Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Songs of My Lifetime: "Angels" - Robbie Williams

Angels (1997)
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.

9 comments:

J.Mensah said...

Aww! this is nice! I cherish those moments where songs that have had such a great impact on my life just come up on my iPod. What amazes me more is how you've written so much about 1 song. Just WOW!

ww_adh said...

Thanks! I think it will be fun to do these. I want to throw in a little bit of history about the song, talk about its context in popular music, and then discuss its personal meaning to my life.

Louder Than SF said...

Agreed. One of those classic songs that just never gets old or dated, and one of the best possible arguments for why Robbie really is a superstar.

Chris B. said...

I love "Angels," too, and I'm glad you introduced me to it. If only I knew you when Robbie played the 9:30 Club! That's a live performance I might have actually enjoyed.

Paul said...

I absolutely love Robbie, but Angels is possibly the biggest of his hits that I come back to the least. Not because it isn't astounding (it is) but because it's so ubiquitous for the British public. I mean it's still everywhere. Karaoke, tv talent show backing music, anytime someone dies on a tv soap, etc! Love your write up :P

rcLoy said...

The song that introduced me to Robbie Williams. Love it~

A1 said...

love the nostalgia in the write up ..bring on the next single!

ww_adh said...

Thanks guys! I appreciate the nice comments. I'll have to do more of these.

Anonymous said...

I really like 'Phoenix from the flames', 'Killing me', 'Bodies', 'Win some lose some', 'Lazy Days'. Their my fave Robbie tracks. 'Stalkers day off' is hilarious :) I woz 16 wen he released his 1st solo album. From Sarah L