Music

The Good, The Bad And Human Nature: A Brief History Of The Australian Boy Band

It's weirder than you'd think.

boy band

Lisa Simpson once described Springfield’s rivalry with Shelbyville like this: “They built a mini-mall, so we built a bigger mini-mall.”

In one way or another, the Australian music industry has always been trying to build a bigger mini-mall than the Shelbyvillians over in the US or the UK. Whatever they do, we try to do ourselves. But, save for a couple of examples, the sunburnt country often falls short — and that’s never more apparent than when it comes to our boy bands.

But for every ten failed attempts, Australia has cobbled together a few winners. Consider this an abridged history of the Aussie boy band — from ‘Friday On My Mind’ to ‘Youngblood’.

1965 – 1989: Influential Beginnings

If The Beatles served as the UK’s boy band prototype in their early years, The Easybeats did the same here in Australia.

With their boyish charm and sharp suits, the ‘Friday On My Mind’ hitmakers were big hits both here and abroad. Their success set the mould for record labels going forward: get yourself a number of marketably-cute young men, get them in some marketably-cute outfits and either write them (or help write them) some marketably-cute songs.

Plenty of acts that took the pop charts in the intervening years fit this bill in a broader sense, but perhaps the first proper goes at establishing a local boy band were acts like Indecent Obsession and CDB. The former took to keytar-rocking synthpop in the spirit of Wa Wa Nee (that band’s singer, the late Paul Gray, served as their producer) and Psuedo Echo, scoring two top 20 hits in 1989.

The latter, meanwhile, were more or less a reaction to the rise of new jack swing — matching outfits, slick dance moves and a looming debt to vintage R&B and soul. This was particularly true in CDB’s case — their biggest hit, after all, was a cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘Groove Tonight’, which basically served as the audio equivalent of a shot-for-shot remake.

Both acts are also notable for the involvement their alum would later have on pop music. Take Bardot’s number-one ‘Poison’, for instance — that’s produced by Indecent’s Michael Szumowski and written by his bandmate Daryl Sims. CDB’s Gary Pinto, meanwhile, would go on to become a vocal coach for both Australian Idol and The X Factor, as well as a songwriter with Idol alum Guy Sebastian and Anthony Callea.

1996 – 2006: Heating Up

In 1996, the game changed yet again with the arrival of Human Nature. Originally forming as an a capella doo-wop group in 1989, the quartet were reinvented as sensitive heartthrobs on the back of their first two singles, ‘Got It Goin’ On’ and ‘Tellin’ Everybody’. By the time Telling Everybody — with the G inexplicably reinstated — was released in 1997, the group had become one of the hottest commodities in Australian music.

It’s fascinating to think about when one looks back at their videos now: the choreography is messy, their look is dishevelled and Phil Burton sports some of the most ill-advised facial hair this side of Cog’s Flynn Gower. When their voices sync up, however, their presence is undeniable. It’s easy to see what everyone from Michael Jackson to John Farnham saw in them — as far as the traditional boy band format is concerned, Human Nature were the closest thing Australia had for a long time to building a bigger mini-mall.

You can also look at Human Nature’s trajectory as reflective of the trends that followed the boy band aesthetic. When tender Backstreet Boys songs were popular, so too were tender Human Nature songs. When *NSYNC took over the world, Human Nature made a record that sounded exactly like *NSYNC (2000’s Human Nature). Finally, when people stopped caring about boy bands, Human Nature reverted into a suit-and-tie soul revue show and laughed their way to the bank. Full credit to the boys — they knew the game, and they thoroughly played it.

The same can’t be said for a lot of other acts that attempted to break through in the era of Human Nature. Take poor Universal, for example — a trio of brothers with a pop-reggae sound and Elvis hips to gyrate hypnotically. Their Wikipedia entry is telling: “They released three singles on London Records… when the third single failed to make an impact, the band dissolved.” Brutal. Not even an album to lay claim to. That’s how cutthroat things were back in the day.

Other failures from the turn of the century include Mercury4, whose two original singles sounded like Human Nature b-sides and were, as legend tells, voted the ugliest boy band of all time; as well as North, who picked up minor success in South East Asia but none here at home. Perhaps leading with a cover of Peter Cetera’s ‘Glory of Love’ was, in retrospect, not the best career move.

I mean, their haircuts could’ve been better

In fact, by the mid-2000s, the closest thing Australia had to any kind of boy band was BoyTown, a goofy 2006 comedy film in which a fictional 80s boy band attempt a comeback by singing about their middle-age lives.

2007 – 2016: TV Buys In

It would be a few more years at least before the Kraken awoke once more — this time within the world of television. Both Australia’s Got Talent and the Australian version of The X Factor brought new boy bands to national attention — among them the EDM-favouring Young Men Society, the Aryan pop of JTR and the literal bro-country of Brothers3.

In Stereo, who were finalists in season seven of The X Factor, kept the dream alive way longer than they had any right to — their split only came only two months ago. There was also the matter of The Collective, who formed the exact same way that One Direction did (five soloists in The X Factor bandied together by the judges), were subsequently mentored by One Direction and had a top ten single, ‘Surrender’, that sounded exactly like… One Direction.

Only one group from this era, would have any skerrick of lasting success — and, ironically enough, they never set out to be a musical group. Justice Crew began as a hybrid of two separate dance troupes in 2009. The following year, they won Australia’s Got Talent in its fourth season and were signed to Sony two months later. It was a gamble, but it paid off in the form of two number-one singles: ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘Que Sera’.

The group ended up being an interesting tweak of the boy band convention in two key ways. For one, rather than have choreography and dance as a secondary or supplementary element, it’s their central focus — even performing original songs, they’re always part and parcel of routines created by the troupe themselves.

Furthermore, the focus is on the group as a collective unit, with no greater focus being pushed onto any one individual. It’s often the case that a group of this nature will have an unspoken leader who is tipped as the breakout star. Similar to Human Nature, Justice Crew are the sum of their parts — and whether you like their music or not, there’s something to be said for that.

2011 – Today: 5SOS Take Over

As our attention moved away from our TV screens and onto our computers, so too did the evolution of the boy band.

Our most recent addition to the boy band industrial complex got their start not by being picked out of a line by major label execs, but as friends doing covers on YouTube. 5 Seconds of Summer were tipped to become the Australian equivalent of One Direction and, fascinatingly, ended up outliving them.

The evolution of the group has seen them score a massive international pop-rock hit on their first record, under-perform considerably on their second and more or less reinvent themselves entirely for their third. That’s one hell of a trajectory for a band few could have predicted to last much longer beyond their first hit.

After previously choosing to go with the goofy pop-punk aesthetic, 5SOS are fully embracing their sex-symbol status on their current run in support of Youngblood, which has given us two massive hits already and the first locally-produced ARIA #1 single in two years. They’re closer to the traditional sense of the boy band now than ever before — if not in their approach to the live show, then certainly within their immediate aesthetic and sonic palette.

It’s worth noting that the group has dismissed the boy band tag in the past, much in the same way many of the third-wave emo acts of the 2000s didn’t want to be associated with the genre. The reasoning, one can safely assume, is the stigma — and fair enough, really. It’s taken years for the phrase not to be seen as a dirty word, for such groups’ fandoms to be perceived as legitimate, and for the talent required to make this type of music to be acknowledged.

Both ‘Want You Back’ and ‘Youngblood’ are getting the best reviews of 5SOS’ career, and even their earlier work is being looked back upon fondly — last year, Billboard placed ‘She Looks So Perfect’ in the top half of their list of ‘The 100 Greatest Choruses of the 21st Century’. That’s astronomical praise for a song — and band — that have previously faced a tepid critical reception.

So, what can we learn from local attempts at creating a boy band sensation? Essentially, the ones that have survived the longest are the ones that have learned to adapt and evolve, such as Human Nature and now 5 Seconds of Summer. There was a cold half-decade there where the format lay dormant, and the fact it’s come back around doesn’t guarantee it’ll stay this way. We’re in a post-1D world, after all — and they ate up all of their competition bar our boys in 5SOS.

Like any trend in pop, the boy band format is cyclical, temporary and occasionally cut-throat. Only the strong — and the sensitive, naturally — survive.

David James Young is a writer and a podcaster. Tweet him your favourite Aussie boy band songs: @DJYwrites.