The UK media has, for the most part, a tolerant, condescending view of pop fans. The girl sobbing and screaming over a band is part of the grand, cyclical parade of British life, to be filed next to thermos-clutching ladies camping out for the Harrods sale, or lardy men mournfully setting alight a season ticket. Every so often, though, the mood turns, shifting to concern, distaste, even fear as the fans go too far for their patrician liking.
Take That’s break-up was one such moment. Fans howled and shrieked on the national news. The Government (grateful perhaps for the break from its own long deathwatch) set up helplines. Others looked feebly on, asking the same question the fans were: why? These observers meant – what’s all the fuss about? Why the rending and wailing? This bit is easy. Because Take That really had revitalised the idea of the boy band, and because – with half a year and more since Robbie left – the fans had been given plenty of time to dread and anticipate this inevitable moment. Perhaps even to rehearse it.
Their why? was more of a why right now? This is fairly easy too. Even if a four-piece Take That was viable, Gary Barlow must have realised that now was the time to make the break. There was little sense yet that Robbie’s solo career would be more than a sideshow, but his leaving had put the stayers on the wrong side of a credibility gap.
One last single, the band announced – as nailed-on a Number One as anything ever has been. It’s a Gary Barlow showcase, as you might have guessed. On “Never Forget” – their obvious and better finale – he’d given the spotlight to Howard. No such generosity this time – the other three are already ghosts on “How Deep Is Your Love”, there to fill ropes and chairs in the ridiculous bondage-themed video. Attempts at harmonies would have been unflattering besides the gorgeous shagpile singing on the Bee Gees version, but then so is Barlow’s flat, tasteful performance and the low-fat acoustic arrangement he’s picked.
There’s no romance here – on the record at least, everything is calculated for minimum vulgarity. This is Gary’s pitch as a pop star – grown up but still warmly nostalgic, classy but humble. It wasn’t hard to spot subtext in the song choice – how loyal are you, fans? Will you follow me? – because that’s what the entire record was saying. Serious, Ivor Novello winning Gary Barlow was singled out after the split as the factor which had made the difference, elevating Take That above the ordinary. He played a part, but you could as easily argue he held the others back – pulling them towards earnestness, letting their mischief, sweetness and sexiness show more on film than on record. The solo careers and reformation would help settle those arguments. For now, this is a fine song, but a lazy record and a desultory goodbye, wholly undeserving of the passion their fans had just shown the country. Take That had already given us the bang. Here was the whimper.