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the critics : And then there were four

IN 1962, an obscure Northern band sacked their fairly terrible drummer, and replaced him with one who was only slightly terrible. The fans were outraged and distraught. "Pete for ever, Ringo never!" they chanted. And all this for Pete Best, when the Beatles had not yet released a record.

Take That, on the other hand, have had seven No 1 singles. You can see why their devotees consider Robbie Williams's resignation/sacking (delete according to what the tabloids are saying today) to be a bigger pop tragedy than the suicide of Kurt Cobain. "Sob, sob, we miss Rob," declared a banner in the Manchester Arena on Tuesday. Of the 12,999 girls who filled the vast colosseum (barring security guards, I was the only male there), a good proportion had brought along signs painted with day-glo slogans, a time- honoured element of the Take That ritual. Some were clever ("Oranges are the only fruit" - a reference to Jason Orange), some poetic ("Hey, Jay, dance my way"), some confusing ("Let us fondal [sic] your frontel [sic]"), some unconfusing ("Howard. Show us your arse").

Whether the quartet were up to the job without Rob was hard to tell. Try to focus on Gary, Mark, Howard and Jason in their silver capes and crowns, and you're distracted by 14 dancers swarming hither and thither, 20ft-high blocks of scaffolding scooting after them, some warbling from Juliet Roberts, a revolving podium, the "TT" symbol framed by sparklers, and a masked witch doctor laughing devilishly on a screen at the back. So much for the first song.

With all this taking place, you had to wonder if anyone actually noticed Robbie's absence - and if, for that matter, a couple of other members of the group could have sneaked off with him. Especially as the received wisdom is that singer-songwriter Gary Barlow is the Talent and that the others are Not the Talent. (When Robbie was planning on going solo he sought advice from George Michael. Some cynics remarked that he should have spoken to Andrew Ridgeley instead.) But even with the pounds 2m staging, Gary would be nowhere near as watchable without his three pals grinning, posing, break-dancing and generally injecting the proceedings with funkiness and hunkiness. Robbie's absence already meant that Gary had to stomp through more dance routines than usual, brow knitted and teeth gritted. Take That are as much a team as any pop group. And as it happens, Mark's quavering vocals on "Babe", and Howard's impassioned tones on the current chart topper, "Never Forget", were more convincing than Gary's weedy, reedy, white-soul voice.

That's not to say that the others have his musical ability. There was a Take That Play Instruments Shock sequence, which saw the backing band wheeled off, to be replaced by Mark on bass, Jason on guitar, Howard on drums and Gary on keyboard. A possible way forward, or a career move on a par with Sylvester Stallone doing comedy? Sadly, if not unexpectedly, it was the latter. The non-Garys looked as comfortable playing as Gary did dancing. They made a respectable stab at "Another Brick in the Wall" - after all, even Pink Floyd can't play it without half-a-dozen extra musicians these days - but Jason's lead vocals only served to demonstrate why it is that he usually stays in the background.

And there was worse to come. Their rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" smelt very badly indeed. Not because it was sacrilegious, nor even because we had to endure the sight of Gary ripping off his vest. It was a stinker just because it was so amateurish and incompetent. All four players were as out of their depth as the baby on the Nevermind cover, although it was nicely ironic to hear Gary singing: "Our little group has always been/ And always will until the end." On previous occasions Take That have perpetrated crimes against the Beatles and Motown. Gentlemen, I implore you, have mercy on the Sex Pistols and the Velvet Underground.

The lads should also steer clear of streetwise swingbeat, as attempted on the latest album, Nobody Else (RCA). They're just too cuddlesome to be sassy kids in the 'hood, and tonight's brassy Saturday Night at the Palladium arrangements were unlikely to convince us otherwise.

But let's not get too negative. Comparing their shows with those of almost every other group is like comparing the Olympics with an egg- and-spoon race. When it comes to preparation and imagination, Take That have no equal. It's not that I expect to see Portishead serenading a lucky fan, or the Boo Radleys driving two cars on stage midsong, but it would be nice if they graced us with an unexpected cover version, a new arrangement, anything to suggest that they respected their audience as much as their audience respected them.

"We're gonna stay Take That as long as you want us to be Take That," announced Howard, to a predictably orgasmic response, and it's that attitude that guarantees that their shows will always be worth seeing. By disappointing his fans, Robbie has proved that he did not deserve his membership, anyway. So, off you go, Williams. Get thee to a non-entity. Goodbye and the best of luck. The Pete Best of luck, that is.

Manchester Arena, 0161 242 2560, Mon-Wed; Earls Court, SW5, 0171 373 8141, 20, 27, 28, 30 & 31 Aug.