In the second half of our look back over the last two decades of Robbie's music career, we pick up the story in a new millennium with Robbie swinging the Royal Albert Hall, rocking 375ꯠ revellers at Knebworth and storming into the Guinness Book Of Records in his own inimitable way...
Robbie Williams: The First Twenty Years - Part 2
After recording “Have You Met Miss Jones?” for the soundtrack to the film Bridget Jones’s Diary, he decided to record a whole album of the swing songs he’d grown up loving, and to do so at Capitol studios in Los Angeles where many of Frank Sinatra’s most famous sessions took place. At the time, it seemed an unlikely, and risky, venture. Furthermore, before Swing When You’re Winning’s release, he also committed to performing these songs live at the Royal Albert Hall in London with an orchestra. “It could have potentially been the biggest mistake of my career this far,” he reflected. “The Royal Albert Hall gig did an awful lot for my confidence regarding who I was as an artist and my ability to pull things off. It did turn a corner for me. It went a long way towards seeing myself on screen, looking like I’ve always wanted to look, singing like an angel – well, the best I can sing, anyway – and holding an audience captive by myself.”
(Tenth, eleventh and twelfth BRIT awards: Best British Male, and Best British Single and Best British Video for Rock DJ)
Escapology would be his fifth solo album in six years, a fairly unprecedented run of productivity for a musician in the modern era (and in a year in which he also had a bonus top ten single guesting on 1 Giant Leap’s My Culture). At least two of Escapology’s tracks would become key Robbie Williams songs: Feel and Come Undone. “You know,” he pondered, “I’m quite fortunate that I didn’t start off with my best stuff.” For its sleeve, he kept himself interested by being suspended upside down by his feet from the top of Los Angeles’ tallest building, a pose he would thus find himself obliged to repeat at the opening of each of the following year’s concerts.
(Thirteenth BRIT award: Best British Male)
His biggest tour to date, playing stadiums across Europe, culminated in a feat that had never been achieved by previous visitors (most notably Led Zeppelin and Oasis) and may never be repeated: performing on three consecutive August nights at Knebworth in front of a total of 375ꯠ people. On the first night he tried to explain to the audience how strange it felt – how, for a moment, it would seem like something he could just enjoy. “And then I just look at you lot, and I look all the way over to the back…and I don’t know what I’ve done.”
(Fourteenth BRIT award: Best British Male)
As he stockpiled songs with a new collaborator, Stephen Duffy, he allowed himself a rare pause, and a moment to look back, with the release of Greatest Hits. “None of it was planned,” he mused. “That’s how my career has been…I’m adlibbing the whole of my career, and I’m adlibbing my life.”
The adlibbing carried on working. On its release in October his new solo album, Intensive Care, achieved the largest weekly British sale of any Robbie Williams album yet (373꼠 copies), and the following month he earned an entry in the Guinness Book Of Records for the most concert tickets ever sold in one day (1.6 million) when tickets went on sale for the following year’s Close Encounters tour.
(Fifteenth BRIT award: Best Single Of The Last 25 Years for Angels)
In gaps between shows, and while touring, he recorded another new album, Rudebox, a collection he considered “a gap year record where I had loads of fun with my mates.” (Amongst his other collaborators were Mark Ronson and the Pet Shop Boys.) “I was making a record that would impress a 15-year-old me…” he explained. Meanwhile, this year a list was published of the hundred best selling British albums of all time. Six were his.
Though continually writing and recording songs at home, 2007 was when, for the first time since this whirlwind had first whipped up around him, he finally decided to take some substantial time off: “I disappeared to my house in Los Angeles. I disappeared from public places: nightclubs, bars. Those places never appealed to me anyway. I was just finding somebody to stay in with, and I found her. I also could sense a change in the tide. I’d hammered it for getting on for twenty years: making music, promoting, touring, making music, promoting, touring. I was very fortunate to get my breakthrough when I was really young – a lot of people don’t get that break until they’re 27, 28, maybe 30. In dog years, or in performance years, or musical years, I’m well into my 40s really.”
He was still writing and recording, and still lying low, though briefly broke cover with a documentary on BBC Radio 4 in which he visited a UFO conference in Nevada, one product of free time spent indulging and exploring an interest in the paranormal and alien that has gripped him since childhood. “There’s been other unnatural things have happened,” he reasoned. “Me selling sixty million records is one of them. If I can do that, then the possibility of life on other planets…”
Reinvigorated, he returned triumphantly with the Trevor Horn-produced Reality Killed The Video Star. At the end of the year it was announced that he had sold more albums in Britain this decade than any other artist: “It’s only me, but I’ve managed – by falling upwards, and turning up – to have now a history. To have now a catalogue of stuff. It only seems two minutes ago that we were writing Angels and Ego A Go Go and South Of The Border and Let Me Entertain You…and here I am. Not bad.”
(Sixteenth BRIT award: Outstanding Contribution Award)