Entranced by pop's clown prince

Once a prime candidate for burn-out, Robbie Williams is now a shining star. Fiona Sturges is stunned

Fiona Sturges
Sunday 24 May 1998 23:02

ROBBIE WILLIAMS is often called the Gazza of pop. I suppose that depends on whether you think Paul Gascoigne has any charm or not. Robbie has got bagfuls of it, and it was all on show when I saw him at the Manchester Apollo. He grinned, he pouted, he ran around the stage like a kid in a playpen. He toyed with us, he strode up and down, he wiggled his bum, took giant rock-star leaps. The man's a star.

Part of his charm lies in the fact that he made such a prat of himself in public and has still come out smiling. Where the Oasis sneer gets up your nose, Robbie's cheeky grin and little-boy eyes ensure that his sins will not be held against him. We may have delighted in his demise; now we can rejoice in his resurrection. His most miraculous achievement is his transformation from manufactured teen pin-up to creditable pop icon.

His days in Take That virtually passed me by - he was just another in a long line of pre-packaged and wholesome himbos that frankly made me feel a bit nauseous. It wasn't until his infamous extended lost weekend and public declaration about the restrictions of boy-bandhood that he warranted my attention.

Now, at 24, he is a veteran who has recognised the value of reinvention - a procedure which, if executed with originality and style, can ensure a long stay in the limelight. Madonna has maintained her career like this, metamorphosing with each album, as, to rather dubious effect, has Kylie Minogue. Unlike Kylie, the post-Take That Robbie is more than a new wardrobe. It is his impertinent, licentious, devil-may-care attitude that has sealed his success - and it certainly pushes my buttons.

He has fared better his old pals in Take That. Despite being Smash Hits' Most Fanciable Male three times, Mark Owen has sunk without trace, along with his reprehensible solo album. Gary Barlow gave it his best shot as Elton John II, though the Spice Girls consigned his records to the dustbin in their movie. Jason Orange recently resurfaced as a second-rate actor, while Howard (I can never remember his second name)... well, he is still "working on ideas". In Manchester, Robbie was more than willing to show his contempt for his old friends, launching into a raucous version of "Back For Good", reinvented as a punk-metal track.

As well as outstripping his erstwhile colleagues, he has also had to fight off his imitators. Just as we were in danger of being overwhelmed by "girl power" on the one hand and gaggles of greasy-chested boys on the other, Robbie added some real life Spice to his act - he went out and got smashed.

All the indicators of rock stardom were there: money, drink, drugs, girls. His transformation occurred at Glastonbury in 1995, when he bunked Take That rehearsals and turned up with a car-boot full of champagne. "Rock 'n' Roll Robbie" was born, and while the tabloids screamed his demise, helplines were set up to counsel suicidal teenage girls. Oasis, unable to keep up, went home to nurse their heads.

After some rehab and much apologising, Robbie returned late last year with a clear head and a new album. His resolve to sell himself as a "serious artiste" put him in grave danger of becoming boring - the dewy-eyed born- again nature of his Christmas weepie, "Angel", had me close to writing him off altogether, but his show-stealing set with Tom Jones at this year's Brits confirmed that his swagger was intact. He is now displaying a promising bent for songwriting, and his album Life Thru A Lens, though self-indulgent in parts, has some classy pop songs.

His latest incarnation is a take-off of sleaze-rock gods Kiss, slapping on their trademark panto make-up and slipping into their tight strides. In fact, Robbie looks considerably better in a pair of leather trousers than Gene Simmons ever did - though they both share ample paunch - and pulls off the devilish rock monster persona with seductive ease.

Always one step ahead of his critics, he has called this latest tour "The Ego Has Landed". And with the kind of welcome Manchester gave him, you can't begrudge him a little arrogance. He arrived on stage, arms aloft, to chants of "Robbie, Robbie," strutting about like Frank N Furter (and he would do a much better job of that than the ghastly Jason Donovan).

He opened with his delightfully frivolous rock anthem, "Let Me Entertain You", in which he came on like a poodle-permed rock star. He is at his best with his guitar-driven upbeat songs, but should he ever run short of cash, he can rest in the knowledge that his crispy vocals could land him a role in any Lloyd Webber musical. And all too often he slid into ballad mode, even if the crowd fell for it, swaying their arms and rummaging around for their lighters. But just as cynics were retching, he dispelled the mood with his usual irreverence. "I've finished. Lads, you can come back from the bar now."

Then he stood still and told us to be quiet. And as he moved his eyes from side to side, noise erupted wherever he was looking. Soon, a Mexican wave of noise crashed through the auditorium.

As I said, the man's a star.

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