The opening night of a-ha’s 31-date Electric Summer tour yielded plenty of surprises, as Barry Page discovered…
The home of Kent County Cricket Club, the Spitfire ground has been doubling up as a music venue since Elton John brought his Red Piano tour to the beautiful, historic city of Canterbury in June 2006. Twelve years later, three acts synonymous with pop music’s greatest decade – the 1980s – played to a largely enthusiastic crowd on a balmy spring day.
Since his return to the pop music fray in 2014, following a lengthy absence, 62-year old Tom Bailey has become something of a permanent fixture on the festival circuit, delighting fans and nostalgia-hungry crowds with a selection of hits culled from the back catalogue of his former band, the Thompson Twins. A warm-up concert at SUB89 in Reading in August 2014 – which this writer was lucky enough to be present at – marked the start of a journey that will culminate with the release of his first ever solo album, Science Fiction, next month. “It’s exciting,” he says, “because rediscovering the ability to play live and write pop music has been part of a personal transformation. I started off full of fear and all sorts of ‘oh no I can’t do that, and I can’t do that’. But, little by little, I’ve rediscovered that it’s okay. It’s fun and it’s really interesting.”
Boasting outstanding cuts such as ‘Ship Of Fools’, ‘If You Need Someone’ and 2016’s comeback single, ‘Come So Far’, Science Fiction is a fine album that fans of his former band will undoubtedly be pleased with. Also included on the PledgeMusic-funded new album is a track titled, somewhat prophetically, ‘Bring Back Yesterday’, a title that seems to perfectly encapsulate the nostalgic mood of the Kent crowd who, rightly or wrongly, expect to hear the hits. As Bailey told The Guide in 2016, “You’re known for your best work so it would be foolish for me to walk out to a crowd and say, ‘Here are ten songs I wrote last week’. You have to earn permission for that.”
During their mid-80s heyday, which included a memorable performance at Live Aid with Madonna on backing vocals, the Thompson Twins racked up a slew of hit singles. Sadly, the lowly 45-minute slot ensures that Bailey and his fabulous all-female band – which includes Emily Dolan Davies, a former member of The Darkness – can’t play them all. But the allocation is lengthy enough to remind the crowd that the Thompson Twins produced some truly classic pop singles in their pomp, including ‘Hold Me Now’, ‘Doctor! Doctor!’, ‘You Take Me Up’ and their first Top 10 hit, ‘Love On Your Side’, which still raises a smile with its clever interpolation of 1982’s ‘In The Name Of Love’. The arrangements are largely true to the studio recordings, but US hit ‘King For A Day’ is presented in a slightly slower, bossa nova style; replete with lyrical tweaks (“Diamond rings/ And all that bling”). The visuals feature a combination of graphics and lyrics, and the band also daringly throw in the Latin America-inspired current single, ‘What Kind Of World’, which includes some infectious Cuban vocal samples. The band endure some software problems which results in some occasionally off-key vocals, but overall it’s a very enjoyable set that is well received by the sun-baked crowd.
Equally adept on both the festival circuit and indoor venues are synth-pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, who had actually once supported the Thompson Twins on a lengthy US jaunt – The Tour Of Future Days – in late 1985/early 1986.
Since the band’s official reformation in 2005, OMD have enjoyed something of a career renaissance; rivalled only by that of Gary Numan’s. As the social media reaction will later attest, the band win a plethora of new admirers after an outstanding 70-minute, hits-packed set.
“Tonight, Matthew, we’re gonna be a Blues Brothers tribute band,” declares singer and bassist Andy McCluskey, before launching into their first Top 10 hit, ‘Enola Gay’. By the time of the band’s arrival on stage – which is still facing the glare of a powerful early evening sun – the throng has significantly swelled, and the well-rehearsed band feed off the energy and enthusiasm of the audience. Some early sound problems are eradicated once a fresh microphone has been installed for set perennial ‘Tesla Girls’, but a confident and jovial McCluskey is undeterred as he cajoles the crowd into pogoing along to ‘History Of Modern (Part One)’, a highly energetic live favourite that’s essentially about the end of mankind (“Everyone you love/ Everyone you hate/ All will be erased and replaced”).
Whilst it’s a sprightly McCluskey who largely provides OMD’s focal point, keyboardist Paul Humphreys is also afforded a turn in the spotlight as he arrives centre stage for a run-through of the band’s final UK hit of the 1980s, ‘(Forever) Live And Die’.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played at a cricket pitch before… with or without pads,” announces McCluskey, before launching into ‘If You Leave’, the huge US hit that formed part of the soundtrack for the classic Pretty In Pink movie. It’s become something of a divisive song amongst OMD’s fans since its release in 1986, but there’s no denying the quality of 58-year old McCluskey’s vocal and Martin Cooper’s saxophone solo on this mid-set number. Such is the band’s proficiency, one concert-goer flippantly suggests that the band are miming!
A longstanding part of OMD’s live set over the years has been what McCluskey has termed the ‘pastoral section’, frontloaded with a triple header of Top 5 hits from 1981’s classic album, Architecture And Morality, which still remains the pinnacle of their career. On the Humphreys-sung ‘Souvenir’, McCluskey takes a now-customary wander around the stage as he picks out the simple bass notes, while ‘Joan Of Arc’ and ‘Maid Of Orleans’ showcase the considerable talents of drummer Stuart Kershaw, an often overlooked figure in the history of OMD, despite having co-written some fabulous songs over the years. Since stepping into the breach following the unfortunate departure of original drummer, Malcolm Holmes, Kershaw has added a fresh dynamic and, with his powerful drumming, has become an integral part of the band’s live set-up.
‘Talking Loud And Clear’, which Duran Duran’s John Taylor once described as having a ‘nursery rhyme’ feel, gives McCluskey something of a breather after a typically frenetic workout during the climax of ‘Maid Of Orleans’. There’s a slightly clumsy end to the track and a few quizzical looks between members, but no-one seems to notice. “We must be doing something right,” announces McCluskey. “There’s no queue at the Prosecco tent!”
When the band’s original line-up disbanded at the end of the 80s, McCluskey embarked on a solo journey; utilizing the OMD moniker, but with mixed results. The excellent Universal album proved to be that particular era’s swansong, but it produced one bona fide classic single in ‘Walking On The Milky Way’, which the Canterbury crowd are treated to. In concert the band haven’t quite been able to replicate the magic of the studio recording and the lack of the Hannah Clive backing vocal sample further exposes its frailties, but it’s well received by a crowd who are clearly receptive to the song’s nostalgic tones.
Whilst the set leans heavily on the hits, the band indulge the crowd with the title track of last year’s critically-acclaimed 13th studio album, The Punishment Of Luxury. Whilst some of the lyrics are questionable (“Can I have my cheque please, Sir?”), the track boasts a memorable Kraftwerkian melody, and the “hey! hey! hey!”s provide another opportunity for the audience to interact.
There’s a return to the hits with the Caribbean-flavoured ‘Locomotion’ and a double-header of singles from 1991’s Sugar Tax album, ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘Sailing On The Seven Seas’, while the band’s oldest song, ‘Electricity’, rounds the set off in style.
It’s now almost 40 years since Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark formed – something the band will commemorate with some special shows in the autumn – and this rapturously received set certainly consolidated their reputation as one of the finest live acts around at the moment.
“It’s a huge privilege to be able to go out and play in front of enthusiastic audiences 30 years down the line – not a lot of artists get that opportunity” – Magne Furuholmen
It’s been almost four months since a-ha completed their MTV Unplugged tour at the O2 arena. The process of reimagining key songs from their vast back catalogue has clearly reenergised the Norwegian trio, and much of the new set list on the opening night of the Electric Summer tour expands on this approach. “You have to reinvent things,” Pål Waaktaar recently told The Yorkshire Post. “It has to feel fresh, so even the ones we always play, you try to give them a different spin or really bring it back to the way it was at the core.” Certainly, it would be so easy for the band at this stage in their career to run through perfunctory versions of their hits, but they deserve credit for continuing to challenge themselves musically. Sections of the Canterbury crowd are not so receptive to some of the new arrangements, and the band are understandably rusty after a four-month break away from the live stage, but it’s nevertheless a fine set, with some intriguing twists and turns.
By the time the band appear at 8:30, the temperature has noticeably dipped. Featuring the same line-up as the MTV Unplugged tour – sans multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth – the band launch into ‘Cry Wolf’. Morten Harket endures some problems with his in-ear monitors, a sight that his audiences are well used to witnessing. “It’s about trying to hear what I’m doing myself,” he once told the Norwegian journalist, Jan Omdahl. “And because I use the voice over such a large spectrum – not only high and low – but also in intonation and levels of sensitivity, it demands a lot. It’s a shitty job for the soundman to work with me.”
Whilst the set leans heavily on the band’s singles, deep cuts such as ‘The Weight Of The Wind’ get a much welcome airing, as does Magne Furuholmen’s ‘This Is Our Home’, a beautiful new song which was debuted during last summer’s shows in Giske.
Other tracks that haven’t been played for several years include ‘The Blood That Moves The Body’ and ‘Minor Earth Major Sky’, which boasts a more electronic foundation than its studio counterpart. But perhaps the biggest surprise of the set is the inclusion of ‘Train Of Thought’. Not the version of the band’s third Top 10 hit that most people are used to, but an arrangement that’s closer to the original demo recorded at John Ratcliff’s Rendezvous studio circa 1983; replete with alternative lyrics and a distinctive guitar riff that was later used on ‘Cold River’ (see 1990’s East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon).
Elsewhere, ‘Manhattan Skyline’ is presented in a more stripped-back arrangement and boasts a more ambient introduction. Towards the end of the song, as Harket gazes admiringly at Waaktaar’s guitar playing – which is excellent throughout – he misses his vocal cue; a sign perhaps of some opening show nerves.
Set mainstay, ‘Stay On These Roads’, features a lovely cello solo and some fabulous organ flourishes, while ‘I’ve Been Losing You’ includes a sneaky snatch of The Doors’ ‘Riders On The Storm’ in the song’s dramatic climax.
The crowd are a little subdued throughout, and there are some audible moans and groans about Harket’s apparent failure to interact with the crowd in the same way as OMD’s loquacious singer had done in the previous set – it’s a criticism that has followed him around for years. “I’ve never been uncomfortable being a frontman,” he told The Guardian in 2016. “I’ve always known that to be my position, but I’m not a showman. I’m not an entertainer, I’m an engager.” Furuholmen remains the band’s onstage spokesman, and he manages to rouse the crowd for a finale that includes the band’s only UK No.1 hit, ‘The Sun Always Shines On T.V.’, and James Bond theme, ‘The Living Daylights’.
Since its inception in a Manglerud nursery school basement in 1981, transatlantic hit ‘Take On Me’ has seen many changes, culminating in a beautiful ballad arrangement premiered last year. This time round, the band return to the version most people are familiar with, but with some funkier guitar elements. It’s the final number of the evening and, despite some of the criticisms – with one disgruntled fan even claiming that they have lost the plot – the band have delivered once again.
Tom Bailey set list: Love On Your Side / What Kind Of World / You Take Me Up / King For A Day / Lies / Lay Your Hands On Me / Doctor! Doctor! / Hold Me Now
OMD set list: Enola Gay / Messages / Tesla Girls / History Of Modern (Part One) / (Forever) Live And Die / If You Leave / Souvenir / Joan Of Arc / Maid Of Orleans (The Waltz Joan Of Arc) / Talking Loud And Clear / Walking On The Milky Way / The Punishment Of Luxury / Locomotion / Pandora’s Box / Sailing On The Seven Seas / Electricity
a-ha set list: Cry Wolf / The Blood That Moves The Body / Minor Earth Major Sky / Lifelines / The Weight Of The Wind / Crying In The Rain / Foot Of The Mountain / Analogue (All I Want) / Train Of Thought / Stay On These Roads / This Is Our Home / Manhattan Skyline / Hunting High And Low / I’ve Been Losing You / The Sun Always Shines On T.V. / Scoundrel Days / The Living Daylights / Take On Me
All photographs by Barry Page
Special thanks to Sara Page