Who wouldn't want to be a pop star? You can drink more, shag more, take more drugs and generally be more than anyone else. You're indulged by a coterie of enablers, funded by a record label, and loved by an audience who, if they don't want to do you, at the very least want to be you. What's not to like?
When Robbie Williams was a hyperactive teenager in the West Midlands provincial town of Stoke-on-Trent, he was mad on pop and hip-hop and not the slightest bit interested in following his parents in running a pub. So when, at 16, he was invited to join a boy band being formed to capitalise on the early-'90s explosion of teen pop acts, he said yes. When the combination of opportunity, an insane schedule and his own insecurities led him to more drink and drugs than the carefully crafted boy band Take That could handle, he said yes to a solo career.
Robbie Williams Track By Track
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Robbie Williams Track By Track
Robbie Williams discusses his hit tracks in detail.
With his bright, catchy pop songs, genuinely moving ballads and eccentric numbers that rode the zeitgeist, he sold more singles and albums, and won more awards, than any solo British artist before him.
He played bigger and bigger shows at home and abroad, culminating in a three-night run to nearly 400,000 people at the fabled Knebworth grounds, where Led Zeppelin played a generation earlier.
He told one interviewer he was rich beyond his wildest dreams.
''Everything I touched was golden,'' he sang in 2001's The Road to Mandalay.
He slept with famous and not-so-famous women, and was linked to scores more in the tabloids. All this as his lyrics simultaneously revealed and mocked himself.
''So self-aware, so full of shit,'' one song went. Despite the self-lacerating tone, some called him a narcissist, a charge he does not dispute.
''I don't know about an awful lot of stuff,'' Williams says. ''I'm not educated. I left school when I was 16, with no qualifications.
''The thing that I do know about is my feelings and what I think of the world and what I think of me. I'm as narcissistic as anybody and, like you say, self-lacerating. That's my brand of narcissism - hating myself.''
When he moved to Los Angeles in 2004 - because nobody there knew or cared much about him - it slowed his sales and dimmed his ubiquity.
Nevertheless, he was still selling more than most artists do in a career. ''I did [2006's] Rudebox and even though it sold 3 million, people regarded it as a stinker,'' he says. It was then the questions he had buried began to nag.
I never thought that the magic had left me.
Did he really want to be a pop star? Was he good enough? Would he be loved if not for his pop-star status? He poured out his insecurities in The Trouble with Me on his 2005 album, Intensive Care: ''You see the trouble with me, I've got a head full of f---/I'm a basket case, I don't think I can love.''
His tone has changed in the newly released Take the Crown, his first album in five years. In the opening song, the 38-year-old sings defiantly, ''They said the magic was leaving me … I don't think so.''
But was there a time when he believed his magic had faded?
''I did the rock'n'roll-pop cliche of getting burnt out,'' he says. ''I'm not the first person that happened to and I'm sure I won't be the last.
''The entertainment industry and my place in it is a place where you burn brightly for as long as you can. [But] I never thought that the magic had left me, if I could obnoxiously call what I do magic. But I did want everything else to just go and leave me alone. I was ill.''
This was obvious to audiences during his tour of Australia in 2006. On his first two tours here in 2001 and 2003 he gave great shows. Williams wowed the crowds with his charisma and some of the best mainstream pop songs of his generation. But in 2006 he looked bored beyond belief. The audience had no idea he was exhausted and physically and emotionally ill. They just thought he didn't care.
''Where did you see it? Sydney? Yeah, yeah,'' he says. ''I wasn't bored but I didn't do myself justice.
''And I feel bad about that. I stopped caring because I couldn't physically or mentally care.
''When people go, 'Do you have any regrets?', it's that I didn't do myself justice.
''I got overwhelmed and frightened and broken.''
As he sees it, ''my eyes were actually bigger than my belly''. His seemingly unstoppable career led to a desire on the part of everyone involved to do more, to get to the top of the charts and stay there.
All that was hard enough but with Williams's insecurities and insistent suspicion he was not really as good as everyone said, hollowing himself out was inevitable.
''I think if you are delusional enough to believe, if I was delusional enough to believe [the hype and praise], my job would be a lot easier,'' he says. ''I actually believe the opposite of that, which makes the job kind of frightening and impossible the further it goes.''
Oddly enough, his confidence returned when he went back to his youth - the one he'd been in such a hurry to leave - and rejoined Take That.
The boy band had returned after nearly two decades away to release the fastest-selling album in Britain and fill the giant Wembley Stadium for a staggering eight nights.
Williams didn't need the money or the adulation - he was about to marry American actor Ayda Field and they would have a daughter (Theodora Rose, now 2 months old) - but that tour was comfortable and easy, with the pressure dissipated among five performers.
In the middle of those shows, he had a solo set. ''It was in those 27 minutes by myself, in a stadium, where I got my confidence back and hit the reset button on my body and mind,'' he says.
On Take the Crown, there is hardly any real breaking down of his personality. He is less abusive about himself, happy even.
He attributes the change partly to writing with Take That's Gary Barlow, with whom he has had a sometimes combative but now incredibly close relationship.
''We were writing together and we wrote what I would say was a euphoric song about being happy and he said, 'This isn't like you at all. You always write miserable songs,''' Williams says.
''I didn't realise that I did until he pointed [it] out and I thought, 'Yeah, I can't do the misery thing forever.' And I wouldn't mean it anyway now because life's changed. I'm more settled. I believe in the love that my wife's got for me and that's filled me up in many ways. Being a father is already helping and life is brilliant for me now.''
He quotes from one of his own songs: '''I just want to feel real love in the home that I live in.' Well, I got it so obviously the view from here is different.''
It is strange to hear Williams talk this way. Through his serial relationships, and his habit of running from them, it seemed clear he never trusted in love - or believed he deserved it.
''It's that Groucho thing of 'I wouldn't be a member of a club that would have me as a member', I suppose. That's how it was,'' he says.
''I wrote this song called Heart and I and I realised I was 34 or 35 and I had always thought that getting better would happen in the future and then the future hit me and I was still feeling like shit.
''That was the moment, that very moment that I thought, 'I'm the only one that can do this.'
''But how the f--- do I do it? If I don't do this, I'm going to spend a whole lifetime in misery.
''It was that moment I knew I had to do it and I just did.
''It was actually just a change of mind and catching the way you talk to yourself, the way you let the world in. The knock-on effect is positive.''
That is why Robbie Williams wants to be a pop star again. But this time on different terms.
Take the Crown is out now.