Robbie’s writing partner talks us through the pair’s creative process and how it spawned their first No 1 single together
Having sold more albums in the UK than any other British solo artist, Robbie Williams’ 1995 decision to leave the boyband Take That and go it alone must go down as one of the most sensible choices ever made. Combining charisma with catchy tunes, his early albums Life Thru A Lens, I’ve Been Expecting You and Sing When You’re Winning perfectly captured his outgoing personality and raw sentimentality. They are also examples of pop music at its very best, elevated by Williams’ creative partnership with the songwriter, musician and producer Guy Chambers.
It’s perhaps surprising that the pair’s first No 1 single together came from Williams’ second album. Millennium, with a bombastic Bond sample taken from You Only Live Twice, managed to do what Old Before I Die, Let Me Entertain You and even Angels couldn’t, topping the charts in September 1998. Here, Chambers lifts the lid on how the duo created the track…
“Rob had the idea to do something based on James Bond and I had the idea of writing a song called Millennium, mainly out of self-interest. There was a lot of talk about the millennium back then, it’s a bit like the ‘Brexit’ word now… not that I’d write a song called Brexit. I just thought it was an interesting word. I wanted to get an iconic intro, which You Only Live Twice definitely is. It grabs you straight away. As soon as we sampled it and put a beat to it, I knew that was it. I knew it was going to be great.
“I think I put a bassline on it next. We had just the bass and the drums and I knew that sounded good. By doing that you could then take the sample out so therefore the verse suddenly sounds like a verse, because it’s just the bass and drums. Then it was a case of Rob singing to it and that became the melody of the verse, which he came up with pretty much straight away.
“The words would come straight out of his mouth and then it would be a case of refining them and writing them down and looking at them to see if they all made sense. I think I came up with the idea for the football chant in the middle-eight bit, then Robbie came up with the line ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.’ The melody is very sweet, it’s a major seventh, a very pretty melody, but I said, ‘Come up with a football chant for it,’ and he immediately thought of that one.
“I really can’t remember who wrote the chorus but the obvious thing there was to put the sample back in so it sounds big and, ‘Oh, here’s the chorus!’ I’m very unsubtle about choruses, I like them to have lots of bright lights all around them and make them really obvious. So that’s why the sample is in there. Then Rob was singing the words and I sang, ‘Millennium,’ back to him and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s put that there.’ It was sort of obvious and a bit cheeky to be honest. I don’t know if the song really means anything, but it doesn’t matter. The lyrics are funny. Quite often when Rob is writing lyrics he’s just trying to make me laugh.
“The first demo would have been done in a day and then we re-recorded the sample because I think it was either in the wrong key or we couldn’t get the rights for the original. The good thing about re-recording it is that you then own it and you can use it live and there isn’t a problem. Then we refined it. We put real drums on it as well as the beats, added guitar onto it and some Indian instruments. The whole process of refining the demo took weeks, to get it to the point where it finally ended up being a hit record.
“It was our first UK No 1, which was very gratifying. It was also a minor hit in America. It actually did quite well over there. We performed it on David Letterman’s show and at the MTV Awards. It could have been a launchpad for him over there, but for various reasons, he didn’t want to break America. I think it’s an important song in his catalogue and it’s one where as soon as people hear the intro they put their hands in the air and start waving them. It’s incredible because it’s such a bold statement.
“A few months after it had been released and had been a hit, we actually met John Barry, who wrote that amazing string line, backstage at a prom. We wanted to meet him but he was incredibly unfriendly, I got the feeling that he thought we’d murdered his piece of music. It was a bit awkward to say the least, but I’m still a huge John Barry fan.
“Rob doesn’t actually rate this song as one of our best. He doesn’t like performing it. He thinks it’s one of our B songs rather than one of our A songs. I think it’s one of the A songs. That’s okay, we can agree to disagree. We don’t agree on everything, we never did.”
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