In the early eighties, Norwich got dangerously close to having a proper music scene. The Farmers’ Boys, Screen 3, Testcard F and countless others packed out the pubs and clubs playing their latest single pressed by Backs Records and last heard on John Peel. Long gone, and largely forgotten, those times nevertheless left behind the legacy of a huge cabal of music savvy fifty-somethings (like Royston Vasey, Norwich is a place you never leave) keen to relive those glory days.
No surprise then, that the Waterfront’s double dose of post punk synth-pop sold out month’s before its November outing, or that the audience were almost exclusively of a certain age. It probably also explains why the venue so quickly filled with the firm but fair-minded, staking their place. The venue’s notoriously tricky sightlines require ruthless strategy and sharp elbows if you hope to see anything more than the back of someone else’s head, but it was unusual to see the place so packed, so early. Heaven 17 may have been officially headlining, but it was obvious that Neil Arthur was also the subject of eager anticipation from a crowd who knew their stuff.
Arthur has been trading under the Blancmange name on his own for some years now, following Stephen Luscombe’s unfortunate departure, and while there was something unprepossessing about the session musicians he brought with him, the man himself quickly took command of the stage. After settling everyone in with a stripped down ABBA cover, he bravely launched into the eponymous track from his new album, “Unfurnished Rooms”. A stark choice, it was one of many new songs in a set that was determinably about what he is doing now, not then. The audience were willing to give the new stuff a go, for which he seemed genuinely touched, and give him his due - setting out your stall with the provocatively titled “Anna Dine” takes some chutzpah. Our reward for good behaviour was a closing triple fix of bygones, mostly notably featuring a hilarious sing-along to the instrumental passage of “Living on the Ceiling” that went on long after the song had finished and put smiles on everyone’s faces.
Of course, despite appearances, Blancmange wasn’t the headline act. In an evening that started to feel like tremendously good value, he was followed by one of Sheffield’s finest (now there’s a city that really does have a musical heritage). Heaven 17 has also stripped back - apart from the ubiquitous backing singers, Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory had only the statuesque Berenice Scott on keyboards for company. Surprising then, that they should open with “Fascist Groove Thang”, which sorely missed John Wilson’s bass. “Wheels of Industry” followed, prompting Martyn Ware to lament at these songs’ continued relevance - a timely reminder of the urgent political roots of the band.
And therein lies the rub. How does a band that used to be so vital and energised prevent itself lapsing into grotesque nostalgia when they have such an impressive back catalogue to fall back on? As Gregory confessed, they’ve been threatening to release a new album for decades but all we got was “Pray”, one (relatively) new tune, a song that showed such promise it’s all the more frustrating that don’t simply get on with it. In the absence of new material, they rang the changes by playing a couple of very old tracks from Ware’s Human League days, followed by an eccentric cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “Loving Feeling”. In a rather touching duet, Ware showed himself to be a surprisingly strong match for Gregory’s vocals. Like two refugees from the rat pack, the pair revealed a hugely personable and self-aware side, and while this might be in the ear of the beholder, it felt like a turning point in the gig, for suddenly everything went up a gear.
After a brilliant and heartfelt “Let Me Go”, the backing singers were unleashed for a superb rendition of “Penthouse and Pavement”, followed inevitably by “Temptation”. Billie Godfrey’s stunning vocals injected new life into their biggest hit, ending the set in glorious abandon as performers and audience alike bounced around in joyous celebration of an evening that had finally delivered what it had always promised. In the brief pause before the encore, the question of everyone’s mind must have been - how to follow that? Gregory’s inspired solution was to strip it all back again, performing a moving cover of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars", to solo piano accompaniment, before the rest of the band returned to wrap things up with the Human League’s seminal “Being Boiled”.
This really felt like two bands for the price of one. One looked forward, the other looked back, but both were on top form. The noxious fumes that disseminate from the pension plan 80s revival circuit sometimes obscure how adventurous and experimental these people were back in the day, and how influential they have subsequently become. This sold out tour suggests that folk are finally catching on and I, for one, am already looking forward to the bigger, better tour they have promised for next year – a few new tunes wouldn’t go amiss, though.