I’m a sucker for a self-conscious farewell. I bought final issues of comics I’d never prevoiously read. My best Doctor Who memories were the regenerations. As a student, my favourite Shakespeare was The Tempest. And look! Here’s Gary Barlow as Prospero, drowning his songbook, letting Caliban free to hang out with Oasis at Glasto, moving on and leaving behind him maybe the most self-important single a boyband has ever produced.
It ought to be terrible. Perhaps it is. It’s hubristic enough to write about how you “looked each day and night in the eye” without hauling on a cherub to sing it. “We’re still so young, and we hope for more” – stay tuned for the solo careers, kids! “With danger on my mind I would stand on the line of hope and I knew I could make it”: wait, what? Now, probably “Never Forget” was written before the split became obvious – though it was surely on the wind – so these abstractions were just pseudo-profound horseshit from a songwriter groping tragically for meaning. By the time it actually reached us, though, it was retooled by the video-makers, marketers and Jim Steinman into “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” meets Gary Barlow Superstar. (And wouldn’t Robbie make a great Judas?)
But, slapdash and grotesque though it is, I like it. I’d happily call it their best single if it wasn’t for all the really terrible bits (The whole “invincible” bit, for a start). Why?
First, though this isn’t actually their final single, overdramatising a split is probably what the fans need and deserve. No hollow thanks and mutterings about really special plans for the future from men who are clearly hating every second of the job they’re quitting. To the fans – these fans of this band especially – a split was armageddon, or at least to be played as it. Take those feelings seriously – give the fans some catharsis! “Never Forget” does this, and then some.
Second, the combination of Barlow, Steinman and Brothers In Rhythm makes “Never Forget” a single that sounds like very little else. We’re about to enter a dark time in which “epic” in British pop is going to be codified in terms of string sections, stately plods, and pained rock vocals. Here is a parallel vision for bigness in pop: gospel choirs and boyband harmonies, stadium rock choruses emerging out of elephant-legged R&B. It’s blowsy, absurd, and unsustainable but glorious when it works – when the chorus hits you can see the fireworks shooting up from the stage.
Finally – and this is the important bit – the whole teetering folly of “Never Forget” is just a delivery system for Gary’s probably finest, and certainly wisest chorus. “Never forget where you’ve come in from / Never pretend that it’s all real / Someday soon this will all be someone else’s dream”. This is really good, grounded advice, not just as a pop fame survival guide, but as a way of staying level-headed about the transient things in life. It’s rare for a group to realise their moment has passed, rarer for them to acknowledge it, and in this chorus Take That are singing not just about themselves, but about their fans, and about fandom and youth.
Researching this song I watched its home-movies clipshow video on YouTube – a visual farewell tour, not an uncommon gambit since splitting bands become harder to convene for video shoots. Below it though were a surprising number of comments from kids, who had turned the song into school leaving videos – some secondary, most primary. They weren’t posting the videos themselves (thankfully) but I was surprised how moving I found the idea of it – 11 and 12 year olds taking this song, an oldie for them, and turning the self-mythologising into something they could use to navigate their own life changes. We all want to turn our lives into stories – “Never Forget” is a song about exactly that, and works as both a tool for doing it and a warning of the consequences.