You might not know this, but boy bands are everywhere. Everywhere. All around you, at every moment of every day. Just take a look around you, for once. It’s a hunk’s world. Hunky hunks all over the place!!
No, for real. Real. This is fact. Boy bands may have petered out unceremoniously shortly after the turn of the millennium in the United States, but in almost every other part of the world they remain a constant, powerful commercial force. And while particular regions of the world are particularly nuts about hunky boys with nice hair (Korea, Japan, some South American countries I THINK) there is no area in the world zanier about Dude Troupes than Europe – or, more accurately, the UK.
Yes, the UK is nuts about fun singing boys. Always have been, always will be. And not only do they love their boy bands, they are fiercely loyal to them in ways that I don’t think would make sense in America. I mean, in what other country could Westlife have stayed together for thirteen years and had a #1 charting record almost every year of their existence?? Yeesh. And the Backstreet Boys can’t even get one lousy single in the top 40 nowadays. Obama.
In fact, the UK’s love for boy bands is so consistently strong that it’s actually started to spill over onto American shores once again (in a maybe slightly more limited fashion) with the likes of One Direction and the Wanted. And it’s a bigger deal than you might think considering that, by and large, even the biggest of UK teen pop groups have barely managed even a sole hit in the United States over the past decade, let alone actual sustainable success. Sure, the late 90s teen pop boom spawned the mega-popular Spice Girls, but their Britishness was almost a novelty more than anything – American acts dominated the teen pop airwaves in the late 90s, at least in America itself.
So in the wake of all this, I feel like it’s only appropriate to talk about the group that first made boy bands a “thing” in Europe, the group so gigantic on their side of the Atlantic (rhyme) they didn’t even need American success. Yes, I am talking about none other than maybe the UK’s most monumental contribution to 90s teen pop, the five boys that broke every teenage British girl’s heart simultaneously and never looked back: the one and only Take That.
Take That are an institution in the boy band world – maybe the boy band world’s only institution, for that matter. They were the most popular pop act in the UK during their initial run in the first five years of the 90s, the biggest and most all-encompassing since the Beatles (and that is the last time they will be mentioned here, pinky swear). “Back For Good” might have been their lone American hit, but it’s still the biggest boy band hit in the world, hitting #1 in 30+ countries. During their early 90s peak, they bridged the gap between the earliest boy band success of the New Kids On The Block and the eventual resurgence of teen pop in the United States, making boy bands a primarily European institution.
And their star never really faded – they broke up at the height of their success in 1996, leaving a gaping hunky boy hole so wide that all the Boyzones, ‘N Syncs and Westlifes in the world couldn’t fill it up. The only time Take That weren’t huge in the UK was when they were, erm, broken up – and even during that time, their influence was an integral contributor to the late 90s teen pop explosion in America, not to mention that the group’s solo expatriot Robbie Williams became the UK’s biggest male pop star to fill the void. By the time Take That reunited without Robbie in 2006, British audiences missed them so hard that they made them a huge success again, to the point where they might be even more popular now as a man band than they ever were as boys. As bitter as their breakup might have been and despite the ever-fickle nature of the pop music audiences, Take That’s story is one of constant, unimpeachable success, the kind of story almost nobody would expect from a flash-in-the-pan teen pop act.
So yeah. Considering their long-lasting popularity, you would think that there has to be something to these Take That guys, right? They must be the greatest boy band ever, with a string of classic perfect albums full of the most timeless of pure United Kingdom pop music. That’s where the Beatles are from, you know. And the Arctic Monkeys. Those guys GET it.
But this isn’t quite the case. As huge and beloved as Take That have always been, a cursory listen-through of their peak-era 90s material might elicit some confused stares from outsiders. With the notable exception of “Back For Good,” nothing about Take That’s music screams MEGAULTRASELLER!! – there’s no soul-crushing Max Martin hooks, no shamelessly gaudy production values, no gritty dirty beatboxing. No, Take That go for a much lighter, sweeter brand of teen-friendly pop, the kind designed to kiss you on the forehead and pat you on the tummy. They’re about as adult-contemporary as teenager pop gets. No worries here, early 90s UK parents – these are family-friendly neighborhood hunks. No brazen sexuality or facial hairy rapping to be found here!
Admittedly, this was a problem for me, at first. As a child weaned on skittish angry ‘N Sync breakdowns, Take That’s terminal lightness was a tough pill to swallow. Maybe because I wasn’t 12 in 1993? I don’t know. But it did grow on me, slowly but steadily, and I can now see it as an integral part of Take That’s mass appeal. Take That’s music might sound somewhat soft and dated to modern ears, but there’s a likable sweetness in almost all of their recorded material that eventually digs deep into your heart.
And from where did this affable sweetness flow, you ask? Well, hey, let’s say hello to my main Take That duder, Mr. Gary Barlow:
Strange as it might sound, Mr. Barlow had the distinction of being both Take That’s lead vocalist and their primary songwriter, writing about 90% of their material (including pretty much every hit they had that wasn’t a cover). If you suspect that Take That was pretty much just a vehicle for Barlow’s songwriting, well, congratulations on being a handsome genius: manager Nigel Martin-Smith was so impressed by 15-year-old Barlow’s self-produced demo of “A Million Love Songs” that he actually crafted the group around him.
Was it worth it? Judge for yourself:
Dig that sax solo, fellas!
The fact that Take That’s story begins with “A Million Love Songs” is almost too appropriate. A maudlin, painfully dated ballad by modern standards, it’s still Barlow at his youngest and most nakedly romantic; there’s a touching sweetness to it that stays with you, even if you never really want to hear the song again. Barlow is a big part of what makes Take That unique; they are possibly the only boy band of their kind to have a singular voice, and by extension a body of work that actually feels personal, like it’s coming from an actual human being. Because it is!
I mean, shucks. I don’t want to over-emphasize Gary’s importance here, but he might be the sole reason Take That stole the hearts of so many UK pop lovers, young and old alike. You can’t help but like the dude. As corny and middle-of-the-road as he might be, he’s got a lot of sad-sack charm, with a voice that sounds like he’s choking back tears all day every day.
And he’s got a great pain face. For real. Every time I see this guy it looks like his heart is seconds from snapping in two:
So yes, Take That was Gary’s vehicle for heart-tearing pop tunage, the kind that would come to define a generation of UK teen pop. And how much of this open-hearted goodness can be found on Take That’s 1992 debut record?
Well, not too much.
TAKE THAT & PARTY (AKA THE ALBUM THAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE TALKING ABOUT, AREN’T WE)
And so we have Take That & Party. Take That & Party was produced during a period where the group was still being marketed as the British equivalent of the New Kids On The Block, so there’s a lot of obvious moves here: New Jack Swing jams, soulful ballads, et cetera et cetera.
What makes the record unique compared to most boy band debuts, though, is its unabashed embrace of gay culture. Check out the video for their debut single “Do What You Like,” featuring the boys flexing their chests in hot leather and rubbing jelly all the heck over each other:
Wah hah. Hoo-eee! Wow.
I mean, sure. For the debut single from the World’s Biggest Boy Band, “Do What You Like” isn’t exactly what you would call a shot heard ’round the world. Even co-writer Barlow has admitted it’s not much of a song – it’s an obvious artifact from the era of Marky Mark and Right Said Fred, mostly written as an excuse for the dudes to shimmy around on the floor – but it’s fascinating piece of history nonetheless. As long as hunky boy bands have been around, Take That might be the only one that strongly courted a gay audience, even if it was for a brief period in their early career.
It doesn’t end there, either. Take That & Party‘s obsession with 70s disco covers speaks for itself, culminating with their first significant hit single, a clubbified version of Tavares’s 70s disco hit “It Only Takes A Minute”:
Not to mention Robbie Williams’s fiesty lead vocal debut on a cover of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic,” based heavily on Donna Summer’s own disco cover from the late 70s:
I want to emphasize this as much as I can. Take That & Party‘s deep, full-hearted embrace of 70s disco and gay club culture is far and away the best and most interesting thing about it, and the deeper the group digs into that goofy clubby early 90s vibe the better. The likes of “Once You’ve Tasted Love,” “Satisfied,” “Promises” and the gloriously old-fashioned “I Found Heaven” (the only Take That non-cover single that Gary didn’t write) pull all the same punches, and are all the better for it. It’s generic early 90s rump-shaking music. For the whole family!!
What you’re not gonna hear in the aforementioned tracks is any trace of discernible personality. Of course you won’t. Gary was only like 20 at this point, so even if he lands at least a co-writing credit on almost each track here, he doesn’t have much to say. Heck, he doesn’t even sing with his classic pained broken-hearted-nice-guy yelp that much! Instead you’ll be hearing a lot of Gary trying to sound like an aggressive dancefloor shaman, which doesn’t really work for him. And it doesn’t help that Take That & Party‘s ballads don’t really go anywhere or do anything; beyond “A Million Love Songs,” “Why Can’t I Wake Up With You” is a drifty pile of nothing and “I Can’t Make It” doesn’t fare much better despite its mondo-huge chorus.
Wh- oh. The bottom line already? That’s it? That’s it Sean??
Yes, that’s about it. Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to say about Take That & Party. It’s exactly the kind of boy band album you would expect from the early 90s, with a Britain still steeped in house music and Stone Roses runoffs, of whiteboy New Jack Swing derivatives and ecstasy and all that whathaveyou. As fascinating as Take That & Party‘s embrace of gay culture is to someone like me, it’s obviously more of a crass marketing gimmick than anything, the sign of a group that didn’t exactly know their audience just yet. The standard boy band archetype hadn’t quite solidified, and once preteen girls started fawning over them, they dropped the gay angle right quick and went for a more steamlined, parent-friendly approach. Sad? Sad.
Gosh, these guys were young. So young. Howard Donald was I think the oldest, and he was still only like 22. Robbie Williams was 17, for fuck’s sake! Good gosh. Even at that age, Robbie establishes himself as Take That’s primo motherfucker right quick, from his first notes on “I Found Heaven.” And he was only hired ’cause he could dance! Everyone but Gary was just a handsome dude that could dance. Who knew what they would become. Who knew, friends.
So this is where we are. The stately maturity found on most of Take That’s future recordings is nowhere to be found on Take That & Party. Instead, it’s big fat crotch-shot party fun, for better or for worse. An inauspicious start for the Godfathers of Friendly Boy Band Kisses.
Yes. Every kiss for me.