By 9.30am, the tide has receded far from Leigh On Sea, leaving boats moored on sand and a heavy mist over the Essex coastal town. Everything looks grey and washed out – everything, that is, apart from fifty-odd, dressed-up McFly fans milling around the tiny train station.
Though you wouldn’t know it from their deafening rendition of the group’s 2006 Comic Relief hit All About You, all of them are faced with a difficult decision. In nearby Westcliff, fans at the Cliffs Pavilion have already been shivering like marathon runners under silver blankets in anticipation of tonight’s low-key show. It’s not that they don’t have tickets; it’s just that twelve hours queueing in the October damp is a small price to pay for a decent view of their favourite band. If they choose to take that course of action, however, that means they will miss the chance to get new single The Heart Never Lies signed when the band appear later today at tiny Leigh-On-Sea record shop Fives. What would they do if they knew that they were being watched by the very band they’re here to see? Through smoked windows, the group’s co-frontmen Tom Fletcher and Danny Jones see everything, but show little reaction to it. They gaze on much as you would gaze on at a television in a doctor’s waiting room. Because, well, what else are you going to look at?
If bassist Dougie Poynter seems more interested in pointing out to his bandmates the nearby “dump” where he used to skateboard, it’s perhaps not so surprising. McFly’s fans have been screaming for four years now: before the band had released their first record; before drummer Harry Judd grew a mullet and shaved it off; before seven number one singles propelled them alongside Queen, Robbie Williams and U2 in pop’s pantheon of serial chart-toppers. “You never forget your first scream, do you?” says Fletcher, turning to Jones beside him. But Jones clearly has forgotten, so Judd picks up the story. “We were on our way to CD:UK to do [their debut single] Five Colours In Her Hair, and another band arrived at the same time. Sort of a Westlife thing – D-Side, I think they were called. Anyway, D-Side made their way in, and it sort of carried on. At that point, we realised they were screaming for us.”
They sound like old hands now – but then, even in 2004, at the time of our previous meeting, McFly had the air of a band well prepared for the gruelling realities of a pop star’s life. Fletcher had seen major pop success at close quarters, having already co-written with Busted. Crucially, he had also been given the chance to gauge how badly he wanted it for himself when, in the early weeks of Busted’s collective life, he was told he had passed an audition to be in the band. “I think I was in there for a total of 24 hours,” he recalls, “The management company that helped put them together had second thoughts and decided they would work best as a threesome. What did that do to me? What do you think? I was gutted.” After the Busted setback, he remembers his American manager telling him that he still wanted to work with him. “In my heart of hearts though, I was just thinking I’m probably never going to hear from him again.”
Unusually, for the high-stakes world of mainstream pop, McFly are a band built around a hunch – that hunch being that the two very different personality types of Fletcher and Jones might somehow spark off each other to create the basis of a long-term band. You suspect that, in a world of infinite choices, an audition to test Fletcher and Jones’ compatibility wouldn’t necessarily have been the latter’s chosen entry point into music. Save for a soliloquy concerning that lack of available AC/DC songs in iTunes, most of his musical conversations seem to centre around Bruce Springsteen. “What do I love about him? Every album he’s made since The Ghost Of Tom Joad, I think, ‘What the fuck has he done now?’ It’s never what you expect. And yet, you always end up obsessed with it.”
Tellingly, it’s also Jones who seems most irked by what he perceives as a denial of McFly’s songwriting talents in certain sections of the industry. “Telly-wise, there are two things I’ve always said I would love us to do,” he says. “One of them is Later with Jools Holland and the other is some sort of MTV Unplugged-type show. I even went up to Jools Holland’s daughter – who is a huge McFly fan, and asked her to try and get us on. But it hasn’t happened.” You can empathise with his frustration. The best songs on McFly’s Greatest Hits – Obviously, Room On The Third Floor, Please Please, Transylvania – radiate an ebullient classicism places them closer in sound and spirit to obscure but revered American new wave combos like The Raspberries and The Rubinoos.
The gulf between “grown-up” acceptance and their current teen appeal is one being tentatively addressed by McFly’s record company who are releasing the album with two covers – a “Guilty Pleasures” edition with a plain black sleeve; and another with images of the band splashed all over it. Fletcher seems more accepting of the place the band find themselves right now. “It’s to be expected,” he says, “There are people whose job it is to book you onto programmes like Later, and it would be surprising if we were near the top of their list. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do a good job if we were asked.”
Fletcher’s measured response is typical of the sanguine, sensible pragmatism he seems to bring to the job. Having spent his teenage years passing through the ranks of Sylvia Young School of Performing Arts, he seems most reconciled to the realities of being in McFly – realities that, he says, amount to doing two jobs at once. “You do all the stuff that NME bands do – writing and playing live – plus all the promotion that manufactured bands do.” The more time you spend with the band, the greater the contrast between the two main songwriters seems to become. When the subject of Fletcher’s schooling comes up, Jones smiles, “I’m from Bolton. We had nothing like that up there.” While Jones bemoans his own inability to wake up before 10.30am, Fletcher espouses the virtues of an early start. If he gets to come home after a gig, he’ll usually unwind at the piano. Jones starts drinking just before the band come on stage and, by his own admission, happily carries on into the night.
One thing that unites them all, however, is the excitement shared at the prospect of a day off, two days from now. How best to spend this brief window of free time is the source of fevered debate. Harry Judd is going to the dump “– it’s a classic Sunday thing, isn’t it?” Poynter might visit his parents in Basildon. I mention in passing that he must be the most famous pop star to come out of that part of the world since Depeche Mode. The the next two minutes are spent trying to convince him that Depeche Mode really are from Basildon. Honestly, I tell him, it’s really true. “But they don’t look like they’re from Basildon,” comes his incredulous response. I tell him about all the bouncy synth-pop tunes the group released before Vince Clark left to form Yazoo and Erasure. But this merely elicits more astonishment. “Vince Clark was in Depeche Mode!? That’s mad!” But of course, why would he be up to speed with the early history of a group that existed for seven years before he was born?
Fletcher, meanwhile, has a flying lesson booked in for his day off – something that elicits tones of hushed awe in his bandmates. After 20 hours of lessons, he reveals that last month saw him accomplish his first solo flight. “I have to say,” he adds, “I practically shat my pants. But I tell you what – once you’re up there, it’s the best feeling in the world.” Jones has a question for him. “Does that mean that if we were on a jumbo jet and the pilots came down with a fatal bug, you’d be able to land the plane?” “Funny you should say that,” responds Fletcher, “Because in one flying magazine I was reading, they did a test in a simulator to see if someone with a private pilot’s license could land a jumbo safely – and they did it. Of course, whether or not I can do it after 20 hours of lessons is another matter. You might live, albeit a bit shaken.”
If differences between certain members is striking – so, it must be said – is the absence of tension. In 2006, after living in the same house for two years, McFly bought all bought houses in the same street. This summer when they had a month off, they used it to go to Barbados together – “something,” assures Judd, “that you would never have caught Busted doing.” “The thing is,” explains Fletcher, “If you get on well with your bandmates, it’s the best thing in the world because you know that no matter how strange a day you’ve had – there’s always someone who knows exactly how it feels. I’d be much more inclined to leave if I was a solo artist. But logistically, it’s a bit difficult to leave yourself.”
As the people carrier reverses into the alleyway at the back of Fives, it’s beginning to look like today might be one of those “fucking strange days” to which Jones was referring. Unusually for a band of McFly’s popularity, the signing is unlimited. Unlike similar events at larger record shops where a certain amount of wristbands are allocated to lucky fans, anyone who queues for long enough gets to have their merchandise signed.
At the front of the queue is Becky, whose mother drove her here at 2.30am. Understandably, a timid “OK” is just about all she can muster when asked how she is feeling. Roughly two-thirds of the queue seems unanimous in its belief that Poynter is the dreamiest member of the band. “Why? Because he’s quiet and that makes him mysterious,” says Keeley from Southend – oblivious to the fact that minutes later, the “quiet, mysterious” bassist is apologizing to everyone within earshot for “my horrible farts.” Megan Kennard from Hastings awoke at 4.30am to get here. She turns around and lifts her top slightly to show that she has had Danny’s name tattooed on her back – as is de rigeur, these days – in Chinese. “Has he seen it? Yes. He thought it was cool. OHMYGOD! WE’RE GOING IN!”
Once in, autographs are routinely scribbled on heart-shaped picture discs, but many fans’ determination to get something unique out of McFly means that the requests get ever more outlandish. Jones is given a pink bracelet and asked to wear it at tonight’s show. All of the band are asked to sign a girl’s breasts as her mother gazes proudly on. Fletcher is given several letters asking that, between songs, various “shout outs” be given at tonight’s gig. Despite there being no room for them to sit down, the band stay for as long as they are required to. But after four hours the sysyphian nature of the teen idol’s lot becomes clear. The first fans to queue this morning have rejoined the line and are now coming around for a second time. This could go on indefinitely. “I know,” says Harry Judd, with the same tone of emotional disengagement necessary when you have to do anything repetitious for four hours, “It’s a war of attrition. How long would we have to stay before they get bored of queueing? Well, one day we will stay. That’ll freak them out.”