Skip to main content

Let Him Entertain You: An American's Guide to Robbie Williams

“Your country’s refusal to embrace Robbie Williams will forever baffle me.” - Shivrang, New Girl

Dear Citizens of the United States,

You have been missing out.

Great Britain has always had celebrities, songs, and TV shows that don't make it across the ocean and into our pop culture consciousness. For every Bob the Builder and Doctor Who there's a Blue Peter and My Hero. For every Radiohead there's a Super Furry Animals, for every One Direction a Girls Aloud.

Not everything needs to cross over. But, as Shivrang said, the fact that Robbie Williams hasn't is one of the biggest head-scratchers of modern music history. He's got the whole package: catchy radio-ready tunes, great live performances, charm and personality, arresting videos. In the UK all but one of his 11 studio albums have gone to #1 (my favorite 2009's Reality Killed the Video Star only got to #2). He's also had seven #1 singles. In terms of chart performance, Robbie being anonymous here in the US would be roughly equivalent to virtually no one in the UK knowing who Stevie Wonder is.

Robbie did try to crack through early on. In 1999 his record label cherry-picked songs off of his first two solo records and packaged them as The Ego Has Landed. The album got good press, and two songs made the charts, "Angels" (#53) and "Millennium" (#72). It was enough for his 2000 follow-up Sing When You're Winning to get a US release. Single "Rock DJ" got some video play and made the dance charts, but didn't appear on the Billboard 100. His next album, Swing When You're Winning (2001) didn't fare any better, though as we'll see it did produce a couple of consciousness-invading songs.

In 2002 Robbie signed a record-breaking contract with EMI which included a provision that the label work to break him into the US market. So his fifth album, Escapology, was tweaked significantly in both track order and composition for its US release. The song "Feel" made some minor waves thanks to a video with Daryl Hannah, but the album sunk just like those before it. That would be the last overt attempt to sell the US on Robbie. That was 16 years ago.

When I saw him recently during a nearly sold-old run of shows in Las Vegas, Robbie's lack of stateside success was recurring joke. He told a story about being in the elevator ("the lift") at the Wynn, where there was a poster advertising his residency, describing him as an "International Sensation." Two American men also on the lift looked at the poster and said, "International sensation. Is he?" And this was with Robbie in the elevator with them! Near the end of the show he said, "Americans, if you liked the show, I'm Robbie Williams. If you didn't, I'm Liam Gallagher."

So, as follows is my modest attempt to educate (and perhaps persuade) those of you who haven't given in to the charms of Mr. Robbie Williams. I'll present this in the form of two different playlists.

*

The first mix is comprised of the 24 Robbie songs that went top five in the U.K. Before we start, the first thing you need to know is that Robbie, born 1974 in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, got his start in a boy band called Take That when he was only 16 years old. The band, originally called Kick It, were built around singer-songwriter Gary Barlow. Robbie was not a creative force in the group. He didn't write any material, and rarely sang lead. The band was highly successful, but Robbie fell hard into drugs and was delivered an ultimatum: Clean up or leave. He decided to leave not long after the release of their third album, which contained their biggest hit to date "Back for Good" (a #7 hit in the US).

The fuck-up member that gets kicked out of a group isn't supposed to go on to eclipse them. And boy bands, in those days before Justin Timberlake broke from *NSYNC, were not supposed to produce artistically-respectable solo artists. But that's exactly what Robbie did.

1. "Freedom"
In 1996 he put out his fitting first single, a cover of George Michael's "Freedom." Not only was that also Michael's first solo song after Wham, it was a good indication of where Robbie would go musically.

2."Old Before I Die"
3. "Angels"
4. "Let Me Entertain You"
Teaming up with songwriter/producer Guy Chambers, he wrote and recorded his debut album, Life Through a Lens, released in 1997. Things took off from there. Three songs went top five from this album.

5. "Millennium"
6. "No Regrets"
7. "Strong"
8. "She's the One"
His second album, I've Been Expecting You, came out the very next year, and produced four top five hits.

9. "Rock DJ"
10. "Kids" (duet with Kylie Minogue)
11. "Supreme"
Expectations were high for Robbie's third album, Sing When You're Winning, when it was released in 2000. It would have been understandable if his hit streak couldn't continue, but it did.

12. "Eternity"
In 2001 he issued a this ballad as a non-album single, and it went straight to number 1.

13. "Somethin' Stupid"
That same year, he released his first swing album, comprised mostly of covers of songs made famous by famous crooners. Robbie's father, Pete, was a lounge / cabaret singer who sang many of these tunes as part of his regular repertoire. Robbie's version of the Rogers and Hart song "Have You Met Miss Jones" would be used in the 2001 film Bridget Jones's Diary. A couple of years later, his take on Bobby Darin's "Under the Sea" from this record would would play over the end credits of Finding Nemo. If most Americans know him, it's probably from one of these two songs, but his duet with Nicole Kidman, whose harmonies are surprisingly on point, was the one that hit big in his home country.

14. "Feel"
15. "Come Undone"
16. "Something Beautiful"
Escapology was Robbie's fifth album, and his final attempt at making US inroads. It sunk here, but once again produced three top five UK hits.

17. "Radio"
18. "Tripping"
2004 marked a break between Robbie and Guy Chambers. Williams' new writing partner was Stephen Duffy, a songwriter with the unlikely backstory of being a founding member of Duran Duran and co-writer of several of Barenaked Ladies tunes ("Jane," "Alternative Girlfriend," "Call and Answer," and my personal favorite, "Alcohol.") Their first effort "Radio" was a new track on a Robbie's first greatest hits record. They then made Intensive Care together.

19. "Rudebox"
In 2006 Robbie took a big left turn with Rudebox. Instead of working with dedicated songwriting partner he found several, including William Orbit, the Pet Shop Boys, and Soul Mekanik (a songwriting duo from Robbie's hometown). The songs were electro-pop and hip-hop influenced, with Robbie rapping on more than one track, including the hit titled track. He also did five cover songs, including Stephen Duffy's 1982 hit with Tin Tin, "Kiss Me."

20. "Bodies"
2009's Reality Killed the Video Star, my very favorite Robbie album, largely continued his work with Soul Mekanik, with the Buggles' Trevor Horn producing.

21. "Shame"
22. Take That - "The Flood"
23. "Candy"
In 2010 Robbie buried the hatchet with his former Take That bandmate, Gary Barlow, and agreed to rejoin Take That. They began writing together, which resulted in two new songs for Robbie's career-spanning In and Out of Consciousness -"Shame" (a #2 hit) and "Heart and I" - and a new Take That album, Progress. Both "Shame" and "The Flood" are self-referential tunes about what the two went through together in Take That. The duo also co-wrote Robbie's seventh #1 hit, "Candy," from 2012's Take the Crown.

24. Dizzee Rascal - "Goin' Crazy"
Robbie sings the pre-chorus and chorus on this 2013 tune by UK "grime" rapper Dizzee Rascal. The tune hit #5 on the charts.

*

A listen to those 24 hits will give you a pretty a good idea of the depth and breadth of Robbie's talent and appeal. But there's more. Some pop stars you find that the more you know about them the less interesting they become. Robbie's the opposite. The more you know about him and the further you go into his discography the more you're rewarded.

So here are 10 additional songs to help you appreciate the man even more. You'll notice that they're all from 2005 and later. That's partly because there were fewer hits in this era, but this is also where Robbie's work got more interesting. The break with Chambers, combined with newfound sobriety (he'd stopped drinking in 1999, but went to rehab in 2007 for addiction to prescription drugs), marriage, and fatherhood have all combined to seemed to free him lyrically. He'd always been a funny and honest lyricist, but his songs became even more open and relatable.

1. "The 90s" (from Rudebox, 2006)
2. "Bongo Bong / Je Ne T'aime Plus" (from Rudebox, 2006)
The Rudebox album came before a lot of the positive developments in Robbie's life, but in my mind it was the beginning of his artistic evolution. There's evidence of this in both his originals and his choices of cover songs. "The 90s" is representative of the former, a rapped autobiography of "1990 to 1995" and his time in Take That that is hilarious, self-deprecating, and revealing. His fun cover of French-Spanish singer-songwriter Manu Chao's "Bongo Bong," and the choice to combine it with another Chao song, "Je Ne T'aime Plus," shows how deep he went in his selection of covers.

3. "Difficult for Weirdos" (from Reality Killed the Video Star, 2009)
Not surprising since it was written right after he came out of rehab, but Reality Killed the Video Star is Robbie's most introspective album. "Difficult for Weirdos" is sort of a precursor to Lady Gaga's "Born this Way." It's more ambiguous and less celebratory than that song, but there's no doubt that Robbie feels empathy for and identification with the outcasts.

4. "Heart and I" (from In and Out of Consciousness, 2010)
"Heart and I" is a searching song that touches on loneliness, depression, and pessimism in a digital age. "And they can't build a satellite / To tell you how loved you are / Or some kind of life device that holds you when you've gone too far."

5. "Be a Boy" (from Take the Crown, 2012)
Robbie has struggled his whole life with anxiety and poor self-image. Here he sings about how societal expectations of what it means to be a man messed with his head. He also rejects notions that aging somehow takes away your talent: "They said it was leaving me / The magic was leaving me / I don't think so."

6. "Swings Both Ways" (from Swings Both Ways, 2013)
Rumors of homosexuality have surrounded Robbie for his whole career, and at times he's fanned those flames (in the rap on "Kids" he says, "folks be askin' do I care for sodomy? / I don't know, yeah, probably."), but never moreso than on this engaging duet with Rufus Wainwright in which the very out singer says, "Face it, Robbie, you're a little bit gay."

7. "Go Gentle" (from Swings Both Ways, 2013)
8. "Motherfucker" (from Heavy Entertainment Show, 2016)
9. "Love My Life" (from Heavy Entertainment Show, 2016)
In 2012 Robbie and his wife Ayda Field had their first child, a girl they named Theodora ("Teddy"). A son, Charlton ("Charlie") followed in 2014. A third, Colette ("Coco") was born just last year. Fatherhood his created a subset of Robbie songs that I only expect to grow in ensuing years. And while songs about being a parent are usually sickening, Robbie somehow manages to make his compelling, largely because of the unusual way he's approached it. "Go Gentle" has a sort of sappy "I'll be there for you" chorus, but the verses are full of advice such as "Don't try to make them love you. / Don't answer every call. / Baby be a giant. / Let the world be small." It means more because you know Robbie has made those mistakes. "Motherfucker" has zero sentimentality, instead letting the kids know that their dad (and mom) have lived wild lives and that this will prove worthwhile as self-knowledge: "One of the things you get from me and your mother / Is that we're bad motherfuckers, sure, you're a bad motherfucker." Finally, "Love My Life" is all about what he wishes for his children, not that they're wildly successful or high achieving, but that they grow up love their life and themselves. As a parent, I can totally relate to this. though Robbie maybe in for some trouble. When I saw he in Las Vegas, he brought his father out to sing two songs, and he told a story about asking Teddy if she'd like to come out and sing with him someday like her grandpa. Her reply was, "No. You'll come out and sing with me."

10. "I Just Want People to Like Me
"Let Me Entertain You" might just be Robbie's most fitting statement of purpose, but the glam rocker "I Just Want People to Like Me" is a close second. What's interesting is that he acknowledges in the song that he knows what he wants is impossible. "Call me psychic," he sings in the chorus, "Some people just ain't gonna like it."

America is a lot more than "some people," though, so can we please collectively agree to come around and embrace this man and his music?

Thank you.
Paul V. Allen

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Radio, Radio: A Scientific Study of Cities 97

To start, I want to make it clear that I'm not going to write a comprehensive screed about the state of modern radio. Whatever problems radio has, it's had them for many years, and there are people who are much more informed and insightful on the topic than I am. Of course, you may wish to apply the conclusions drawn below more broadly, but that's out of my hands.

Instead, this piece is a scientific experiment of sorts, a detailed analysis of Twin Cities station Cities 97 (KTCZ-FM), a Clear Channel joint.

Why, you may ask, if I didn't not have a theory to prove about the state of radio, did I decided to perform this experiment? Well, basically it comes out of 10 years of tumultuous Twin Cities radio. When I first moved here in 1999, there were a few good choices for hearing new pop and alternative music. There was 104.1 The Point. It didn't last long and soon became an '80s station called Mix 104. Now it's 104.1 Jack FM. The 105.3 signal was Zone 105 when I m…

REO Speedwagon: Good Trouble (1982)

Where we left off:
REO Speedwagon became household names with the massive sales of Hi Infidelity and the number 1 hit "Keep On Loving You."

*

The common narrative pushed by a certain segment of REO Speedwagon fans and various critics is that the breakthrough of Hi Infidelity led the band to abandon their rock bonafides and become a synth band that mostly wrote ballads.

As direct evidence that this is a false narrative, I offer you Good Trouble. From the organ solo on opener "Keep the Fire Burnin'" to the atmospheric rock of Gary Richrath's "Stillness of the Night," Good Trouble is very much continuous with the REO of 1976 on.

Released in June 1982, meaning the guys barely had a moment to breathe following the mega-tour for Hi Infidelity, Good Trouble is in many ways the yang to its predecessor's yin. While Hi Infidelity was a loose concept album about heartbreak, this one is heavy on love songs and devotionals. Cronin's ballad "Sweet …

262. Broken Bells: Broken Bells (2010)

Broken Bells is a collaboration between Shins frontman James Mercer and producer extraordinaire Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton. The latter has already had great success as half of a super-duo, teaming with Cee-Lo to become Gnarls Barkley.

And though it contains no breakout hit on the level of Crazy, Broken Bells' debut album is an enjoyable piece of work.

However, that assessment is mostly dependent on you holding Mercer in high regard, since his voice and sensibility stand at the center of the record. In fact, it's easy to view Broken Bells as a James Mercer solo album with production by Danger Mouse. Sure, Burton cowrites every song and brings an experimental spirit with him (especially in the diverse instrumentation), but this is Mercer's show.

In fact, those hoping for something that doesn't sound mostly like The Shins will only have one song to latch onto. That'd be The Ghost Inside, which is the strange amalgam of indie rock and futuristic R & B that …