Robbie Williams et al 2001 David Bennun
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Robbie Williams/
Super Furry Animals/

[The Mail On Sunday, 2001]



(Def Soul)

ONLY A handful of acts can fill stadia at will or whim, and with most of them it's easy to see why. They are variously, and rather fancifully, seen as icons, prophets, spokespersons, sex gods/goddesses, or some other species of deity.
 Robbie Williams is more of a puzzle. Perhaps the most telling fact is that it would sound odd to refer to him by his surname, rather than simply as “Robbie”. Robbie embodies the exact opposite of that aloof, icy, studiedly enigmatic cool sought after by rock singers for the last thirty years. He's everybody's chum.
 Sexy he may be, but there's no sexual threat to Robbie. He has the least sinister presence of any entertainer since Bing Crosby. True, plenty of the girls and a fair few of the boys here tonight would leap into bed with him, given a chance, but that's more a by-product of celebrity than anything specific about Robbie. The same would probably go for Orville the Duck if he ever made it to this level.
 The “Robbie” persona - a bit saucy, a bit goofy, a bit savvy, more than a bit camp, and entirely showbiz - is summed up in his obsession with Queen. Their Fat Bottomed Girls heralds his arrival onstage (is that a cheer of self-recognition from the crowd?), and his own note-for-note reading of We Are The Champions will conclude the show. From Queen he comes and to Queen he shall return; but when he pulls his Naughty Scamp face, as he will any number of times tonight, it's suddenly clear which pop culture precursor he most closely resembles: not Freddie Mercury, but the Andrex Puppy.
 Imagine if Peter Tork had quit The Monkees in 1968 and become the biggest star in America. Robbie really is that unlikely. But even that doesn't quite cover it. In this weird, pre-Beatles phase that pop music is now going through, Robbie is more akin to one of rock'n'roll impresario Larry Parnes' stable of amiable, willing boys - a Vince Eager or Dickie Pride - gone nova.
 To paraphrase the great Johnny Vegas, Robbie's rallying cry might well be, “I'm not a musician - I'm an entertainer!” Inevitably, he rollicks onto the stage with Let Me Entertain You. Female dancers in peaked caps and SS-style leather coats drop their black, swastika-esque flags and make with the libidinous writhing. Other acts have contrived a totalitarian echo from these giant gigs (see Queen's Radio Ga Ga or, if you must, The Wall by Pink Floyd.) But Robbie may well be the first to make a dirty postcard gag out of it.
 Decked out in a dark, well-cut, single-breasted three-piece suit, and with a skunk-like streak dyed punkily into his hair, Robbie is an energetic and efficient performer; certainly not just going through the motions, but far more relaxed and natural between numbers than during them. His genuine, unfettered delight at seeing every flashbulb in the arena go off at once is the most diverting, and endearing, moment of the night.
 Let Love Be Your Energy, Old Before I Die, Strong, Supreme - all are fair facsimiles of their recorded versions. Solid and crafted rather than inspired, these aren't great songs, but memorable ones. They all sound a little (and in some cases a lot) like other tunes long since embedded in your consciousness. Robbie's greatest hits have a canny way of bringing to mind everybody else's, while steering just this side of litigation.
 “I guarantee you,” he says, in the middle of his new bestseller, the slushy ballad Eternity, “you'll be sick of this song in about five weeks.” That's a generous estimate. Five seconds does it for me. But you can't fault, or dislike, the boy's frankness. If nothing else, Robbie Williams presents the rare and welcome spectacle of a nice guy finishing first. Now, there's a double entendre he could do something with.
 From South Wales to the North of that nation, whence come three fifths of Britain's most invigorating band, Super Furry Animals. Every time this elliptical crew put out an album - which, gratifyingly, is the only thing they do with any kind of regularity - it serves as a twofold reminder. Firstly, that, contrary to appearances, British pop is not required under prevailing law to be dreary, cynical and formulaic. Secondly, that Super Furry Animals would be a joy in even the most vibrant of music scenes.
 To get a sense of the Super Furries, picture a blossom-flecked meadow on a sweet summer's day. All is quiet except for the humming of bees and the distant plucking of an acoustic guitar. Into this rustic Eden thunders a giant tank painted lurid pink, its mighty tracks crushing everything in its path - bees, buttercups, slow-moving picnickers - while hysterical nosebleed techno wallops from its gun turret.
 This is not, by the way, overblown critical whimsy, but a reasonably factual summary of the band's festival tour a few seasons back. Still, it does characterise their mixture of crafty melodicism, lughole-wrenching noise and free-thinking peculiarity. Super Furry Animals have no canon, no interest in classicism, no inkling of tradition. They are enormous fun, and make delicious music to boot.
 Rings Around The World is yet another treat of an LP. Parts of it sound like the entire pastoral psychedelia output of the Harvest label circa 1971 boiled down to three exemplary minutes. Other bits resemble The Archies' Sugar Sugar re-recorded in a Bangor blizzard. Yet further selections seem intent on crossing The Lighthouse Family with the soft rock milestone Frampton Comes Alive. My current favourite is a gorgeous pastiche of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young featuring the immaculately harmonised lyrics:
Sympathy, sympathy
You want some don't come to me
You deserve to diie-eee-eee
Which beats Teach Your Children hands down.
 But for true other-worldliness, there's nothing like a bit of contemporary R&B. A wiry little chap called Sisqó is presently the big noise in this field, and very pleased about it he looks too. His new CD, Return Of Dragon, is a nifty piece of work, catchy as all get-out, full of wriggly beats and even wrigglier vocals, plus the obligatory quavering power ballads, wherein vibrato equals emotion, apparently.
 Sisqó is justly famous for his crackerjack homage to buttock flossing lingerie, entitled, simply, Thong Song. Return Of Dragon picks up where that peeled off. It's mainly about the kind of women who exist in a permanent state of breathless, awestruck and conveniently rhythmic arousal (and, one suspects, in the fevered minds of R&B singers.) That's Sisq's subject, and make no mistake, he's very good on it. Something of an authority, from the sound of it. That's nice. A fellow needs a hobby.

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