They just keep us hangin' on

Date
Published in
The Times (UK)
Written by
Dan Cairns

Uncool they may be, but these 1980s bands are a seasonal sellout, says Dan Cairns

As the office-party season takes its toll on our health and reputations, the annual naff-fest of Christmas this year threatens fresh embarrassment. The Here & Now Christmas Party 2002 (which opened three nights ago in Newcastle) seeks to roll back the decades to the year 1981, when new romantics roamed the land in shoulder pads, mascara, kilts and powdered wigs, while a teenage Scots actress called Clare Grogan cooed "Happy Birthday" on Top of the Pops and broke male student hearts in Gregory's Girl.
Twenty-one years on from those career highs, Grogan ponders the wisdom of her decision to join the Human League, Kim Wilde, Dollar, Five Star, the Belle Stars and Steve Strange on a sold-out arena tour (concluding in Manchester next Sunday), witnessed by 75,000 nostalgia-hungry fans. She's aware that many will see her involvement as akin to returning to the scene of the crime.

"But there's nothing riding on it," says the 40-year-old actress and former singer with Altered Images, who now works as a presenter for Sky. "I do it, I have fun, I get to play in front of thousands of people, and that's it. And it's not like we're competing in the charts with each other."

Wilde is clear about why she decided to put aside her trowel - she has carved out a new career as a gardening broadcaster and columnist - to belt out the hits again. "It's sheer joy," enthuses the mother of two. "Someone picks me up in a car, books a hotel for me, I don't get the children's smelly nappies on my head at six in the morning, I'm having a good time, getting really well paid, and then going home and putting it all in a suitcase ready for next year."

To their credit, neither Grogan nor Wilde makes any great claims for the musical era they personify - a period that is, arguably, more reviled than any other. "I think for Kim and me," says Grogan, "it's just an opportunity to play at being what we were. We're not trying to be hip." Wilde laughs at the thought. "A mother of two, a size 14 rather than 10, known for her gardening - standing there with red lipstick and something leather on, singing Kids in America? For anyone who likes a good dose of irony, they'll certainly get it here."

A more accurate name for any tour involving the likes of Dollar and Steve Strange might be Still Here Now. And Grogan's admission that "there have been times over the years where I've been to see bands and I've wanted to push them aside and grab the microphone" probably applies to most of them, not least Dollar's David Van Day, who sells Belgian waffles on the south coast and hasn't troubled the Top 40 since 1987.

What unites all of the participants I spoke to is a wish to see some return on careers that, at the time, passed in too much of a blur for them to take in what was happening. Grogan, for one, is determined to seize her chance.
"I really plan to behave like a diva this time around - I want all my dressing rooms painted white, puppy dogs, the lot." She isn't remotely convincing. "Actually," she admits, "I'm doing it for my family. They're starry-eyed about it, the backstage passes, all of it." None of this would be possible without us. And our need, at this time of year, to wring some enjoyment out of life and bask in the glow of nostalgia is, if anything, greater than that of the contributors to Here & Now. For, as the festive season never fails to demonstrate, something strange comes over us at Christmas. It is as if, after 11 months of battle to keep up with trends, December is the moment when all pretence is abandoned. Out come the snapshots, the party hats, the personal demons and the drink-impaired dance routines. Down in one go a succession of alcoholic beverages. And off we troop to see the Abba tribute band Björn Again, or Madness live at Wembley, or Here & Now (all packing them in this month). What better way, after all, to defeat the enemies of pleasure - be they crazed religious fundamentalists or lip-pursing arbiters of taste - than by dusting down the gladrags, throwing off the years and singing, in unison: "You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, when I met you"? As Grogan says, it's time to stop worrying and simply "bask in the shameless glory of it all". Who could deny her that wish?