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Shoulda been huge: Robbie Williams’ ‘Rudebox’

By David Hutchison


Following a Greatest Hits collection and a two-year break from music, in 2006 Robbie Williams released a single called Rudebox – and it was widely judged to be the biggest misstep of his career.

At a time when being perceived to be a ‘chav’ was near enough a criminal offence, Rudebox was practically warrant for arrest. What with the rapping, the garish tracksuits in the video, the seemingly nonsensical lyrics (and let’s face it, “TK Maxx costs less, Jackson looks a mess” is hardly a Shakespearean couplet), it’s not a huge surprise The Sun labeled it the “worst song ever”. The overall reaction from the media was a solid: “Look at this desperate thirtysomething idiot trying to be a rapper.”

Which is a shame, really, because the album of the same name that followed is, for me, the best of his career. Robbie wanted to create a record crammed with music he would actually listen to, and Rudebox is a breakneck joyride through his influences, mashing together robotic funk, brassy throwbacks, retro synth sounds, at least one country hoedown and – yes – old-school rap. But those who labelled the record immature completely missed the point, as well as the opening lines of that much-derided lead single: “Okay then, back to basics.” Rudebox is a love letter addressed in scruffy handwriting to the music of Robbie’s 1980s youth – and he never pretended it was anything else.

Many things all at once but never dull, the album flips between sounds with the attention span of…well, Robbie Williams. From Kiss Me‘s chaotic electro-pop pyrotechnics to the blasé funk of Good Doctor, right through to the dark beats and scathing put-downs on The ActorRudebox gleefully jumps from genre to genre, avoiding all labels and holding to only one rule: as long as it’s pop, anything goes.

robbierudeboxThis complete lack of a filter is, actually, refreshing. The lyrics mostly read as if Robbie jotted down everything going on in his head, gold-dust and gibberish. Or both. The much-maligned lead single Rudebox is a prime example: rapping over a beat like hip-pop Tetris, Robbie spits self-aware wit and…chats total shit. But his tongue never leaves his cheek, and the result is a fantastically bonkers banger that – among other things – has one of the most intensely slut-droppable choruses of all time.

Second single Lovelight was, thankfully, a little better received. A neon slice of cyber-soul, it’s one of five covers on the album, some of which are brilliantly bizarre. There’s a screamingly random version of Manu Chao’s Bongo Bong featuring a Lily Allen cameo, but the best is Robbie’s take on My Robot Friend’s We’re the Pet Shop Boys: an ethereal tribute to the band in question produced by the band in question, with lyrics composed almost entirely of their song titles and Neil Tennant himself on the floor-filling chorus. It’s mad, and totally fantastic.

Robbie’s scattergun choice of cover versions only adds to Rudebox‘s biggest draw: it often feels like a well-worn mixtape straight out of his childhood bedroom. And his teenage dreams are no better realised than on the album’s worst-performing (and best) single She’s Madonna: an outrageous break-up fantasy played out over icy synths and euphoric hand-claps on which he ditches a girlfriend with the ultimate kiss-off: “I love you baby, but face it: she’s Madonna”.

Not satisfied with just one stamp on his Queen Of Pop fan card, Robbie also managed to rope in Madge’s frequent collaborator William Orbit to infuse two tracks with his trademark dreamy, aquatic soundscapes. Album closer Summertime is really just a song about getting pissed in the sunshine, but with Orbit on production duties, it ends up totally blissful. Orbit robbie4also updates the The Human League’s underrated Louise with a gentle modern polish, leaving room for Robbie’s touching vocals to take centre-stage.

But the Rudebox moment that will split your life in two – before you listened and afterwards – is the bruisingly potent one-two punch of The 80s and The 90s, on which Robbie relives his Stoke-on-Trent childhood and subsequent rise to fame in wincing detail. “Aunty Jo died of cancer, God didn’t have an answer. Rhythm was a dancer”…it’s hard to believe these aren’t real pages of his diary splashed across The 80s‘ swelling electronic waves, and The 90s is no less frank. Wistful guitar riffs and parping brass play as Robbie acknowledges the mistakes he made leading up to his exit from Take That, though he doesn’t let his bandmates off scot-free. Describing the group’s first, world-changing meeting, he says simply: “I met the other guys, one seemed like a cock.” It takes little imagination to work out which band member he means.

To this day, it pains me that Rudebox was such a chart disaster. I mean, we’re not just talking about any old flop here. People were allegedly fired over Rudebox‘s sales figures. There were so many unsold copies of Rudebox lying around they were literally used to pave roads in China. But those put off by the brash lead single missed an overflowing candy box of sharp, hyperactive electro-pop, crafted with contagious joy and unafraid to take Robbie outside of his mum-pop comfort zone. Rudebox is the only time Robbie’s exuberant, uninhibited personality has truly aligned with his music – it’s the battle cry of a man who once entered rehab for a Lucozade addiction. And I can’t give it higher praise than that.

Listen to Rudebox on Spotify here.

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