jodi Albert – was on tour with Westlife, and the dual responsibility demanded 20-hour days for the singer, further fuelling stress. Shane, on the other hand, was preoccupied with his family as his daughter began school in Sligo.
At times, phone calls between the members ended in shouting matches, with Mark threatening to walk out on a number of occasions. Then, on March 14, a deal was struck with the record label – and it seemed peace had returned. After 10 years with Simon Cowell, Westlife were released from their contract. They would finish the Gravity tour and afterwards become free agents.
The singers had gained control of their music and could plan their own future. ‘It was like a blood transfusion for the four of them,’ reveals the insider.
Within days, they had lined up another label, RCA – like Syco, still part of the Sony family. Louis used his connections to set up a meeting, and it looked like the group’s fortunes were changing. As the band’s future became more secure, relations continued to thaw between the singers.
On March 25 they played the LG Arena in Birmingham, a venue they had performed at many times before. That evening, they met RCA to negotiate the terms of the album that would be Westlife’s next step.
As Wonderland warmed up the crowd, a party of five executives listened attentively as Mark, Shane, Nicky and Kian discussed a greatest hits project. Louis waited nervously on the phone, eager to find out how the meeting had gone.
Each member of the band would pick three songs for the record, along with four new tracks. These tracks would be worked on with producer John Shanks in LA and released as three separate singles. The record executives doodled on the paper tablecloth in the canteen. By 7pm, a deal was agreed – one album, a greatest hits tour and then a two-year break.
A grinning Shane was unable to contain his excitement as he talked of the new contract, sinking back in his dressing room chair as a broad smile crept across his face.
‘It’s unreal and we are just over the moon right now to have done the deal,’ he said.’We are still in negotiations with RCA over the finer points but we have signed with them for the Greatest Hits. It’s a trial period because we aren’t going to sign our life away to someone we don’t know. We need to see that this is the right place and home for Westlife.’
It was a statement that would prove prophetic – and one that hinted Westlife were no longer content to sit back and let executives manage their lives. The Gravity tour ended with four sold-out shows in Dublin’s 02, after which the band flew business class to LA and recorded their new tracks: Lighthouse, Beautiful World, Wide Open and Last Mile Of The Way. Mark and Shane co-wrote two of the tracks. But Shane’s foreshadowing became piercingly relevant in July, when manager Louis Walsh received a call from RCA. The label wanted to extend its relationship with Westlife – offering a £5m deal for a series of albums.
Louis was ecstatic: but the band was not. Intent on following their hearts and their own paths, Westlife saw a downside to the deal. ‘Louis called the boys to give them the news expecting to hear excitement,’ a source said. ‘But the new contract would have them back recording in 2012 and touring again in 2013.
‘They were exhausted. They had their hearts set on taking a break. Life on the road had changed. And while the conditions had greatly improved – they enjoyed the best tour buses, five-star hotels and first-class flights – their personal situations had altered dramatically. They weren’t twenty-somethings any more – they had responsibilities.
‘They were about to embark on a six-week tour of the Far East and the thought of working solidly for the next two years was too much to bear. Kian was going to be a father, Shane and Nicky were desperately missing their families. Mark, whose writing had taken him in a different musical direction, was keen to do other projects.’
They decided to call Louis and reject the deal. Their longtime manager already had an inkling that they might do exactly that. And he also suspected what would happen next.
After spending literally all of their adult lives together, the four band members were keen to focus on their own families and careers – hoping to enjoy personal time that was not always overshadowed by the professional. The boys began to ask each other whether they should carry on as a band at all.
Shane was already homesick when a cyber stalker threatened his family at home in Sligo. His decision was crystallised – he wanted to leave.
Simultaneously, Mark was dealing with his own cyber stalker. He was forced to call British police after threats were made against him and his partner, Kevin McDaid. He also wanted to quit.
Kian was now focused on becoming a father with his wife Jodi, and he had just landed a job as coach on the new RTÉ talent show, The Voice Of Ireland. He wanted to leave, too.
Nicky’s stint on 2FM as a guest DJ had tapped into something of a talent and he found himself inundated with job offers. He was also homesick, missing his wife Georgina and his twins, Jay and Rocco. He wanted to leave.
So on that fateful night in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, the friends decided to invoke the pact they had made when Brian left in March 2004. They had decreed that if one member wanted to leave, they would disband. And now that all four were ready to leave Westlife, the decision was obvious – and easy.
‘It was their decision, all theirs,’ Louis told the MoS. ‘That was always the way with Westlife and I had to respect that. Could they have gone on for longer? Most definitely. I would have liked them to take a break and come back with a covers album and a tour.
But they all want to do other things. They have ended it on their terms and remain close friends. Had they gone on longer, who knows if that would happen?
‘When the statement went out this week, I know that all four of them were hurting at the upset they caused their fans. But at least they will be able to give them a proper goodbye. And who knows what will happen down the line?’
And even if they choose to do nothing but enjoy the comforts of family life, they will still be able to bask in their riches – and in the fact that five kids from unfashionable parts of a little country called Ireland became the biggest thing since the Beatles. Not bad for a few cute culchies and a Dub…