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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

  1. 1
    Tom on 4 Jul 2014 #

    As Ned has pointed out on Facebook, that is a really crappy sleeve.

  2. 2
    Phil on 4 Jul 2014 #

    What sticks in my mind is the TOTP performance – I think while the song was at no 1 – in which the entire band was not only in drag, but in really bad drag (Robbie wore a mesh cocktail dress). I thought it was wonderful & genuinely transgressive, but I read an interview later where Robbie said it was a terrible mistake. I think he may have had it suppressed; it certainly never seems to get repeated.

  3. 3
    Your Brother, The Astronaut on 4 Jul 2014 #

    The song is absoulte gibberish but it seems to quite sum up the whole idea of the ‘Millenium’ quite well (probably by accident rather than design?), something that seems quite important but is actually largely irrelevant.

    Describing Williams as ‘complex’ is definitely the best way of viewing him! He always seemed like someone in search of a pop star role; just a reason for existing as anything other than someone who used to be in Take That. Sometimes it worked (I know Rudebox has had a certain re-evalution in some quarters, and its definitely his more interesting era) and sometimes, like here it just falls a bit flat. (Although anything is preferrable to his current attempt to become the torchbearer for swing, something which seems more of a calculated move than the confused wandering he used to indulge in).

  4. 4
    wichitalineman on 4 Jul 2014 #

    Familiarity has dulled the clunkiness of the sample, but at the time it took several listens before it sounded anything other than badly glued together.

    I remember being told by a couple of music writers that I respected that I HAD to read Chris Heath’s Robbie book. Why? Because he was clearly an important pop figure.

    I just didn’t get it. The neediness, the warmed-over sadface, the “rich beyond my wildest dreams” faux pas… Robbie and Geri seemed like twinnies.

    Plenty of other opportunities to talk about Robbie; for now, I can’t think of anything else to add to a tremendous write up. I’d guess this might be closer to a 5 than a 7?

  5. 5
    Doctor Casino on 4 Jul 2014 #

    This went nowhere in the States beyond filling out an early (for us) NOW disc – I recall seeing clips of the video in the commercials, probably the only time I’d ever see it.

    The song’s fine, I think; at least, I don’t mind hearing the “You Only Live Twice” music over and over. Without wanting to read too much into that selection, it’s still interesting: not just any Bond theme, but the decadent last go-round for Connery (or so it seemed at the time), the theme for the man who’s transcended having to try very hard and can pretty much just show up, fill out the suit, and find the world falling into his lap. Quite unintentionally I suspect, the lush ease of Barry’s theme betrays the weaknesses of You Only Live Twice, a mildly enjoyable outing (if you can bracket out the racism) but hardly in the top tier, and clearly the next film (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – with George Lazenby, and lots of skiing) was an attempt to give the character an edge, even if it didn’t take. So of all the Bond themes, why this one? The self-satisfied haze is perhaps as appropriate to 1998 as, say, “Ghost Town”‘s creaky anxiety was to 1981.

    But for Williams, is this the sound of a complacent dominance to which he aspired, or an ironically stable backdrop against which to posit that aspiration? His mugging in the video is another element that probably needs decoding – he happily wears Bond’s sex appeal and presence at the center of the screen, but hardly pretends to Connery’s ice-cold confidence and brutality. Even Moore was rarely as goofy as Williams hopping around in a field, his jet-pack repeatedly failing to fire. Easy parody I suppose, fit for Saturday morning cartoons, but also stepping exactly over the line of self-awareness that Connery to the end refused. This is a man playing it safe about his own stardom: gotta kid, gotta let ’em all in on the joke.

  6. 6
    23 Daves on 4 Jul 2014 #

    It was roughly around this point (or possibly around the release of “Let Me Entertain You”) when everyone decided that Williams was A Star, wasn’t it? Prior to “Millennium” there were many who felt that “Angels” was a bit of a fluke and that Williams was possibly just a younger version of a variety club chancer (indeed, there were moments in his goofing around where he reminded me of a young Freddie Starr). Suddenly, though, I was going home to visit my parents and being told by my Mum and Dad what a “brilliant entertainer” he was.

    I never quite bought into it, I’m afraid, even if most of the rest of Britain did, and many other countries in the world too (except the USA). He’s got a salesman’s cheek and confidence about him rather than a pop star’s allure – you could just as easily imagine him as a slightly wilder kind of QVC presenter. But in 1998, this was viewed by most people – even indie kids – as being a highly contentious point of view. He was widely regarded as a much-needed new stadium pop hero, and to a certain extent has continued that reputation.

    “Millenium” is OK. Had it been released by a performer just on the way up or an unknown quantity, it’s very difficult to imagine it reaching number one (whereas I always imagine “Angels” to be a pretty bullet-proof song which would have been a large hit regardless of who handled it). But it holds together well enough, has some interesting ideas about it (all of which Tom refers to above) and is extremely aware of its place in the scheme of things to the point where it almost (but not quite) becomes endearing.

    Like the vast majority of Robbie’s material, this sits firmly in the 4 or 5 out of 10 bracket for me – unobjectionable but ultimately not very rewarding.

  7. 7
    AMZ1981 on 4 Jul 2014 #

    It was in 1997 that the BBC broadcast Driving School which kickstarted a craze for docusoaps and made an unlikely celebrity out of hapless driver Maureen Rees. I mention this because for me it marks the point where the public, at least in Britain, turned away from celebrities who seem to belong to another world in favour of real world icons. It would take a while for this to filter through the top of the charts but I mention this because Robbie Williams was arguably the one person to buck the trend during his late nineties/ early noughties peak. He was a superstar and boy, didn’t he know it?

    He was in some ways an unlikely superstar. It was ironic that the Spice Girls made their chart debut the same week as the first Take That solo single as what followed was a nineties `A Star Is Born` as Spicemania parallelled the collapse of Take That’s members into obscurity. In 1998 it was already conveniently being forgotten that Robbie’s debut album (released Sept 1997) initially vanished from the album chart in three weeks before Angels propelled it into becoming the third biggest seller of 1998.

    In context – all other things being equal we’d be discussing T Spoon’s Sex On The Beach here – Millenium sounded fantastic in the Autumn of 1998 and for many people I’ve Been Expecting You remains the best Robbie album. I loved this song at the time (aged 17) although my 33 year old self tuts slightly.

  8. 8
    TinMachine on 5 Jul 2014 #

    I was six when this came out. Robbie means primary school to me, along with Steps and S Club 7 (the six – 12 year-old me was never one for the Spice Girls).

    I’ve got exceptionally fond memories of a lot of the songs you’re starting to cover, but of all of them it’s Robbie whose CD I own and in whose career I take a continuing interest.

    I think his great redeeming feature (other than his surprisingly deep catalogue of great tunes – She’s Madonna, Bodies, Strong, She’s The One, Come Undone, Feel) is the weird, simultaneously off-putting and endearing mix desperation and humour.

    You’ve just got to watch his weird performance of Candy on the X Factor – seemingly wearing a purple turtleneck and waistcoat and the size of a small car – to see that something’s gone very wrong and very right simultaneously. Which sums up his career really. Just yesterday he fell off the stage and broke a 50y/o woman’s arm, and I wouldn’t have him any other way.

    And BTW I saw a comment about the gender bending being suppressed and a mistake – that’s not the full story, because off the top of my head it’s something he came back to and did much better later – especially in the She’s Madonna video, which is brilliant and probably his best song.

  9. 9
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Jul 2014 #

    #8: It’s something he’s got some form with, and all.

  10. 10
    PurpleKylie on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Blobby Williams to me is like one of those pop singers where you bash them, but when one of their songs come on you realise that their songs weren’t as bad as you remember, if that makes any sense.

    This is one of his “not as bad as I remember it” songs, which could well sum up a lot of his 1998-99 output. “No Regrets” (one of the first CD singles we ever had in the household, we stuck with cassettes for a very long time), “Strong” and *Bunny* also spring to mind as decent songs considering how little regard I have for the guy.

    As for “Millennium”: It’s not an outstanding song but it’s a competent pop song from the time that’s kinda nice to hear again when revisiting your old Now! compilations. Although the random ‘millennium’ title drop irks me somewhat as it just comes out of nowhere and has no relation to the rest of the song, which I guess as Tom explained also fits into the whole “borrowing from hip-hop” theory as modern rap songs seem to love using random “hashtag rhymes” or whatever you call them. It just seems to me like a hamfisted attempt at getting at the whole New Millennium craze of the time.

    I’d probably give it a middling 6.

  11. 11
    PurpleKylie on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Oh damn, I forgot one of the songs I mentioned is bunnied, and the edit function is being mean to me *slaps self*

  12. 12
    mapman132 on 5 Jul 2014 #

    I can’t hear this song, or watch its video, without instantly being transported to my trip to London, and mainland Europe via the Chunnel, back in December 1998. British Airways played “Millennium” and a variety of other videos (including another bunny) in the cabin during part of the flight over. It kind of provided a window on a bunch of British pop music I had otherwise missed during 1998. Another thing about the trip I remember relevant to this forum was seeing all kinds of ads, including posters in the Tube and commercials on TV, for all kinds of pop music. Ads for specific albums were, and still are, relatively rare in the US – at least compared to 1998 British TV where it seemed to me 80% of the ads were for music. Ads for specific singles are almost non-existent in the US. Anyway, Robbie seemed to be everywhere in the ads too. Overall you’d think this would make me hate “Millennium”, but in fact since I have fond memories of that trip and was at a high point in my personal life overall, I can’t help but like a song I’d otherwise be indifferent toward. So what the heck, 7/10.

    Looking at the bigger picture, it’s already been noted that Robbie’s never achieved much US success. “Millennium” did eventually chart here (at #72), and did get some airplay, partially explaining why I remember it better than the BA bunny to come. But other than “Angels” (peaked at #53 – better known for cover versions here), and two bunnied videos that got MTV/VH-1 play (one for a celebrity co-star, the other for its shock value), he’s pretty much a non-entity here. In fact if you ignore his appearance on “Back for Good”, he could possibly be the most successful British artist never to have a US Top 40 hit.

  13. 13
    Tim Byron on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Robbie Williams is a strange one for an Aussie like me. ‘Angels’ was a huge megahit in England apparently but it got to #40 in the charts here. ‘Let Me Entertain You’ was a #46. ‘Millennium’ was a #24. The Ego Has Landed was only in the charts for six weeks, and peaked at #20.

    For all that, we definitely knew who he was/had a vague idea that he was big in England. My partner said that her local pop radio stations played him to death, and those songs are all pretty familiar to me. Watching the ‘Millennium’ film clip, with him gallivanting around pretending to be James Bond, I can sort of see why it didn’t work in Australia despite the big push – there’s a sort of smarminess to it all which maybe didn’t translate well for a country that worries a bit too much about ‘tall poppy syndrome’, which has stereotypes about/history with arrogant Englishmen. Perhaps it changes how you see him when you see him as ‘one of us’, as English people might do? But maybe if you don’t see him as ‘one of us’, he comes off rather different.

    The song itself reminds me of that vaguely-trip-hop chillout music that was popular in the late 1990s/early 2000s. But you get that when you sample a Bond theme, I imagine. (I wonder how long it will be until Lana Del Rey does a Bond theme?)

  14. 14
    Chelovek na lune on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Seems like a cast iron example of a six-out-of-ten to me: unremarkable without being unpleasant, a few hooks, a limited sprinkling of inventiveness, but basically Heart FM fodder for a few months ‘n thatsit.

    That said: in part as a result of his willingness to be inconsistent, “think outside the [Rude] box” (sorry), and play with different styles, I’d rate Robbie as one of the better, even, perversely, consistently so, singles artists of the few years after this. But we’re not quite there yet and can discuss this a bit when the time comes, even if the bunny isn’t troubled, mostly, by the very best of them.

    But at this point I think he is still in transition – post-Take That, post-rock n roll turn the guitars up wanna be Oasis thing – still finding his feet as a solo artist, not quite yet sufficiently confident to push the limits. This is neither a awe-inspiringly remarkable or overly memorable or loveable single, nor one that (its title and the time notwithstanding) captures a Zeitgeist.

  15. 15
    lonepilgrim on 5 Jul 2014 #

    unlike PURPLEKYLIE @ 10 I found the song weaker than I remember – mostly because what I remember is the John Barry sample. The rhythm track that follows is clunky and the lyrics in the verses follow suit. I hadn’t seen the video until recently but it was interesting to watch Robbie half-heartedly try to saw through the celebrity branch he was sitting on. I commented recently on Anthony Newley’s early 60s hits, to say that IMO his songs had an air of ‘we all know these lyrics are silly but let’s just go along with them anyway’ so there is a lineage of UK (and no doubt other national) singers – including Jagger, Bowie and others – where this self consciousness is present. This may be a case of middle-class boys struggling to emulate American rockers or Soul men and/or you could argue that it goes back further to a British pantomime tradition. In songs like this Robbie seems to foreground the quality quite starkly and in a way that suggests he can’t settle for either sincerity or irony

  16. 16
    edwardo on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Tim @13 touches on something interesting here. When everyone was going “OMG LANA DEL REY IS LIKE GANGSTER NANCY SINATRA”, one thing that immediately sprung to my mind was “No more than ‘Millennium’ is.” I love the sample, big great chorus, clunky verses and that “sarcasm in my eyes” bit doesn’t quite work. 4 at the time but 6 seems right now. Annoyingly, the smug git would go on to produce a number of songs I really really like (I get the feeling “Supreme” and “Different” are underrated, amongst others) but most of them were lesser hits.

  17. 17
    Andrew Farrell on 5 Jul 2014 #

    The video for this is 100% late 90s cake-eating-and-also-with-the-having, Robbie borrowing the glamour of the Connery Bond but also undercutting it: the mysterious silver case contains his packed lunch, he strides manfully out to the lot and drives away in a Robin Reliant – but it’s also positioning, he highlights the jokes to hide the fact that if you accept the jokes, that means you accept that he’s not the joke. Which he kind of is – he’s a half stone heavier in the video than in that terrible sleeve above, and he just looks sweaty.

  18. 18
    Cumbrian on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Interesting from Tom, especially around the vaguely complacent nature of the last part of the century. Not to open this can of worms again but there is reason why the first Matrix movie came out about this sort of time. The Wachowskis even put into the script that the machines created a utopia as the virtual reality and the humans rejected it, so the machines settled on the late 90s as the place to recreate, not too perfect but good enough for people not to question things too much (obviously this is a very Western, End of History, type view – plenty of places at this time were not happy, as events that ended the cosy late 90s worldview would show).

    I guess Robbie was perfect (in his imperfection) for these times and I don’t really have more to add to Tom’s excellent write up on that. I will say that I enjoyed the use of “You Only Live Twice” much more on the opening track of Mansun’s “Attack Of The Grey Lantern” (which I think Marcello will run into eventually, if memory serves) rather than here. To be honest, it’s one of the few things that Millennium has going for it – maybe the only thing, as it’s a bit of a relief to hear the strong sample come around again and inject the song with something tuneful. I can’t escape the feeling that this was created cynically (let’s get a track out that people will want to play on NYE 1999 – I can own that event) and that the song is betrayed by its lack of ideas.

    Also, as Tom points out, at least Robbie’s love of hip-hop doesn’t bleed into this with his attempts at rapping – Kids is probably my favourite of his (can’t quite believe it didn’t get to #1) but is marred by the horrible rap at the end.

    #17 – I have always wondered what’s the point of having cake if you aren’t going to eat it too?

  19. 19
    Ed on 5 Jul 2014 #

    I think Lonepilgrim @15 identifies one of the things that most bugs me about Williams’ persona and affect: the queasy half-attempt at sincerity. It reminds he one one of my favourite Simpsons lines, from IIRC the Homerpalooza episode when Homer has just been shot in the stomach by a cannon ball in front of the watching crowd of 1990s hipsters.
    First hipster: “Oh wow, that’s really cool.”
    Second hipster: “Dude, are you being ironic?”
    First hipster (sadly): “I can’t even tell any more.”
    That episode is from 1996, and as others have suggested, it was part of the spirit of the age.

    But if you take the sincerity out of post-Oasis rock, what do you have left? Absolutely nothing. And rock is clearly the reference point here, although Tim @13 makes a good point about the trip-hop / chillout inflection. The string sample points backwards to Whatever and forwards to One Day Like This more than it does to, say, Gangsters’ Paradise or Hell Is Round The Corner.

    The Bond allusion, meanwhile, is another nod towards Cool Britannia and the Spirit of ’67 – that was the year You Only Live Twice was released – and it is feeling pretty tired by this point.

    I have some residual affection for this from having met an incredibly irritating Britpop snob who was furious at the way Williams was prostituting the memory of the music he loved. But that aside, I can’t see anything to recommend it.

  20. 20
    weej on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Like Ed and Lonepilgrim I can’t take Robbie seriously as an artist, and if we’re forming a club it would seem Robbie himself is the leader. As he has publicly admitted, he doesn’t like the majority of his own music, and the knowledge seems (or seemed) to torture him. He’s deeply uncomfortable with being an entertainer, obviously doesn’t enjoy it, but has no aspirations about being an artist either. That’s where we get the gurning smarminess – “I hate this crap but this is what you want, isn’t it?” Unfortunately his neurosis was usually channeled into having public breakdowns rather than making better music, though I’ll admit he has improved over the years.

    Not sure what to say about Millennium itself – the sample dominates proceedings so much that the rest of the track seems like an afterthought.

  21. 21
    daveworkman on 5 Jul 2014 #

    Is it just me, or is the whole idea of the success of ‘Millennium’ slightly weird? It’s a song that samples the theme from a film thirty years old, and on which Robbie raps about liposuction. It doesn’t strike me as an obvious choice with which to kick off the next phase of your career – which to me this song has always seemed. At the time (I was only 13, so may have just been influenced by how much it was hyped in the media), I felt that the release of this was seen as Robbie stepping up to rightfully claim that which was his after the success of ‘Angels’. Doesn’t ‘No Regrets’ have Neils Tennant and Hannon on backing vocals…? That suggests to me he was being positioned as an important pop figure quite explicitly, which again makes this just sound slightly strange to my ears now. Needless to say I bought into into it at the time, for about six months, and then thoroughly disliked him from that point on, something which hasn’t really diminished over time…

  22. 22
    lonepilgrim on 6 Jul 2014 #

    @ 19 & 20 – no doubt due to my poorly expressed comments you seem to have taken away the idea that I don’t like Robbie when in fact I quite like some of his songs and, for the reasons Tom outlines in his piece and for the reasons I mention in my comments, I find his struggles to present a convincingly ‘authentic’ persona to be interesting. I place quite a low value on ‘sincerity’ in pop music – it’s why I don’t care much for the Manics or James Blunt to name but two. Art is the lie that tells the truth and what I find interesting about Robbie is when he can’t quite tell one from the other. It seems quite appropriate for the age of Tony Blair.

  23. 23
    AMZ1981 on 6 Jul 2014 #

    Just one point I’ve picked up on from Tom’s piece, the reason Angels didn’t get to number one was that it was a slow burner; it didn’t hit its number four peak until its eleventh week in the chart having ping ponged around the lower half of the top ten several times. Let Me Entertain You was handicapped by the parent album being readily available.

  24. 24
    David Howell on 6 Jul 2014 #

    Of all the cultural markers of the early-Blair years this mentions, possibly the most telling one is “Millionaire,” for a few reasons.

    Firstly, it and “Millennium” emerged near enough simultaneously – the first episode of “Millionaire” aired on 4th September 1998. Secondly, it shared the “self-conscious event” status – “Millennium” came in with the overwrought theme and that Bond sample, “Millionaire” was launched with episodes on ten consecutive nights, bulldozing much of the established ITV primetime schedule in the process. Thirdly, both were oddly traditional and consciously borrowing from the past – “Millennium” more obviously so with that sample, but “Millionaire” got the name from a song in “High Society” (having rejected the working title “Cash Mountain”) and much of its format from “The $64,000 Question”, products of Fifties America both – but each had elements (“Millennium” its quasi-rapping, “Millionaire” its metallic blue-lit set) that would keep popping up again in the 2000s.

    Incidentally, writing the music for “Millionaire” was initially a job entrusted to Pete Waterman. Both it and the set were seen as a bad fit for the show’s stakes, and with just two weeks to transmission both were rejected. In stepped… father and son pairing Keith and Matthew Strachan, the elder of whom was responsible for “Mistletoe and Wine.” Fact.

  25. 25
    thefatgit on 6 Jul 2014 #

    I quite like “Millennium”. I quite like Robbie Williams. I quite like “Angels”. I quite like “Let Me Entertain You”. I guess he’s one of those artists it’s OK to quite like, but I’ll be buggered if I can put my finger on what it is I quite like about him and his music. There’s something gloriously fake about him, which doesn’t make me hate him at all, but actually admire him. It’s like he’s getting away with something and smirking at us all while he’s doing it. I think Tom has pretty much summed up how I feel about him. My mum thinks he’s absolutely marvellous.

  26. 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.

  27. 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!

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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]

  31. 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.”

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.

  39. 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.

  40. 41
    Matt DC on 7 Jul 2014 #

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

  41. 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.

  42. 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.”

  43. 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.

  44. 45

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

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.)

  48. 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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