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June 23, 2006

Richard D. North on Robbie Williams: life after Intensive Care

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North used to see Robbie Williams as a self-absorbed prat. Now - post-Live 8 and Intensive Care - he sees Robbie as a candidate in the National Treasure stakes. Richard D. North considers the de-pratting of Robbie.

Robbie Williams' Intensive Care has been on my car stereo pretty well non-stop since Christmas. It's the hardest test. One is looking for singalong and substance by turns. But I find it no surprise that the lone sailor, Dee Caffari, declared that Williams was her constant companion, as she iPodded against wind and tide. We're not alone: in 2005, when it was released, the album rapidly overtook all others as the best-seller of the year. Its songs are still being released as successful singles.

My admiration goes against the grain. Williams has always had some good solo material: Angels is a fine thing, for instance. But he had seemed a truly ghastly type. He presented himself as the sort of self-absorbed prat who should either stop moaning about his life as a star, or stop performing, I didn't care much which. I had him on my "wholly charmless" list with Heather Mills McCartney. But suppose he was to redeem himself and become a candidate in the National Treasure stakes, as Noel Edmonds, Janet Street-Porter, and Gwyneth Paltrow bid fair to do?

He would of course have to deal with the Norman Wisdom thing. It was always sick beyond comedy to portray the amount of mawkishness that Wisdom, Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean and Jerry Lewis have gone in for. Poor Robbie often seemed like a whipped dog gurning its submission at you. He was either at your throat or at your feet.

The change in my view of Robbie came when I saw him play the 2005 Live 8 concert in Hyde Park (on TV). He and Madonna were each mesmerising: on top form as masters of a huge crowd, and with knobs on granted that this was the open-air and in daylight. Not since the Kaiser Chiefs performance earlier in the summer at Glastonbury (and a lovely Macy Gray one at the same venue the year before, I think) had a few minutes of screen-time so endeared me to a performer. One expected great things of Madonna: but Williams was a revelation. His command reminded me of Sting in Police performances in the late 70s.

And then - probably on Jonathon Ross's TV show - I thought I spotted Robbie Williams all but declare that enough was enough. He seemed to be coming out as someone who was going to cease to be coy and - as the Americans say - "avoiding". He was going to be, he signalled, only as much of a mess as he had to be, and no more. And he'd be less apologetic about it too. We seemed to be watching a de-pratting. Which version of Robbie was a fiction, I don't know, of course. As he said, when once asked whether he liked a woman he'd just been out with: "I wouldn't know for weeks. She's an actress". Or words to that effect.

The songs kept asserting themselves, and one's resistance was being lowered. Williams is a master of pop, and as Neil Tennant, the Pet Shop Boy who talks, has remarked, that means that the songs must not quite stop being silly. Such insights and seriousness as they have, must come sidling up to you. The angst can be up-front, but the wit must be rationed. I'm taking it that Robbie Williams is at the very least his own lyricist, and if so, then he is up there with Sting, Freddie Mercury, Bob Marley, Mick Hucknall and Morrissey (I'm sticking with Brits and one honorary Brit for the sake of brevity - but also appositeness).

Like a Radio 2 disc jockey, and then some, Williams has a well-stocked mind. Make Me Pure quotes St Augustine's famous tag, and then dips into Richard Dawkins: "I've got a ton of selfish genes and lazy bones beneath this skin". In Sin Sin Sin, he trots out, "Hate the sin, not the sinner", with ease, and it turns out that the boy is or was a Catholic. But it was Amit Roy in The Telegraph of Calcutta who helped me note that he was mis-quoting Gandhi in Tripping, with its "First they ignore you….".

He's a born verbal riffer: "You see, the trouble with you is there's no trouble with you" he tells some poor woman, and then dismisses her with, "There's no you in tomorrow", which she'd find to be true whichever way she looked at it. She's one of a succession who parade through his songs as people who he wouldn't mind being able to take seriously. But rather as Russell Brand told his profiler in one Saturday's Telegraph Magazine, his sexual encounters don't amount to much: "There's just some bit of garter left. A wisp of memory on the mechanism". Poor Robbie seems like that, as he wails in Trouble With Me: "Monkey see, monkey do". It's the sharpness which just hangs on to pop triteness which is so fine: "Summer me now, summer my life away; summon me on to another day".

So he's a quote magpie and a zippy punster who knows the Cole Porter trick of hanging phrases onto bits of tune and beat. Come to that, his outing in the movie and CD of De-Lovely, the enterprise which matched pop stars with Porter material, shows he can also sing straight. The oddity of it is that he can work in a way which is part boy-band, part opera and part cabaret. The diction's great and the words are relished, the voice put wherever it's needed without strain or affectation. Of course, he's picked great song-writers, and one imagines that he owes a lot to Stephen Duffy (his current co-writer after a falling-out with Guy Chambers, his previous and long-standing collaborator). Who knows? It's one of the madnesses of stardom that we aren't told, and it diminishes Williams that he doesn't break out and tell us more.

My pop and rock references are very wide but vague too, and I shouldn't like to say what influences lay behind the songs on this album. It's been said that Human League are in the mix, but beyond that it's tempting to say that there's nearly everything. Surely I can hear Queen, Sting and Oasis in there? The material appeals to me the way, years ago, I liked The Teardrop Explodes and Jackie Leven's Doll By Doll (or as I came to like The Smiths, Pulp and Blur). They are Gothic, Glam, New-Romantic teenage wrist-slitters, one and all, and that's just as true of the ones who affect a profounder cultural hit. It's a world of back-bedroom romances and first-time readings of Verlaine and Antonin Artaud. (Williams refers to Crowley, that old fraud.) Scenes of sub-Byronic posing all mashed up with fish and chips on the promenade. Robbie may be in LA now, but he's no more moved his head there than Ozzy Osbourne has. He's as English as his dead friend Ian Dury.

He's also end of the pier and The Windmill. He admits it to Chris Heath, his biographer: his sometimes absentee father was a vaudevillian, and it's not altogether his fault he can't get away from Norman Wisdom, since he is anchored in greasepaint and down-the-bill hopelessness, however high he reaches. One day, he'll reprise John Osborne's The Entertainer, and give Laurence Olivier a run for his money in camp butchness.

I find the songs on Intensive Care really beautiful and catchy to the point of being memorable: I'd guess several - perhaps most - of them will last.

But the oddest thing is that I have found myself interested in the man himself. Lynn Barber is right to say that Chris Heath's journal of two years with him, Feel, is a marvellous account of our times, and Williams can count himself lucky or clever to have such a chronicler. Celebrity has always driven sensitive souls to the brink, as though being sensitive weren't enough in the first place. I don't see why he should find his life easy, or why I can't aim to sympathise with him if I want. If he were readily able to access quiet good sense, he wouldn't have been the conduit of so much feeling in others.

Heath went on to describe Williams' work in Africa for a piece in the Telegraph Magazine, as a prelude to the pro-celebrity charity football match which was screened in May, about the time we saw Williams hobnobbing (if that's quite the word) with the Beckhams at their Euro-trash party and auction.

The two men make a fascinating comparison and contrast (as evidenced by the David's appearances in a TV documentary on his footballing life). Both love tattoos, and one begins to see why: choosing images to have injected under one's skin is a sort of self-branding. It's a public declaration of privacy as well as of loyalties. Indeed, Beckham has said he rather likes the pain involved, and perhaps it adds its own peculiar endorsement.

David Beckham seems to have been blessed with a sort of grace which he doesn't have to work at. I don't doubt he's often had to be extraordinarily brave or at least stalwart, not least as he faces his hideously fickle public. Somehow one imagines that Williams' is the greater struggle. Heath's work suggests as much, in a not overly-sentimental way. Williams can't do charity work without mistrusting his motives, isn't sure he can stand performing, wonders why he can't commit to a woman, and generally seems to feel himself to be turned inside out by the constant public attention which he craves and despises.

He'll have to grow up, and that's the bit he seems to have started on rather well. One assumes he is the kind of addictive type who really can't afford drink and drugs. It looks like there's a chance he won't be a tragic figure. He may grow beyond sheltering in being a tragi-comic one. And then, one suspects the sky's the limit. We should worry: we'll always have Intensive Care.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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"a candidate in the National Treasure stakes, as Noel Edmonds, Janet Street-Porter, and Gwyneth Paltrow "

Jesus. That's all I can say. Jesus.

With fellow National Treasure candidates like these, poor Robbie might be happier sticking to pratdom.

Posted by: james mcqueen at June 23, 2006 04:48 PM

'He's a born verbal riffer: "You see, the trouble with you is there's no trouble with you" he tells some poor woman, and then dismisses her with, "There's no you in tomorrow", which she'd find to be true whichever way she looked at it. ..' Doesn't this happen to us all though? :-) I feel the opposite way , which I'll put down to being female. He is a born charmer, no question. Every time I've been half tempted to dismiss him for his cliché lines, his unsexy raucus ( cringe) his inability to treat his past as abit of spectacle, or ( more unforgivable still) singing someone elses' songs as if they were his own, he turns on the most magnetic original charm and I set my disdain aside. Recently though, he's begun taking himself too seriously?

Posted by: fjl at June 26, 2006 10:31 AM
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