Robbie Williams went from underground hero to one-hit wonder in America with one song

Robbie Williams went from underground hero to one-hit wonder in America with one song

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

Robbie Williams has sold 57 million albums and 11 million singles worldwide, but that still doesn’t mean he’s a household name in the States. In England, it’s a different story. There, Williams—Take That’s bad boy, the one whose departure caused the breakdown of the boy band—released a hit that can soundtrack any good sentimental citizen’s earthly departure.

It might seem a bit macabre, but according to two different studies—one in 2005 and one in 2012—Robbie Williams’ “Angels” is one of the most popular songs requested for funeral services. The 1997 single lives on today, with Williams’ sentimental lyrics about his Aunty Jo and Granddad Williams watching over him inspiring thousands of departed or departing people every year to leave their loved ones with the same message. 

While there is some controversy over the origins of “Angels” (A guy Williams drunkenly met in an Irish pub claims to have written it, though he signed the rights to that claim over for about £10,000 in 1997.), the song itself is pretty cut-and-dry. Aping that signature Britpop style popular at the time, Williams moodily croons about his lost love, a girl who offers him protection and love whether he’s right or not. Whereas earthly girls just don’t do it for him, his angel babe “won’t forsake.” It’s a little ghoulish, this notion of being desperately in love with or at least relying on someone who can’t really give it back, but it’s romantic all the same. Did Williams lose his one great love somehow? Or is he looking to his aforementioned relatives for divine support in his terrestrial life? Either way, it’s great song fodder. 

It’s also incredibly sad, but that’s okay. As it turns out, sad songs don’t necessarily make for weepy listeners. A recent study published in The New York Times says that although sad music might be perceived as “tragic,” listeners tend to come away from it feeling more “romantic” than anything, perhaps reminded that their lives are short and, maybe, have the potential to be beautiful still. 

That “Angels” might have romantic undertones makes even more sense considering it’s a Robbie Williams track. The charming, rakish singer made both his Take That and solo careers viable with his James Bond-style charm and wry British wit. This is a guy who’s sexy, who drives fast cars, and who’s a naughty, naughty lad. That he’s in touch with his emotions (and his dead relatives) makes him even more attractive.

Attractive in the U.K., at least. While “Angels” came out in there December 1, 1997, just in time for the big British Christmas-album push, it wasn’t released in the States until about a year later, when Chrysalis UK finally put out Life Thru A Lens in America. Even then, it took a while for Williams to catch on in the States, and while tracks like “Millennium” were hits in the U.K., they hardly made dents in the charts here. In the spring of 1999, Capitol Records finally went all in on Williams in the U.S. and released The Ego Has Landed, a compilation of Williams’ best solo material to date, and the album that, oddly, would launch “Angels” into the collective lite-rock/college-rock consciousness of ballad lovers nationwide. Still, even the relative success of “Angels,” “Millennium,” and 2000’s “Rock DJ,” with its somewhat disturbing dancing skeletal system video, wasn’t enough to really break Williams stateside. After playing a number of small club dates, Williams pretty much admitted defeat here, reportedly saying he couldn’t even be bothered to try anymore. 

That doesn’t mean his record company has given up, though. In 2003, EMI paid Williams a reported $120 million for his next six records, a deal that screams of the label’s hopes for some degree of global success that never came. That contract will be up this November, when Williams puts out Swings Both Ways, his tongue-in-cheek take on some classic swing tracks. Even with Michael Bublé’s stamp on the record, that Americans would embrace something like that—or would embrace the ridiculously British Williams in general—is almost laughable. Still, with “Angels” looming large over his career 15 years after its release, sitting on countless pub jukeboxes and karaoke machines in England, still re-entering the charts from time to time based on download trends, and Williams drawing almost 375,000 people to see him—and to sing along, loudly, to “Angels”—over the course of three days at Knebworth in 2003, it’s hard to blame a label (or Williams, for that matter) for trying to make it work in the colonies.