Who rules the solo roost? Robbie, Gary, or maybe even Howard?
Robbie Williams

When Take That split in 1996, tears were shed – thousands, and thousands, and thousands of tears. Counselling hotlines were set up to deal with distraught teens fearing that they might never hear the sweet, sweet sounds of the pop-conquering five-piece again. Which, naturally, was always poppycock: there’s always a solo career in these situations.

Having departed Take That in 1995, leaving the group to proceed as a foursome for a little while, Robbie Williams looked likely to find solo success first. But while his cover of George Michael’s ‘Freedom’ peaked at two in the UK in August 1996, almost six months to the day after the official announcement of Take That’s disbanding, he was beaten to the post by ex-colleague Gary Barlow, whose debut solo track ‘Forever Love’ went one better in July, topping the singles chart.

As Robbie and Gary squabbled over who was the best Take That-er gone solo, another from the band’s ranks was preparing his own campaign. Perhaps the quietest of the five, but certainly the cutest in the eyes of millions, Mark Owen perhaps wasn’t expected to make much of a solo splash. But despite his modest frame, Owen managed quite the cannonball – and that’s enough with the poolside patter – with his own debut single, ‘Child’. It wasn’t number one, but three is no failure – and he followed that November ’96 hit with another number three, ‘Clementine’, in February 1997.

Jason Orange was always more of a dancer than singer, so he didn’t pursue the solo career path, instead getting more involved in acting – but Howard Donald certainly toyed with the idea. He recorded the track ‘Speak Without Words’ not long after Take That’s split, but ultimately embarked on a different tangent, developing his DJ skills (as DJ HD) and attracting a decent following in that area.

So, four of the five had a go – some with better results than others. In the spirit of fun, mainly, Clash here presents an unranked Seven Of The Best: Take That Solo Singles… with ‘Speak Without Words’ included as much for curiosity value as anything (although, seriously, it’s not that bad).

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Robbie Williams – ‘No Regrets’
(1998, from the album ‘I’ve Been Expecting You’)

We say “unranked”, but really: this is the best solo single from any member of Take That, easily. Penned by Guy Chambers and Williams, and featuring backing vocals from pop’s greatest Neils – Tennant of Pet Shop Boys and Hannon of The Divine Comedy – it’s a brilliant slice of self-reflection, looking back at the singer’s turbulent times in Take That. That it stalled at four on the singles chart is downright criminal.

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Gary Barlow – ‘Stronger’
(1999, from the album ‘Twelve Months, Eleven Days’)

Its parent album might’ve been the flop that sent Barlow spinning away from pop’s high table, but there’s a distinct riskiness to ‘Stronger’ that much of the singer’s first-album material lacked. This is a bold step into up-tempo dance, a marked change from the ballads that Barlow’s post-Take That career was built on. A chart peak of 16 tells one story – that Barlow’s fans weren’t ready for this direction. But in hindsight, ‘Stronger’ is one of the man’s very finest solo efforts, which should probably get spun at more weddings than it does.

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Robbie Williams – ‘Angels’
(1997, from the album ‘Life Thru A Lens’)

Did someone mention weddings? (Equally popular at funerals, too.) Despite being voted the best British single of the last 25 years at the 2005 BRIT Awards, ‘Angels’ wasn’t a number one hit – like ‘No Regrets’, it actually only reached four. Still, you can’t knock its enduring appeal. Somewhere, right now, somebody is drunk and singing this at the top of their fractured voice. Guaranteed.

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Mark Owen – ‘Four Minute Warning’
(2003, from the album ‘In Your Own Time’)

Another staller-at-four, ‘Four Minute Warning’ was the lead single to Owen’s second solo LP. A pleasant strum-along on first impression, repeat listens reveal something rather murkier at play – but then the title, relating to a Cold War-era alarm system, should really indicate that this isn’t your typical pop fluff.  In the lyrics, Owen counts down to something – presumably an event that warrants the line, “It’s the end, you see.” The video, all barren streets and portentous skies, certainly strikes an ominous tone.

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Mark Owen – ‘Child’
(1996, from the album ‘Green Man’)

Let’s stay with wee Mark, because ‘Child’ – his debut solo single – is so sweet that not including it here would be doing a grand injustice to understatement in pop. Robbie was all boisterousness to begin with, while Gary played with well-established trump cards. ‘Child’ is something else, a charming little song that simply exists because its makers – Owen co-wrote it beside Tim Laws and Martin Brammer – willed it to.

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Robbie Williams – ‘Feel’
(2002, from the album ‘Escapology’)

‘Escapology’ found Williams at a transitional point in his career: cheeky-chappy Robbie had died away after 2000’s ‘Sing When You’re Winning’, and the in-between-y ‘Swing When You’re Winning’ collection was a tiresome pastiche project that perhaps shouldn’t have been indulged. But ‘Feel’, the lead single from ‘Escapology’, is a great showcase for a newly matured artist – and for once that necessary progression didn’t come at the expense of memorable tunes, as this subtle earworm proves. If ‘No Regrets’ was Williams looking back at Take That, ‘Feel’ and ‘Escapology’ are the first signs of him properly assessing his solo fortunes.

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Howard Donald – ‘Speak Without Words’
(1996?, unreleased)

Offered without comment, beyond: it’s not so bad, eh?

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Get more Take That: read our exclusive interview with Gary Barlow, and our Spotlight feature on the pop titans’ ‘Everything Changes’ album

And get more pop! Clash’s Pop Issue is out now – more information here


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