I am a big Will Young fan. A quick scan down my 100 Essential CD lists would illustrate this with his “From Now On” at #52, “Friday’s Child at #54 and “The Hits” compilation at #58. He is somebody who I have written about a lot and who over the last 18 years has established himself as a significant national figure and especially within the cultural history of British LGBTQ+ issues. This book is an inevitable choice for me to want to read soon after publication.
Some may be surprised by Will’s unflinchingly honest, forthright tone in this book but those of us who have listened to the “Homosapiens” podcast which he started with friend Chris Sweeney (I’ve gone through every edition with Will and Chris, the current series sees Will on sabbatical with Alan Cummings now alongside Chris) will be aware that the issues raised in this book are of great importance to the author.
Will has been upfront in the past about mental health issues and here deals with the notion of “gay shame” which for most of his life has overwhelmed him, threatening his ability to function. Will very impressively explains the ways this becomes internalised, often at a very young age, in LGBTQ+ individuals and offers his strategies he has over time employed to help.
I did start off being slightly puzzled as to the extent of Will’s agonies over gay shame. I am older than him and closer to the time when being gay was still considered a crime in the UK and grew up in a time when the only visible people who may have felt like I did (although this was never acknowledged by them at the time) were the camp comedians such as Kenneth Williams, John Inman, Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd, none of whom were especially good candidates for the title of role model. This history of LGBTQ+ culture is very well accounted for in Paul Flynn’s 2017 “Good As You”, my review of which can be read here.
In fact, it was really only when Russell Davies’ “Queer As Folk” was aired and Brian Dowling winning “Big Brother” and Will himself conquering the first season of “Pop Idol” that gay men could recognise something of themselves being portrayed. Although Will seemed at the time an ideal, positive role model he was still grappling with the issues and shame of being gay which had been projected upon him by society and as a visible representation of a gay man he suffered considerable shocking homophobia from members of the public and in the media. Will is right to air these here including the DJ Chris Moyles, the Mail Newspaper and correct once again to revisit the Mail’s hateful inclusion of an article on the death of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately which is the reason why I will never pick up a copy of that newspaper again. Incidentally, those most likely to suffer homophobia are young straight men who often in the form of “banter” have to face more putdowns and questioning of their sexuality than their gay male counterparts.
As well as being an honest and sensitive work this is extremely thought-provoking. It made me wish I was part of an LGBTQ+ book group (or in fact any book group could valuably discuss this) to further explore the issues raised as it would be fascinating to hear others’ perspectives in the safe environment that such a group should provide. I may not have agreed with everything Will raises here but there is no doubt how his personal issues regarding being a gay man have caused a considerable struggle and his willingness to air these issues to help others is to be highly commended.
To Be A Gay Man was published in September 2020 by Virgin Books.
The Hits – Will Young (19 2009) UK Chart Position – 7
It might seem odd to those of you who have been following my Essential CD recommendations that this particular artist has three albums within the listing putting him on a par with some real Titans of popular music when he can be considered as just a singer coming from a TV talent show who hasn’t so far achieved the worldwide success of some who followed this route and doesn’t possess the big voice, big image or formidable creative talent that those who appear more than once on my Essential CD recommendations tend to have. So, the question may very well be: Why do I like Will Young so much to feature three of his albums on my list?
First and foremost it’s the voice which has a warmth and sincerity which makes every listen an enjoyable experience. It’s also his unwillingness to compromise in an industry full of compromises. I believe both in his music and his belief in it. He chose a route to stardom which could have placed him very much into a pop puppet role but he has managed to forge his own identity in a way in which others that have come after him have failed to consistently do. As much as his music, however, it is what Will Young stands for and his decision to come out at the height of his fame within a market which was aimed towards young girls who would consume his music with the hope that one day they could be Mrs Will Young.
It’s easy to forget, now that the world has moved on as much as it has because of people like Will what a decision this was. It happened right at the start of his career when his debut single “Evergreen” was at the top of the charts with an interview given to the News Of The World. This kind of revelation had largely been to this point as a result of “outing” by the press who couldn’t help but resort to sniping and bringing in “gay shame” and “twilight worlds” and “double lives” From the same section of the pop industry Boyzone member Stephen Gateley had largely been coerced to come out as the story was going to be run by the tabloid press anyway, and he had the other band members as support rather than being a solo artist. Will’s response was refreshing, telling a major newspaper not known for its tolerance of alternative lifestyles; “For me it’s normal and nothing to be ashamed about. I’m gay and I’m comfortable with that. I really don’t know what the fuss is about.” And with this statement the world shifted a little bit.
The BBC News website had a forum as to whether readers thought this announcement would affect Will’s career. It makes interesting reading 17 years on. Just a couple of snippets; Rachel from the UK said “Keep buying his records everyone; let’s keep him at number 1 because he certainly is!!” Johnny G from Leicestershire made an attempt at a prophecy “Now he’s had his number one I give him precisely three more weeks of fame before his second follow-up single fails to make the top 40 and he is forgotten forever.” Erik gave a viewpoint from South Africa “Hello people wake up! Grow up and get with it. Reading some peoples comments on issues like that makes me often wonder, with what people really concern themselves.” Julia saw herself as a representative for the “young disappointed female fans” which are mentioned frequently with her comment; “Girls buy all the records and girls don’t fancy gay men. Boy George was an exception just because we liked his makeup”. (I love that one!) There are the inevitable “I’m not homophobic but….” This was a big comment board and the gist of it was that people didn’t think it mattered one way or another which must have been an eye-opener for the popular press who certainly at that point considered it did matter and also the record industry itself who was all for keeping gay artists in the closet in case it damaged their sales. There were more voluntary revelations rather than forced outings in the years to come. Even the more conservative America where it seemed to matter a great deal caught up when a decade after Will’s announcement Adam Lambert, best known here as some-time front-man for Queen became the first out gay artist to top the US album charts. Now, at long last, within mainstream pop music at least, we seem to be at the point that it doesn’t matter and recording artists are free to make statements regarding their sexuality without the media furore it would have traditionally caused and I think we have Will Young in the UK to thank for this.
Will with “Strictly” dance partner Karen Clifton
Not everything has been golden for Will, he has made some decisions which were a little off, most particularly his decision to do “Strictly Come Dancing” and then pulling out after what seemed like a hissy fit over comments made by Head Judge Len Goodman, the circumstances of which as reported by the popular press did make him seem that he just wasn’t going to play if he wasn’t going to win. Not all his acting roles have made the impression anticipated, although he certainly won critical plaudits for a role which seems perfect for him in stage productions of “Cabaret” playing the part made famous in the movie by Joel Gray.
As a vocalist he has provided me with enough joy that he deserves a greatest hits package on my Essential CD listing alongside his first two studio albums “From Now On” and “Friday’s Child”. I have gone for his first hits compilation from 2009 released after his first four studio albums and which reached number 7 in the UK charts. I probably could have just as easily gone for the later 2013 “The Essential” which reached number 15 but I don’t own that one. That was a parting of the ways compilation with his record label. “The Hits” is better for me in that it is a mid-career retrospective. It says things have been good for the past seven years but there is still good stuff to come.
Obviously there is going to be an overlap with the first two albums which had been rich in hits so I’m largely discounting the first six tracks which I have dealt with elsewhere. That still leaves us with six tracks spread evenly between “Keep On” and 2008’s “Let It Go” together with the hit collection staple, the two new bonus tracks one of which was released as a single. That track “Hopes And Fears” became his least successful single to date and did not trouble the UK Top 40. It isn’t exactly vintage Young written by two members of Phantom Limb who supported him on tour. The other original track “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” which has Will in his tender, vulnerable mood and has a great opening line “Romeo would still be breathing/If it hadn’t been for love“. Obviously it was decreed that a more uptempo single was a stronger choice to launch this album, but for me this is the better of the two tracks.
There are some notable omissions on this album. It seems strange that someone would put out a Hits compilation and not include songs which reached number 1, but that probably would have given an undue bias to the earlier stages of his career so on this album there is no “Long and Winding Road” his chart-topping duet with Gareth Gates nor one side of the multi-million selling debut double A-sided single, the very likeable “Anything Is Possible” . His 2002 number 2 double A-sided single is also represented by one track the stronger “You And I” rather than “Don’t Let Me Down”.
Studio album number three “Keep On” kicks off with perhaps his rockiest track to date 2005’s “Switch It On” which got to number 5 which showed his willingness to diversify but it is a little one-dimensional to me, despite some good rhythm work. I feel more at home with the other tracks chosen from this album the deliciously tender “All Time Love” which as a single got him back into the Top 3 for the last time to date. A song rich in melody with a convincing performance could still charm the British singles buying audience in 2006. Just as good is “Who Am I” which once again brings back the songwriting skills of Eg White who wrote his best track “Leave Right Now”. This is written in collaboration with singer/songwriter Lucie Silvas, an under-rated performer in her own right. As the third single release from this album it perhaps was too much to expect this to be a vast hit but it actually became the first Will Young single not to make the Top 10 when it stalled at number 11 but that is certainly not a reflection of the quality of the track.
2008’s “Let It Go” has three tracks selected for this album the mid-tempo gem that is “Changes” which boasts a great build into the chorus and is full of a stirring optimism with a great vocal performance. It was the hit track of the album and reached number 10 as the lead single. I really don’t know what happened with the other two single releases from this album as they both underachieved with “Grace” getting a number 33 placing and the title track missing out on the Top 40 for the first time in his career.
Following the release of this album fans responded very positively a couple of years later when 2011’s “Echoes” gave him his third number 1 album despite not being as strong as what had gone before. This feat was achieved again with his latest album “85 Percent Proof” released on the Island label.
And just this week the announcement was made that Will was back with a new single, with another of his top quality stylish videos which have been so much a part of his career, once again not one to shy away from the controversial Will adopts a series of disguises, a sailor, a biker, a businessman which might make it sound like a twenty-first century Village People but it’s not tacky even though within each of these disguises he strips! The single “All The Songs” will be his first release on the Cooking Vinyl label and will be followed by album number 7 “Lexicon” due in June which should I imagine see him back in the upper reaches of the charts. In the meantime he has been involved in an impressive podcast, which actually got me listening to podcasts, “Homosapien” which he presents with Chris Sweeney. Not bad for a boy from a talent show who many predicted would be a five minute wonder, eh?
The Hits is currently available from Amazon in the UK for£2.75 and used from £0.20. In the US Amazon have it for $11.98 and used from $1.08. In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.
Just over a year on from his essential debut album “From Now On” Will Young was back with an album that was every bit as good. Once again it ascended to the very summit of the charts and hung around for almost a year. Single-wise it spawned three Top 5 tracks including his fourth (and to date his last) number 1 with perhaps his best ever recording.
Although at this time he was still on Simon Fuller’s record label the boy had certainly grown up. Success had given Will a voice and more independence to do what he wanted and this showed as musically this is a more coherent piece than the debut. There was a new gang on board with Will getting writing credits on 6 of the 11 tracks. There were a team of producers behind Stephen Lipson, a long-standing established producer who had worked alongside Trevor Horn for years at ZTT records. Lipson worked either individually or part of a team for 8 of the 11 songs here.
Producer Stephen Lipson at the desk
The album kicks off with its only cover version. To this point Will had followed the commercial popstars 90’s/00’s trajectory of recording a number of cover versions (this seems to have faded nowadays. Who needs covers with the originals so readily available on streaming services?) To this point he had already covered Westlife, Bobby Darin, The Doors and The Beatles but here it is only “Love The One You’re With” a Stephen Stills song which makes the grade. The original had just scraped the UK Top 40 in 1971 (US#14). Nine years before the release of this album Luther Vandross had also led his album of covers “Songs” with the track and got to number 31 in the chart- the tune’s highest UK placing despite being an acknowledged radio classic. Will’s version is pacy with a big sound and a good background arrangement and features one of his trademarks, the extended bended note (there’s probably a technical term for this). It’s a good start to the album – probably with the tracks on display here it ends up in the middle of the pack for me somewhat but it is performed enthusiastically and both his and Luther’s version are worth a listen, with I suspect Vandross having the edge.
Stephen Stills rehearsing with his band Mannassas at his home in UK 1972
Stephen Stills and Luther Vandross also loved the one you’re with
“Your Game” is a stronger track and up there with his best. It reached number 3 as the second single from the album helped by a very memorable video. Like the last track it is the interplay between Will and the Gospel Choir Metro Voices which provides a highlight. I love the fullness of this track written by Will and co-producer Blair MacKichan with Tayo Onilo-Ere. It gave Will a Brit Award for Best British Single of 2005. “Stronger” is a much more understated affair written by Steve Lipson and Karen Poole, the daughter of ex-Tremeloes Brian Poole and herself one half of Alisha’s Attic who had 8 Top 40 UK hits between 1996 and 2001.
“Leave Right Now” is probably Will’s finest moment. A track which succeeds on so many levels. A great song written by Eg White and a convincing vocal performance with a good build and another memorable video of Will fixated on us at an art gallery which is both affecting and slightly disturbing which helped it shift a few units. It was on this song that Will moved from successful pop talent show artist to an act who Britain should be proud of. A number 1 single which was awarded an Ivor Novello Award. It also topped the charts in Ireland and made inroads in European charts such as Belgium, Norway, Italy and Sweden and world markets such as New Zealand and was heavily featured on American Idol getting Will recognised Stateside.
“Love Is A Matter Of Distance” is a gentle convincing number, with a warm vocal performance and leads into “Dance The Night Away”, a more uptempo, urgent funkier track . “Very Kind” was co-written and co-produced by Robin Thicke who also in 2003 launched his album recording career with “A Beautiful Mind”. Robin of course would go on to have a massive hit a decade later with “Blurred Lines” and possesses the same white soul boy feel as Will. Here, a sweet vocal performance is boosted by good orchestration arrangement.
“Free” gives a composing credit nod to Bill Withers, another obvious hero of Will’s and an artist who Will was covering back in his Pop Idol days when he won audiences over with his performance of “Ain’t No Sunshine”. I’m not sure which Withers song is being referenced here. “Going My Way” is not one of the strongest tracks on display. It has a contemporary acid-jazz feel but never fully reaches its stride and here I find the interplay between Will and backing voices which has been a real strength on this album a little bit annoying. “Out Of My Mind” is a welcome uptempo club-influenced track which has the feel of Jamiroquai, which is no bad thing.
The album closer is another gem of a track and became the third single from the album and reached number 4 some 7 months after the album became available. In its extended play here it pushes nine minutes and every single second of it works. Once again it had an excellent video and from his performances on the videos that accompanied this album Will was able to re-establish his credentials as an actor which led to a period where both his music and dramatic performances went hand in hand. “Friday’s’ Child” has a chunky sound and an arrangement which recalls artists such as Soul II Soul and is a totally credible strong way to round things off. This is a track as strong musically with extended its instrumental sections as it is vocally and up there with his best and seems miles away from karaoke classics on a Saturday night entertainment show.
With this album anyone who considered Will would just be another Saturday night pop puppet had to reconsider. It’s a mature album with the singer at ease with himself as an artist and the type of music he was recording. Taken as a whole, although there are stronger high spots this time round I personally give a slight edge to the debut, but there really is not much in it and both I consider essential albums.
Will has to date recorded another four studio albums, two of which also ascended to the top of the charts with the other two stalling at the runner-up position. Music seems to have currently taken a bit of a back seat in favour of other interests since his last release in 2015. The other studio albums have been strong but not in my opinion essential. He has become an acclaimed actor, especially in musical theatre and an advocate for gay rights. His role in the popular culture of this country so far this century is significant.
Friday’s Child is currently available in the UK from Amazon from £3.21 and used from £0.01. In the US it is currently only available used from $1.51. In the UK it is also on Spotify streaming service.
If twenty-three year old Will Young had not won the first series of ITV’s “Pop Idol” it is possible the whole reality talent show movement might have died a quiet death. The format of finding a star on television had really faded since the 70’s and the heyday of starmaking duo of “Opportunity Knocks” and “New Faces” until it was revived in what initially seemed a small show “Pop Stars”. This talent show format was intended to form a group and ended up with Hearsay and a totally unexpected huge sales volume for their first single “Pure And Simple”.
Hearsay, the original “Popstars”
If it worked with a group it could work with a solo artist but when the first series of “Pop Idol” launched nobody was totally sure and nobody would have predicted that it would have spun off versions all around the world and still seventeen years later remain one of the most significant formats in UK television (and now through its overfamiliarity often reviled) with its own Saturday night juggernaut spin-off “ The X Factor”. Will’s victory certainly got cash tills ringing with well over a million copies of his debut single sold in the first week, with two more number ones following on before the release of his first album in October 2002 which also topped the charts and followed up with a double A-sided single which reached number 2.
And yet Will Young was not expected to win. Throughout the competition the hot favourite had been Gareth Gates and the famous look of surprise on Will’s face when it was announced he had won was echoed on viewer’s faces around the country. The debut single had to be ready to be released immediately, as this had worked so well in Hearsay’s favour and so the three finalists, Will, Gareth and Darius recorded their versions of “Evergreen” a song that seemed much better suited to Gareth’s voice. Perhaps the tension that was reputedly there between Will and music mogul and benefactor of these huge sales, Simon Cowell, that had simmered throughout the show became something a little more serious from this point. It seems to be a well established fact that Cowell wanted and expected Gareth Gates to win. Although for a time there was room in the public hearts for both acts (with Will and Gareth topping the charts together with a song which appears on this album) it was Will’s career that had the longevity and by far the bigger sales.
Will Vs. Gareth
The release of the debut album was thankfully not rushed in the same way as the single and it remains by far the strongest debut from a Simon Cowell helmed reality show winner. Although other non-winners had launched strong first albums (including Olly Murs, Rowetta, Marcus Collins, Rebecca Ferguson)the actual winners had to put up with albums that were musically patchy, even if they were being launched on a worldwide stage, like Leona Lewis. Will’s is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.
It opens with that double-sided huge hit taking up the first two tracks of the CD. Sales of 1.79 million in the UK which still remains the highest debut single sales for a solo artist and makes these tracks according to a quick check at the Official Charts Company the 19th biggest selling single of all time fitting in between The Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and the hit-twice around of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. It is the 5th biggest track ever by a solo male artist slotting in behind Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder and Bryan Adams. The UK in 2002 were undoubtedly swept up in Pop Idol fever and it’s hard to see it as a classic single compared to some of the others in the all-time Top 20 but I actually really quite like both songs. “Evergreen” was written by the Swedish triumvirate Jorg Eloffson, Per Magnusson, and David Kreuger and had previously been an album track by Westlife and that is what it sounds like with its build and swell and key changes but there is something in Will’s voice that pushes this up to another level which is not there in the Westlife version. The songwriters were part of what was known as the Cheiron song-writing team of around about a dozen who worked at the Stockholm studio and between them were responsible for countless pop hits in the 90’s and 00’s for artists such as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Boyzone, Westlife, Celine Dion, Ace of Base who dominated charts in that era with songs that might have veered towards the formulaic at times but it was certainly a winning formula.
I like even more “Anything Is Possible” with its slicker soul sound and a lovely vocal performance from Will which saves it from a slight sugariness. This was written and produced by former solo recording star Cathy Dennis alongside Chris Braide in composition duties and Oskar Paul in production duties. A song was commissioned for the winners by Pop Idol head man Simon Fuller from the writing duo because of work they had done with S Club 7. (Simon Fuller is perhaps the forgotten man in all this- at this stage Simon Cowell was just one of the judges, it was Fuller who had the control and held the purse strings). This has a great example of the Will Young soaring note which he always does so well and has become a bit of a trademark for him.
Cathy Dennis in her solo hit-making days
Follow-up single “Light My Fire” was a cover version of the Doors song that would have been familiar to viewers of Pop Idol as Will had featured a version of it back in the Top 50 stage of the show. This was very much a turning point for Will as Simon Cowell described the performance as “average” and a miffed Will answered him back. This was the moment the public really got behind him and results published after the series had finished showed that at this stage the public had awarded him with the highest number of votes where he would remain until the Top 6 when he slipped to second place behind Gareth Gates in Abba Week and would remain behind him until the final when he emerged from the background to take the Pop Idol crown. We viewers never knew it was as close as this and most would have assumed that Gareth and perhaps Darius were scoring higher with the public throughout than they actually were. I did vote for Will all along (and had a considerably higher than average phone bill that quarter to prove it!)
So when looking for a follow-up to one of the biggest selling singles of all time perhaps a studio version of “Light My Fire” produced by Absolute was an inspired choice. It had been a hit song on five previous occasions, the original by The Doors had been a US#1 in 1967 but had to wait 24 more years before it became a UK Top 10 hit reaching number 7 in 1991. Ironic cheesy retro performer Mike Flowers Pops took a version just into the Top 40 five years later and acts such as UB40 and Shirley Bassey had released it as a single without much success. In fact the most successful chart placing up to this point had been disco singer Amii Stewart who had placed it in a medley with “137 Disco Heaven” and got to number 5 in 1979. However, the version that Will’s took more of its inspiration was the cool jazz-enriched version by Jose Feliciano which had reached number 6 in the UK in 1968 and number 3 in the US. Rich in acoustic guitar Will’s version is lovely and became his second chart-topper.
Cathy Dennis’s presence is there as songwriter and producer (one with Mike Peden) of the next two tracks, one written with Robbie Williams’ hitmaker Guy Chambers and one with Will himself. “Lover Won’t You Say” is another piece of chunky jazz-soul which has the kind of wistfulness I associate with cool bands such as Swing Out Sister. “Lovestruck” with its acoustic guitar intro feels like a deceptively sweet simple song which has a warmth which makes it one of the highlights of the album.
It was certainly one eye on the tills which decided upon single number 3 put out just before the release of the album. Combine the fans of Will with those of runner-up Gareth Gates who had himself by this time also scored two number 1 singles. The decision was to record The Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road” was an okay one I suppose and it was almost a guaranteed number 1 which it achieved for two weeks. It’s nice enough and on the few bits they sing together their voices harmonise nicely. There are better cover versions of this song around however.
Once the album was released most people who forked out for it would have been highly likely to have had at least a couple of the three tracks already released as singles. It probably wouldn’t have made much sense to put out a lot of singles after this, but around a month after the release the only track to be put out after the album’s release was the strong “You And I”. It was packaged alongside a new track “Don’t Let Me Down” as the official Children In Need Single of 2002 and stalled at number 2.
After this rash of singles the last six tracks set out the future for Will Young including another two Cathy Dennis songs (one alongside Will again) and one with the legendary Burt Bacharach and three written by a team of Richard Stannard, Julian Gallagher, Dave Morgan, Simon Hale and Will Young. What was evident right from this point was that Will was not going to be another pop puppet with strings pulled by management or song-writing or production teams. He was going to be involved right from the start and that determination led to the odd story that he was prickly when in fact he was just keen not to go down some pre-determined route. This also helped him be loved by the British public. These are all consistently good pop songs with my favourites of the bunch being the Dennis and Bacharach combo “What’s In Goodbye”, which hides its complexity under a song which seems initially simple, as do many of Bacharach’s best songs and the jazz-influenced “Over You”.
The final track seems the start of a new chapter for Will. “Fine Line” is produced by Mike Peden and written with him alongside E and H Johnson and is an intense, dramatic, pretty uncommercial piece of mood music which has an exemplary vocal performance and seems to me to be a long way away from a duet version of “The Long And Winding Road”. This is a mature, brave way to close the album.
Next time round the song-writing and production teams would be completely different (other than Will’s own involvement of course) but this closing track seems to me to be the one that sows the seeds for some of things we would hear musically and vocally in 2003’s follow-up album “Friday’s Child”.
From Now On is currently available from new Amazon in the UK for £3.28 and used from £0.01. In the US it is available new from $12.99 and used from $0.98. In the UK it is currently available to stream from Spotify.