Gary Barlow has revealed that he thought music was lost to him – not from when Take That imploded and he endured a wayward solo career, but much, much earlier – when he started singing along to his own tunes, and then started making money.
"I used to rush home from school, play piano for an hour... and when I started to sing, I lost it, the musician in me."
Well, whatever got lost during the rollercoaster life of pop group stardom, some lonely years in the wilderness and the return of chart and TV popularity, has been returned to him, ten-fold.
As well as organising the Golden Jubilee Concert, he has been responsible for creating the official song – Sing – which meant writing a tune alongside Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, and then finding the 210 artists behind the voices and instruments for it from all over the Commonwealth.
The documentary On Her Majesty’s Service shows the extent of Barlow’s efforts, which manage to be global in scope, and incredibly intimate in his interactions with people. A senior tribesman he convinces to perform in the hills of Jamaica says sagely of the Cheshire-born pop star, “I see congeniality in this person,” and it is clear that these encounters – like those of church choirs, the police force band and reclusive tribes in the oft-unvisited Solomon Islands – bring out the best in both Barlow and his hosts.
There are many worse ambassadors for the UK than Barlow, whether he’s nervously going through ideas with Prince Charles at Highgrove, persuading Prince Harry to bang a tambourine in the Caribbean, or finally presenting his finished effort to HM The Queen at Windsor.
"When I started to sing, I lost the musician in me..."
His project took him to all the corners of the Commonwealth - the Masai Mara of Africa, the slums of Kenya, Sydney Opera House where he watched, transfixed, as a symphony orchestra brought his strings score to life, and all the way back to Abbey Road Studios, where the Military Wives Choir were well-prepared to take lead vocals.
A visibly nervous Barlow presented his documentary to a select audience earlier this week, including his musical collaborator Lord Lloyd Webber, and explained that he wouldn’t have taken part in such a massive project if he “hadn’t had something to contribute”.
And thereby lies the core of his success. Many well-intentioned celebs may drop into far-off regions to bring their little bit of unquantifiable A-list magic and awareness, but there aren’t many who can bring any kind of collaborative project with them. And with the vast disparity of wealth and opportunity on display, many such expeditions can’t avoid but be patronising and harmful.
But everyone has music, and by turning up with a song in his bag and shaping the process to recruit the sounds he needs, Barlow makes this whole exercise dignified, purposeful, creative and unifying.
"I see congeniality in this person"
The machinations behind the scenes to travel, meet and mix all these disparate artists together must have involved a project of military proportions, but the final result is astonishing in its collective colour, sound and simplicity. It is genuinely inspiring, and there aren’t many people who could have pulled off such an idea.
One of the most affecting people in the documentary is a young percussionist Barlow encounters in the slums near Nairobi, Kenya. He can hardly be into his teens, and spends his days playing on drums made out of rubbish he has found. He is also blind, yet tells the British crew there to record him, “you just have to keep looking forward.”
Barlow said at the screening that it was impossible not to be affected by the music he had heard, and sounds and influences would no doubt creep into the next Take That album.
I hope the next time Gary Barlow is faced with a teenager on X Factor who “just deserves this”, the sound and influence of the people he met on his travels stay with him too.
Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty’s Service will be shown on BBC One on Sunday 3rd June at 7.30 pm. ‘Sing’ will be performed live at The Diamond Jubilee Concert on Monday 4th June, while the single is released on 28 May. Some pictures of his travels, from Highgrove to the Sydney Opera House, via the slums of Kenya and the plains of Africa, below...
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