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Apr 12

TAKE THAT – “Pray”

Popular40 comments • 3,090 views

#692, 17th July 1993

From my perspective, Take That’s ubiquity was as sudden as a snowfall and apparently as permanent. This viewpoint – 20 years old, indie-leaning, straight, male – was quite irrelevant, and quite wrong: I simply had no tools to conceptualise what the band were doing and what they might mean. I don’t think I even knew what a “six pack” was, for example. For the likes of me, a clip kept circulating – the boys in an early promo vid, in leathers, having – from memory – some kind of jelly fight. Don’t worry, the clip told us, this is camp at best, these are himbos. This will pass.

By the time that video did the rounds the band had evolved fiercely and quickly: those chuckling at them had already lost, but not because the group had ‘matured’ (they played that card several times later). On paper Take That were just the Rollers Redux – a gaggle of hot boys, favourites to be played and argued over but really (those outside the circle nodded wisely) homogenous. But times had changed. In the 80s I’d bought Smash Hits, and Nick Rhodes won “Most Fanciable Human Being” year after year. But the way the divine Nick was photographed was very 60s, very chaste – more obvious make-up than Fabian, more glam hair, but the same smudged-lens pout at the core.

Now look at the video for “Pray”: total objectification, to a hilarious and impressive extent. Between the jelly fights and this oiled-up island fantasy, what’s changed is the budgeting and the degree of focus – this isn’t a band moving away from the idea that pop boys can be sold on their bodies, it’s a group doubling down on that bet. It seems to me this kind of confident boy-focused carnality was new to UK pop, and once that door was open, it never shut.

You could damn it for selling a gay club aesthetic as a representation of female desire, and now it comes off enjoyably kitsch, but a) it worked, and more importantly b) it’s an amazing intensifier for the song, bringing Gary Barlow’s tremulous devotion to hard-bodied life. Barlow’s songwriting was overhyped later, but at this point he was still the group’s secret weapon – canny and professional enough to bring the hooks but with a streak of desperate earnestness. So the classic Take That song – “Pray” isn’t their best, but it very much sets a template – wanders like a lost puppy on the verses then pulls itself together for a monster chorus. Later boy bands had the abs, occasionally the songs, but hardly ever could they sell that neediness like Take That did.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    wichita lineman on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Great review. This feels like a line in the sand that I didn’t appreciate at the time.

    I can understand Weej’s antipathy. If it had been ten years earlier I’d probably have taken strongly against them.

    I find Gary Barlow’s early songs incredibly clunky – the “lost puppy” description of the verse is spot on (the chorus of A Million Love Songs is like a lost St Bernard), but Pray really is half-baked. The chorus lacks swing, although the hook’s a winner, and the production is either cheap or dated on every level – PWL-do-Soul II Soul with Big Fun shouting out the chorus.

    All that said I remember willing myself to like this more, as they were charismatic lads and clearly A Good Thing for pop. Closer to a 5 than 6 for me.

  2. 27
    punctum on 25 Apr 2012 #

    With its monochrome, sub-Herb Ritts beach video of the five boys posing very awkwardly (for imagined centrespreads?) like the last surviving inhabitants of a vogueing bikini atoll, and its precise imprecations against “all the times I closed the door to keep my love within,” Take That’s first number one raised the question of how far, if at all, you can take the gayness out of the boy band. The notes to their first Greatest Hits compilation skilfully skirt this issue with their talk of “a new form of pop” and “there had never been a pop group in Britain quite like them before” but like the shrill legions of boy bands who would follow in their clumsy steps, Take That came up through the gay dance scene; the thrusts and winks, both musical and visual, of early singles such as “Do What U Like” and “Once You’ve Tasted Love” make their origins very clear in themselves, as does the involvement of the veteran DJ and Northern Soul/Hi-NRG hustler Ian Levine in both the writing and production of the first run of Take That records.

    Initial hits included would-be throbbing covers of seventies staples such as Tavares’ “It Only Takes A Minute” (which in the Britain of 1976 went top ten courtesy of the curious violin/Moog bass reading by One Hundred Ton And A Feather, a.k.a. Jonathan King) and Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic?” The idea of upping the tempo of the latter epic post-“MacArthur Park” ballad to match that of “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” was inspired, but the flat, nasal group vocals on the chorus were a terrible miscalculation – the record really needed Levi Stubbs to declaim the words. But Gary Barlow was certainly anxious to get out of that boytrap, so the likes of “A Million Love Songs” (written by Barlow while touring the Northern clubs with his dad, aged fifteen) and “Why Can’t I Wake Up With You?” represented efforts to broaden their base.

    “Pray” was the real breakthrough; written by Barlow, it was Take That’s “Living Doll,” their decisive attempt to break out of a confining musical straitjacket and appeal to everyone. Steve Jervier’s bubbling production gives the song legs and impetus, since the string synths on the chorus otherwise put the song squarely in the line of post-SAW mainstream teenpop (many assumed at the time that it was an SAW production). It’s not a bad song, filled with regret for an unspecified long-term withholding of (or inadequacy in? “But the morning always comes too soon”) physical love (“When the time drew near for me to show me love/The longer I stayed away for”), if slightly too anxious to be an AoR standard. It is hampered somewhat by Barlow’s rather strained lead vocal, which tends to muddy up in the higher registers, though clearly he was doing his best; witness the plaintive falsetto of “picture me inside” in the middle-eight followed by the adolescent bereavement of “I’m so cold and all alone.” It, and they, certainly spoke to the new teengirl generation and for a general pop idolatry which had been dormant since New Kids On The Block. They were wholesome and funny on TV; the mothers remembered the Osmonds; the kids began to scream; and there will be many more Take That number ones, of varying quality, to follow. Meanwhile, “Pray” signifies “promising, but could do better.”

  3. 28
    Baztech on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Anyone still do the Number #2 watch on these anymore? I miss them and have no idea how to ascertain them myself.

  4. 29
    Mark G on 25 Apr 2012 #

    It also established the classic “Take That Performance Opening Gambit”, where the five are in formation for an initial dancemoves fest, then they rotate as if on a revolving dancefloor with three circles, and the main singer dude previously hidden in plain sight (Gary obv) is now central and singing.

  5. 30
    Steve Mannion on 25 Apr 2012 #

    #28 Yeah, WHAT’S UP with that? A: 4 Non Blondes.

  6. 31
    weej on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Can I be the first to note the new ‘popular’ tab picture? A sniper seems to have taken out Howard. or is it Jason? Always confused those two.

  7. 32
    lonepilgrim on 25 Apr 2012 #

    @31 – see 17

  8. 33
    SpecialGirlAKA on 25 Apr 2012 #

    The middle 8 is the best, most Barlow-ish part of the record, with surprisingly good vocal harmonies. I was a 12 year old TT fan, had the earrings, posters, pencil case, Everything Changes on rotation… Barely 6 months later Blur were my favourite band and I wouldn’t admit to liking ‘pop’ for a good few years.

  9. 34
    Billy Hicks on 26 Apr 2012 #

    …and we take another, tentative step closer to ‘my’ era of music. Still a few years away from my Year Zero (1999) but more than anything else heard in Popular so far.

    Maybe not *quite* this early, but if you approached the five-year-old me of a year later and asked me to name a pop band, I’d probably name these guys, the Pet Shop Boys, and possibly East 17. No kind of big ‘discovery’ moment, I just accepted that they were there and they were huge, and paved the way for tons and tons of bands to come.

    And 4 Non Blondes at #2? Not something I remember at the time, but has a huge memory attached to the 19-year-old me of Summer 2008, at a friend’s birthday in Central London, this absolutely blasting out the speakers and us all literally screaming along to it, losing my voice for days after. Hearing it today always makes me smile a little, that memory still ingrained and attached.

  10. 35
    anto on 26 Apr 2012 #

    Perhaps another factor that worked in Take Thats favour is that they’re actually one of the few boy bands where every member is genuinely fanciable. The lazy stereotype of Gary Barlow as ” the fat talented one ” is horse manure perpetuated in the solo Robbie/Heat Magazine climate that sprung up between phase 1 and 2. The true experts on Take That (the girls at my school) swooned over the not-at-all-fat GB just as much as the others. If anything he was seen as the most truly presentable and boy-next-doorish. Just wanna clarify that cos its one pop cunard I’ve never understood.
    Having offered a defence of his hormonal appeal I have to admit I’m not an admirer of his songwriting. Pray like all Take Thats other songs sounds to me too accomplished to dismiss totally but doesn’t leave enough of an aftertaste. It’s the kind of thing that’s hurriedly referred to as great pop but I think of it as professional pop and professionalism can be over-rated.
    All I remember of the video is a curious admiration for Mark Owens torso although it was fleeting compared to the intrigue of that photo of Brett Anderson that appeared around the same time – the head tilted back, exposed midriff girl-or-boy? pic. Now there was food for thought (at this stage, for me).
    The most unintentionally comedic Take That video is for A Million Love Songs with the visual effect of painterly swirls on the chours as though mere words can not express Barlows art.

  11. 36
    AndyPandy on 26 Apr 2012 #

    As someone said above this Number 1 sort of marks a dividing line to me a dividing line between the charts as they had been up to here and the new world of boybands consistently getting to Number 1, the dramatically speeding up charts, fanbase bought singles getting straight into the Top 10 (and even Number 1 on occasion without ever registering with just about anyone else), loads of novelty chart-toppers and all the other ingredients that eventually made the charts increasingly irrelevant/unknown to the majority of the population. Nothing against this record though.

  12. 37
    DietMondrian on 27 Apr 2012 #

    Mondegreen corner:

    Never having listened to the song that closely, I spent years thinking the line “All I do each night is pray” was “All I do is shine this thing”. You know, the clue was in the title ‘n’all.

  13. 38
    Tommy Mack on 27 Apr 2012 #

    I didn’t realise Could It Be Magic wasn’t a number one. I was getting all ready to say that I enjoyed that at the time, figuring Take That (who I had heard* but not seen) as a chart-friendly pop-house crew rather than boyband moppets. Of course, by Pray I had seen and heard enough to hate them on prinicple: because it was girls’ music, not because I was a crashing great indie snob (that would come later), but like many previous posters, I do remember this as one of the first times I tried to define myself as against something musical. That said, it was always tinged with a touch of patriotic pride as an almost-Manc, aat seeing local lads doing well.

    *on a tape that came free with three Coca Cola ring pulls and also featured The Shamen (Phorever People), Robin S (Show Me Love), Sub Sub (Ain’t no Love) and WWF Superstars! (I didn’t have many other tapes at the time and played it incessantly)

  14. 39
    George on 12 May 2012 #

    They made at least one appearance on ‘The Hitman and Her’ circa 1990-91, as the boys earned their stripes on the North West’s Sharon’n’Tracey circuit. This resolutely old-fashioned path to stardom I can respect..

    ..However, I share Weej’s general antipathy towards Take That – or at least would have 17-18 years ago. Now it’s just mild irritation, and no amount of revisionism is going to make me feel otherwise. The notion that even the (male) ‘indie’ kids would have admitted a grudging respect for them is different to how I remember things as well. The ‘Smash Hits Poll Winners Party’ was their annual cock-a-hoop during this period, with a shopping trolley required to cart away their loot.

  15. 40
    Musicality on 14 Dec 2014 #

    This is far and away one of my absolute favourites by them. A joyous and addictive sing a long track that still sounds great today. The official start of boyband hysteria for Take That breaking through at #1 but boybands in Britain in general.

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