For their Christmas tearjerker, Take That – now comfortably the country’s biggest band – deployed their secret weapon: Little Mark Owen, a singer so awkwardly earnest he strips a layer of skin off even the hokiest of material. And what he has to work with here is pure melodrama – a song of a long-absent man who tracks down his lover to find not just her but – we presume – his unknown son.
This is material with ancient roots, ballad or folk territory – though a ballad would have granted the lovers more motivation, told some of their backstory too. Here we’re pitched into the middle of things: “I come to your door to see you again / But where you once stood was an old man instead”. The storytelling is clumsy – indeed the whole song is rather clumsy, it meanders through its verses before a squib of a half-written chorus. But these blocky strokes of narrative give “Babe” an urgency that the music exploits. The melody is murky and sad – this is as fog-bound and haunted a number one as we’ve seen since the high Gothic of John Leyton – and the tension gives the story a dignity it probably doesn’t deserve. The swelling optimism as father recognises son is a slightly corny break in the clouds, but the tension creeps back and we’re left with a ringing phone – is he forgiven? Will they get back together?
Behind the atmospherics, and Owen’s puppy-eyed, pleading intensity, this is far from their strongest single. But at a point in their career when they could have done anything, a record as relatively odd as “Babe” is welcome – where most boybands profess ultimate devotion, Take That promise to father your child and abandon you.