A quarter of a century ago I sat in a van with five unknown northern lads in a school car park near Manchester just minutes after they’d performed to a bunch of kids on their lunch break.
An excitable teenager called Robbie did backflips in the playground then grabbed my notepad and pen to practise his autographs, and an intense 19-year-old called Gary, looking rather self-conscious with his newly peroxided hair, talked about The Beatles and how doing a tour of local schools might just help them ‘get a leg up’ into the music industry.
The three others – Mark, Jason and Howard – just smiled, nodded and passed around a bag of crisps. The interview ended when the school caretaker told us all to clear off.
Within a year no one would tell Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, Robbie Williams, Howard Donald or Jason Orange to sling their hook ever again.
By then, as Take That, they had become five of the most famous people on the planet in a multimillion-selling band that would go on to have 56 No 1 singles internationally and win eight Brit Awards and six Ivor Novellos.
Over the next decade I often ran into them at awards ceremonies or behind roped-off areas of exclusive nightclubs. But today we are sitting in the bedroom of a house in south London to talk about their new album, Wonderland, and upcoming tour. It is a cold, wet winter’s day. Only three of the original five remain: Barlow, Donald and Owen.
‘It’s like the ten green bottles song with us now,’ jokes Owen, 45. ‘But none of us is going anywhere,’ Donald adds. ‘I’ve only been trained to do two things – spray a car or be in Take That. I’m sticking with Take That.’
They are older, wiser, more comfortable in their own skin. Hair is flecked with grey, conversation is peppered with talk about golf, school pick-ups and house renovations. Donald, 48, is about to become a father for the fourth time. Everyone is drinking tea or water. Barlow (now star of TV shows from The X Factor to Let It Shine, which will lead to a West End show featuring Take That’s biggest hits) is lying by my feet on the floor – doctor’s orders for a bad back.
‘It’s sitting hunched over a piano all the time that does it,’ he says in his lugubrious Cheshire drawl. ‘And I’m getting old.’
Over the course of the afternoon they will talk openly for the first time about how Jason Orange’s departure in 2014 almost ended the band for good, how they overcame drugs, depression and failure, and grew from emotionally vacant pop stars into proper men. They confess to still seeing Williams as their greatest competition, and believe both Williams and Orange will return for their 25th-anniversary tour.
Originally put together in 1989 by Manchester-based music Svengali Nigel Martin-Smith, Take That have become British pop’s Establishment. They gave us multimillion-selling songs such as Back For Good, Relight My Fire, Never Forget and Shine, as well as thrilling doses of high pop drama, mainly from the chaotically entertaining Williams, whose escalating drug abuse and partying ended with him quitting in 1995. He promptly launched a vicious tabloid war against Barlow, whose solo career (in 1996) plummeted as Williams’ star rocketed.
When the four remaining members of the band reunited in 2006, the public response was extraordinary. Their tour sold out in minutes, the first single, Patience, held the No 1 spot for four weeks and their comeback album, Beautiful World, was the second-biggest-selling record of the year. Four years later Williams returned (with hatchet buried) for a tour and album, and told me: ‘All that anger was always more about me and who I was then. I always missed them but I never wanted to admit it. I just wanted them to miss me.’
Robbie’s return was always only temporary but in 2014 Orange jumped ship, leaving the future of the band in jeopardy. Until now, it is not a subject they have ever addressed.
‘When Jay left,’ says Barlow, ‘we were all ready to quit. Game over. We sat in our manager’s house in London and he wrote our statement for the press. For me it was the saddest day in the whole story of the band.
‘He’d had enough. He’d made his decision. Some people can just walk away, some people can’t. When I think about it now, he was the one I thought would never come back in 2006. So we were lucky to have him for eight more years.’
They are, they confess, still unclear as to his reasons. Owen shrugs: ‘When we were making the last album (III, released in 2014) we’d be getting messages saying he didn’t feel well, he couldn’t come to the studio.
‘We knew something was wrong but we were in denial. We all thought, give him a break and he’ll be back, everything will be fine.’
They still talk to Orange every now and again.
‘He’s still part of the band – we keep him in the loop of everything that’s going on,’ says Owen. ‘I still think he’ll be back for the anniversary tour. I’m sure he will. I think Robbie will be back for it too. But then again I’m always the optimist.’
Of all of them, Donald was the most anxious about the split. ‘I’ve always known that basically it had to be Gary’s decision. And I didn’t want to beg him to keep it together. We spoke afterwards and he said exactly what I was thinking. Wait a bit before we make any decision. We spent two days looking at our social media feeds; all the fans were telling us to carry on. In the end that’s what did it. If the fans were happy with three of us, we’d carry on.’
It is puzzling to think that Orange’s departure should have been so unsettling for the band. After all, it was when Williams first quit Take That in 1995 that the whole boy- band ideal truly upended, making headline news and causing the Samaritans to lay on extra volunteers to deal with the fallout from traumatised fans.
Owen shakes his head. ‘This probably sounds weird but I barely registered Robbie going. You didn’t have to think about anything back then, nothing sunk in, it was all about getting up, keep going, the show goes on.’
Barlow concurs. ‘Robbie leaving wasn’t traumatic. It was just inevitable. It was a completely different crazy time. It always felt like we were all gripping tight, trying to hold on to a speeding car. He jumped out and the rest of us kept hurtling along with just this one bump along the way.’
Donald, the oldest member of the band, pitches in. ‘The truth is you don’t emotionally connect to anyone in those circumstances,’ he says. ‘You don’t develop on any level. There weren’t big rows because you don’t really row. You don’t even have much to say. I didn’t, Mark didn’t, because you don’t really know what you think because you’re not thinking much, you’re just doing things non-stop.’
Owen adds: ‘People think you have all these incredible memories but you don’t. When you go through all that madness you just can’t process it. I look back and I see a blur. If you ask me what I remember of the Nineties, my actual clearest memory is of holding a pineapple at a photo shoot.’
They all agree that they didn’t become real friends till several years after Take That ended, and they didn’t become formed as adults until they sank into personal difficulties. It also took them a decade to realise that – as musicians – they only really worked as a band.
‘When we split [in 1996] we all went our separate ways,’ says Owen. ‘I moved to the Lakes because I thought people wouldn’t want to drive two more hours past Manchester to track me down. And then you don’t speak to each other because it’s such a weird time. You have to learn very simple everyday things – how to make toast, how to deal without a car waiting outside your gate, how to actually be around people for days on end.
‘I had no idea Gary had been struggling,’ says Owen. ‘I saw him at his wedding [to former Take That dancer Dawn in 2000] and we talked but I had no clue what he had been going through. He never said anything to me.’
Barlow nods. ‘And I would never have said anything back then. I would have said: “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.” I couldn’t tell the truth about myself. None of us could. We all pretended everything was OK.’
The reality was that Barlow, shunned by the industry that had once feted him, ballooned to 17st, feeding his depression with overeating and marijuana (in his autobiography he admitted to smoking up to 15 spliffs a day). He would lie on his white baby grand piano – a gift from his record company in the early days of Take That – and rub his face into its polished wood, trying to get his inspiration back after his solo deal was dropped. Unlike Orange, Barlow could not simply walk away from music, and a decade after they split he realised the only way to relight his pop fire was to get the band back together.
Owen, who also signed a solo deal, admits he didn’t want the success to end either. ‘I still wanted to perform. But I was bloody petrified,’ he says. ‘I remember my first solo showcase at Abbey Road studios. I sat under the stage and drank a bottle of whisky. I couldn’t go on stage without drinking.
‘And then a few years later I played to a crowd of 50 people in Aberdeen. It wasn’t Take That but I actually loved it. It was more real, more grown up. You need those knocks to make you a proper person. If it’s all just screaming fans and everyone loves you nothing ever feels real.’
Donald agrees. ‘We all needed that time to grow up, work out who we were. I did make a record but it was just my ego. I scrapped it a few days before it was due to be released, which was probably the best decision I made.’
I remember a decade ago asking Barlow why he didn’t just sit and count all the millions he’d made from Take That, put his feet up and enjoy family life? ‘I’m a musician,’ he says, simply. ‘I want to make music and I need to make music. ’
Does he look at The Rolling Stones, still rocking into their 70s, and see the future? ‘Definitely. I think they are bloody amazing and I’d like to see us still performing at that age. I’d do it with pride.’
It is clear these three men are naturally at ease together. No one is given centre stage. They all veer between deep emotional confessionals and northern banter. There are jokes about Barlow’s hair (he prompted a social media storm by revealing he had recently washed it for the first time in 14 years). ‘It’s the real reason I did my back in,’ he says. ‘Leaning over the bath to wash my hair. I should have left it another 14 years.’
Now that they are in their mid-40s, you wonder how different it is performing as a band. Owen laughs: ‘When we were kids you could go out and party, you could drink and nothing would touch the sides. Now we’re very sensible. It’s tea and water and home to the wives and kids [all three are married with children].’
Both Owen and Donald look pretty much the same as ever. Any lines or extra weight caused by age is offset by a subtle carriage of wealth – well-cut jackets, slightly battered but expensive shirts, good shoes. It is Barlow who has changed the most. Donald eyes his once chubby bandmate. ‘He does look good these days but, to be honest, he did used to eat absolute rubbish. He’d be at the chocolate, Chinese takeaways, service-station food, he was always eating something.
‘Jay was always the healthy one, into his seeds and his nuts, and Gary would say: “You need to get some Golden Grahams down you.” Now he’s the one on the seeds and nuts.’
Barlow – who these days sticks to a super-healthy regime involving regular exercise, vegetable shakes and limited portions of food – does, however, let himself go on ‘treat nights’ after some shows.
‘On a good night we’ll have a bit of cheese and crackers,’ he says. ‘Nothing fancy – we don’t do French cheeses. We’ll do good cheddars or a bit of local cheese from where we are, something very British and preferably northern.’
The new album is a triumphant, confident return to the iconic Take That sound, complete with blasting anthems such as new single Giants.
The album’s strength, it turns out, is partly due to Robbie Williams. Despite leaving the band once again three years ago, he was a major part of the album’s progress – albeit in an unconventional manner.
‘We speak all the time,’ says Barlow. ‘And when we started working on Wonderland, Robbie was working on his album. We’d meet up every now and again and have a face-off.
‘We’d play him a track from our album and he’d play us a track from his, and we’d try to one-up each other. We’re very competitive. He wants to be the best, we want to be the best. But it’s good. It gives you an edge. We have a laugh at the same time but it’s serious. There’s always going to be competition there.’
As ever, the album has a theme – the journey of life and what you learn along the way. It begs the question, what do they think of the world they are living in today, how do they feel about a post-Brexit generation and Donald Trump?
From the carpet, Barlow lets out a groan. ‘We’re musicians,’ he says. ‘Nobody cares what we think. The only thing we’ve ever wanted is to entertain you.’
New single ‘Giants’ is out on February 17. The new album ‘Wonderland’ will be out soon
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