Why Didn't Take That Take Over America?
The U.K. boy band was a blockbuster act across the pond in the 90's, but multiple attempts to gain a U.S. foothold failed.
In the late '80s, the Manchester-based manager Nigel Martin-Smith saw the success of New Kids On The Block and he had an idea: He wanted to create a British boy band of his own. He brought together 19-year-old singer Gary Barlow, 21-year-old DJ Howard Donald, 19-year-old painter-slash-dancer Jason Orange, 18-year-old football hopeful Mark Owen, and cheeky 16-year-old Robbie Williams to form Take That, a five-member band that would quickly take the U.K. -- and the rest of Europe -- by storm.
The story of Take That in the U.S., however, is one of short-circuited momentum and bad timing. While the group's 1995 hit "Back For Good" remains a recurrent staple on adult-contemporary radio, cracking America proved to be elusive. At the outset, the divide could be explained away by the separate ways in which pop songs were marketed to audiences in and outside America; the coulda-shoulda-woulda files are filled with tracks that took off on one side of the pond but didn't, for whatever reason, translate across the Atlantic. But in the case of Take That, other factors quickly took hold.
The group's first album, Take That & Party, came out in 1992, and hit big almost immediately across Europe. The combination of Take That's magazine-ready personalities drew eyeballs, and Barlow's crisp songwriting on tracks like "Do What U Like" and "Why Can't I Wake Up With You" garnered comparisons to formidable pop talents. But U.S. success didn't click -- a remix of "Love Ain't Here Anymore," from sophomore LP Everything Changes, geared toward American listeners didn't connect with radio programmers -- even as the band was racking up album sales and BRIT Awards.
Pop impresario Clive Davis saw stateside potential in Take That, and his then-label Arista signed the band to a U.S. deal in 1995. By the middle of that year, the group's third album, Nobody Else, had sold impressively worldwide, and it performed particularly well in Japan and Germany, then the second- and third-biggest markets in the global pop marketplace.
The deal initially looked like it would reward Davis's storied instincts. The strummy, lush "Back For Good," a testament to Barlow's pop knack that was the group's seventh chart-topper in the U.K., steadily accrued airplay on American pop and adult-contemporary stations upon its release. Nobody Else, the band's third worldwide album and American debut, came out in August 1995 and sold modestly (its current sales total is 288,000, according to Nielsen Music).
At the time, Take That was full of the type of boy-band turmoil that will be familiar to fans of Donnie Wahlberg or Zayn Malik. Williams had quit the band before it began pitching itself to American audiences during the chart ascent of "Back For Good," and the version of Nobody Else that came out in the States was tweaked so that it only had one song that featured Williams on lead vocal duties -- "Every Guy," where he shared the spotight with Barlow. Other songs were swapped out for older tracks that had been proven hits overseas.
Despite this, hopes were high. "We listened to the material on [Nobody Else], and it showed us that this group had a great songwriter in Gary Barlow, whose music is in the tradition of Elton John and George Michael," Davis told Billboard in October 1995. Radio and retail were similarly optimistic, with one record chain's buyer touting the band's "solid pop sound that attracts both kids and adults" to Billboard.
"Back For Good" finished out 1995 as the No. 62 single on that year's Hot 100, a chart topped by Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise." In a Top 40 marketplace that was being pushed in different directions by the ascent of alt-leaning acts like Alanis Morissette and the Goo Goo Dolls and the continued dominance of R&B acts like TLC and Brandy. The pure pop sound of Take That found itself in a tough spot a few years before teenyboppers like Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and *N SYNC fully arrived in America. "Never Forget," the Donald-fronted followup single to "Back," didn't chart in the U.S. while going to No. 1 in the U.K., and the band split up after a farewell gig in early 1996.
Both Barlow and Williams attempted to make a go at solo careers in the America. Barlow released his first U.S. solo single, a cover of Joe Diffie's "So Help Me Girl," in the fall of 1997, and it eventually reached No. 44 on the Hot 100. The 1998 single "Superhero," which Barlow co-wrote with a then-ascendant Swedish songwriter-producer named Max Martin, only attained Bubbling Under status. A 2000 Billboard piece on the rough commercial road faced by certain British artists when they tried to break the American market quoted Barlow's then-manager as thinking that his musical chops would sell to American audiences, "especially in the smaller regions," but that prediction didn't quite take hold.
In 1999 Capitol signed Williams and released The Ego Has Landed, which compiled hits he'd had in Europe; the grandiose "Millennium," which sampled Nancy Sinatra's "You Only Live Twice," peaked at No. 72 on the Hot 100, while his super-ballad "Angels" reached No. 53. (A 2004 cover by Jessica Simpson led to the latter song percolating in the American consciousness enough for it to be covered by season-seven American Idol runner-up David Archuleta; that peaked at No. 89 on the Hot 100.) Williams's gross-out video for "Rock DJ," a pulsing track off his 2000 album Sing When You're Winning, was icky enough to garner curiosity airplay from MTV, although it only gained critical mass on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart.
Take That reformed without Williams in 2006. In 2010 the band tried to conquer the U.S. once more, buoyed by the flamboyant singer's return and an album, Progress, that sold 235,000 copies during its first day available in U.K. stores -- an astonishing number for that market. But a proposed tour with diva deluxe Kylie Minogue, a former collaborator of Williams's, fell through, and the band went on hiatus in 2011.
Take That is still a going concern; now down to Barlow, Donald, and Owen, the group has spent chunks of 2015 touring Europe, a run that included a nine-night stay at the O2 in London last month. Barlow's storied songwriting ability has a Broadway showcase via Finding Neverland, the Peter Pan origin story musical for which he wrote the music. Williams is currently crisscrossing the globe on a tour named after his 1998 hit "Let Me Entertain You," although the global remit of dates has avoided the States so far. And the band's small but devoted fanbase on this side of the pond congregates on Facebook and on Twitter. But the tale of their near-stardom in the U.S. is one that begs for them to be reconsidered by American listeners, even as a glimpse into the pop gems somehow missed by the vast American pop landscape during their first go-round.