Great Britain’s national treasure, Gary Barlow, OBE, has achieved unrivaled success with boyband Take That, as a solo artist and songwriter, and as a judge on The X Factor. However, the path of fame is rarely easy, and although Gary’s journey has been full of inspiring highs, there have been distinct and crushing lows, too. In this fully updated biography, Justin Lewis offers a valuable insight into the life and loves of the singer-songwriter, including his time spent with his young family, his dedication to fundraising for charity, and his recent endeavors in musical theater. It is the definitive guide to one of the UK’s most accomplished artists.
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About the Author
Justin Lewis has been writing about entertainment, music, and broadcasting for more than 25 years. As well as writing biographies on figures ranging from the actor Andy Serkis to pop’s Gary Barlow, he has contributed to more than 50 publications, including The Rough Guide to Rock, Guinness World Records, and No Known Cure.
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By Justin Lewis
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2014 Justin Lewis
All rights reserved.
In the autumn of 2005, a defunct and almost forgotten British pop group of the 1990s made a three-pronged comeback bid. They took part in a TV documentary in which they reminisced about their lives, released a greatest hits album and announced they would be going back on the road just one more time.
No one could have guessed what would happen next. Such was the public reaction that they decided to make an album of brand new material. Their first in over 10 years, it sold nearly three million copies in Britain alone. In the next few years, they would break all sorts of sales records for their recordings and concert tickets. Take That had achieved something that no other British band had ever done before: after a lengthy sabbatical, this major multi-million-selling group had returned to the spotlight, and were now even bigger. Not only were they bigger, they may even have been better. Sophisticated grown-up songs like 'Shine', 'Patience', 'Greatest Day' and 'Rule the World' put them back at the top of the charts. By 2010's Progress, their first album in 15 years to feature estranged member Robbie Williams, they were arguably making their boldest, most adventurous music yet. And music that still sold millions.
The sort of revival that Take That have experienced is not supposed to happen in pop music. The biggest-selling groups and artists are usually so 'of their time' that a comeback is, at best, a celebration of nostalgia. Few have the ability to almost entirely reinvent themselves a decade later. When a band is revived, it is not expected to stick around for very long. The usual drill is for them to reappear, run through their old hits one more time, collect the money, and start the car. It is most unlikely that the public wants to hear their new songs.
So how did Take That and their chief songwriter Gary Barlow put a line through so many of pop's rules in trumping their first career second time around? In Time to Shine, we'll examine how Gary developed from a teenage singer and organist on the club circuit, in and around his native Cheshire, to stardom in the 1990s as part of the five-piece boyband. As of early 2014, his sales figures were estimated at over 50 million albums, he had reached number one in the singles charts on 14 occasions (a record for a British artist, bettered only by the four members of the Beatles), and topped the album charts nine times. He had been a tireless charity campaigner, was a constant fixture on various TV shows (most obviously The X Factor) and regularly participated in royal occasions, including organising the pop concert for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012. Soon afterwards, he was honoured with the Order of the British Empire. But, inevitably, Gary Barlow's biggest achievement continues to lie with Take That.
Take That – five handsome and good-humoured young men who had been thrown together in Manchester as the 'British New Kids On The Block', but who became friends in the process – made their original breakthrough in 1992. Good looks and charisma undoubtedly played a part in their appeal to millions of teenage girls, but there is no way they could have maintained this popularity for four years without memorable songs. While a handful of their hits were cover versions, the vast majority were Gary Barlow originals, including several of the 1990s' best-loved pop songs: 'Pray', 'Everything Changes', 'Never Forget', 'A Million Love Songs'. Above all, there was 'Back for Good', which on its release in spring 1995 became the UK's fastest-selling single for a decade.
Although the sudden departure of Robbie Williams in 1995 unbalanced relations within the group, and hastened its own demise only months later, Take That Mark I bowed out at the top. Gary struck out as a solo act, touted as a future George Michael, but found the going much harder on his own, especially when Robbie's own solo bid for stardom unexpectedly took off in a sensational fashion. By the turn of the 21st century, Gary's records were flopping, his shows were two-thirds full and his contract with his record company was terminated.
The troughs of Gary Barlow's story are as significant as its peaks. What really tests someone's character in the celebrity world is how they react to failure and oblivion, and, though Gary undoubtedly found this hard, he continued to work diligently as a songwriter and producer, with the constant support of his family, friends and colleagues. Then again, even as a teenager, he was a driven, ambitious and hard-working individual. He may not have shone as a dancer, but his singing voice, musicianship, gift for original songwriting and stage presence were excellent credentials for when opportunity knocked with Take That in 1990.
Take That, by Gary's own admission, was not an equal partnership in the 1990s. Because he wrote the songs, he earned far more money than the others, and part of the agreement when they re-formed was that all the group members had a creative say. The second act of Take That (when the 'boyband' became a 'manband') is not only a leap forward musically, but it also introduced an atmosphere that was warmer and more relaxed all round.
Time to Shine is a story about talent and ambition but it's also about generosity, co-operation and understanding in the frequently cut-throat entertainment business. More than anything, it's about camaraderie. Robbie Williams once described their journey as 'five boys who needed to go through therapy, heal a little bit, forgive and be forgiven. Or else it was panto.' For Gary Barlow, the secret of Take That's success lay in their friendship: 'As long as our friendship is as close as it is, I think the world is our oyster.'CHAPTER 2
The singles charts can be a hotchpotch at the best of times, but in January 1971, they showed a pop scene with little obvious sense of direction. The glam rock trend of Slade, David Bowie and The Sweet was still a year away. The Beatles had broken up, although, with 'My Sweet Lord', George Harrison was their first former member to reach the number one spot in Britain. Rock groups such as Status Quo, T. Rex, Badfinger and The Kinks nestled alongside easy-listening favourites like Andy Williams, the Carpenters and Frank Sinatra, whose 'My Way' had been in the charts for the best part of two years. Then there were the singers who wrote their own songs and performed them, too: Gilbert O'Sullivan, Neil Diamond and a 23-year-old from Pinner in Middlesex who was making his chart debut. Reginald Kenneth Dwight, aka Elton John, was the pop world's hottest new star of 1971.
It was perhaps fitting that Gary William Barlow would become one of Elton John's biggest fans. Born the same week as 'Your Song' became Elton's first-ever hit, he made his debut at lunchtime on Wednesday, 20 January 1971 in Frodsham, in the north-west English county of Cheshire. His first home was in Ashton Drive, part of a council estate on the fringes of a village about to be given town status. Three miles north lay the town of Runcorn. The cities of Chester, Liverpool and Manchester were a little further away.
There was already an elder child in the Barlow household. Ian had been born three years previously in 1968. The pair would get along well as adults, but as kids they would sometimes clash. 'I hated him as a youngster,' a 25-year-old Gary admitted in 1996, 'but we get on so well now. He could be the real, upset, forgotten-about brother and he isn't: he's just so proud of what I do.'
The boys' dad was Colin, who worked as a project manager for a fertiliser company. The position often required him to work nights, and, with a second job at a farm in the late afternoons, he had no choice but to snatch a precious few hours of sleep during the mornings. After Gary started school, his mum Marjorie went back to work as a laboratory technician at a hospital in the nearby city of Chester.
Gary drew a strong work ethic from both his parents and, from an early age, assimilated it into his own life. He was never lectured about the importance of toil, but he could appreciate the effort and commitment of both of them. The extra income amassed by those extra hours meant that the Barlows could enjoy the occasional luxury. They bought a colour television at a time when by no means all 1970s families could afford one and their budget stretched to a holiday in Ibiza when Gary was five years old and Ian was eight. 'They're scrimpers and savers, my mum and dad,' commented Gary in 1996. 'They'll clear out the attic and do boot sales for the next four weeks.'
His obsession with music began early. The first toy to truly capture his imagination was a Fisher Price toy keyboard. In one way, it was hard to see where Gary's inspiration for music originated. It did not come from his mum or dad – neither of them played an instrument. But there were plenty of records in the house at Ashton Drive in the 70s, everything from the disco-pop of Boney M and the Bee Gees, to classics from The Beatles and the US record label Tamla Motown (home to the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Jackson Five and others). Meanwhile, the Griffiths family next door, whose children were older than the Barlows', owned all the latest chart singles.
When Gary was about six years old, the first single he owned was 'Living Next Door to Alice' by a then-popular group from Yorkshire called Smokie. Within two years, he was already practising his fantasy of being a pop icon, and had formed his first group – in the garage. A school friend called Tracey Oultram was also involved, although she conceded their instruments were a tad basic. 'We used upturned bins for drums,' she recalled, 'and my friend played the triangle. His mum always used to come in and tell him to shut up.'
Gary's early fascination with popular culture extended to cinematic blockbusters. The garden became the location for a special Star Wars remake starring Gary and Tracey. 'As we were kind of boyfriend/girlfriend at the time,' said Tracey, 'he asked if I'd be Princess Leia. His brother was Chewbacca. All I remember is Chewbacca jumping off the porch, trying to attack me, and Gary rescuing me with a kiss. I think I pretended to faint.'
It was 1980 when Gary began to buy and collect his own records at the age of nine. His first purchase was 'D.I.S.C.O.' by the French group Ottawan, but he soon became entranced by the emergence of Adam Ant. Each of Adam and the Ants' hit singles – 'Dog Eat Dog', 'Antmusic', 'Kings of the Wild Frontier' – was accompanied by a striking and unforgettable promotional video, fast becoming an effective way of selling pop music as three- or four-minute mini-films.
Adam Ant (born Stuart Goddard) was a colourful frontman, obsessive about constantly reinventing himself and dressing up in different guises: a pirate, a highwayman ('Stand and Deliver') and Prince Charming. Some of the videos featured guest stars, such as the British actress Diana Dors and (in the case of the 'Ant Rap' video) the Scottish singer Lulu.
At the end of March 1981, Gary attended Adam and the Ants' concert at Manchester Apollo. 'There was half a pirate ship on stage,' he marvelled to Q magazine many years later. 'I was an Antette. I had the stripy make-up, the full regalia.' It seemed more like a theatrical show than a gig. The Ants were playing their songs in a series of flamboyant costumes and with spectacular sets.
Within a year of that Manchester show, the Ants would be no more, although Adam would embark on a variable solo career. Like David Bowie and The Beatles before him, he seemed equally inspired by rock'n'roll and British variety. Adam seemed to be not just a survivor of punk rock but also heavily indebted to light entertainment. He loved the Sex Pistols but would also appear with Cannon and Ball on television, and at the Children's Royal Variety Performance. Though he acted the rebel, he could also reach out to the mainstream.
While sibling Ian preferred to stay in the background, Gary was a talkative child who after a while began longing for the limelight. One of his early passions outside music was for magic, and he was regularly glued to illusionist Paul Daniels' television show on Saturday nights. Before long, Gary had a magic act adequate enough to provide some entertainment for his dad Colin's pigeon club.
That same year, 1981, was the year that the Barlows moved house, but they continued to live in Frodsham. From their three-bedroom semi-detached house in Ashton Drive, they moved into a bungalow in London Road called 'Ravenscroft'.
At school, Gary would never truly shine academically, but at least there were music classes at Weaver Vale Primary School. Under the strict watch of a teacher called Mrs Bourne – 'Everyone was scared of her' – he and his classmates were given the chance to play some musical instruments, mostly of the percussive kind. 'When we were told we could play them,' he remembered, 'there would be a mad dash to get to the best ones first – no one wanted to be left with the triangle.'
In the summer of 1981, Weaver Vale Primary's new headmaster had the bright idea of staging a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, which had first been performed as a musical in 1970. Ten-year-old Gary was determined to be a part of the school production, and so spent the whole of the summer holidays engrossed in the stage cast LP, trying to memorise every bar and every word. On returning to school in the autumn, he found his preparation had paid off; he was cast in the lead role of Joseph: 'Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical is what got me started on stage, and I have to say I loved every second of it. The showman in me had emerged.'
Gary had been bitten by the stage bug and the concept of performing. Like every pop fan, he would sit down each week to watch Top of the Pops on television, a special rare treat to have music on TV in primetime. In the days before 24-hour music television, let alone the World Wide Web, pop music did not appear much as part of popular television. When it did, it was usually as a break in a variety show or comedy series, so the likes of Top of the Pops and Saturday-morning children's programmes like Noel Edmonds' Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and Tiswas (hosted by Chris Tarrant and Lenny Henry) were essential outlets for pop videos and performances.
Apart from Adam and the Ants, Gary's favourite groups of the time included Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, key bands of the early 1980s New Romantic movement, in which the electronic influence of Kraftwerk was combined with disco, and the same sort of outrageous image and fashion displayed in the 1970s by David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry's Roxy Music. It was a good time to be a fan of British pop. And then, in October 1981, Gary had some sort of musical epiphany. While watching Top of the Pops one Thursday night, he fell in love with the sound of 'Just Can't Get Enough', an early hit single for the Basildon synth-pop quartet Depeche Mode. He had never heard anything quite like it before. The very next day, he knew he wanted an electronic keyboard.
Christmas was still several weeks away, but his parents agreed to help him choose an instrument. They visited a music shop in Chester, where a helpful salesman guided them towards a Yamaha keyboard, specifically the PS-2 model. On Christmas Day, Gary plugged in the equipment, tried out a few seasonal carols and Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer' (a must for any budding pianist). He was on his way, but, within three weeks, he felt he was already outgrowing the instrument. So it was back to Chester, and back to the same music shop, this time on the lookout for something that looked and sounded a bit more professional. The organ that Gary fell in love with, which comprised two keyboards and bass pedals for the feet, had a price tag of £500, a steep price, especially in the early 1980s. It seemed completely unaffordable, until dad Colin worked out that, because he had been working so hard, he had some spare holiday. He could sell back his holiday to the company. With the money raised from this, they could buy the keyboard. The Barlow work ethic had won out, yet again.
Excerpted from Gary Barlow by Justin Lewis. Copyright © 2014 Justin Lewis. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Introduction 1
Chapter 2 Plugging in 5
Chapter 3 Cue, Gary! 13
Chapter 4 The Human Jukebox 21
Chapter 5 Nigel 27
Chapter 6 Jelly, You Say? 37
Chapter 7 It Only Takes a Minute 49
Chapter 8 Number One 65
Chapter 9 The Fab Five 75
Chapter 10 Back for Now 85
Chapter 11 Jovial Bob Signs Off 93
Chapter 12 The Rumours are True 103
Chapter 13 Barlow at Large 113
Chapter 14 American Dream Stateside Nightmare 125
Chapter 15 Road Block 135
Chapter 16 The Oblivion Boy 147
Chapter 17 Hey, Mr Songwriter 155
Chapter 18 Reality Check 163
Chapter 19 Take Two 169
Chapter 20 Let it Shine 181
Chapter 21 The Manband 191
Chapter 22 The Truce 197
Chapter 23 X-Panding 211
Chapter 24 By Appointment 227
Chapter 25 Since I Saw You Last 239
Further Reading 259