Back for good - with a hologram of Robbie

 

The Samaritans are no longer needed. Peter Crawley meets the revived Take That and sees them get reacquainted with their fans

'We've come a long way. But we're not too sure where we've been" . . . the road to Take That is littered with nostalgia. Even a hardened group of Irish journalists and broadcasters, flying out before dawn to attend the first of the reformed boy band's concerts, are vulnerable to its ambush. Snippets of lyrics routinely break free from our memory banks, forcing us to sing at inopportune moments: "Babe! (Babe!) I'm back again! (I'm ba-hack hah-gain!)."

Supposedly, we are on a journey to meet and greet the band (minus their most famous former member, of course) and to witness their spectacular live show first hand, 10 years since the split. But, for a car full of men and women in their late 20s and early 30s, whatever our stated tastes for cutting-edge electronica, hipper-than-thou indie rock and underground hip-hop, this is a journey to the music of our youth.

It shouldn't be this way. Formed in Manchester in 1990 as the British answer to New Kids on the Block, Take That effectively initiated the most vilified sub- genre of modern pop: the manufactured boy band. Still, by comparison with today's mercilessly test-marketed standards, the early days of Take That - with its ill-fitting Hi-NRG dance tunes and mismatched tours to school halls and gay clubs - seem like a campaign of almost halcyon innocence (if it was ever innocent to wear fringed leather and studs in their first video or to have someone run a mop over their bare asses).

Somewhere along the line though, the perky dance pop mellowed into anthemic ballads. The group's image became more clean-cut, more sanitised, more bedroom-poster. Take That's videos were filmed in tasteful black and white, their bodies contorting on beaches or in the rain, in fetishising slo-mo. And behind the beaming pick'n'mix personalities of Robbie Williams (the jokey one), Mark Owen (the cute one), Jason Orange (the dancing one) and Howard Donald (the other one), the songwriting capabilities of Gary Barlow (the talented one) began to shine through. In 1994 he won two Ivor Novello awards - an industry-decided honour - for the imploring Pray, and scooped two more in 1996 for the still more imploring Back For Good. By then, however, after selling nine million albums and 10 million singles - more than any other English act since The Beatles - it was all over.

The cracks in Take That had begun to show long before Robbie's noisy departure in mid-1995. Williams's involvement in the group's third and final album, Nobody Else, had been minimal, and his peroxide hair, unscheduled TV appearances and association with Oasis were worryingly off- message. Even Noel Gallagher had his concerns.

"I'm worried about my brother," he once said. "He's been hanging around with the fat dancer from Take That."

With Williams out of the picture (literally - they airbrushed him from the cover of their last American CD release), Take That scotched rumours of a split, with Howard Donald promising tour audiences: "We'll be Take That for as long as you want us to be."

Six months later, on February 13th, 2006 - Robbie's 21st birthday, as it happened - Take That officially split. The Samaritans set up a phone line to counsel distraught fans. Never Forget, with its weirdly prescient lyrics ("Soon this will all be someone else's dream"), became Take That's break-up tune. For reasons that have never been made clear, nobody thought to cancel Valentine's Day.

Almost 10 years later, following an ITV documentary and a Greatest Hits CD, Take That's phone lines reopened, this time to take bookings for their reunion tour. The concerts, including two dates at the Point, Dublin, sold out in 30 minutes. A slew of outdoor concerts were then announced, including a performance at the RDS Arena next month.

THIS SAYS LESS about Take That than their fans. Many of the girls who leaned on the Samaritans to help them through Take That's demise, would later man the Celebrity Big Brother phone lines in 2002 to usher Mark Owen to victory in their adulthood. And some of those girls gathered last month in the foyer of the Newcastle Hilton Hotel, sitting around tables for hours on end, straining to look casual, ordering innumerable cups of coffee, waiting to catch a glimpse of their favourite Take That. Their fascination with the boy band was nothing new. But their discretion was.

Eluding them in a low-ceilinged room above the Newcastle Metro Radio Arena, the four members of the group seemed older, wiser and richer than 10 years ago (each member was reportedly paid £1.5 million, or €2.19 million, for the tour.) Relaxing on sofas and chairs, looking fit, healthy and unfairly free of blemishes, they were soon set upon by 10 representatives of the Irish media, all armed with smiles, tape recorders and a slew of Robbie Williams-related questions, their nostalgia largely kept at bay.

This, a "meet and greet" opportunity, essentially doubles as a 10-minute press conference, a sort of speed- dating approach to interview helped along with the occasional shout from one of their handlers ("Four minutes left!", "Can you finish off now?") and terminates when a mountainous bodyguard steps between Gary Barlow and myself, as though summoned to break up a fight.

The mood is far from fractious, however. The opening concert of Take That: The Ultimate Tour has been a resounding success. The reviews are good and the band are in high spirits.

"Yeah, great crowd," says Mark Owen, neat and soft-spoken, perched on the corner of a table. "Everything went all right. . . When I came off, I just had a huge feeling of pride, really, towards the lads and stuff."

TEN YEARS AGO, Take That would simply slot themselves into a pre-designed concert. Everything was thought out for them. Even their banter with the crowd was scripted. Today, however, they have been involved with every stage of the design. They finally feel free enough to ad-lib.

"We've been thinking of ideas for the show," Owen continues. "We even know how much it costs. I think that, for us, we were known for our live shows 10 years ago. We always knew that we put on a show that was a bit spectacular. We wanted to put on something that had the same kind of feel as those shows, that lived up to what we done in the past.

"That was our biggest worry. We're 10 years older. And we didn't want the reviews to be like: 'They shouldn't have bothered coming back.' There would have been nothing worse than that."

He needn't worry. The show is, indeed, a bit spectacular. One of its more expensive-looking stage tricks - amid cascades of water and eruptions of flames - is the inclusion of Robbie Williams, who appears as a 10-foot hologram projected on to a screen of water.

"To be honest, we've kind of been in touch with Rob over the years anyway," says Owen. "We would have loved for Robbie to have been involved all the way through it, but Robbie's got his own show and he's doing his own thing. In a way I'm really pleased that Rob's involved in the show, because he wasn't involved in the last one. But he kind of finishes everything off."

Williams tends to do that.

GARY BARLOW SITS across the table, handsome and unruffled, the tremendously serious ridge of his brow helping to disarm and defuse any difficult questions that may come his way. Was it all sex, drugs and rock'n'roll behind the scenes, someone asks?

"Um. There were bits of each, but not lots of each," he says. "Bits of more and bits of others."

Barlow's autobiography, which may elaborate further, earned him £1 million (€1.46 million) and is due out in October. It seems highly unlikely, however, that this clean-cut fellow would ever have experimented with something as corrupting as rock'n'roll.

The member most likely to succeed, Barlow's solo career quickly faltered, but he had three straight number-one singles post-Take That. As a gun for hire, he has since written for Delta Goodrem, Charlotte Church and Donny Osmond. It mustseem strange going back to the environment of Take That.

"Well, I never felt that I moved that far away from it, to be honest," he says. "I mean it was really hard for me, especially in the beginning of Take That, because it was really all about what I was writing. And I was really the only singer, to start off with. So I never felt that I moved that far away from it."

As for whether the band intends to continue together once these shows are over, or to even record new material, his reply is simple but non-committal: "I think we do. We hope we get the chance."

That night, during a show that is tremendously slick and ferociously fun, Take That pause to get reacquainted with their fans.

"It's a loud one tonight," calls Barlow. "We're Take That!"

"Everyone's grown," Jason Orange observes solemnly, then adds, less solemnly: "Everyone's knockers have grown too."

The hits come thick and fast and the dancing is little short of awe-inspiring (Barlow, the non-dancer, is usually prevented from joining in with the others when required instead to play a piano, use a microphone, descend a staircase or tie his shoelaces). A mid-show highlight, archly dissecting the boy band phenomenon, even makes a winning concession to self-satire. It ends, of course, with Never Forget, reminding us that some day this will all be someone else's dream. But not just yet.

This reunion came about partly because the individual band members realised that, alone, they could never be bigger than Take That. It seems strange then that it is brought to a close by the one member who discovered that he was. When the 10-foot hologram appears to a tide of screams and shrieks, dwarfing the other members, I think back to an exchange with Mark Owen earlier.

Why is Robbie so much bigger than you?

"I dunno," he replied. "He always was."

• Take That's gigs at the Point, Dublin, next Fri and Sat are sold out. The band perform at the RDS Arena, Dublin, with The Pussycat Dolls on Jun 28. Tickets are on sale now