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February 05, 2010

Robbie Williams: The First Twenty Years - Part 1

In the first of this two-parter, Chris Heath, the author of Robbie's official biography, Feel, takes us on a journey through two decades of the illustrious career of the best-selling British solo artist in history.

This year Robbie celebrates 20 years in music and, ahead of picking up the prestigious Outstanding Contribution to Music award at the BRITs next week, the show's 30th anniversary, we look back at the spectacular highlights of his career.

Let's step back to 1990 when Robbie was a 16-year-old lad from Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent auditioning for a certain boy band in Manchester…

Robbie Williams: The First Twenty Years - Part 1


At the age of 16, after a short and disastrous experience selling double-glazing, he auditioned to become the fifth and final member of the teen band Take That. He passed. As their success grew, he settled into downplaying his role: “When all the guys go through all the ideas for the tours I’m probably watching basketball in the next room. I should contribute more, on the side of the artist’s – what’s it called? – vision. But I don’t. So my part is probably – what a cliché – being The Funny One.” Even so, some of his distinctive talent began shining through. In 1992 the first Take That single with a solo Robbie Williams lead vocal, their cover of Barry Manilow’s Could It Be Magic?, became their biggest British hit to date, and the following year the title track of their second album, Everything Changes, would be the first song sung by Robbie Williams to reach No.1. But he didn’t always find this boyband life an easy one. As time passed, his frustration at his role grew, and so did his bandmates’ frustration at his frustration and the ways he chose to deal with it. Eventually his behaviour and desires would diverge from the others’ in ways that became impossible to ignore. In the summer of 1995, three months after the release of Take That’s sixth and best number one, Back For Good, Robbie and Take That parted ways. He was 21.
(First BRIT award, 1993: Best British Single for “Could It Be Magic?” Second and third BRIT awards, 1994: Best British Single and Best British Video for “Pray”)


It took a little time to find his feet, and to find his purpose. His first solo single, an unimaginative cover of George Michael’s Freedom 90 recorded at his record company’s suggestion, was little more than a holding manoeuvre. Meanwhile, he started writing songs: “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started to write these lyrics which would be deemed to be autobiographical – I just tried to write these rhyming couplets that were emotional and not only meant something to me but would mean something to someone else. I suppose I was hoping that what I said would be universal.
(Fourth BRIT award: Best British single for Take That’s “Back For Good”)


Though it would come to sell well over two million copies just in Britain, his first solo album, Life Thru A Lens, didn’t even reach the top ten of the album chart until after its fourth single was released. That song was Angels.Angels,” he would explain, “is about spirits and believing in people that can help you that aren't necessarily around you. It came at a time when I was very unhappy and needed guidance from somewhere. These lyrics came through, and I knew it was a special song.”


A year that would build through his Glastonbury triumph in June to the release of his imperial second album I’ve Been Expecting You in October began with the one performance that really alerted a wider public to what he could do, and also hinted at some of what he would come do in the future: his show-stopping duet with Tom Jones at the BRIT awards. “The catalyst for my career,” he would say later. “That evening was a dream fulfilled for me. It was also terrifying.


The records kept selling, the concerts got bigger (most memorably his headline show at Slane Castle in Ireland that August), he had his second solo number one (She’s The One, following 1998’s Millennium) and he received his first solo BRIT awards. Three of them in one night. "What can I say?” he mused as he stood at the podium. “I've made a lot of mistakes. So many I can't remember half of them.”
(Fifth, sixth and seventh BRIT awards: Best British Male, Best British Single for Angels and Best British Video for Millennium)


With a third solo album (Sing When You’re Winning) and a third solo number one (Rock DJ) he also took some time to co-write some songs for Kylie Minogue’s comeback album, and to duet with her on Kids. “I've had a crush on Kylie,” he explained, “since I saw her in dungarees in Neighbours and she had grease all over her face ’cause she worked in a garage
(Eight and ninth BRIT awards: Best British Single and Best British Video for She’s The One)

Tune in tomorrow for part two when we look back at Robbie's celebration of swing at London's Royal Albert Hall, his mammoth performances at Knebworth and his entry into the Guinness Book Of Records.