I went to see Robbie Williams on Friday night.
As with everything else in my life, I did this 10 years after it was 'cool' to do so. But you know my thoughts on 'cool'? Cool is so uncool. Regardless of what year it is (what year is it?) my thoughts on the controversial subject of Robbie Williams have not changed. I liked 'Lazy Days'. I like 'Not Like The Others'. I just didn't get chance to see him when he played Knebworth, and before that I was not the sort of person who went to gigs. My first live gig was Pink in Manchester in 2004. I was 28 years old. But I've always been a big Robbie fan. There you have it. Get over it. I'm not listening to Muse or Kings Of Leon because you tell me to and because they are not 'commercial'. I worry about people who give up on their favourite things because they have become 'commercial'. You're taking something enjoyable out of your life because other people have cottoned on to its value. Like a child who doesn't want any sweets at all if he has to share them with the other children.
So Robbie, anyway. He's been playing at Manchester City's Etihad Stadium, which is another good reason to write this piece. Just to see how many times I can mention the Etihad stadium and so annoy my Manchester United supporting friends. By the way, I can confirm that to my disappointment, there is a Bell Stand at the Etihad, but not a Bell End as has been suggested in some more whimsical pro-United circles. Anyway since I went to the penultimate Robbie show I had already seen how much trouble other people had been having getting there through the chaotic traffic. One horror story in particular told of a journey from St.Helens to Manchester (roughly 30 miles or so) which took three and a half hours. So I was glad that we had already thought this through and decided to stay over. The truth is we'd have stayed over if all other traffic had been banned from the M62 for the weekend, but as it turns out getting there early was a good idea.
Shockingly, the Premier Inn costs £135 on the weekend when Robbie Williams is in town. Most other times of the year you can get in for half a bag of grapes. The only thing that is not Premier is the price. Or something. I know someone who apparently paid £200 to stay in the Lowry where Robbie and his support act, pork-pie and braces wearing warbler Olly Murs, were staying. So I suppose you might say I got off lightly but this is a Premier Inn we are talking about. It's the very definition of basic, and our room had no soap and a sliding door to the bathroom which could best be described as temperemental. Of course as Dawn French will testify, this is not the first time that Lenny Henry has been economical with the truth. Now every time I see that advert it is going to remind me of the extortionate price, the faulty door, and the quite absurd amounts of people trying to use the check-in machines at the same time when we arrived. When did real life human receptionists stop existing, anyway?
Suitably unimpressed we decided to get out as soon as possible. It was already around 3.00 by the time we had checked in (and been given a room key which did not work and had to be replaced). There's a Wetherspoons on the corner of the street where the Premier Inn is situated so we spent the afternoon in there, eating an enormous fish (Fish Friday, of course) and drinking bottled beers available at £5 for two. That's reasonable in this day and age, and a quick look at the menu confirmed this. One bottled beer normally costs £3.45.
Suitably lubricated we can leave my penny-pinching there and move on to the tram journey. The leaflet which came with the tickets claimed that the Etihad Stadium (that's where Manchester City play, don't you know?) is only 20 minutes walk from the city centre. This might be true from somewhere in the city centre, but according to the information we picked up from the hotel it was more likely to take around 45 minutes. We considered it for a few seconds and then decided that we would be ok getting a tram before the gig. People arrive at different times so there shouldn't be too much of a scrum to get on. It's at the end when the problems start. I remember queueing for what seemed like hours in the rain to try and get a tram back to the city centre from Old Trafford after Grand Final defeats for Saints against Leeds in both 2007 and 2008. We repeated the trick in 2009, invited Wigan to crush our hopes in 2010 before allowing Leeds another chance in 2011. Only we weren't there after 2008. Emma had stood in one tram queue too many and trying to get any of my mates organised for a trip outside St.Helens for any reason is a bit like trying to get Ian Brady to finish his lunch.
Unlike on some other occasions the staff were very helpful. The only problem was that some trams which passed through were chock full of Robbie Williams gig-goers with about as much intention of leaving the tram as I have of having the Wigan coat of arms tattooed on my face. We had to let two go before one arrived with enough space for us to get on. The way was cleared for us to get on first and then we just found a space by the opposite door where I wouldn't get sat on by a fat lass who has drunkenly lost her balance. There were an abundance of these.
The rather pretentiously named Etihad Campus tram stop allows you to disembark right outside the stadium. A lift takes you out of the massive queues of people trying to ascend the stairs at the same time, and you come out just outside the stadium surrounded by food outlets. It's like the food court at your local shopping centre, except it's not McDonalds and Pizza Hut but smaller outlets, possibly independent. Spicy Rat, or something. We pass and try instead to find the right entrance. It is around 7.00pm and Olly is due on in half an hour. While it is possible to live without a rendition of 'Army Of Two' or whatever, you want to get your money's worth. And besides I'm curious to see what he's like. I just like live music and it's not like he can't sing or anything. X-Factor produces some proper talent. I just don't want to sit there and watch while it gets slagged off by self-important gits like Cowell and Barlow. Especially since most of it then disappears from public view, rendering the last 20 Saturday nights of your life a complete waste of time.
So finally we get in and are shown to our seats. It's a mixed bag of pleasant surprise and a weary feeling of 'there's always something'. On the plus side we are sat together. This might seem a small thing, but anyone who has ever been to a rugby league game at Castleford will know that there is no guarantee of this. Same here, as an unfortunate pair of girls are split up. One is sat in the seat next to Emma, while the other, the wheelchair user, has to sit the other side of me, two seats away from her friend. It's quite scandalous to note that in the 21st century it is not possible to accommodate one wheelchair user and her able bodied friend in seats next to one another in a modern stadium at a concert by one of the biggest musical acts in Britain. But that's where we are. They take it in good grace whereas I would have been throwing my beer at the stewards and questioning their parentage. What's worse than the lack of organisation here for me though is the 'it doesn't really matter' attitude of the staff. It's like she should be glad they let her in. As if to say, 'you're at a Robbie Williams gig, enjoy yourself!' Yeah, but she paid for the fucking privilege just like everyone else and deserves a modicum of respect. To borrow a phrase from Robbie, 'what shape of insanity' leads them to think that this sort of treatment is ok? I'm sorry to moan, but Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard wouldn't serving its purpose if it did not point these things out. Yes, it has a purpose...
The other problem is the shape of the stand. The roof hangs over quite low, meaning that if Emma stood up she was unable to see all of the stage. The stage was a little smaller than you might expect in any case, but the main problem here was that Robbie made his entrance from a position way up on top of the giant sculpture of his head which sat at the back of the stage. Both of us had to lean forward to then look up to be able to see him as he swung down onto the stage in the style of an old fashioned stuntman. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Olly played first, decked out in his pork pie and red braces combo. His dancing was a little Monty Python, but there's no doubting his vocal abilities. The only gripe I have is that he was on slightly later than billed and so must have played for not much more than an hour. He knows he is second fiddle and is making absolutely no attempt whatsoever to steal the show, but in many ways that's a shame. On the other hand it is good that he leaves us with some time before Robbie comes on to go back into the battlefield that is the queue for a beer. They kept it simple by offering few options but this didn't completely eliminate the nuisance that is people failing to make up their minds and spending four days getting served. Fortunately most of the queue-chat was good natured gallows humour about brewing it yourself, or the classic 'just run them all over'. As Blackadder once said, I thank God I wore my corset for I fear my sides have split.
And so back to Robbie. We've talked about his entrance so let's move on from that. The whole thing was just splendid from start to finish. Proper Robbie. Anyone who starts a gig by saying 'allow me to re-introduce myself, I am Robbie Fucking Williams' is not going to go into his shell once the music starts. And he didn't. It was an extravaganza of showmanship and plain old dicking around. But in an entertaining, amusing fashion. My highlight was Better Man. This is one of the greatest Robbie songs but he rarely plays it, and it is never played on the radio. But here he took out a guitar and plunk-plunked his way through it with great gusto. To be fair he played both chords faultlessly. Simplicity is genius. You can keep your concept albums and your Dark Side Of The Moon.
It's all here tonight, from Come Undone, Feel, Hot Fudge from Escapology to Strong, Millennium and She's The One from I've Been Expecting You. And lots in between including versions of The Blues Brothers' Minnie The Moocher and Lou Reed's Walk On The Wild Side. At the end of the latter he mischievously muses that 'soon this will all be someone else's dream'. Along with a quick blast of Everthing Changes, this is the only nod to Take That on offer. But then this is Robbie, so that's ok. I would have liked a bit of No Regrets (another of my favourite Robbie songs) but you can't have it all. Remember, I got to sit next to the person I arrived with. How lucky am I? He doesn't sing Different either, contenting himself with just Not Like The Others from the Take The Crown album. It's perhaps an admission that the audience aren't here to listen to the new stuff so much as they are here to jump up and down to Monsoon and drunkennly well up to Angels. It's the obvious finale. It's probably written in Robbie's contract somewhere that if he plays a gig without ending with Angels he will be stoned to death at dawn the next morning. Before that we see Olly again for the duet Kids. He's no Kylie Minogue but somehow it works out alright in the end.
As expected, getting the tram back was a little more challenging. There was less help and more crowds, until one helpful soul advised us to get out of the queue and just get straight in the lift. From there the queues got significantly smaller which was merciful since I was becoming significantly more drunk and on the very edge of Pain In The Arse status.
I can't remember a lot thereafter, but I wouldn't mind betting that I got there in the end.