I delude myself about many things, but I have no illusions about 80s retro concerts these days. The audience will be pushing 40 from both sides and growing fat, because that’s the category I fit in myself. On the upside, I’m in Birmingham, so I’ll still be skinnier than 93% of the crowd.
Obesity aside, who could resist this lineup if, like me, you unexpectedly ended up in England at the last minute? The initial attraction for me was Pepsi & Shirlie (‘Heartache’, Wham! backing singers), who have essentially done nothing since 1990 and thus compelled me with their rarity value alone. I also own both their albums on original CD versions. To quote Daniel Johns: yeah, I’m a freak.
The other acts on this bill I’ve never seen before (no mean feat given my retro tourism dedication) are Jimmy Somerville, Midge Ure and A Flock Of Seagulls. I have witnessed three others previously:
- I’ve seen headliner Boy George on stage in Taboo, playing the role of Leigh Bowery after Matt Lucas gave it up (I saw that production too). Never seen him live as a concert performer though.
- I’ve seen second-ranked Jason Donovan on stage in Sweeney Todd in Bromley, a performance that was way more impressive than you might deduce from that description. Never seen him live as a concert performer either.
- Belinda Carlisle: this will be the eighth time I’ve seen her (five Australian Here & Now performances, once in the London production of Hairspray, plus the Doncaster Shoppingtown Hotel this year, a performance I was too slack to blog about, slap me if you must).
It’s an odd mix of acts. The Seagulls belong in the early new Romantic period. Pepsi & Shirlie scored their hits in the latter part of the decade, but had a presence much earlier with Wham! Midge Ure arguably has the most diverse range of hits. Belinda and George run close behind. Jimmy has a compressed range of success, and Jason doubly so. But I’m looking forward to it all. Here’s a blow-by-blow description with hideous photos:
A Flock Of Seagulls
Setlist: The More You Live The More You Love, Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You), Space Age Love Song
A Flock Of Seagulls being nothing more than lead singer Mike Score is no shock, but there are two other shocks to come. He does not have that hairstyle, itself a lazy shorthand for the 80s these days; instead, he has an age-making ponytail. Yes, that was 30 years ago. On the other hand, we have advanced wig technology. He refers jokingly to this — “Does anybody out there miss my hairdo? Yeah, I do too” — but it’s not enough.
Even more annoyingly, he goes nowhere near the band’s biggest Australian success, “I Ran”. I was half-expecting this — the song was only a minor UK hit — but that doesn’t make it right, dammit.
Pepsi & Shirlie
Setlist: Goodbye Stranger, All Right Now, Heartache
22 years after their last gig (as Shirley points out), the ladies are looking good and working hard. The audience definitely perks up when ‘Heartache’, easily their most recognisable track, closes the set, and is perhaps a tad restive otherwise. But that’s about familiarity, not competence.
Outfit-wise, there’s a lot of glitter and sparkles and black (all popular choices for retro ladies of a certain decade). I honestly half-expected a Wham! medley, so it’s good to see the pair mining their first album for the hits. In a modern twist, Shirley also thanks their tweeters.
Setlist: If I Was, Fade To Grey, Vienna, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes
Midge was, in a word, majestic. ‘Vienna’ was the first track which got most of the audience standing. Midge introduced it by noting that it was “the nearest we’ll get to opera tonight”, a wry reference to his recent brief stint on the TV talent show Popstar To Operastar. Being in a crowd of a few thousand people all singing the last line was well cool.
Remarkably, this was the first time Midge had actually performed ‘Fade To Grey’ (which he wrote and produced for Visage) live in concert. The result was impressive, though I suspect the crowd would have reacted better with a more synth-heavy arrangement mimicking the original, rather than the rockier approach we got here.
Setlist: Live Your Life Be Free, I Get Weak, Circle In The Sand, We Want The Same Thing, Leave A Light On, Heaven Is A Place On Earth
No surprises here: Belinda is a consistently enthusiastic live performer and always delivers the hits. In her UK career, the Go-Gos really are a footnote, so no songs from them. I would have liked ‘Always Breaking My Heart’ to show up — it was a major UK hit and I’ve never seen her do it live — but you can’t have everything.
Belinda did her typical arrangement of ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’, with a slow version of the first verse before kicking into the familiar version. Quite a few of the crowd took several lines to recognise it. I note in passing that former Bucks Fizz singer Shelley Preston is no longer serving as Belinda’s backing vocalist/musical director. Ah well.
Setlist: You Make Me Feel Mighty Real, Why, Never Can Say Goodbye, To Love Somebody, Smalltown Boy, Don’t Leave Me This Way
Wee Jimmy was easily the most enthusiastic performer this evening, keeping the crowd enthused the entire time and bouncing from one side of the stage to the other. His falsetto remains impressive too.
Despite having two backing singers, Jimmy didn’t perform ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ in the familiar Communards duet version, taking on all the lead vocals himself. Still sounded great. The ending of ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ incorporated a few phrases of ‘Turn The Beat Around’, and Jimmy noted that he was going to sing ‘To Love Somebody’ with “some bitterness” because “I haven’t got a husband”. The Bronski Beat material is just as impactful as it was 25-odd years ago. While I enjoyed everyone, I’ll single out Jimmy as the highlight of the night.
Setlist: Nothing Can Divide Us, When You Come Back To Me, Every Day, Hang On To Your Love, Sealed With A Kiss, Especially For You, Any Dream Will Do, Too Many Broken Hearts
For some reason, it took a long while for Jason’s set to fire up. In the first few numbers, he gave the distinct impression he was singing from an autocue. It wasn’t until ‘Sealed With A Kiss’, performed only with acoustic guitar accompaniment, that the crowd got really into it and Jason responded in turn. From then on, things were fine.
It pains me to admit it, but I think this was because of the material. I’m a product of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman era and I love their classics, but there’s no denying that the identikit approach they took to songwriting meant that for every classic, there were a lot of indistinct mid-tempo songs, and Jason seemed to get more of them than any other SAW act. ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ and ‘Especially For You’ are good; the rest simply aren’t the greatest moments in the SAW catalogue, chart success notwithstanding.
‘Especially For You’ was performed as a duet with backing singer Sarah Fearnley ( or “Fern” as Jason called her). No, she’s not Kylie, but he could hardly leave it out, could he? I reckon the whole thing would work better if ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’ got moved up top and he closed with ‘Any Dream Will Do’. When it doubt, save your biggest hit for last.
Setlist: Church Of The Poison Mind, It’s A Miracle, Everything I Own, Always On My Mind, Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?, Karma Chameleon, That’s The Way, Victims, Bow Down Mister
Resplendent in a glitter bowler and with much better vocals than you’d expect if you’ve ever watched Culture Club’s ‘A Kiss Across The Ocean’ concert video, George delivered most of the hits you’d imagine, but still managed a few surprises. By far the oddest inclusion was a torch-song rendition of ‘Always On My Mind’ (modelled on Elvis, not the Pet Shop Boys). George sang this well, but I can’t help thinking it was an odd inclusion in a nostalgia show where everyone does their own material. He got the chance to demonstrate his ballad range by singing ‘That’s The Way’ (with singer Lizzie Deane giving her very best Helen Terry) and ‘Victims’, so it wasn’t needed for that.
During ‘Karma Chameleon’, George did manage to forget the words at one point, but everyone was having such a good time that no major panic ensued. The finishing number ‘Bow Down Mister’ is one of his lesser solo hits, but has lots of singalong
George claimed that he would have done more numbers but for the LG Arena curfew (it was 11pm when the show finished, 15 minutes behind schedule). I’m a bit sceptical, as it’s hard to see what else he might have added: ‘Time’ and ‘I’ll Tumble 4 Ya’ are the most obvious contenders, I guess. I’d have liked to hear ‘The War Song’, but that seems even less likely. That said, and despite ‘Bow Down Mister’ being his conventional big finish (it serves the same role in Taboo), I think ‘Karma Chameleon’ should get the closing spot. But I’m nitpicking. It was a great performance all round.
Additional random notes:
- I have to stop getting to concerts early. I was on the arena floor an hour before A Flock Of Seagulls were scheduled to appear. On the other hand, people were showing up halfway through Midge Ure. What is this, Melbourne?
- “Anyone found smoking in the building will be subject to our ejection policy.” Eject! Eject!
- There’s a relatively long gap between acts; given everyone is using the house band, I expected faster transits. There was also an interval between Belinda and Jimmy, which frankly I think was a mistake; better to maintain the momentum. Also, no video screens, alas.
- The program for the event lists the biggest hits for each performer, but mistakenly claims Belinda Carlisle sang “I Go Weak”.
- Building posters inform me that the mega-fabulous Kim Wilde is touring third-billed with Status Quo, ranked under Roy Wood. Frankly, that’s depressing.