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Jul 14

ROBBIE WILLIAMS – “Millennium”

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#801, 19th September 1998

millenn 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.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    Lazarus on 6 Jul 2014 #

    Yep, that sums me up too, I think. I can’t think of many of his that I actively dislike, but I couldn’t imagine actually buying any of his releases either. This was all over the radio in the late summer of ’98, much as most of his singles have been ever since. The delivery on ‘Let Me Entertain You’ sounded like pure Axl Rose to me, although he was made up like a member of Kiss, something he’d allude to (sort of) on a later hit. ‘No Regrets’ is probably my favourite of his, but that’s probably down to the PSB’s involvement.

  2. 27
    Mark G on 6 Jul 2014 #

    I was tempted by one of his b-sides being a cover of ‘Making plans for Nigel’, one of his more obscure singles, hem hem.. The only one I remember actually buying was the DVD single for ‘Something Beautiful’ which was a song I liked, and had a strange ‘you choose the ending’ option which sort-of impressed me.

    Funny things, those DVD singles: We’d been promised them since the sixties as in ‘hey, in the future you’ll be able to buy singles you can Watch!’, then when that happened and you could buy such things, about 5 years later they were over with!

  3. 28
    Rory on 6 Jul 2014 #

    #18: The original form of the phrase was something like “eat your cake and still have it” (I encountered it in an Orwell book, I think), which makes a lot more sense; but somewhere along the way it got switched.

  4. 30
    23 Daves on 6 Jul 2014 #

    #23 – This is strange – I always assumed that “Angels” started to pick up airplay (and therefore popularity) around the point of Princess Diana’s death, but I’ve checked on Wikipedia and the release date (December 1997) does not align. It could, of course, have been deemed a suitable track from the album for Radio One airplay during the odd two weeks of mourning after her accident. All kinds of peculiar tracks were getting aired at the time.

  5. 31
    flahr on 7 Jul 2014 #

    “broken anthem from a restless star” OTM. Video is a bizarre watch – gurning veers between the comic and the frankly tragic. Would have got AT LEAST an extra two points if it had been called “Willennium”. [5]

  6. 32
    Ed on 7 Jul 2014 #

    @22 You’re right: I did misunderstand you! I guess not everyone would take “quite appropriate for the age of Tony Blair” as a compliment, either, although I think you are spot-on there.

    My feeling is that I place a higher value on sincerity than you do. Maybe not always in the sense of “having a message and communicating it honestly”, but at least in the sense of a performer having some investment in and commitment to their performance.

    As a wise person once said: “The most important thing in this business is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

  7. 33
    Izzy on 7 Jul 2014 #

    31: there was a Willennium! At least that was the lyric, the title appeared as Will2K. It appeared a year later (i.e. when it should have done) by Will Smith, and was built around an equally massive sample, but is a much better and more coherent record, if probably less interesting for that.

    It features the lines ‘I remember trying to think how old I’d be/when the clock struck twelve in the year 2G’, which is one of my favourite lyrics ever.

  8. 34
    Cumbrian on 7 Jul 2014 #

    #27: Robbie chucked around the odd cover version from memory. He covered Antmusic for Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, for instance, which wound up on the No Regrets B-side. Agree with those praising No Regrets as well to be honest. Definitely one of his better efforts – although Neil Tennant and Neil Hannon are involved, it sounds much more like Divine Comedy to me than PSB. Would have fit in well on Fin De Siecle, I think.

  9. 35
    Rory on 7 Jul 2014 #

    Apart from the John Barry sample this really doesn’t do much for me, though that’s enough of a hook to warrant a 5. But I’m glad to have learned about “No Regrets” via this thread – quite a thrill to hear the two Neils together on the backing, and the song itself is much more interesting than “Millennium”. Even the “Antmusic” cover on its b-side is decent, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for the CD single in charity shops.

    Williams himself, though, as Tim says @13, is a strange one for an Aussie; not at all the star for us that he was for you. Tom’s discussion of the UK context is a welcome primer. I did pick up a bit of the later Robbie buzz when I moved here in 2001, but by then he was starting to explore some odd obsessions outside music, which distracted from the songs themselves. Which we will get to in due course, no doubt.

  10. 36
    Tom on 7 Jul 2014 #

    #33 “Will2K” is EXCELLENT, I’m glad someone else thinks so. On the single edit they had to garble the “Tonight we’re going to party like it’s nineteen – hold up, it is!”, I guess to escape any Princely legal attention, a shame because it’s the best joke on a very entertaining record.

    This is very premature for a millennium record, obviously – enough lead time to get it established I guess (and it was a 1999 release in the US). Though I don’t remember hearing it on Millennium eve.

  11. 37
    BT on 7 Jul 2014 #

    “Bitter Sweet Symphony” strikes me as the obvious precursor: a big song built around a big 1960s orchestral string sample.

  12. 38
    thefatgit on 7 Jul 2014 #

    Of course, the whole ’60s soundtrack aesthetic became fashionable with Portishead’s short film “To Kill A Dead Man” in 1994, and made the John Barry back catalogue ripe for the plundering with “Only You” in ’97.

  13. 39
    Tom on 7 Jul 2014 #

    Ravers were on a Barry tip well before that – Acen’s “Trip II The Moon” has a magnificent John Barry sample (in fact IIRC he did three versions, each with a different sample – one of them was YOLT!) and was a huge club hit. Geoff Barrow would surely have been aware, dunno about Guy Chambers tho.

  14. 40
    anto on 7 Jul 2014 #

    This review is a lot kinder to the capriciousness of Robbie Williams then I could ever manage. I found his constant trying-on of different hats hugely off-putting as though he was disguising his considerable limitations with some contrived form of cheeky chappie eclecticism. I also baulked at the constant references by other musicians to what a great ‘entertainer’ he was as a hint of lowering expectations. ‘Millenium’ is a preening, smug record that was always bound to go to number one or at least become one of those unavoidable top 5 hits that feels even bigger but even back then I was unconvinced.

  15. 41
    Matt DC on 7 Jul 2014 #

    Good lord, look at the shonkiness of that Photoshop job.

  16. 42
    Kinitawowi on 8 Jul 2014 #

    Liked this at the time, but looking back *damn* those verses are awful. There was a school of thought that this was his big play for an actual James Bond gig, which… just no.

    I’ve Been Expecting You is still a pretty decent album, though – No Regrets has been mentioned several times (with good reason, it’s brilliant), and I’m fond of the Appleton-breakup Win Some Lose Some too.

    This though? 5.

  17. 43
    Lazarus on 8 Jul 2014 #

    “I’ve Been Expecting You” is a great title too, isn’t it? George Michael liked to make a statement with an album title and this does so too. He’s not addressing us, the listeners, of course – it’s Fame (and Fortune, and everything that goes with it). It’s like, “come on, I’m ready for you.”

  18. 44
    mapman132 on 8 Jul 2014 #

    In the US, Williams’ first album was called The Ego Has Landed. The exact touchdown point turned out to be #63 on the album chart which I don’t think was the intended destination.

  19. 45

    […] Popular has got up to Robbie Williams’ Millennium. The description of late-90s culture here re… […]

  20. 46
    Ed on 11 Jul 2014 #

    So the featured post generator threw up this (wonderful) piece by Tom on ‘Come On Eileen’, and I think Marcello puts his finger on it in the first comment:

    http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/2002/01/eileen/

    I just don’t ever get the sense that Williams means it.

  21. 47
    tm on 11 Jul 2014 #

    “There’s a madness in his eyes: they’re like hard, glassy little marbles. There’s no reason or compassion there. If you got in his way, he would destroy you.” – my Mum after seeing Robbie perform with One Direction on X Factor.

  22. 48
    Tamara on 11 Jul 2014 #

    The videos for Millenium and No Regrets make an interesting counterpoint I think. No Regrets is supposedly more sincere, someone snapping from the forced cheer and cheesy artificiality of a pop-performance into something violent but authentic, but Millenium is more subversive, I think – the performer seeing the artificiality but loving it anyway, needing and embracing the clip show of fame and fortune cliche of sexy women, cars and airplanes.

    (I’m not crazy about No Regrets otherwise- it sounds a little too whingy to me, but I do think that opening lyric is great. “Tell me a story where we all change…” because that only happens in stories. Love the harshness of it.)

  23. 49
    ciaran on 24 Jul 2014 #

    If Forever Love was pop’s most Pyrrhic Number 1 then Millennium was one of pop’s great ‘Lap of Honour’s’. The winner by K/O – Robbie.

    From 1996 to 1997 he just seemed like an also-ran. A ‘he’s a trier bless him’ dismissive attitude of his work. I don’t like Angels much but the airplay turned it round and then Let Me Entertain You came along to provide a first look at what the future would hold.

    I dont think anyone expected the odd ball stuff Robbie would release compared to the dull as ditchwater play it safe Barlow efforts. My memory of this at the time was of this being Robbie’s ‘I’m a superstar now so get used to it’ moment in a similar way to what Duran Duran did with Rio. People really seemed to buy into it.

    He also played the entertainer card brilliantly. In Ireland he played the Indie heavy slane Castle in 98 and 99 and won everyone over.IBEY was a big selling album over here. Before the internet craze you would have Robbie in the papers every sunday so he was everywhere at the time.

    Millennium shouldn’t work but does. It’s the gibberish and nonsense that was something of a trademark that only he could pull off, saying whats like the first thing that pops into his head. The video is another part of the appeal, supermodels, boats, suits (the Rio elements all present!) and Robbie playing it for laughs.

    It probably sounded more perfect in 1998 but in 2014 it’s not bad at all now. The passing of time and maybe the Robbie Crash of the mid 00′s has kept it away from the air for a while but still lots of fun.7

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