Heaven-sent hit that gave Robbie solo wings

This weekend Robbie Williams will play two sell-out concerts at Murrayfield Stadium in a tour which will agai n prove his superstar status. To celebrate his visit to Edinburgh, the Evening News is publishing exclusive extracts from a new biography of the singer. In the first, author Paul Scott tells the story of the song that made Robbie a star - Angels.

At the time of its release, his first solo album, Life Thru a Lens had only sold 30,000 copies and had sunk to number 104 in the charts and EMI was on the verge of dumping him. Then came Angels and Robbie’s album went to number one.

But it would never have happened were it not for a chance meeting in a Dublin pub with a struggling Irish songwriter who only received 10,000 for originally coming up with the song that made millions.

ROBBIE Williams’ long-awaited debut album was ready and there was little doubt at EMI that Life Thru a Lens would decide his future. Record companies did not hang on to acts that failed to shift units. The argument goes that nobody was worried because they all knew that Rob had Angels in the can.

Guy Chambers, the man who would write the songs to take Robbie to superstardom, remembers the meeting in January 1997 when Robbie sang the lyric of a song he said he had written about his Aunty Jo and Grandad Williams.

Chambers played a simple chord progression on the piano, and the song, as millions were to know it, was created. It would help to establish the pair as one of the most successful writing partnerships of their generation.

In Chamber’s official version of how the song came about there is no mention of another co-writer.

But, in fact, Angels had started life in a Dublin attic and was the result of the death of an unborn baby, named Matthew, who had been the son of Ray Heffernan, a struggling Irish songwriter and musician, and his girlfriend Joanne Louchart.

Heffernan had been living in Paris and the loss of his child in 1996 destroyed his relationship with the baby’s French mother.

Still grieving for his dead son and the end of his affair, he returned to his native Dublin to try to get his life back on track.

In 1996, during the Christmas period, he was having a Saturday afternoon drink in the city’s Globe bar when Robbie Williams walked in. Heffernan says: "I was in the pub with a friend of mine. We both had bleached blonde hair and white T-shirts on. Robbie came in alone and walked up to us. He asked us if we were in a boy band. We got on immediately. He is a very open guy and it was obvious he was having a lot of problems in his life. He said he was looking for a writing partner."

They got drunk together and ended up back at Heffernan’s mother’s house at 6am. Heffernan played his new friend some songs and they decided to try their hand at writing a few tunes together.

The course of pop history would have been changed if the pair had given up after their first attempt. Their first effort was unpromisingly called The Bagpuss Complex and was about the stuffed cat from the children’s television programme. "It wasn’t a great song," says Ray.

Then the Irishman played Angels Instead, the song he had written about his dead son, on an acoustic guitar. "The verse and the verse melody was mine," says Ray. "The words at the start of the chorus were mine, but the big chorus melody, the big epic bit that starts ‘And through it all’ came later, that was down to Rob and Guy Chambers.

"We recorded the song that night on a Dictaphone and it sounds really funny to listen to it now because it is basically two drunken blokes trying to sing Angels."

Even after they put the song on tape, Ray was still unconvinced about its potential.

"I didn’t particularly like the song. I always thought it was unfinished because all we had was the verse. I thought it would disappear. It wasn’t until I heard Angels later that I realised we had really missed it.

"When I heard that Beatles-style piano at the beginning I knew Guy had really nailed the song. He had got it just right and he did a great job on it. I was really impressed with it."

But Rob - the name he prefers to be known by when he takes off his Robbie stage persona - was thrilled with the unfinished version.

"Robbie called me and told me to come to London and gave me a number to call when I arrived," says Ray. But when he got there, Rob was at his mother’s in Stoke. So he hitchhiked to Staffordshire to see his new pal.

He was not a welcome caller. Rob invited him in, gave him a cup of tea then said: "Look man, you’re scaring me. Why are you following me?"

Heffernan says: "I honestly thought he was going to be pleased to see me, but he wasn’t." It was the last time he saw Rob.

His subsequent contact would be through Rob’s management company, IE Music. He was told the completed version of the song was to be included on Williams’ first album.

Rob’s managers Tim Clark and David Enthoven made him an offer. He would be given a once-only payment of 10,000, and would renounce any claim to royalties.

Heffernan says he was more interested in getting a writing credit to help boost his songwriting career. He believed part of the agreement was that his name would be used on the single and album. In fact, Heffernan’s name did not appear on the album. On the jacket of the single Rob had included the dedication, "Even fallen angels laugh last, thanks to Ray Heffernan."

"I was very disappointed," says Ray. Almost a year after meeting Rob, Heffernan heard the new version of Angels when he bought Robbie’s album.

What is undeniable is that Heffernan was paid off by Williams and had signed an agreement with Rob’s management company. But as Angels went on to become a massive hit, he says: "I had to detach myself from it, because if I didn’t, I think I would have gone mad.

"It is only recently that I can listen to it and say that it is a really good Robbie Williams song because I felt a lot of anger and a lot of disappointment that I never got the acclaim for it.

"The song has made millions, but the money side of it has never really bothered me. What is hurtful is that Robbie won’t even acknowledge me. I was part of that song and I’m still angry about that. Robbie didn’t steal it from me, but I just wish he had acknowledged my involvement in it. Even so, I am so happy that the song has touched so many people and that is more important than who wrote it."

• Edited and abridged extract from the book Robbie Williams: Angels & Demons by Paul Scott. Printed by Andre Deutsch.

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