Everything changes – Take That

Christopher Barrett charts the biggest comeback in pop history.

Since The Beatles disbanded, few British bands have come close to achieving comparable chart success and adoration except, perhaps, Take That.

From getting their break on The Hit Man and Her TV show in 1990 to playing eight nights at Wembley Stadium two decades later, it’s been a long, remarkable, and occasionally rocky road for the five members of Take That.

The pop quintet have sold many millions of records and set a fair few; for a start they have sold concert tickets in greater numbers at a greater speed than any band in UK history. Their Progress Live 2011 tour saw 1.34 million tickets snapped up within 24 hours of going on sale. They have been no less successful on record with seven of their albums and 11 singles having reached number one in the UK.

It is hardly surprising that Take That’s trophy cabinet is fit to burst with 20 BRIT and eight MTV gongs among their vast haul. But last month Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Jason Orange, Mark Owen and Robbie Williams were given arguably the most coveted award of them all – an Ivor Novello Award (the PRS for Music Outstanding Contribution to British Music).

There’s nothing like winning an Ivor as a songwriter

Sponsored by PRS for Music and judged and presented by fellow songwriters, the award is widely regarded as the highest industry accolade songwriters can garner. Indeed, on picking up the award, Gary Barlow told the audience at the London ceremony, ‘There’s nothing like winning an Ivor as a songwriter.’

With five trophies already under his belt, Barlow is no stranger to Ivors acclaim.  The Take That frontman and lead songwriter was very much at the band’s creative helm until they split in 1996. During that first Take That incarnation, Barlow wrote almost all of their hits including Back For Good, which reached number one in 31 countries.

In 2006 Take That re-formed, signed to Polydor and re-entered the studio. Since then it has been all hands on deck creatively. But it wasn’t until July 2010 that Robbie Williams’ influence was again felt.

After disagreements with fellow band members led Williams to leave Take That in 1995, he went solo. Despite it hardly being to the fore as a member of Take That, his songwriting ability was one of the key reasons managers David Enthoven and Tim Clark of i:e music swiftly snapping him up.

‘He has always been a very confident lyricist and that is the reason we really understood that he was the artist for us in 1996.  He has always had a stream of melody in his head and that is why he works best with a collaborator who can interpret his ideas,’ says Enthoven.

Williams became the first solo artist to reach number one in the UK with his first five albums. He has now sold more than 15 million albums in the UK alone.  Having gone solo Williams enjoyed hit after hit, including the 1997 million seller Angels, which he co-wrote with Guy Chambers.

Chambers became a regular collaborator but Williams also teamed up with the likes of Stephen Duffy, Ashley Hamilton and Steve Power on tracks including No Regrets, Feel, Come Undone and Advertising Space; all of which illustrate his songwriting prowess and versatility.

Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Mark Owen at the Ivors

Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Mark Owen at the Ivors

The return of Williams in 2010 to Take That found all five members contributing creatively for the first time, and as a result Progress proved to be one of Take That’s finest moments. But, according to its producer Stuart Price, getting them all in the studio at the same time was a major challenge.

‘They are a bit like one of those fairground games where different heads pop up at different times,’ says Price. ‘Sometimes we’d work separately, sometimes together. Lyrics evolved constantly, that seems a given for most bands I’ve worked with, but that’s good because as music changes, so does the tone of the song, and the necessity for change,’ he says.

Price recalls that although all the members of Take That contributed to Progress, Barlow’s studio proved to be the creative hub where almost all the songs were demoed. Despite Barlow and Williams having demonstrably different songwriting styles, Price says that when the two worked together the results were nothing short of remarkable.

‘It’s like chalk and cheese but they both respect each other’s contribution like no other. What’s important is that neither could do the other’s part.  In that sense they all need each other, that’s a vital band dynamic,’ says price.

It felt so right, like the five of them had been recording forever. It’s just confident and effortless

Released in November 2010, Progress has since gone eight times platinum and sold more than 2.3 million copies in the UK. The first single, The Flood, peaked at number two in the singles chart and has sold over half a million copies. It was nominated at the 2012 Ivor Novello Awards in the PRS for Music Most Performed Work category but narrowly missed out to Adele’s Rolling in the Deep.

If Universal Music UK chairman and chief executive David Joseph ever had any doubts as to how songs crafted by all five members of Take That would turn out, his first play of The Flood swept them away. ‘It felt so right, like the five of them had been recording forever. It’s just confident and effortless,’ he says.

Recalling listening to early demos of Progress, Joseph says what most impressed him was that the band were obviously prepared to take creative risks, with tracks including Kidz and Happy Now being stand out moments. ‘It really embraced a new chapter for them as a five piece,’ says Joseph.

There are many chapters to the Take That story, but it began back in 1989 when a 19-year-old Gary Barlow first met Nigel Martin-Smith, a manager looking for someone to front a new boy band. Impressed by Barlow’s burgeoning catalogue of self penned songs, Martin-Smith invited him to lead the new act.

Auditions for other band members took place in 1990, followed by Take That’s first TV appearance on Granada’s The Hitman And Her. Written by Barlow and Ray Hedges, Take That’s first single Do What U Like failed to climb above 82 on the singles chart. It wasn’t until the release of Take That’s version of the Tavares 1975 hit It Only Takes A Minute, that the band’s career started to take off. The track peaked at number seven during an eight week stint in the singles chart.

In September 1992, Take That’s first album Take That and Party hit the shelves and rose to number two. A year later, the follow up, Everything Changes did one better on the charts and while Barlow was responsible for writing the majority of the material it marked the first time another member of the band was credited with an album track. Howard Donald had written If This Is Love alongside Dave James.

Packed with perfect pop moments, Everything Changes spawned four number one singles; the title track, Pray, Relight My Fire and Babe. It was nominated for a Mercury Music Prize.

On May 13 1995 Take That’s third album, Nobody Else, was released.  It topped the charts, as did singles Back For Good, Never Forget and Sure.

Once again, Barlow dominated songwriting duties but Howard Donald did get a look in alongside Barlow and Mark Owen on Sunday To Saturday Sure was something of a stylistic departure for the band, demonstrating an R&B influence, and included contributions from Owen and Robbie Williams. Nobody Else would prove to be Williams’ last studio album with the band until 2010’s Progress.

In 1996 Take That disbanded and fans had to wait a full decade before a tour proposal from promoter Simon Moran helped encourage the band, minus Williams, to reunite and take to the road.

Together again, Take That signed to Polydor and started work on new studio album Beautiful World. It was the first Take That album on which every member of the band sang lead vocal at least once and all were involved in the songwriting process on each and every track.

Songwriter and producer John Shanks was called in and the result was a collection of dazzlingly effective pop songs that embraced new influences on the likes of the folky Wooden Boat and psychedelia-tinged What You Believe In. A mix of classic guitar pop and disco glamour, the single Shine proved to be a stand out moment and topped the charts.

Both Shine and Greatest Day, the latter being the lead single from Take That’s fifth studio album, The Circus, are regarded by Universal’s David Joseph as great examples of Mark Owen’s songwriting. Greatest Day became the band’s eleventh number one single and stayed on the chart for 20 weeks. ‘Mark’s contribution has been immense,’ says Joseph.

Mixing bold, sweeping anthems such as the string laden opener The Garden and the epic Hold Up a Light with more intimate moments including Said It All, The Circus once again saw John Shanks at the production desk. As well as commercial and critical acclaim the album was accompanied by a record breaking tour co-promoted by SJM and Kennedy Street.

Take That were back in action and at the top of their game, the only thing missing was Williams. But in June 2010 news of a Williams and Barlow collaboration emerged and the resulting single, Shame, appeared on Williams’ In and Out of Consciousness: Greatest Hits 1990–2010 album. With Trevor Horn producing, the harmonious Shame recording session led Williams to return to the Take That fold and work on their next album, Progress.

Take That Progress bow

Take That take a bow on the Progress tour

Devoid of ballads, a Barlow speciality, Progress found the band embracing an array of influences and a more personal songwriting style to create a multi-layered club pop album not short on experimentation or big beats.

As swiftly as Progress made its way to number one, Take That’s concert tickets were selling out. Danny Betesh, who has promoted the band’s shows since 1993 believes their enormous live success and longevity is due to their ‘terrific songwriting and creative talent’.

SJM’s Simon Moran who has co-promoted all of Take That’s UK tours since they reformed, says the level of the band’s live success is unprecedented. ‘They are completely unique and have far surpassed the achievements of any rock or pop star. The standard of the music over the last three albums is amazing, for them to come back is a testament to their songwriting talent,’ he says.

‘They’ve been at the very top, the very bottom and then the very top again,’ notes Stuart Price. ‘What’s inspiring about that is that the second time around they’ve won based on great music, and that the whole process brought incredible humility to them. You couldn’t be with five more genuine, welcoming, humble boys, with huge success on their shoulders.’