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Apr 15

ROBBIE WILLIAMS – “Rock DJ”

Popular72 comments • 6,261 views

#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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Comments

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  1. 31
    Paulito on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Surprised that neither Tom’s review nor any comments so far have noted that, like the Black Legend entry a few #1s ago, a Barry White hit provides the memorable chassis on which this track is built. The Walrus of Love may have become something of a figure of fun after his 70s heyday (or even during it), but perhaps his music has been more influential than is generally acknowledged?

  2. 32
    DanusJonus on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Re: Talent: Just to clarify, I think RW was by far the better pop star and had ample amounts of the key ingredients needed to earn that moniker, particularly the charisma. I meant that CD had more musical talent, though that by itself isn’t liable to take you a long way. I’d use writing ‘Walking Away’ when he was 17 as an example, which I think was what prompted his future manager to say he’d be a star.

    I don’t think you can underestimate the crafted and clever songwriting of Guy Chambers (suspended chords, liberal sprinkling of added 9ths and all that) in helping to propel RW around this time.

    It’s something like thinking hard about the similarities and differences between RW and CW (something I never imagined planning on having to do) that highlights what I’m growing love about this site and the debates!

  3. 33
    Phil on 14 Apr 2015 #

    #25 – I remember watching that & being amazed at how he owned the stage. And it wasn’t Freddie Mercury’s “you will all look at me now” stage presence – your eyes wouldn’t be riveted to Robbie standing still; he was putting some work into it, and you could see him making an effort to get star quality out of not very much. At the same time, you saw him succeeding. Like one of those Altered States effects, he flickered between Rob-the-chancer and Robbie-Williams-Superstar before your eyes. Amazing performer, but performer is the operative word.

  4. 34
    AMZ1981 on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Rock DJ marks Robbie Williams’ pomp and – love him or hate him – also showed a certain chameleonic ability that the great pop stars have; he abandoned the Britpop lite stylings of his first two albums and embraced the pop boom of the moment. With the Spice Girls going off the boil there was a vacancy for the biggest pop star of the moment and he took it. As others have said he’d been written off twice; once when he left Take That and again when South Of The Border bombed. Sing When You’re Winning was an apt title as Take That were a memory, Gary Barlow and Mark Owen had been dropped by their labels and Robbie had won. Obviously Mark Owen would make a mini comeback in 2003 and the bunny knows the tale had a further twist but this didn’t look very likely in 2000.

    I don’t particularly care for Rock DJ but for a time it was his second most enduring song and his one real floor filler, although I don’t hear it as much as I used to.

    It’s worth noting that of the current record breaking string of one week wonders Rock DJ was the biggest seller, winding up the fifth biggest seller of the year (behind bunny, All Saints, Sonique and non bunny but not released yet).

  5. 35
    Andrew on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I think the points made at #23 about race and the romanticisation of northern working class culture are valid when comparing public perceptions of RW to CD, but not so relevant as the conclusion that Robbie had the tunes (at least two really massive crossover hits per album for a very decent stretch) and beyond album one, Craig really didn’t.

    Plus, if Robbie had taken himself half as seriously as Craig, he’d quite possibly have been finished early on. But he was self-aware and self-deprecating. And funny! (intentionally, whereas poor Craig was often unintentionally so)

    The patience and generosity given to RW during the teething problems of the early singles was of course in large due to the Take That heritage but at least in part because of tabloid intrigue regarding Robbie himself: that perfect storm of popstar cocksureness and vulnerability; an unpredictable, twitching, endearingly watchable maelstrom of stadium-seizing confidence and crippling low self-esteem.

    I really recommend Chris Heath’s authorised biography Feel, in which he follows Robbie everywhere for a year or so. An incredible dissection of modern stardom.

    The sniping and mockery came to RW in later years, quite cruelly upon making his painkiller addition known (that ever-sensitive soul Liam Gallagher didn’t mince his words) and revealing a genuine interest in UFOs. Perhaps then it was all too serious, or perhaps the public had tired of his musical/performance schtick? ‘Tripping’ and ‘She’s Madonna’ are among his best singles, though.

  6. 36
    Billy Hicks on 14 Apr 2015 #

    This was still when ‘The Box’ music channel was a huge chart force, giving power to European hits that wouldn’t normally have been promoted here and a major way of seeing all your stars’ favourite videos in the pre-youtube days. I remember watching the video for this one, being a bit weirded out as Robbie progressively got nakeder, to the point where just as the underwear was about to come off a message appears on screen along the lines of “Due to explicit content we are unable to show you the rest of this video”. The remainder of the song played in audio over this.

    Subsequently an alternate video was made featuring Robbie simply recording the song in a studio, and that’s the one that got a lot of music channel play for the next few years. It took me *years* before I found out what the hell happened at the end of the first one, and tried to work it out based on what I’d already seen – being 11 years old, I assumed that not only did the underwear come off but all those women around him probably had ACTUAL REAL SEX with him and you saw everything and it was like porn, a bit like those few seconds I’d seen on L!VE TV (infamous, long-gone Topless Darts cable channel) one night when the parents weren’t watching. I was almost a bit disappointed when, around five years later, I found a website which stated the reality.

    In recent years music channels have compromised somewhat, still removing the skin/organ stripping by repeating moments from the first half of the video but allowing the final few seconds of Robbie as a skeleton. That’s certainly what they were doing when I last saw the video on TV, anyway.

  7. 37
    thefatgit on 14 Apr 2015 #

    Late to this one, so most of the bases have been covered. I get the sense that Robbie has to be handled with kid gloves, re: his mental health and his addictions, so I will just concentrate on the music. As it stands, “Rock DJ” has a huge amount of repeat appeal, as it’s virtually impossible to spot everything that’s going on with just one listen. No worries in 2000, when this was on heavy repeat on radio and TV, but with distance, there was so much I had forgotten about this song. All those lyrical signifiers pile up into a melange of soundbites, so the success of this hangs on the chorus, with widescreen bv’s, and the highly strung strings deep in the mix, suggest someone is about to kick off in the most spectacular way, using these stream of consciousness verses to keep upbeat, like the mental exercises you attempt to try to keep the bile at bay during attacks of airsickness. Lyrically, this is just as challenging as the angry Robbie who collaborated with Neil Tennant on “No Regrets”. Only here he’s simmering with bravado rather than rage. Guy Chambers has given him some relatively easy hoops to jump through, but the rapping element seems a little one-dimensional. I can live with this. (7)

  8. 38
    Tommy Mack on 14 Apr 2015 #

    I’ve only seen the uncensored video once. I thought fair play, you’re a knobhead but that is properly extreme.

    I’m not sold on this hegemony that Craig David was despised while Robbie was lionised: I don’t know anyone who thought particularly ill of CD but I know plenty who’ve expressed murderous thoughts towards RW. I reckon he’d still have a reasonable chance of topping a most hated pop star poll in the UK.

    What I enjoy about RDJ, when I do enjoy it, is that it’s Robbie’s obnoxiousness distilled, rather than something else being ruined by his obnoxiousness. If that makes sense.

  9. 39
    JoeWiz on 14 Apr 2015 #

    There’s a bit in the excellent doc ‘Look Back, Don’t Stare’, which covers the recording of Take That’s ‘Progress’ where Robbie is talking pretty openly about himself to his bandmates: ‘I’ve stretched a rubber band to the moon with what I’ve got’. Acutely aware of his shortcomings and not afraid to face them.

  10. 40
    Paulito on 14 Apr 2015 #

    @39 That, or a specialist in false modesty and in self-aggrandisement masquerading as self-effacement.

  11. 41
    Mark G on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Well, this reminds me of when they had that “Millennium” show where everyone voted BoRap the best rock/pop song of the 20thC, there was some comment from the panel about how Robbie’s “Angels” was unfeasible high in the rankings, and someone made the point that even Robbie would say it’s not the fifth best song. I couldn’t’t help thinking that it would depend on when you asked him: John Lennon might even have said “Imagine” wasn’t the 2nd best song (or whatever). False Modesty? Brian May didn’t seem to be showing much on the night..

    What I am struggling with is the idea that Rob is less (or more) talented than Craig, where it seems to me that both were “Born to do it”. The only time I ever saw Craig David talk about Leigh Francis’ take-off he seemed to be laughing his head off. Maybe what Craig wanted was out of the mainstream and that’s what happened, massive respect in the underground and he gets to do exactly what he wants to. He wasn’t to know, maybe, that the freedom to do whatever was his for the asking, and in the end that’s what Robbie got.

    I don’t decry or belittle Guy Chambers contribution either, but on the evidence of the Lemon Trees single I bought back in the day the music was ok, the look was alright but there was precious little personality and nothing worth saying in “Let it loose”.

    So, what am I trying to say here? Maybe there’s more to Robbie than what’s on display…

  12. 42
    Andrew Farrell on 15 Apr 2015 #

    #39/#40 this is kind of the crucial distinction to Robbie, whether you believe that he can take a joke – or that he can take a joke as long as he’s the one making it. Actually, that’s probably the case with Craig David (goes off muttering about the Grand Unified Theory of Comedy)

  13. 43
    swanstep on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Perhaps the core idea for RDJ’s vid came from the vid. for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Steam’, at about 1 m 30s in.

  14. 44
    Steve Mannion on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Or perhaps the video for Lou Reed’s ‘No Money Down’, one of the more horrific videos to feature on Beavis & Butthead.

    To see flayed Robbie as the actual cover art felt more provocative than anything Eminem was doing at the time. Like ‘in case you don’t get to see the video properly here’s a massive spoiler…’

    More trufax: the woman seen DJing in the video was plucked at random by Robbie after walking past her in an airport (iirc).

  15. 45
    James BC on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Rock DJ might be the earliest example of something I’m noticing more and more, which is to take the song’s title out of context from a couple of words in the lyric (ie this song is not about an actual rock DJ). I’m struggling to find an earlier case, but I count four number 1s from last year that do this.

    It’s a neat trick that generally gives pithy, memorable titles. The fact that they have nothing to do with what the song’s about, or sometimes mean the direct opposite of what the song is saying, doesn’t seem to matter.

  16. 46
    swanstep on 15 Apr 2015 #

    @44, steve mannion. Agree that the ‘Robbie flayed’ sleeve-image is a sensational provocation independently of the vid.. Amazing to think that millions bought *that*.

  17. 47
    Tom on 15 Apr 2015 #

    I wonder if he was inspired by Gunther Van Hagen’s Body Worlds, full of flayed cadavers and anatomical grotesquerie – which I assumed was after this but is so only in terms of some of its UK/US shows: it had been exhibited in Japan since 1995, for instance. Maybe Robbie took in a show!

  18. 48
    Mark M on 15 Apr 2015 #

    Re46 & 47: This was out in US cinemas at the same time Rock DJ was released in the UK… Had someone seen an early screening? Or maybe it was just that CGI had reached a point where everyone could do it, so everyone was doing it.

  19. 49
    Steve Mannion on 15 Apr 2015 #

    The sleeve reminds me most of the film Event Horizon but that’s a few years earlier but by the time RW is down to his skeletal birthday suit the video is more reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’.

  20. 50
    thefatgit on 15 Apr 2015 #

    When Frank Cotton assembles himself from the bodies of Julia’s (Claire Higgins) victims in “Hellraiser”, it’s RDJ in reverse. Most will remember Doug Bradley’s Pinhead, but may forget Frank’s partially regenerated body, skulking in Julia’s spare room.

  21. 51
    flahr on 16 Apr 2015 #

    #45 Ooh, nice! I’ve got two but will resist the temptation to look up the others for the moment. They happen to be two of my favourites so maybe I am just very susceptible to low-level wordgames.

    Hmm, no, actually looking at the list I’m not certain what the other two are. I hope we remember this conversation when we get to the present day.

  22. 52
    flahr on 16 Apr 2015 #

    Didn’t remember much of the song (aside from the start of the chorus) but its lope is instantly familiar upon listening; it’s pretty relentless beat-wise and I think #37’s “virtually impossible to spot everything that’s going on with just one listen” sums it up pretty well, which means it gets a [7] from this restless noise-addict.

  23. 53
    Phil on 16 Apr 2015 #

    Just re-watched the video – nasty stuff (he said approvingly). I’m assuming the Robster’s genitalia were always pixellated – ironic, really, but understandable; it would have been a bit frame-breaking.

    Surprised nobody’s mentioned Chorlton and the Wheelies!

  24. 54
    mark g on 16 Apr 2015 #

    re: out of context titles

    ‘Concrete and Clay’

  25. 55
    chelovek na lune on 16 Apr 2015 #

    “Step On” by the Happy Mondays is surely one of the key exemplars of them overly-abbreviated song title….?

  26. 56
    flahr on 17 Apr 2015 #

    The style of the rap on this reminds me quite strongly of “Bust-a-Move” by Young MC, and I’m not sure why.

  27. 57
    wichitalineman on 17 Apr 2015 #

    Re 45: Spaceman, which Babylon Zoo seem to think is a pun – “I always wanted you to go into space, man!” It’s as if they think spacemen are called spacemen by coincidence.

    Earliest Popular entry – Baby Jump? Not exactly a pun but it definitely doesn’t anticipate the chorus hook.

  28. 58
    James BC on 17 Apr 2015 #

    Step On is a really good example.

    I wonder if Williams and Chambers originally called it “(I Don’t Wanna) Rock DJ”. They could have sold it to Shania Twain.

  29. 59
    flahr on 17 Apr 2015 #

    It would have to have an exclamation mark for that.

  30. 60
    Paulito on 17 Apr 2015 #

    @58 “When a Woman” by Gabrielle is another example of truncated titles, and a deeply irritating one at that. Calling it “When a Woman Loves Her Man” would have actually made sense as well as serving as a nice nod to a certain imperishable soul classic (the performer of which, I note with sadness, perished just the other day).

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