Date: 2 November 2001
Originally published in: Evening Standard magazine (UK)
Written by: Ian Watson
Pursued by groupies, spoiled like royalty, swept up in Live Aid… and all in gigantic shoulder pads. Life was a riot for your average Eighties chart-topper. Now Nick Heyward, Kim Wilde and co are back. We were ternbly frivolous then, they tell Ian Watson.
Carol Decker is worried. She hasn’t done a serious photo shoot like this since her heyday with T’Pau and it’s all slowly coming back to her. Sitting on a stool between two sofas in the old VIP room in the Camden Palace, she’s surrounded by a line-up Top of the Pops would have killed for 15 years ago. Three sex symbols: Paul Young, Kim Wilde and Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot. Three dance-music pioneers: Glenn, Ian and Martyn from Heaven 17. One Nick Heyward. And Decker’s just worked out where she fits into the picture. ‘I’m right where the staples are’, she says. Her fellow pop stars peer over, suppressing friendly smirks, and are forced to agree. ‘Never mind, I’ve always wanted to be a centrefold,’ declares Decker, turning to pout at the camera. Young, in snakeskin cowboy boots and a suit he bought in the Eighties, a laddish sparkle never far from his eyes, bursts out laughing. ‘Well, don’t let us stop you!’
Although this isn’t the annual Ageing Pop Stars’ Get- Together, the mood is spookily similar to a cheery school reunion. Old rivalries over chart positions have been buried for the sake of the common cause: making a mountain of cash from the Eighties nostalgia boom. On 15 November, the Here And Now tour, featuring everyone present and Go West (who, in an ironic reflection of their career, are stuck in Birmingham today), win hit Wembley Arena for a night of awful fashions and top tunes. ‘When I think of the Eighties now, I remember lots of synthesisers,’ says Wilde, settling in a corner for a quick saunter down memory lane. ‘Lots of shoulder pads. Lots of posing and posturing. A certain naivety that doesn’t seem to exist any more, but maybe that’s because I was naive then and now I’m not.’ Wilde was the ultimate British female sex symbol of the early Eighties, a beacon for confused teenage boys in a world where Madonna had yet to be invented. A few of her peers were smitten as well.
‘Mick Hucknall chatted me up once, but we never dated. The closest I got to an encounter with Mick was when he was staying in a hotel room next to me and he kept me up all night. You can imagine how.’ Michael Jackson was something else entirely. ‘I only met him briefly in the two months I toured with him. In a subdued lighting scenario. He put his arm around me and I thought, “That’s sweet” and then he turned his head to a camera.’ Did he say anything? ‘No. I told him to take care of himself because he looked like he needed a gaod meal. He looked at me as if to say, “You’ve caught me out.”‘
Life for Kim in the Eighties was a lot of hard work, promoting hits such as ‘Kids in America’ and ‘Chequered Love’, and a lot of drunken fun afterwards. ‘I never took drugs so I had to make up for it by acting like a berk sometimes.’ And it being the decade of excess and decadence, she wasn’t short of people to party with. ‘Spandau Ballet were always good for staying up late and getting drunk with. Which is something we did quite a lot in the Eighties.’ She even got plastered with Chris De Burgh. ‘I do remember through a haze of red wine singing “Lady In Red” with Chris De Burgh at the piano,’ she blushes. ‘You’re not proud of all your memories.’
For Young, it wasn’t the other singers he had to watch out for, but the fans. ‘It was like the Pied Piper,’ he says, with a slight stutter. ‘I’d be walking down the street and 20 people would be following me. Sometimes me and my manager would count to three and turn round and start walking really fast straight towards them.’
Things came to a head when Young went on tour in Australia where ‘Wherever I lay my hat’ had been the first of many huge hits. ‘This guy in Brisbane sent me a letter saying I was a messenger from God. He turned up at the hotel and he was a one-and-a-half-legged man on crutches. My security guy advised tour security notto let him in and he started going mad and throwing his crutches.’
Volpeliere-Pierrot, still a youthful-looking 36 and mercifully free of the beret he wore during his time with Curiosity Killed The Cat (‘actually, it was a Greek fisherman’s cap’), knows all about mad fans. ‘Once, in the bar before a gig, a girl grabbed me between the legs and said, “I’ve got to suck you off before the end of the night”‘, he says, fumbling with a cigarette. ‘Later, she tried to dragme to the fire exit and I was like, “I’m not that desperate.”‘
Still, if ever a fan – or, more likely, a member of the press – got too annoying, Curiosity had a plan. ‘We were with Then Jericho in a hotel in Italy where 52 English artists were staying for a festival. There was a photographer we were kidding with because he’d been guilty of a paparazzi story and we had him hung out of the window. We didn’t drop him, though. Then it turned into a fire-extinguisher fight. Every floor was packed with gas. It was like tear gas. The police threatened to throw us out because some guy nearly choked in his room. The other artists, such as Bob Geldof, weren’t that pleased.’
Decker had a slightly different experience. When ‘China in Your Hand’ went to Number One for five weeks in 1987, the Eighties were suddenly all about pressure. ‘People go on about Geri Halliwell, but I weighed seven stone,’ she says. ‘I just lived on energy and fags and was always very worried about the next move.’ The tabloid attention was tough, too. ‘When we played Hammersmith Odeon, we had a decoy car with someone in a red wig. The press camped outside my house. I went to a film premiere in a very short skirt and, as I got out of the car, a photographer dropped to his knees to get my crotch.’
But the rewards of success, unsurprisingly for a decade defined by affluence, were amazing. ‘It was red carpets, first-class travel, private jets, five-star hotels, the best restaurants in town,’ Decker sighs. ‘I stayed in Princess Diana’s suite at La Residencia in Majorca. And Richard Branson gave me a two-week holiday on his island. When I got to Necker Island, the household staff were lined up and they played “China in Your Hand” as I arrived.’
Heyward remembers an equally extravagant night spent right here in the Camden Palace. ‘David Bowie put on a party for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. People were very flamboyantly dressed and there was food everywhere. It was very Roman, very Grecian. That was the nature of the Eighties. You had the Falklands War at one end and then you had extravagant parties. But it was very naive. Very innocent, very frivolous.’
Heyward, who has a slightly unsettling habit of blinking four or five times a second, thinks he had a nervous Eighties. The first time he appeared on Top of the Pops, singing ‘Favourite shirts’, he says he looked ‘absolutely terrified’. The next day, while filling his car with petrol, he noticed people recognising him. That was the start. ‘One day, you’d get amazing happiness and then some people would want to beat you up or ridicule you.’
Did people try to beat him up often?
‘Yeah. It happened almost immediately. I used to get quite a bit of that.’
Eventually, it got too much. ‘At a time when I was supposed to be joyful and triumphant, I was actually in a swirling, spiralling weirdness. Like falling into a Dali painting. It was very dark and bleak.’ Young also suffered the pressures of fame. ‘I started feeling claustrophobic. Being stuck in hotels. I couldn’t go out because fans were swarming the lobby and in the elevators trying to findout what room I was in. That’s when I thought it was time to take a break.’
Not before he took part in the biggest record of the Eighties, however. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ by Band Aid. ‘I was one of the first people contacted and then it got bigger and bigger. Bob’s idea was to have David Bowie sing the opening line because he’s a world-wide star, but he was on the other side of the world. So I got it. That really opened the door for me in America.’
Heaven 17, in contrast, were the last to be contacted. ‘I got a call on Friday night from Midge, saying, “will you do some vocals for us?”‘ remembers Glenn Gregory. ‘He hadn’t told us anyone else was turning up. I’d got a pint of milk because I had a hangover and we walked round the corner and there was limo after limo dropping pop stars off. “Phil Collins? Sting? What’s going on here?” So I hid the milk.’ Heaven 17 had made a decision not to play live in the era of the 12-inch single and video promo, so they didn’t appear at Live Aid. Gregory, who was in the crowd, says it was ‘breathtaking’. Young, who duetted with Alison Moyet, thinks it was ‘the biggest thing I ever did’. ‘The feeling of goodwill from the audience was phenomenal’, Young says. ‘And everyone backstage was so humbIe. You had five minutes in your dressing room after you came offstage. And the adrenaline buzz was so big that you just wanted to hang backstage, but you had to get out because Queen needed the dressing room. The Queen boys were really nice. They said, “Don’t rush, we’re OK.”‘ They were outside chatting. And then they went and did the show of their career.’
The current upsurge in Eighties nostalgia is fuelled entirely by memories like this, of course. Looking back at the events that defined early adulthood for 2001’s thirtysomethings, it’s impossible not to feel wistful for the simplicity of youth. ‘Music is a photograph of an emotion at a particular time, so it’s like looking at old photographs,’ thinks Heyward. ‘I feel like I’m going into the loft to shine a torch on old treasures.’
And when those old treasures turn out to be slightly more embarrassing than remembered (‘The awful perms I had! I looked like a poodle. All the jewellery, too much. And the dreaded puffball skirt was a mistake,’ howls Decker), well, that’s almost the point. ‘I’m rather fond of Eighties fashion because it was so pretentious,’ laughs Wilde, getting ready to go and pick up her kids from school. ‘I’m going to wear these shoulder pads and have my hair like this and it’s very expressive, it had a humour to it. I look back at my outfits and at least there was a cohesiveness to them. They were all crap. That’s something you can say about the Eighties. It was consistently in bad taste.’