It’s 1989 and the young Howard Donald is worried. He should be happy, because his place in a hot new boyband has just been confirmed by the group’s manager, Nigel Martin-Smith. But, after a chat with his mother, Donald is suddenly having second thoughts.
“My Mum was so disappointed,” he laughs, nearly 30 years on from the successful audition that saw a grand total of six wannabes turn up. “She was angry with me for the fact that I had to leave my job, getting £130-a-week as a vehicle painter. She was losing out on her £25-a-week upkeep for the house, so she was disappointed. At the time, I was questioning it, thinking, ‘Maybe she’s right here, because I don’t really know where this is going to go’.”
Still, given that that boyband turned out to be Take That, it seemed to turn out OK, Music Week suggests.
“Yeah,” deadpans Donald. “I pay her £30 a week now so she’s quids in!”
It has been a long, strange trip between then and now, but Donald and his remaining bandmates – Gary Barlow and Mark Owen – seem to have made it through remarkably unscathed. Two former members – Robbie Williams and Jason Orange – have fallen by the wayside along the way (Williams twice, in fact) but remain members of the extended Take That family (Williams is likely to join them for one TV appearance during the campaign), and have been involved in compiling the new Greatest Hits album. Odyssey is released via Polydor on November 23 and is expected to be one of the blockbusters of the Q4 season.
The trio here today, sat joshing with each other in a Universal Music studio after a morning of trying on “silly clothes” for their forthcoming campaign of TV appearances (a BBC Special, Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor, no mucking about), are relaxed in each other’s company and clearly still enjoying every minute of being in Britain’s biggest “boy” band.
Your correspondent last encountered them in their Phase One heyday, at the Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party, where their every move was soundtracked by a crescendo of teenage screams. Yet, having split in 1996 in the wake of Williams’ departure the previous year, they defied all logic by returning in 2005, without Williams, and somehow ending up bigger than ever.
David Joseph, chairman & CEO of Universal Music UK, was key to that comeback in his role as co-president of Polydor, having previously worked with the band when head of artist development at RCA.
“We’re here to back artists we believe in,” says Joseph. “Myself, Colin [Barlow, then Polydor co-president] and Lucian [Grainge, then Universal UK boss] backed them. Polydor believed in them. The only thing that may sound strange in hindsight was that we didn’t hear any music before the deal. The story was enough. We trusted them. It was instinctive and they delivered.”
And they’ve been delivering ever since. Take That’s figures before the split were impressive. Their sales since the comeback have been ridiculous. Beautiful World (2006) sold 2,879,729, according to the Official Charts Company. The Circus (2008) has moved 2,227,839. 2010’s Progress, when Williams briefly returned, became the fastest-selling album of the 21st century at the time and has sold 2,389,490. Orange then left the group, with the remaining trio scoring additional hits with 2014’s III (562,010) and last year’s Wonderland (220,946), while their live business remains off the charts, with over 30 arena/stadium dates lined up for 2019.
“If you look at their ticket sales in comparison with their peers, it’s unparalleled,” says Neil Rodford, CEO of Take That’s management company YM&U Group. “The audience is very engaged and, if you look at the span of people that are going, generations come in, whether it be mums and daughters, dads and daughters, or grandparents even. There aren’t many artists that have that span and what keeps people coming is the quality of the music.”
Odyssey showcases Take That’s iron grip on contemporary British pop songwriting over three decades, from the early pop pep of It Only Takes A Minute to the older-but-wiser balladry of Patience and beyond. And Joseph heralds “the songs, the chemistry between them and the extraordinary live shows” as the reasons for their enduring success.
“Then add the band as relatable people and their story with many twists and turns, ups and downs, fallouts and reunions – but ultimately one of togetherness,” he says. “And the way they’ve kept their fans so close as part of the journey. But it’s nothing without the music. The songs drive the story.”
“They’ve always had incredible songs, written by themselves,” concurs Polydor co-president Tom March. “They have a phenomenal drive and work ethic, and an incredible connection to their fans. They went away at a time when their fans weren’t ready for them to go away and their return was just nothing short of spectacular, so everything their fans have done, they’ve done with a Take That song playing in the background.”
Odyssey sees the band revisit those songs – lead writer Barlow is published by Sony/ATV – with 30 years of hits mixed together with interludes and snippets of interviews by superstar producer Stuart Price. Every song has had a spring clean, some get a complete overhaul. Boyz II Men enhance Love Ain’t Here Anymore (“They basically gave us a lesson in how to sing,” chortles Donald) while Barry Gibb duets on the band’s original swansong, How Deep Is Your Love? (“We said, ‘Thanks for lending us this song, we’d like it to give it you back now’,” grins Owen).
Barlow also describes Odyssey as the end of a chapter in the band’s history, but there will be no need for tears this time around, as the band seem likely to continue for as long as their fans want them to.
In the meantime, though, it’s time for Barlow, Owen and Donald to sit down with Music Week and talk us through a career that has seen them end up with jelly on their nether regions, but rarely with egg on their faces…
When you first got together, did you think you’d still be here 30 years later?
Gary Barlow: “No. I don’t think you can think like that. It’s not fun looking that far forward either. There were points where it felt like we were getting nowhere. We were just fighting for a place in the industry. When we first started, doing the under-18s tours and club tours, pop wasn’t back but it was on its way back. They’d had three or four years of faceless dance acts and the pop magazines were crying out for a band with a face. There were four or five of us and we were the only ones who broke through.”
You did plenty of covers. But how important has writing your own songs been for your longevity?
GB: “Very, especially as audiences get older, that becomes more important. They want to be spoken to by you, not through someone who’s been flown in from Sweden. Luckily, we built that into our being the first time round so our fans were used to it and they just wanted more when we came back. Which was great, because we all started to write the second time around.”
Do you endorse the trend for multiple songwriters?
GB: “That’s a new way of working. But it doesn’t matter how you crack it, as long as you crack it.”
Nowadays, boybands are launched by major labels or huge TV shows. But joining Take That must have been quite a leap of faith for you all…
GB: “Nigel was very blasé in the way he sold us the idea, it was like we’d already made it. He talked about it in a way that suggested failure was not an option. He told us what was going to happen and fuck me, it happened. All of it! Even all the downsides he told us would come with it. He had this vision and it was absolutely spot on. That’s what made us all go, ‘I want to do this’ because he was telling us what it should be and how it should look.”
Howard Donald: “Although he did tell us that a couple of plays on Radio 1 would get us to No.1. We were all waiting in the van when the charts were on, thinking, ‘Fucking hell, we’ve made it here, we’re going to be No.1’. We got all the way to No.1 and it was someone else and we heard we’d gone in at No.96!”
But wasn’t it good that you didn’t make it overnight?
GB: “It was definitely a good thing as a writer. I was writing Barry Manilow songs at the time, I wasn’t writing pop music. Going in these nightclubs and listening to the music they were playing, my ear was starting to change and I realised, ‘I’m out of date, I’ve been playing working men’s clubs for too long’. Meanwhile, what people do on Twitter and Instagram now, we were doing with a wooden box on the side of the stage that said, ‘Put your flyer with your name and address in here’. We’d take the box back to Nigel’s office and his secretary would dial in all the numbers and we’d mailshot them when we were gigging.”
You actually worked harder than any guitar band…
GB: “We did. Three or four gigs a night; under-18s at 6pm, over-18s at 8pm, gay club about 11pm, schools through the day. If they’d have us on, we’d just turn up.”
HD: “We’d play schools in our leather gear and the kids would be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’”
Mark Owen: “I remember when we went to America and we were in Long Island to do gigs. We had our suitcase with our leather gear and we realised it was completely the wrong place to be doing this. So Howard would beatbox, Rob would rap and we’d breakdance and then go. We didn’t even play a track!”
GB: “The way we were trying to do performances led to the gigs being like a show rather than a concert. It wasn’t enough to just stand and sing, we had to wow the crowd.”
MO: “That was from looking at things like Madonna and Michael Jackson. In our heads that’s who we were competing against, in Hull!”
How did someone persuade you to smear each other with jelly for the Do What You Like video?
GB: “Well, it moved into that. It was meant to just be us performing the dance routine! But then, as the day went by, people just wanted to get crazy. And this is the thing with us, if someone does something, someone will try and upstage it. So all of a sudden you’re looking round and going, ‘Why has everyone got nothing on? Where the fuck’s this food come from?’ That’s the trouble.”
HD: “I thought we were supposed to eat it. Nigel’s going, ‘No, you dickhead, you’re supposed to be putting it on each other!’”
GB: “You’ve got to remind yourselves of the time. Nigel had said to us, ‘Listen, it’s going to be great publicity when this video gets banned because it’s too naughty or raunchy or whatever’. But I don’t think anyone noticed…”
HD: “But I do believe that’s part of our DNA. It was part of our experience and growth and [finding out] what to do and what not to do. I don’t think I’d have it any other way, I wouldn’t change anything from the ’90s.”
You became massive on Everything Changes. What was it like being in the middle of all that hysteria?
GB: “It was mega! It was bloody brilliant! Did I like it? The quick answer is yes. For five people who’d been thrown together, we were very like-minded in our ambitiousness. We were very professional. We’d turn up in Japan and do 15 hours straight interviews and never complain. We had that work ethic. We wanted to make it. Even when I see Rob now, he’s always kept that, he still works hard. So the bigger we were getting, it wasn’t by accident, we were aiming for it, so it felt amazing.”
And then Back For Good and the Nobody Else album broke you out of the teen scene…
GB: “I felt like I’d been programming drum machines and listening to what the new beat was [for ages] and I wanted to write songs again, but now with a knowledge of how to modernise that old-fashioned kid. I remember physically getting the piano and putting it back in the studio. It was also the first time I’d really asserted myself. We’d always gone along with the label and they wanted to go with Sure first, but we just knew. Don’t lead up to it, just fucking go with it. Nigel backed me up completely and then we got the BRITs performance. They didn’t want us on, but they heard the song and said, ‘We’re going to give you a slot’. And that was pretty much it…”
How frustrating was it to then break up just as you were making headway internationally?
MO: “To be honest, it was a good time. As a band, we’d probably gone as far as we could go anyway. It was a shame that we didn’t finish as a five but, even if Rob had stayed, we were probably not far away from realising that we’d reached our full potential. It didn’t end in the perfect way but it had to come to an end.”
GB: “I was knackered. I felt like we hadn’t stopped for a day over six years. I was just exhausted. It felt like a great time to press pause, definitely.”
Devastated fans had hotlines. But how did you feel?
MO: “I called that hotline many a time. I still do…”
HD: “It was definitely hard. You don’t think, ‘Perhaps we’ll reform in 2006’. That was the last thing on my mind, I was just thinking, ‘What am I going to do now? Being recognised so much, how am I going to go back to vehicle painting?’ It was really tough.”
Did you have any idea just how big the comeback would be?
GB: “No! It was a five-day gig. Five days of promotion for the TV documentary [ITV’s Take That: For The Record], that’s what we were coming back for. And we all said, ‘That’s alright. Five days will be fine’.
HD: “We’d never really said, ‘Listen mate, good luck with your life, I’m here if you need me’. We got off a plane, got in cars and drove home and avoided talking about it being the end. So, initially when we all came back, it was for us all to see how life had been and probably to say goodbye.”
MO: “We always say we came back for closure…”
GB: “…And we’re still looking for it!”
What do you put the astounding comeback success down to?
GB: “It’s been like our whole career: a number of moves have got us to where we’re at. But if you wanted one thing, it’s us, it’s the people. It’s not a clever marketing move. It’s how we came back and saw the opportunity and went for it as a team. Thank God we got a supportive team around us. Old friends – David Joseph, Colin [Barlow] who I got to know in the nine years off, we had a great team of people who just went, ‘We’re not going to tell you what to do but, when you decide, we’re here and we’re going to back you’. They were behind us.”
Even since then the business has completely changed. How do you stay on top of things like streaming?
GB: “I don’t know if we have. I don’t think we ever take notice of it to be honest. The whole thing about how people are ingesting music or whatever, I don’t even think about it. I don’t sit and write a song thinking about Spotify. What we do is the same, how we then get it out there, well, these guys [the label] know all the best ways, so then you take it into consideration. But when you’re playing you don’t even think about it. You just try and write a great song.”
So where do you go next?
MO: “It’s been a wondrous journey. But we’re not looking beyond [this] really at this stage.”
GB: “That’s not because there isn’t a beyond, there obviously is at some point.”
MO: “But it’s hard to see beyond a big tour so we’re trying to live more where we are. It would be really nice for the five of us to do something again in the future. Even though there are three of us in this room, there’s always five of us really.”
GB: “This is our escape, this is where we come and have a laugh and be stupid and feel like we’re 17 again. That friendship has been the thing. If we weren’t friends this would be hell. We’re family now.”