On the Road Again; Why Would ROBBIE WILLIAMS Give Away His Greatest Hits to Irish Mail on Sunday Readers for Free? Louise Gannon, Who Has Known and Worked with Robbie since He Was 16, Explains Why He's Ripping Up the Industry Rule Book Yet Again
Byline: ROBBIE WILLIAMS
the first time I met Robbie Williams was in the back of a second-hand Transit van parked outside a school playground in Rotherham in Yorkshire. It was 1990. Williams was 16 years old and, with his asyet-unknown band, Take That, was touring around junior schools, performing in lunch breaks in school halls to slightly mystified pre-teens. It was hardly rock 'n' roll.
Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, Howard Donald and Jason Orange were a strange mix of shy, polite, awkward and over-eager boys waiting to be told what to do and say by their then manager, the mercurial Mancunian Nigel Martin-Smith. Gary was keen to talk about the music. Mark, the budding diplomat, did a lot of nodding and grinning. Howard and Jason struggled to think of anything to do or say, clearly unsure whether next week would bring a breaktime performance in Hull or a trip down to the local dole office.
But it was Robbie, the baby of the band, who instinctively understood how to handle the situation. Buzzing on the thrill of speaking into a tape recorder (he wanted it played back to hear his voice on tape), he swaggered, pulled faces, made jokes, came out with the (what then seemed) completely ridiculous statement that 'we're going to be the biggest band in Britain' - and effortlessly dominated the situation.
When it came to photographs, the Stoke-on-Trentborn son of a pub entertainer insisted on climbing on top of a wall to jump into the path of the lens, screaming his head off as he fell. In the bland suburban surroundings of a northern English primary school, in a totally unknown band, Robbie was the showman, the natural-born rock star.
And then it happened, as Robbie predicted. Take That became not just the biggest band in Britain, but the biggest band in Europe.
Over another half decade of interviews in flash hotel rooms throughout Europe, I saw him go from being thrilled at his fame to being trapped by the constraints of it. The Robbie Williams from the playground in Rotherham was always a too large a character for a boy band.
Initially he didn't bother trying to hide his pleasure in being famous. In 1992, bolted into a London hotel room, safe from the adoring mob in the street outside, he told me: 'I love it. I love the fans. I love the screaming. At concerts you can't even hear us singing for the screaming. It's wicked. There's absolutely nothing I don't like about it. I'm never going to complain about any of it. It's all great.' Two-and-a-half years later in Frankfurt, it was a different story. 'I want to do my own thing, my own music, hear my own voice,' he said. 'I want this [fame] but I don't want it like this. I don't want to be a pop star. I want to be a rock star. No one takes pop stars seriously.' It was that realisation that brought about some of the music scene's most brilliant, memorable tracks - the ones, indeed, that every Irish Mail On Sunday reader will be getting on a free CD in each copy of next week's issue. Robbie decided the surefire way to gatecrash his way into rock credibility was to turn the whole squeaky-clean boy-band image on its head. He announced his departure from Take That by appearing alongside the rock nemesis of all boy bands, Oasis at Glastonbury in 1995.
The reinvention of Robbie Williams was about to start. Drawing on an eclectic selection of idols ('Who do I like? Loads of people. Tom Jones. David Bowie. Frank Sinatra...') Robbie immersed himself in the business of becoming a solo artist. He moved to Los Angeles, hooked up with songwriter Guy Chambers and produced some of the biggest hits of the decade from Angels to Come Undone, Let Me Entertain You and Rock DJ (all of which are on the IMOS album).
And as a live performer, he was untouchable; effortlessly able to play his audience. 'My best performances of songs are live,' he said in 1997. 'There's something about singing in front of thousands of people that just takes it to the next level. …