Air raid sirens announce terror from above, the chug chug of a helicopter propeller roars overhead. This apocalyptic noise could’ve been directed by Coppola, but instead of the imposing sound of Wagner we are deafened by the shrill eardrum piercing collective scream of thousands. Bright lights blind us temporarily and then we see Robbie Williams suspended upside down on what looks like a bungee cord. ‘Let Me Entertain You’ begins…
This happened ten years ago. Arguably Williams’ three-day-run at Knebworth is the biggest outdoor pop concert on British soil this century. Watching the footage today is strange. I guess pop today is mostly a young man’s game, and Williams is no longer a sprightly cheeky chappy. Essentially Live at Knebworth was a moment that captured a man at the top of his game.
Robbie Williams’ brand of pop has dated quite dramatically. You sometimes forget the Britpop influence on his sound, particularly on quirky tracks such as ‘Let Love Be Your Energy’. Williams kinda floated on the periphery of Britpop after he left Take That, picking up the fag butts and sipping from the discarded bottles stage side as Oasis and Blur packed arenas and headlined festivals. His solo career initially took a good two or three years to get off the ground - this was pre-Reality TV, and back in a time when you had a little time as a celebrity to doss around and top The Sun’s Ligger League Table. In short, though it was possible to fuck up. Humiliation, such eating Kangeroo testicles on prime TV was not an option.
A significant amount of Williams’ set list for Knebworth featured songs about the troubles with fame and late night excess; he was the reluctant star, a man who was given time to fail and wobble, and then find his feet again. We tend to be more unforgiving now, and the great pop machine spits out casualties and then comes back around and steam rollers the cadavers into pop pate to prevent the phoenix rise.
Williams’ career is both a cautionary tale and a blueprint for young pop starlets who have ideas beyond their collective boy band status. The rules for putting together a solo career seem to be – leave band dramatically in a flounce, associate yourself with the current most ‘edgy’ figures in popular music, but never outshine them, come across as a desperate lackey chasing their coat tails, seeking their approval. Inevitably failure to launch will bring anxiety, and lead to either a dependency on drugs, or the disintegration of your mental state. Persevere by releasing a ropey cover song from an act that was successful ten years prior, Williams chose George Michael, today’s act could pick Will Young. Find a talented songwriter who himself doesn’t have the looks or the charisma to become a pop star in his own right, your Guy Chambers figure, this man must be driven and you must heed his advice. Collaborate with the songwriter and bluff and bumble your way to the top. It doesn’t really matter what you do, because the songs should be strong enough to take you where you want to go.
Because the audience at Knebworth were behind him all the way, Williams created a fun filled spectacle; but with the benefit of snark there are moments that are quite frankly bizarre. Robbie’s between song banter is at times witty, and also cringe worthy. At one point he involves the crowd in a call and response chant of “alcohol” and “drugs” after beat boxing for a bit. He chuckles to himself, seemingly thinking 'I can say anything and you sheep will eat it up', but Williams has an undeniable affinity with his audience, a personal connection with each and every one who was stood in the field gazing up at him. Whether it be the shelf stacker from Sainsbury’s who proposed to his girlfriend by miming along to ‘She’s the One’, or the host of people that chose ‘Angels’ to be soundtrack of the first dance at their wedding / the one sombre pop song played at Nan’s funeral? Williams says to the crowd “It’s nice to know you’re all as mad as me”. Then he invites Max Beasley on stage to play a grand piano, starts to sing ‘Barbie Girl’, kids around before launching into ‘Mr Bojangles’.
Knebworth happened after Robbie Williams signed a lucrative contract with EMI, after which he got a bit lazy, and complacent. Perhaps it was the pressure of the price tag, the Fernando Torres effect, when you get weighed down by how much you are worth. Escapology the first album that came after signing the big deal was an album full of recycled ideas, it was formulaic and when aired live, the songs from that album are desperate lulls.
On Disc Two of this DVD you get a few extras. The brief Moments of Mass Distraction documentary, (which was also on the original What We Did Last Summer DVD of the Knebworth concert) gives you a bit of backstage access to the concerts, although you don’t really learn too much. Max Beasley eats a banana and Jonathan Wilkes wanders around in a Real Madrid shirt. Robbie frets a bit about the magnitude of the concerts; however there is a steely determination in his eyes which suggests an inner confidence. He knew he’d nail it, and he did.
Another bonus extra is a performance with Mark Owen on a rocked up ‘Back for Good’. Mark Owen looks like a gerbil that had been poisoned with anti-freeze, his eyes are bugged out, and he looks star stuck and petrified. Robbie puts a brotherly arm around his former band mate, and looks after the poor fella as they stumble through the song. It seems strange that three years after Knebworth, Take That would reform and make the most unexpected of comebacks, and that Williams’ own career would decline to the point that he would do the unthinkable and re-join the band that had once stifled his personality. When Williams takes some time out to dedicate ‘No Regrets’ to Barlow, Orange, Owen and Donald; it seems to be a genuine moment, although that probably wasn’t the case at the time.
6Richard Wink's Score