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Remade for the Millennium

British pop singer Robbie Williams has sold 5 million records worldwide, but he is starting over in America.

May 02, 1999|GEOFF BOUCHER | Geoff Boucher is a Times staff writer

For Robbie Williams, the United States is a vast, mystifying realm of malls, swanky hotels, bizarre landscapes and people who, for some reason, don't seem to recognize him as the rightful king of British pop music.

"I'm in Minneapolis, I think," the European superstar mutters into a cellular phone. "Minneapolis is the place and Minnesota is the thing, right? I like it though. I go to breakfast and nobody stares at me."

Anonymity is a rare sensation for Williams, who, at 25, has already spent a decade in an intense spotlight back home. First he was part of a wildly successful boy band, Take That, and then, in the past year, his once-stalled solo career exploded to the tune of 5 million records sold worldwide--even though it wasn't even released in the U.S.

Now begins the delicate art of launching his career on this side of the Atlantic, a process Capitol Records began quietly last fall and will intensify considerably Tuesday with his first U.S. release, "The Ego Has Landed." (See review, Page 102.)

"Do you like the title?" he asks. "Do you reckon it could be seen as bigheaded in any way? It's just a bit of fun. I love puns. 'The show-off must go on,' I always say."

Williams is, by all accounts, an unrepentant show-off. His cheeky, over-the-top persona and burnished pop-rock sound have garnered an incredibly diverse audience overseas. Teeny-boppers, tattooed rock fans, older adults--they all can agree on the singer now known simply as Robbie.

It's hard to overstate his success in England in the past year and a half. He won three Brit Awards (the U.K. equivalent to the Grammys) and flaunted his appeal range by stealing the show at both the huge Glastonbury rock festival and the far more staid birthday celebration for Prince Charles. New Musical Express called him "the Spice Girls, Liam [Gallagher of Oasis] and Liberace rolled into one," while the Face magazine simply tagged him "the nation's favourite."

But, there remains the key question that applies to any cultural import: Will it translate?

"The challenge is, radio says, 'This doesn't sound like the stuff we're playing, this doesn't sound American,' " says Roy Lott, president of Capitol Records. "But with Robbie, I think it's just a matter of people seeing him. . . . He's one hell of an artist and a great entertainer."

The term "entertainer" is frequently applied to Williams, a singer who often cites Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin as key influences, along with James Bond and early Michael Caine films. On stage, Williams aims to combine the rakish style of the Rat Pack with raw rock exuberance, a hybrid that was visually apparent when, in a New York performance for industry and press, he wore a pair of shorts with a tuxedo top.

"Robbie has talent that transcends borders and genres," says Tony Wadsworth, president and CEO of EMI Records Group U.K. "Most of the great entertainers in history are from the U.S., and their influences are filtered through this 25-year-old British guy. So I think Americans will get it."

The person who seems least certain of Williams' conquering of the Colonies is the singer himself. "I haven't got a clue how I'm going to be successful here," Williams says. "The whole place completely and utterly baffles me. But of course you have to stick this macho-arrogant bravado on to color the whole thing.

"So if you ever see me being arrogant, just say, 'Oh bless, he's really scared isn't he?' "

Accusations of arrogance and excess were just part of the smearing Williams suffered at the hands of the gossip press in his homeland when his success was less certain. Williams was ousted from Take That amid rumors of drug use in 1997, and his binges were chronicled in salacious detail by the press.

"I thought if I just took a lot of drugs I'd be cool," he says now. "It just made me fat. . . . But now I'm quite handsome again."

The wild times were a way to escape the baggage that came with his stint in Take That, a group that scored major chart success with buoyant, vapid youth pop. He prefers to avoid the topic.

"You know how actors refer to Macbeth as 'that Scottish play,' because it's bad luck to say it? Take That is my Scottish play."


Williams was a precocious kid who helped his mother run a pub in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. His parents had separated, but he spent some weekends with his father, a comedian who passed on a love of stage. At age 15, that led Williams to be recruited to Take That.

After Take That, Williams was expected by most observers to fade into anonymity--he was, after all, not the group's songwriter or even best singer.

Williams was searching for a musical identity when he met Guy Chambers, formerly of the English band the Lemon Trees, and the pair became quick friends. Chambers shared producing and writing chores with Williams on his first solo album, which at first fizzled at record stores.

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