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.