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‘This feels like weird yoga,’ laughs Gary Barlow, as he lies on a photo studio floor, his legs crisscrossed in the air. ‘Or Take That Tetris!’ says bandmate Mark Owen, sprawled to the left in a tangle of skinny boho scarves. ‘I feel like a box is going to drop between my legs at any moment,’ adds final member, Howard Donald, who’s also flat on his back.
The three fortysomethings, who are currently arranged like videogame blocks for our cameras, first met in 1990, brought together by a manager who wanted to create a Brit version of US pop group New Kids On The Block. Take That went on to become one of the most blockbusting boy bands ever: 56 Number One singles and 37 Number One albums worldwide and the quickest-selling tour in UK history.
‘No one was sure we were going to last two seconds,’ reflects Gary during our lunch break, as Howard distributes magma-hot chilli sauce across his plate (apparently he smothers it over ‘everything his lips touch except his wife’).
‘Acid house was huge and lads like us weren’t being signed because male vocal groups were seen as being from an earlier time,’ Barlow continues. ‘But with so many faceless dance acts, there was no one to go on the covers of magazines like Jackie and Smash Hits. The industry was crying out for some new blokes.’
Take That by Andy Parsons
‘We’re one of the few boybands who became more successful when we put our clothes on’
As a high-schooler, my bedroom walls were plastered with Take That posters, smeared with Rimmel lipstick kisses. I tell Gary how, aged 13, I bought a copy of More! for the TT pics, found a page of oral sex tips, and naively thought: You have to blow on willies? Do they need cooling down? ‘At that age, yes,’ he laughs. ‘Yes they do.’
Nowadays the band consists of three-fifths of the original line-up, with ex-members Robbie Williams and Jason Orange hokey-cokeying in and out for cameos. It doesn’t appear to have lessened TT’s TNTesque capacity to make fans’ hearts explode. The boys just launched album ‘Wonderland’ and start a huge accompanying tour on May 5.
Despite their continued success, there’s not a whiff of ‘jaded diva’ about the band. I’d imagine that when you’ve done more cover shoots than you’ve had hot (chilli-drizzled) dinners, it’d be easy to get grouchy, but the trio chirpily pull every pose requested of them while bantering nonsense (‘Whatever happened to Jammie Wagon Wheels?’).
When our photographer comments that it’d be fun to have a drone shoot the guys from above, Mark replies that he just bought one for his ten-year-old son Elwood: ‘The controller broke and we just had to wave it goodbye as it drifted away,’ he giggles. ‘Gutted! Poor Elwood was so crestfallen.’
Take That by Andy Parsons
‘Robbie can come and go whenever he pleases, the same as Jason can’
Take That all seem to place high importance on their roles as dads. And just as the threesome have grown up into fathers, many of their hardcore fans from the ’90s are now parents too. With Mother’s Day coming up, we invited London’s TT-lovin’ mamas to get in touch via Twitter with their very own questions for their favourite band:
Katie asks: ‘What are your earliest memories of your mums?’
Mark Owen: ‘I walked out of school one December day to see my mum pedalling down the street on a BMX Ultra Burner. She’d bought it for me on a savings scheme and decided to ride it home from the store. A week later the bike turned up under the tree for me. She was so strong. She’d regularly walk three miles back from Oldham town centre with 30 Tesco shopping bags under her arms.’
Howard Donald: ‘And a bucket of water balanced on her head.’
Mark: ‘On a Thursday she’d have extra bags from Park Cake Bakery, where for 10p they’d give you cut-offs bits of spare cake.’
Gary Barlow: ‘My earliest memory of my mum is her razzing about on a moped. None of the other kids’ mums whizzed around on a Vespa.’
Rashmi asks: ‘Did your mums give you “the birds and the bees” talk?’
Howard: ‘I learned the ins and outs from my older brothers, but I was more interested in breakdancing and bikes than girls until I was about 18. I kept my hands to myself! It didn’t help that I looked young even in my late teens. Bouncers were always turning me away from pubs.’
Louise asks: ‘Can you give us any cheeky clues about what to expect from the “Wonderland” tour?’
Mark: ‘We’re performing in the round, which presents wonderful opportunities, but also problems! We wanted to do something different, and we got all excited about this new format and announced it before we’d figured out exactly how it was going to work…’
Gary: ‘The issue with it being in the round is that for 50 percent of the gig you might have your back to a part of the audience. We’ve had to choreograph everything to keep the whole room engaged and make sure that everyone in the crowd gets equal time seeing each band member.’
Take That by Andy Parsons
‘People were much more judgmental about jelly in the early ’90s’
Lucy says: ‘The video for 1992 track “Do What U Like”, where you’re rolling in jelly semi-nude, was a big influence on my sexual awakening (and that of my gay best friend). How did the concept come about? I appreciate you weren’t afraid of welcoming an LGBTQ audience.’
Gary: ‘I remember being given about £300 and told “Go and get yourselves some outfits,” so me and Jay [Jason Orange] picked up a load of fringed leather jackets from Kensington Arcade and G-strings from [gay sex shop] Clonezone.’
Mark: ‘I think we’re one of the few boybands who became more successful when we put our clothes on.’
Howard: ‘You see a lot of my spandex-wrapped testicles in that video.’
Gary: ‘I know it’s ridiculous, but there’s still something in there that you can relate to now…’
Mark: ‘Yeah, Howard’s balls!’
Gary: ‘Ha! But seriously: even way back then it wasn’t enough for us to just wander round looking moody in suits. It’s the same with touring now.’
Mark: ‘Yeah, and it was a long time ago, attitudes [about LGBTQ culture] were different. In some ways we were trying to take down some of the barriers that were around.’
Howard: [Winking] ‘People were much more judgmental about jelly in the early ’90s.’
Anita asks: ‘OM-actual-G! Robbie Williams recently rejoined you to sing “The Flood” live on “Let It Shine”. What was it like to reunite?’
Howard: ‘Brilliant! Robbie can come and go whenever he pleases, the same as Jason can. We’re more relaxed about it than people think. It didn’t feel any different to when he came on the 2011 “Progress” tour.’
Rah says: ‘Got any tips to maintain your creative space outside of school runs, nappy changes and 175 hours of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”?’
Mark: ‘We try to get a period of time for every record where we go away on our own. We head to New York, to Electric Lady Studios built by Hendrix. The time difference works in our favour – we say goodnight to everyone in the UK, then still have hours to focus on music.’
Delia asks: ‘What did your mums used to shout at you for as kids?’
Mark: ‘One time I was playing football in my backyard with my brother in goal. I decided I was going to smack a penalty at him as hard as I could, but the ball went straight through the window behind him. I got it into my head that if I just pulled all the glass out, and drew the curtains, mum wouldn’t notice that there was a gap instead of a pane of glass. That plan didn’t work.’
Gary: ‘When was that? Last week?’
Take That by Andy Parsons
‘Mother’s Day is really expensive for me now. I have four kids by three different mothers’
Lisa asks: ‘What mementoes from your childhood have your mums kept?’
Howard: ‘My mum’s got my first curl in a box. Pube curl. No! My first little head hair golden curl.’
Gary: ‘My mum’s got lots of home movies of me. When I watch them back, my dad’s never in them, because he was filming. I make a point of getting in the shots when I’m making films with my family.’
Bronwyn asks: ‘What would you do if your kids wanted to go into music?’
Gary: ‘I’d tell them to go for it. My parents were always really supportive of me, even though I come from a background where you’re usually expected to get a “proper job”, and being in Take That is not what I’d class as “a proper job”.’
Howard: ‘My mum was so upset when I told her I was leaving my role as a vehicle painter and panel beater to join a band. She knew that the £25 a week I was paying towards the rent was about to disappear!’
Jill asks: ‘What’s your favourite book to read as a bedtime story?’
Howard: ‘I bought “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” the other day for my son Bowie. He’s discovered that trick where I get three pages in and he decides he’s picked the wrong story and wants another one...’
Gary: ‘I’ve been treating my kids to a story called “The Daddy Who Went to the Dentist”. It’s a tale about a dad who eats too many sweeties and has to have a root canal.’
Finally, how will you be celebrating Mother’s Day with your families?
Mark: ‘I’ll get my children to draw pictures for their mum. My daughter drew a sketch of me the other day, but she painted a smiling poo emoji on my head. I started to worry about whether she thought I was crap.’
Howard: ‘Mother’s Day is really expensive for me now. I have four kids by three different mothers, and I have to treat them all.’
Gary: ‘Now you know how Rod Stewart feels.’
‘Wonderland’ is out now. Take That play six nights at The O2, Jun 6-12.