Apr 15


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#869, 12th August 2000

robbierock Back at “Millennium” I claimed that Robbie Williams’ wild success, his undeniable – and untranslatable – appeal as a pop star, said something wider about turn of the century British culture; that Robbie fitted into a post-Blair, post-Diana era where Britain felt at ease with itself and curious about itself, happy to celebrate the everyday, and to let someone become the country’s biggest star on little but determination and cheek.

Robbie was only the beginning: the early 00s saw a steady demystifying of celebrity matched by an equally steady supply of the newly famous. “Rock DJ” landed at number one near the beginning of this process – during the first series of Big Brother, still very much at this point a ‘psychological experiment’ in national voyeurism, Britain taking an unblinking, intimate look at ten of its own. Life Thru A Lens, if you like. If Robbie Williams was an expert on anything, it was being famous, and he understood every side of such attention. The video for “Rock DJ” cast him as a dancer, desperate to be noticed, stripping off clothes, then skin, muscle and organ.

So the media approach to pop success I talked about in the “7 Days” entry – knowing, snarky, treating it as a joke as much as a story – was only part of this broader 00s re0evaluation about what celebrity and fame meant. It was toxic for some stars. But it suited Robbie very well. He could make records where the sneer came baked in. “Rock DJ” acts as if it’s a bubble of charismatic nonsense, a song about almost nothing, but I’m hearing something corrosive about it too, a spitefulness that Robbie never commits to but can’t or won’t entirely shake off.

More than any of his other singles, “Rock DJ” comes on as Robbie just giving his public ‘Robbie’ – the worldly, applause-hungry jester. The eagerness to please a rock crowd that would never quite accept him has long gone, and instead we have the full-on engagement with rap that “Millennium” had gestured towards. But it’s an engagement completely on Robbie’s own terms. Williams’ approach to rapping is actually very like J from Five’s – collect a bunch of lines that sound cool and throw them at a track blindfold – but he’s got far more presence. He also has a good trick of dropping a snatch or two of vernacular in – “have a proper giggle”, “gonna stick it in the goal” – that helps him get away with his borrowed Americanisms and places him in a lineage of British rapping bluffers that goes back to Captain Sensible’s “Wot”.

But it’s remarkable how much of “Rock DJ” is just getting by on Robbie’s energy and charisma, and he’s well aware of that. He delivers lines like “Babylon back in business / Can I get a witness?” like they’re part of an anthem, then snaps back to a cruel deadpan: “You got no love and you’re with the wrong man / It’s time to move your body.” All of it has a caustic, Lennon-ish joy in simply moving words around and a childish glee at the very presence of an audience and the chance to perform for them.

That’s the upbeat side, and it’s easy to focus on because Guy Chambers’ springy backing track has such brio. “Rock DJ” is a brightly coloured play area of a song, designed as a chance for Robbie to strut, to work a crowd and a stage (live performances make the most of the track’s call and response opportunities). But while it does that job, Williams’ relationship with the spotlight has never been quite so simple. Mostly he’s rousing on “Rock DJ”, but sometimes he sounds offhand and callous, and the chirpy backing vocals only enhance the sense that this is a deliberately glib exercise. During the breakdown, on “if you’re selling it, it’s alright”, Williams’ voice slides into contempt.

Contempt for us? For himself? It’s hard to say. There’s an ambivalence to “Rock DJ”, a sense of a party, like the video striptease, that’s going on too long. “I don’t wanna rock, DJ… When’s it gonna stop, DJ?” As with “Millennium”’s sudden turn in on itself in its coda, “Rock DJ” is a smash hit with a buried case of impostor syndrome. It’s easy to make too much of this – the song works fine if you hear it as no more than a star vehicle – but as is often the case with Robbie Williams, it’s that streak of restless scorn that makes it interesting to me.



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  1. 61
    wichitalineman on 18 Apr 2015 #

    When A Woman drives me nuts too – or drove me nuts, I hadn’t thought about it for some time. It’s the laziest song title ever. Meaningless, not catchy, zilch. It could’ve been given an oblique title, like The Postman Song, which would’ve at least made a dull song more interesting.

  2. 62
    Kinitawowi on 19 Apr 2015 #

    All those neo-prog / metalcore bands with incomplete sentences for names (As I Lay Dying, Between The Buried And Me, Bring Me The Horizon, Job For A Cowboy etc). AAAARGH.

  3. 63
    MarkG on 19 Apr 2015 #

    “Father Christmas” by The Kinks. A very bland title, I ignored it at the time as did radio, etc. If they’d have called it “Father Christmas give me your money” it would have interested people more to check it out. It was on a mix that I dl’d and everyone liked it.

    Did the record company bland it? Or should they have asked Ray to change it, if not?

  4. 64
    Tommy Mack on 19 Apr 2015 #

    The Beatles’ “Love You To” (a George Harrison sitar song from Revolver) – bland and oblique; doesn’t even actually feature the title words in that order. Still I suppose by 1966 The Beatles didn’t need the intrigue factor of calling a song “I’ll make love to you” or “People Standing Round (Who’ll screw you in the ground)”

    #62 Job For a Cowboy is a brilliant band name. Should dress in stetsons, chaps etc. but make no reference to it in their songs or onstage banter etc.

  5. 65
    Rory on 19 Apr 2015 #

    #62 Surely Faulkner is to blame for “As I Lay Dying”.

  6. 66
    thefatgit on 19 Apr 2015 #

    The daddy of these truncated band names must be And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.

  7. 67
    JoeWiz on 19 Apr 2015 #

    My second or third shift at HMV (still my current employers after 7 years) someone asked ‘Have you got Job For A Cowboy?’ I replied ‘Well, have you at least got a Stetson?’ All I got in reply was a blank face and a repeat of the original question.

  8. 68
    Andrew Farrell on 19 Apr 2015 #

    #57 I think the pun, or effect anyway, is on the man rather than the space?

  9. 69
    ciaran on 5 Aug 2015 #

    This is Robbie at his height. He’s one of those artists you either love or hate. For the detractors he might come across as a grinning chancer making it up as he’s going along but he’s the man of the moment and seems to be having a great time.

    He was less glowing about this as you would expect on Jonathan Ross back in 2005 when he said he was a bit puzzled at its success but the quirky first single off the albums set him apart from almost everyone else and none the worse for it. The majority of the 90s gang have fallen on hard times but he’s got a bit of life in him yet.

    I instantly was fond of this and it’s the first hint of Robbie tapping into pop culture that he would lean towards on later work (the golden age of hip hop most notably-Can I kick it, Can I get a Witness for example). One that you would be willing to put down the beer glass for and head straight for the dancefloor.

    Again his wtf-is-all-that-about stuff like this didn’t transfer to long term listening but it has started to re-appear as a bit of an oldie on the radio recently but for all it’s nonsense I still nod along to it. 7

  10. 71
    Nixon on 30 Oct 2019 #

    This is Robbie’s Telegram Sam, isn’t it? A complete waterfall of nonsense swept along by sheer force of personality and a groove. (I can’t believe it’s taken me nearly 20 years to make that comparison.)

    The video wasn’t CGI. Or, well, the skeleton was, and the director kept the motion capture of Robbie pretending to be bored and look at his watch during the fade out – but the peeling was old fashioned costume and make-up. I remember the making-of documentary followed Robbie, in full muscle suit and make up as per the sleeve, heading down to the local petrol station at 2am between takes to ask the bemused kiosk guy for a packet of fags (the punchline being that he had no pockets and thus no wallet).

  11. 72
    Musicality on 21 Jan 2020 #

    Agree this one was all personality and not much else. Never springs to mind until quite later, when thinking of Robbie Williams songs.

  12. 73
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    Irritating lyrically as many of Williams’ songs are, but I like the groove here. 5/10 in my opinion.

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