Imagine, if you will, a British version of New Kids on the Block that managed to have sustained success over five years (as well as launch a pair of strong solo careers) and feature very strong homoerotic undertones to their music and videos. You've pretty much imagined Take That.
Take That was the biggest bubblegum pop sensation in Britain since The Beatles. For the first half of the 1990s, Take That ruled the pop charts in the United Kingdom, but never really broke out in the United States. Not only did they manage to hit it big with the teenage crowd, they also expanded their popularity through effective sentimental ballads. Unfortunately, they never really had the same creative breakthrough that The Beatles had with their album Rubber Soul, although they did expand their horizons a bit during their final year of existence.
The group was conceived in 1990 by record producer Nigel Martin Smith as the UK's answer to New Kids on the Block. He took a trio of performers and added two former professional breakdancers to the mix to form the group.
The core of the group was Gary Barlow, who was the lead vocalist and songwriter for the band and also largely determined their musical direction. He was a gifted musician as a child, and in his late teens he met Mark Owen and Robbie Williams, who both had musical aspirations as well. Williams came from a family of actors and singers and had acted himself on the BBC soap Brookside, while Owen dreamed of playing soccer for Manchester United. When his dream failed, he decided to make a go of it together with the other two and they formed a trio called Cutest Rush, an unremarkable 1989 bubblegum pop group.
The next year, the trio was "discovered" by Nigel Martin Smith and paired with Jason Orange and Howard Donald, two professional breakdancers. Only Donald was over the age of twenty, and Robbie only was of age sixteen when the group first formed. The group started off in late 1990 and early 1991 going on a short tour of gay English nightclubs, after which they released their first single, Do What U Like, in July 1991. This became a minor hit, mostly due to the video which featured massive homosexual overtones and the five boys baring their behinds.
This single grabbed the attention of RCA, who signed them to a record contract late in the summer of 1991. They released their first single, Promises, late in 1991 and it managed to barely scratch the top forty. Their third single, and second for the label, Once You've Tasted Love, peaked at #47 in early 1992, even though it was supported by a tour. At this point, the group looked like a dismal failure, but they were about to explode.
Their fourth single, It Only Takes A Minute (a cover of an earlier hit by the act Tavares), took off in the summer of 1992, peaking at number seven in July. With this single's success, the group became a media sensation in Britain, which culminated in the release of their first album, Take That And Party, to debut at number five upon its release in the fall of 1992. To this point, the group's sound was extremely similar to the New Kids on the Block formula of watered-down r&b, urban soul, and pure pop. Their next single, A Million Love Songs, also peaked at number seven as the year closed.
1993 brought the group even more success. The group's cover of Barry Manilow's Could It Be Magic, which peaked at number three in February, won a Brit award for Best British single; shortly afterward, Why Can't I Wake Up With You reached number two. The group's videos were a large part of their success, often portraying the group in some sort of comedic situation with vague homoerotic undertones.
As you may have guessed, despite the group's huge success in Britain, they failed to take off in the United States. Despite a massive marketing campaign in early 1993 (which even went so far as to get the picture of the band on cereal boxes), the US release of their debut album barely cracked the top 100. This lack of success didn't stymie the band, however; the summer kicked off with the single Pray, which was the first single from their forthcoming second album. The single debuted at number one on the singles charts in Britain. In the early fall, the second single from the album, Relight My Fire, also shot to number one. The album itself, Everything Changes, debuted at number one on the British album charts in October 1993, ushering in a winter which would be full of nonstop hit singles from the album. The album went on to spawn six number one singles in the UK. The album was a huge hit in the rest of Europe and in Canada as well, but was never released in the United States.
As Take That was preparing their third album in mid-1994, Britain's musical tastes were beginning to change, shifting away from the group's trademark lightweight dance-pop sound and toward classic British guitar pop. Bands such as Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, and James became serious contenders for Take That's popularity, and the group didn't ignore the threat. Gary Barlow, in essence, took control of the third album and turned it into a new, more substantive direction. The first single from the forthcoming third album, Back for Good (which shot to the top of the charts), was more substantive than any of their previous singles and earned them good reviews from all quarters of the press. However, the single, which was utterly dominated by Gary Barlow, suggested that Barlow was beginning to distance himself from the band.
Robbie Williams was also trying to separate himself from the group. He made an effort to be known as the "wild" member, and was alienating himself from the rest of the group. Nobody Else, the band's third album, was a number one hit upon its spring 1995 release, but Robbie was noticeably quiet on the record, hardly appearing at all, in fact. During the summer of 1995, it became evident that Robbie was getting ready to break away from Take That. He began to spend his time hanging out with Oasis, who were quickly becoming the new kings of the British airwaves, and he claimed he was working on solo material that sounded like Oasis. When Robbie finally announced his departure from Take That in July of 1995, it didn't surprise anyone. Following his departure, Take That immediately removed his name and likeness from all promotional and commercial material with such speed that it seemed as though the move was long-planned. In fact, Robbie's face didn't even appear on the cover of the American release of Nobody Else, which came out in the early fall of 1995.
Following Robbie's departure, the band was largely dead in the water. Mark Owen wanted to follow a musical path that sounded much like Radiohead and Orange and Donald merely wanted to retire from the music business. Barlow remained the only one who was interested in the more guitar pop oriented path of their third album; he believed that he was the heir to the throne of Elton John as the elder statesman of British pop. Interestingly enough, as the group fell apart, Back For Good took off in the United States, cracking the top forty; it was their only hit in the states.
Take That formally disbanded on February 13, 1996, taking the publicity-laden stance of setting up a toll-free number for distraught fans of the group to call for emotional support. The group released a greatest hits collection and their final single, a cover of The Bee Gees' How Deep Is Your Love the following week. Barlow went on to release two consecutive number one singles in the UK (Forever Love and Love Won't Wait), as well as a number one album in 1997 (Open Road). Robbie Williams, though, went on to be the biggest success from the group, with an armload of number one singles and the enormous 1997 hit Angel.
The group, as well as Robbie's solo career, suffers from a strong backlash against the often soulless guitar-oriented pop music that it is. As always, give it a listen first and draw your own conclusions. One cannot argue, though, that the group was immensely successful in the mid-1990s in Great Britain.