There was a time when pop stars were content to fade to grey in paunchy middle age. Not any more. On the Here And Now tour, Eighties artists from ABC to Bananarama are dusting down the Lurex suits, bouffing up their hair, and not taking themselves too seriously.
Something’s wrong with Carol Decker’s microphone stand. “Has Nik Kershaw been sound checking?” she asks. She lets rip a filthy laugh. “It’s really low!” It’s been 22 years since Decker spent five weeks at number one with her band T’Pau, their soft-rock ballad China in Your Hand hitting pop’s jackpot across Europe, with worldwide stadium tours to follow. Those days might not be returning any time soon – their hit was last heard helping Johnny Vegas and Monkey sell PG Tips – but tonight the 51-year-old will once again perform to a packed, cheering arena. As will several of her Eighties colleagues.
First, the sound check. “Right,” Decker instructs, “Fart and Hole.” She means Heart and Soul, a T’Pau Top Ten in 1987. The backing band play a couple of verses. “Coolio, Julio,” she says, satisfied. Next up: Kid Creole and the Coconuts. They rattle off Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy. Then Nik Kershaw appears. “I’m just going for a wee,” he announces. After Heaven 17 perform Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, their keyboardist runs through Roll out the Barrel.
“Who’s next?” he asks. “Is it Cutting Crew?”
“Aye,” confirms the guitarist. “I Just Fell on My Arse Last Night.”
On the Here And Now tour, it’s fair to say no one could be accused of taking themselves too seriously.
Anyone seeking the whereabouts of the “This Is Spinal Tap – Where Are They Now?” file can call off the search: it’s on Tony Denton’s desk. Denton has been a music agent and promoter for almost 30 years. He’s masterminded various nostalgia tours with names such as The Best Disco in Town and Once in a Lifetime, ever since realising that while Seventies acts Rose Royce, the Real Thing and Odyssey could sell 400 tickets on their own, they could sell out the Hammersmith Palais if packaged together. Lately, he’s been heralded a music industry phenomenon thanks to his collaboration with the stars of the Eighties. Everyone who was anyone from the era is now on Denton’s books: ABC, Altered Images, Bucks Fizz, Belinda Carlisle, Bananarama, Curiosity Killed the Cat, China Crisis, Doctor and the Medics… on and on the list goes, an A-Z of acts that can be hired out for a variety of occasions, for a variety of wallets. Blondie might set you back £100,000; Johnny Hates Jazz not so much. Private parties do well and the corporate work is rolling in: clients include Debenhams, Thomas Cook and Cadbury. “It’s like a sweet shop,” the enormously likeable Denton, 48, says, not inappropriately. “A Danish promoter wanting an Eighties section for his festival came to see me the other day. He got the roster and said, ‘How does it work? Can I go, “That one, that one, that one…?” ’ I’m like, ‘Yep! It’s exactly like that.’ ” easyJet launched its Gatwick-Berlin route by hiring one-hit wonders Berlin to sing Take My Breath Away on the plane’s wing, just as they did in their Top Gun-indebted video.
For the full three-hour Eighties experience, however, you’re advised to head for the Here And Now tour, which features a revolving line-up of Denton’s faded stars. “We all get to pretend we’re 25 again, then do some serious damage in the bar,” says Decker. “I view the whole thing as an enormous jolly.” Fun it might be, but Denton has his rules. Each act is restricted to their three or four hits; no album tracks or – heaven forbid – new material. When one singer finishes, the next is wheeled on.
To Westfalenhallen, Dortmund, where tonight’s date features Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, T’Pau, Paul Young, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Cutting Crew, Heaven 17 and Rick Astley. Actually, Astley’s been parachuted in. The headliner was supposed to be Boy George, but he’s currently serving 15 months at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Edmunds Hill for handcuffing a male escort to a wall of his flat. “I’ve been George’s friend for a long time,” nods Denton, sadly. “He knows he’s done wrong. I’m going to see him next week. He’s fine, he’s keeping his head down.”
In fact, Astley proves to be an inspired sub, currently basking in his own Indian summer courtesy of 2008’s Rickrolling craze, in which web users are tricked into clicking on a link to the video for his hit, Never Gonna Give You Up. “It’s brought him to a whole new generation,” says Cutting Crew’s Nick Van Eede. “My daughter’s 20. She missed him the first time round.” In November, pop’s most famous teaboy performed to 50 million at New York’s Thanksgiving Parade, Rickrolling himself as he burst out of the Cartoon Network float unannounced. “I was behind Buzz Lightyear and in front of SpongeBob SquarePants,” he recalls. “If there’s enough money, I think most people would do almost anything.” It’s alarming to report that, at 43, Astley appears unmarked by time’s passing. Not something every Here And Now act can claim. “It’s a bit strange,” agrees Decker, darkly. “I think he’s cloned.”
Denton has been running Here And Now since 2001, when he finally persuaded Kim Wilde, the You Keep Me Hangin’ On star turned Garden Invaders presenter, to down trowel and up microphone. “He’d been asking for years,” Wilde says. “I thought, ‘Really – who could possibly want to see a sad, middle-aged woman who’d had a couple of kids and was into horticulture singing Kids in America?” In fact, Denton lucked out, happening to call the day after Wilde had been cajoled into singing at a family wedding, and had loved it. “I realised it’s not sad at all. There’s something sweet about going back and saying hello to an audience who will let you be a size 14 instead of a size 10. They’re just glad you’re there.”
Others soon followed. “I had this bizarre notion I still had some credibility to preserve, so I kept saying no,” says Kershaw, who has continued to find success as a songwriter. “But we’ve all had the shit kicked out of us for so long by the media, I thought, ‘F*** it, it’s just ridiculous.’ I ran out of reasons to say no, really.”
Denton assumed Here And Now would run its course after a couple of years. Today it’s bigger than ever. It plays Wembley this month, and has been to Japan and Australia. When it pitched up at Ascot last year it broke the attendance record. A compilation album then entered the charts at No 6. This summer, many of its acts will appear at Retrofest, a two-day festival complete with camping, a “Retro Ritz Cinema” and the “Club Tropicana Beach and Cocktail Bar”.
Backstage in Germany, and there are interviews to be done. “Was it more amazing to perform your songs when they were still in the charts, or is it more fun today to say, ‘Hey, I’m still alive’?” the man from Dortmund Radio 91.2 asks Kershaw. “There’s less at stake today,” Kershaw replies. “It’s not your whole life. It’s more fun. So, yeah, now, I would say, I suppose.”
“Why do you think the Eighties had so much power to survive for such a long time?” the woman from the newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten wonders of Decker. “It was just a fantastic era for pop,” Decker responds. “Well-structured songs: a verse, a bridge and you climb to the chorus. That would be perceived as old-fashioned now. I just think the songs were more memorable.”
Perhaps the recession has made us crave the comfort of nostalgia, maybe the collapsing CD market and resurgent live scene has provided opportunities that weren’t there before, but bands are currently reforming at such a rate, it’s become news if someone announces they’re not getting back together. In March, guitarist-turned-artist John Squire was moved to daub on one of his paintings, “I have no desire whatsoever to desecrate the grave of seminal Manchester pop group the Stone Roses”. And dear old Morrissey stated, “I’d rather eat my own testicles than reform the Smiths – and that’s saying something coming from a vegetarian.” But Blur, the Specials, Orbital, Spandau Ballet and Ultravox, all back this year, have had no such qualms. It was once laughingly regarded as the mortgage-paying circuit, where you could see the Doors without Jim Morrison, Queen without Freddie Mercury and the Jam without Paul Weller. But somewhere between Take That reuniting to their biggest audiences yet and Led Zeppelin rocking the O2 arena, any stigma to burying the hatchet all but evaporated. Arguably, Tony Denton served as pioneer to them all.
“You’d be gobsmacked by how many people call me up and say, ‘I’ve been in a band, can we do something?’ And you go, ‘Who are you?’ ” says Denton. He cites the tale of drummer Peter Gill and dancer Paul Rutherford, who asked to join Here And Now as Frankie Goes to Hollywood. “I thought, ‘I can’t just have two of them,’ ” he huffs. “That takes away the credibility of everything we’re doing here.”
Denton started out as a postboy at Arista Records in 1980. His love of DJing led him to ask the manager of American disco sensation Sylvester if he had any British dates planned. When he said no, Denton phoned round gay clubs and put together a tour. Sylvester paid his plane fare over; Denton drove him around. Chaka Khan followed, and Tony Denton Promotions was off, run from a payphone in Selfridges, opposite Arista’s Oxford Street offices.
In 1990, Manchester-based manager Nigel Martin-Smith approached him with a video of a new five-piece boyband. “I thought, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, this ain’t gonna work. Bare chests, Lurex pants? I’ve never seen anything so camp in my life,’ ” says Denton. Still, he took Take That from gay clubs to selling out Wembley, before losing them to a higher bidder. When the music scene “went all druggy” and “the melodies stopped” in the Nineties, Denton realised, “If I want to keep being an agent, I’d better get my artists work,” and he packaged up The Best Disco in Town. The Here And Now name came to him in the bath after Paul Young was reluctant to sign up to anything suggesting his best days were behind him. “What I really wanted,” confides Denton, “was great big letters saying EIGHTIES!”
In Westfalenhallen, it’s showtime.
“We are all survivors of the Eighties,” Van Eede tells Dortmund’s galvanised crowd of mums and dads. “You may be holding the hand of someone different, your hair may be a little different – but sing along with me.”
“I know a little German,” says Carol Decker, before China in Your Hand. “He’s over there.”
“This is a song from my new album,” announces Nik Kershaw. There’s a perfectly judged pause. “Only joking.”
For some, Here And Now is the opportunity to play the places they missed in their heyday. When the package last hit Australia, hundreds showed up at Perth Airport with placards. It made the six o’clock news. “Everyone was at baggage reclaim looking around going, ‘Who’s here? Somebody really famous must be arriving,’ ” remembers Denton. “It was hilarious.”
Heaven 17 hadn’t toured at all before Here And Now. “We were an aloof synthesizer band,” says singer Glenn Gregory, whose onstage deportment tonight – skipping about waving his hands above his head – is anything but aloof. “You didn’t do anything as pedestrian as tour.” He sighs. “We missed out on a lot of fun.”
“If I had tried to put this together 20 years ago, it would have been a f***ing nightmare,” says Denton. But time heals all wounds, and as everyone dances around sidestage to Howard Jones banging out Things Can Only Get Better, ego wars seem as distant as a Friday night at the Wag Club. Louis Theroux recently took a camera crew on the road with Here And Now, doubtless hoping for one of his notoriously wry showbiz snapshots – faded pop stars at each other’s throats, etc – but abandoned it, Kershaw says, “’Cos he was bored shitless.”
There are no squabbles over the running order? No “Damn you, Astley, for headlining”? “Actually, we ask to be put on early,” says Gregory. “So we can get to the bar.”
There are other diversions, too. “I’m off to see Kid Creole and the Coconuts,” says Kershaw, hurrying down a backstage corridor. “Well, the Coconuts, mainly.” Yes, I say of the twentysomething backing singers and their tiny camouflage bikinis, they appear to have got younger. Kershaw grins. “That’s showbusiness!”
Only an older and wiser Paul Young looks a bit out of it. That’s because he’s been in a car crash. “My head went into the seat in front, my ear went through that thing you hang coats on,” he groans. “It’s knackered. I can’t hear the crowd at all.”
Of course, there is one other incentive. Denton says he rewards his acts handsomely, and there is a general consensus from managers that each act could reasonably expect £100,000 for between 8 and 10 dates on the UK tour. Not bad for 15 minutes’ work each night. “I’m not going to be paid a lot of money to do anything else these days,” reasons Astley. “I’m a human being. I like to get paid. It makes you feel part of the world.”
Denton lured Astley out of retirement with a Here And Now date in Japan. The singer had made a cider commercial there and, consequently, Lost in Translation, in which Bill Murray plays an actor making a whisky ad in Tokyo, had become his and his daughter’s favourite film. Astley agreed to perform if Denton put them both up in the Park Hyatt, the Tokyo hotel where Murray stays in the film.
“This has nothing to do with my life,” insists Astley, who’s currently developing a musical called New York Cowboy. “I know for a fact that on the drive home I could burst into a petrol station, jump on top of a pump and start singing Never Gonna Give You Up while waving a flag that says, “I’M RICK ASTLEY”, and everyone would ignore me.
“Honestly, there are times when I look at the audience and I’m thinking, ‘What are you doing? What the bloody hell are you doing?’ ”