(#525: 13 May 1995, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Sure/Back For Good/Every Guy/Sunday To Saturday/Nobody Else/Never Forget/Hanging Onto Your Love/Holding Back The Tears/Hate It/Lady Tonight/The Day After Tomorrow
One of the remarkable trends of the pre-rock singles chart in the UK was the manner in which polite British crooners were fashioned to sound as American as possible, manfully (or womanfully) trying to emulate the effortless sophistication of their counterparts on a ration coupon budget with the intent of sounding "international," even though the States were never likely to embrace a Dickie Valentine or a Michael Holliday when Frank and Bing were still active, hale and - in High Society - distinctly gay in a non-1956 sense.
Some commentators have taken as an indication of coming full circle the equivalent tendency over the last quarter-century or so of British groups and performers to endeavour to appeal to an assumed international market, and in doing so jettison every facet of them which made them British, and appealing, and therefore different. Which brings us to the late period of early Take That.
The third Take That album is a textbook case of lost punctum. Its unnerving cover promises far more than the record delivers. Its opening song, "Sure,” outlines the album’s superficially earnest attempt to appeal to the post-New Jack Swing demographic - Gary Barlow co-produced with the Brothers In Rhythm team, and the song bears a rare Barlow/Owen/Williams co-writing credit – but it simply doesn't work. The group's natural charm and modest determination to be themselves are eroded against bland international hotel lobbies of “sophisticated” chord changes, and Barlow's voice simply isn't built to curve with the indentures and turnarounds of 1994 R&B patterns; references in the lyric to "positive reactions" and "compatible" sound awkward in both construction and delivery (in contrast, something like East 17's "Deep," though in most ways patently, if admirably, absurd, actually does work in terms of Walthamstow roughage roughing it up with a track which very wisely kicks back to preserve both pop and would-be hip hop tendencies; it succeeds precisely because it isn't in your face). But "Sure" sounded like a shoehorned Take That and unsurprisingly became not only their lowest-selling chart-topper but also the lowest-selling number one of 1994.
In this shrivelled company, it is little surprise that “Back For Good” was the only actual hit they enjoyed in North America. When the group premiered "Back For Good" at the 1995 BRITS ceremony, Laura and I, watching the self-same ceremony on television, immediately exchanged glances and said "Barlow's trying to do an Oasis"; it was the "Whatever I said, whatever I did" which did it, as well as its having the the same general key and tempo as the other "Whatever," and Gary Barlow has subsequently admitted as much in terms of inspiration.
But that was as far as the influence went - and in any case, where would Oasis' "Whatever" have been without the precedent of Neil Innes' "How Sweet To Be An Idiot"? More pressing perhaps was the song's overall feeling of something coming to an end; indeed it begins with a melancholy Barlow, over acoustic guitar and drum machine, singing "I guess now it's time for me to give up," and later, and slightly more loudly, "Gotta leave it, gotta leave it all behind now."
"Back For Good" remains Take That's most famous song; as I said, it was their only major American hit, and a standard almost before Barlow had finished writing it. The song itself is a curious lyrical mix of cliché ("a picture of you," "lipstick mark still on your coffee cup") and wordplay which doesn't quite attain Elvis Costello levels of dextrous verbal ambiguity ("Unaware but underlined," "In the twist of separation you excelled at being free") and efficiently-crafted, but still distinctly British, AoR pop considerably influenced by Cliff Richard's late seventies work, especially in the continuous interplay between solo voice and harmony chorus; so much so in fact that one almost regrets that Barlow didn't give it to Cliff to sing since his own voice doesn't possess the necessary technical or emotional range to make, for instance, the climactic line "We will never be uncovered again" (whatever that means; does he propose a clandestine mock-relationship of coded signs and make-do-and-mend mute acceptance?) carry the weight he puts on it as a songwriter (again, contrast with the seventeen different flavours of hurt Cliff finds in his voice to apply to "We Don't Talk Anymore").
The song was Barlow's - very much Barlow's, rather than Take That's - attempt to do a one-step George Michael, to cross the demographic boundaries and appeal to anybody (as opposed to everybody). But there is something which doesn't really gel in its construction; that there is a craft at work here is undeniable, that the song moved millions even less so (depending on how you view the art, if art be there any, of moving millions), but there is little sense of artistic or emotional boundaries being breached; its earnest politeness prevents it from being touched, as though "Back For Good" were an audition tape to become the spectre which by 1995 was beginning to make a stealthy comeback - the All-Round Entertainer. But all round what, or whom? No wonder that Robbie Williams, who on record and video alike already seemed like a ghost in this group, would a few years later shake the song to pieces by turning it into a punk thrash, and place a live recording on the B-side of "Angels"...although really it ought to have been on the flipside of "Let Me Entertain You."
The rest of Nobody Else is mostly depressing. What is the point of trying to fit in with this mid-Atlantic nowhere land of benign wallpaper? Everything Changes was imaginative, lively, sometimes startling and genuinely original – it sounded like the product of human beings. But this could be anybody; not so much Boyz II Men as Ladz II Blokes. Yes, “Sunday To Saturday” is a decent facsimile of Jam and Lewis (“Saturday Love” in particular), but, apart from the occasional frisson in its arrangements (that triple vocal hiccup just before the first chorus), no more than that, and who needs a photocopy when the real thing was readily available? The exasperated gasp of “We’ll just start again” midway through the title song (which commendably also attempts the love song from the perspective of an elderly couple trope, but Barlow is no Paul Heaton – and the lyric’s reference to “senior high” meant nothing in Britain) indicated that they knew the game was already up.
And “Never Forget” confirmed it. Boy bands and teen idols tend not to be much good at saying goodbye. There is a marked reluctance to put away those childish things and start thinking about what’s going to put food on their table for the next half century or so. More often than not they simply and ingloriously fizzle out as their chart positions proportionally diminish, as they make futile too-late stabs at credibility, or end up spending their accumulated royalties, if there be any, on protracted court battles with elusive managers. The Monkees of course were a case apart, as in the end were the Beatles, but by 1995 only Wham! had approached getting it right, going out in a self-constructed blaze of euphoria with the Edge Of Heaven double E.P. and the double greatest hits collection The Final (a double album covering just four years of work! How did they manage that?).
Alas, it would seem that Take That weren’t terribly good at it either. The coded messages annotating “Never Forget” in the liner note to entry #546 speak in codes of self-denial: “…it marked a farewell to the past and embraced a new era…”; but in terms of what it represents, not to mention the fact that it gave its title to a 2005 repackaging of their hits (which just missed out on inclusion in this tale), it is hard to believe that everybody involved in “Never Forget” wasn’t fully aware that they were approaching the end.
The cover of the “Never Forget” single featured a Photoshop montage of childhood photos of the five members holding up a portrait of the group as they were in 1995. "Never Forget” isn’t just about saying goodbye to one’s childhood, and although it was not the last number one single by this particular incarnation of Take That – an extremely peculiar epilogue was to follow in 1996 – it sounds, from its introduction of Royal Household trumpets, crashing tympani and ghostly choir onwards, like their Last Trump (actually it is from Verdi’s Requiem, as sung by the Henllan Boys Choir with the featured voice of Alistair Stubbs).
The involvement of those last three elements mark the involvement of Jim Steinman. Over a sombre drone of voices, a children’s choir sings “We’ve come so far and we’ve reached so high” before an electro setting, not far removed from Primal Scream’s “Higher Than The Sun,” enters and Gary Barlow intones his doubts: “We’ve come a long way/But we’re not too sure where we’ve been.”
And then, for the first time on a Take That single, the lead vocal is divided five equal ways; everyone gets to have their say, their lines, their verse. They sing of the path they have travelled, with its faces in the moonlight, arms of disappointment and roads going down the other side of the hill (“I understand the meaning of ‘I can’t explain this feeling’” exclaims Mark Owen at one surprisingly Derridean point) before they all join hands and turn towards us for the mass chorus: “Never forget where you’re coming from/Never pretend that it’s all real/Someday soon, this will be someone else’s dream.”
It is an extremely moving eulogy, with a grace and generosity bestowed on few teen idols, past or present; a dignified farewell, a realisation of their imminent, natural expiry date. It is not morose; the rhythm bounces along at a purposeful mid-tempo, gradually increasing in intensity with each approaching chorus, and there is a delightful moment towards the end when the song temporarily stops for rounds of applause and cheers in the studio before scything sharply back into focus.
The Robbie question, however, will not go away. By the time of “Never Forget”’s single release Robbie had gone, jumped or been pushed depending on whose manager’s account you believe, being pictured bleached, stoned and reeling with sundry members of Oasis at Glastonbury, and one briefly wonders whether there is going to be some Stalinist revisionism at work here to expunge his contribution.
But no; two-thirds of the way through the song, there he is, advising “We’re not invincible”…and then, exactly one minute later, as the drums magnify into monstrous Tackhead beats and Steinman’s full-throated choir make their entry, he’s seized and claimed the song for himself – “EVERYBODY SING!” he yells, entreats, over and over, “EVERYBODY!,” already mapping out his own plans, making no bones of who he thinks is going to come out best out of this lot. Finally, the group take over again as a unit for the final choruses, the waves to the balcony as they reluctantly retreat from the stage; they fade to leave the original children’s choir, now alone – “And we’re still so young, and we hope for more.” Or was that “hope” already in the past tense, as in “we hoped for more”? But “Never Forget,” in its unhurried five-and-a-half minutes or so, signifies the passing of the teen idol candle, to the next bunch of still-dreaming hopefuls; I incidentally note that the motif “we’re only people” would reappear a decade later in Momus’ not-that-far-removed “Hang Low”…and that would not be alone in its surprising reappearance.
Arranger Richard Niles tries for some “Left To My Own Devices” magic with his string introduction to “Holding Back The Tears,” but the song is no “Miss You Nights.” The experiment with Beach Boys harmonies on “Hate It” necessitates the existence of a strong song to encase it. Robbie’s rapping, seemingly done at bayonet point, on “Lady Tonight,” does not rock anyone’s mike.
Yet the album closes, as did its predecessor, with a strange ballad sung by Mark Owen. “The Day After Tomorrow” is a lot less strange than the ghost story of “Babe,” but despite still sounding far too smooth for its own pain, it declares an uncertainty as inconclusive as that expressed on “I’ll Be Back.” Owen sings the lament like a humiliated Marti Pellow (lyrically the song is about guilt secondary to adultery) and the music perhaps ventures too close to the Moody Blues, whereas it should have gone more in the P.M. Dawn direction, or for that matter the route which George Michael would shortly pursue. The song is enough to engender questions (nobody else? Are you sure?) which set this a little way above standard steel cube pop balladry. But its implication that there will be no tomorrow makes one wonder why, at the Hard Day’s Night stage of their existence, Take That had already opted for the long and winding road.