Williams had been recruited into Take That as a 16-year-old in 1990, but five years later was asked to leave the band amidst a storm of allegations of bad behavior including – horror! – an apparent binge with Liam Gallagher at the Glastonbury Festival.
Two years later he released debut solo album Life thru a Lens: it would go on to shift some 2.5 million copies, spend a total of 147 weeks in the British Top 40, including two weeks at No. 1., as well as spawning the single “Angels” – which remains the biggest-selling single of his career. The following summer he returned to Glastonbury as a performer with a barnstorming setlist that he introduced to the crowd with: “Last time I came here I got the sack – thank f**k for that.”
In February 1999, Q caught up with Williams for a piece that was published shortly before his 25th birthday. Revisiting it now, with the benefit of hindsight, it makes for an unexpectedly sobering read. At the time, Robbie was seen as largely a figure of fun, a guaranteed good time, pop’s clown prince… but as revealed below, his answers to a series of largely apparently-innocuous questions show another, more troubled side to the star. (In 2004 he published Feel, written in conjunction with journalist Chris Heath, in which he opened up about his drink and drug addictions, as well as his mental health issues and the deep unhappiness his fame brought him.)
Here's the interview in full – from half a lifetime ago.
How the devil are you?
Not too bad.
What was your highlight of the year ?
The second night at V98, the album selling well, the Brits, Glastonbury – everything’s been great.
Lowlight of the year?
Today. It’s all getting on top of me a bit. I look to the future and I see the European tour, then more dates in England. I think to myself. F**king hell, what have I done, what have I created? I worked out the other day that next year will be my tenth year as a pro. Which is amazing considering I’m only 24. It’s just I’ve created this persona – people expect something from me. Oh, I’m just having one of those days today.
Were you scared at Glastonbury? You said you were “s***ting yourself” but were you just being cute?
Before I went on [at Glastonbury] I was behind the stage going, F**king hell, this is the biggest audience I’ve ever played to. When you’re in a boy band you get used to lads following down the street calling you a c**t. I was playing in front of all those lads who called me a c**t.
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Is your new album [1998's I've Been Expecting You] better than the last one?
It is better. Mind you, that’s not hard. The first album was OK, the second is alright. It’s a good pop album. I don’t like any of it at the minute, I’m bored of it. I keep coming to European TV shows and have to mime along to it and that’s a bit demoralizing. I sort of sing under my breath, but I’m actually the world’s worst mimer – I sing the wrong words, spin the mic when I should be singing. I’m terrible.
Why the Travis Bickle Mohican?
Normally when I change my hairstyle I go on a bender. It’s like, I don’t like me, I’ll go and get p**sed. When I dyed my hair blonde I got p**sed for two weeks. With the Mohican I got slaughtered. It looked daft. But one tries these things. It was, Look at me, I’m hard… but I didn’t feel hard when I had it.
What’s better: recording or playing live?
Playing live! I don’t bother going to the studio. I only turn up for some of the vocals. I’m not a real musician but I think you know that. I’m not a real welder… I’ve just got the goggles. The only thing I’m good at is showing off. Playing live is when I get to do that.
Is it true that there was a “dirty version” of your documentary [Robbie Williams: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em] (the “clean version” was shown over the Christmas holiday)?
On one version I smoke and may say the odd F-word. It’s not Robbie goes on a ping pong throwing session with a Thai lady. It would probably be more interesting if it was.
You talked about your alcohol addiction too, didn’t you?
It’s a documentary about me: stuff I think, stuff I do, stuff I am. I’m still p**sed.
You looked a bit unhinged on [raucous music and chat show] T.F.I. Friday recently.
That’s probably the medication I’m taking. I looked at it – lots of people said I looked unhinged. I thought I looked alright. I felt knackered to be honest. At the moment I’m trying to organize a working week thing – five days working, two days off.
Do you love the camera?
Does the camera love me? If Robbie Williams goes on a TV show people are going to watch it because something’s going to happen. I suppose it’s part of me. I wouldn’t be in this business if it wasn’t.
Do you go out in disguise?
No. Oh, I did wear a mophead once on the tube. But it just looked like me wearing a mophead.
You’ve proved everyone wrong, made your second album and it’s been successful. Do you feel fulfilled?
Musically I do. I’ve written a good pop album. Said what I wanted to say. Now I want to do something different – I’m thinking of writing a film or a book. Or taking six months off. I’m sick of seeing me and I’m sure everyone else is too.
Despite being hugely famous, Phil Collins always used to worry about the people who didn’t like him. Can you empathise with that view?
I understand why people wouldn’t like me. It’s not their fault. I used to be concerned about it a long time ago. It looked like I had no artistic integrity, like I was a little poppet, a cheeky chappie. Plus I’m very handsome – girls throw themselves at me and I’ve got a very good looking girlfriend. If I wasn’t me, I’d hate me too.
How famous is too famous?
Madonna. Michael Jackson. I’ve been really famous since I was 17. It goes with my life. Would I miss it? I don’t know. Probably. It’s handy if you want to get into restaurants and clubs. It was like that at school too. Everyone knew who I was. Except the teachers.
Most impressive person you met this year?
Tom Jones. He’s f***ing tops. He’s spot on. We did interviews together this year and we were like a double act. He’s so funny. It was the most surreal time, mucking around with him. He has my favorite voice and used to move amazingly well.
I read that. I thought it was about right. I did think, Oh Gary will be upset, Gary’s hero is saying that about Gary. Then I laughed my head off.
Are you still bitter about Take That? The songs on your album suggest you are.
Hum, I wish I could do something anonymous. I wrote what I know about, about what’s upset me. Invariably when someone hears "No Regrets" they’re going to know it’s about Gary. I’m just being honest. Painfully honest.
[Original interview by Andy Pemberton, February 1999.]