To some, the Here And Now Tour is a has-beens cabaret, to others it’s a harmless trip down memory lane. Peter Paphides reports from the party where the 1980s never stopped…
THE GREATEST love isn’t always letting go. Three hours till tonight’s leg of the phenomenally successful Here And Now Tour and half a dozen fans have already gathered by the rear entrance of the Brighton Centre. All of them love the 1980s, but none of them want to let go: not Shaun, who runs a Dollar website; not Tania, a Kim Wilde fan who angrily declares that the charts “are full of manufactured pap”; and certainly not 38-year-old Human League fan Michael Clark, who speaks passionately about the decade of pixie boots, snoods and mullets.
“Sometimes I find myself in HMV,” he says, “humming away at the 80s songs, and I get all these kids under 25 coming up to me. And they’re saying, ‘Which planet do you come from?’ And I say, ‘Excuse me, this is the 80s songs!’ And they turn around and say, ‘Was there a generation of the 80s?’ And I say, ‘Excuse me, you young kids, you stick to your bands and we’ll stick to our bands. We knew the 80s! You weren’t born! You’re weren’t outside your mum’s stomach!'”
When Andy Warhol said his “15 minutes of fame” thing, he probably didn’t mean it literally. But inside the venue, his words echo with eerie accuracy. Bedecked in shimmering black like a huge camp crow, opening act Visage’s Steve Strange takes exactly 15 minutes to sing ‘Fade To Grey’ and two slightly less well-known hits. No encores, no obscure album tracks, just enough time to thank his rehab clinic and his clothes designer before The Belle Stars bound on to deliver a similar compression of their career, ending with ‘Sign Of The Times’.
The passing years have depleted the band’s once plentiful ranks even more than the cast of Dad’s Army. It’s just singer Jenny and, um, co-singer Lesley today, so they’ve thoughtfully brought along two semi-naked backing singers to boost the numbers.
The whole night is lent seamless continuity by an eight-strong troupe of session musicians who make sure the songs roughly sound as good as you remember – regardless of who’s singing. Some acts get longer on stage depending on how many hits they’ve had.
Headliners the Human League get a whopping 50 minutes, while Kim Wilde gets at least half an hour, five glorious minutes of which involve getting 3,000 people who are neither kids nor American to sing, “We’re the kids in America!” If you think there’s something a little brutal about this process of boiling artists down their total sum of hits, then you’d be absolutely right.
The success of the Here And Now concept hinges on its promise of wall-to-wall hits for the Friends Reunited generation, sung by the faces you remember from the first time round.
Indeed, contracts are even drawn up on the basis of what songs they’ll sing. For some pop stars who long since gave up hope of reappearing on Top Of The Pops, that’s fine. For others, it’s a savage blow to the ego.
“I’d been trying to get The Human League for ages,” says Here And Now promoter Tony Denton. “At first, they were extremely resistant to the idea. For bands that developed after punk, this is a little too close to doing the cabaret circuit. But, you know, each artist has their creative lifespan.”
That may be so, but at what point do you accept that yours has ended? Of the pop stars approached by Denton to do Here And Now, Erasure and Rick Astley are among those who have refused. “Although,” he adds, “Erasure are quite happy to advertise their new album in the tour programme.”
Other artists are closer to wavering. A keen observer in tonight’s audience is Kevin Rowland. “He comes to a lot of the shows,” says Denton. “I almost persuaded him to do the last one, but he decided against it.”
Denton’s business savvy is matched only by his understanding of the pop star mindset. In trying to organise his first tour of 1980s stars back in 2001, Denton mulled over something Paul Young said to him. The singer told Denton that he didn’t want to be seen as just a face from the 1980s. “That’s why calling it Here And Now opened a lot of doors. It allows artists to feel that they’re still current.”
Whatever semantic spin you care to put on it, going cabaret was a bitter pill for the agenda-setting synth pop of the Human League. Backstage, a friend of the group claims that poor sales of 2001’s Secrets album – a deliberate return to the group’s early sound – shook Phil Oakey badly.
But in Brighton and the following night in Birmingham, there are plenty of signs that the League don’t yet feel ready to ruminate in pop’s rest home just yet. Several times Oakey tells the audience, “This is just an excerpt of our normal show”.
Elsewhere, the group’s ambivalence hasn’t gone unnoticed. “The Human League are being very detached,” observes Thereza Bazar out of Dollar. “You don’t even see them. They’re still into their whole 1980s success trip. They haven’t said hello to anyone. They just stay in their bus.”
Undeterred by Denton’s instruction to tone down their clinchy routines because “this isn’t Butlin’s”, Dollar’s David Van Day says he’s aggrieved that the duo’s legacy has come to be regarded as cheesy. “We were the first band of the 1980s to use Trevor Horn as a producer,” he declares, “and after us, both ABC and Frankie Goes To Hollywood used him.”
In Birmingham – possibly forgetting that Kim Wilde, Altered Images’ Clare Grogan, Five Star and the Human League are all above her on the bill – Thereza Bazar thanks “all the fans out there” for bringing Dollar back together. After a long enmity with Van Day, Bazar cites “a kind of closure” as her main reason for reforming the duo.
“My family had never seen me as I was in Dollar, so I wanted to show them what I had done before,” she explains – although this surely can’t account for her and Van Day’s involvement in the TV series Reborn In The USA, in which deluded ex-pop stars compete to win a new following in America.
Fame may be getting smaller in time’s rear-view mirror, but several other artists are no less eager to prove a point. It’s 15 years since Five Star – Romford’s very own Jackson Five – last had a hit, but Stedman Pearson still manages to budget for a female minder.
Without any appreciable point to prove, it’s pop star turned Guardian gardening columnist Kim Wilde who seems to be enjoying herself most. In fact, she talks about these tours with an evangelical air that suggests it has helped her to better come to terms with her younger self.
Yes, fame was fun while it lasted, but then it ended and that’s OK too. Things do end. And with the zeal of a convert, it was Wilde who – via mutual friend Carol “T’Pau” Decker – persuaded Clare Grogan to join the tour. “I just think they’re the best fun you can have,” Wilde told her. “You get to act like an idiot and then go back to your current life.”
Right now, Clare Grogan looks like she’s just emerged from some serious therapy. She’s sobbing with disbelief following an especially well-received set. “That’s one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened to me,” she gasps, alluding to the moment during ‘Happy Birthday’, where the entire crowd rose from their seats.
At 3am, back at the hotel bar, Grogan sheds a little light on her unexpectedly intense reaction. She says that prior to Here And Now, she hadn’t listened to the band’s hits for nearly 20 years. “Being in the public eye does funny things to you. For the last year of the band’s life, I stopped smiling because I thought I was being typecast as this silly little girl. After that, I just put that part of my life in a box and ceased to give it much thought.”
But now you’ve got the taste for it, aren’t you tempted to come back for more? Another album perhaps? “But that’s just it,” she says, “I’m not! I know it’s just nostalgia! And that’s why it’s so brilliant! Nothing depends on it.”
I think about Michael from Plymouth, Phil Oakey, Thereza Bazar, Kim Wilde and Clare Grogan – all at very different points along the same curve of self-discovery, all trying to come to terms with a decade and the effect it had on them.
But I don’t think about them for long. Someone sets off the fire alarm and everyone has to leave their rooms and meet in the car park. Even Phil Oakey.
© Pete Paphides, The Guardian, 8 March 2003