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Robbie Williams

As the cheeky-chappy of manufactured Manchester boyband, TAKE THAT, Robbie enjoyed massive chart success from the early innocence of the “Take That and party” era, through to the more risqué, bare-arsed antics of the group’s latter days. Yet even the adoration of schoolgirl legions wasn’t enough to tether the heart-throb to the restrictions of the fickle pop industry; as English superstar WILLIAMS embarked on an epic booze-athon with rock’n’roll bad boys OASIS; his position as a boyband popster was deemed untenable, and he soon found himself looking at solo prospects. Since then he’s arguably become the nation’s greatest post-millennium solo male artist; at least in terms of singles sales and a nigh-on unbroken run of several – and counting – chart-scaling albums. There was indeed “angels” looking over his shoulder.
Born Robert Peter Williams, 13 February 1974, Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire, Robbie’s pre-TAKE THAT teething days might’ve been so different had he taken up acting after playing the part of the Artful Dodger in a school production of Oliver! As the youngest member of the aforesaid all-singing “boyband”, Robbie’s prominence and aura was such that he landed the lead on several songs, including `I Found Heaven’, `Could It Be Magic’ and the group’s fourth consecutive No.1, `Everything Changes’; a poignant title indeed as his drink and drugs abuse got out of hand. He was shown the door in July 1995 – and reluctantly quit?
After eventually recovering from his much-publicized indulgences (but not a lawsuit from BMG (who held the contracts allocated to the soon-to-be defunct TAKE THAT), the singer launched his revamped career for Chrysalis Records with a hugely successful cover of GEORGE MICHAEL’s `Freedom’.
He subsequently hooked up with co-songwriter-to-the-stars, Guy Chambers (ex-WORLD PARTY), in order to pen the likes of near-No.1s-to-be `Old Before I Die’ and `Lazy Days’. While the former was a sunny, vaguely humorous stab at deflating the rock’n’roll myth, the latter showed our Robbie could be mean ‘n’ moody when he wanted. Along with fourth single, `South Of The Border’ (a relative flop peaking at No.16), all the tracks – minus his debut platter – were included on his inaugural album, LIFE THRU A LENS (1997) {*8}. The general critical consensus was that WILLIAMS was having the last laugh; beating his former TAKE THAT compadres hands down (both writer GARY BARLOW and MARK OWEN were taking the solo road with middling success), and winning over a cross section of musical palates with his irrepressible braggart style. Robbie sealed his success that Christmas with the tear-jerking classic ballad, `Angels’; a massive Top 5 hit which proved conclusively, if any further proof was needed, that the lad was most definitely back for good. Making it five-from-five, `Let Me Entertain You’ – complete with the QUEEN/KISS-style video – cracked the Top 3, although staunch America still took a backseat for a while, having never warmed to his previous pop combo.
In September ‘98, the JOHN BARRY/”You Only Live Twice”-esque `Millennium’, deservedly topped the UK chart for a week – WILLIAMS now kitted out in James Bond tin flute. The classy song was also one of the highlights on his sophomore set, I’VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU (1998) {*8}, a record that boasted three further Top 5 hits in `No Regrets’, `Strong’ and `She’s The One’. The latter was a recent WORLD PARTY leftover, having failed to be issued as a single by Karl Wallinger and Co. Twinned with exclusive piece, `It’s Only Us’, the record was now a No.1 smash all around Europe, by late ‘99.
1999 was not all party-time for the reformed Mr. WILLIAMS, and celebrations were probably subdued a little when he lost a court battle with former TAKE THAT manager, Nigel Martin-Smith. The long-standing £90,000 claim would turn into around £1 million; adding of course legal fees, commission, interest, royalties, and probably a counter damage claim.
Still, there was no holding down the roguish heart-throb for long; SING WHEN YOU’RE WINNING (2000) {*7} sticking to the well-established Robbie blueprint. Thus we were treated to the infectious but ultimately turgid chart-topper `Rock DJ’; plus `Kids’ (his funky KYLIE MINOGUE hit duet); plus the even more turgid `Supreme’, plus `Let Your Love Be Your Energy’; plus `The Road To Mandalay’ (a top trump twinned with the exclusive `Eternity’) and a string of “heartfelt” album tracks baring the star’s manly but oh-so sensitive side.
Anyone suffering from the OTT Robbie overkill no doubt blanched when they heard of his next conceit: an easy-listening tribute to Rat Pack stars Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, cornily-entitled SWING WHEN YOU’RE WINNING (2001) {*6}. This showboating set was tailor-made to please his simpering fans; WILLIAMS’ swell-guy persona gorging itself on crooner chestnuts like `Well, Did You Evah?’, `Mack The Knife’, `It Was A Very Good Year’, `Beyond The Sea’, `Me And My Shadow’, `Somethin’ Stupid’ (a chart-topping Xmas duet with actress Nicole Kidman) et al; only JERRY JEFF WALKER’s `Mr. Bojangles’ and BOBBY DARIN’s `Things’, seemed out of place.
In his time so far, Robbie had otherwise covered a raft of pop/rock tracks, including `Making Plans For Nigel’ (XTC), `Kooks’ (DAVID BOWIE), `I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ (PET SHOP BOYS), `Ant Music’ (ADAM & THE ANTS), `There She Goes (The LA’s), and a golden Cole Porter nugget, `Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’.
If Robbie’s recent work had been tiresome if admittedly professional up to this point, 2002’s ESCAPOLOGY {*6} signalled that even the sheen of songwriting polish which had kept him in the charts thus far was beginning to dull. He’d now signed a lucrative $80m deal in America with EMI/Virgin. Save for the trite `Come Undone’ and `Something Beautiful’ (both Top 5 hits), there was no stadium sing-a-longs to speak of, bar opening salvo, `Feel’. Even his formidable force of camp personality couldn’t mask the tiredness in songs such as belated Top 10-er, `Sexed Up’.
Despite the album’s lack of lighter-waving anthems, Robbie persisted in trundling out a selection on LIVE AT KNEBWORTH (2003) {*6}; a document of those mammoth summer gigs which even eclipsed his old pals OASIS’ former record-breaking gig at the English country estate. In pop life years, his “greatest hits” was long overdue via a package featuring all WILLIAMS’ major hits (itself a tally stretching well into double figures). It was also an opportunity to raise the curtain on his new writing partner; none other than STEPHEN DUFFY. The embarrassingly 80s-styled `Radio’ track netted the pair yet another No.1, while `Misunderstood’ was another quavering ballad, but yet another Top 10 entry.
There were more 80s throwback flavours on the chart-topping INTENSIVE CARE (2005) {*6} set. Not least the falsetto pop-reggae of `Tripping’, possibly one of the most satisfying, least cloying singles of his career, even if the No.2 hit did come on like the bastard child of the LONDON BOYS and 10CC. Top 10 follow-up, `Advertising Space’, was the requisite ballad, although hardly as memorable. The following summer, `Sin Sin Sin’ (hp#22), had the unenviable black mark of halting his run of, what would’ve been, an unprecedented twenty-five consecutive Top 20 entries.
A devotee of dance and hip-hop music since his swansong days with TAKE THAT, 2006’s sexually-charged and sarcastically-suggestive RUDEBOX (2006) {*5} was an ill-judged move, despite spawning three top-end hits by way of the title track, `Lovelight’ (penned by Lewis Taylor), and one of two collaborations with PET SHOP BOYS, `She’s Madonna’ (the other was the MY ROBOT FRIEND-scribed `We’re The Pet Shop Boys’ – doh!). There was room on board for LILY ALLEN on the nice touch, `Keep On’, though the embarrassing MANU CHAO number `Bongo Bong And Je Ne T’aime Plus’ and a rendition of The HUMAN LEAGUE’s `Louise’, was indeed a case of pot-luck; it was pushed along by producers MARK RONSON, Soul Mekanik, among others.
Just when pundits thought it couldn’t get more cornier, up popped 2009’s REALITY KILLED THE VIDEO STAR {*5}; a record that pitched Robbie under the production wing of ex-BUGGLES and YES man Trevor Horn – thankfully there was no sign of `Video Killed The Radio Star’. Instead the grandiose and neurotic No.2 set, penned with mostly Kevin Andrew and many others, had a lacklustre theme of celebrity and cheesy metaphors from the opening `Morning Sun’ to the hit downloads, `Bodies’ and `You Know Me’ (the latter sampled FRANCOISE HARDY).
After finally marrying American actress, Ayda Field, in August 2010 (he first dated her in ‘06), Robbie duly committed to another party; and that was TAKE THAT. He even collaborated with GARY BARLOW on a massive hit, `Shame’, in order that it feature on the all-encompassing double-CD “Greatest Hits 1990-2010” compilation; sub-titled “In And Out Of Consciousness”. The TAKE THAT five had indeed made “Progress” that year.
The TT connection, in part, continued with ROBBIE WILLIAMS’ umpteenth set, TAKE THE CROWN (2012) {*5}; Gary helping to write and produce some of the ballads, and JACKNIFE LEE working on other parts in this Universal/Island-endorsed album. One would never know for sure of Robbie’s self-deprecation or humble approach, but at least in the trite sugar-coated `Candy’, he’d chalked up another No.1 notch on his expansive CV; `Different’ and `Be A Boy’ totally flopped, whilst the FM-friendly `Shit On The Radio’ had an ironic effect.
The tongue-in-cheek, SWINGS BOTH WAYS (2013) {*5}, was another to appease his soft-shoe showtune fanclub. Working alongside Guy Chambers once again and filtering in a raft of guest cameo spots, only `Go Gentle’ made it into the Top 10. Featuring LILY ALLEN, MICHAEL BUBLE, KELLY CLARKSON, RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, not forgetting protégé OLLY MURS on The Jungle Book’s `I Wan’na Be Like You’, Robbie had er… fun.
In 2014 he left TAKE THAT for good in order to help look after his pregnant wife and child; their second child was born that October after an over-excited and all-singing Robbie provided wife Ayda with “entertainment” whilst filming her labour on his cell-phone. Whether the title of his 2016 set, THE HEAVY ENTERTAINMENT SHOW {*6} – his first for Columbia Records – was another swipe at those in the media who panned his look-at-me antics at such a serene moment, well, that was for others to presume. Who could argue with the quintessential Englishman, who’d now clocked up a dozen chart-topping sets (if one included compilations). Like its predecessor, ringmaster Robbie was not alone in this genre-busting circus of songs. Surrounding himself with producers and songwriters a-plenty (Guy Chambers back at the helm), pick of the bunch was surely the Sergei Prokofiev-enhanced `Party Like A Russian’, The KILLERS-penned `Mixed Signals’, the ED SHEERAN-authored `Pretty Woman’, and the RUFUS WAINWRIGHT-starring `Hotel Crazy’; though only Johnny McDaid & Gary Go’s `Love My Life’ became a moderate hit; JEFF LYNNE’s lawyers might yet be looking into the “Don’t Bring Me Down”-esque aspect of the Stuart Price/WILLIAMS cut, `Bruce Lee’.
Possibly asked on numerous occasions to be a judge on X Factor, Robbie (and wife Ayda) finally took up the invitation to be on the panel in 2018; this prestigious money-spinning commitment arriving on the back of a controversial performance at the Russian-hosted FIFA World Cup, in which he gave the “middle finger” sign whilst performing `Rock DJ’.
Full of festive cheer as only Robbie could be in his pert persona, he served up a double-set serving by way of the chart-topping, THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT (2019) {*6}. Cut into “Christmas Past” and “Christmas Future” in an anti-Scrooge-like agenda that complemented the Dickensian cover shot, Santa WILLIAMS roasted his chestnuts by the fire with many a guest; among the best of them: JAMIE CULLUM (for a cover of SLADE’s `Merry Xmas Everybody’), ROD STEWART (`Fairytales’; and `It Takes Two’ on the deluxe version), BRYAN ADAMS (`Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’) and Tyson Fury (on the impish `Bad Sharon’); the latter one probably best left to mature until Boxing Day.
© MC Strong/MCS 1998-2006/GRD-BG/MCS // rev-up MCS Dec2018-Dec2019

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