A Flock of Seagulls - blimey! - that's a blast from the past. Although I was never a hardcore fan of theirs, I did love all their singles, purchased a few releases at the time and one of my best mates Jason Freed sported a superb copy of the lead singer Mike Score's bird-beak haircut (I myself had opted for the Vince Clark Yazoo debut skinhead cut with long draping fringe). But what of the three support acts...
Tenek is Geoff Pickney's latest project. Pinckney has been around the electronic pop scene for years, first coming to my attention via his project The Nine at the first Elektrofest (coincidentally nine years ago). His smooth production skills (used by Tik + Tok on their return album last year) have always been apparent and he has managed to carve out something of a career persuing the professional music production side, notching up big name TV clients like the UK's Channel 4, and CSI:NY and Without A Trace in the States, along the way. Presumably using his earnings from that side of his life to pay the bills, Pinckney can enjoy the rest of his time continuing to mine his beloved synth pop both in the studio and live on stage. I only managed to catch the last two songs of the Tenek set - but it was umistakably Pinckney. Polished, poppy and a touch Mesh-like (who Pickney helps bring their studio sound alive on stage), the vocal audience appreciation could have been down to the Pinckney fanclub being out in force or a genuinely impressed reaction. I think it was the latter.
The Modern are a familiar Flag-promoted band, having come out of retirement a while back to focus on playing live rather than building up their studio catalogue. They've a couple of really catchy numbers, my fave Industry sadly not making an appearance this evening, but to me their just too bland to make an impact now. Excessive exposure on the London live circuit hasn't helped. Because of their general style, electro pop with chart topping songwriting aspirations, there'll always been space in my head to listen to The Modern (it's like a genetic weakness), but it's more likely to be background soundtrack to a conversation at the bar than standing in front of them looking up.
My affection for Roi Robertson's Mechanical Cabaret is no secret, but I like to think my objectivity never stops me from doing my job as a critic when required. Besides, any decent artist confident of their own abilities, should be able to take constructive criticism. In my review of their second album, Product For Your Insecurity, I challenged Robertson to step up his game and I felt the best way to do that was to let go some of the punky, sleazy side and focus more on what the songs demanded and deserved from him as the songwriter. Three years passed between Product and the third album Damaged Goods released at the start of this year on Major Records, but the change in gear was indeed major and we gave it a !DSO Recommended! rating as a result.
Nevertheless, I still sensed there was one final step that could be taken that would place Mechanical Cabaret in a position where a label like Major was capable of helping deliver the kind of global audience that I think Robertson deserves. Tonight that final step was taken and it's no coincidence that Greenhaus originator Steve Bellamy was sharing stage with Robertson for the first time. (Bellamy's natural talent as a producer and songwriter has similarly seen the once raw, club techno sounding Greenhaus, featuring the odd Numan or Joy Division cover, steadily progress and migrate to their current more mainstream indie rock space.) If the last time I saw Mechanical Cabaret was probably the best ever performance I'd witnessed (and that with Roi alone on stage) then this evening was unquestionably the best-sounding.
The change is transformational. In my head this is what Mechanical Cabaret have always sounded like - but it was great to hear it coming into my ears for the first time! You know when you hear an artist for the first time on record only to be disappointed when you hear them live as the polish of the studio sound is lost, having often been replaced by an unclear live mix, dodgy pa and altogether disapppinting alternative. Well, bizarrely, Mechanical Cabaret have somehow managed to pull off the opposite! The albums are now much more rough and raw, whereas the live sound tonight had all the additional quality and subtleties of a studio recording. It was a weird thing to hear - but good weird.
But before fans who weren't there panic and gasp in horror and dismay, be reassured that all that has happened here is the strength of the songwriting has been given the chance to shine beyond the more superficial trappings of the presentation. Robertson was as into his music (and channeling the energy it seemingly gives to him) as always, and accidentally backed into his synth at one point almost knocking it over, and throwing out a hand to stop the machine from toppling over produced a hilarious, comedy bum note on the keyboard. How ironic it was the opening notes of Careful Careless! Seems the Bellamy dimension is a permanent development which is terrifc news for anyone seeing Mechanical Cabaret live in the future.
OK, A Flock of Seagulls, or AFOS as the fans know them. This had all the potential and likelihood to be an embarassing sham. The original line up having all long gone their separate ways despite a short-lived TV inspired reunion a few years back, only lead vocalist and songwriter (and former hairdresser!) Mike Score remains and in recent times has built a live band around him comprising Joe Rodriguez (lead guitar), Pando (bass) and Michael Brahm (drums). From an uninformed distance, this really did look like desperate comeback stuff. But I remained open-minded and optimistic thanks is no small part to other so-called 'comeback' gigs like OMD and Yazoo in recent years. Not only were those worth attending but both actually rank in my 'best ever gigs' list. Unlike those two, however, AFOS were never one of my favourite acts - so my expectation was well-measured, or in the lyrics of Alphaville: "Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst".
It's usually good to have one's expectations undermined, and that's what Score and co. did here. The only original remaining member may have different hair than he did in 1982 (how many of us hasn't!) but his voice was intact and those era-defining catchy pop songs with their unforgettable choruses, lush synth pads and unmistakable echoing guitar riffs were not only all present and correct but, thanks to the rock solid live team alongside Score, were about as good as they were ever going to sound live. If they did sound any better in their heyday I'd like to have been there to hear that was actually possible - because it's hard to believe. All the hoped-for hits were performed and all did their nostalgic thing perfectly creating a terrifically good-natured evening.
Only Wishing (If I Had Photograph of You) was a disappointment as, for some inexplicable reason, its tempo had been notched up significantly, loosing all the distinctive essence and magic of the single and simply had Score struggling to fit in the lyrics. But the remainder of their set included some of the best tracks from their last and least-known 1996 album Light At The End of The World like Hearts on Fire and Setting Sun. I Ran (So Far Away) was the last song in the main set - not sure if Score still hates performing it as he said on MTV some years back - if he does, he hid it well. The one-song encore was the (still) brooding Nightmares from the decidedly darker second album Listen. This was an undoubted guilty pleasure but if ever someone deserved another chance to reap the rewards from some terrific pop song writing Mike Score does and with the band he has around him today should have no problem convincing even the most jaded out there that some comebacks are worthwhile. Wasn't enough to get me to change my haircut though. 8/10
See also these similar 'comeback' performances: