The outrageously triumphant return of Take That, one decade after the split that devastated a generation.
It was May 2006, and something wholly unexpected and unprecedented was happening in the lives of millions of 90s pop girls: our boys were back! But in order to fully comprehend the magnitude that the return of Take That held for a generation of young women, you need to go back to a dark, dark day a decade previously, in February 1996.
The announcement of Take That’s split on the 13th of February 1996 came as a huge blow for all their fans. We’d already weathered the departure of Robbie the previous year, which happened with spectacularly bad timing for me, just as their Australian tour was about to go on sale. But the split announcement came at a time when its impact could not have been greater for me personally, for one very specific reason: The Internet.
My family had got ourselves a 14K modem in the middle of 1995, and we’d been delving into the mysterious world of the mid-90s world wide web life and all its delights – Netscape, websites with little ‘under construction’ gifs, and all the strange the intricacies of email etiquette. And then, just two weeks before that fateful evening, I had ventured into an even more thrilling part of the online world, the chat rooms of IRC. To be precise, I found myself chatting to a variety of girls and boys from around the world on the #takethat channel, which was to be found on the enigmatically-named Undernet.
It may be hard to imagine, in our Zoom-and-WhatsApp-saturated world of 2021, how utterly universe-shattering this was in 1996. In truth, it completely revolutionised my life in a matter of seconds. From being an intensely shy and withdrawn young woman, I suddenly found a way to socialise without actually having to talk to people! I’d always been more comfortable with the written word than the spoken – as I remain to this day – and here in early 1996, with this brand new method of instant communication available to me, it felt like the world of socialising was suddenly working in my favour.
I was not prepared however for just how intense it would all be. I was astonished to discover that countless evenings staring at the screen until the early hours chatting in the #takethat channel left me just as drained as if I’d spent that amount of time socialising in real time. And when I found out that many of the women I was chatting with just happened to live in Perth like me, this new virtual socialising life provided me with a group of real world friends to hand out with. My life had changed hugely and very, very suddenly.
Into this new heady world of the Take That online fandom came, on the 13th of Feb, the Split Rumours. My diary entry from this day is unlike any that came before it – a record of interactions that took place completely online, with people I’d only just met but now wrote about as though they were life-long friends:
“all the nightmares came today… and it looks as though they’re here to stay… and today of all days, Robbie’s birthday… though of course it was actually yesterday when I first read the split rumour on Jasey’s news page. This rumour has the confusing tendency of being completely confirmed and completely denied at the same time… Dominique joined us and was hope-free… Blue-eyes had spoken to the record company and they said it’s all filthy lies… UK radio has picked it up now and there’s even going to be a press conference about it, this does not look good. I can only hope they’re splitting to reform under a new name, Julia said they might do that to stop Robbie from getting royalties. There’s no question that we have to be at the UK tour if indeed it’s to be a farewell tour. The worst is the allegation that Jay, Mark + Howard are to quit showbiz, what!?!? never another song sung by Marky? never another genius dance routine from Jason and Howard? Susie called me this morning, she hasn’t been on the net for a few days so I broke the news. She took it well but probably just doesn’t believe it as yet. I’m beginning to feel that I do though.“
As you can see, I was just somewhat slightly stressed about it all. Then, of course, came that notorious press conference. Our group of intense and distressed fans gathered at our keyboards to learn the news. We may have been scattered across the globe, but whenever I think of that night, I feel as though all my new online friends were sat right beside me as we took in the disastrous news.
The following day I wrote this:
“Was it really only yesterday I last wrote in here? The longest 24 hours… I’m in serious denial. Last night then, well pretty much all of yesterday, was spent glued to IRC fretting with fellow fans. Close to 9pm Julia joined to give us a running commentary of the press conference, which she was watching on MTV. Chris from Holland did the same. Take That were late to arrive… at 10 past 9 I got cut off!!! But I got back on in five minutes and I don’t think anything happened ‘til 9.30, when the press conference started. The suspense was broken first with Julia’s comment of “oh shit it’s bad” and then our fears were confirmed with Chris’s anguished cries of “The rumours are true!!!!!!!” The screen was then ablaze with expletives and excessive frownies as a group of highly strung young individuals all around the world struggle to adjust to the shocking revelation. Many keyboards got far too wet for their own good. I stayed on ‘til about 2am when my head was splitting and my stomach was in tatters. I got up at 6:45am to rejoin the grieving throng and then to talk to Tiff all day. I don’t know what we’re going to do just yet but it has to be soon as their last concert (which may not even be occurring anymore) is to take place on April 5. I’M NOT COPING!!!“
The aforementioned Tiff was one of the gang who lived in Perth like me, and over the following intense few weeks we made plans to go to Holland together with a few other local fans for the final performance. And then, one by one, we realised that this was in fact an insane notion, and decided not to go. Reflecting on it all once the madness had passed, I realised that without the net, I may have coped much better – but being surrounded by the emotional responses of a myriad of, let’s face it, near strangers with whom I had been thrust into a sudden closeness by our shared experience, I fell completely to pieces. On the 1st of March I wrote:
“If I’d had to cope with the news of TT splitting on my own I feel I could have taken it in my stride, but it was so incredibly intense, the most intense moment of my life, to be sharing the ordeal with ten or so people from around the world in real time as the press conference happened. Maybe I was affected by the emotions they expressed, or maybe seeing their reactions just prevented me from suppressing my own.“
Looking back on this experience from nearly twenty five years later, I feel that this was my very first experience of the kind of emotional contagion and distress that the immediacy of social media brings to millions of young people every day now. For all the convenience and potential for connection that the internet brings, I feel very lucky that I grew up entirely into adulthood in an internet-free world.
Of course, time passed, and Take That fans moved on. I distracted myself by focussing on my other favourite bands, and of course I finally did make it to London at the end of 1996. I was able to see both Robbie and Mark in fantastic solo gigs over the course of the following decade, and it never even remotely occurred to me that the boys would consider reforming. But then came November 2005 – just over ten years since I’d seen them as a four-piece in Perth – and they held a press conference to announce that once again, the rumours were true. Happily for us, this time the rumours were good ones, and the greatest boy band of all time were back in existence, planning to head out on their “Ultimate” tour the following May.
So here I was in Spring 2006. I was well and truly falling out of love with the gigging life, and five months had passed since my last gig, seeing the Canadian croonster Daniel Powter. Meanwhile, something very big had changed for me – at the very end of 2005, I had finally moved out of the hospital staff accommodation that I’d lived in since moving to London at the end of 1996, and ventured into the wild world of London flatshares. At the time of this gig I was living in a vibrantly pink bedroom in the basement of a Tooting flat which I shared with with two other young women, and was enjoying finally having of a layer of separation between my home life and my job that I hadn’t had before. Also since my last gig, I had turned 31 – a birthday which seemed somewhat pointless after the previous years Big Birthday number, but I still had enough of a social life to have two birthday dos – one in Chelsea with my work friends, and one in Tooting with my new flatmates. How decadent that all seems, reflecting on it now from the depths of Lockdown 3.
Sadly, this gig still occurred during a time when I was not recording my gig experiences in detail in my diary, and all I have to show for it is one curt sentence from the day before the gig – “In other news, I’m going to see Take That tomorrow“. Not quite the whirlwinds of excitement I would have imagined myself recording, had you told me on that fateful 1996 day that I would in fact get to see my boys live again one day. I really only remember one thing, which was that in a bizarre re-enactment of something that happened at my first TT gig in 1995, I was implored by a fellow fan to swap seats so that she could be near her friends. This saw me ending up several rows closer to the stage than I had previously been, and also enjoying a complimentary white wine which the woman I’d swapped seats with thrust into my hands a short while later as a thank you for making the switch.
But that’s it for memories. I am sure that I had a wonderful, exciting time, especially seeing them sing “Pray” with its dance routine once again, a experience of pure joy which I have waxed lyrical about in a previous blog post. Reliving the show via the DVD, it strikes me now that despite the ten years that had passed, the band’s fanbase remained very young. I was nearly 21 when the boys split, and so was very much amongst the older side of the fandom. There were no doubt many who were barely in their teens in 1996, or perhaps not even in double figures. So the crowd is still notably a young one, with many appearing overwhelmed with joy at the reappearance of their fave boys.
And it’s an excellent show, astutely revisiting many moments that fans would remember from past tours, like the Beatles medley, or the revised Apache instrumental, to great nostalgic effect. There’s definitely a sense that they were trying to cultivate a more mature image – indeed, they say just this in the documentary that accompanies the live show, as they go through their deliberations on how to perform “It Only Take A Minute” in a way appropriate to their mid-30s age. And while the sultry tango approach they opted for was very impressive, it’s a relief to think that more recently the boys have thrown aside any such need to be perceived as mature, with 2019’s Odyssey tour seeing them enthusiastically diving into a faithful rendition of that tune in all it’s bubblegum glory, dance routine and all.
There are also some odd, overly-sexualised moments, not presented in a cheeky way as with Howard displaying his bottom in tours of yore, but a weirdly pornified way, such as the strippers cavorting in cages for “Why Can’t I Wake Up With You”. Perhaps this was also part of their attempt to appear as Real Grown Up Men and not the cute boys of before, but it lands uncomfortably. On the plus side however, it was perhaps this new sexiness-fixation that prompted them to create possibly the greatest bit of band merch of all time: the Take That knickers. I bought a pair, of course.
Alas, I am somewhat too gifted in the hip area to ever have actually worn these, but I treasure them to this day. And happily, Take That have only gone on to bigger and better things since this reunion tour, with ever more outlandish and creatively stunning tours, and a new string of classic pop songs to add to their 90s oeuvre. It pains me to admit that I went on to ignore the next decade of TT tours – even the once-in-a-lifetime reunion with Robbie in 2011 – but since 2017 I’ve made up for lost time, taking in two shows on the Wonderland tour which I’ll write about soon, as well as the Royal Albert Hall show in 2019 and the aforementioned Odyssey show. And even though my record of it is pretty non-existent, I am glad to know that I was there when Take That made their glorious return, and commenced their 21st century journey of completely revolutionising what a boy band could be.