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Inside Robbie Williams’ Box

Celebrating the days when Robbie Williams, the 2017 Brits Icon (it says here) used to make half decent records. First published in: QX, October 2006

Steve Pafford presents a track-by-track review of quite possibly the gayest album of the year…

So Robbie’s gay after all then. Well one would certainly be forgiven for thinking so, if his latest 80s-obsessed “electronic dance” opus is anything to go by. Despite suing the Mirror last year for alleging he was a cruisy closet case, he’s just gone and made the most gayest, schizophrenic record you could shake a dick at, with les than subtle in-jokes hinting at being well-swung. Robbie’s Rudebox is also the most exuberant album of his career. May I present the evidence, m’Lord?

RUDEBOX Unfairly maligned lead with a curious Casio keyboard motif from 80s novelty hit ‘Da Da Da’, and a saucy stream of rampant references to dirty bumsex including allusions to – shock, horror – double-ending! “So sick I just had to take it”? Well, no one’s forcing you.

VIVA LIFE ON MARS A red herring, inspired, not by the red planet, but David Bowie‘s Hunky Dory era. A country-prog romp featuring hillbilly harmonica and horses galore – Robbie’s own Brokeback Mountain in four minutes flat. Though Pet Shop Boys didn’t produce this, uber-fan Rob still namechecks their celebrated West End Girls travelogue “from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station.”

LOVELIGHT Impressively instant single-to-be, penned by Barnet’s Lewis Taylor, coincidentally one of Bowie’s favourite artists. A dazzling Saturday Night Fever-esque disco inferno infused with ABC-style synthetic soul and a pitch-perfect falsetto that simultaneously out-camps and outclasses the Scissor Sisters’ entire oeuvre in one fell swoop of a hula hoop.

BONGO BONG/JE NE T’AIME PLUS A 90s continental classic for Manu Chao, this is an endearing Eurocentric merry go-round with the original’s world music vibe downplayed in favour of clubby, sultry sax-driven rhythms. Gobby gay fave Lily Allen gets to trade fadeout vocals en francais with our man. Or should that be Madonna’s man?

SHE’S MADONNA As Rob hereby stakes his claim for the hand of the Queen of Pop with this superlative sweeping synth anthem produced and co-written with Rob’s favourite double act Pet Shop Boys. It starts a bit like Madge’s ‘Jump’, an obvious in-joke considering how that’s based on the intro to ‘West End Girls’.

“We worked on this the same time as remixing Madonna’s ‘Sorry’,” says Neil Tennant, “but the song was totally Robbie’s idea, based on a true story – “I love you baby but face it, she’s Madonna/No man on earth could say he doesn’t want her”. We were impressed how quickly he came up with the words.”

A guaranteed No.1, it seems to provide ‘proof’ of Robbie’s heterosexuality. But hang on, surely even someone as buffeted from the real world as him would know that the 48-year old Madge vadge is about as appealing to most of the straight male population as rice pudding? Ah, she’s one of those ‘gay icon‘ type thingies? I get it now.

KEEP ON Rewinding to the 80s Madchester scene and an insistent hotel/motel refrain, this is Happy Mondays at the Holiday Inn-die lite. But not even a parent-loving chorus from Lily Allen can raise this above medicocre. Two parts baggy, one part saggy.

GOOD DOCTOR A straight-up Streets pastiche, and the only pop song to feature the word “hydroanoxycodeine”, this is the Robster bemoaning what pills have done to him, and, after PSB’s recent ‘Casanova In Hell’, the second track this year to use the word “erection”. Hard work.

THE ACTOR “You play a doctor on TV,” sings the self-confessed lush, who goes on to gush, tongue firmly in between both cheeks, “Made of sex, Maida Vale, you are the Alpha Male.” Have we gatecrashed Robbie getting it on with Jeremy Sheffield in W9? Why the hell didn’t they ask me to join them? I’m only down the road in Kilburn!

He then goes into a Vogue-style list of much more famous actor names, with Mrs Ritchie getting another mention. Rob obviously never saw, nay, suffered, Body Of Evidence! Reminiscent of 80s Kraftwerk, it’s not a single but a tasty Teutonic triumph all the same.

NEVER TOUCH THAT SWITCH An electric, funky mid-tempo workout with a Massive Attack of sinister half-whispered vocals. The lyrics imply that he’s surprisingly fearful of being a switch-hitter. Cue sound of QX readers frantically searching for their book of olden gay slang.

LOUISE A faithful fascimile of the Human League‘s 1984 beauty, this exceptional electro-ballad has been brightened up by William Orbit’s fizzy pop rushes and a dirtier throbbing bass. It’s one of Robbie’s all-time favourite songs. Just as well he’s not as keen on The Lebanon then.

WE’RE THE PET SHOP BOYS Industrialised, expansive rendition of an obscure B-side recorded, but not written by, Tennant/Lowe, the producers of this version.

“He told us he loved the song and wanted to record it,” says Neil, “which seemed such an extraordinary idea, Robbie Williams singing “We’re the Pet Shop Boys“, but now he says it’s the best vocal he’s ever done.”

This affectionate tribute to the seminal synth duo sees our narrator reflecting back to ’84 again, when he would imagine himself and his lover as the PSBs themselves. The clue’s in the word Boys, er, boys. Perhaps the Mirror were on to something after all?

BURSLEM NORMALS Take an alluring autobiographical tale straight out of the Morrissey book of self-referencing titles, add a mass of trip-hop beats and a downtempo dose of The Stranglers’ 80s curio La Folie and the result is this melancholic melange, waving “goodbye to the moment”. Wonderfully weird.

KISS ME Delicious disco ditty, originally a 1985 hit for Stephen ‘Tintin’ Duffy. Now it’s an infectious hi-NRG campathon that, along with ‘She’s Madonna’, just screams MEGA-HIT. Expect G-A-Y teeny totty to be dancing round their handbags and gladrags to this for the next ten years.

THE 80S “Things are better when they start/It’s how the 80s broke my heart,” sniffs the author. So The Birdie Song was a cut above ‘Like A Prayer’? This looks back on a decade where he was called “poof”, discovered drugs, and, as this is his take on rap, was apparently grooving to LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. Though someone really should have told him ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ didn’t come out until….

THE 90S Second half of the autobiographical suite with brilliantly barbed lyrics aimed at former colleagues like fellow chubster Gary Barlow (“Ah, it’s nice that you’ve got a mansion/While I’m treated like the drummer from Hanson”). Early press reports of how the lyrics also describe taking a Stanley knife to a certain ex-manager’s eyes resulted in ‘90s’ being cut from the album, so I can’t actually tell you anything about it at all.

SUMMERTIME Back to the 80s for one last time, celebrating the “second summer of love” of ’89 with references to the Stone Roses, Voodoo Ray and a glass of shandy. The breezy backing track boasts more crisp Orbit ambient sqiggles, making it the de facto sequel to All Saints’ Pure Shores, and is a revamp of an old Robbie B-side, making it a total of six oldies.

DICKHEAD Catchy expletive-heavy hidden track with the Robster taking a potshot at his critics: “If you diss me you’ll sell copy, dickhead/What d’you expect, dickhead/Radiohead, dickhead/This is pop, dickhead” ad infinitum. And if you don’t like pop, and this album in particular, then you surely can’t be gay. I mean, Robbie is. Isn’t he?

Robbie Williams’ ‘Rudebox’ is out on 23rd October.

Steve Pafford

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