Mums, dads, let this be a lesson to you. In Victorian times, Robbie Williams would have been the subject of one of those children's morality poems: Robert: The Boy Who Always Got His Own Way. Nowadays, he might serve as a case study in what happens when you don't discipline your children.
Williams is the class show-off, the kid who couldn't abide not being the centre of attention even for a second, and he's doubtless the sort of person who you'd want to slap if you met them down the pub. As a pop star, however, the desire to show off is almost a prerequisite, and this is why the gut reaction to Robbie is love-hate: put simply, he's about as irritating as it's possible for a human to be, but through gritted teeth, you admit that he's bloody brilliant at what he does.
It seems that the entire youth of South Wales is here at the Millennium Stadium, pint in one hand, party hooter in the other. "Robbie! Robbie!" chant the sunburnt masses. He isn't even here yet, and already he's got them in the palm of his hand.
So, when the lights go down and he romps into "Let Me Entertain You", he isn't really asking permission, he's giving orders. "Now scream!", he instructs, and, like Pavlovian puppies, they do. After a brisk "Rock DJ", his crafty retread of Frankie's "Relax" and M's "Pop Muzik", he runs his fingers through a Fifties quiff with a bleached skunk stripe (he's thinking Elvis, I'm thinking Ricky Martin) hawks up a big green glob of mucus and, with a contemptuous grimace, spits it to the floor. Then he cocks his hand to his ear to accept the applause. "Robbieeeee!!!", shriek Helen-off-Big Brother's 30,000 identical sisters , and he folds his black-shirted arms, frowns, and nods his head, milking it, just like Mussolini. "Yes," he sighs, disingenuously playing bored, "I know, it's me."
He announces that he's "just heard" that "Eternity" is Number One, which means more to the fans than it does to him: they know the words, he doesn't. He lays the blame on keyboardist and songwriter Guy Chambers, humiliating him by conducting an audience chant of "You're a twat!" (And what a strange journey it's been for him: from eco-humanism with World Party to writing postmodern songs about blow-jobs. If he's a twat, he's a rich one).
"No Regrets" is augmented by symbolic pyros, and he begins to muse on his boy-band past. "Take That never got to play a stadium." He dedicates the next song to "Mark, Howard, Gary, and the other one." It's the now-famous, now-expected heavy metal version of "Back for Good", but no amount of thrash guitar or lyrical tomfoolery could be as weird as that line in the original about a fist of pure emotion. "You sing the backing vocals. That's all I fookin' did!" I wonder what Gary Barlow's doing now.
Robbie Williams: Milton Keynes Bowl, (01908 558300) tonight; Old Trafford Cricket Ground, Manchester (0161 282 4000), Friday-Sunday; Hampden Park, Glasgow (0141 620 4000), 4-5 AugustReuse content