19 May 2008

When Smokey sings, I hear violence

Here And Now Tour 2008 - The Very Best of the 80s
Wembley Arena
16 May 2008

The gold-suited 80s pop group ABC contributed to the genre of wilfully mis-heard lyrics with the above classic from 'When Smokey Sings' ("...I hear violins"), but on Friday night they also contributed to a revivification of long-relegated pop careers from the decade that Reagan forgot, the 1980s. ABC joined six other 80s British pop sensations for the Here And Now 1980s showcase gig on Friday 16 May. For some of the acts it was the first time they had played Wembley (well, the Arena anyway – capacity 12,750, not the much larger Wembley Stadium next door).

Tapping into the 30-something flashback zeitgeist of classic hits radio, School Disco franchise club nights and Guilty Pleasures kitsch-worshipping, it’s suddenly possible for the people with money in their pockets and baby-sitters on speed-dial to re-live their youth by seeing the favourite pop bands of their school days live on stage. The quid pro quo is that faded artists with relatively limited pulling power and back-breaking mortgages to pay have been able to club together to perform highly lucrative and surprisingly popular concert tours many years after the pop spotlight has shifted to younger, prettier targets.

Wembley (…Arena) was heaving with around ten thousand largely female Friday night concert-goers. Many were on hen nights and so therefore sported the regulation hen night uniform of plastic bunny-ears with multi-coloured disco strobe light effects playing up and down the ears, a look guaranteed to deck legions of marauding epileptics in one fell swoop.

The running order was devised on the basis of minute-by-minute chronology (‘Rick Astley to take the stage at 22:07’) and a hierarchy loosely based on the number of record sales and top 40 hits each artist had scored. (Perfect for a pop trainspotter like me!) So the first half of the showcase featured four pocket-sized pop bands, while the three heavy hitters were reserved for the second half. A well-rehearsed band provided the backing for all the acts, while a curiously undynamic MC provided the introductions. You’d think a billing pulling in about ₤350,000 might warrant a bit more razzamatazz from the man up front, who came across as if he was a lighting technician asked to step in at the last minute to introduce the acts.

The first act, Cutting Crew (two UK top 40 hits), warmed things up with their full repertoire. They performed both their hits and then sodded off, presumably keeping their contractual arrangements by not hanging around a minute too long. Fortunately, both their well-known songs are actually worth remembering: the blaring synths of (I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight, which hit the top of the charts in the US and Canada in 1986, and the cheesy romance of I’ve Been In Love Before.

In their day smartly-dressed Johnny Hates Jazz (four UK top 40 hits) aimed for the cool end of the pop spectrum, if there is such a thing. Unfeasibly-named singer Clark Datchler fronted them at their peak, but left the band in 1988, illustrating the fractured line-ups of many of the acts performing. But the 2008 version of JHJ put in a strong performance of three of the singles from their catchy 1988 album ‘Shattered Dreams’ – I Don’t Want To Be A Hero, Turn Back The Clock, and the smash hit title track, which reached #5 in the UK and #2 in the US. They claimed that this was not only the first time that they’d played Wembley (…er, Arena), but it was also only their third gig ever, which raised eyebrows. And, to illustrate the ruthless setlist selection policy, they didn’t play the jazzy Heart of Gold, presumably because it was the lowest-charting of their four UK hits.

Next up was the splendidly-named but daftly-titfered Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, formerly the lead singer of Curiosity Killed The Cat (three UK top 40 hits). If Curiosity was a sensation then it was one sensation that largely passed me by, but V-P must’ve had friends in the right places because he got a surprisingly long five-song set to fill with his pre-Jamiroquai funky pop interlinked with rambling stoner burbling. It seems V-P had the right street cred, because not only did their first video Misfit feature Andy Warhol re-enacting the card-flipping motif of the film for Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues (see the video below, at 3:10), but the recurring chorus of their 1989 single Name And Number went on to greater fame in De La Soul’s Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey): ‘Hey, how you doing, sorry you can’t get through – why don’t you leave your name and your number and I’ll get back to you’. In V-P’s set Name And Number was first up and the set closed with his cover of Johnny Bristol’s Hang On In There Baby, which was pleasant enough but veered close to being an unsubtle crib of You To Me Are Everything by The Real Thing.

The last act of the first half was a real highlight for me, a proud owner of The Lexicon Of Love CD reissue: the Sheffield synthpop romantics ABC (ten UK top 40 hits), fronted by shiny-suited Martin Fry, a cut-price Bryan Ferry with a knack for dramatic vocals and writing quality pop. Things started to get more professional here – ABC even brought along backing vocalists to flesh out their sound. Leading with the dead-certain floor filler, Poison Arrow, ABC were on top form. Moving from the exultation of the opening song to the solid Tears Are Not Enough and All Of My Love, the band saved its best for the end – the ringing brass stings of the Smokey Robinson tribute When Smokey Sings, followed by the tremendous intelligent pop classic from 1982, The Look Of Love:

And though my friends just might ask me
They say Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love
I say maybe, there must be a solution
To the one thing, the one thing, we can’t find

That’s the look, that’s the look
The look of love
That’s the look, that’s the look
The look of love!

After the intermission the stage was handed to clean-cut, formerly mulleted white soul boy Paul Young (14 UK top 40 hits), who entertained with his still-strong voice and some deft mic-stand twirling. Opening with the cod-African beats of Love Of The Common People and following up with Come Back And Stay, Young then forced an unwitting audience to endure his duet with Italian singer Zucchero, Senza Una Donna, which matched the Italian’s name in its sickly-sweet romanticism, and the rather anodyne I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down. Better was to come, with a graceful yet crotch-endangering slide across the stage and a proper quality ballad to finish his set with: 1985’s Every Time You Go Away, which would’ve been a lighters-aloft moment in the 80s, but now due to health and safety regulations it’s probably only a mobile-phones aloft moment, which doesn’t have quite the same effect.

The penultimate act of the night got the female audience positively cooing with excitement – it was the original ladette pop combo, Bananarama (24 (24!!) UK top 40 hits). Named after a Roxy Music track (Pyjamarama) and exhibiting all of their shambolic former karaoke-style glory, the group is now a mere duo, but realistically there’s not a great deal required to put on a good Bananarama show. Exacting standards of tunefulness or spring-limbed dance moves are not really necessary. All that’s needed is a Stock Aitken Waterman backing tape on the synths and a couple of giggling lasses to belt out the hits. And they do a pretty good job too, ably assisted by camp-as-can-be boycandy dancers who do the hard work of hoofing around the far less mobile lasses. Cruel Summer is followed by their first hit, a collaboration with Fun Boy Three, Really Saying Something, and then it was onwards to the Stock Aitken Waterman zone, with Robert De Niro’s Waiting and the matching pair of I Want You Back and Love In The First Degree. Funnily enough, the latter’s chorus goes down quite well with the girly audience:

Only you can set me free
'Cos I'm guilty (guilty)
Guilty as a girl can be
Come on baby can't you see
I stand accused of love in the first degree

To close their set the lasses claim that they’ll perform ‘one for the girls, then one for the boys’. Their penultimate song is their world-straddling humungous hit, the Stock Aitkin Waterman-magicked cover of the 1970 hit Venus by the Dutch band The Shocking Blue. Here it’s possible to see the wizardry of the SAW production, which extracts every hook imaginable from a simple pop song and disguises the rather average vocal abilities of its performers to good effect (Wikipedia puts it politely: 'They are known for their unique vocal style which features all members singing in unison rather than three-part harmonies'). But, strangely, the last number Bananarama perform is the chant-driven Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye. End on a high note, girls – finish with the superior Venus, even if it is a cover! All in all Bananarama definitely entertained the crowd and put on a good show, proving that you don’t need to sing like an angel to become a pop star. In fact I can truly say they’ve probably never sung better. (…If you get my meaning).

Then the clock struck 22:07. The audience fell into a hush, punctuated only by the occasional drunken hen party cackle. The auditorium was illuminated only by the hypnotic pulsation of dozens of battery-powered neon-lit bunny ears. He was here. Ladies and gentlemen, Mister Rick Astley! Yes, the duffel-coasted high-trousered fresh-faced lad of the 80s is now a sharp-suited fresh-faced middle aged man of the 2000s. His fame duly re-buffed by the Rickrolling viral meme that has seen at least 25 million unsuspecting net surfers view his biggest hit video, Astley (nine UK top 40 hits) topped the bill and charmed the audience with a mix of cheesy showmanship (‘ladies, you look bloody goooorgeous’) and pleasing northern wit (‘the last time I played Wembley […ahem, Arena] garlic bread hadn’t even been invented!’).

As befitting his newfound fame, Astley closed the night’s entertainment with a whopping eight-song set, which is fully five or six songs more than I ever knew he possessed. Opening with Together Forever (which could easily have been performed by Kylie and Jason), taking in She Wants To Dance With Me, Hold Me In Your Arms, a gloopy cover of Nat King Cole’s When I Fall In Love, and Cry For Help all flitted by, perhaps reminding us that the 80s instrumentation at times left many songs sounding perilously alike, despite the talented vocals. Soon enough it was the allotted minute for the big finale: in 1987 Never Gonna Give You Up was #1 all over the world and probably on the far side of the moon too. It gets the crowd singing along and waving their arms aloft, and it caps off a night of shameless yet guiltily entertaining musical enjoyment. Seldom has such an unabashed exhumation of the long-buried yielded such glittering rewards.

(Fan vid)

Now all they have to do is edit the superfluous apostrophe in Here and Now: The Very Best of the 80’s, and then in the words of ABC’s Martin Fry:

Like a bird in flight on a hot sweet night
You know you’re right just to hold her tight
He soothes it right - makes it outta sight
And everything’s good in the world tonight!

Thanks to Felix for spotting the gig announcement and having me along! For more details on the tour and some thinly-veiled sarcasm, see this Guardian profile.

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