He didn't do 'Party Like A Russian'! Are you serious Robster?!
We were all poised for it. We were all on tip-toes. The edges of our seats. Simultaneously. We were spinning our rattles and thumbing our scarves like worry beads. Would Robbie Williams, a man who now dresses like an oligarch’s idea of a pop star, have the gall to perform ‘Party Like A Russian’ at the World Cup opening ceremony at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium? The answer, tragically – almost unforgivably, even for this massive Robbie fan – is no, he did not have the gall. ‘Feel’ sounded good, though.
In performing at the controversial event, Robbie was widely criticised for kowtowing to Vladimir Putin, the loathed President of Russia, a feeling summed up by Bill Browder, Head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign, who has compared Putin’s government to a mafia organisation. “There’s lots of ways to make money Robbie Williams, but selling your soul to a dictator shouldn’t be one of them,” he tweeted. “Shame on you. This message is on behalf of Sergei Magnitsky, Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estimirova, victims of MH17, 10,000 dead Ukrainian soldiers…”
It was always weird that Robbie was booked to open the World Cup ceremony in front of 80,000 fans (not to mention the countless millions watching worldwide). Even I have to admit that Robbie’s imperial phase has long since passed – despite the fact that 2016 album ‘The Heavy Entertainment Show’ was filled with middle-aged bangers – and then there’s the reason we’re here: ‘Party Like A Russian’, the whirling dervish of a lead single from the album, which is one of the weirdest things a bonafide pop star has released in recent memory.
NME noted at the time: “Madder than ‘Rudebox’, Robbie’s new single marches along with the pomp of the Soviet army, packing in a string of clichés about oligarchs, the space race, Russian dolls and Rasputin. Not Russian-y enough yet? There’s also a booming cossack choir and the strings from Prokofiev’s ‘Dance of the Knights’ (the theme from The Apprentice), like some half-remembered nod to ‘Millennium’’s use of John Barry’s ‘You Only Live Twice’.
When ‘Party Like A Russian’ first marched into our gaping earholes, the tabloids gleefully claimed it had got him banned from performing in Russia. He denied this, later telling a Russian journalist at a UK press conference: “I can’t wait to go out there and perform my song and see what happens. Obviously over here in Britain people were being outraged for everybody in Russia. ‘He’s been banned!’ But obviously you’re here as a representative of your country and letting everybody know that I am allowed into your country and I can’t wait to be performing there.”
The single flopped in the UK, reaching only 68 in the charts, but Robbie brushed it off, saying at that press conference, “It could have performed a bit better, but I wasn’t expecting it to be in the Top 40. I knew weeks before we started the promo, so I thought, ‘I’m fucked here’.” Well, people are stupid and ‘Party Like A Russian’ is a complex, strange thing, celebrating indulgence even as it lampoons excess, with the lyrics: ‘It takes a certain kind of man with a certain reputation / To alleviate the cash from a whole entire nation.’ Can you imagine him doing that in front of Putin?
Later on the highly eccentric and borderline problematic track, Robbie implores us to “Party like a Russian / End of discussion” and then smirks, “It takes half the western world just to keep my ship afloat / And I never ever smile unless I’ve something to promote”. Well, he handed that last one to his critics on a plate, didn’t he? In the end, though, Rob bottled it and performed ‘Let Me Entertain You’, a track from 1997, followed by a medley of the also-ancient ‘Feel’ and ‘Angels’.
There were some entertainingly weird moments – he flipped off the camera, sang into the face of a random woman, took a break as Ronaldo almost hoofed the ball into the face of a mascot bear – and the show had a uniquely Robbie surreality. But, Jesus Christ, Robbie, you could have done ‘Party Like A Russian’. Even if you just did the opening, pretended the track was cut off, and launched into ‘Rock DJ’. You missed an open goal, mate, and you know it. End of discussion.