Robbie Williams live, in a 2500 capacity club, for less than fifteen quid. Truly, 1997 was a different planet.
When I think back to these two consecutive Robbie Williams gigs I attended in 1997, the main feeling I get is that I was very, very lucky. Robbie had not yet become the galaxy-straddling superstar he was soon to become, and the imminent behemoth single “Angels” was nothing more than a lovely track on his newly released debut solo album. In this parallel universe, we lucky few had a rare glimpse of the man before the megastardom, and looking back on it through the chasm of decades, it feels like a massive privilege.
I’d gotten the chance to see Take That live two years earlier in 1995 when they toured Australia, but in laughably catastrophic timing, Robbie’s departure from the band had been announced the day before tickets went on sale. Much as I enjoyed seeing the tunesome four, I missed Robbie’s presence greatly at that gig. So much so that, in 1996, I became for a brief period, the webmistress of the first ever Robbie Williams website. Before he even had an official site, there was mine, the Babe Bob Appreciation Society, in which I posted flagrantly hotlinked picture and audio samples, and relayed spurious news and gossip that had been emailed to me by fans over the world. It was huge fun, though it had to come to an end when I moved to London that December.
And now I finally had my first chance to see in person the man who I’d spent a good chunk of the previous year chronicling on my site. And it turned out to be a heady, intensely physical gig. With a lot of screaming girls. From my diary:
“ROBBIEEEE! It’s still ringing in my ears. Christ what a crush. Who would have thought it’d be Babe Bob who’d provide the most knackering gig of the year?? I am utterly wiped out.”
Unusually for me, I did not attend this gig alone. One of the benefits of my forays into the online Take That fandom of the time was that I had a few Thattish mates to hang out with on occasion. Which resulted in me joining the queue with my pals at around 3.45pm, which was very much the longest I’ve ever queued for anything. Once inside I was amazed by how small the venue was.
“What a tiny club! even 5/6/7 rows back the Babe was startlingly close. We were together in the throng to begin with, but after the quite enjoyable support from the Supernaturals my friends decided that they were not in the mood to be crushed anymore and exited to the right of the crowd for some breathing space. And as the crowd grew ever more frenzied in anticipation of our Bob I slipped back a bit to where it was less constricting and could jump about at will.”
As with almost every Robbie Williams gig ever, this one started with “Let Me Entertain You”. It was followed by one my personal favourite Robbie tunes, “Lazy Days”, “which morphed knowingly into “Hey Jude” at its end. He did every single song from his (actually insanely wonderful) debut album. His voice is in fantastic shape.”
At 22, I was one of the older fans in the crowd, and it seems I felt a bit world-weary compared to the hysterically screaming throng. “He leapt about and glared at the crowd and chucked water about the place and held up his arms at us and every tiniest smirk or wink prompted insane screams. I must be getting very old indeed for I recall thrilling to the teenage euphoria of it all when I saw TT two years ago, but last night as fans pierced every quiet moment (ie when he was singing one of his actually heartmeltingly gorgeous ballads) with endless ROBBIEEEE!!!”s I could only think for god’s sake shut up and LISTEN you fools!!!”
A particular highlight for me was the third song in “Average B-Side”, which appropriately enough had been a B-Side to “Old Before I Die”, though it was far from average – it was in fact a vastly better song than its associated single. “An utter classic to begin with, a genuinely moving narrative on the throat-clutching peril of relationships, a song of the kind Mark O. has only remotely touched upon and Gaz B. it seems will never in a million years be able to equal. But howling along to that despairing cry of “this is not healthy!” was one of the most powerful moments I’ve experienced gig-wise all year.”
I found myself struggling to go into intricate detail about the gig in my diary entry. “Robbie just sang us all his tunes and basically Robbie’d for an hour and a bit.” And reading the section where I bring up “Angels”, it feels bizarre to revisit a alien world in which it was not yet the ubiquitous, universe-conquering song it soon became, a world where it had not been played at every single wedding and funeral and christening so many millions of times that several people I know cannot stand Robbie purely because of this song. “It is the Big Ballad on the album and perhaps my favourite song out of all he’s done. Robbie sings with such purpose, such melancholy hopefulness before being drowned out by an instrumental cascade of strings which manages to be simultaneously utterly, ridiculously over the top and yet completely perfectly fitting. It was stunning live, that’s all I can say.” It was my favourite single of 1997, in a year with some pretty stiff competition, and remains one of my favourite songs of all time.
I also enjoyed the lack of deadly mosh crush at this gig. “There was only the gentlest of moshing even for the rockin’est tunes, which actually made it quite an enjoyable experience. “Ego a go go” was particularly pogotastic with its joyously manic chorus.” Then there was “the chaos that was his version of “Back For Good”, the choruses a screaming punk thrash that would have had any normal indie crowd mosh themselves to death.”
All in all I had a fantastic time, though after a year of indie gigging, I found it myself somewhat perplexed to find myself in the midst of this pop frenzy. “I felt a bit strange to find myself crushed within a thousand screaming adolescents. Being, at least, an erstwhile Professional Bobfan, what with my website, and yet probably one of the least excited members of the audience. And yet I was far from a casual observer last night. I leapt and cheered and sang and by the end I was swimming in sweat and on the verge of collapse.”
So I stumbled home after my first Robbie experience, hoping to recover in time to do it all again the following night. And I found myself reflecting about what Robbie meant to me, and how he differed from the eyeliner and glitter and leopardprint-strewn likes of my other musical favourites.
“So this is Bob: ace serious tunes, ace dementedly rockin’ tunes, evil sense of humour, beautiful, charismatic, greatest voice in Pop today. So what could possibly be missing??? Compared to my other faves, he lacks a sense of outsiderness, of deviance. But does he really? What’s more deviant: eyeliner and glitter, or being royally fucked up by being plucked from adolescent insecurity and thrust upon Satan’s rollercoaster that life in TT surely was?”
For all I felt out of step with the world of Robbie fandom, I’d had a brilliant night at the Palais, and was to have an ever more brilliant one the next night. And there were a couple of aspects to Robbie that were, to me, irrefutable.
“One certain thing about Robbie Williams: he’s a precious one-off. And I would kill to be his songwriting partner.”
You know what? I still would.