British Evasion #1 - Robbie Williams

You know when a friend of yours keeps pushing a band/movie/TV show on you, and you've tried your best to like it, but it's just not catching? For instance, the HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. Most of my friends dig the show, and I love the hell out of it. But I have one friend who just can't get into it. He's seen an episode or two OnDemand, but it didn't catch. He'll tell me a line that he thought was funny, or maybe a character that made him laugh, but overall, his reaction is "meh." It could be his sense of humor, it could be the circumstances or environment under which he watched the episodes, but whatever it was, it's just one of those things that might not ever happen. He couldn't see what the big deal was.

Such is the case of many British music exports. In the 1980s, bands like Frankie Goes to Hollywood were considered huge artists in Britain. But when they tried to take that success to the Americans--well, we liked that one song, "Relax," and those t-shirts were nifty, but that was about it. It just didn't stick. Cool band, we collectively remarked, but what's the big frickin' deal?

And in the '90s, there were multiple exports. Artists who were absolutely massive in their home country and in Europe--they sold tens of millions of albums, sold millions of tickets and had three hits in the Top Ten at the same time. But...when they sent the artists over here to the U.S., more often than not our reaction was, "meh."

Such was the case of many Anglo-artists who I will discuss in this new series, cleverly titled "British Evasion." (Get it? Cause they evade success stateside. No? Please?)

We'll begin with one Robert Peter Williams, better known to the masses (at least across the pond) as Robbie Williams. A sharp, good looking, hedonistic, former boyband member of ambiguous sexual proclivities, Williams was propped up by record labels as the new George Michael--but one that actually might like girls as well as guys.

Having served as a member of the ultra-successful boyband Take That since 1990--the UK's answer to New Kids on the Block--Williams was primed for solo success when he struck out on his own in 1995 (or, as some reports had it, was fired from the group). Williams had been known by fans and the press as the rebel of the group, so his exit didn't come as a surprise. Williams made a big thing making sure everyone knew his solo career would be very different than Take That's music. He claimed he was leaving dance pop behind in favor of a more rock n' roll sound, even namedropping Noel Gallagher in interviews, saying the Oasis leader had planned on tossing Williams a couple of songs. But while his time with Oasis yielded no music, it instead increased the public's awareness of Williams--as a hard partier who liked to drink and drug with the best of them. Williams became something of a tabloid target during this time, but by the end of 1996, he'd started his solo career. In a move that was more than a little symbolic, Williams' first single was a cover of George Michael's "Freedom," which reached #2 on the UK Singles chart--actually better than Michael's original showing.

Take That in their prime

Soon after, he recorded and released his solo debut album, Life Thru a Lens. While the first two Oasis-influenced singles did well on the UK charts (though the third single tanked), he was not to reach the European charts until the album's forth single, the Elton John-esque "Angels" was released. The song was a smash, blowing up the European and Latin American charts and helped send album sales through the roof. The album stayed in the top ten for forty weeks and quickly became one of the best selling albums in British history, selling 2.4 million copies and another 3 million in the UK. Of course, in the U.S., it tanked, reaching only #120 on the album charts and selling a pitiful 16,500 copies.

Williams' next single from his sophomore effort was "Millennium," a song clearly inspired by John Barry's James Bond scores (particularly Goldfinger). The new album, I've Been Expecting You, released in October 1998, did even better than his debut, selling 2.7 million copies in the UK and another 5 million in Europe. The album had four singles, most of which did extremely well on the charts and a few even won awards. In 2005, Expecting You was ranked the 91st Greatest Album of All Time by British television's Channel4. In the US, the album did better than the previous, selling over 100,000 copies, but it was still far from what one might expect from an international superstar.

At this point, Williams was one of the biggest stars in the world in every country except the U.S. And thus began the plan for Robbie Williams to take the U.S. by storm. No doubt realizing the success of the Spice Girls and other British pop stars, in 1999, Williams' stateside record company, Capitol Records, decided to repackage his first two albums as a compilation. The compilation's title--The Ego Has Landed--played not only as a nod to the pop star's now infamous tabloid exploits, but also as a bit of an immodest statement that, "yeah, this guy's gonna be huge." Unfortunately for Williams and his record company, just because you say something is going to be big, doesn't necessarily mean it will be.

Reaction to the compilation was mixed--critics agreed that Williams had some good songs, but the decision to compile six songs from his first two albums made for an awkward listening experience. It only reached #63 on the Billboard album charts.

Meanwhile, the record company and Williams had decided on "Millennium" as the first single. In a thinly veiled attempt to remind Americans of their other favorite roguishly charming UK export, the video features Williams in a tuxedo surrounded by throngs of beautiful women and references (some might say parodies) numerous Bond films.

Somewhere between George Lazenby and Roger Moore lies Robbie Williams.

Nonplussed by Williams' James Bond references, the American people said "meh" to Williams and the song peaked at #72 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, the video did receive a good deal of airplay on MTV and that year was nominated in the Best Male Video category, and while he didn't win, the exposure helped album sales.

Convinced Williams had what it took to make it big in the states, Capitol Records kept pushing. For his second single, they wisely chose "Angels," the song that originally shot Williams to stardom in his home country. The record company ordered a new album to be filmed and promoted the hell out of Williams to radio and on TV.

But America simply wasn't taking the bait. Though it did better than "Millennium," the #41 showing on the Billboards and a platinum status for The Ego Has Landed wasn't enough for Williams to stick around. He packed his bags (metaphorically, at least) and focused on his star status in the rest of the world.

While Williams continued his success in the UK and the rest of the world, he failed to score anymore high charting singles in the US, being relegated to the US Dance charts for his subsequent singles.

As if to illustrate just how low-profile a celebrity Williams is, he's stated that he lives in Los Angeles because it affords him a level of "freedom and privacy" that wasn't available to him in the UK. Yes, this man is living in the home of all media and celebrity obsession as a means to hide out. Let that one sink in.

But outside the U.S., Williams continued to be a huge star. In 2002, he signed a contract with EMI reportedly worth $80 million. Still, his subsequent albums, Sing When You're Winning and Escapology, never caught on with mainstream audiences--though several of his singles have snuck onto the Adult Top 40 and dance charts and done quite well. Because of this relative antipathy by U.S. audiences, subsequent albums Live at Knebworth, Intensive Care and his latest, 2006's Rudebox, were not released by any label in the U.S., but were instead made available on iTunes.

Though Williams is still a sensation in the rest of the world, his popularity has dropped slightly. Despite 2004's Intensive Care going 5x platinum in the UK, it was his least successful album in the country. The electro/dance collaboration album Rudebox did even more poorly in his home country, only going 2x platinum (which equates to 500,000 copies in the UK). However, the album fared better in the rest of Europe where it had sold nearly 5 million copies by 2007. In 2004 he was inducted into the UK Hall of Fame for his contributions to music.

Williams himself has had ups and downs. In 2005 he sued a tabloid for libel after claiming Williams was a closeted homosexual. He has been in and out of rehab several times, most recently in 2007 for addiction to an anti-depressant.
Williams is reportedly working with partner Guy Chambers and mega producer/DJ/Sam's brother Mark Ronson on a new album, and no, it will probably not do very well in the states. In March 2009, Williams expressed interest in rejoining Take That for a worldwide tour.

So, no, maybe Robbie Williams didn't hit quite like he'd wanted to in the U.S., he is probably crying into his piles of money, or maybe in a vault in his mansion, swimming around in a sea of coinage a la Scrooge McDuck in Ducktales. The dude's worth approximately £90 million, so don't feel too bad for him.

Oh yeah, and before I leave you, take a look at his infamous CRIBS episode--a tour of a house in L.A. that's probably like, oh, one of twelve or so that he owns. Here he can be seen actively fighting against the gay rumors, er, or something.
robbie williams on cribs

Download: Robbie Williams - Millennium (link removed)
Download: Robbie Williams - Angels (link removed)

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