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Take That – Ingredients of a historical comeback

25 August 2011 3 Comments
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It is a commonly held belief that timing is the key to all relationships. Apparently, this element of “timing of relationships” extended to one of the biggest (if not the biggest) comeback acts in the history of music. The relationships were with two important entities – the media and fans.

Before diving into the element of timing, it is worth providing a little background on the comeback phenomenon in the music industry which dates back to 2006. The “reunion wave” phenomenon of 2006 was sparked by the reunions of two bands – The Police and Take That. The Police reunited for a tour and were the opening act for the Grammy Awards. Take That reunited for a tour, at first, and then, an album, and then another, and then a third album as a five-piece with ex-bandmate Robbie Williams. Several bands reunited soon after. The list is endless – Led Zeppelin (for a one-off gig), Genesis (for a European and American tour), Crowded House, Boyzone, Smashing Pumpkins, New Kids On The Block, Spandau Ballet, Spice Girls etc. For a complete list, take a look at this article.

The reunions met with varying degrees of success. Several bands had reinvented themselves musically and had surpassed the benchmarks they had set in their “heyday”. Their tours sold well but their appeal was limited to their core audiences. Most of these bands did not enter or remain in the public consciousness for long. Their comebacks were forgotten relatively quickly. It appeared that nostalgia was the driving force for their ephemeral returns but sometimes nostalgia “just ain’t enough”.There was only one band that truly shined artistically AND commercially – and that band was Take That. In addition to sellout stadium tours, each of their albums went to #1 in the UK charts, and the band also scored three more UK #1 hits with “Patience”, “Shine”, and “Greatest Day”.

The ironies revolving around Take That’s comeback are worth considering – even for just a minute. First, Take That was “put together” through a series of auditions to be UK’s version of the “New Kids On The Block”. Yet, Take That eclipsed the “New Kids” on practically every dimension – commercial success, longevity, artistic credibility, and authenticity. In fact, New Kids’ member Joey McIntyre recently said in an interview that it was “hard to imagine that Take That’s comeback would be so huge – and yet it was”. The tone of McIntyre’s statement was underscored by a realization that the New Kids On The Block’s comeback would pale in comparison to that of UK’s response to them (i.e. Take That). Second, the appeal of boybands is inherently ephemeral. It is not meant to transcend time and it most certainly is not meant to transcend generations. Yet, it worked for Take That. Here are some of the guiding “rules of life” that made this possible:

a. “Quit while you are at the top”: Take That band member Mark Owen once admitted in an interview that when the band was first put together, they decided that they would quit while they were at the top. 1995 marked Take That’s dizzyingly high musical zenith – hot on the heels of their #1 album “Nobody Else” which sold on the strength of its two hit singles “Back For Good”, and “Never Forget”. In fact, “Back For Good” also entered the top 10 in the US charts. Till today, the song is fondly remembered by American music fans – even those that do not consider themselves Take That fans. When you are at the top, the only place to go is down. Fortunately, Take That was quick to realize that and extricated themselves from that weakening dynamic by disbanding. They left their fans in tears. More importantly, they left their fans longing for more. The only remnant emotion in the minds of the fans was that of love. Quitting while they were at the top was the single best decision Take That has ever made.

b. “Do not make a mockery of yourself. Keep your dignity. It is priceless”: The late 90s chapter of each Take That member’s story was quite different from what was expected. Gary Barlow, the member with the most obvious talent in the band, failed to reinvent himself musically and was dropped from his record label after this second solo album failed to ignite music charts anywhere. Mark Owen’s fate was no better even though he did reinvent himself. Jason Orange quit the industry altogether. Howard Donald became a DJ. Robbie Williams took the entire music world outside of the US by storm turning into one of the biggest commercial musical acts of the last fifteen years. The media orchestrated a cruel “Gary Barlow vs Robbie Williams” battle and went a step further by branding the four “less successful” members as the “Andrew Ridgeleys” (a reference to 80s pop duo Wham) of Take That. Robbie Williams’ caustic comments in public about his ex-bandmates only added salt to their wounds. Yet, the band took this in their stride and chose NOT to indulge in a “war of words” (something that the media would have enjoyed every minute of). They never said one derogatory thing about the media or Robbie Williams. Some call this “strength of character”. I call it “great PR” (a more powerful force than people are willing to acknowledge – especially for musicians). Loose cannons are interesting – but only for a while. In retrospect, they appear like idiots that will not be taken seriously. Gary Barlow, Howard Donald, Mark Owen, and Jason Orange will always be remembered for their Gandhian resilience to the abuse from both the media and their former bandmate Robbie Williams.

c. There is a sweet spot between “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “out of sight, out of mind”. Don’t miss it!: Reuniting in the midst of the media assault would have been perceived as a desperate effort to hold on to the “glory days”. The assault would meet its own natural death – which it did by the turn of the century. In 2006, a documentary was created to chronicle the epic rise of Take That and a meeting of four of the members was orchestrated towards the end of the documentary. This was a smart approach to gauging consumer interest in the band. Fortunately, it was there, and it was strong. It had been long enough since the band had disbanded. Yet, it wasn’t too long to cross the hurdles that could have been undermined their comeback and turned them into a public joke. First, they were still relatively young. Pop music is considered a young person’s sphere, and the boys were now men in their late 30s. They were not too old to be heartthrobs. Furthermore, it did not hurt that they had aged very gracefully. Second, their successful sellout stadium tour made them very compelling to BBC Radio 1 – the primary and biggest gatekeeper to a musical entity’s success. BBC Radio 1 has recently met with criticism for its ageist bias. Take That was comfortably within the realms of the age spectrum that made them relevant on BBC Radio 1. This not only gave them a strong promotional platform but it also allowed them to break a younger age demographic. A band is way more potent when its appeal transcends generations. Being a nostalgia act has its inherent limitations. Fortunately, this was not the case for Take That. It had not been too soon for the “boys” to return. Yet, it had not been too long for the boys to be irrelevant from an age standpoint to BBC Radio 1 and the masses.

d. “Get the sequence of events for your comeback right”: Take That did this very well. They used their documentary to assess interest and revive happy memories. Next, they staged their comeback stadium tour which practically made BBC Radio 1 powerless in their hands. Finally, they released their album. It helped that all of this was accomplished within roughly a year. Hence, no momentum was lost in the process. This would have not worked in any other sequence. `

e. “Reinvent yourself when you think your formula is getting weak”: By the release of “Up All Night” (the second single from Take That’s second post-reunion album “Circus”), the momentum of Take That’s comeback was starting to wane. The “man band singing MOR ballads” idea was getting old. “Circus” sold very well mostly on the strength of pre-orders (god bless blind faith!). It was time for Take That to shake things up and it had to happen soon. Mending fences with their rebellious ex-bandmate Robbie Williams and bringing him back into the fold was not going to be enough to combat their depleted momentum. They had to reinvent their sound – which they did very well on “Progress” – their first album has a five-piece since 1995’s “Nobody else” album. It was the biggest-selling album of 2010. “Progress” has turned Take That into the most potent force in the music industry.

f. History is way more powerful than you think it is. Embrace it. Don’t resist it!: Yes, it is true that the 4-piece Take That had a successful return to the pop landscape but nothing could change the reality that in the minds of many, they were an incomplete band. Take That was still equated to five members and Robbie Williams continued to be the missing piece. Of course, bringing Robbie Williams back into Take That would involve acting mature, not reviving old wounds, and being respectful of others’ feelings. Most people believed this was impossible. They assumed Robbie Williams’ ego would be the single biggest hurdle to this process. Somewhere along the way, people had missed the blossoming of Robbie Williams into a mature adult. It takes “two to tango” for a reconciliation and Robbie Williams had undoubtedly groomed himself over time to make this possible. He publicly apologized for his verbal indiscretions and expressed heartfelt remorse. “I cried when I saw the five of you on stage together again” – said pop legend Elton John to the grown men. That is just how powerful history is. Furthermore, it sowed the seeds for a liberating catharsis for Take That.

Take That’s epic return into the consciousness of the masses was far from a foregone conclusion. The odds were against them. In my opinion, coming back was a risky move – one that would have done endless damage to their stellar legacy.

Musical comebacks don’t just happen. They are not accidents. They are engineered. Successful comebacks are a culmination of actions and decisions made over years. They require more than artistic merit. They warrant foresight. Most importantly, they hinge around understanding the timing of a band’s “overtures” to their fans and the media. I most certainly am happy to see this wonderful upswing in the Take That story.

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3 Responses to "Take That – Ingredients of a historical comeback"

  1. robin says:

    I disagree with your contention that Circus sold well on the strength of pre-orders. As every TT fan knows by now the CD sold well in excess of it’s pre-order numbers. It sold well because it was a good album. It may not have 2 strong singles like Patience and Shine but as a whole it was a better album than Beautiful World and the fans knew it.

  2. @robin: Thank you so much for the comment. We are well aware that the CD sold well in excess of its pre-order numbers but it is not clear what that split was relative to that of previous albums. It may have been a better album for fans than “Beautiful world” was (I am actually madly in love with the title track of “Circus” – Gary Barlow sounds beyond amazing on it!) but from a singles perspective, it seemed like the momentum on an overall basis (not just the TT fanbase) was starting to be undermined. TT’s success is not just because of their ardent fanabase. It is also because of the chord they struck in the hearts of their skeptics.

  3. robin says:

    Ah thats the point isn’t it? The fans on the peripheral. I think there was enough interest on Circus from these group of fans that enabled it to sell so well even though it didn’t have a Patience or Shine. They recognized the quality of the album as a whole. Now if you were to talk about their current album III then perhaps you may be right that this peripheral momentum is starting to wane as III has sold nowhere near what Circus sold. I don’t know the reason for it – perhaps III is not in the same league as Circus – maybe it’s because Jason left and skeptics are ready to write them off too soon.

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