Expansive of theme, expensive of sample, “Millennium” is a self-conscious event single, carrying itself as if Number One was never in doubt. But while Robbie Williams was the biggest star in Britain, he’d fluffed getting to the top with several iconic songs. Robbie’s most famous track of all, career ignition ballad “Angels”, had missed by several places. He was taking no more chances. Sweeping into the charts wearing a borrowed John Barry tuxedo, “Millennium” is as brazen a Number One as I’ve ever covered, but as needy a one too.
Robbie is, I’ve often felt, a difficult star to write about, hard to define for all his brashness. Not chameleonic like Bowie, but complex. Solo pop stars either arrive lusting for fame – the Elvis or Madonna route – or they are already famous, and the solo career is a careful transition into the sole spotlight: the Annie Lennox or Sting method. Robbie fits neither model. He appears in flight, hungering for the right type of fame, desperate not to sell his soul but to get it back. What defines him for me is a restlessness, a sense that the dissatisfaction that freed him from boyband clowning turned out to be something deeper and harder to scratch. Some of the Number Ones we track beyond this are major, some minor, but several tell the story of his chafing at his stardom, probing its edges.
So he breaks publically away from Take That and becomes – what? He surfaces at Glastonbury, paying court to Oasis: but he’s indulged not embraced – the Beatles never needed Cliff. In his next phase he’s a 70s showman – Freddie, KISS, Elton on “Angels”. He’s big, by now, but there’s still something ersatz about him. Questions linger: what’s the point of Robbie Williams, exactly? What records does he make that nobody else would?
“Millennium” is a step towards an answer. The first thing to notice is that it’s all sung in the first person plural – an unusual pop choice, the mark of a song that’s trying to speak for something bigger than itself. “Some say that we are players, some say that we are pawns / But we’ve been making money since the day that we was born” – defiant (against who?), open-armed (for who?), “Millennium” sets out its stall in those first lines as a wannabe generational anthem. So it makes sense to ask – what generation?
I’m not using the word in that all-embracing sense so beloved of marketers – “Millennium” isn’t “Millennials”. But Robbie Williams was at the top of the UK’s pop cultural pyramid at a specific time – the end of the 20th Century, the first Tony Blair government. If there was something presumptuous and irritating about his jumping the gun on the Millennium two years early (“three!”, I hear some of you squawk), that sense has mostly faded for me. He did own this stretch of pop history. He has the right to close the century out.
But it’s an odd, bitty stretch to own. To get a handle on it, it’s better to look outside pop music, to take in the rest of what Britain loved or feared from 1998 to 2001. Harry Potter. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. David Beckham. Big Brother in its “psychological experiment” years. Queer As Folk. Nick Hornby. Gail Porter. Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels – and a host of geezerish knock-offs. Soccer AM. Friends Reunited. WAGs. Ringtones. Goodness Gracious Me. Ali G. Bacardi Breezers. Topless darts. “Name And Shame”. Spaced. Zadie Smith. Docusoaps. Mandelson and The Millennium Dome. The League Of Gentlemen. Playstation. Cold Feet. Changing Rooms…
It was a complacent time in many ways – hedonistic, drearily blokey, but not as nationalistic or cartoonish as the mid-90s. Britain was a nation at ease with itself, but also casually interested in itself after the cathartic upheavals of Blair and Diana. The TV of the era finds virtue and intrigue in the ordinary – explores its marriages, exaggerates its local quirks, peeps through its net curtains just before Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen tears them out. The downside is that it can seem a self-satisfied, low-stakes period. The upside is that space was made for other kinds of “ordinary” – gay experience, British Asian experience – to stake a claim as such in a way the Britpop era hadn’t always encouraged. Big Tent culture, to borrow a Blairite phrase.
And part of it all, casually huge above a kaleidoscope music scene, was Robbie. In many ways he’s a perfect ringmaster for the Big Tent – at the cheeky end of laddish, adoring the limelight, desperate to entertain. The reality TV idea of the ordinary guy or gal who turns out to have the X Factor and becomes an enduring star – that’s a much harder sell without Robbie, who is pushing his personality as much as his talent. “I have only one ambition,” he wrote on his CV, just before joining Take That, “which is to be famous.”
Okay – then what? “We all enjoy the madness, cos we know it’s gonna fade away… we know we’re falling from grace…” “Millennium” isn’t especially coherent about fame, or the “we” it’s speaking for, or the millennium itself, but what power it has is in its mess, hopscotching from those big bittersweet statements to repurposed aggro (“Come and have a go….”) to its venomous end – “Get up and see the sarcasm in my eyes”. It’s a pot-pourri of one-liners and stray ideas, turning out on the world in anger, turning back to deny itself, reflexive, defensive.
That’s where “You Only Live Twice” comes in. It gives the song grandeur – borrowed grandeur, of course, and at the time I really resented “Millennium” for lashing its half-cocked stumble to such a great backing. But that very contrast – the Olympian heights of the John Barry strings and Robbie’s earthbound plainness as a singer – gives the song a bittersweet tint: Robbie can’t live up to his own song’s promises and defiance.
The giant, prominent sample nods at another curious thing about “Millennium” – how much it owes to hip-hop. Robbie isn’t trying to rap yet, but he peppers the song with ad-libs: “it’s like a jungle… sounds like jungle” and his very broad Stoke accent on “And we won’t stop” at the end. Hip-hop, by this point, is the root of American pop music, and becoming a default inspiration for global pop, with every region having its own hybrids and creoles. Britain, ultimately, will get its own localisation, but in the late 90s British MCs had almost no industry support. You can see “Millennium”, Robbie’s step out of the 70s and into the 90s, as a sideways British response to hip-hop that just about works.
And “Just about works” is as far as I can go with this song, maybe with Robbie as a whole. He’s a major part of the story of the next few years – but there’s something about him as a pop star, at the time and since, that feels lacking. He had endless drive and charm but little vision – there’s nothing you could point to and say “that is why pop music needed Robbie Williams as much as Robbie Williams needed pop”. But then a satisfied, easy-going nation doesn’t need new pop icons. It produces them nonetheless, and this broken anthem from a restless star is what we get.