“At the start of whatever…”
There was only one place for Take That to go after The Circus, it almost seems written in their destiny that the group would become whole, it would heal itself, and Robbie Williams would be welcomed back. The story has been told that way because that is how it looked. Beautiful World may have been something of an unknown step but the fact that it was a massive success almost automatically routed Take That’s internal GPS through The Circus and all of the content on that album, back to Robbie. Speaking to James Corden in 2014, Gary Barlow said getting Robbie back involved was something the boys “always knew” would happen. While it was always something the band may have wanted to happen, and there are examples on both previous albums where the boys had worn their hearts on their immaculately well-dressed sleeves, knowing that it would happen is something very different.
The Circus may have been therapeutic on some levels but there was going to have to be serious work done, if the boys were going to make Progress.
Before Beautiful World was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, they met up to see what would happen if the band got back together. The world certainly found out, If was not just possible, it was magical. In 2009, two months after the four boys had played and dazzled Wembley Stadium on the Circus tour, they met up in New York with Robbie Williams with much the same sense of wonder, and asked themselves the question once again; What would happen if?
In truth a large step forward had already been taken by the time everyone was in that room, because Gary and Robbie had their come to Jesus meeting, during the mixing of The Circus. In an interview given to Radio One and reported in The Daily Mail and The Telegraph (August 2010) they said the pair had a ‘big chat’ and importantly both said sorry to each other. Listening to each other give their own truths and hearing each other say sorry seemed nearly impossible when the five members sat and gave interviews to camera on ‘For The Record’ in 2006. Robbie said at that time that he would be fine in a room with everyone except Gary, doubting that he could find any closure there because Gary “couldn’t see how he was, what he did or how he acted”.
Writing in 2018, Gary said that Robbie’s contempt for him at that stage left him with a bad feeling and certainly a reunion had absolutely “no pulse”.
The Gary and Robbie aspect of this tale cannot be overlooked and should not be glibly thrown away in a quick summary. The quality of songs like A Million Love Songs on their first album was always going to bring attention to Gary Barlow, attention Gary at least seemed to welcome. He admitted in 2006 that he took the release of a cover song, It Only Takes a Minute as a personal defeat because he was the band’s song writer, this only made him more determined to get the music taken seriously, a goal that he achieved with the release of Take That’s second album.
Hindsight is of course twenty-twenty and by the time of the sessions for Progress, Gary was holding his hands up, admitting that originally the “band wasn’t it, it was a route to somewhere else” for him, honesty that is remarkable but Gary was at this point only acknowledging something that most onlookers felt to be true back then. Take That seemed to be a vehicle for the inevitable Barlow solo career; a belief firmed up in 1995 with the release of Nobody Else and the monster that was Back for Good.
At the time, the solo whispers were getting louder, and comparisons between Gary and George Michael were certainly made. However, Gary was no George Michael, Take That were certainly no Wham! and Gary versus Robbie was not the ‘loser is the new Andrew Ridgely’ situation.
The “I’m about to leave all this” superiority that Gary felt and the feeling that was around in Take That’s first run wasn’t entirely Gary Barlow’s fault. The band were pieced together, there was no childhood connection, in a very real sense they were cogs in the boy band machine and this meant that connections that were formed in the band were only shallow, and not anchored in anything real. No one had any time for anyone, personal problems and personal lives did not exist. In truth Robbie was the youngest in a group of youngsters smacked about by fame. Mark Owen also went through a period of personal doubt where he questioned his place in the band, unsure of his ability to contribute anything to the group beyond a cute face and beaming smile.
In 2010, Gary shouldered a lot of the blame for the tension with Robbie, saying that “Robbie only ever got rejection” and was never encouraged to sing or write by Gary, “I never wanted any of the boys to work with me, I wanted it to be all mine” (2018).
Robbie picked up on the shift in focus and started to feel like Gary Barlow’s backing dancer, and though he always played the joker and admitted later that “Jason should have battered me” at times, the biggest take away from the breakdown of the relationship was arguably guilt. Gary admitted feeling guilty at the way he handled things, “it was all wrong” he said later.
Jason felt guilt, “I joined in the suggestion that he (Robbie) should go” and Mark felt guilt in his silence when it all happened, feeling reluctant to rock the boyband boat.
It was understandable that Gary, Mark, Jason and Howard would side with each other to protect the Take That brand but in doing so they set loose Robbie, a wounded animal with the energy and direction of a hyperactive pinball who all of a sudden had no love for anyone he was leaving behind and had nothing to stop him going for the spotlight. In the end, he was not just going for that spotlight, he was stealing it from one of his chief oppressors.
Writing in A Better Me (2018), Gary described himself as having “epic confidence to the point of obnoxious” and at the time did believe he was the World’s greatest living songwriter.
Gary certainly did himself no favours when they announced their breakup. During an interview with the band each member was asked what was next and many of them were vague, seemingly allowing for the moment to be about the end of Take That. When the question was asked of Gary however, he got specific, we knew quickly that his solo album was nearly done and he was aiming for top five chart placing and success in America. The reporter did ask him the question, but the answer tripped off Gary Barlow’s tongue while the body of his boyband was still warm.
Gary admitted later, “I had not the slightest grasp or interest in the gravity” of the band’s end. “I didn’t even think how the fans would react or really care about what everyone was gonna do next” (2018).
All five original members of the band did walk back into a recording studio to work with each other in 2009; foundations were smoothed over and rebuilding begun. It was a miraculous effort from all involved and would take constant welfare checks and maintenance over time but when the sessions started things were already different than years past. There was communication where once there was none, there was empathy were once there was none, there was inclusivity where once there was none.
“Then Everything Came Along”
Released on 15th November 2010, with Stuart Price in the producer’s chair replacing John Shanks, The Flood is the lead off track and lead single too, released on 15th October 2010. The song feels both the same and quite different from what we’ve heard before. It is a big opener, a brash opener, another arms aloft moment but different because there’s more of an electro feel. The strings are still there, but clearly the sound has moved on. Lyrically the song is about the band themselves and importantly all of them had a hand in the creation, also, as if to underline the new chapter, Gary and Robbie the vocal duties.
The Flood sounds like the beginning of something, more specifically it feels like the start of something new after something catastrophic and destructive. Once again there’s all sorts of fun to be had with the water imagery. In the middle of the biblical we also have the evolutionary, a balance that would play a huge part in the concept of the album and the tour. Take That were arguably the “cavemen” when they were the boyband set to rule Britain, they are indeed the “defenders of the faith”.
The Flood is a perfect mix of Robbie’s bravado and Gary’s delivery, with the background vocals and a weird sense of defiance. It may seem strange to suggest such a thing. Given that the ‘four against one’ had by this point been discussed and dealt with, one might wonder what they had to be in defiance of. When we saw this single performed on the X Factor in December 2010 and we saw Robbie’s eyes showing us just how scared and excited he was and within minutes we saw Robbie and Mark step forward to sing to each other, no one alive that night was against Take That. They sing The Flood like they had their backs to the wall, but they are fighting the industry that broke them. They are singing in defiance of a pop world that destroyed them. They are singing as survivors.
There is no gap between the end of The Flood and track two, SOS, the listener does not get a moment. A crack of thunder and we are away. Tonally a song about rushing headlong into disaster so a song called SOS, it fits very well after a song called The Flood. Lyrically this has Robbie Williams in full conspiracy mode, more biblical nods with a serpent, “go tell Eve and go tell Adam” and a pace the band even struggle to keep up with. The lyrics speed out of Robbie and Mark’s mouths almost by design and by the time you have wondered what they’ve just said the moment is gone. Take That seem to veer into social commentary here, the rush of it all is intentional and so is the anxiety in the lyrics. “…Practicing our politics, defending all our policies, preparing for apocalypse”, seems as on the money in 2020 as it did in the paranoia of 2010.
“We are the virus that we talk about.”
Wait was described by Gary Barlow as “a Take That song like no other” in 2018, because it builds Robbie, Mark, Gary and Jason’s ideas onto beat and chord foundations laid by Howard. Robbie’s re introduction into the band seemed to shuffle the dynamics around and Howard was particularly concerned about getting ideas in, in the Look Back Don’t Stare documentary (2010) about the sessions we see Howard and Gary working on loops and we see Robbie and Mark bouncing lyric ideas off each other. Wait is the sort of collaboration that was nowhere in sight for Take That of old.
Lyrically Robbie raps seemingly poetic nonsense about cannibals, minerals, and tiny chemicals. It is a bit of wordplay and it is loosely in the evolution theme we have had in varying degrees up to this point. The rap verses Robbie delivers do swerve us into a solo Rudebox direction, but the chorus is pure band; “Wait, there’s something that I’d like to say”, “communication not aloud” is a truth they were changing in their new old line up.
This is a picture of Take That in 2010; Robbie is stopped from going to far off on his own, literally being told to Wait. It could have been Rudebox, it could have been a mess, but Robbie has the boys around him this time, and it is not a mess at all. That chorus is everything you need to know.
Kidz is a stomper. It feels like all of Take That were marching around the studio during this recording, melodically it’s very similar to “the tax man’s taken all my dough”, Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks and lyrically it seems to be about governments, those in power and their failure to lead.
The song plays with the balance of the biblical and evolutionary theories once again, notably “the monkeys learned to build machines, they think they’ll get to heaven through the universe.” They do enjoy creationism and evolution as themes and the video is particularly good. It shows the band as observers in space before landing their TT symbol and proceeding to win hearts and minds.
The Kidz video, intentionally or accidentally, has similarities with Queen’s Radio Gaga which was based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 film The Metropolis. In that video Queen are seen in a flying car, before landing and singing for the downtrodden people of the city. It’s probably nothing more than passing nod, and maybe not even that but if Kidz is Gaga’s successor then it’s not a bad one.
The costumes and the effects in the video benefit from the 26 years in between Radio Gaga and Kidz. The song looks towards the promise of the young and their potential to protest and fight in the future if they are needed. In 2020 we can safely say, they were needed and there was as the song says, “lots for them to talk about”.
From The Flood to Kidz the pace is pretty relentless so the opportunity to pause and slow down for Pretty Things is welcome. Lyrically it is about age and the passing of time.
Happy Now is an absolute belter of a track, it is arguably How Soon Is Now? If Morrissey and Marr had walked down an electro pop path instead of the road paved with iconic guitar. Morrissey’s lyrics about standing in the Hacienda on his own, going home on his own, and a shyness that is criminally vulgar put The Smiths tune into a universe all by itself but parts of Happy Now echo some of the sentiments, especially Robbie’s robotic drone of “I’m at the back of the club and so afraid to speak coz I’m not like these people and these people are not like me”, the song moves effortlessly from the loner anthemic verses to a bouncy burst of positivity. Gary’s “and they checked my pulse” which leads into the bridge and the chorus that follows on, feels like the colourful contrast of Oz to the black and white of Kansas, Happy Now is lyrically and melodically brilliant – if there is any downside at all, you might be ready for this to take off at the chorus even more than it does, but what we hear isn’t by any means underwhelming.
Without a gap or any silence, we are introduced to the drums and the military of Underground Machine; the song taps the same vein as SOS and Kidz. On record this is good but live it was better. Lyrically it’s about groupies and the fun that can be had when you are in one of the biggest boy bands ever, so of course Robbie leads the vocal and live in concert he really fleshed out lines like “you’re in a room with a rock star!” and was strutting round the stage like the lovechild of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury.
As a narrative the song is intriguing; singer finds girl, girl leaves friend, and early on the singer’s ‘advice’ is geared to getting her into bed, “get your head out the library”, add “courage of the cavalry” and “you might be good looking but you can’t sleep with yourself tonight”. The verses show a singer in self-analysis, self-loathing mode, “I wish that beggars were choosers” while he looks around the dreary hotel room and “she just carries on”. In the sleazy conveyor belt pop star meets fan world it is as though being turned away by a pop star is by itself a badge of honour and almost as good as getting into his hotel room. The picture Take That create in the lines of this song is vivid and creepy but the listener might miss that in the final part the emphasis switches to “If you’re so good looking why don’t you sleep with yourself tonight”.
Is this the star, talking to himself, sick of the life? It certainly makes the last “Oh what a beast oh what a man” lines interesting. Earlier they were boasts, in the end they are filled with irony, or quite probably none of that is true and he’s a beast again because he has a different girl in his room.
Underground Machine is about the underground of pop stardom, “nobody’s got the emotional tools to deal with millions of people looking at you”, Robbie said, “they’d be really bored if they got me”, Take That had their share of all of that excess. They had a lot of people’s shares.
What Do You Want From Me? Is a Mark moment he can be proud of, lyrically it’s personal and surrounds the insecurities he was feeling in his relationship. Given time alone and time away from loved ones anyone can feel questions creep in. In fact we see him wrenching these vocals out of himself in the Look Back Don’t Stare documentary, Mark sings these words like everything stops until he knows the answers. The song is introspective but positive, it tiptoes into Killers territory in places and is triumphant in the face of very real relationship issues.
Howard follows Mark’s personal tale with one of his own in Affirmation and it is arguably his strongest offering on the three albums to date. In demo form this was more drums, guitars and anger than it appears on the finished album. It has an eighties feel, like Human League’s Fascination. The rock feel Howard possibly intended has been replaced by electro pop in Stuart Price’s capable hands, but the sentiment remains. It makes you wonder if the rocky demo will ever see the light of day, and many would love to hear Howard doing his best Dave Grohl. At the end of the day though, a producer is hired to produce and when you hire someone with Stuart Price’s track record you know he is going to steer the songs towards a certain sound. Every song on Progress holds together separately and as part of the sonic adventure of the whole, rather like the reformed five piece themselves.
Eight Letters is about Take That and only it could end the collection. The song is the story of the band from the days in Canal Street in Manchester to where we find them in 2010. The fuel for songs is no longer anger and bitterness, Robbie wrote and performed No Regrets in his solo career but if you want to hear Robbie having no regrets, play Eight Letters. Becoming the parade on the streets they once cleaned is the perfect metaphor for those boys, over night they won the lottery and had everything but still felt like “expendable soldiers smiling at everything”. Eight Letters is the song of completion.
Of course, now we’ve written about how Progress is rounded off perfectly, it stands to reason we have to acknowledge what came after it, because of course that’s what happens. Purely and simply, Flowerbed is beautiful, Jason’s voice perfect for it. For a hidden track it has no right being this good and honestly it deserves to be a track in its own right, however, that opens up the debate of what track to leave off. Jason delivers this vocal tenderly, and if that’s the last thing he does on record as member of Take That, then it’s a beautiful farewell note.
Honourable mention needs to go to the Progressed EP released a year after the main album. When We Were Young is lovely, Love Love is a tune, and absolutely came alive in the Progress tour, Beautiful is superb and Wonderful World is the kind of Mark Owen vocal you can dive into and get lost in. The EP tracks are superb additions to the Take That song book. Between the two albums the boys made sure they gave us everything and held nothing back.
In a sense it was never the same after Progress. This felt like a three part story precisely because each album felt like it was leading here, but at the end of Progress there truly was nowhere to go. Take That got Robbie for one shot, Robbie’s inclusion kept Jason for one more shot, and then Take That as we knew it were done and what they became was arguably an entirely new entity.
For the first two albums Robbie was an issue, through his absence, he was both an inspiration for the content and a question mark for the fans. Robbie is an issue on Progress too but in by his presence this time. The dilemma was how to re-introduce Robbie, give him influence and presence and still cradle what Take That had built the second time around. As a result, on the face of it, the sounds of the previous two albums were almost completely abandoned in favour of the electro pop beat heavy processed effort, so it feels a bit more of a radical departure than it actually is.
It is the middle ground between Take That’s fourpiece, and Robbie Williams. In truth the album is every bit as poppy as Take That & Party was, only the pop tools they have at their disposal have changed. On that debut they were in the pop machine, by Progress they were the machine.
The change in sound is brave especially when you think that the world loved Take That already, the fans were over joyed that they had Robbie back and so would have accepted and loved pretty much anything they delivered. The band should be saluted for taking a chance like Progress, even if the chance was taken out of necessity.
The original Take That left us with an album they had to wait their whole career to deliver because it contains all the lessons they had learned. It is the sound of a boyband of brothers and the togetherness they finally found together as men.
Fans will debate this album and certainly the tour that followed it. People might think Beautiful World or Circus are stronger Take That albums front to back but as a project, as a whole, taking into account what it cost those boys and what it meant to everyone once the whole project was done, Progress might just be a work of art.
Based on and referencing the Take That album Progress (Polydor, 2010), Progressed (Polydor, 2010), Band quotes taken from interviews in Take That For The Record (Sony BMG, 2006),Look Back Don’t Stare (Pulse Films, 2010) and When Corden Met Barlow (BBC, 2014), A Better Me by Gary Barlow (2018).
Words © 2020 Simon Andrew Moult / Moultymedia. Artwork, lyrics and quotes used under fair use for illustration, discussion, criticism and review.