The Story of Pop: 2002 (Chapter 38)

Continuing our weekly revisitation of the sights and sounds of the UK singles chart as it looked two whole decades ago, this is The Story of Pop: 2002. This week: we go back to school for the debut of one of British pop music’s biggest bands of the 00s…

  • Artist: Busted
  • Song: What I Go To School For
  • Released: 16/09/2002
  • Writers / Producers: James Bourne / Matt Willis / Charlie Simpson / Steve Robson / John McLaughlin
  • Highest UK Chart Position: #3
  • Weeks on Chart: 18

One overriding theme that has generally defined our look back on the charts and pop music in 2002 so far, was that it was a period of great change. In fact, there’s that age old argument that a decade doesn’t really properly get going with establishing it’s sounds and identity until about the first two years in. And this was the year when the key sounds of the 00s really got established properly.

Nowhere was this more true than with one of pop’s oldest and most traditional of acts: the boyband. Partly as a direct result of the ever growing homogeny between pop music and reality TV, the traditional model of all singing, all dancing, matching outfitted boybands that Take That had bought to prominence in 1992 was on terribly shaky ground in 2002.

It is surely no coincidence that the rise of Pop Idol and Popstars in 2001 had happened parallel to the demise of Five, A1, Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, who all either split up or released their final singles over the course of those 18 months. And as this happened, eyes were turning to another set of new boys on the block, who were about to turn the very notion and concept of being a boyband on its head for the rest of the decade that followed.

In 2001, then 18 year old Southend-on-Sea lad James Bourne, and his friend from the auditions circuit, Matt Willis, also then 18 from Tooting in South London, and a former pupil of the illustrious Sylvia Young Theatre School, who’d had bit parts in Casualty and The Bill amongst other things (“I was usually cast as a drug dealer”, said Matt in press biogs of the time), were looking to take over pop. They’d been in a few bands put together by record companies before, but knew that they wanted to make their own music on their terms and find success with it.

Initially chasing a more contemporary guitar based sound of bands like BBMak, the emergence and commercial breakthrough from the US of pop punk, with bands like Blink 182, Green Day, The Offspring and Sum 41, offered something a little more exciting, combining pop harmonies and melodies and tongue in cheek lyrics with the harder undertones of Stateside punk rock.

Scouted by Matt “Fletch” Fletcher, of Prestige Management, their early demos, written and produced in James’ bedroom at home, got them noticed. But they needed another member to stand a chance of succeeding. From auditions, Ipswich born singer, guitarist and drummer Charlie Simpson – then 16 years old, and a pupil at Uppingham Public School in Suffolk – was found, and Busted was born.

Touring record labels performing a three song acoustic set, they were at one point offered a huge, multi million pound record deal with Simon Cowell at RCA. But worried that he wanted to fundamentally change the sound and style of the band, they turned it down, instead signing with Island Records, after impressing it’s then managing director Paul Adam, the A&R bod who was of course a judge on the first series of Popstars.

After signing on the dotted line in March that year, their new record label took the unusual approach of having the band play a live acoustic set every Monday in the office canteen. That was when the buzz and the excitement began to build, as they then started touring that same acoustic set around the offices of the teen mags, music channels and pop shows – Top of the Pops, The Box, CD:UK, Smash Hits – that they would eventually be courting on a regular basis.

All of this was laying the groundwork to what would be their first single. Not for Busted was there to be a clichéd boyband debut with the usual lyrical content. In fact, “What I Go To School For” came about quite by accident, as it had started with James writing a different lyric and concept, before Matt started recounting to James about his crush on his science teacher at school.

Few were the pop songs in 2002 that had lines quite so button pushing as those which opened the song: “Her voice is echoed in my mind / I count the days till she is mine / I can’t tell my friends cause they will laugh / I love a member of the staff / And I fight my way to front of class / To get the best view of her ass / I drop my pencil on the floor / She bends down and shows me more”, before the song’s earworm chorus hits: “That’s what I go school for / Even though it is a real bore / You can call me crazy / But I know that she craves me / That’s what I go to school for / Even though it is a real bore / Girlfriends I’ve had plenty / But none like Miss McKenzie”.

It was certainly introducing the idea that Busted were going for something with a little bit more bite, not least because they wrote and played their own material. Yes, record labels had been trying to make pop bands with instruments a thing for the last three years prior to this (see the aforementioned BBMak and also Hepburn, Dum Dums and Thunderbugs). But this was the first time such a concept seemed believable and marketable, because the boys were singing and writing from the point of being teenagers as they were then, taking Stateside influences and cultural reference points, but incorporating them into accessible subject matter that was so quirkily British.

Of course, there’s undoubtedly a bit of artistic licence at play in the lyrics, because if there wasn’t, then we suspect the lines “I climb a tree outside her home / To make sure that she’s alone / I see her in underwear / I can’t help but stop and stare” would have been scrutinized a little more hotly by those at the top. But their cheeky, witty approach worked. The hilarious music video perfectly captured the story of the song, and when added to The Box playlist two months ahead of release, their pogo jumping antics quickly entered into heavy rotation.

And when Smash Hits, in a first for a brand new pop band, put them on the front cover of their early September issue with the headline “MEET BUSTED: They’re going to be bigger than Rik Waller!”, then it was clear something big was about to take off. All in all, Busted were experiencing the kind of hype and anticipation not seen since the Spice Girls launched six years previously. They were about to arguably have as large an impact as they did relative to the time.

Once unleashed to the masses on 16th September 2002, the extensive groundwork paid off when “What I Go To School For” shot straight into the chart the following Sunday at a respectable #3. Two weeks later, their self titled debut album was released. But – at least to begin with – it was not as big a success, only entering at #30 before dropping out the top 75 four weeks later.

Island Records knew this would appear worrying, and reassured the boys that it was unusual for a brand new pop band to release their debut album so soon after their first single. Holding their nerve, and following a jaunt around the country on the Smash Hits tour that autumn, 2002 gave way to 2003. And that’s where their real success arrived – and dizzyingly fast.

Within the next two years that followed, Busted quickly became one of Britain’s biggest pop acts of the 21st century. In January, their second single, the time travelling themed, Back to the Future referencing stormer “Year 3000” entered and peaked at #2, catapulting them to wider stardom as the Busted album climbed back up the chart to its peak of #2, first being certified gold, then platinum, and then eventually triple platinum for sales of over 1m copies in the UK alone.

“You Said No” was their third single, and gave them their first UK number one hit in April. By the time they eventually prematurely split at the height of their success in early 2005, following tensions over Charlie’s decision to quit the band for Fightstar, they had amassed a further six top 3 singles, a second million selling album (A Present For Everyone) and three more number one hits (“Crashed The Wedding”, “Who’s David?” and double-A-side “Thunderbirds Are Go / 3am”), as well as embarking on three sold out tours, including setting the record for playing the most sold out shows at Wembley Arena (11) and winning two BRIT Awards in 2004, all whilst selling over five million records worldwide.

In their crazy initial three year run, Busted’s candle burned brightly and fast. But they not only packed so much into those three years, they also led a sea change that breathed new life into what it meant to be a pop band in the 21st century.

Pop suddenly welcomed bands that played and wrote their own material with open arms – something the subsequent huge success of McFly confirmed (Tom Fletcher was very nearly in Busted, and co-wrote with James on many of their hits, with James returning the favour for McFly numerous times down the years), but also latterly with bands like The Vamps and 5 Seconds Of Summer.

People – present writer and a dear good friend of mine, who loves them and I know will be reading this, included – still feel fondly about James, Matt and Charlie twenty years on, purely because they had a vision, relatability with their fans, and most importantly the drive to do something different that resonated with a huge audience that we can only assume was far beyond even their most optimistic expectations. But “What I Go To School For” is a crucial record when viewed in that light. With just this one single, it really did turn pop into Busted’s game for the taking.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new playlist on Spotify – updated weekly so you never miss a song from the story of pop in 2002. And you can leave your memories of the songs below in the comments, Tweet us or message us on Instagram, using the hashtag #StoryofPop2002.

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