Released: 29th January 2001
Writers: Andy McCluskey / Stuart Kershaw / Jem Godfrey / Bill Padley
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-1-1-1-2-3-4-4-7-7-8-14-16-17-19-21-26-31-30-38-46-63-X-73
Every so often, a song comes along that completely changes the trajectory of a pop act’s career. For Atomic Kitten, Whole Again was that song.
The group’s first year was headlined by a triumvirate of uptempo (and arguably superior) tracks intended to establish Atomic Kitten as a cheeky, sprightly trio of young women. And whilst they all reached the top ten, none were enduring hits with enough substance to generate significant interest in the group’s debut album Right Now, which peaked at #39 in October 2000.
The official line on Whole Again has always been that it was a last-ditch attempt by Atomic Kitten to reverse their floundering chart fortunes. Faced with being dropped by Virgin Records after the so-so performance of their fourth single Follow Me, the band begged for one last. And perhaps there’s no reason to doubt that – except it goes completely against the grain of record label ethos at the time. We’re led to believe that Atomic Kitten didn’t just manage to convince Virgin to manufacture a physical product with low profit margin, but also fork out the cash for a music video (even if it was a pittance). Call us cynical, but what Atomic Kitten needed more than anything was a narrative; something to set them apart from the sea of pop acts pouring into the market. And that is what Whole Again gave them.
The single is, in the politest way possible, lowest common denominator pop music (and hey, we’re totally here for that). It’s meticulously crafted to be the sort of song that everyone can relate to; lines like: “Baby you’re the one, you still turn me on” are delivered in such a sexless manner that the lyrics and sentiment effortlessly stretched beyond that of the fractured relationship they were depicting.
As a point of pop reference, there were initially parallels to be drawn between Whole Again and All Saints’ Never Ever. Early pressings of the Japanese album release contain a significantly different version of the song where the verses are spoken by Kerry Katona (which gives a bit of context to the spoken middle-eight that was retained for the final version). Accepting that Atomic Kitten probably didn’t have the gravitas to sell a song in that manner, taking it down a different route was wise. Whole Again is not an example of clever writing; it is instead an example of how to successfully package predictable writing. From the very first time you hear the song, you can safely guess how almost every rhyming couplet is going to end, so trying to dress it up as a dramatic, profound confessional would be daft.
Instead, the already-familiar lyrics were gifted the sort of beat that is pre-programmed into a Casio keyboard and vocals that are functional but by no means remarkable. Whether you’re nonchalantly humming along to it on the radio or drunkenly singing along to it on a night out, Whole Again is very much an achievement of commitment over ability or effort. And thus, it’s perhaps not a surprise that it struck such a chord with the market. For conclusive evidence of this, you need only consult 2018’s Gareth Southgate-inspired re-working.
My friends make me smile
If only for a while
You can make me whole again
Even once Whole Again had established itself as a success, there were more twists to come for Atomic Kitten. Just a few days after the song topped the chart, Kerry Katona announced she was pregnant and promptly leaving the group. Just a few weeks earlier and it’s entirely possible that this would’ve been the final straw for Virgin – but with a #1 single on their hands, contingency plans were instead drawn up and Jenny Frost (formerly of Precious) was brought in as a replacement, immediately taking over promotional duties.
Initially, the plan was for Atomic Kitten v2.0 to record a follow-up single that would be released shortly after Whole Again. But having taken the unlikeliest of routes into the chart, the song continued to defy ‘00s chart logic by growing its sales week-on-week to remain at #1 for a month (for the chart geeks, its consecutive sales were: 69,285 / 85,295 / 101,919 / 113,090). Kerry Katona was almost immediately phased out of nearly every aspect of the track, with Jenny Frost appearing in all live performances and a partially re-shot music video; it was as though she’d always been there – except when it came to the audio, since it was Katona’s version that continued to be sold in the shops.
Jenny Frost’s takeover was completed later that summer when her vocals featured on Atomic Kitten’s re-recorded debut album. And the following year a sparkling new music video was shot for the American release of Whole Again, after the group allegedly denied Britney Spears the opportunity to record it (hmm…!)
It goes without saying that Whole Again was a significant moment for Atomic Kitten. Somewhere between selling a million copies and casually swapping a member, the group unintentionally found a new sound that would dictate their immediate future. For better or for worse, the brash pop of Atomic Kitten v1.0 was swiftly traded for the MOR pop of Atomic Kitten v2.0 and would scarcely be seen again.