Gary Barlow Interview: The Take That Singer On Working With His ’80s Idols For ‘Eddie The Eagle’ Soundtrack

Lori Majewski | February 9, 2016 12:35 pm

When Gary Barlow met with the film producer Matthew Vaughan to discuss the Take That singer-songwriter potentially overseeing the music for Eddie The Eagle, Vaughan’s biopic about Britain’s legendary Olympic ski-jumper, “I left thinking, God, this could be one of the easiest gigs ever,” Barlow says. “I could get a hold of all those jukebox songs, bust them into a couple of scenes, pick up the check, and the job’s done.”

But Barlow resisted stuffing Fly (Songs Inspired By the Film Eddie The Eagle) (out March 18) with licensed throwbacks — say, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like An Eagle” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Instead, he spent almost all of 2015 making an album of original songs with members of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC, Spandau Ballet, OMD and Soft Cell, as well as Howard Jones, Kim Wilde, Nik Kershaw, Midge Ure and Paul Young. Britons all, they took turns topping the charts around the globe back when their countryman, Michael “Eddie” Edwards, was dreaming of becoming an Olympian. (Despite spending less than a year in training, he went to Calgary as the country’s first competitive jumper since 1988, and his gutsy last-place leaps made him an instant folk hero.)

“I wish I could’ve been a producer and songwriter in the 1980s, so [this] was the perfect excuse for me to try and live out that decade,” says Barlow, speaking with Idolator by phone from his apartment in London. The affable Mancunian, who was in his tweens and teens during the Thatcher years, remembers the ’80s as a time “when I started to get serious about music. I got my first pair of headphones and I could really start listening to the details: The sounds that were being used, the production techniques. It was all led by equipment, because technology was moving so quickly — the drum machine was brand-new. But when you really study those records, the vocalists are really what gave it that flavor. That’s why I gravitated to the Tony Hadleys, the Nik Kershaws, the Holly Johnsons. As soon as you hear them sing you go, ‘That’s so-and- so!’”

Read on, as the former X Factor (UK) judge — who also composed the songs for the Broadway hit Finding Neverland — talks about working with his childhood idols, why the ’80s were less restrictive for those making music and which he prefers: Producing other people or, a quarter of a century later, writing for and singing with his now man-band, Take That.

IDOLATOR: Hello from New York! GARY BARLOW: I just got back from New York. My musical [Finding Neverland] had a casting change.

That’s right: Matthew Morrison is no longer in it. [Tony Yazbeck is now playing J.M. Barrie.] BARLOW: He’s moved on. But we’ve gotten Kelsey Grammer back [in the double role of Barrie’s producer, Charles Frohman and Captain Hook].

Little-known fact: I helped Matthew Morrison’s boy band LMNT get a record deal when I was an editor at Teen People. He was only in the group for a minute before he took off to get into acting. Ah, the boy band days — we know them well, don’t we, Gary? BARLOW: Oh, we love them, and we celebrate them still! So many of the sounds you hear on records now are totally taken from the ’90s. It’s a funny feeling when you hear a sound that takes you back to a certain decade, even though it’s in a new piece of music. There’s something warm and fuzzy about it.

That’s exactly what you’ve done with the ’80s for your Eddie The Eagle soundtrack. You managed to capture the signature sound and spirit of these artists at the height of their powers. The Nik Kershaw track sounds like vintage Kershaw; Kim Wilde sounds like “Kids In Amerca” Kim Wilde. The Holly Johnson song, “Ascension,” sounds like Frankie Goes To Hollywood circa “The Power of Love.” BARLOW: I know every single second of those records because I listened to them in the years when I had nothing else to do in my life, no other distractions other than being in my bedroom listening to music. It’s the same with my own career: The best bits of my own [Take That] career, I’m not really aware of; the fans know. And all those artists, I know as a fan what I want to hear them doing, what keys they sing best in. Of course, I arrived with completely open arms, because everybody had their own ideas as well. But as a fan of every person on the record, I was able to steer it in a way toward… Let’s just say that everyone else out there who’s a fan of these artists, they are going to love what they did on this record.

So who did you approach first? BARLOW: The very first meeting I took was with Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys of OMD, only because they live the closest to me; I can walk to [McCluskey’s] house from mine in London. Andy’s quite opinionated; he’s got an edgy character. So I thought that’d be a good place to start, because if there’s any cynicism, it’d probably be visible in Andy. But I told them about the film and the idea of writing new music for it, and they were lapping it up. They couldn’t wait to start work. I’d barely left the apartment and they already had their gear on to make some music. I was like, “Okay, I’m on to something here.” From then on, it was one of those things where I would say, “Hey guys, you don’t know so-and-so, do ya?” Of course they did, and they’d put me in touch with Marc Almond, and then Marc Almond would put me in touch with Holly… Bit by bit, I assembled a family tree of all of those artists.

That’s how it was when my co-author and I sought interviews for our new wave oral history, Mad World. We really wanted to give the era its due. You do the same with with this soundtrack — it reminds us that these artists created perfect pop songs. A lot of times, ’80s musicians are reduced to a hairstyle or music video. BARLOW: The one thing I was, well, not surprised, but relieved to find, was that every single one of them was still out there working in music. It’s a testament to their talents and their music and how it’s lasted. It makes me, as an artist, have hope that one day, a long way from the initial big hit, there will still be an audience there. Paul Young, he was in Sydney on tour; and ABC, they were in San Diego touring. They’re out there, gigging 50, 60 gigs a year. Of course, when the idea of someone else would come up, I’d check the YouTube, like: “Let me see if they’re still in good voice.” I’d bring up a clip from a festival from last summer, and I found that, to me, they all sound better than they’ve ever sounded. That’s what made the whole thing for me. It didn’t feel like we were digging up a load of has-beens who weren’t as good as they used to be.

Holly Johnson is a good example. His voice is astounding on the album opener. BARLOW: I know! We launched the record here on Radio 2. When you go up to radio, you get all the texts from the listeners, and that was the opinion, that Holly’s never sounded so good. [During the recording session] he sung it about four times through, top to bottom, and that was it. Absolutely stunning. What’s interesting is he came with his own microphone. There’s a particular microphone he’s always used — a cheap thing, a 100 Pound mic. And he did sound great on it.

All of these artists, they were part of the Second British Invasion of America. There’s no Bon Jovi or Madonna or Kylie. Having written the book I did, I, of course, think that this was a really special time in music; there was MTV, Top Of The Pops, Smash Hits. I’m an Anglophile, so that’s why I was so hooked — why was it so special to you? BARLOW: It seems to me, as a young person growing up, they weren’t just artists — they were characters. They would dress so flamboyantly, and their style was completely integrated with the music — the visual and audio and the artwork were completely related. It was all one big package. Possibly the ’80s was a much freer time for music. Nowadays you’ll have 20 people analyzing whether you should have your face on the cover looking to the left or the right. Everything’s over-analyzed for marketing purposes now. But in those days, artists would make a statement with their [record] sleeve or their Top Of The Pops performance. That’s what it felt like to me. I was buying into a lot more than just the music.

And they were their own creations. There was no stylist telling them how they should dress or “Gucci sent this for you.” BARLOW: Right! We did a photo shoot last Friday, and [a number of] the artists turned up. Even before they’ve gone into makeup, they’ve all got a fantastic look, an amazing sense of style, great taste. They all look like you expect them to look: really cool. When you’ve been someone who was enormous in the ’80s, and you’re an older man now, there’s something incredibly cool about still having style and still looking good and still being that artist. I’m just blown away by it. I thought it was amazing, seeing them all stood together, having their picture taken. We’ve made a bit of a splash here this week — we’ve launched the record quite nicely.

Let’s talk about the movie: While the artists on the soundtrack were the height of cool in their day, Eddie The Eagle was never, for one second, cool. He’s the opposite of cool! BARLOW: That’s right. It’s taken nearly 30 years for us to realize that this was unbelievable bravery that this guy showed everybody. He didn’t want to win, he just wanted to compete, and nobody wanted him at those Olympics. Nobody wanted him on the British team. And in the face of adversity, this guy, he made his dream come true. And it’s taken a bit long, to get to this decade, to go, “Respect to you! What an amazing thing you accomplished!” I just think it’s taken until now for people to really appreciate who he was, and the heart and the spirit he had. I think it’s a brilliant celebration of the British underdog. And it gives people from other countries just a little peek into the heart and the spirit of the British public.

It seems to have the makings of a Broadway show — you already have the songs. And the trend of movies being made into stage shows is showing no signs of abating. Might we see an Eddie The Eagle musical? BARLOW: Oh, I don’t know about it as a musical. I was thinking the next time I do a musical I’d like it to be a new story. I feel like everyone’s been playing it far too safe, with all these stories that have already wound their way into our consciousness and our lives already. I’d like to see something new.

What about you, personally? Does this signal a shift, that you’ll be doing a lot more writing and producing for other people and projects, or is Take That still the priority? BARLOW: Yes, it is, actually. We’re about to start a new Take That record at the moment. I’m 45 now. It’s unsure at any age, but while I’m still about to be an artist, that’s still my first and foremost thing. Then, when I have time to commit to other things, I’ll put it into the movies and musicals.

Eddie The Eagle hits theaters on February 26. Fly (Songs Inspired By the Film Eddie The Eagle) will be out on March 18 via Universal. You can order writer Lori Majewski’s oral history of New Wave artists, Mad World, here.