Five Go (Amost) Mad: The Take That Interview
They have just embarked on the biggest tour ever staged in Britain. Yet Take That are worried: about losing their hair, about stage fright, but most of all about becoming sick of the sight of each other. Again.
Robbie Williams has just been asked to reflect on his 16-year-old self. “What was I like?” begins this only son from a broken home with one poor GCSE to his name (a D for English Literature). “I had a high-pitched voice. Sounded a bit like a girl. Spoke with a Stoke accent, tremendously naive. Overconfident. Tremendously overconfident. And underconfident at the same time – really, really bad combination! Gets you places, though,” he adds with a wink.
Then what was his talent? “Overconfidence. There wasn’t much [else] going on.” But in 1990 that talent, such as it was, landed him a spot as the youngest member of a new boy band being assembled by a Manchester-based music business impresario: Take That.
It’s February 2010, and Williams – now a bulky, six-foot-one, heavily tattooed multi-millionaire – and I are sitting in a luxury flat in London’s Chelsea Harbour. Williams has flown in from his home in Los Angeles to accept the gong for Outstanding Contribution at the Brit Awards. It will be his 16th Brit, the latest accolade in an epically successful solo career which began after he walked out on Take That in summer 1995 in a cloud of booze, drugs and bleached hair.
The remaining members of the boy band – Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, Jason Orange, Howard Donald – would go their separate ways the following year. None had much solo success to speak of. But after a faltering start – the 1997 single Angels saved his bacon – Williams went on to sell 60 million copies of eight albums, broke box-office records for his tours, and signed a record-company contract worth an eye-watering £80 million. He also went into rehab more than once.
But now? Now Williams admits the lustre is fading. “I’m not bright and shiny any more.” The wheels, he says, haven’t fallen off just yet. “But I’m not the omnipresent, all-conquering Robbie Williams of the past.”
The thing is, he adds, he’s not bothered. “I’ve got something exciting planned for the end of the year. Separate to me. And that’s very, very, very exciting.” One of his managers is hovering, and she cautions him to pipe down.
But as on so many occasions in the past, Williams can’t help himself. He opens up his laptop and plays me two new songs he’s written with Barlow, the Take That alpha male whom he’s spent much of the preceding 15 years publicly abusing. His long-suffering manager shakes her head: “You’re such a sod.”
A recording studio and rehearsal complex, south London, May 2011. Five husbands and fathers sit around a conference table on a sunny morning. In follicle terms, the members of Take That, ranging in age from 37 to 43, are doing well. There’s not much male pattern balding going on here. Williams: “I’m a lot thinner [up top] than I used to be.”
Barlow: “I think I am. I thought that when I saw Prince William – he’s got bad receding hair, hasn’t he?”
Williams: “And the Royals can’t go and get plugs either. It’s not the done thing, is it?”
Fifteen months on from our last encounter, Williams is still “such a sod”. But he’s also, it seems, learning to rein himself in a bit. Once again, after 15 years of going it alone, he has other people to think about.
By now, the exciting new thing about which he could barely keep quiet is old – but still headline-making news. In September 2009 he and the rump four members of Take That had secretly rendezvoused in New York to begin work on a new album. It would be the first the original line-up had made since 1995, when they recorded Nobody Else.
Last July, it was announced that Williams had rejoined, and in late November the now-we-are-five Take That released Progress, a brilliant fusion of the band’s robust, stadium-shaped pop, and bolder electronic sounds.
In five scant weeks on sale, Progress became the biggest-selling album in Britain in 2010, and the fastest-selling album of the 21st century. Just when Take That’s comeback couldn’t get any bigger, it did.
The month before the album went on sale, Take That assembled to announce Progress Live 2011: a run of summer stadium shows in Britain and Europe. It would be the first time the five had shared a stage for 16 years. It would be Take That’s “biggest tour yet”, and the most ambitious ever staged in this country.
But how? Their last tour was The Circus, which the four-piece undertook in support of the 2008 album of the same name. Built around phantasmagorical displays of showmanship (the band learnt to unicycle), the show was instrumental in landing its behind-the-scenes team (creative director Kim Gavin and theatre designer Es Devlin) the job of crafting the closing display at the 2012 Olympics. It also featured an elephant.
“Everybody says, ‘how are you gonna top the last show?’” says Owen. He’s still “Little Mark”, the cute one, his cuddliness and motherable quality remarkably undimmed by last year’s tabloid revelations of alcoholism and serial infidelity. He was also the peacemaker and go-between as Barlow and Williams – the two “leaders” – warily approached rapprochement around the time the four-piece were mixing The Circus album in LA in summer 2008.
“That’s the question I get asked several times a day by people on the street,” Owen continues. “It was important for us to put that aside and start again with a new show. So it’s very different from The Circus.” OK. So, how exactly will – can – Progress Live be more OTT than The Circus?
At this point in the rehearsal process, three weeks away from the tour’s opening night, the band are wary about giving too much away. “We’ve been sent pictures all week from our director, who’s up in another [rehearsal] place we go to after here,” says Barlow in his careful, quietly confident manner. Something else he won’t be discussing today: his rumoured but as-yet-unannounced gig as a judge on the next series of The X Factor (his appointment is confirmed by Simon Cowell a few days later).
“We’re rehearsing with the band here, getting all the music sorted,” he adds. “Because it needs to flow as a musical piece throughout the show as well…”
“JOSIE!” shouts Williams to his management representative. He’s positioned near an open window so he can smoke and – barely two minutes into the interview – he’s already blaring across Barlow.
He wants Josie to have a driver pick up Ayda Field, the American actress he married in his Beverly Hills mansion last August.
Barlow carries on gamely: “And he’s been sending these pictures back and it looks fantastic. Absolutely brilliant.”
In the reformed Take That, all men are equal – but are some more equal than others? Williams retains separate management and press representation. Plus, on the Progress tour he’s being allowed a solo slot. The three-hour show opens with a mime act, followed by support artists Pet Shop Boys. Then the four-piece Take That do a short performance, before vacating the stage for a five-song set by Williams. Finally, the five-strong Take That see out the concert.
That could easily be viewed as offering punters value-for-money, and an acknowledgement of some unspoken realpolitik – after all, in January Barlow told the listeners of Radio 2: “I know we’re back with Rob right now, but we still see our future as a four-piece band.”
Equally, it begs the question of whether Williams’s toeing the party line comes at a price. And it seems he’s not always behaving himself. There’s footage on YouTube of Take That performing The Flood, the first single from Progress, at Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival in February. In it, Williams changes the words of the first line to: “standing on the feet our Trevor, but our Trevor was clever...”
The nonsense lyrics attracted online opprobrium, even on the fans’ forum on Williams’s own website. Reportedly Williams had fallen out with one of the festival bosses and refused to rehearse with his band mates.
Today in south London, all five insist that everything is going swimmingly. Certainly there are public displays of affection: each member is merrily ribbed by everyone else. However, Williams concedes that, before they dived into rehearsals, he did have to make a sincere apology to Gavin, who’s worked with the band since the early Nineties.
“Kim Gavin thought I was a pain in the arse. And for the job that he had to do at the time, that’s understandable. Because I didn’t apply myself. But I have a tremendous relationship with Kim now. And I’m applying myself.”
Diplomat Owen adds: “All we care about is doing the best show we can. The enthusiasm to do a great show is always what we’ve prided ourselves on, and that’s not changed.”
I press Williams on his preparedness for the tour. Last year he had told me of the stage fright that had latterly overwhelmed him. It was still a problem. “I did a tour and an awful lot of people came to see me,” he says of his 2006 outing, for which he sold 1.6 million tickets in one day. “I bit off a bit more than I could chew. And I buckled.”
He says it was “a bit like that feeling when you’re standing on the balcony and you think you’re gonna throw yourself off”. And, he adds: “For many years it was kinda like jumping out of a plane and not knowing whether the parachute was gonna open.”
Now, I read those quotes back to him. Little over a year later, have those feelings about performing changed? “They’ve changed dramatically. I didn’t know at the time that I was ill. And things have changed since going to the doctors. And finding out what it is and sorting it out.” He’s mentioned this mystery ailment before – which left him chronically fatigued – but declines to elaborate.
“And you’ve got a parachute now you, haven’t you?” murmurs Orange.
“Got a parachute,” deadpans Williams, “got rid of the balconies. Now, if anything creeps in that’s slightly negative or destructive for myself, I can get rid of it.” How? “Um. Well, I’m kinda balanced now. So I’ve just got a level playing surface to work from. And it kind of all makes sense. And, you know, this is my job. It’s also my livelihood. Also, in the past, I’ve been quite good at it, ’cause people have come back to see me. And I’m all good. I’m relaxed. Ready to go. Rehearsed up.”
“Wearing orange socks,” says Owen, looking down at Williams’s feet.
“Wearing orange socks,” affirms Williams.
The first thing audiences see on Progress Live is a towering, 30-metre male torso at the back of the main stage. His arms are outstretched and he’s holding the screens and audio equipment. He is, says designer Devlin, literally “holding the show together”. Last autumn she, Gavin and Take That decamped to a country hotel outside London.
They spent four days brainstorming. Orange had been keeping a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings; many of the “key concepts” were drawn from these, and from sketches by Owen. With all phones switched off for the duration, they also listened intently to the lyrics on the album.
“There’s a very clear direction to the piece,” says the theatre director acclaimed for her work with Lady Gaga, Pet Shop Boys and the ENO. “We did hundreds of drawings of computer keyboards, permutations and variations of a giant man at one end of the stadium, a giant computer at the other, a keyboard in the middle. Then we kept coming back to the idea of a breaking dam. That became very important from the lyrics of The Flood.”
Technology, or “man’s progress from ape to astronaut”, is the main theme and the choreography will be less chaotic than The Circus. “We looked at a lot of North Korean military police martial arts training videos,” Devlin adds. “At one point we were thinking of an all-male cast, but in the end we haven’t.” Devlin says the budget is “more than double” that of The Circus, with some reports putting the cost at £50 million. (Which may explain the need for a corporate sponsor, Samsung.)
In the end, the narrative is of a piece with the story of Take That. Progress Live is about five men, and the highs and lows of their journey. They met as youngsters and survived an unfortunate initial phase as leather-clad teenybop poseurs. Twenty years on from their debut on The Hitman and Her, they find themselves – against the odds, against the run of history – the biggest band in Britain.
The show ends with Eight Letters, the final song on Progress. “It’s rather an exposed song; them all singing their hearts out, and saying: ‘We’re together, whatever it takes and whatever we’ve said about each other in the past – but we’re together because we love each other.’
The effect, says Devlin, “is almost spiritual. It sounds corny, but I don’t think it will feel it.”
Or, as Williams puts it: “This show’s a piece of p---. It really is. Hit after hit after hit after hit after hit.” Back in the rehearsal room, the five members of Take That are under no illusions about the task ahead of them. “It’s a tricky job,” admits Barlow. “There’s five of us. We’ve all got our little family trees leaving here every day. (he, Owen and Donald have seven children between them). It’s a hard balance to get us out on the road for three months. It’s a big job. It’s a big job,” he repeats.
But they’re grown-ups now. It’s Owen’s first “sober” tour, and he’s looking forward to taking in more of the experience. When Take That first got back together six years ago, Orange was seeking “closure” after their problems first time around – “but I just don’t believe that any more. Every day you’re working to put your cards on the table – but you don’t put all your cards on the table. You try your best to, and we’ve got much better at it. But we’ll still always have these little niggles, these little insecurities. And that’s our challenge, as well as the music and the shows – our challenge is to keep getting on well enough to execute the music and the shows.”
Are these five musketeers all for one and one for all? They’re certainly making a good fist of it. But, come August, once the tour is over and they all take a holiday, is Williams running to the Hollywood Hills again? The five fudge elegantly, although Owen does let slip that “Rob’s gonna be doing something himself, hopefully in the next year”.
But, he adds, the new pragmatic functionality of Take That means the band is like a “revolving door” – anyone can enter, or leave. “Except for me,” chips in Barlow. “It wouldn’t be the same without me,” he adds jokingly(ish).
But as to whether their prodigal son will return to the fold once more – for, example, the band’s rumoured top-of-the-bill appearance at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert next year – the Other Four won’t be drawn. But Williams, not uncharacteristically, is bullish: “Well, it’s not too many years away from our 25th anniversary is it? Listen, whatever happens, this is something that I want to do again. There,” he nods.“I said it.”