It’s a cold wet night in Adelaide and there are two major Retro concerts on directly across the road from each other. At The Entertainment Centre Theatre 80’s Mania Paul Young, Taylor Dayne, Go West, Cutting Crew and Wang Chung were kicking it for the 80’s shoulder pad gang. And over the road at the Gov was The Seventies Hitmakers, featuring three groups that were huge back in the day. The Rubettes, Paper Lace and Racey were all massively popular chart toppers and even if you don’t recognise the names, you’d know the hits. People love their Retro gigs. This year we have seen huge shows from acts from the 70’s (Bay City Rollers, Boney M), 80’s (Adam Ant, Midge Ure, and Culture Club and Human League are just around the touring corner), the 90’s (I Love The 90’s, R&B Fridays), 2000s (Hanson, Take That) and so on.
Numbers for both of tonight’s shows weren’t exactly overwhelming, I suspect partially as Xmas is looming and there has been a lot of big shows for the ‘heritage artist’ dollar recently (Stevie Nick/Pretenders, Cat Stevens next week). Throw into the mix The Stems, The Aints, Radio Birdman, Glen Matlock form The Sex Pistols and a bunch of others. There is no question that people want to see these acts, but there is a big disconnect in how to reach an older audience. No radio station is playing Paper Lace or Rubettes or even Taylor Dayne or Go West. Often older people aren’t quite as plugged into internet marketing and these kind of artists get little coverage in the mainstream media.
That said there is a very enthusiastic couple of hundred people at The Gov, many of whom have taken the dinner and a show option, for a rare night out. A lot of them don’t get out much these days, so they are properly geared up for a good time tonight. Like many of these package tours tonight we are not expecting all of the original members of these bands (airfares alone would make that unfeasible) plus there are often conflicts between competing versions of these bands who can sometimes be found squabbling and litigating over who the ‘real’ band is. Sometimes you can buy a ticket to see ‘Big Band from a Long Time Ago’ and it turns out to be just the 3rd bass player and some chaps form down at the job centre. I have seen some dodgy line ups in my time that I have still had a great time, and others were you wish you’d never bothered. At least two of the acts on the bill tonight have rival versions touring currently. Usually if the lead singer from the hits is still involved, you are in with a chance! Tonight all the lead singers from these bands are present and correct.
First up It’s The Rubettes, featuring Alan Williams. Of the bands on the bill they are probably the least best remembered in Australia, but far and away the main reason I am here tonight. Emerging in 1974, The Rubettes were a group of seasoned studio musicians put together by a song writing team (Bickerton & Waddington) to showcase their 1950’s doo-wop flavoured songs. The retro fifties sound was a huge hit and a bunch of other bands in that era followed suit with Showaddywaddy, Darts and Mud all donning drape pants and brothel creeper boots. Their shtick was wearing matching suits and flat caps (like Andy Capp). Alan arrives on stage in a white cap and white suit. They open with their second single Tonight and it is immediately obvious that Williams still has the vocal chops to pull off the bands trademark super high notes. The backing band (usually playing with The Delltones) does a cracking job of recreating that classic pop sound and multi-layered harmonies. They belt through Foe-Dee-Oh Dee and then to the magnificent Juke Box Jive, a record I played to death on my crappy little record player when I was a much younger man.
Throughout the set Williams makes quips about how people in Australia don’t remember him or his band, which is certainly not true for some of the people here tonight, who happy dance and sing along with Little Darlin’ and Baby I Know. While plugging a new Rubettes Xmas CD ‘On sale in the foyer folks’, he quips ‘There’s always somebody you have to buy a present for that you don’t like, so this is perfect’. They then smash through the highly entertaining ‘Plastic Christmas, which is Plastic Betrand’s Ca Plan Pour Moi, but with seasonal lyrics. It was very funny.
Their set wrapped up with the smashing triple punch of their two biggest singles sandwiched round a rock classic. I Can Do It was a big hit in 1975. A raucous version of The Spencer Davis Group’s 1965 Gimme Some Lovin sees some previously dormant parts of the crowd come alive and the mega-hit Sugar Baby Love fills the room with a distinct air of ‘OH I KNOW THIS ONE’. Williams was terrific.
After a short break the backing band is back with Richard Gower in Racey mode. The charge right into Some Girls and the room explodes into a dancing frenzy, like a school disco in 1979. He is sounding great and looking smart in his over sized suit jacket (just like in the old days). He has been playing these songs for almost forty years and there is a healthy touring circuit in the UK for nostalgia acts (Butlins holiday camps and so forth). Some of his on stage banter could possibly have been left in the less enlighted seventies “Anybody having a special occasion? Are you having a birthday? Anniversary? Are you expecting a baby? Would you like one?”. It’s good natured enough and nobody seems to take umbrage. He sticks to the hits like Such a Night. Kitty which was on their first album Smash and Grab, but was shortly after reworked into Mickey a massive mega-hit for Toni Basil. “Here’s one that was originally called Come On Baby Lay Your Muff On Me“. Oh dear! However, Lay Your Love On Me is terrific fun and people are dancing and singing along.
I had forgotten how much I liked Boy Oh Boy.
His version of Runaround Sue was great. Surprisingly the finish up by playing Some Girls again, and absolutely nobody minds in the slightest.
While Williams and Gower used an Australian pick up band, Paper Lace brought their full touring line-up, featuring two original members drummer and lead singer Phil Wright and bass player, Cliff Fish. They take the stage in matching military style jackets and pants, black t-shirts with Diamonte PL and immediately sound like a tight knit, solid as a rock, outfit that have been playing together forever. Which is of course what they are. I have to say, even though I have been a fan of their hits for many years, I had my doubts that they were the right choice to headline this show. Their main run of hits was 1972-74 and they haven’t been on so many ‘retro’ CDs or movie soundtracks as the other two. But I am happy to have been proved wrong. Paper Lace were absolutely excellent. Slick and polished, mighty sound, good banter and perhaps most surprisingly most of the audience knew most of the songs. Opening with So What If I Am, people are heading to the dancefloor straight away. The Blackeyed Boys was the third of their run of hits in 1974 and clearly well remembered by most on the dance floor.
Dreams Are Ten a Penny, is a terrific album track from their second album Paper Lace and Other Material (see what they did there?). They did Tony Christie’s I Did What I Did For Maria, the Eagles Heartache tonight along with singles Hitchin A Ride 75. But what people were really waiting for was the big hit singles. Paper Lace had a run of hit singles with what could be called ‘story’ songs. For pop singles in 1974 they packed a lot into a three and a half minute pop song, especially when you think about what else was in the charts at the time. The Night Chicago Died was a story of gangland violence in Al Capone era Chicago. It isn’t explicitly explained why the singers mother cried the night Chicago died, she is worried it turns out about her husband who (spoiler alert) makes it through the night of violence where ‘about a hundred cops were dead’. But we don’t know if he is a cop or a gangster of a baker. None the less it has a great sense of drama and urgency about it and it sounded fantastic coming out of the tiny transistor radio I would hide under my pillow to listen to the radio quietly enough so my Mum wouldn’t bust me. People love this song and seem keen to dance to a song about gang warfare, pre-dating gangster rap by three decades.
Their other biggest hit was similarly full of violence and death. Billy Don’t Be A Hero sees our protagonist (Billy) heading off to join the war effort with the Confederate army. His ‘young and lovely’ fiancé begs him not to ‘be a hero’, to keep his head low and ‘come back to me’. But Billy can’t help himself. In the midst of battle a request for a volunteer to ride out and get some extra men, sees Billy leaping like a bull at a gate to put himself into precisely the kind of danger his loving girlfriend had only one verse ago begged him not to engage in. No prizes for guessing how this pans out for young Master William. Not well. The last verse is full of sorrow and hurt and the futility of war and is strangely moving. I heard his fiancée got a letter, Telling her how he died that day The letter said that he was a hero She should be proud he died that way I heard she threw the letter away…
I am obviously messing about here, and Billy Don’t Be a Hero isn’t a prototype death metal song, it is one of the great songs of the era and the combination of story, rat-a-tat-ting drums and whistling solo (seriously) make it a very unique song that people still love today. I used to play it endlessly on my copy of Explosive Hits 74, with the flames on the cover. There is a two song encore of Status Quo’s Rockin’ All Over The World and AC/DC’s It’s a Long Way To The Top, both played with great gusto and rapturously well received. They took there bows and headed out to the merch table to sign autographs and pose for selfies and chat with fans new and old. Despite the low numbers, there are already plans for them to return next year. I had a great night, as did everybody else.
PS This has really not got anything to do with this gig, but The Doug Anthony All Stars used to do a pretty great version of Billy Don’t Be a Hero so here it is!
Review by Ian Bell