Friday 11 June 2021

TAKE THAT: Greatest Hits



(#546: 6 April 1996, 4 weeks)


Track listing: How Deep Is Your Love/Never Forget/Back For Good/Sure/Love Ain't Here Anymore/Everything Changes/Babe/Relight My Fire/Pray/Why Can't I Wake Up With You/Could It Be Magic/A Million Love Songs/I Found Heaven/It Only Takes A Minute/Once You've Tasted Love/Promises/Do What U Like/Love Ain't Here Anymore (U.S. Version)


Virtually until the last minute, BMG Records and Nigel Martin-Smith, Take That’s manager, endeavoured to convince their audience that the group, even as a four-piece, were still a going concern. In the notes of their Greatest Hits booklet, Gary Barlow is quoted as saying of "How Deep Is Your Love": “We wanted to prove that we could still do a cover version this far on in our career and do it very well,” but the truth was more prosaic – the Greatest Hits collection was being prepared for release and the obligatory new track was required. Loath to use any of the new songs he was quietly stockpiling for his own imminent solo career, Barlow settled for the Bee Gees.


Contractual obligations flow like a slightly stymied industrial canal through “How Deep Is Your Love”; Barlow sings a rather glum, downbeat lead and the rest of the group sound hardly able to stir themselves out of bed, so much so that half of the backing vocals were provided by slowed-down Fairlight samples of their voices. The mood is MoR acoustic Latin, the original song’s harmonic ambiguities (e.g. the chord augmentations under “then you softly leave” in the first verse or over “breaking us down” in the chorus) are ruthlessly ironed out. A stray Minimoog – the ghost of Robbie Williams? – waddles about in the distant slipstream, for instance in the out-of-tempo pause Barlow inserts between “it’s me you need to show” and the final chorus.


The group scarcely bothers to conceal its disinterestedness in the entire project; they sing as though they are being made to do it, this late in their career, and are audibly looking for ways out. In that sense, if no other, their “How Deep Is Your Love” does bear some nocturnal comparison with the Bee Gees reading, which latter was used to soundtrack Tony Manero’s all-night soul-searching session on the subway; defeated in the only thing he’s ever been good at in his whole life, unsure which exit to take.


But the video made the dichotomy more explicit, and here is where the Monkees comparison comes in, since you asked; in Head the members of the latter jump off the bridge - the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach, fact fans - in slow motion to the strains of the “Porpoise Song,” while in the video for “How Deep Is Your Love” Take That are depicted tied to chairs, facing backwards towards a sheer cliff face, fearfully gawping at a woman who silently walks between them, assessing each for the drop.


Eventually – just as their version dies off into a tiny, rippling electronic hum – the woman pushes each of them off the cliff. Some interpreted this as an oblique comment on how they felt (mis)treated by their management. But it represents one of the quietest yet starkest ends to any major pop group’s career. Then again, recall how at the end of Albert Angelo the titular anti-hero (as with all his anti-heroes, he was B.S. Johnson personified) is ignominiously thrown into a canal by his ungrateful pupils and left there to drown, and yet, even though he appears to die in the context of that book, he actually continues to float out to sea, so far out that in Johnson’s next novel a few years later he resurfaces as a pleasure tripper on a North Sea trawler.


What we are left with is the documented popular history of a teen pop group who fit their time and desired audience perfectly - or to a degree, since you will note from the above track listing that the story of Take That (with the exception of the pointless bonus remix stapled onto the record's end) is actually being told backwards. I am not sure whether there were any precedents for this kind of sequencing (answers to me on Twitter, please, and yes I know about "Real Love," which serves a similar purpose to the Bee Gees cover) but it is intriguing to begin at the end and slowly wind one's compass back to the band's embryo.


I won't speak at length here about the group's make-it-big-elsewhere and imperial phases, since I have previously done so twice; instead I will rewind to their early days, which confirm the puzzling, though not uninteresting, story which this collection is attempting to tell. Indeed we were struck by how un-"Mancunian" Take That were (even though, in many ways, they couldn't have been more Northern) in that they offer sunny cheer instead of grey dourness - it is like being transported back to the happier days of Mancunian pop. They have confidence and perhaps more importantly they had Robbie Williams, always lurking in the middleground or occasionally leaping out front - no one else could have pulled off that lead on "Could It Be Magic," and hardly anybody else in early nineties pop would have countered covering the song in the first place, let alone remodel it from an entirely different angle, thus pleasing its co-author immensely.


Their "It Only Takes A Minute," it has to be said, takes its lead more from One Hundred Ton And A Feather than Tavares, but is a convincing update; "I Found Heaven" is a nice rave-era variant on late sixties soft-psychpop sun-soaked reflection ("Grazing In The Grass" by the Friends Of Distinction comes to mind) and "A Million Love Songs" proved that Barlow could win over the fans' parents.

Even more intriguing, however, are the really early singles which hardly got anywhere. They all show a group emerging from a surprisingly febrile post-KLF mindset, with their growled, cement-consuming vocals and thudding beats. "Promises," their first top forty hit (though only just), is admirably uncompromising in that respect. But "Once You've Tasted Love" is the real revelation with its deep, sunlit valley of Pet Shop Boys chord changes sweetening the soundtrack's hardcore-knowing-the-score elements.


Overall, this is a thoroughly entertaining and imaginatively-programmed collection of hits which certainly deserved its triple platinum status and most likely deserved a better ending than its beginning. The group did eventually find their way to that better ending, following a prolonged period of rest and what some might still consider extensive extracurricular activity. In the meantime, however, do permit me to say that the story of Take That does not quite end at this point, but rather slips into voluntary suspended animation.