A Style article about Robbie Williams yesterday misidentified the location of Slane Castle. The amphitheater is in Ireland. (Published 10/22/1999)
A few weeks ago, Robbie Williams drew 100,000 fans to Scotland's Slane Castle, a huge amphitheater that books such top pop acts as U2 and Bruce Springsteen. Tomorrow Williams will pull a thousand fans to the 9:30 club, which he sold out in May as part of his first-ever American tour.
The rakishly affable Williams doesn't look to make distinctions, much less tailor his energies, in consideration of crowd sizes. It's all there in his theme song and flamboyant opening number, "Let Me Entertain You." And you and you and you, to whatever exponential limit the occasion warrants.
What was amazing about Williams's first 9:30 appearance in May was the level of enthusiasm that greeted the Englishman the moment he walked onstage. After all, he'd had only one single here, "Millennium," and while his first two albums had gone to No. 1 at home, his American debut, "The Ego Has Landed" (a best-of drawn from the British releases) barely dented the Billboard charts.
Yet the full house sang along on every song as if Williams had been a fixture for years. That didn't happen in his previous incarnation as part of the British boy band Take That, who were as big in Europe in the mid-'90s as the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync are now but never managed an overly successful transatlantic crossing.
Williams, 25, was actually kicked out of Take That for misbehavior, and there is a charming roguishness about him, evident in the video for "Millennium." The song incorporates John Barry's swirling string theme from "You Only Live Twice" and the video plays up the James Bond connection with a gaggle of barely clothed beauties and the dapper, dashing Williams's faux-007 mannerisms.
It's exactly that kind of panache that should cross Williams over stateside, says Lewis Largent, vice president of music programming at MTV. "His personality, his performance, are what will win people over. The more time that he spends here, the more people will see that and that will open the door for a whole host of things."
Largent wasn't quite so sure a year ago. After all, while MTV has historically been kind to British acts (particularly in the '80s), the only ones that have really broken through with its support in recent years have been Oasis, Radiohead and the Spice Girls. Others, from Status Quo to Simply Red and Blur, have been "so distinctly English" that MTV has been "gun-shy," says Largent.
The European franchise of MTV had already embraced Williams--he recently hosted the European Music Awards. But even though the singer had won three major Brits (England's Grammy equivalent), topped both the singles and album charts, sold 7 million records in Europe and sang in a common language, Largent was apprehensive about Williams's prospects in America. "I thought, 'Oh, no, another English act that's not going to translate to this country.' "
Largent was in the audience at the 9:30 in May. By show's end, he was a convert.
"When you see him live, you're enthralled by him. He has a bit of that Dean Martin-Frank Sinatra Rat Pack in him, with the look of a cute boy and '90s pop sensibilities," Largent says. "In the post-boy-band era people are going to want him, and the timing is really right. He's the star for the 21st century that [adults] can like, while 13-year-old girls who want something a little more profound will find it with him."
It took Robbie Williams a long time to shake his boy-pop past and, for a while, that past threatened to overwhelm him. Williams's teenage stardom helps explain his current self-assuredness--after all, he'd joined Take That at age 15 and spent most of his teen years in the public eye, with the public ear assaulted by screaming teeny-bopper fans. His exit was graceless and his subsequent behavior boorish, self-destructive and, unfortunately, just as public, thanks to Britain's celebrity-obsessed tabloids.
"I don't really see it as baggage anymore," Williams says of his six-year tenure with Take That. "It's like a younger, more naive brother was in that band, and I'm somebody totally different."
He'd grown up in Stoke-on-Trent, an industrial town in the north of England, the son of a pub owner-comedian and school counselor. Williams started acting at age 8--"not much different than what I'm doing today," he says. "In a sense I'm always acting."
In 1989 Williams went to a theatrical audition for what eventually became Take That. Once accepted, his life was taken over by management. The boys in the band had to project a squeaky-clean image and were strictly forbidden to drink or to use drugs or profanity; their social lives were equally constricted, limits made somewhat palatable by the group's immense popularity and success, including eight No. 1 pop singles.
Williams was the cheeky one in Take That, but though he sang lead on two hits, he was not the group's best singer (Gary Barlow was) and he didn't write any material. As time passed, Williams began to chafe at the restrictions and pushed the limits of forbidden behavior, both onstage and off. The final straw came in 1995 when he showed up at the huge Glastonbury rock festival, drunkenly hanging out with headliners Oasis and providing outrageous photo opportunities and slurred sound bites backstage. When Williams showed up for a Take That rehearsal the following Monday, he was fired.
The next few years were a mess. Contractual squabbles with Take That management kept Williams from recording for a full year, and he spent that time in full-throttle consumption of alcohol, drugs and food, turning into a not-so telegenic tubby reduced to tabloid fodder. When he finally made it into the studio, Williams recorded his first album in an alcoholic stupor. By the time it was released, he had checked into rehab, an early step in what would be a difficult transition from fallen teen idol to reborn pop artist.
Actually, Williams's very first step was something of a stumble, an uninspired remake of George Michael's "Freedom" titled "Freedom '96." "I was very drunk at the time, doing a lot of drugs, and the record company had just signed me for a huge amount of money. I didn't want to do any work, or be anywhere, or write songs or do anything, so they hauled me off into a meeting and went, 'Will you do this song?' Basically, it was, 'Well, if I do this, can I go take my drinks and drugs then?' So I did."
"That's how it was then. It's a different case now."
The difference, Williams explains, is simple.
"I started to write songs with lyrics [about situations] that I know about and melodies that I like, and that's about it. They were successful and I'm here now. I've got a lot of depression to pull on if I want to write the sad songs, and vice versa."
He also hooked up with Guy Chambers, a writer-guitarist-producer-arranger who'd been in Karl Wallinger's pop-savvy band, World Party, and his own group, the Lemon Trees. Their partnership has produced a handful of pithy biographical tracks ("Man Machine," about Williams's misbehavior, and "Karma Killer," about Take That's managers) as well as glorious pop sing-alongs like "Let Me Entertain You" (where Williams declaims, "I'm a burning effigy of everything I used to be") and "Angels."
It was "Angels," in fact, that broke Williams through the apathy and distrust of fans back in England. His first solo album, "Life Thru a Lens," was stalled after three disregarded singles until the fall of 1997, when British radio embraced this soaring "Let It Be"-style anthem about being redeemed by a higher power. Album sales increased tenfold and suddenly Robbie Williams wasn't a joke anymore.
America could be a different story. The United States has been a tough nut to crack for British acts since the last major invasion in the '80s. Even the much heralded Brit-pop movement failed to take hold, making noise everywhere but at America's cash registers--a few week ago, there was not a single British act in the top 100 albums on the Billboard charts.
"Life Thru a Lens," which sold millions worldwide, wasn't even released here. "The Ego Has Landed," drawn from "Lens" and its follow-up, "I've Been Expecting You," had a brief run in the sixties on the charts when it was released in April but soon dropped out off the top 200.
"Millennium" was a top-20 single, and Williams's American label, Capitol, has begun working the inspirational ballad "Angels," which topped the British charts two years ago at Christmastime. It's already in the top 30 and moving into power rotation at key stations around the country.
"It's a challenge, particularly in the current musical environment," says Roy Lott, president of Capitol. Lott, who signed Take That when he was president of Arista Records, concedes that breaking Robbie Williams here might take time, partly because of Anglophobia and partly because of the limitations of touring clubs here when he could be playing stadiums in Europe.
Meanwhile, Williams continues to win converts one concert at time. He's a charismatic, confident, flamboyant performer out of England's hallowed music-hall tradition, a delightful antidote to the mopey, self-absorbed mannerisms of such Brit-pop stars as Oasis, Radiohead and the Verve.
"I don't really know what it is," the singer admits. "I just get onstage and I do what I do and most nights I enjoy it. I'm just up there to please myself."
CAPTION: Robbie Williams's American debut album is just peeking out at listeners.