Düsseldorf Mitsubishi Electric Halle
4th October 2011
It’s that time of year when I have to bite my tongue for fear of offending perfectly nice work colleagues with a stream of bilious ranting following the conversation turning towards some TV karaoke talent show or other. “Ah” they say “but you just hate all mainstream pop”. Sorry, but no! Not true! I am a child of the 80s, Smash Hits was my Bible. Aged nine I painted Adam Ant’s white stripe cross my face; aged ten I went to a friend’s fancy dress birthday party as Kevin Rowland (this did really happen; I wonder if my parents have photos?). I’ve just read the bit in Tom Doyle’s (excellent) “The Glamour Chase: Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie” where the late Billy’s Associates associate Alan Rankine commissioned a guitar made entirely of chocolate for one of their Top Of The Pops appearances; I laughed my head off, and then felt a little sad. Sad because I remember the chocolate guitar and aged ten this didn’t seem at all weird to me.
The reason I despise most of today’s mainstream pop is that when you were brought up on people pretending to be highwaymen and gypsies and wielding guitars made of chocolate – not to mention clocking up top ten chart hits with original songs they wrote and played themselves – you’re never going to be able to get excited about some stuffed shirt over-emoting a watered down cover of a Biffy Clyro song.
Last time I found myself in Germany’s central industrial heartland, it was Pop that brought me here. Specifically the brilliant glamorous indie rock’n’roll pop of The Killers, whom I’d loved since I frst saw them supporting British Sea Power at Joseph’s Well in Leeds but whose British dates by this point – early 2007 – were always soulless sports arenas. Here in Germany you could still get to see them somewhere you could see them, if you know what I mean.
And it’s Pop that’s brought me back here (to Düsseldorf at least, while I’m out here in Europe for other things). To see one of the biggest pop groups in Germany – except they’re not actually from Germany. This country might well be the most passionate heartland of their fanbase – but they’re actually from down the road from me. Some of the songs we’ll see lighting up the Mitsubishi Electric Halle were created in a draughty terrace in Longsight.
We’re strolling through a beautiful park, a few minutes’ walk from Düsseldorf central station, trees just starting to turn gold over the pretty little river. It doesn’t look a likely place for a large corporate sponsored entertainment arena – but there it is. An ugly grey box, the Mitsubishi Electric Halle, formerly Philips Halle. However, if you’re going to have to occasionally go to Big Gigs, Germany does them so much better. No power-crazed uniforms demanding to pick through every pocket of our bags on the way in. There are freshly baked brezels (pretzels) behind the bar, plus quality sausage butties or vegetarian mini pizzas for just three euros at a friendly food stand (compare with the fiver cardboard nachos at the M.E.N.). Even the beer isn’t extortionate. And the first band on stage look equally happy to be here…
“We’re THE HEARTBREAKS from Morecambe, England”. Trust me lads, that won’t mean anything to anyone in this place aside from ourselves and the headliners. And we already knew. Their jangly, friendly, “woh-oh-oh” filled guitar pop’s a lot more upbeat sounding than you’d expect for boys from the archetypal “seaside town that they forgot to close down”. They’ve risen to this occasion very well, too, introducing songs clearly as you have to when vying for the attention of someone else’s much larger audience. And I’ll tell you what – for a band I think I last saw propping up the bill at the Deaf Institute they’re sounding bloody good these days: they excel in that blurred area between proper old-school indiepop and mainstream radio hits trodden so well in the 80s by Aztec Camera, Orange Juice and the like. Their final “I Didn’t Think It Would Hurt To Think Of You” is a prime example, briefly mutating at the end into “I Think We’re Alone Now”. This, budding support acts, is how to win a crowd.
FIREFOX AK might sound, from the name, as if they’re going to be some sort of locally-hewn techno-metal assault, but no: they’re Swedish and sound like all sorts of things, most of them good. The entwining voices of multi-instrumentalist Andrea Kellerman, who effectively is Firefox AK in the studio, and her female co-vocalist (both wearing rather odd black smocks) are like School Of Seven Bells doing Fleetwood Mac. The music – bolstered by a guitarist who keeps his hood up throughout and a couple of other relatively nondescript blokes, is reminiscent of Goldfrapp at their fizziest: top level electronic pop, basically. There is just so much great music in Sweden right now (Sad Day For Puppets, the Sound Of Arrows to name but two) – why have I never heard of Firefox AK before?
The lights go down and the additional players take their positions. Back home HURTS can pack the Ritz – itself a long-recognised signifier that a Manchester band has “made it” to a certain level – but here they’re bond fide mainstream pop stars, as we discovered last year on a trip to Switzerland: our boys from back home were barely off the (German) pop stations piped into cafes and bars. So this isn’t just a gig, it’s a show. The eleven-piece band including string quartet sit motionless as searchlight-style spotlights sweep the red glow and two hooded figures walk to the front and unfurl black flags. The strings and drums crash into life and the immaculately-suited duo stride on to screams, launching into “Silver Lining” – and it’s one of the most ridiculous, ostentatiously brilliant things I’ve seen in the live music canon in ages. The sound is just enormous – all credit to whoever helped with the orchestration arrangement here. So what if it’s all plotted and scripted to the hilt: from Take That’s dance routines to Rammstein’s pyromanic showpieces it always is at this level. “Wonderful Life” is next, with the capes and flags discarded to reveal two balletic and somewhat interpretative dancers: you just don’t get this sort of thing – or indeed the harp which will make an appearance later – in the grubby indie basements where much of our musical life is played out.
It was, however, in a particularly grubby indie basement that Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson first caught our eye. The basement was Manchester’s Music Box, in 2006 – a great new bands night by High Voltage fanzine which presented four fresh-out-the-box bands every Thursday – and the band was Bureau, fresh out of school. (Interestingly one of the other near-debutantes that evening was a young post-hardcore trio called Dresden, whose intense 17-year-old frontman Cal Wright is now better known as acclaimed techno act D/R/U/G/S). Theo bounced around the stage like all the adrenaline he’d collected in his eighteen or so years on earth was all coming out at once; I wrote “Bureau are a pop band in the best possible sense of the word. They look and sound like they’ve landed fully formed from some planet where 80s synthpop never got corporate and dreary.” Soon after, a largely forgotten Dexys offshoot called THE Bureau forced them to change their name; sadly their debut single (also courtesy of High Voltage) had already been pressed, so Daggers were forced to promote a single (“After Midnight”, worth hunting down if you like electropop I once decribed in print as “so 1982 it could sink an Argentine warship”) that didn’t even have their name on it. Then one day thieves cleared every last thing from their rehearsal room and they called it a day. It was a while before the surviving duo resurfaced, the glam disco clobber exchanged for evening-wear and the thumping Eurobeats for… well, this.
It’s lush, rich and gloriously crafted – the now fiftysomething Pet Shop Boys finally have their heirs. There’s that same sense of being simultaneously lightweight and bubbling with pathos, and the sense that there’s no such thing as too many layers of sound. Songs that come across as a bit weedy on the pair’s debut album, such as “Evelyn”, have grown legs, wings and guts. “Sunday” – probably the closest to that upbeat Euro sound that they get these days – has echoes of Giorgio Moroder, himself influenced by the synthetic wonders of Kraftwerk and their peerless mid 70s innovations: innovations which laid the foundations for modern electronic pop music, on a quiet street less than a mile from here.
Hurts’ show is spectacular. The dancers come on for a quick turn with the string quartet before the boys re-emerge with the pseudo-operatic torchsong “Verona” and their party trick of turning Kylie’s “Confide In Me” into the Pet Shop Boys song it alway was at heart. The final “Stay” is magnificent and encore “Better Than Love” feels almost transcendentally joyful. And yeah, in a day or two I’ll be back in grubby indie basements, but this was a fantastic excursion. No guilty pleasures crap here – quality pop is as important as quality rock or indie or hip hop or punk and I really wish there was more of it around.