One of the UK’s biggest ever boy bands got back together when member Tom Parker was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now, as they release their ‘Greatest Hits’ and with a new tour on the horizon, they talk to Roisin O’Connor about rivalry and rising above the haters
In September, the five members of British-Irish boy band The Wanted performed on stage together for the first time in seven years. To fans, it seemed as though everything was business as usual, right down to their hairstyles, each distinct from the other. But a lot had changed. Most were now in their thirties. Some were engaged or married with kids. Some had embarked on solo careers. One of them was a Strictly Come Dancing champion; another had given the show his best shot. And one of them had brain cancer.
It was Tom Parker who brought the band together for a show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. He announced his diagnosis – a terminal and inoperable brain tumour – in October 2020. Titled “Inside My Head”, alongside a Channel 4 documentary of the same name, the concert was Parker’s attempt to raise awareness of the lack of funding for brain cancer research. The response to the event, he says, was “incredible”.
“It was a worldwide response,” he says, during a video call with his four bandmates: Jay McGuiness, Siva Kaneswaran, Nathan Sykes and Max George. He and McGuiness vie for the position of group joker; Parker edges him out thanks to his screen name, which reads: ‘Is it cancerrrr????’. “I think that’s the beauty of social media these days,” Parker says of the fundraiser. “And that was our intention – to try and raise as much awareness as possible about this disease.”
The atmosphere during the concert was “probably the most special” the band had experienced, George says. “The build-up, being in that historic building together… There was a conflict of emotions because it was pure ecstasy at times, but also we just wished we were here in different circumstances.” Parker makes it easier on the band due to his extraordinary outlook, George says, as the others nod. “The way he acts it’s like nothing’s going on, in those moments you forget,” he continues. “It was an incredible night, and it was all because of Tom.”
In many ways, The Wanted ticked all the boxes of your classic pop band. They were put together by the industry masterminds behind girl groups The Saturdays and Parade, via a nine-month process where thousands of wannabes auditioned. They performed around the world to screaming fans. And they had a shelf-life, ultimately going their separate ways in 2014. But they stood out from their peers, too: their music was played unironically in clubs; they were a little older – in their early twenties – and therefore had a touch more grit than your average baby-faced group; and they wrote some of their own songs, including on their No 4 self-titled debut album. It received surprisingly positive reviews, considering most “serious” critics make a sport of eviscerating bands like The Wanted. They had a broad appeal, too. In his review for The Independent, Simon Price wrote: “Their front-loaded debut, penned by the A-list of pop songwriters (Cathy Dennis, Guy Chambers, Taio Cruz), covers all boy band bases, from the Coldplay-meets-Akon smash ‘All Time Low’ to Westlife-esque ballad ‘Heart Vacancy’.”
While many other critics might have been primed to slate them, The Wanted managed to defy expectations of what a boy band could do. “I think we proved a lot of people wrong the first time round,” Parker says. “People were surprised by how much creative input we had. I know we were essentially manufactured but we still wanted to keep as much creative control as possible. That’s the same now.” He’s referring to the new singles the band have written for their just-released Greatest Hits album, including the house and EDM-influenced banger “Rule the World”, which captures the thrill of clubbing many have missed during the pandemic.
“We’re always gonna be an act that loves performing live,” McGuiness says. “Our songs are designed to make people feel uplifted.” He recalls being in Benidorm and hearing “Glad You Came” in a club: “That was awesome.” McGuiness is a natural performer, as he proved when he won the 2015 series of Strictly Come Dancing with his professional partner, Aliona Vilani. He remains one of the best contestants the show has ever seen. Don’t believe me? Check out his Pulp Fiction jive or his Argentine tango. His bandmate, George, fared less well, and was booted off early on in last year’s series. Sykes and McGuiness make a valiant effort to praise his efforts, singling out his Simpsons-themed dance with Dianne Buswell, which he performed while wearing yellow body paint and a fake belly. George is a little more forthright. “I was s***,” he declares. “It was a flash in the pan.”
Pop band members tend to do well on reality TV. McFly’s Tom Fletcher was only just voted off Strictly after a respectable nine-week run, while his bandmate Harry Judd won the 2011 series. Over on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, previous champions include Westlife’s Kian Egan, McFly’s Dougie Poynter and Busted’s Matt Willis, while Frankie Bridge of The Saturdays is a contestant on the new series. In the new incarnation of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, meanwhile, Jade Thirlwall recently earned plaudits for her snappy retort to Noel Gallagher, who made a number of derisive comments about her group, Little Mix, including the unnecessary claim that they’d never be as good as Oasis. “They don’t write their own songs,” he grouched. “You’re not even the most famous musician in your family,” Thirlwell shot back.
“She absolutely merked him,” Parker says, beaming. Did The Wanted ever get wound up by similar comments? “We were in a boy band,” George says with a shrug. “We’d seen worse written about us before. It was expected almost, anyway.” Did they handle it better due to their age, being more mature than some of their peers?
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There’s a pause.
“We were definitely not mature,” Parker says. “But the music did hit different demographics. My mum’s friends all loved the records.”
“Max had that demographic boxed off,” Sykes says, to which his bandmate responds, mournfully, “I’m too old, now.”
“We look at [other bands] now who are around that age and think… ‘Oh my god, they’re so young!’” Sykes says. “Comparing that to how we were and what we experienced at that age, it’s the most incredible thing.”
McGuiness says it felt “like a school bus” as talk turns to their short-lived (and pretty embarrassing) feud with the other huge boy band of the era, One Direction. It was essentially a string of insults exchanged over Twitter that culminated with Zayn Malik calling George “chlamydia boy”. Not exactly Blur vs Oasis. However, it turns out, things did almost get out of hand. “It got to the stage where management didn’t want us in the venue at the same time, because they thought it was gonna kick off,” Sykes says, grinning. There was a “weird crossing” at Madison Square Garden, he says, where both bands found themselves surrounded by security instructed to intervene should things get physical. “We were all chatting to [members of One Direction] like, ‘Bit mental, this, isn’t it’,” Sykes recalls. “I think sometimes the team around the band can blow things out of proportion. We get on quite well.”
“People aren’t as nasty [to artists] on social media anymore,” Kaneswaran says. “I’ve seen journalists saying a lot of negative things and the audience don’t allow that [anymore]. It’s much nicer than it was when we released music.” I decide not to bring up the threats I get sent by fans after writing a negative review. Do they remember any particular criticisms that stuck with them? “No,” McGuiness says, then: “Wait, yes. Someone met me on a night out and said, ‘No offence mate, but you look like that guy out of The Wanted.’ Ouch!”
They’re excited for their arena tour next year, where the setlist will include their biggest hits and fan favourites. But perhaps nothing could be quite as exciting for the band – and for their family and fans – as the news from Parker announces a few days after our interview, that his tumour has been brought “under control”.
‘Most Wanted: The Greatest Hits’ is out now.