There’s something about the music of the 1980s that seems to endure in popularity more than any other decade. The hits of the ’80s just never went away. It was as if nostalgia for those years began as soon as the decade ended. And the appetite is as strong as ever. From the recent and excellent Wham! documentary to Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill topping the charts 37 years after its release (thanks to its inclusion in Stranger Things), 80s music is proving to be as popular as it ever was.
This gives something of a clue why a tribute show dedicated to the era played to a packed audience on a Tuesday night in London’s West End. Billed as “the ultimate retro party”, 80s Live aims to be the perfect night out for Wild Boys and Material Girls to let their hair down and relive their dancehall days.
With a three-piece live band of drums, keys and guitar, four singing performers and an MC who sings and plays, the show works its way through (according to our count) 38 of the biggest 80s hits including 13 number 1 singles* so whether you’re a golden oldie reliving the soundtrack of your school disco or a youngster discovering the decade for the first time, they certainly don’t skimp on the tunes. (*Technically, Video Killed The Radio Star was a hit in 1979, but as it was the first song played on MTV in 1981, it doesn’t feel too much of a cheat).
Don’t Leave Me This Way, the Communards’ chart-topping cover of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes song, opens the show and receives a rapturous welcome. With a setlist that includes bangers like Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule The World, Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) and Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, a crowd-pleasing evening is guaranteed.
There is something unquestionably critic-proof about 80s Live as the show delivers exactly what it says on the tin. However, as reviewers, it would be remiss not to point out that certain 80s hits emerge better than others.
While it never sets out to be Stars in their Eyes or a series of dedicated tribute acts, the show hits gold when Bryan Humphrey gives us his Karma Chameleon as his voice is remarkably similar to George O’Dowd, right down to that famous rasp and almost androgynous soulfulness. In the second half, he is equally impressive covering Erasure’s A Little Respect, hitting the high notes that, on recent form, that the actual band’s front man no longer seems capable of reaching.
Wayne Smith makes a reasonable job of the show’s only ballad – Spandau Ballet’s True – but his musical-theatre sounding vocals come into their own on a-ha’s Take On Me with Smith conjuring up Morten Harket’s idiosyncratic yowl.
In some way, the show’s two female singers Karin Latham and Rachel Johnson have a tougher job. The iconic women featured in the show had huge visual identities as well as amazing unique voices. Whooping it up through Cyndi Lauper’s anthem Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Johnson sounds more Idina Menzel than the kooky New York singer-songwriter. Tackling the synthpop classic Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), she lacks Annie Lennox’s chill or willful subversion. To be fair, it is hard to imply menace when the costume trying to replicate the Eurythmics singer’s classic leopard-skin look resembles a discarded Mrs Overall apron. When both Latham and Johnson attempt a three-song Madonna section, sadly it feels like poor cosplay. While Madonna may not have the greatest voice, it is at least distinctive. This, alongside knowing how to provoke in her performances, made her Queen of Pop. The blandness of this section stands in such clear contrast to the electricity of the original star.
Sid Sims, the evening’s enthusiastic master of ceremonies, unfortunately is at the centre of the show’s two weakest moments. For an evening that ruthlessly stays on brand as 80s party central, the arrival of “The Sounds of Ska” was quite the unexpected turn. Beginning with Madness’ less-than-familiar Night Boat To Cairo, Sims segued into a baffling rendition of Lip Up Fatty. Of all the songs of the decade, did anyone have Bad Manners’ fifth highest-charting single on their Bingo Card? In an evening of absolute smash hits, a forgotten and forgettable single that only reached #15 in the charts managed to bring the party temporarily to a halt. The audience, who had been on their feet throughout, suddenly found time to scroll through their social media.
While Dave Gahan’s teenage vocals might have been a bit of an ask, Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough was reduced to bad karaoke with pub-singer vocals and unwelcome encouragement that the audience add its own “ooh-ooh” noises over the synthpop classic.
80s Live definitely has an air of Butlins or Cruise ship entertainment about it. That’s not a sneer. Both are very skilled at identifying a product (whether it be Motown, Disco or in this case, Eighties), identifying the very most popular elements, packaging them up slickly, and offering up an evening of familiar favourites to a willing audience.
80s Live makes fantastic use of video screens throughout the show and a lot of quality artistic work has been done in creating these backdrops. Such creativity does not translate to how the show is presented. “Do you remember a band called Duran Duran?” “Do you remember a band called the Human League” The constant “Do you remember…” becomes repetitive and lazy. The over-insistent instructions to “Put your hands in the air” or “Get on your feet” may put the emphasis on Fun with a capital F but after a while it tips the evening into forced jollity.
The show’s wittiest moment comes with their rendition of the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me? As a blessed relief to the show’s endless smiliness, Smith embodies Phil Oakey’s faux aloofness while Latham and Johnson brilliantly capture the sulky, backing-singer indifference of Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.
The Eighties was a decade marked by so many changes. Traditional notions of what is male and female were questioned by the presence of the likes of Pete Burns, Boy George and Annie Lennox, the so-called “gender-benders” of the era. With the advent of synthesizers, music became more democratic with working class bands like Depeche Mode and Human League being able to afford to make music. Queer trailblazers like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the Communards and Erasure sang unapologetic same-sex love songs and had mainstream success.
The defiance, the breaking with traditions and bold expression of otherness within the mainstream of music is what defined the era for many. But that sense of innovation and agitation is not the Eighties presented here. Writer Doug Larson once wrote “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days” and that’s what 80s Live has to offer: a palatable version of the decade with all the rough edges removed. When Sims introduces It’s Raining Men as being “For the ladies in the house”, it deliberately misremembers that this song was a gay anthem long before it ever hit the mainstream and become a party staple. To quote Paul Young from his ‘No Parlez’ album, Iron out the Rough Spots.
There is clearly a market for uncomplicated nostalgia and the producers smartly have made sure that the tickets have been priced affordably. Judging by the audience response at the end, did they have a retro party? Yes, absolutely. Would the majority of the audience book again? In a heartbeat. Told you it was critic-proof!
The audience would give ★★★★★ 5 stars.
The Recs would give ★★★ 3 stars.
Split the Difference ★★★★ 4 stars