WALKING up the drive to his bandmate’s LA mansion, Mark Owen knew the future of Take That as a fivesome was at stake.
Earlier he’d received the shocking news Robbie Williams wanted out just two months after their secret studio sessions in New York.
The bombshell left not only the new album in peril but the money-spinning tour too – and the rest of the band were incandescent.
Gary Barlow was particularly incensed by the news, which no one saw coming. Months of negotiations had seemingly been wasted.
After being told in a terse call of Robbie’s plans, the mild-mannered singer unleashed a torrent of expletives, shouting: “What the f*** is this?”
It was finally decided that Mark – the closest member of the band to Rob – would go to see their yet-again estranged bandmate.It was a difficult meeting.
A clearly emotional Robbie complained he was ill, said he felt drained and unsure if he could handle the dynamics of being in a five-piece again.
“Forget about touring,” said Mark. “Forget about promotion. Let’s just do this record and take it from there. Give us 30 days in the studio, that’s all.”
To everyone’s surprise, this calm, no-nonsense approach worked – and Robbie was back on board.
A source said: “The mood in the camp after learning Rob had quit was one of sheer disbelief and anger. But after the anger subsided, they began to realise where Rob was coming from. While the band had been operating at 100 miles an hour for the last few years, Rob had been leading a much more low-key life in LA. He wasn’t used to such an intense spotlight and wilted.”
The episode was a far cry from the almost brotherly camaraderie in New York’s Electric Lady Studios revealed in yesterday’s Mirror.
There, a chain-smoking Robbie arrived with what he called an “artillery” of lyrics, so desperate was he to prove his worth after so many years away.
The source added: “In New York, Rob was eager to please and brimming with enthusiasm. But then he retreated back into his shell just as quickly again.
“Robbie is a complex character at the best of times and the band had always been aware of this. But it still took them all massively by surprise.”
The walkout was the more surprising because another successful “bonding session” had also taken place at the Royal Albert Hall. This time, Take That were to take to the stage at Children in Need with the “surprise” twist of Robbie joining them.
Although he wasn’t going to sing TT’s hit song Greatest Day with them, the plan was for Gary to introduce Rob onto the stage afterwards to sing a solo number.
But even this was fraught with difficulties. Sitting on a couch next to his then-fiancé Ayda Field, Robbie was deep in discussion with the band. “I don’t want this to look like a group therapy hug,” said Jason.
“That will look s***.” It was finally decided that a simple handshake between each member and Robbie would suffice. At 10pm the band took to the stage, and Robbie nestled under an arch waiting for his cue to come on. It felt like the longest four minutes of his life.
Despite the presence of Ayda and his ever-present manager Josie, Rob looked ill at ease. Hardly surprising, given the last time they all shared a stage was 15 years ago.
Then, after a quick dab of make-up, Robbie heard Gary utter the words millions of fans had been waiting for: “What a perfect night for us to introduce an old friend.”
For a moment the fans believed four would become five and Robbie would perform with his old bandmates but then, after the handshakes, Gary, Mark, Jason and Howard left the stage in a rehearsed pretend huff.
It was only during the finale as all the performers joined Sir Paul McCartney for the chorus of Hey Jude that the five voices would sing in unison, along with many others.
The night was an unadulterated success which made Robbie walking out the following week so hard to comprehend.
The ugly aftermath – and before Mark persuaded him to come back on board – is captured in candid Take That documentary Look Back, Don’t Stare.
“The unfortunate thing is that when you’re part of a group and you’ve got that kind of changeable mind, we’re all going to suffer the consequences,” Jason says.
“You’re going to feel it as well. I actually said to Rob, ‘Your whims have a direct effect on us’. But equally none of us were going to say to Rob, ‘No you can’t leave’.”
Howard, also, didn’t exactly mince his words.
“I’ve been sceptical about him coming back,” he said. “I’d like to think it will be cool and everything will be fine and it will be tight-knit. But Rob has a very changeable mind.”
Fast forward two months to LA and Rob looked sheepish as they met up for the first time since his walk-out.
Sipping a bottle of chilled water and with his eyes darting around nervously, he muttered: “So I’m not in trouble?”
His bandmates laughed but the atmosphere was still strained as they deliberated over a new song.
Jason, in particular, was in no mood for niceties and soon clashed with Robbie over one of his lyrics.
A source said: “Jason thought the words referred too much to Robbie and should be more universal. It was an issue he thought strongly about but neither side was budging.”
Jason, wearing dark shades, then stood up and walked out of the room. Lighting up a cigarette, Robbie stared at the floor. To a neutral observer, such a confrontation would spark concerns that Take That – with Robbie – was not working. But a close confidante said such tensions have always been bubbling under and were nothing new.
He said: “They’re a tight unit and are always brutally honest with one another. This can cause friction and it does sometimes kick off between them. That’s always happened, with or without Rob in the band. They don’t walk on eggshells round each other – it’s one of the reasons why they are so successful.”
But, slowly but surely, the band started reconciling their differences. After a stuttering start, the passion, excitement and, more importantly, the belief in the dream continued to grow until July 15 last year, when it was announced to the world the reunion of Take That was a reality.