Busted: Heroes for the alcopop generation

To their fans, Busted are the anarchic face of teen pop. The band themselves long to be seen as serious musicians. But for Johann Hari, an encounter with the chart-toppers was like being locked in a room with all the boys he hated most at school...
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Busted don't make pop music. They are the greatest exponents in Britain today of a quite different sound: alcopop music. It resembles serious pop in the same way that a Lemon Bacardi Breezer resembles a single-malt whisky: it's aimed at bored 12-year-olds, it's sweet and light, and if you are exposed to too much of it, you vomit. Oh - and like real alcopops, there's a new flavour out every week.

But, for the next few hours, I can never quite forget that there are vicious hordes of prepubescent girls across Britain who would gladly jolt me aside with an electric cattle-prod and trample over my smoking corpse just to be standing here in the band's rehearsal room. Charlie Simpson - universally known as "the fit one" - pauses in the middle of a run-through of "Crashed the Wedding". "I'm sorry, my throat's buggered," he says from below his baseball cap. The other two band members, James Bourne and Mattie Jay, clamber down from the small stage and take seats for the interview. "You're not well," the band's PR says, mopping Charlie's brow. "Bless." He slouches over towards us and begins to flick through a copy of NME distractedly, before - a few minutes into the interview - the same PR snatches the magazine away.

Now, I freely confess that I probably didn't start out on the best tack with Busted. Anybody who has been at school at any time since the Seventies knows this breed without a second glance. They are the lanky music geeks who are more interested in obscure LA bands than the fittest girl (or boy) in the year. All through my school years, I could only deal with the music obsessives by out-smoking them and making ever-descending bad-taste jokes about their favourite dead rock stars. Suddenly, as the three band members look at me with a come-on-then-where's-your-questions glare, I am 15 again. Our interview is taking place as Michael Jackson is again in the headlines, and I find myself saying to James, a Jackson fanatic: "So, your hero. Do you think he's a paedophile?"

Probably not the best thing to say to a man so obsessed with Jacko that he is seriously considering buying a chimp. There is silence. Charlie looks up from his copy of NME. Mattie coughs. "The thing is, yeah, everyone grows up on different stuff. I grew up on Michael Jackson," James says this slowly, as though speaking to a very deaf foreigner. "I'd love to collaborate with him. Everyone makes mistakes. It was a mistake. Get over it." What, abusing children? Get over it? "No. I mean the baby-dangling thing." James's face has contracted into a look of pure contempt. A sensible interviewer would change the subject at this point.

The demon who has clearly possessed me, however, continues. So, is he a pervert? What do you reckon? Silence, and that facial expression. I change the subject, and stammer: "Michael Jackson is an extreme example of the warping effects of fame. Do you guys feel fame changing you?" Charlie waves his hand dismissively, and says in an accent only posh people trying to sound normal can achieve: "No. It hasn't changed me in any way." Silence again. I long for a dinner bell to ring so we can all go off to lessons.

I don't find it hard to believe Charlie, though. Busted have had so little down-time to absorb their fame that it can't have had much impact yet. Eighteen months ago they were rehearsing in their garage in south London. Mattie and my new-found enemy, James, advertised in the NME for a front man. The minute Charlie, tall and long-limbed and pretty, came in, they knew they had found their third band-member. Busted's debut songs - most famously "What I Go To School For" - burst to the top of the charts, and they've been touring and recording ever since.

James has clearly been dwelling on Jacko. "Listen," he says. "You should see how much he does for kids. How much he cares about kids. So for somebody to be allegating [sic] that he abuses kids, that's got to be his worst nightmare. People just want to see him walking into a courtroom every day. Waiting for him to come out and have cameras in his face. He's an easy target. He's the greatest musician ever. The greatest. Nightmare. Must be his worst. Bullshit."

Yes. Suddenly, as I look over my list of entirely bland questions, it hits me that I am wasting my time. Good alcopop stars will always make lousy interviewees. Alcopop is an adolescent art-form: the emotions it conveys are the simple, fresh agonies of life experienced for the first time. If you are brilliant at making this kind of art - and Busted, all in their late teens, undoubtedly are - then you won't be interesting to talk to. This is not a helpful thing to realise in the first five minutes of an interview. I begin to panic.

OK: teenage boys are vile. (Trust me on this; I was one more recently than most journalists.) The way to get them to speak, it occurs to me, is to encourage malice. "Tell me, who do you really hate?" Charlie springs to life. "Kelly Osbourne. Fat, ugly, thick slag." The others roar approval. "I thought her song was shit. Her new one with Ozzy is the most appalling song I have ever heard. She said about us that we don't write our own songs or play our own instruments. It's bullshit. Don't sneer at our success."

Mattie chips in: "Yeah, I hate that. A bloke came up to me at a gig last night and said, 'Bands like you are the reason Kurt Cobain killed himself.' What the...?" Before I can absorb that point, Charlie says to me: "If Ozzy Osbourne wasn't her dad, where do you think she'd be?" James answers on my behalf: "In a doughnut factory." They literally fall about laughing. Mattie's whole body seems to fling itself about the room. Charlie says: "Kelly Osbourne's singing is like, ungggghhhhhhh." He makes noises like someone drowning. I try to smile.

We continue to chatter like this for 10 minutes. There's something almost calming about Busted's total emptiness. Mick Jagger was an angry young man whose lips were as likely to talk politics as pout. He used to speak about street fightin' men and legalising cannabis - and what happened? He grew into a crumpled, faintly pitiful husk who lives as a cash exile so he can jealously hoard his millions, and went begging for an OBE. Busted, in contrast, will go from meaningless exuberance to... less well-known meaningless exuberance. The only way they could sell out is to read a book, and I think their fans need not fear on that front.

They cannot betray their values because, as Matt explains: "Right from the beginning we were only interested in the commercial stuff and the music stuff. We've never pretended to mean anything. We never said we cared about, like, the world. We sold out before we even began." I know that people who wrote lyrics like "I've been to the year three thousand/ Not much has changed but they lived under water/ And your great-great-great grand-daughter/ Is pretty fine" aren't going to want to talk about the Middle East peace process, but I suddenly feel oddly like crying.

Out of nowhere, perhaps sensing that I have no idea where to go with this interview now, James begins to insist that I must never refer to Busted as a boy band. "That is, like, the most offensive term ever. People can call us what they want, as long as it's not a boy band. There's a clear difference between us and Westlife. Even a blind man can tell the difference, because we sound different. We're not, not, not a boy band. It's a clear split down the middle: boy bands and us. It's only in England that people call us a boy band. Nobody does it in Germany. In America, it's a good thing to be popular. Not here. Gareth Gates is boy-band material. He should just go on cruise ships and sing whatever song he wants with his whiny little voice."

James is now engaged in a full, industrial-strength whinge. "Why do people like Pink and Coldplay get so much of the respectability that we deserve? We refused to go with Simon Cowell [the notorious Pop Idol judge and music-industry boss]. We didn't want to be associated with that shit. We didn't want to be a Simon Cowell band. Then we really would have been a boy band. Sugababes were on Jools Holland. Why haven't we been asked? We write far more of our songs than most bands that get respect." Elton John once, at the height of his fame, sat in a hotel looking out of the window and howled to his entourage: "It's very windy outside. Can somebody please do something about it, now." I can imagine - given a few more years of the distorting effects of fame - that James will be making similar demands.

He starts to complain about his fans, too. "There was this one girl who was everywhere we went. I mean, everywhere. We'd get out of a car - anywhere in Britain - and she'd be there in the crowd. She writes these letters. Filthy letters. She wrote me a five-page letter apologising for videoing outside my house." Mattie picks up: "Yeah, she gave me a card, and I opened it up. On one side it said, 'Just want to be close to you,' and on the other side, she had glued loads of her pubic hair. I mean, loads of it. And she is the fattest, ugliest girl."

I must look surprised at how cruel they are being about an obviously disturbed teenager, because Mattie says: "Nah, I don't feel bad saying it. She freaks me out." James adds: "I have nightmares about her. I'm in bed and she's there. You just want to say, 'Look, you're 15, you're fat, I'm not going to want to go out with you.'"

Enough. I decide to end the interview and start smoking again. They melt back into their moody rehearsal as I pack up. I notice for the first time the music-industry hawks lurking around the studio, as though sent from central casting. You know this type: 30-year-old men with bleached spiky hair and thousand-pound suits, too much aftershave and the smug look that comes from too much money. The Busted lads are clearly going to be swallowed whole and then belched out, barely digested, into the desert to die by these vultures. And you know something? I don't care.