Friday, May 20, 2011

Old Friends, Back for Good: Take That on Tour

On Friday, May 27, the British group Take That are starting yet another major tour of the British Isles and continental Europe. The group, comprised of Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, Jason Orange and Howard Donald, is coming off two highly successful series of shows within the last five years but will now have an additional weapon to make this latest juncture a blockbuster. The Progress Live Tour, in support of the album of the same name that is the fastest-selling album in the UK this century, will see the return of its prodigal son and most famous member, the immensely popular but troubled Robbie Williams, to the line-up. This makes the first time that all five founding members of the band will tour together since 1995, when Williams famously left the band after vanishing in the midst of a tour, surfacing at Glastonbury and announcing that he was sacked and / or had quit (depending on your point of view).

Forerunner of A&F catalog, circa 1993
Take That first came to cultural dominance between 1991 and 1996. In that five-year span, they released three multi-platinum albums and scored an astonishing run of eight Number One hits from a dozen Top Ten singles. Created in the mold of the American boy band New Kids on the Block (that’s NKOTB to you), Take That’s success in the UK, Europe and Asia was built partly on the still-hummable tunes by its songwriting progeny Barlow and partly on the band’s public image. Chiseled and buffed within an inch of their lives, all five members appeared in various stages of undress in their videos (such as their first Number One, “Pray") and they were one of the first major male pop stars that used model-ized imagery with a homoerotic current. Most of their publicity stills and videos from that era undoubtedly had no small influence on the fashion world, and it is not coincidental that the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues of the last decade and a half have looked like their videos. 

Not surprisingly, the band’s hyper-sexualized (for that era) image, coupled with a temporary but sharp decline in consumption of optimistic pop music in that market (which coincided exactly with the Blogger’s entire sentence in high school), never sold them well to the United States. The band reached its zenith in 1995, when the simple ballad “Back for Good” became one of the ultimate anthems on romantic regret and finally gave the group their first (and still solitary) smash hit in North America.

Williams’s departure and the announcement of their break-up in the following year laid testament to the band’s influence in the UK. The reaction amongst fans was akin to perhaps only two other pop culture moments in history: the break-up of the only British band to have such an effect on female youth (that would be the Beatles) in 1970 and Valentino’s death in 1926, when women committed suicide in the midst of his public funeral. Crisis hotlines were set up in order to deal with traumatized teenage girls and young women to deal with the break-up and the scandal consumed celebrity press in the ensuing weeks. It was mass hysteria on an epic scale, in pop cultural terms. 

In the years that followed, Barlow and Williams famously traded barbs in the tabloid and celebrity press. In an acceptance speech at the Brit Awards, where Williams won prizes so frequently that there was no point in nominating anyone else, famously told Barlow that he was “clearly the most talented one in the band”. Williams achieved global domination except in the United States, and his famous romantic exploits with Nicole Appleton of Appleton and Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, combined with the war of words with Barlow, fueled much of his autobiographical solo musical material. His trips to rehab made headlines. And almost every album he released outsold the highest-selling Take That disc and added to his ego. Indeed, his 1999 American solo debut was appropriately titled The Ego Has Landed. But the rest of the band remained quiet and each man went into his own corner. Each tried his hand at a solo career, with little lasting success. Barlow went into producing and songwriting after he was sacked by his record label and publicly mocked by Williams for doing so.

It was the revealing 2006 documentary “For the Record” that provided a real glimpse into the band’s history from each member’s point of view and started the group’s reformation – without Williams – a decade after they ceased activity. The events since could not have been predicted. As the documentary aired on ITV to blockbuster ratings, interest surged in the band’s old material from its most dedicated fans, as well as those who secretly listened to them and hid copies of their singles within the sleeves of their Pearl Jam and Counting Crows CDs. A re-mastered compilation of their old singles, with no new material, sold well and proved their commercial viability. Since then, they have released three albums of original material that have each attained multi-platinum success in the UK and Europe (North America remains unfortunately resistant). Gone from their repertoire are a million love songs and although their new material remains very catchy, a new maturity informs their work. They no longer prance around in codpieces and mesh outfits that ran away from a fetish shop on their own power, but they do what they do best: they sing. The Progress Tour is scheduled to play no less than eight sold-out shows at London’s Wembley Arena. To put it in exact numeric terms, they will be playing to a million people in the space of a week. That’s about one-seventh of the entire population of London. Consider that Madonna managed to sell out only two shows when she played Wembley on her last tour in 2008 (although she likely would have sold just as much).

So the question remains as to why Take That, formerly dismissed as 90s nostalgia and disposable pop music, are now more popular than ever. 

There are several theories the Blogger is throwing around.

One is that the band never left public consciousness, at least in the UK. The public battle between Barlow, its designated genius, and Williams, the prodigal son, created great theatre. It could be that the band’s subversion of NKOTB’s urban image and giving it a sexualized image informed and ensured the continuity of the next generation of boy bands, including the Backstreet Boys, *NSync (which I could never spell properly), Blue and Jonas Brothers. It has to be more than morbid curiosity or Schadenfreude, given that fans are shelling out hundreds of pounds per ticket to the shows. And it’s certainly not to see them to prance around in fetish apparel.

The simple reason why Take That endures is because of their enduring signature anthem, “Back for Good”. 

When the song premiered at the 1995 Brit Awards ceremony, the band did away with their flashy public image and appeared with microphones and lighters, dressed conservatively. Its tale of romantic regret, sung simply and backed by acoustic guitars and minimal instrumentation, its message was simple and it’s what everyone has said to a lost love at some point in their lives: 

Whatever I said
Whatever I did, I didn’t mean it
I just want you back for good
Whenever I’m wrong, just tell me the song and I’ll sing it
You’ll be right and understood

Isn’t there anything more understated but plain-spoken in song? It’s not filled with pledges of change, it isn’t accompanied with promises of a better life. It’s nothing more than an elegant way to say “I’m sorry”. And mean it. Unlike their previous output, the song put Take That’s naysayers on notice that they were capable of writing, producing and singing a mature piece of work worlds away from their customary repertoire. 
"Is everyone present and accounted for? Right."

The single took on a life of its own since its release. A global Number One single, it gave the band its only hit single in the US but it remained the most-played single on Adult Contemporary radio in 1996 there. Appropriately, given how the US was the last major country to “get” Take That, the band received a Billboard Music Award in 1997 for the song … a year after they broke up, and a full two years after Williams left. 

In fact, most of their new material builds sonically on “Back for Good”. While it’s not all guitars and weeping romance, there are anthems showing wisdom and knowledge from experience, particularly loss and joy, away from the celebrity world. It’s all tinged with sincerity without becoming maudlin. In other words, the band did what other bands and artists have not done well: they have grown up with their fans. The reformation is like running into a close friend from long ago, who you lose touch with at a junction in your collective lives, but with who you resume the friendship without skipping a beat. It’s the key to their ongoing success. It’s appropriate that their return to prominence is named “Patience”. 

But as with old friends, you still have a little fun. Watch, for instance, the elaborate fin-de-siecle clip for “Kidz”:

Welcome back, old friends. This time, you’re back for good.