Williams wrote this with his long time songwriting collaborator Guy Chambers in less than 25 minutes.
Williams had previously been a member of boy band Take That, but quit the group in 1995. His solo career had stalled until this song was released on Christmas 1997. The main songwriter and fronton of Take That was Gary Barlow. His solo career started well, (his song "Love Won't Wait" being co-written with Madonna), but it soon dried up, which is sort of the opposite of what happened to Williams. Barlow went on to become a professional songwriter and wrote songs for other artists.
Although it only reached #4, "Angels" spent 27 weeks on the UK chart and is by far Williams' biggest-selling song. He quickly cemented his stardom in Britain, scoring a series of hits, including the #1 duet with Nicole Kidman on "Somethin' Stupid
." He has also dueted with Kylie Minogue, Neil Tennant (from The Pet Shop Boys) and Neil Hannon (from The Divine Comedy).
This is regarded as a classic in the UK and is a massive karaoke favourite. It's one of those songs that is constantly played on pub jukeboxes. A review of it said that it "taps into the sentimental old git in all of us."
There was a lot of press rivalry with Williams and the Gallagher brothers from Oasis, one of their more printable insults of Williams being "That fat dancer from Take That". Many Britpop fans felt that "Angels" was an attempt to cash in on the then huge Britpop craze by writing a mainstream song in a similar style.
After this song, Williams became a huge star in the UK despite criticism that he is a glorified cabaret singer. He has tried many times to break the US market, all attempts being unsuccessful. He eventually said that he gave up and "couldn't be arsed."
As "Angels" was unknown in the US, Jessica Simpson covered it in 2004. In the UK, most reviews have been less than impressed with her take on it.
In a UK based VH1 poll of best #1s, worst #1s and songs that should have got to to #1, this was voted the top song that should have topped the charts. (thanks, Adam - Dewsbury, England, for all above)
Williams co-wrote this with Irishman Ray Hefferman, then Guy Chambers transformed it into Williams' biggest worldwide selling single. Hefferman recalled in an interview promoting the 2006 Manchester Irish Festival how he earned a paltry £7,500 from the song: "We (Hefferman and Williams) met in a Dublin pub during the Christmas holidays of 1996, and proceeded to go out and have a few beers etc. He ended up staying in my place, as we had said we would try to write some songs together. I had one that I had written in Paris called 'An Angel Instead,' which he liked, and we worked on it together. He called Louis Walsh, who organised a studio for us, and we recorded a version of it here in Dublin. He went back to England after that, and we lost touch. I was therefore very surprised to hear that 'Angels' was on his new album. I got in touch, and essentially signed a waver of my rights to the song for just £7,500 and the rest is musical history, I'm still writing songs and selling albums independently and he is a corporation."
Williams told his biographer Chris Heath that this song is about his fascination with the paranormal: "I believed that stuff when I wrote Angels – that's why I wrote Angels. Angels isn't about anybody, it's about the thoughts that loved ones that have passed on come back and take care of you." (Source The Daily Telegraph November 6, 2009).
The drummer on this song, Chris Sharrock, went on to become a founder member of Liam Gallagher's post-Oasis band Beady Eye.