Here & Now 10th Anniversary Tour: Opening Night, LG Arena, Birmingham

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.

Midge Ure
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.

Belinda Carlisle
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.

Jimmy Somerville
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.

Jason Donovan
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.

Boy George
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.

What the Fin Review doesn’t know about pop stars

Today’s Due Diligence column in the Australian Financial Review discusses how Sydney’s Star City casino is being revamped. It’s an interesting read but it includes this clanger sentence:

The complex will have a few upmarket bars, including one on the roof, and an events theatre to house live acts – think Lady Gaga – as well as awards nights.

It’s blindingly obvious that at her current level of popularity, Lady Gaga would require a much bigger venue than Star City could ever cram onto its current site, no matter how much rebuilding it does. Earlier this year, she played two concerts at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, capacity 12,000 or so.

The deadly minge of Elizabeth Taylor

US crooner Eddie Fisher is dead. What does this mean? It means that of the seven men we can unequivocally say have touched Elizabeth Taylor’s vagina, all but two have died.

Amongst Taylor’s seven husbands, the only ones who are still alive are John Warner and Larry Fortensky. And Michael Jackson is dead as well. This could be a nasty case of toxic box syndrome.

Yes, I know; correlation does not prove causation. But I’d still advise anyone planning on feeling up Elizabeth Taylor to think twice about it.

The lost Stephen Merchant interview

Back in 2004, I happened to be in London and the Australian asked me to interview Stephen Merchant, co-creator of The Office, ahead of the broadcast of the final episodes on free-to-air TV. At the time, Merchant and Ricky Gervais were working on Extras, though not much was known about it. The interview never got a run (occupational risk with newspapers), but I’m in an archival mood so here it is:

Picture by salimfadhley

Ricky Gervais has achieved international fame — and won two Golden Globes — for his portrayal of shocker boss David Brent in The Office. Yet while Gervais is very much the public face of the most successful British comedy in years, an equal share of the credit (and the Golden Globes) can be taken by his writing and directing partner Stephen Merchant.

Six foot-seven Merchant has mostly stayed out of the limelight, save for a brief cameo as Gareth’s mate Oggy. And although the pair were granted complete creative control over the show, Merchant says he was never tempted to take a bigger on-screen role.

“We were always guided by who was the best person for the role. Also, it’s nice to have someone behind the camera — we’re co-directing but Ricky’s often in the scene.”

In the past, Merchant has commented that Gervais can be a “nightmare” to work with. Surprisingly, he says this situation hasn’t been exacerbated by the show’s two Golden Globe wins.

“He’s much easier to work with now than he’s ever been. He still mucks around, but that’s an important part of the way we work, and where we get some of our best ideas.”

This lack of inflated ego may be because the pair never anticipated international acclaim. “We were surprised that it took off in the UK to the extent that it did, so the fact that it’s been successful in other countries is quite baffling,” he says. “I hope that it’s just because there’s a universality of some of the themes and ideas — the minutiae of office life are broadly the same everywhere.”

While Merchant shies away from comparisons to other classic UK sitcoms such as Fawlty Towers he pronounces himself pleased with the two newest episodes of The Office — in part because they expand on the existing template for the show. “I think the first of the two in particular is not quite what people were expecting. A lot of people thought it was quite dark — not a lot of funny dances or anything like that.”

The two specials, which find the documentary crew returning to Wernham Hogg three years on, also mark the end of the Office saga. The BBC would happily have commissioned further episodes, and at one time Merchant and Gervais themselves imagined the show running for three or four seasons, but any such plans have now been abandoned.

“I think the truth is we’ve got ourselves in a situation where we always envisaged it as having some sort of narrative — more like a film than a sitcom — and we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. We felt if we kept going we’d run out of ideas.”

The office environment itself, while easily recognised, is also somewhat limiting. “It’s very hard to bring in crazy characters and wild plots,” notes Merchant.

Indeed, he worries that this may already have happened. “Sometimes we wondered if we pushed it too far with the dance, or Brent in an ostrich costume — they’re moments that people love, but sometimes we wondered if we’d got too far away from the original idea. But it’s a sitcom, and sometimes you’ve just got to have jokes.”

In a series filled with memorable occurrences, which one is Merchant most pleased with? “My favourite moment is the one at the end of the second series where Tim unhooks his microphone when he’s talking to Dawn. It managed to use the documentary style at its best.”

For now, Merchant is determined we won’t see an Ab Fab-style resurrection a decade down the track — unless, he deadpans, he and Gervais develop “massive alcohol problems”.

Scarily, the only new Office we’re likely to see in the future is a planned American adaptation. Despite the decidedly mixed record of British sitcoms transferring to the US, Merchant is adamant that he and Gervais didn’t want a heavy level of involvement.

“We don’t really think we’re particularly equipped to write about American offices. They seem to be a lot more politically correct — there’s stuff in ours that they just wouldn’t get away with. And we didn’t want to feel like they had to be tied to our vision.”

The role of David Brent in the US version is being taken by actor Steven Carell, best known for his appearance in the movie Bruce Almighty.

“He stole a couple of scenes from Jim Carrey, which is no mean feat,” says Merchant.

“We’ve given it our blessing. It’s down to whether or not NBC likes it, and network television is very unpredictable.”

If it’s successful, will he become fantastically rich? “I would hope so. I want my own private jet.”

Another disincentive for stateside participation is that Merchant and Gervais are now at a very early stage in the writing of their next comic project. Gervais has said that, like The Office, it will be “another observational comedy about a man who says exactly what he’s thinking”.

However, the pair don’t plan to return to the pseudo-documentary style that made their name.

“I think the documentary thing is a bit limiting,” says Merchant. “What we will still hopefully bring is the naturalism of the performances and that slightly loose, improvisational feel.”

The not-quite-complete Tracey Ullman

One of the many sections hiding in the text-based archives of Gusworld is Gusworld Records. The idea of this “fantasy reissues record label” was to come up with theoretical CD reissues for material I thought needed to come out in a digital format. It seems a quaint idea in this download-driven age, and my usual over-reaching means that there’s only two artists featured on that section (though I did prep work for at least three or four more, which I really should upload one day).

Anyway, the most developed compilation on the site was They Don’t Know, a complete archive of everything Tracey Ullman released during her relatively brief musical career. Oddly enough, in early September there’ll be an actual compilation, Move Over Darling: The Complete Stiff Recordings, which aims to fulfil exactly the same charter. It even includes a previously unreleased track, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which is the kind of detail I wasn’t likely to know about.

But is it complete? It took me a while to work this out. I heard about the reissue through Remember The Eighties, but that didn’t offer a track listing. Neither did the Amazon entry. Eventually, a pointer on Popjustice led me to a listing that revealed all 36 tracks.

The compilation does indeed include every single number Tracey released (even the spoken-word ‘The B-Side’, which is often ignored), and the aforementioned newbie. However, it doesn’t cover all the extended mixes, particularly from her first album. There’s no 12″ versions of ‘Breakaway’, ‘They Don’t Know’, ‘Bobby’s Girl’ or ‘My Guy’, though such tracks exist. When I was “compiling” my version, I spread it across three discs to make sure there was space; that may have been a factor here, but I still think the compilation could squeeze in a couple more long versions. Of course, I’ll still have to buy it, if only for the remastering.

Blood on my tracks: Melanie C’s West End debut

Blood Brothers opened its current run in the West End in 1988, coincidentally the first year I ever came to London. I don’t think I even registered it was on at the time — all I cared about was spending my days in the Virgin Megastore and getting to see Chess. (I did both.)

By the time I started visiting London regularly a decade later, Blood Brothers was part of the West End furniture, running seemingly endlessly with a spare Nolan sister in the lead role. I’ve long thought I ought to see it — I think Willy Russell is a fine writer and I went through a strange Nolans Wikipedia edit war last year — but there was always something more urgent or with a more impressive roster of stars just down the road.

What finally got me in this year was the casting of Melanie C (that’s Sporty Spice to many of you) in the lead role. I’ve seen her twice in concert in recent years — once at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, once at a recording for the BBC radio show Jammin’ — so I know the woman can sing live. But can she act? And will I regret catching her in only her second night in the role? I headed to the Phoenix Theatre (which also houses the Phoenix Arts Club, site of KirstyFest 2009) on Tuesday night to find out.

The audience clearly has a larger contingent of Melanie C fans than conventional theatre-goers. (Fair enough too — bums on seats is what star casting is about.) From that point of view, Blood Brothers‘ rather unusual staging — there’s never a break where the audience can applaud between songs — is a boon, since it stops the whole thing becoming a ‘woohoo Mel’ frenzy at the expense of the performance (the bloke sitting next to me looked a definite risk in that way).

On the whole, though, that seems unlikely, because it’s a terrific play — energetic one minute, playing full-on for laughs the next, and with heart-wrenching moments never far away. And it makes the best comedic use of spit I’ve ever seen with a live show.

Most of the cast are Blood Brothers veterans (either from London or the UK tour), and they all perform their parts wonderfully. I’ll single out Stephen Palfreman, who plays Mickey (one of the brothers of the title), for his effortless switch from seven-year-old to nervous teenager to anti-depressant-addled jailbird, but there’s not a dud performance in the lot.

But let’s get to the nub: Melanie C. Her Scouse origins are doubtless useful as a stage novice (no accent to master), but she sings magnificently and acts the part beautifully. Mrs Johnstone is a fairly dour role, but she catches the lighter moments neatly as well.

At the end of her performance of ‘Tell Me It’s Not True’, she looked (and sounded) utterly devastated, in a way you don’t often see with more veteran actresses, who drop into gracious smiles as the curtain calls begin. That’s not a criticism, just an observation of how deeply she’s inhabiting the part.

It’s hardly a cheering play — in effect, it’s a scouse musical version of a Greek tragedy — but it’s well worth seeing. I suspect I won’t wait another 21 years to see it again.