“England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
â€”George Bernard Shaw
In July 1998 my wife, my son, and I moved into a terraced house on a side street in London’s Fulham neighborhood, commencing an adventure in living abroad that we thought would come easily. We were well funded by my wife’s firm, we were within easy walking distance of a plethora of parks and shopping, and we were tremendously excited to be escaping the downward spiral of the Lewinsky scandal in the U.S., not to mention the vapid teen pop and rancid rap-rock that was taking over American radio at the time. As long as we remembered to look right at the intersection, we figured we’d do just fine.
Four months later we were dying to get the hell out of there. Our landlords were pure evil, hovering over us to make sure we didn’t ding their precious furniture; my wife was having trouble adjusting to the ways of business in the U.K.; our son was chafing at his city surroundings and making life miserable for the Czech teenager we’d hired as an au pair; and the coldest, wettest London autumn in a generation had left us drenched, drained, and feeling awfully alone.
Mostly, though, we couldn’t comprehend the Brits. We could understand what they were saying, to be sure; we just couldn’t understand why. We couldn’t figure out the style of humor that made their comedy shows funny, we couldn’t make sense of the nationwide mania for spending days on end watching a lawn-bowling tournament (“the bowls,” as they call it), we couldn’t fathom the fatalism that dominates their class system and their international relations.
We didn’t get why we couldn’t find Oreos or even Q-Tips in the grocery stores. (It was months before we learned that the Brits called Q-Tips “cotton buds” and kept them in a different part of the store than we were used to.) And we definitely couldn’t adjust to the fact that, compared to the States, the pace of life was so much slower in London, even at the height of “Cool Britannia.”
Culture shock had made our life inexplicable. But then, over a period of a couple months, Robbie Williams explained it all for me.
I completely get why Robbie never succeeded in the States. By the time Capitol Records first attempted to break him here in the spring of 1999, with the mashed-together and ridiculously titled The Ego Has Landed album, he was the biggest pop star on the planet â€” and he behaved that way. His attitude was similar to Reggie Jackson’s when he signed with the Yankees and said, “I didn’t come to New York to become a star. I’m bringing my star with me.” But unlike Reggie, whom New Yorkers had watched for years, Americans had never even heard of Robbie when his album dropped with what was seen as a thoroughly unearned arrogance, snark, and penchant for self-reference.
His attitude was offensive, his lyrics had a distinctly British sensibility and practically demanded an understanding of his backstory, and the James Bond persona he adopted for his introductory “Millennium” video seemed presumptuous in the extreme. How could he help but fail here? And when he eventually followed the colossal thud that accompanied The Ego Has Landed with an album titled Sing When You’re Winning, how could he help but fail again?
In the U.K. (and much of the rest of the world), however, Robbie was a survivor turned superstar. He had risen to fame along with the rest of Britain’s most popular boy band of the early ’90s, Take That, then had left the band just before it recorded its biggest single (and only U.S. hit), “Back for Good.” An extended period in the pop wilderness followed during the mid-’90s, marked by rascally behavior, lots of drink and drugs and tabloid headlines, and a rather pathetic attempt to piggyback onto Oasis’s popularity just by being seen with them.
Through it all, he insisted that when he finally made a record it would be massive. And damn if he didn’t make good on his promise with Life Thru a Lens (1997), with a vital assist from his musical guru, former World Party sideman Guy Chambers. After a tentative beginning as a solo artist in 1996 with a cover of George Michael’s “Freedom ’90,” Robbie busted loose on Life Thru a Lens with a series of singles that overwhelmed a (nearly) worldwide audience: “Old Before I Die,” “Lazy Days,” and the hugely popular ballad “Angels.”
The very week my family and I moved to London, Robbie previewed his second album, I’ve Been Expecting You (1998), with the release of “Millennium.” To British ears it was far from presumptuous; it was instead a valedictory, a victory lap, a summation and celebration of his rise from rapscallion to global megastar. It was instantly number one across Europe and Australia and even the Far East and parts of South America. And it didn’t budge from heavy radio rotation for a full year.
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My initial response to “Millennium,” of course, was: Whatthefuckisthis? And I stubbornly clung to that response for months, throughout the single’s reign atop the charts, just as I clung to my American perspective on so many other issues and fell deeper into a funk.
It wasn’t until the October release of I’ve Been Expecting You and its brilliant second single, “No Regrets,” that I opened myself up to the possibility that this guy actually had it goin’ on. The presence of Neil Tennant’s backing vocals helped a great deal â€” I grasped onto anything recognizable at that point â€” and once I had decided to love “No Regrets” I felt more inclined to revisit “Millennium” and try to figure out what the world saw in Robbie Williams.
I explored his backstory, even to the point of picking up a copy of Take That’s Greatest Hits, and recognized that I needed to place him not in a boy-band box but within the context of Oasis and the Verve and Blur and the other acts that had immediately preceded him. A huge assist in this endeavor came from Virgin Radio, which has no real counterpart among U.S. radio formats but â€” at that time, at least â€” fell somewhere between what we call Modern Rock and Adult Top 40. Robbie was all over the Virgin playlist as well as Radio 1 and Capital FM; on Virgin he was tucked amidst recent and current smashes such as “Bittersweet Symphony,” “All Around the World,” “Connection,” “Song 2,” and the series of awesome singles from the Stereophonics’ Performance and Cocktails album.
Immersing myself in Robbie’s canon â€” yes, with all its snark, ironic arrogance, self-reference, and monstrous popularity â€” gave me a frame of reference to recognize and appreciate British sensibilities in a way I had avoided previously. In many ways he embodied the U.K. at the millennium in all its contradictions: Full of itself, yet also in full recognition of its shortcomings and its precarious relationship with the world at large. Powerful, yet fatalistic in its view of both the past and the future. Distinct, yet reluctant to go too far out on a limb in calling attention to itself.
From there it became easier to consume all sorts of Brit-isms, from digestive biscuits to Ribena, from Martine McCutcheon to ManU, from Pimm’s to Gordon Brown. With a fresh perspective and a new curiosity â€” not to mention a move from our cramped Fulham rowhouse to a Wimbledon estate and our new “family car,” a Volkswagen Golf â€” my wife and I fought our way out of our culture shock, learned to drive on the left, and came to adore the Brits and their green and pleasant land.
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Even after my wife and I were dragged kicking and screaming back to the States early in 2000, we remained loyal to Robbie in the face of continued American indifference â€” through Sing When You’re Winning and its terrific hits “Rock DJ,” “Better Man,” and “Supreme,” and on through his somehow successful Sinatra imitation on Swing When You’re Winning (2001). Robbie and Guy Chambers lost the plot a bit with Escapology in 2002, though “Feel” kept the flame alive, and then Robbie lost Guy and the wheels fell off his superstardom. His work since then, from 2005’s Intensive Care (coproduced by Duran Duran cofounder and Lilac Time leader Stephen Duffy) to the dance album Rudebox (2006), has left no lasting imprint on our fully repatriated psyches.
Still, we’ll always have London at the millennium. And, thanks to Robbie, we’ll always have “Millennium.”
Buy Robbie Williams’s music at Amazon.