Written by Robbie Williams & Guy Chambers. Produced by Guy Chambers & Steve Power
Because Robbie Williams has a new album coming out soon, I decided to give his back catalog a listen. Walking home after getting off the Metro yesterday, "Angels" came on my iPod, and I was reminded of what a truly brilliant pop song it is. It has an absolutely gorgeous melody, composed principally of piano, but building with strings and eventually guitar during the choruses and middle section. It is a perfect embodiment of the "wall of sound" approach to pop music--the style that emerged in the '60s where a song adds layer after layer until it's hard to tell them all apart.
I first became acquainted with "Angels" in early 1998 when I was studying abroad in London. It was one of my favorite songs during that pivotal time, when I was truly introduced to British pop music, beyond the few songs that managed to cross the Atlantic to also become U.S. hits. It was on the radio constantly, and although it was never a #1 hit, I consider it the biggest hit during that time, and certainly many would agree it's among the greatest (if not the greatest) British pop songs released in the last 20 or so years (let the debate begin!).
"Angels" was also a pivotal single for the man himself. After launching his solo career with a remake of George Michael's "Freedom" and releasing the first Life Thru a Lens single, "Old Before I Die"--both of which peaked at #2--subsequent singles from Life Thru a Lens failed to match such success, with "Lazy Days" hitting only #8 and "South of the Border" landing outside the top 10. At the same time as his chart prospects spiraled downward, so did Williams' life, as he battled drug addiction and mental illness. "Angels" turned that all around though, cementing what has become a rather amazing solo career that actually (in my opinion) has managed to eclipse his time with Take That.
Any doubts about his viability vanished with this single, which was followed by a string of top 10 and #1 hits, as well as successful albums. In 1999, "Angels" became Robbie's first single to win the Brit Award for best British single--an award he won in 3 consecutive years for "She's the One" in 2000 and "Rock DJ" in 2001. Although Robbie has never managed to take off in the U.S., "Angels" was one of his few singles that actually charted in America, peaking at #53 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #25 at top 40 radio. Due to his relatively unpopularity here, I was lucky to see him perform in 1999 at the 9:30 club in D.C., a rather small venue for such a major international star. I stood in the front of the balcony, and I remember "Angels" was the highlight of the evening as we all sang along.
Because I liked the song so much, I picked up the sheet music and learned to play "Angels" on my keyboard, and convinced my band to add it to our setlist (have I mentioned that I was in a band? That's a story for another time). Although it wasn't one of our strongest tunes, learning to play the piano part made me appreciate the musical structure of the song, particularly Guy Chambers' songwriting, which frequently produces strong piano-based melodies ("Demons" by Brian McFadden" or "Out of the Blue" by Delta Goodrem, for example).
Listening to "Angels" again yesterday, I was reminded of all these reasons why this is one of the great songs of my lifetime, so I decided to write about it in what will be the first of an occasional look at those songs I feel have had the most impact on me. But most of all, walking up Connecticut Avenue yesterday, I just enjoyed how good it is, with the hair on my arms literally standing on end during soaring instrumental section and final chorus.