Northern Lights: Nadine Coyle

Garbhan Downey says the Derry singer’s plan to launch a solo career could be the smartest move she’s ever made

It’s always tempting to dismiss girlbands and boybands as indistinguishable and inconsequential. Because, let’s be honest, they are. That’s the whole point of them – they’re mass-manufactured musical Valium for pre-teens. They’re a vehicle for record companies to make a whole lot of money for very little effort.

One of the north’s greatest living musicians, Peter Cunnah the D:Ream front man, worked for a while in the late 1990s producing some of these bands. A few of them had major, major hits. But he categorically refused to put their gold and platinum discs up on his studio wall. When I asked him why, he told me bluntly: 'Because they’re shite...'

I am old enough to have reviewed Take That in their first incarnation, when they mimed their way through a Radio One roadshow as a warm-up for Danni Minogue (who, incidentally, is three-feet tall in her stocking feet).

Despite all the hype about them both then and now, I remember absolutely nothing about the gig - nor, indeed, their subsequent break-up in 1996. Except for one thing: Robbie Williams. As I stood on Guildhall Square, watching five man-boys struggle through some appallingly twee dance moves, I remarked to a fellow hack that while four of them were clearly enjoying themselves, the rough one with the glint in his eye at least had the grace to look embarrassed.

Williams, unknown to me or indeed anybody else at the time, was a world class singer and songwriter. But his talents were being wasted and abused by those who wanted him to spend the rest of his life introducing cartoons on Saturday morning TV. Thankfully, however, Robbie developed a nasty drug problem, was sacked by the band and the rest is history.

All of the above, I suppose, is by way of a protracted explanation for what I’m about to say out loud for the first time: Nadine Coyle is the Robbie Williams of Girls Aloud. Not in the debauched, borderline-junkie way, of course. But rather, she is an outstanding vocalist, who can and will make a hugely successful career in the adult world.

Girls Aloud, for the uninitiated, are a top-selling five-piece girlband, whose membership was determined by a reality TV show. They are a younger and less vulgar version of the Spice Girls. Marginally.

Nadine came to the band by a circuitous route – in that she was disqualified from a similar, dressed-up talent show on RTE for fibbing about her age. It was the best thing that ever happened her, as the band she should have joined in Dublin sank without trace. They were called ‘Six’, because, as one promoter told me at the time 'that’s exactly how many minutes they’ll be famous for'.

It was at that time that I, as an editor, first became aware of Nadine. One of her pals let slip to a Derry News reporter, prior to the RTE broadcast, that she was going to be kicked out of the Six in a night of high drama. The reporter duly contacted one of those involved in the programme for a comment, only to be told that our story wasn’t true. So, we didn’t run it.

And no, the whole irony of being lied to about someone being sacked for lying was not lost on me.

But, three-ring circuses aside, what was very apparent to me, the viewing public, and most importantly of all, head judge Louis Walsh at the time was that Nadine Coyle was a phenomenal singer. I’ll say it again. Phenomenal. That rare type that would prompt you to stop the car and put down your beer. So much so that when Louis became involved with ITV he made a secret plan to take her with him.

How do I know about this secret plan? Because I – or more accurately a Derry News mole - caught him. While the ITV show was still in its early heats, Louis came to her native Derry for a private meeting with Coyle. But he was spotted in a local hotel by a snitch, who rang us. And the hotel switchboard inadvertently confirmed it, when they agreed to take a message from our reporter - for Louis Walsh.

Now I have no proof of what took place in that private chat, but I would like to think Walsh assured Coyle she was a shoo-in for a place in the band. And that despite the show being a vote-in affair, to be decided by the audience alone, he would move heaven and earth to get the right result.

And while I would normally disapprove heartily of TV producers who try to fix competitions, I honestly couldn’t blame Walsh for trying to ensure that such a huge talent as Nadine’s was protected against a fickle, tone-deaf public.

In the seven years since then, Coyle has gone on to record twenty Top 20 hits, including four Number Ones, despite having to carry the rest of the band on her coattails. She has also begun to write material herself. And it was announced this month that, at long, long last, she is about to embark on a solo career, with legends like Paula Abdul queuing up to write songs for her debut album.

Coyle, as I discovered when I interviewed her last year, is also sweet, modest and quite wholesome. She doesn’t feature in the ‘Look Who’s Drunk’ pages of the tabloids like at least three of her fellow band members, nor has she ever punched anyone in the mouth in a Guildford nightclub.

But if I had to give one reason why I am 100% certain that Coyle is the real deal, it would be this. My ten-year-old son has never, not once, shown any remote interest in my writing career – nor, indeed, would I want him to. But shortly after City of Music: Derry’s Music Heritage was published, he was leafing through it and saw her photograph.

'Did you interview Nadine?' he asked, clearly impressed.

'I did indeed,' I told him.

'Do you still have her phone number...?'

Now, there’s a compliment.