Rude And Ready
Robbie Williams conquers demons and bullies with his success.
It's a bizarre moment. Robbie Williams is at home in LA, doing a phone interview.
We're talking about Take That, his former boy band who reunited, minus their most famous former member, earlier this year. They have a new single, Patience. Williams says he hasn't heard it. "The only way I can get it is by illegally downloading it," he says. And so he is introduced to the wonders of www.youtube.com. "Is it on there?" Williams says, excitedly, moving over to his computer. "Hang on (types)... Take... That... How do you spell 'patience'?". A quick spelling lesson later, the sounds of Take That, circa 2006, blare out. Williams pauses. "Ah, I think I'll take a look at this after we've talked. It's a bit too weird, really".
Oddly, in 2006, Williams and Take That are both releasing albums and touring. Williams didn't take part in the re-formation tour - he had the slight matter of his own record-breaking, global stadium jaunt - but filmed a verse of the band's hit Could It Be Magic, which was shown at the shows. There were offers to return to the studio for the comeback album, but Williams says he didn't have time. After years of slagging off former bandmate Gary Barlow, the pair have reconciled. "It was slightly tense, slightly relaxing," Williams says of meeting Barlow after so long. "There were mixed feelings, mixed emotions... the way I see it, it's like a school reunion. It might be fun for the first hour or so, but it doesn't mean you want to come back the next day and sit through Geography, French and Religious Education. The reunion might be nice, but I don't really want to do the work".
Take That has been a constant love/hate theme in Williams' solo career. "When I was 17, 18, 19, 20, I wanted to be Liam Gallagher," he says. I wanted to be something other than in a boy band. I thought being in a boy band was terrible, horrendous, shallow and all that business. We worked our balls off. But I see Take That for what it was. "I'm proud of Take That, proud of the songs, of what we did. I've made my peace with it".
Part of that peace comes on Williams' new album Rudebox. One track, The 90s, deals with his private joining - and very public departure from - the boy band. In the song, Barlow is labelled "a cock" and meetings with Versace and Princess Diana are detailed. He even recalls how his father talked him into staying with the band in the early days, when Williams was planning to be an entertainer at holiday camps. "My dad said to me, 'How would you feel if they were No.1 and you were in a camp in Wales?' Because of that I stayed. Sound advice. Everything in that song happened." There are large gaps in the song where lyrics regarding Williams' hatred of Take That's manager, Nigel Martin-Smith, have been removed for legal reasons. The subject has fuelled some of Williams' most vitriolic lyrics in the past. But some of the insinuations and physical threats in The 90s - whose lyrics were leaked to a newspaper before the album's release - caused the manager to decide enough was enough. The singer removed the words before a court case. At this point Williams bites his tongue. "It's such a shame the full lyric isn't on there," he says. "The 90s as a song is probably my best work. But at the moment I can't say much about anything. I'm getting very stern looks even saying this. But it'd be really bad if someone uploaded it and put the whole song on there. I bet people could find it somewhere."
After years of slagging off everyone, it seems the law has hit Williams where it hurts. He says of his world tour: "I've been working my testicles off. I've had the hardest year since joining Take That, when we were worked as if we were in a sweat shop." He pauses. "I probably can't say that. I need to justify everything I say now. I'd need to go and find that sweatshop they built for us in Manchester and make some Nikes." He also grows quiet when asked about another new song, She's Madonna. The chorus, "I love you baby, but face it, she's Madonna'', is reportedly what Guy Ritchie told his former lover, Tania Strecker (who's also an ex of Williams) when he left her for his famous wife. "I'm not allowed to say anything. I don't want to get into trouble. I really want to get away from mentioning anything about what the song's about or Madonna."
Williams got another lesson about the power of the British press when he released his hip hop throwback Rudebox as the first single from the album of the same name. British newspaper The Sun called it 'the worst song ever made'. The song didn't make No.1 in the UK and divided Williams' fans. "I think unfortunately people had their minds made up for them," Williams says. "I noticed it when I got to the UK on this tour. I do Rudebox in the show everywhere else and the place goes mental. I got to Scotland and did Rudebox and the crowd physically took a step back. I was made to feel as welcome as a ginger stepchild."
Rudebox is the album Williams has always wanted to make but never had the confidence. Williams obsesses over his sales around the world. Rudebox debuted at No.1 in the UK (only Elvis has had more No.1 albums as a male solo act) but the sales were lower than usual. It hasn't escaped his attention. "Don't get me wrong, the number of sales I've got would send anyone else over the moon. But it's less than half what I normally do. I've had an amazing run. If the tide has turned, then I'll have to deal with that. But it's making me scratch my beard and go, 'OK, what's next?' With this album, if it were purely on music alone, it should be my biggest-selling album. But with the music industry it's hardly ever about the standard of music." He refuses to accept Rudebox is a commercial risk for an artist who has filled stadiums with big ballads and rock anthems; none of either are on Rudebox, which instead visits electropop, hip hop, dance and '80s covers. "What I am guilty of with Rudebox as the first single is me thinking it was an absolute crushing worldwide No.1," Williams says. "I am guilty of that and I'm wrong. I still love it as much as when I thought it was a crushing worldwide No.1 single, but I'm wrong."
The interview starts to resemble a therapy session when Williams reveals he obsessively reads bad reviews of his work and that a bad review 'ruins' an album for him. "That's part of me being mental as a human being. I'm searching for the negative and it's so counterproductive because it can ruin your album for you. That song becomes the s*** song that was reviewed by that c*** instead of the joyous piece of work you enjoyed creating until the opinion was formed. It's fucking stupid." Williams points out that Rudebox has drawn his best reviews from some unlikely sources, but though it's a creative high, he will judge its success by its sales rather than its artistic merit.
"I'm competitive. It'd be like saying to an athlete going for a gold medal at the Olympics, `You're not going to judge yourself on whether you get a medal, are you?' The tangible thing about my success is my success. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. "People might think I'm just making records for a mass market. Yeah, I am. I am that mass market. I'm the boy who listened to the Top 40 on a Sunday and taped it and wanted to make songs like that. I have a populist taste. I watch Saturday-night TV, I listen to the radio. I find the joy in mindless light entertainment. What's heavy entertainment?" Radiohead, perhaps? "I'm light entertainment, that's what I do. I could never be Radiohead. I don't have the intellect, I don't think in the same way. It doesn't mean I have less passion about what I do and what I want to convey."
However, if Rudebox fails, don't expect Williams to put his tail between his legs and make Angels 2. "Absolutely not. I'll probably go more different, if you want to call it, promo the f*** out of it and batter people into submission. I've got another Swing (When You're Winning) album coming out next. I enjoyed doing that, it's part of my contract as well, but at the same time I'm going to write another album and I can guarantee it won't sound like Intensive Care, Escapology, or, for that matter, Rudebox. "I'd rather give up than write Come Undone again. It's just not me. If my record sales go down it doesn't mean I'm going to pander to the general public by doing that. My imitation of what I think is a good song has been my truth. I'd rather not make records if I had to go back and recover old ground.''Imitation is a strange word to use when describing your own music, but it's one that Williams finds helpful to explain what he does. "With my albums I've just being doing an impression of what I think a big song or a good song should sound like. The reason I'm here is because people enjoy what I do."
The public enjoys seeing him live, but it's Williams' least favourite part of the job. The record-breaking Close Encounters 2006 world tour will be his last 'for a long time'. He's already looking forward to the final leg in Australia, 'where I'll select members of the audience to sample'. Though he turns on the frontman charm, he also admits it's all an act, albeit a good one. "Who I am on stage is not who I am in real life. I'm kind of at odds with that person. The persona I've created for on-stage is someone and something that's served me really well. People liked it, they came back and back until there were stadiums full all around the world. "To reach an audience in a stadium you have to make grand gestures. To be honest, I'd much rather stand there with my hands on the microphone and sing the song with a blank expression, but that's not what people have come to expect. I'm basically doing an impression of what I think a rock star or a pop star is.
"I was watching The Rocky Horror Show last night. That scene where Frank N. Furter comes down in the lift... I watched that whole number and realised I've based most of my performance around Dr Frank N. Furter. The walk, the singing, the facial expressions - it's uncanny. I got scared watching it. I thought, 'That's me!'" Though he's proud he'll play to a record-breaking three million people on his 2006 world tour, he finds it hard to accept compliments. "The reason most people are on stage is to get the bullies. I must say being bullied fuels a good half of my career. That's why there's been eight studio albums in ten years. I feel tremendously bullied by sociopathic nasty people." Has he beat the bullies? "Not yet. You never beat anything. You beat it by accepting it for what it is. I'm not mature enough to accept it yet. One day I will be."
Interviewed by Cameron Adams.