Not since Michael J. Fox stepped out of a DeLorean has time travel been so exciting.
London’s Roundhouse has taken its latest step back to the future with a festival of 1980s music. The only question is when the venue does it again.
Boy George, Sandie Shaw, Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside and Kim Wilde are celebrating the historic future-pop perfection of the British Electric Foundation album “Music of Quality and Distinction.” Fans can only live in hope that the one-off show will be followed by more.
The British Electric Foundation, often abbreviated to B.E.F., created the template for modern pop 25 years too early. Its production of Tina Turner’s covers of “Ball of Confusion” and “Let’s Stay Together” kick-started her revival.
Not bad for two synthesizer-obsessed punks based in the industrial English city of Sheffield.
Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were members of the Human League before forming Heaven 17. Their side-project B.E.F. took classic soul songs and, working with a range of singers, recreated them using technology that was just starting to become available.
The spectacular results have been re-released in a set “1981-2011: B.E.F.” A new album will follow in 2012 with many of the songs in the show. Big soul vocals and sparse synthetic backing is the sound of contemporary pop. Despite the obvious advances in recording technology, these originals still sound vital.
On stage, they are sublime.
Marsh has left B.E.F. and Ware is happy to augment his keyboards with guitars. Even so, the 1980s future dazzle remains. Glenn Gregory, the lead singer of Heaven 17, mixes rich blue-eyed soul into the glacial synth. His trademark blonde quiff is gone, not his onstage exuberance. He strums through an acoustic version of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.”
Ultravox’s Midge Ure takes on David Bowie’s “Secret Life of Arabia,” which he dedicates to the late Billy Mackenzie who originally sang it for B.E.F. The audience calls for “Vienna.”
“No, we are singing music of quality and distinction tonight,” laughs Ure.
Wilde glitters like a Blondie from a northern English town and astounds with her version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by the Supremes. Gartside, bearded and wearing a louche black velvet suit, applies his rich reedy tenor to a version of The Delfonics song “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” tickled with electronic drums.
Billie Godfrey turns Bronski Beat’s “Small Town Boy” into a poignant epic. Kate Jackson of the Long Blondes raises a mountain range of goose bumps with Blondie’s “Picture This.” Shaw brings effortless glamour to Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart”.
Boy George looks like a rhinestone cowboy at Tiffany’s with his pink hat and black, bejeweled suit. His mellifluous voice, spiked with an ever-present glint of wickedness, is ideal for his beautifully oozing cover of Lou Reed’s “Make Up.”
Ware’s arrangements, innovative and still, after 30 years, strikingly modern, give the concert a coherence and consistency, preventing it from becoming mere cabaret.
An impromptu encore of Heaven 17’s “Temptation” (some of the guest singers have to be dragged back onstage from the bar) is one of the greatest moments of house music euphoria to be written before house music was invented.
It seems criminal that this two-day weekend event, as presently planned, should only be a one-off. Exceptional.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)