You’d think that being the primary frontman of a boyband would be an excellent platform for solo superstardom. After all, it’s your voice on all those hit singles and your face getting the most screen-time in music videos. Indeed, Jackson Five frontman Michael Jackson and NSYNC co-lead singer Justin Timberlake were able to parlay their group dominance into individual success. If you consider Wham! to be a boy band (I’m not sure, to be honest), then George Michael is another example.
But others weren’t able to find much success outside of their groups. Ralph Tresvant sang lead on most of New Edition’s hit singles, but only managed two hits on his own. That was one better than either Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block or Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees managed outside of their popular groups. And, of course, we’ve covered NSYNC co-leader J.C. Chasez’s solo debut album, which flopped so badly it ended his bid for stardom before it really began.
Then there’s the curious case of Gary Barlow. The Take That frontman was a fantastic singer who sang lead on almost all of his band’s songs. And whereas most boybands relied on outside songwriters, Barlow wrote or co-wrote nine Top 10 UK hits, including five #1 singles, during the band’s initial run from 1991 to 1996. When he went solo in 1996, the British media immediately anointed him as the next George Michael. Success was not only expected, it was preordained.
As such, that only made what eventually happened all the more shocking. In 2000, barely four years after Take That’s breakup, Barlow suffered the ignominy of being dropped by his label, all but ending his solo career. Worse, he had to watch as bandmate-turned-nemesis Robbie Williams wrote songs attacking him and making fun of his misfortune en route to becoming one of the best-selling artists in the world.
Where did it all go wrong? It started with his second album, Twelve Months, Eleven Days.
In 1996, Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams had one. Or at least Williams had one with Barlow. Williams, still bitter about being fired from Take That due to substance abuse issues and insubordination and jealous over the attention and acclaim Barlow had received as the leader of the group, took aim at his former bandmate and made a bold play for solo stardom. And the press played its part, constantly comparing Gary’s and Robbie’s songs, chart performances, and personal lives. Much like how it would hype up the Blur/Oasis feud with “Battle of Britain”-style headlines, the media egged on Barlow and Williams, pitting them against each other in the “Battle of the Boyband.”
“My problem has always been with Gary. It was always with Gary. I wanted to crush him. I wanted to crush the memory of the band — and I didn’t let go,” Robbie admitted years later.
At first, it looked like Robbie would be the one that got crushed. After a stint in rehab, as well as a by-the-numbers cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90, Williams released his 1997 debut album, Life Thru a Lens. Heavily influenced by the then-popular Britpop sound, the album stalled on the charts during its initial few weeks of release. The album’s first three singles (“Old Before I Die,” “Lazy Days” and “South of the Border“) did reasonably well, but didn’t really capture the imagination of the record-buying public.
Meanwhile, Barlow started off with a smash. His debut album, 1997’s Open Road, entered the UK albums chart at #1, and his first two singles, “Forever Love” and “Love Won’t Wait,” also hit #1. Featuring Barlow’s own songwriting, along with outside contributions from the likes of Madonna, Shep Pettibone and Diane Warren, the album did well enough to merit an American release (something that took Williams another two years to accomplish), albeit with two additional tracks: “Superhero,” a song Barlow co-wrote with Max Martin, and a solo live version of “Back For Good,” Take That’s only song to chart in the U.S.
Indeed, if you had called time on the “feud” on December 1, 1997, Barlow would have been the winner by TKO. But on that day, everything changed. Williams released “Angels,” his fourth single from Life Thru a Lens. The song became a megahit and it’s probably not hyperbole to say that it single-handedly saved his solo career. The song rekindled interest in his album and Life Thru a Lens, eventually went to #1 in the UK.
More hit albums and singles followed, and Williams became a global superstar (outside the U.S., of course). He also earned a reputation as someone who wasn’t afraid to change up his sound and try something new. From 1998 to 2002, he released four hit albums and they all sounded fairly distinct from one another. For instance, 1998’s I’ve Been Expecting You is more of a traditional pop album than Life Thru a Lens, 2000’s Sing When You’re Winning turns up the dance and electronic elements, 2001’s Swing When You’re Winning is a Sinatra-style swing album, and 2002’s Escapology is the requisite “mature, introspective” album. His commercial output declined a bit after that, but he remains a big star. In his home country, he recently tied Elvis Presley for most number one solo albums on the British charts.
As for Barlow, he seemed uncertain about his next move. He certainly didn’t seem inspired, as he unimaginatively titled his 1999 sophomore album, Twelve Months, Eleven Days after the amount of time he spent in the studio working on it. “I did go for it,” Barlow said about his solo career in the 2006 documentary Take That: For the Record. “But I did feel like I was repeating old ground, really.”
Indeed, most of the songs on his sophomore album sound like they could have been written and recorded during the sessions for his first one — or even when he was in Take That. Don’t get me wrong, some of them, particularly “Walk,” “Arms Around Me,” “All That I’ve Given Away,” and “Nothing Feels the Same” are quite good. That’s hardly a surprise, as Barlow can write great adult contemporary pop songs in his sleep.
But it reeks of an artist who is out of ideas. In one instance, that’s definitely the case as second single, “For All That You Want,” is really just a re-recorded version of “Superhero” only with a few different lyrics. Additionally, the production is more muted, as the newer version is slightly slower than the original and sounds a bit flatter. Not sure why he felt the need to re-record an older song. Maybe he felt it was okay since it hadn’t been released in the UK so it was new to them.
Or maybe he didn’t think he had enough good singles on the album, so he went with one he felt strongly about — especially after lead single “Stronger,” one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t sound like it could have been on Open Road, flopped. With a Latino-inspired dance flair, “Stronger” sounds more like Enrique Iglesias than typical Barlow fare. It’s not the most natural fit for him and he comes across as awkward and uncomfortable throughout the song.
Plus, it unintentionally invited more comparisons to Williams, who had released the similarly-titled “Strong” as a single several months prior. By that point, Williams was well on his way to becoming a superstar and had left Barlow in his wake to the point where Robbie now considered the Gallaghers to be his primary friends-turned-enemies. Nevertheless, Barlow continued to suffer when being compared to his former bandmate/subordinate. “I never lay in bed wishing I was Robbie Williams, but 7-8 years ago, I lay in bed wishing I had his career, definitely,” he said in Take That: For the Record. “I didn’t want to be something I wasn’t. Maybe I should have been. Maybe I should have tried it.”
Then again, he might not have been capable of the kind of reinvention that Williams was able to pull off so effortlessly. While Williams may have felt stifled and ignored in Take That, it also meant he had a blank slate when he went solo, allowing him to confound and surpass whatever limited expectations there were for him. Barlow, however, had a brand — he was the sincere, serious one. Much like Tresvant was the nice guy in New Edition and just did more of that for his solo debut album, Barlow doubled down on his boyband persona when he solo.
One reason was necessity. He never quite had enough charisma, versatility and charm on his own — especially without the other members of Take That behind him. Put simply, Gary may have been the talented one in Take That, but he had also been the boring one — the safe, predictable guy who always delivered. “Gary Barlow was an ordinary piano player around the clubs, and all of these guys were brought in to support Gary,” said Kevin Kinsella, Williams’s former manager, in the 2004 documentary, The Truth about Take That. “But Gary hasn’t got the personality to be able to make it — with the band, yes, but put him on his own, he was a piece of shit.”
That’s definitely harsh, but there is some truth there. And it underscores the fact that Barlow really is at his best when he’s sitting at his piano and singing lovely, sincere, pleasing songs. For instance, at around the same time he released Twelve Months, Eleven Days, Barlow guest-starred on an episode of the UK show Heartbeat. He essentially played himself and even performed one of his songs at the end of the episode — a stripped down version of “All That I’ve Given Away” that actually sounds much better than the one that made the album. One wonders whether the rest of Twelve Months, Eleven Days might have benefited from a similar treatment.
Instead, what we got was an unfocused album from an artist who really didn’t seem inspired, and the public reacted accordingly. Twelve Months, Eleven Days flopped on the British charts, peaking at #35 — a shocking fall from grace for guy used to being at the top of the charts. “Stronger” and “For All That You Want” did slightly better on the singles’ charts, peaking at #16 and #24, respectively. However, considering his chart history, that was a major disappointment. For reference, Gary Barlow hadn’t failed to crack the Top 15 on the UK singles’ chart since “Once You’ve Tasted Love,” Take That’s third single off its 1991 debut album, Take That & Party.
With Barlow suddenly ice cold, his record label acted swiftly and decisively. Sony cancelled a planned singles release for “Lie to Me,” a song Barlow later said was the best one on the album. Then came the hammer blow. Barlow was dropped by his record label, a move he said hurt him deeply and shattered his confidence. Barlow later said he imagined Robbie and his team laughing at him and declaring their man the winner, and revealed he had even asked his bank if he could change the name on his credit card because he felt so embarrassed to be himself. “I couldn’t get away from the industry quick enough. I just wanted to hide. It was very humiliating, the lot of it,” he said in Take That: For the Record.
Barlow tried his hand at writing songs and producing for other artists, but as he soon found out, his name was toxic and reeked of failure. “Nobody wants anything to do with [you] whatsoever,” he told Metro. “It’s like having leprosy. Nobody wants any connection with you whatsoever.” Indeed, as Sean Smith recounts in Gary: The Definitive Biography of Gary Barlow, even Victoria Beckham, the least musically talented Spice Girl who made a widely derided solo album in 2001, didn’t want people to know she was working with Barlow. According to Smith, Beckham would sneak over to Barlow’s house to work on music and leave once David was done with his daily training sessions at Manchester United. To add insult to injury, none of his songs appeared on her album, although given the reviews for Victoria Beckham, that might have been a blessing for him.
Ultimately, he managed to find some limited success during this period, writing songs for popular English boyband Blue, Australian pop star Delta Goodrem and his old Take That bandmate Mark Owen. Then came a fairly unlikely comeback. Barlow and his former bandmates took part in a 2005 documentary, Take That: For the Record, which was so popular and well-received, it led to a reunion of the post-Williams lineup. Take That released two excellent and very popular albums, Beautiful World (2006) and The Circus (2008), putting Barlow back on the A-List. He even buried the hatchet with Willams — the two sang an autobiographical duet about their feud that hit #2 on the British charts in 2010. Later that year, Williams returned to Take That, and the band produced their best album, Progress.
Since then, Barlow’s critical and commercial reputation has bounced back and he’s settled into a role as distinguished elder statesman of the UK pop scene. He won plaudits (and an OBE) for helping plan the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert and has even resumed his solo career, releasing successful albums in 2012, 2013 and 2020, as well as a Christmas album in 2021. While he claims to be over what happened to his career in the early 2000s, there is a moment during the title track to his first solo album in 14 years where he lets the mask slip a little. On “Since I Saw You Last,” he goes in on people who wrote him off and ridiculed him for all of those years, and even does the unthinkable and drops an un-Barlow-like f-bomb. It’s so shocking and out of character for him that it’s a bit like seeing Mother Theresa beat up a homeless person. “I know you heard/ My shout for help/ For those who stood and watched/ Go f*** yourself.”
So maybe that’s why, despite re-releasing Open Road in 2018, he hasn’t gotten around to Twelve Months, Eleven Days yet. Considering all of the bad memories it brings up, it might be for the best.