When I am asked, from time to time, my favourite Robbie Williams album, I confidently reply ‘Rudebox’. The response is often one of confusion. “But that song is awful!” “But he didn’t work with Guy Chambers on it!” “But he *gasps* RAPS on it!”. Yeah I know. Somewhere after Rudebox, ‘Escapology’ and ‘I’ve been expecting you’ follow closely but Rudebox is my favourite and here’s why.
‘Rudebox’ was released in 2006, just a year after Williams’ previous release, the rather uninspiring ‘Intensive Care’ (the singles were phenomenal, the album itself just fell a bit flat). Released around the same time as the newly reformed Take That were releasing their first album of new material in over ten years, the incredible ‘Beautiful World’, there was a lot of pressure on ‘Rudebox’. From this fact alone, this album was always going to have a tough ride. The press wanted a battle – Williams vs Take That. There needn’t have been one as both albums are completely different, opposite, in fact. They are both my favourite albums by each artist. ‘Rudebox’ was a journey into new territory for Robbie, venturing into electronica, techno and a little hip hop. When Williams’ image hardly represented this image and brand, of course there was going to be a bit of an unsettled response. Robbie Williams doing techno?! Robbie Willams rapping?! It may sound bizarre but if you give it a chance and don’t take the album too seriously, it works.
The album was the subject of great controversy before and during its release. Ex Take That manager Nigel Martin Smith threatened legal action over ‘The 90’s, in which Robbie accused his ex-manager of pocketing profits: (“Either you’re a thief or you’re shit, which one will you admit to? Such an evil man, I used to fantasise about taking a Stanley knife and playing around with your eyes.”) Martin-Smith demanded the song be removed from the album although, thankfully, it remained on the album, slightly modified with an instrumental break replacing the offensive lyrics. Ashley Hamilton claimed he had co-written ‘She’s Madonna’ but had not received any writing credit. It is not known what came of this in the end.
A still from the music video for ‘Rudebox’
Unfortunately, most people judge the album by lead single ‘Rudebox’. ‘Rudebox’ is, safe to say, not Robbie’s best work. In fact, it’s pretty awful but it’s so awful, it’s good. With lyrics such as ‘TK Maxx costs less, Jackson looks a mess’ and ‘sing a song of semtex, pocket full of durex, body full of mandrex’, it’s a wonder it ever received airplay with its seemingly blatant product-endorsement. That said, it oozes charm in a way only Robbie can convey. It’s genius but hideous both at the same time. The issue is, ‘Rudebox’ should not have been the lead single, the song to represent the album. It was received so poorly (yet still performed well on the UK singles chart) that many didn’t bother listening to or purchasing the album, expecting it to be in the same vein as its lead single. Whilst the majority of songs share the same electronic roots as ‘Rudebox’, there are many much more worthy songs and potential single choices on the album.
“It has become something on which I’ve found myself. This is the right direction for me personally, this is what it is. I saw the whole Robbie thing coming to a close as it was, I couldn’t make another album like the ones I’d made, and this has just opened up a thousand other doors. What I am excited about now is making more music. I love all the stuff on the album, I love Rudebox, it’s a favourite song of mine. I don’t know what’s gonna happen now, I’m excited about getting it out there, but I’m more excited about making more.”
- Robbie Williams speaking of the album prior to its release
Robbie in drag for the ‘She’s Madonna’ music video
The western-techno suffused ‘Viva life on Mars’ is catchy and far more credible than ‘Rudebox’. It’s a song that could have fit (slightly re-worked) comfortably, on another Williams album. ‘Lovelight’, a cover of a Lewis Taylor track glistens. Mark Ronson’s R&B infused production, Robbie’s fluttering falsetto and the limited instrumentation gel together beautifully to create a cover far superior the original and a fine R&B track. ‘She’s Madonna’ is a genius techno track co-written and produced by The Pet Shop Boys and is a tongue-in-cheek dig at Guy Ritchie (Ritchie reportedly uttered the words ‘but face it, she’s Madonna’ when informing his previous girlfriend he was leaving her for the famous megastar). It’s an amazingly underrated track and one of the highlights on ‘Rudebox’. The accompanying video of Williams in drag was just as amusing as the song’s conception and is something that only Williams would be able to pull off. ‘The Actor’ is apparently an expression of Robbie’s dissatisfaction with and annoyance of egotistical actors in America. Then there’s ‘Never touch that switch’, a funky-as-hell techno track that creates an aura of paranoia and forbidden activities. Squeaky synthesisers, a punchy bass line and a soft rap, it’s daring and it’s bloody cool.
The trendy and rather futuristic music video for ‘Lovelight’
‘Keep on’ and ‘Good doctor’, two more electronic songs in which Robbie raps, similarly to ‘Rudebox’ are less credible but just as witty and catchy. ‘Keep On’ features Robbie crooning ‘hotel, motel, holiday inn’ and features backing vocals by Lily Allen. It’s actually one of my favourite tracks off ‘Rudebox’. ‘Good Doctor’ is a comical insight into Robbie’s prescription drug addiction at the time (he checked into rehab just months later). This track is perhaps where Robbie’s rapping works best. The lyrics are ingenious and the rhymes are wondrous.
Two of the highlights on ‘Rudebox’ are two songs called ‘The 80’s’, and ‘The 90’s’. These tracks are two bookends documenting Robbie’s attitudes of being a teenager growing up in the 1980’s and his time in Take That during the 1990’s. Some of the lyrical content in ‘The 80’s is questionable and a little cringe-y (“Me so horny, me so young, and I still get my washing done. Auntie Jo died of cancer, God didn’t have an answer, rhythm was a dancer…”) but it still works well. ‘The 90’s’ is far superior, however. Another of my favourites from ‘Rudebox’, it’s catchy, frank, and witty in a way that makes Williams as loveable as he is. By the line ‘and the truth be told, I wasn’t fit enough to stay, so I put my head down and walked away’, you are left with much more sympathy than you could ever feel for Williams in any of his anti-Take That interviews. Whilst he may still be slightly pessimistic about his time in the boyband, there’s some acceptance of responsibility and we understand more how Robbie must have felt.
The covers work well too, ‘Louise’, a cover of a song by The Human League, is exceptionally faithful to the original with glossy, electronic production by William Orbit to bring it into the 21st century. ‘Kiss me’, a cover of Stephen Duffy’s 1980 track, also works well and lifts the album back up after the rather lacklustre ‘Burslem Normals’. ‘We’re the pet shop boys’, another cover isn’t as successful & ‘Bongo Bong and Je Ne T’aime Plus’ is a slightly weird affair. These three tracks are the only ones which could have been perhaps cut from the album.
The album comes to a close with a stunning version of a song called ‘Summertime’. The song had appeared a few years earlier during the credits of ‘Mike Bassett: England Manager’, but thanks to a make-over by William Orbit, the song is greatly improved and has a fantastic smooth, summery feel to it.
Since Robbie’s triumphant return with the ‘Take The Crown’ and ‘Swings both ways’ album, he has been less than complimentary about his 2006 effort (although he did defend parts of it in a blog entry in 2013). It saddens me that Rob would dismiss his album in such a way when in all fairness, it’s a bloody good album and so much work must have gone into it. I understand it’s not a conventional Robbie album and perhaps at times it lacks credibility. But what it lacks in credibility it makes up for in charm, charisma, boldness and an enjoyable listening experience. Every artist needs to diversify in their career to remain relevant and to explore new territories to avoid losing their appeal. And that’s why I defend ‘Rudebox’ and that is why it remains my favourite Robbie Williams album.