Robbie Williams: Always game for a laugh

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The Independent Online

The first time I saw Robbie Williams in the flesh was backstage at an Oasis gig at Earls Court in 1995. At that point, the flesh in question was distinctly pudgy: it belonged to a sad, wannabe-bad male groupie growing porky on Pilsner, a boy-band deserter trying to find a new identity by association. "I wanted to be Liam Gallagher," he would later admit. "I'd been in a boy band, and he was so cool."

The first time I saw Robbie Williams in the flesh was backstage at an Oasis gig at Earls Court in 1995. At that point, the flesh in question was distinctly pudgy: it belonged to a sad, wannabe-bad male groupie growing porky on Pilsner, a boy-band deserter trying to find a new identity by association. "I wanted to be Liam Gallagher," he would later admit. "I'd been in a boy band, and he was so cool."

Williams no longer wants to be Liam Gallagher. (Earlier this year - tongue only slightly lodged in cheek - he even challenged the irascible Mancunian to a fist-fight.) He is the biggest male pop star in Britain, flying high in the charts with his third solo album, Sing When You're Winning, and about to begin a nationwide sell-out tour, starting in Birmingham next week. "It's going to be a pretty full-blooded affair," says his manager, David Enthoven. "I think, like any major artist would be, Rob's quite nervous about it."

He was the son of a Northern nightclub entertainer, raised by his mother and sister. He was the former laughing-stock - the supposedly talentless chancer who joined Take That for a giggle in 1990 after his mum responded to an ad, then quit the group five years and many hit singles later - who has left his former boy-bandmates eating dust. (Whatever did happen to Gary Barlow, the one who actually wrote Take That classics such as "Back For Good" and the mighty "Never Forget"?) Asked recently if there would ever be a biopic of the band, Williams retorted: "There's one in production... it'll be a bit like Absolute Beginners. We're thinking of calling it 'Absolute Shit'." The group, he told a German magazine, "had all the creativity of mentally unstable morons", adding that manager Nigel Martin-Smith "mucked me up emotionally".

Robbie Williams is the saucy über-lad, the housewives' choice, the cheeky-chappie megastar. He was the only one you really noticed in Take That, because he was the only one who looked like a real boy and not like a camp little puppet. He isn't handsome in any very noble way; he's sexy, like he's up for it 24/7, which if his "fuck-'em-and-chuck-'em" reputation is anything to go by, he probably is. Robbie's the randy manchild, the urchin stud every woman wants to shag and then mummy. On the cover of his second album, I've Been Expecting You, he's the likely lad, high above LA, playing at being a secret-service playboy. Through a combination of self-mockery and sheer simian magnetism, he has almost pulled the metamorphosis off.

Williams fits neatly into a Great British tradition of vaudeville icons and sexy jesters: he's pure postmodern music-hall. Watching John Lydon in the Sex Pistols' documentary The Filth and the Fury, he was stunned by the film's references to Norman Wisdom and Tommy Cooper: "I was thinking, this is amazing, we're coming at it from exactly the same place." He was less happy when former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler described him as the bastard offspring of Bob Monkhouse.

More remarkable has been the critical kudos accorded the singer. It spoke volumes that I've Been Expecting You - an album featuring both Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys) and Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy) - was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. The pop world has been delighted to discover that this lagered-up loser is actually a kind of missing link between George Michael and Shaun Ryder.

Lines like "Dancing at discos/And moaning at phone bills/Torremolinos and sunburnt in high heels" (from "Win Some, Lose Some") and "Canned laughter for applause/You've opened doors/In and out of their wives/In and out of your smalls" (from the curiously finger-wagging "By All Means Necessary") have won over a critical community that likes to find talent in unexpected places. "I write them all myself, out of me own head," Williams stressed to Vogue's Justine Picardie. "That's very important to me."

"Rob instinctively knows what's right and what's wrong," says David Enthoven. "He has a very shrewd brain." Chris Briggs, the EMI A&R man who has been instrumental in guiding Robbie's resurrection, adds that "he's really bright, and the black humour is always around".

Enthoven remembers the day the gone-to-seed teen idol first came to see him and Tim Clark, his partner at IE Management. "Rob was in a bit of a state, I won't deny it," he says. "He was bursting with charisma, but with nowhere to go." A 30-year veteran of the business who's looked after everyone from Marc Bolan to Bryan Ferry, Enthoven says Williams' demos weren't terribly good, "but then he read us some poetry he'd written and it was fantastic".

It didn't take the IE duo long to realise that what "Rob" needed was a writing partner. "He had a very clear vision of where he wanted to go musically, but no one to help him get there," Enthoven says. "We had to facilitate his energy."

And then, in one of those splendidly serendipitous coincidences, Paul Curran of BMG Publishing biked round a showreel by a thirtysomething singer/writer called Guy Chambers just as a friend of Williams' mum was recommending him to IE. Chambers had played on World Party's Goodbye Jumboalbum and had fronted an overlooked band called the Lemon Trees. He and Williams clicked immediately. "I think for Rob it was a bit like writing with a big brother," says Chris Briggs. "Guy's much more phlegmatic than Rob, and they took very different routes to where they are now: Rob joined a boy band for a laugh, where Guy was serious, educated, middle-class, musically trained. But they got together in a little Holloway studio and the songs started to flow." By early 1996 the duo had written "Angels", a huge hit from the tellingly titled first album, Life Thru A Lens. Briggs watched Williams' confidence return: "My impression was that in Take That he'd been brainwashed into thinking he was just a backing singer and a dancer - I think he'd had his confidence eroded. He was very fearful, full of grave self-doubt. All I did was find out what he was interested in. I'm always trying to find the natural centre... especially when someone's all at sea, which he was. I had no preconceptions: I hadn't been interested in Take That, so I wasn't using that as a springboard."

The combination of Chambers' musical chops and Williams' playful, pop-culture-splattered lyrics was perfect. Eighties-throwback pop-rock filtered through the Britpop of bands such as Blur and Pulp, the music the pair has fashioned showcases a rag-bag of styles and influences from George Michael strut-pop ("Rock DJ") to Guns N' Roses balladry ("Better Man"), while throwing in nice touches such as the neo-Beach Boys coda "Singing For The Lonely". Chambers is a studio rat but he can turn his hand to very decent melodies, such as those of I've Been Expecting You's "Grace" and the new album's lovely "If It's Hurting You".

"We've always tried to plunder the best bits of modern music," Chambers has admitted. "Rob has never put his hand up and claimed to be the most original artist on the planet, but there's a strong argument to say he is the most entertaining." (The word "plunder" is slightly unfortunate in this context: Chambers and Williams have just been ordered to pay a New York publishing firm damages - most likely in six figures - for hoisting a verse without permission from Loudon Wainwright III's 1973 song "I Am The Way (New York Town)" and more or less inserting it intact into I've Been Expecting You's "Jesus in a Camper Van". In a recent interview in Q magazine, Williams was unwise enough to say of Dr Hook and the Medicine Show's Greatest Hits that, "The songs are great and you can nick as many lyrics as you like because no one will know." They will now, Rob, they will now.)

Sing When You're Winning is indisputably Williams' best record yet - a set full of meaty, satisfying pop. Indeed, the album's greater maturity and sophistication are somewhat at odds with the laddish football imagery of its packaging (shot at Stamford Bridge, where Williams is occasionally to be found playing in charity seven-a-side tournaments), especially when Williams himself has admitted that he fell foul of "lad culture" and "got lost in that for a while".

Lines such as "My soul heals the shame/I can grow through the pain/Lord I'm doing all I can/To be a better man" sound more like the George Michael of Older than the self-mockingly narcissistic Robbie Williams of the "Rock DJ" video. And herein lies the boy's profound inner conflict: to grow up or not to grow up. At 26 he has already had his fair share of misery and doubt and chemical chaos. It's no secret on London's Groucho-glitterati circuit that Williams - having made a valiant effort to get clean and sober through NA and AA - keeps slipping and sliding back into alcohol and drug abuse.

Observers of his frequent relapses attest to a Janus-like transformation of his personality when "sauced", as well as to his consequent guilt binges, some of which may derive from having a Catholic mum. (A gift from her of a statue of St Teresa stands at the end of Williams' bed in his space-age Notting Hill bachelor pad. "When I come home drunk," he whimpers, "St Teresa turns her head away from me, I swear to God she does.")

"When I met Rob, he knew the game was up," says Chris Briggs. "It was, 'How long can I perch on the edge of this vortex?' It is a struggle, but he's got the information he needs. And what came first? The pain, not the drugs."

Williams himself appears to wrestle constantly with his own conscience: on "Singing For The Lonely" he sings of "The hooligan half of me/That steals from Woolworths/While the other lives for love." Is he a split personality? "I always fancied being a bit mad," he confessed to Q's Adrian Deevoy. "So I prayed for that and got it. Now I don't have full control over what I do and it's scary." (Deevoy reported that Williams was "barely able to make eye contact" the morning after the interview: he was on his way home, ran into a mate, went off to Soho House, got wasted, and ended up taking his clothes off at Stringfellow's.)

A possible future role for Williams is that of the melancholy roué, Robbie as a depressed Don Juan. "The difficulty is, the sort of girls who will come home and sleep with me, you can't have a conversation with them," he sighs. "I don't just want a conversation, I want a wife. And kids. I want a real woman but I keep getting side-tracked by these... girls." ("D'you reckon Kylie'd shag me?" he inquired after duetting with La Minogue on Sing When You're Winning's "Kids". Gallingly, the Brazilian ultramodel Gisele showed no interest in Williams's underclad body when they shot a recent Vogue cover.)

The main trouble with Robbie Williams is that it's very hard to picture him growing up: his demons always threaten to drag him back down into pop Hades. There's something about that impish, pranksterish face that suggests that he won't ever take anything - let alone recovery - very seriously at all.

"I think I've got to the point where I'm prepared to try and be sincere," he says. "My big worry is that I'm not actually capable of being sincere."