God, I miss playing music on stage. For me, and for a million other artists, as well as anyone who enjoys live performances, the pandemic has locked up one of life’s greatest joys.
My wife Dawn says, “What you’re missing is people clapping and yelling at you.” Okay, there’s a grain of truth in that, I admit.
But there’s another side to the story, and it’s something every musician will understand. I am not completely myself until I play music in front of an audience.
Through successive lockdowns, I’ve found ways to keep making live music. On Friday you can taste it for yourself when my supergroup special, I’m With The Band, airs on BBC One
That’s what I’ve been doing since I was a teenager, performing in social clubs in the eighties and trying to keep up with the bass and the drums.
No one yelled at me then – or if they were, it wasn’t printable.
So through successive lockdowns, I’ve found ways to keep making live music. On Friday you can taste it for yourself when my supergroup special, I’m With The Band, airs on BBC One.
It features some people who are really good friends as well as excellent musicians including Jamie Cullum, Mica Paris, Tom Fletcher and James Bay. We play a lot of songs just for fun.
With only two days to rehearse together, I wasn’t at all sure what it would sound like. But when we hit the first chord on the opening track, our cover of The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, I felt the reaction in the studio.
Our audience consisted of hairy roadies operating the lights. I felt the excitement and their joy of hearing live music again. It was like a bolt of lightning. Everyone longs for that experience.
When I was young you could see fantastic live performances on the small screen. There were shows like The Tube and The Old Gray Whistle Test that had a sense of danger and adventure in them. Each edition was different as he went wherever the music took him.
The acts on Top Of The Pops may have been imitated, the DJs were often cheesy, but that show created so much excitement – because it was all about the music.
Today, music is often just the manufactured filler. It is forced into a slot between the video diaries and voices on Saturday night talent shows that seem to have forgotten what real talent is.
I’ve been pleading with TV executives for years to get live music back on screen. I keep hearing the same line: ‘Music doesn’t work on television anymore.’
Music always works, I promise you. I’ve spent my professional life seeing the profound emotional effects that live music produces, whether on a single listener or on a crowd of 25,000.
In total I recorded 90 duets. The last was with Elton John, who did Your Song. Then I decided to stop. No one follows Elton, and you shouldn’t try
If it doesn’t work on TV, it’s because we’re doing it wrong.
The biggest musical event of the calendar is now Eurovision. It has become our Superbowl. This year, although I couldn’t help but be swept up in all the spectacle, I realized the title is wrong.
They still call it the Eurovision Song Contest… and it’s not about the song anymore. What wins the votes is the choreography, the visual drama. If it was just about the music, France should have won, because Barbara Pravi’s song, Voila, was beautiful, just amazing.
What a great song, but the Italian band Måneskin put on a better show and they won.
That’s why I wouldn’t want to. Never mind the fireworks, I would think most of the song, which the Eurovision Song Contest is no longer about.
Then there is the international politics behind the vote. You can’t blame James Newman for finishing last – The Beatles would have gotten zero points this year.
Still, it was great to see a live performance in a real venue, after being on hold for over a year.
I have enjoyed some aspects of the lockdown. My wife and I have three children and the oldest two are at an age, 18 and 20, when we might expect less of them.
Because of these tumultuous times, Dawn and I feel like we’ve stolen some quality time with all of our kids. That’s the advantage.
And I must confess that I took the opportunity to slow down and focus on the things I enjoy most about my job, like writing songs. Many artists have told me that they feel the same way, that forced downtime has given them the opportunity to rediscover forgotten music, or to read or paint.
But none of that satisfies the need to perform. One day last year, walking 50 ft from our home in West London to my studio next door, I had a brain wave.
I couldn’t stop by a friend for a jam session. But we can do a duet over the phone.
The first person I called was Ronan Keating, from Boyzone. I knew he would appreciate the idea, even if we didn’t take it too seriously. I think it was me who suggested playing Boyzone’s beautiful song Baby Can I Hold You, originally performed by Tracy Chapman. I’ve always been a little jealous that they did – what an inspired cover.
We were messing around a bit. Ronan pretended not to be sure when the first verse came in. Then he sang the opening words, “I’m sorry…” and I made a serious face. “That’s okay,” I told him.
Then we got a little lost in the moment and sang our hearts out. That song always makes my eyes look good.
The recording was remarkably clean. I did a little mixing in my studio and put the result online, with our phone videos side by side, in split screen. Now that everyone was learning how to have Zoom conversations, I thought our fans might like it.
I was not prepared for what happened next. TV news picked up the story and aired a clip. As I stared at my television in disbelief, my phone rang. “See this?” cried Ronan.
The Crooner Sessions, as we called them, became a sensation… and then got even bigger.
Alfie Boe sang Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now with me, Robbie Williams and I did our hit Shame, and I was joined by everyone in All Saints to re-record Never Ever. Cliff Richard played We Don’t Talk Anymore in his bathroom because he likes the echo. Rod Stewart delivered a roaring take on Rhythm Of My Heart.
All these people were in my contact menu. I haven’t gone through managers or agents to reach any of them – the bonus of 30 years in the business is that I have a lot of friends. And because they wanted to make music as much as I did, the enthusiasm was enormous.
Every morning I jumped out of bed to see who had sent me sound files or lists of suggestions from time zones around the world. Some people knew immediately what they wanted to sing, others spent weeks choosing.
One couple really went down the rabbit hole. Queen’s Brian May came up with the incredible concept of a threesome… with just the two of us. He recorded himself playing the rhythm part of The Beatles’ Get Back, and on top of that did a duet with me – he sang and played lead guitar, me on piano and vocals.
It put my head in it, but wow, it sounded good. Brian is a phenomenal musician. When I hear him play, I understand what it takes to stay at the top for 50 years – as he has.
Cliff Richard played We Don’t Talk Anymore in his bathroom because he likes the echo. Rod Stewart gave a roaring take on Rhythm Of My Heart
In total I recorded 90 duets. The last was with Elton John, who did Your Song. Then I decided to stop. No one follows Elton, and you shouldn’t try.
That’s the caliber of special guest that I dream of joining the supergroup. Rod sings The First Cut Is The Deepest, or Baby Jane? I defy any TV suit to see that and tell me, “Music doesn’t work on TV anymore.”
One of the big changes, especially during the lockdown, is that everyone is listening to everything. The era where last month’s music was irrelevant is long gone.
Thanks to music streaming services like Spotify, we’re making playlists from decades past — a little bit from the 1990s, some super sixties, a new release, and then a blast from the eighties.
I think that’s what the TV audience will love too. There’s no point in seeing a pop band play a shortened version of their new single at the end of a chat show. Why don’t you play something different, something wild, a cover version from back in the day, just because it sounds great?
That’s how you make music sensational on television again, and that’s what we want to do with I’m With The Band. In Friday’s pilot, pop sensation Anne-Marie joins us for a funky version of How Deep Is Your Love by the Bee Gees.
I’ve played that song countless times with Take That, but we never thought of doing it with a wah-wah guitar.
Craig David also comes in with a few of his classics, including Seven Days. Singing harmonies with him was a real buzz.
I also interviewed both guests for the show. I have no ambitions to be the next Graham Norton or Dermot O’Leary, but I like talking to musicians about what makes them tick. Those chats stayed on the show because I wanted to give it a late night feel, especially appealing to music lovers rather than the widest possible primetime audience.
Music should be about passion, the joy of hearing something that touches your soul as well as your feet.
If we get this format right and the BBC comes back for more, I have huge plans for it.
That also means that I take a step back every now and then. I daydream about inviting Sting to lead the band for a week. It is, after all, a supergroup.
And I’m optimistic about playing live venues and going on tour again later this year if possible. The first step is to hit the road with my solo band.
Then it would be great for Take That to play arenas. But we need the pandemic to stand firm in the rearview mirror before this happens. No one wants to see a socially distancing crowd of 50 in a stadium that can seat 50,000.
I had fun in the lockdown. But I’m ready for it to be over now.