'You felt tension in the air' - Take That talk Northern Ireland in the 90s, their love of Shanahan's, and 30 years in pop
In a hotel suite that’s almost fragile it’s so fancy, Mark Owens is upstanding and throwing his body weight backward, to demonstrate his experience of kissing the Blarney Stone. Gary Barlow and Howard Donald look on, encouraging but perplexed. “I visited it years ago when my wife was doing a play [Man and Boy] with David Suchet in Cork,” he’d explained. “It’s not quite as simple as you might think. Someone’s there to throw you over because it’s out of your reach. From what I remember they were like, ‘over you go’.” So begins the re-enactment.
If there was any time to reminisce about their past adventures, it’s now, as they mark the 30th anniversary of when they first formed as a group, with a monstrous tour announced for next year and the launch of their greatest hits album. There’s much to recall: their early days as leather-clad pop hopefuls towing the industry line, their game-changing breakthrough with It Only Takes a Minute, surviving the rise and fall and rise of bandmate Robbie Williams, and reinventing themselves from teen heartthrobs to dads of distinction.
Today, they’re in great form. They barely have a serious word to say between the three of them, and there’s clearly a lot of love as they look back over their time together.
But sparked by present company, it seems they’re more interested in their times in Ireland, where during their frequent visits, they played in Croke Park and 3Arena multiple times and made many an appearance on The Late Late Show.
“When we go to Ireland we always go back to Shanahan’s on the Green,” says Gary. “We cannot go to Dublin without going there. It’s worked into the schedule one way or the other. Basically, we always come back for the food.”
Howard and Mark interject with their appreciation for their steaks and the sweetcorn, before Mark, cosy in a knitted cardigan of either cannabis or palm trees, we can’t decide, recalls touring Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement came into effect.
“It was a different place 30 years ago,” he recalls. “In our early days, it was quite divided. You felt tension in the air.”
“I remember when we got pulled over in the car by police. I had to get out, and the whole car was searched,” says Howard.
Of course now, Brexit looms and the peace in Northern Ireland might well be compromised. Are they following the news about it?
“No, I’m not,” says Mark. “I don’t know really what’s going on over there with it.”
Howard: “We don’t really know what’s going on over here.”
Gary: “Neither do the government, don’t worry.”
“I just hope that whatever happens is an improvement of life for everybody,” says Howard, remarking on Brexit more generally. “I love the part of being able to go wherever you want in Europe. I’ve got a daughter in Germany, and I’ve got an apartment in Germany, and I hope nothing ever happens to that that I can’t go over easily and freely. Everybody should be able to go wherever they want.”
“Yeah, I agree,” adds Mark. “I’m of the ‘one world’ thought. I don’t like to see any divides, I don’t see the world like that. So I find it quite difficult that they exist.”
If these fears come true, they might find themselves spending more time applying for visas. To mark their 30 years, they’re heading across Europe next summer, including two sold out shows at the 3Arena at the end of April.
They say good things happen in threes and as it turns out, they’re on the road just as their yesteryear counterparts Westlife and Spice Girls reunite.
“It’s an interesting thing, the nostalgia,” says Gary. “It feels like nostalgia is safe: ‘I’ve been here before. I know this’. It’s a funny world at the moment that we’re living in. And people like something they know. I don’t think it’s by accident that all these bands are being embraced.
“I always feel that the business we’re in is making people happy. It’s something I realised when I was 11 years old, and the neighbours came around. I played piano for them, and they all started applauding and smiled. And I went, ‘I like that’. I realise I’ve spent most of my life with the intention of just making people happy. It’s the most fantastic thing you can do in your life.”
For the Spice Girls in particular, whose reunion is sans Victoria Beckham now that she’s busy with fashion and family, Take That’s fortune is an example of how, for pop acts, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They’ve weathered the going and coming of Robbie, as well as Jason Orange, who left the band in 2014 to step out of the limelight. That means they’re confident the fuss around Posh Spice’s absence shouldn’t affect the Spice Girls’ return.
“We had a similar situation when we came back, and I’ve got to be honest, I think we put the most emphasis on Rob not being there,” says Gary. “We had no idea that people we going to embrace us as a four-piece. So I’m hoping the Spice Girls looked at us and made the decision to get out there still.
“Okay, so she’s missing, but there’s four others and they’re great characters, they’re going to sing the same songs, and they’re probably not going to sound that different. I think people are going to love it. They mean so much to the audience, who probably spent their teenage years listening to them. They’ll be transported back to being sixteen again.”
While Robbie is rumoured to appear with Take That for this year’s X Factor final, next year’s activities will continue without him and Jason.
I wonder, was there any truth behind Robbie’s recent revelation that he wasn’t asked to re-join for the tour?
“He’s always asked on the tour. He can come whenever he wants,” says Mark categorically. “We asked Rob and Jason about two years ago, so they might have forgotten. I think we got back word that Rob would be ready in 2023, and Jay just said he didn’t fancy it.”
“Robbie has got his own thing going on anyway,” adds Howard. “He’s got his own success. But this Odyssey album has everybody plastered all over it, so it’s a celebration of all five of us.”
In their three decades together, they’ve earned six Ivor Novellos and heaving mantlepiece of BRIT Awards, 45 million records sales and the status as fastest-selling live act in the UK (with 1.34 million tickets sold in less than 24 hours for their Progress Live Tour). A musical based on their songs, The Band, is about to enjoy a West End residency after touring the UK and Ireland.
While not immune to the odd controversy, Odyssey puts their enduring songs at the front and centre of their anniversary celebrations.
With two greatest hits albums already released and Spotify playlists making curated compilations redundant, they’ve taken a different approach this time. They’ve re-polished some songs and reimagined others, but fear ye not – it’s still very much the work of all five members.
“If you take Pray for instance, which was the first song we worked on for the album, we thought, ‘right, if we wrote that song now, how would we do it?’” explains Gary. “We got some new chords, reworked it, I sang the lead again, but we used the original backgrounds from 1992 so it kept Jay and Rob on there.
“The next song was Everything Changes and we kept Rob’s original vocal, but we sung new background vocals. So we’ve made the past and present meet, it doesn’t feel like we’ve got rid of them.”
“We wouldn’t be able to walk down the street if we did that,” says Mark. “People would be throwing paint bombs at us.”
As is often the way, this compilation album closes a chapter in the band – which means the scheduled tour will complete their foreseeable activity.
“This is going to be the end of part two, which begs the question, what’s going to be part three?” says Gary. “We don’t know, but one of the things we’re excited about is that when we do albums and tours, we spend our time thinking what’s next, and it’s stressful to think about. So we’re really going to enjoy this period making no plans whatsoever, because this does mark a very poignant piece of the story.”
“I’d love to go trekking in the Himalayas,” says Mark, mulling over his time off. “When we’re finished, I’m going to set off, and when I get to the other side, I’ll give the lads a call to see what we’re doing.”
“Do you know where the Andes are?” asks Howard.
“South America?” says Gary.
“No, at the end of the wristies,” Howard grins, earning groans and accusations of dad jokes.
If this is Take That at the end of a chapter – in fine fettle, with an album they’re proud of and tour that’s selling fast – it’s a promising way to conclude.
Odyssey is out now. They play two sold out shows at the 3Arena, Dublin on April 29th and 30th 2019.