Apr 12

TAKE THAT – “Pray”

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#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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  1. 1
    lonepilgrim on 24 Apr 2012 #

    I never paid that much attention to this at the time – although I vaguely recognise the chorus. The verse and production reminds me of something by Genesis or possibly Mike & the Mechanics.
    It’s pleasant enough – can we stick up on the top? Madge has been up there a little long

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    Steve Mannion on 25 Apr 2012 #

    She’s just popped out for a fag, and to make a terrible film with Willem Defoe.

    The last big boyband who really had to work hard to reach the top, as evident by the string of false starts and half-arsed efforts between their 1991 debut and this eventual but inevitable #1. It Only Takes A Minute almost sounded like a chart-topper and the ‘too obedient for its own good’ Could It Be Magic? cover probably ought to have done better over the Xmas/New Year period but both gave the right momentum for this payoff, and despite the song’s tentative hopeful message it seems to come with a sense of massive relief (and a very markedly polished video, featuring a very polished Mark) that they managed to come up with something that at least sounded like it should be the start of a phenomenon.

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    swanstep on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Hearing this for the first time now along with its vid….. the word that spring to my mind about this track is ‘glutinous’. Their abs have all the definition that the verses and even the allegedly ‘monster’ chorus lacks. 6 seems very generous to me – I mean, this isn’t half the track End of the Road is (and which it reminds me of; it has the chorus Pray is chasing) and that was scored a 4! Pray didn’t do anything much anywhere else in the world, and so the great Take That UK chart mystery begins. (Interesting that Tom mentions Nick Rhodes in this context since the Durans were back in the charts around this time, and Come Undone was a gorgeous record.)

  4. 4
    flahr on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Huh. I had kind of assumed that old Take That must be better than new Take That (that being the way of the world), but apparently not: possibly it’s an artifact of the time but it just sounds a little late-Jason-Donovan to me. The chorus is pretty good, but I can’t drum up much enthusiasm for the verses, and it all falls a little flat. Thankfully, if the first episode of the new series of Horrible Histories is anything to go by, they got better. But that’s a matter for bunnies, don’tcha know. 4/5.

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    Erithian on 25 Apr 2012 #

    That was the first time I’ve sat through and watched the video, and goodness it is soft-porn isn’t it? I’d heard the song previously of course, which is a very worthwhile effort and you can tell why it was a hit, but with the video package as well it was always going to be massive. Mention of Duran Duran is interesting given that I had the “Save A Prayer” vid on my mind while watching this: that one will have done a lot for Sri Lankan tourism, as the band were shown in the context of the beautiful sights of the island, whereas the Acapulco location for the That was incidental: the only areas the fans would have been inspired to tour was the bodies of the participants.

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    Erithian on 25 Apr 2012 #

    For flahr’s reference to Horrible Histories: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N07darJyUrY

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    swanstep on 25 Apr 2012 #

    @#5, erithian. The vid’s male beauty stuff reminds me quite a lot of the Herb Ritts’s vids for Madonna’s Cherish and Janet Jackson’s Love Will Never Do (Without You) with the twist that the buff guys are now pushed to the front rather than frolicking as backdrop to the dance diva. I guess I never saw the Cherish and Love Will vids as soft-porn and so can’t quite agree that Pray’s is. By way of contrast, Herb Ritts’s *other* famous video, for Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (w/ Issak cavorting with a topless Helena Christensen), surely *was* (brilliant) soft-porn.

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    Tom on 25 Apr 2012 #

    The other video it’s a bit like is the Bruce Weber one for “Being Boring”, which was playing with a lot of ideas (erotica being one of them). I felt very threatened by it IIRC!

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    Billy Smart on 25 Apr 2012 #

    TOTPWatch: Take That performed Pray on Top of the Pops on four occasions. Details of the Christmas edition shall be provided anon;

    1 Jul 1993. Also in the studio that week were; Joey Lawrence, New Order, Evolution, 4 Non Blondes and Gabrielle, plus a live performance by satellite from Jade in Los Angeles. Tony Dortie was the host.

    15 Jul 1993. Also in the studio that week were; Danii Minogue, 4 Non Blondes, Deacon Blue, Kenny Thomas and Oui 3. Tony Dortie was the host.

    29 Jul 1993. Also in the studio that week were; D:Ream, Robin S, Manic Street Preachers, Danii Minogue and The Bee Gees, plus a live performance from the Dominion Theatre by Craig MaLachlan and Debbie Gibson.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: I’ve omitted TT’s 21st century TV appearances. Just some of their UK TV appearances in the 1990s include;

    THE BRITS: with Elton John, Rupaul, Meat Loaf, Take That, Stereo MCs, Van Morrison (1994)

    DES O’CONNOR TONIGHT: with Take That, Dinah Caroll, Ken Dodd, Michael Caine (1993)

    GROWING PAINS: They Can’t Take That Away From Me (1993)

    MICHAEL BALL: with Take That!, Tammy Wynette (1993)

    THE O ZONE: Take That In Paris (1992)

    THE O ZONE: with Take That (1992)

    THE O ZONE: with Take That (1992)

    THE O ZONE: with Take That (1992)

    THE O ZONE: A Week With Take That (1993)

    THE O ZONE: Backstage At Take That Concert (1993)

    THE O ZONE: Take That In Japan (1993)

    THE O ZONE: Take That In Manchester (1993)

    THE O ZONE: with Charles and Eddie, Midge Ure, Take That (1993)

    THE O ZONE: with Take That (1993)

    THE O ZONE: Take That In Australia (1994)

    THE O ZONE: Take That In Australia (1994)

    THE O ZONE: with Take That (1994)

    THE O ZONE: Behind The Scenes On Take That Tour (1995)

    THE O ZONE: Take That Concert Special (1995)

    THE O ZONE: with Take That (1995)

    THE SMASH HITS POLL WINNERS PARTY: with Marky Mark, Simon Mayo, Jordan Knight, Gloria Estefan, Take That, Kriss Kross, The Farm, Kylie Minogue, Right Said Fred, East 17 (1992)

    THE SMASH HITS POLL WINNERS PARTY: with Culture Beat, Andi Peters, Mark Owen, Will Smith, Meat Loaf, Bad Boys Inc, M People, Apache Indian, Take That, Haddaway (1993)

    THE SMASH HITS POLL WINNERS PARTY: with Dean Cain, Andi Peters, M People, Erasure, East 17, Take That, Jack Dee, Mark Owen, Gabrielle Reece, Michelle Gayle (1994)

    The O Zone certainly gave its viewers what they wanted!

  11. 11
    thefatgit on 25 Apr 2012 #

    You don’t have to stitch tartan to your bell-bottoms anymore. Not when you can invest in logoed pencil-cases. Take That eventually followed the example of NKOTB, and became immortalised in as many different types of plastic as possible. Although the four Mancs and the lad from Stoke had better tunes and prettier faces. It was one more reason at the time, for me, not to dwell so much on chart-pop and move into dancier, more Balearic territories to get my thrills. Looking back though, you can’t help liking these lads. Despite all the attempts to market them as gusset-moistening sex-gods, there was still a bit of Tesco shelf-stacker or builder’s mate about them. Down to earth.
    “Pray”? Well, I didn’t care much for it at the time. Now? I’ll stick my neck out and say I like it. The video? BAN THIS FILTH!!

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    Cumbrian on 25 Apr 2012 #

    “Later boy bands had the abs”.

    For extra bunny bonus points, you could have capitalised Abs.

    Not their best – not their worst. Didn’t have an awful lot of time for it at the time, but as a boy beginning adolescence, it wasn’t exactly aimed at me, either visually or aurally. Sadly, being a teenager for the first coming of Take That, their presence in my life was more as a signifier of something to which I could be opposed. In retrospect, there’s the odd song of theirs to admire – and maybe we’ll get around to some of those eventually. I suppose time has mellowed me out somewhat.

    Anyway, Pray. Marginally better than I remember but would concur that 6 is a bit generous for my tastes. 4 or 5 would about top it out for me.

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    JLucas on 25 Apr 2012 #

    I have mixed feelings about Take That. I think they’re a broadly good thing, but they actually have very few songs that I genuinely love.

    This is one though. I think it’s a brilliant pop song with or without that video.

    They weren’t strictly a UK phenomenon, although the popularity they had/have here far exceeds their achievements elsewhere. They regularly charted around Europe though.

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    will on 25 Apr 2012 #

    As pointed out at 2: Take That took a pretty long time to get good. Their first few singles (including the one with the infamous jelly video) were awful. A teen pop band who weren’t popular, there seemed to no reason to believe they wouldn’t end up in exactly the same place as Yell! and Big Fun had departed to – ie the dumper.

    It Only Takes A Minute turned things around and from then on they seemed to gain strength single by single, building an audience in a way that seems quaintly old fashioned now. Pray is alright, I suppose. Can’t say it’s my favourite TT Number One, 6 seems about right to me.

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    Tom on 25 Apr 2012 #

    I remember reading something about how Smash Hits went hell for leather on Take That coverage, treating them as a national phenomenon well before they were, mainly because editorial realised that a massive new boyband was the only way the title could revive itself. Not sure how much this is wishful journalistic thinking though – did the tail really wag the dog to that extent?

    (The NME has used the same tactic time and time again, of course.)

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    Steve Mannion on 25 Apr 2012 #

    This is around the time we got finally got a Sky dish at home and I could (and duly did) watch MTV (Europe) a LOT. ‘Pray’ was being aired quite a bit but not as relentlessly as the next two #1s which both had wider success throughout the continent. By the end of the year tho, TT were all over the channel shuffling for space alongside the Gabba mix CD adverts, preachy animated political statements and Paul King.

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    admin on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Aww, loook at their wickle cheeky faces up there (thanks steve!)

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    Mark G on 25 Apr 2012 #

    #15 I can believe every word, yeah.

    Actually, I’d posit the theory that they matured twice. First time, away from the ‘jelly’ and more towards the ‘five characters’ of the group, Beatle style.

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    pink champale on 25 Apr 2012 #

    i too was an indie-ish twenty year old bloke at university at the time, but funnily enough, the thing I remember- even by this point- was there was something of a consensus among even the most staunchly blokey and indie of my peers* that they were pretty good and pretty likeable.the indie-ish twenty year old women I knew, of course, loved them – though at first through a paper-thin tissue of irony.

    as for ‘pray’ itself, much as it was greeted at the time as gary entering the pantheon of classic songwriters, it isn’t quite up there with their best. the hook and yearning are well in place but there’s something a bit cheap and muted about the production, particularly the drums and bass. I think this is a problem with a lot of nineties pop actually – even the mighty ‘being boring’ suffers from it a bit I think. i presume this was down to a backlash against the perceived gaudiness and bombast of eighties pop, but i think it left a lot of stuff from the time sounding underpowered compared to what you’d want it to be. or is this just me?

    *the most staunchly blokey and indie of all finally conceded a gruff “i’d go for a pint with them”.

  20. 20
    Steve Mannion on 25 Apr 2012 #

    The drums are straight from Soul II Soul complete with that wincing sound so not exactly weak just dated – then again listen to New Order’s ‘Ruined In A Day’ which uses similar and doesn’t sound all that far away from TT’s preceding single ‘Why Can’t I Wake Up With You?’ which I had forgotten about but will probably be mashing both up in my head for the rest of the day…

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    pink champale on 25 Apr 2012 #

    so they are! (i’m terrible at picking that sort of stuff up). but somehow they just don’t sound as good to me here. i’m not sure it’s datedness though, I think i might be past the age where *anything* sounds dated.

  22. 22
    MikeMCSG on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Tom, your memory is playing tricks on you – it was John Taylor not Nick Rhodes who kept topping the Smash Hits poll.
    I think Take That were on the cover of the very last Smash Hits I bought ( after 8 years ) but that was coincidence rather than prescience.

  23. 23
    Steve Mannion on 25 Apr 2012 #

    #21 pink I actually meant dated at the time, but still common enough (thinking of the aformentioned NO, and what the likes of Enigma were still up to at this point – altho they were obviously laying those kinds of beats over ‘deeper’ textures). I think the cheapest aspect just comes from that quite garish and strained synthetic fanfare.

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    weej on 25 Apr 2012 #

    Take That represented the first big thing in pop music that I could define myself as being against. The songs, the personalities, the whole package – it all just seemed like utter shit, but glossily packaged shit, and all the worse for it..
    Generally I tend to slowly come round to things I’ve formerly hated, and along these lines TT have been embraced by the whole country in the following years – but they remain my blindspot. They still sound as terrible as they did back in the day, and Gary Barlow’s claim to be a serious songwriter still baffles – is there a single thing he’s written that doesn’t sound completely derivative?
    I accept I am in a small, and ever-shrinking minority on this issue.

  25. 25
    pink champale on 25 Apr 2012 #

    #23 yeah, sIIs’s ‘refreshing classiness’ done too often and too badly is definitely a big part of nineties pop. and yes, that fanfare doesn’t help at all.

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    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.

  27. 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.”

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    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.

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    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.

  30. 30
    Steve Mannion on 25 Apr 2012 #

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

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