19 Eighties concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall
Last night was quite something. I headed to the Southbank to meet up with Mark Nicholson aka Osymyso for the 19 Eighties gig that was part of The Rest Is Noise festival. Mark is my usual companion in most things electronic and 80′s-related, the last time we were here it was to see Alan Howarth perform selections of his scores for the films of John Carpenter and we have a similar appreciation of all things synthesized.
So, a free talk by Martyn Ware (The Human League / B.E.F. / Heaven 17) and Peter Howell (Radiophonic Workshop) beforehand in the foyer was right up our street. They talked about vintage synths, drum machines, samplers and the like for an hour and the highlight was when Martin got up to recreate the intro to ‘Being Boiled’ on the original mini Korg 700 and Roland System 100 machines that they made it on - (see video clip at the bottom). We were in hog heaven and even had a little play with it afterwards before heading into the concert hall for the main event – passing Trevor Horn on the way in (as you do).
The main event was something quite unique: two pieces by composer Andrew Poppy, one by Michael Nyman, a new piece by Anne Dudley and Paul Morley centered on the music of the 80′s and the thing we had most come to hear – the world premier of Art of Noise‘s ‘Into Battle’ scored for orchestra! How this last piece was going to work we had no idea but the chance to hear a full orchestra playing ‘Moments In Love’ or ‘Beatbox’ was too good an opportunity to miss.
Andrew Poppy – resplendent with long white hair these days – was first up as the orchestra started with a version of his ’32 Frames for Orchestra’ piece from his ‘The Beating of Wings’ LP on ZTT and it was damned near a perfect reproduction. Next, Poppy – who had been sitting center stage behind the mixing desk for this – then took to the stage and played piano in an incredible composition called ‘Almost The Same Shame’ which was new to me but became one of the highlights of the night.
Next was a John Tavener piece called ‘The Lamb’ which was short but beautiful and then we were into battle. Except it wasn’t exactly ‘Into Battle’, it was more ‘Who’s Afraid’ as the orchestra opened with ‘Bright Noise’ and then segued into ‘A Time For Fear (Who’s Afraid)’ which was more than a pleasant surprise as it opens their debut LP rather than the EP advertised. Pushing through elements of ‘Beatbox’ and ‘Moments In Love’ the medley made you realise that this was a sort of logical conclusion seeing as Art of Noise had originally sampled so many orchestral sounds on their records. The transition to the concert hall environment was almost invisible with the horns, harps and strings of the originals deftly recreated, the only slight failing being the somewhat stilted drum beats. This is something that I find happens a lot when orchestras are trying to approximate contemporary beat-based music, they seem stiff, almost too regimented because you can’t approximate the subtleties of a groove on the written page. Even a drum machine can be made to swing and next to the power of a gated, over compressed Oberheim DMX very few rhythm sections are going to cut it.
‘Rhythm’ was the recurring element of Paul Morley‘s narrative during his and Anne Dudley‘s ode to the 80′s which was a fun hit and miss jaunt through the much derided decade, flitting between classics of the age of opportunism interspersed with a ‘Losing My Edge’-esque stream of conscious from Paul. At one point I expected him to break into the ‘Rhythm is the song’s manacle…’ speech from Grace Jones‘ ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ and this was about the only glaring omission in the piece as he proceeded to cram as many people, events, lyrics and memes from the eighties into the ’19 minutes and 80 seconds’ allotted. Sometimes his voice was lost in the sonic landscape but it didn’t matter as your attention was constantly being diverted elsewhere as snatches of recognisable pop hits came into focus.
With Anne Dudley on stage behind the piano, starting out with the intro to ‘Two Tribes’ was a no-brainer but surprises came in the form of John Foxx‘s ‘Underpass’, Soul II Soul‘s ‘Keep On Moving’ and 808 State‘s ‘Pacific State’, beautifully transposed for orchestra. Some were less successful as, again, the drum machine rhythm of ‘Blue Monday’ was a pale imitation and parts of it came off as a little bit ‘mega-mixy’ next to the subtleties of the Art of Noise performance. Morley, his usual playful self during the concert interludes, was obviously nervous during the last performance, his continual agitated movement back and forth from his notes a dead giveaway. But he added the much needed humour and context to the event, without which is may have ended a little po-faced and dry, as in the Art of Noise, his presence actually added another dimension.
But make up your own mind as, if you’re in the UK, you can hear the concert on the BBC iPlayer for the next week. Overall I felt the whole concept and execution was excellent, daring and an unqualified success with everyone playing incredibly. But the night didn’t end there, repairing to the bar we were surprised to see the missing two Art of Noise members, Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik joining Anne Dudley for a chat and seemingly in good spirits. So all five original members had been in the same building that night? For the first time in how long we wondered? Meeting up with ZTT reissue curator Ian Peel and designer Philip Marshall we decided to follow the pack to a nearby bar where Paul Morley joined the AON table with only Trevor Horn sadly absent (he’d gone for dinner shortly after the concert). There where photos taken with all four in attendance with Morley in high spirits, mugging for the camera much to Dudley’s delight. Meanwhile Philip and Mark were bonding over obscure Pet Shop Boys remixes to the exclusion of all others, and Ian revealed plans for a ZTT release next year which I may have a part to play in the creation of. It was some night, roll on Xmas and 2014 …