My Sunday night is gently unusual for several reasons, but the most obvious one right now is that I’m having pre-drinks around a square table in the Daily Planet with my entire immediate family, about to go to a pop concert. I can’t remember the last time I went to a pop concert with my entire family. We all went to Deep Purple together, at Montreux Jazz Festival, seven years ago, which is another fairly unusual thing to do.
Tonight makes more sense really because – without wanting to put too personal a spin on things – tonight’s concert features music my parents played in the house when my sister and I were growing up. Some of these tunes, I know, are among my father’s favourite pop songs, and they formulated part of my early musical diet, infusing into my conception of what songs can or might be.
As such, this review will be probably be skewed by nostalgia, but I’d hazard a guess you didn’t come here for objectivity in the first place. Objectively speaking, we finish our drinks and dart across the busy lanes of Beaufort street, joining the queue for the Astor Theatre that curls ‘round the corner.
Once in, we zigzag up stairs and find ourselves in the upper-right-rear corner of the geometric turquoise hall. It’s not the best position, but if climb up on your seat and lean against the wall (much more comfortable than it sounds) you end up with a pretty good view. The lights dim, mostly quinquagenarian crowd emits an ecstatic roar of anticipation, and NIK KERSHAW emerges.
He’s a man of small stature but significant presence, clad all in black. His hair – once a majestic, towering mullet replete with golden highlights and a fringe like a falcon’s wing – has been trimmed to a dignified all-purpose cut and allowed to grow silver. He approaches the mic with poise, but greets the crowd with casual mateyness in his strong East Anglian accent. First up’s the funk-infused ’85 hit ‘Wide Boy,’ which shuffles along spryly, propelled by a grin inducing synth hook and popping bass. From there it’s onto ‘Radio Musicola,’ ‘Dancing Girls,’ and ‘When A Heart Breaks,’ before the early inclusion of pseudo-Celtic crypto-smash ‘The Riddle.’ Its triumphant melody, militaristic snare and arcane (or, arguably, nonsense) lyrics are a winning combo in any context, but here, in a room swollen with long-time fans, the song becomes a glorious thing to behold. There are newer – mostly more subdued – tunes in the mix, like ‘Have a Nice Life’ and ‘The Sky’s the Limit’ – tunes that generally reflect upon fatherhood, childhood and the dynamic between the two. But we’re never far from a hyper-saturated, indulgent 1980s classic: the hedonistically rocky (but nevertheless cleverly composed) ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good,’ and the joyfully stubborn, faintly Carribean, disco-slappy ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.’ Those who recall Kershaw as an ’80s jazz-funk guitarist cum teen icon with big hair aren’t wrong, but his inventiveness as a songwriter and arranger are more worthy of remark: Elton John called him “one of the best songwriters of a generation.” It’s a claim that’s not so ridiculous once you spend some time with lesser known tracks; in tonight’s set, the more intriguing highlights come via ‘Don Quixote’ with its shifting syncopations and relentless, blistering bassline; ‘Bogart,’ with its cinematic references and tessellating riffs; ‘Human Racing’ with its tinny drum machine and minimal layers underscoring unexpected harmonic twists and turns. I’m enjoying the set throughout, but my dad is clearly, quietly loving it to the maximum limits of human emotion.
Kershaw bows out, but there’s not much in the way of an intermission: the package deal comes tightly bound. The backing band – comprising 3 nimble Australians on drums, bass and keys, plus Ricky and Scarlett Wilde (Kim’s brother and niece on guitar and backing vocals respectively) – remains the same. A wild KIM WILDE appears, and – believe it – she positions herself in front of a carefully prepared fan, so that her hair may billow mysteriously just like it always did back in the day. It’s an addition that could be embarrasing, but is clearly tounge-in-cheek; like the entirety of tonight, it comes devoid of self-seriousness. Wilde wastes no time – the lights flare and she smashes through ‘Checkered Love,’ ‘View From the Bridge,’ and mega-hit ‘Cambodia.’ These are songs I’m much less familiar with (I was raised on Kershaw, not Wilde) but their essence is immediately recognizable: feel-good pop with generous helpings of light and shade, never wandering too far from a hook or a chorus. There’s a lyrical playfulness and inventiveness, too, of the sort that’s often overlooked in discussions of mainstream ’80s pop – the songs might sound “dumb,” but more often than not there’s wisdom and winking among the silliness and bombast.
Wilde weaves in some covers (‘Wonderful Life’ by Black, the Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ and the Divinyl’s ‘I Touch Myself,’ an implicit Chrissy Amphlett tribute) before returning to her own tunes. The set rounds out with the mammoth ‘Kids In America,’ a song which everyone knows even if (like me) you don’t really know how you know it. The crowd claps, swoons, chants along. The positivity in this space rivals that at a Lil B concert. It’s pretty amazing.
After thunderous applause, both the headline names reappear, soon joined by their team of instrumentalists. With an encore now guaranteed but no big hits left to plunder, what they’ll play is anyone’s guess. And indeed the choice is a bit of a head-scratcher: ‘Try’ by the chart-topping, but hardly universally beloved, P!nk. For me, P!nk represents alot of the false earnestness and vapid anthemic histrionics of contemporary pop. But hey, what would I know? Much like the people who’d hate on Kershaw and Wilde, I haven’t actually spent time with P!nk’s music, nor do I care about it – and like Kershaw and Wilde, P!nk will probably maintain a legion of loyal fans long after I’ve lost sight of her career. Maybe there are more parallels going on here than I would have supposed.
Shows like this are easy to be cynical about if you take them at face value: a B-list distillation of the ’80s, neatly bundled into 90 minutes, so that old timers can get their fix of nostalgia and the musicians can keep earning a crust. But that’s not really what it feels like at all, nor do I think that’s what it is. Kershaw’s been making new music ever since he (willingly) disappeared from the limelight, and while he may never have regained a widespread status of perceived “relevance,” he’s maintained an earnestly exploratory, creative outlook. Wilde, almost conversely, is brutally honest about the trappings of what she’s doing: she frequently jokes about the era she’s temporarily reanimating with her set, pokes fun at her earlier career, pays full credit to her brother for writing the songs, and treats the whole thing as a light-hearted experience brimming with raw, unpretentious fun.
I’m a sucker for big hooks, pop song-formats, synths, and uncanny cultural artifacts that become massively successful before sinking back into various people’s biographies. But whether that’s your bag or not, tonight is testament to the idea that “hits” can take on a new life long after their peak popularity dwindles; they can reveal themselves in new ways. It’s also a testament to the light-hearted good vibes pedalled by these two musicians, entering the autumns of their careers, not wasting a minute pining for the past: instead, letting the past mingle unselfconsciously with their creative presents and futures. I can get on board with that, one hundred per cent.