”If this isn’t the biggest superstar America sees this year, I should quit the music business.”
Lewis Largent, a VP of music at MTV, is talking about Brit-pop sensation Robbie Williams, whose Bond-inspired video clip for ”Millennium,” his first U.S. single, recently received the network’s ”Buzzworthy” blessing of red-hot cool. ”Everybody who’s seen one of his American showcases or big shows in Europe has been like, ‘This is it. This is the guy.”’
The guy in question is a 25-year-old survivor of Take That, the phenomenally successful U.K. bubblegum act that filled the mid-’90s gap between New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys throughout nearly every country in the world — except America. With the May 4 release of his American solo debut, The Ego Has Landed, just around the corner, Williams is enjoying his last days of anonymity in West Hollywood, where he’s about to play one of several gigs for the media and employees of Capitol Records, his new U.S. label.
”Do you want to see my new tattoos?” he says within seconds of meeting his interviewer. Even though it’s cold and damp in this corner of the Sunset Marquis Hotel’s whirlpool area, where Williams is sequestered because of his chain smoking, he strips out of his sweatshirt to reveal elaborate tribal-inspired ink work intended to shield him from his famously destructive excesses. ”I’m the most extroverted introvert you’ll ever meet,” he says, beaming.
Back home, Williams struts his stuff atop a male-pop throne last occupied by another Brit-pop emigre-turned-L.A. habitue, George Michael. Williams’ first post- Take That album, 1997’s Life Thru a Lens, spent most of last year near the top of the British charts — even after its fall ’98 successor, I’ve Been Expecting You, entered at No. 1. ”In the tradition of great artists, Robbie’s more than a record. He’s the whole package,” says Capitol Records president Roy Lott, who signed Take That to Arista in 1995, just before Williams exited the group. (Ironically, the remaining quartet disbanded in ’96, just as it had scored its breakthrough American hit, ”Back for Good,” a ballad Williams has since been known to perform mockingly in thrash-punk style while perched atop a toilet.)
Solo success has emboldened this natural comic, but it hasn’t helped him outrun the ghosts of his boy-band past — ghosts that fuel such pained but winningly spiteful songs as Ego‘s ”No Regrets” and ”Karma Killer.”
”I used to get on with everybody; people liked me,” Williams says of his childhood in the industrial nowhere zone of Stoke-on-Trent, just north of Birmingham, where he spent his early years knocking around the family pub. ”Then I joined this band where everybody [in the group] didn’t like me.”
Apparently, the conflicts were particularly intense between Williams, who sang lead on three Take That hits, and Gary Barlow, who sang and wrote nearly all of the rest. Williams’ departure from the group ultimately resulted in a protracted lawsuit with his ex-manager, which was resolved — leaving Williams’ wallet reportedly $1.6 million lighter — only six weeks ago. ”All this sounds like sh– in print,” Williams says, ”but I’m heartfelt when I say it crucified me to the point where all my problems today revolve around what went on in the past.”