The second in a series of rants and/or raves by Ray……..
J’accuse: Gary Barlow
Take That were the most successful boy band of the 1990s, scoring an unbroken run of 12 top ten singles including 8 number one’s, before finally imploding in 1996. We all had our favourites, we cried when they split up (the day before Valentine’s day, how could they?), and watched in disbelief as Robbie turned to drugs, Mark sort-of turned into Bryan Adams, Gary turned to pies, Jason turned to DJing, and Howard….well, we’re not sure what Howard did. When they reformed in 2006, we all still had our favourites and back they came with a bang, a new mature look, a new power-pop sound, all sparkly production, catchy choruses and Hugo Boss suits. We all still loved them, and even though we still didn’t know what Howard was for, the world of pop music was a sunnier and happier place with their pop tunes and cheeky grins. Could it get any better, I mean REALLY?
Then something strange happened – Gary Barlow developed a personality, and unfortunately for us, he decided to use it.
We’d seen this sort of thing before. Post Spice Girls, Geri Halliwell decided that she didn’t need a girl group or a microphone or any obvious talent at all to carry on annoying us, as she barged her way onto programme after programme, trying to convince us all that she still had something to say. “Yeah! Girl power!”, she’d shout & pout ad nauseum on Question Time as the public and programme makers alike waited for her bubble of fame to burst. When asked to expand on the feminist notion that maybe Girl Power was nothing more than cynical marketing to impressionable teenagers, she’d simply pout & shout “Yeah! Girl power!”, mumble something about Nelson Mandela and do that Churchill V-for-victory sign, as if under her leadership, pop music itself was responsible for the liberation of Europe from the nazis and should be credited accordingly.
We should have known then just how septic the dream could turn once pop stars started believing their own publicity. Just because someone can carry a tune or looks good in a slow-mo video, it doesn’t necessarily mean we want them as friends. People that pushy always outstay their welcome.
At first, we barely noticed Barlow, he’d appear on the occasional tv show and we said to ourselves, ‘aw look, there’s that nice Gary Barlow, that cheeky-chappy frontman with popular beat combo Take That!’, not knowing just how sick we’d all eventually grow of his bearded face.
His quest for world domination got off to a bad start in 2007, when in his dreary autobiography ‘My Take’, Barlow said that when Robbie Williams left Take That, Williams ‘behaved like an absolute f**king c**t’. True, Williams may have been poorly behaved, but he had never resorted to such low-rent mudslinging. By the way, there are currently 67 hardback copies of this book for sale on eBay, prices starting at 1p.
In 2011 Barlow decided that X Factor needed him. Here was a programme that takes the utterly mediocre and propels them to stardom beyond their ability – is that the irony bell I hear ringing? – and suddenly he was a Saturday night staple celebrity, wearing tweed jackets non-ironically.
But on X Factor, not only did we slowly realise just how smug and pleased with himself he was, we also got a glimpse into how charmless & humourless he can be. On one episode, he sniped at fellow judge Tulisa with the words, ‘I don’t know which is worse, your singing or your fag-ash breath’, showing how an appalling lack of manners can make for uncomfortable viewing. He was forced into an on-air apology the next week, which she gracefully accepted, showing considerably more dignity than he did. On another occasion, he stormed off the show with the words ‘get that camera out of my face’ after taking himself far too seriously when his own act was voted off the show. He finished off his 3 year run on the show (he never won) by singing a turgid duet of one of his own songs with a contestant we’ve already forgotten about. After three seasons, he decided to not return to the show saying it ‘compromised my integrity as a serious artist’.
Ooh, get you, Patti Smith.
Don’t get me wrong, as chief songwriter for Take That, back in the day, Barlow wrote some great songs. Babe, Up All Night, Pray, Back For Good, and…er…that one with the choir in, although lately, he is committing the greatest songwriting crime there is – being bland. He wrote This Time for Shirley Bassey’s ‘The Performance’ album and it is the dreariest song on there. He also wrote I Should Have Followed You Home for ABBA songbird Agnetha Falkstog’s ‘A’ (a slightly creepy title considering she was plagued with a stalker for years) and yes, it is the dullest song on her album as well. As a songwriter for hire, he seems content to knock out a song when required, but each time he falls shorter and shorter of his previous good form.
Throughout all of this though, he has developed this fanciful notion that he is some sort of national songwriting treasure, up there with Elton John or The Beatles, but there is no real depth to his songs, he has never written a classic that other artists line up to sing, nothing to equal Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me or The Long And Winding Road, and when up and down the land, in a million karaoke bars, a thousand drunken hen nights are murdering Relight My Fire or Could It Be Magic, few realise they were actually written by king-of-disco Dan Hartmann and Barry Manilow respectively.
As a self-proclaimed national treasure, he is of course required to appear on Children In Need, where in 2013, and wearing his most serious and sombre sad-face yet, he pleaded with us to donate to a particular children’s home as government funding had been cut. He didn’t mention that only weeks before he’d been widely criticised in the press and by the prime minister himself, for employing the ‘Icebreaker’ tax avoidance scheme, with a reported +£20m of earnings being invested in a music investment company designed to make a loss, which could be offset against earnings, so as to avoid paying any tax on it. Hearing him say ‘please be as generous as you can’ rings somewhat hollow in that context.
This week a judge ruled that the scheme was clearly designed to make a loss so investors could offset their loss against tax, and he ruled that Barlow and two other members of Take That, plus their manager, should pay back the amount to HM Revenue & Customs. Unsurprisingly, nobody from Barlow’s management company was available for comment, although David Cameron jumped to his defence saying that Barlow should be allowed to keep his OBE. Anybody more cynical might accuse Cameron of wanting to curry favour with a man who donated 6-figure sums to the tory party’s last election campaign.
Around the same time, he also came under fire for his high visibility in the media, particularly on the BBC whose editorial guidelines specifically state that the corporation should not ‘unfairly promote any commercial organisation(s)….particularly around the time of a new release’. In the same week his new solo album came out, he managed to appear on Ken Bruce, Chris Evans, Simon Mayo and Steve Wright’s Radio 2 shows, Children In Need, The One Show, Breakfast Time, The Jonathan Ross Show, X Factor and still found time to appear in an Aleksandr Meerkat advert (not content with selling himself, he also tried to sell us insurance). Being a visible celebrity is one thing, but taking over the media to hawk your wares is another.
The BBC denied any bias, but still ‘re-edited’ a tribute programme about him.
Even the queen’s jubilee wasn’t safe as he shamelessly forced himself on the royal family, nodding and smiling and shaking their hands and running round like a hyperactive three year excited to be in the playground. For him, it was a dream come true, a surefire way to ingratiate himself with the highest and most powerful people in the land. For us, it was like watching light entertainment itself die a slow death in front of our eyes.
It wasn’t bad enough that he filled the stage with Jessie J, will.i.am and JLS (was that really the best musical talent that Britain and the comonwealth territories had produced in 60 years? Really?), we also had the utter embarrassment of Stevie Wonder singing ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ at the poor bewildered monarch, while Barlow saved the worst for himself when he sang a duet with the people’s princess Cheryl Cole. Barlow wandered the stage in search of his charisma, while she put on a similar valiant search for the melody – both of them left the stage empty-handed.
Neither did good taste prevail when the concert was made available on 4-disc DVD even though nobody could stand to watch it twice. He also teamed up with Andrew Lloyd Webber to wrote an instantly forgettable tribute song for Her Maj that nobody to this day can remember (well, can you?), despite racking up sales of 350,000. He still had the PR savvy to ask some military wives to sing it making it immediately beyond criticism and helping it ride a wave of patriotism to the top of charts, even though it was a thinly-disguised excercise in cynical marketing and self-promotion.
He then waited by the back door of the palace, hands outstretched in expectation of an O.B.E. which he got, proving that dignity and self respect are over-rated when there’s a tin medal at stake. At the time of writing, there is still debate whether he should keep his OBE or hand it back. As punishment, I’d like to see him consigned to the Eurovision Song Contest with the stipulation that he has to keep representing England until he wins. However long it takes.
Back in more innocent days, when Take That were first formed in 1989, their then-manager Nigel Martin- Smith hawked them round every major label and talent scout including Simon Cowell, in an attempt to get them a recording deal.
Cowell’s only advice after declaring himself uninterested, was that Martin-Smith should ‘lose the fat one’. If only, Simon, if only.