Okay, gripes out of the way first. Taking one hour and 15 minutes to get into a festival, missing the first band altogether, ain’t a great start. Searching through the bags of however many people it was (10,000? 15,000?) with just 8 gates opening at 11am and the first band 60 minutes later isn’t the smartest idea is it? Secondly, one male toilet block?! ONE?!! Look, us chaps are simple souls when it comes to going to the loo. Give us a trough and we’ll be done in seconds...or minutes depending on your age/alcohol consumption. Leave the posh loos with doors and stuff for the ladies and they won’t have to queue for so long will they eh? Plus...well...I can’t imagine that every male user has...er...the best aim after a pint or 6. Let’s just leave it at that.
Okay, from taking the piss (metaphorically and physically) on to the music and as the last bars of The Beat’s Mirror In The Bathroom rang out we finally made it on site for a little Alexander O’Neal. Little being the operative word. The dude was on stage for barely 20 minutes, which is brief even by festival standards. Still he did justice to the biggies, Criticize and Fake, and The Prince medley (O’Neal was actually signed by Prince back in the day) was a neat tribute, even if Alexander’s backing singers took on most of the vocal duties.
I forget the sequence but I’m pretty sure Dr and the Medics were on next. I’ll admit that my expectations were as low as Michael Gove’s scruples (damn, that’s low), after all they had just the one hit wayyyyy back in 1986, but they were bloody great fun, dishing out a series of 80s cover with surprisingly powerful versions of Dead Or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) and The Cult’s She Sells Sanctuary plus their big hit Sprit In The Sky. The good Doctor’s a born showman with a much better voice than you’d expect and the band’s pretty decent too. Absolute festival gold and, for me at least, one of the highlights of the day.
Another more predictable highlight was Heaven 17 who were on ridiculously early. Glenn Gregory and Martyn Ware (third member Ian Craig Marsh went AWOL years ago) penned some of the classiest 80s synth pop ever and it still sounds fresh. As a 13 year old boy the lyrics of Come Live With Me – “I was 37 you were 17” hinted at two ages that seemed sooooooo far away, now as a 46 year old they’re just as distant...just the wrong way round. Hell, who’d want to be 17 nowadays though eh? Poor buggers. Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry got the crowd “whoowhoo”-ing along like crazy, We Don’t Need This Fascist Groove Thang probably struck more a chord now than it would’ve done a few weeks ago and the celebratory Bowie tribute Boys Keep Swinging (Glenn’s just been touring a Bowie show with producer Tony Visconti) was a neat touch. RIP Starman.
Next up Odyssey and whilst the original band members, Lillian and Louise Lopez, are also now both dancing in the great disco in the sky this version at least keeps the family link alive with Lillian’s son Steven who joined the group back in the early 80s.
Native New Yorker’s still a soul lifting classic, add Inside Out, Use It Up and Wear It Out and Going Back To My Roots and you could almost be back in Studio 54.
Three quarters of Bucks Fizz played their hits including their best but probably least remembered hit New Beginnings and yes...they did the skirt ripping thing during Making Your Mind Up. Bless ‘em. Shocking to think that they were the last UK band (I don’t really count Katrina and the Waves) to win Eurovision back in ’81. I suspect our chances of winning it ever again are slimmer than ever right now. Maybe T’Pau could give it a bash? I reckon Heart and Soul would’ve gone down a storm almost as well with our European cousins as it did with today’s crowd.
Remember Tiffany? Famous for touring malls (or shopping centres to us Brits) to promote her cover of I Think We’re Alone Now she was briefly a huge star back in the late 80s but that ability to belt ‘em out hasn’t left her as an impressive cover of Guns‘n’Roses Sweet Child of Mine proved. Blimey, Tiffany rocks. That paved the way for one of our own homegrown pop princess Kim Wilde. Ahhhhh, Kim, Kim, Kim. Chequered Love, Kids In America, View From A Bridge (I’d forgotten all about that one) still sounded ruddy great in a light new wave way and somehow I managed to resist the temptation to rush the stage and fulfil a 35 year wish for a snog. Ahem.
Looking kool in a kaftan (at least I think it was a kaftan) Roland Gift’s distinctive falsetto vocal’s a thing of beauty. As lead singer of Fine Young Cannibals he was also massive for the blink of an eye, even landing a couple of number ones with that band in the States in ‘89 (She Drives Me Crazy and Good Thing).
Seemingly he dropped out of the music biz to concentrate on his family but judging by this afternoon’s showing I reckon a Rick Astley-like return to chart glory could well be on the cards. Speaking of which I bet old Rick (another one who quit for family reasons) can’t believe what a year he’s had. A mere 29 years after his last number one album he recently beat McCartney to the number one slot. His good fortune deserted him for a while this evening as a faulty microphone threatened to scupper the whole set. In true ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ fashion though Rick made the most of it and did a little impromptu drumming (who knew?!) and then came on with a broom to sweep the stage whilst the soundmen tried desperately to get things working. Gremlins fixed he was on fine form and it was timely reminder of just what a great soul voice this Lancashire lad (did I really just write that...forgive me...’Lancashire lad’...good god, what is this, the Exeter Express and Echo?) had/has especially on the slower numbers like Cry For Help. Back in the 80s he always seemed a little uncomfortable as a star but this time he’s clearly loving it, joking around with the crowd and belting out this hits with all the ease of man who’s never been away. Happily new single Keep Singing's right up there with the Astley classics.
Hook this dude up with the Daptone Records team and I reckon you’d have musical alchemy. Seriously. Make it happen people.
All too quickly it was nearly over. Just time for The Human League to put on a typically impressive set (third time I’ve seen ‘em and they never disappoint), trawling all the way back to 78’s Being Boiled and up to 95’s surprising return to the charts courtesy of Tell Me When.
The famous floppy hair may be long gone, replaced this evening by a look that was straight out of The Matrix, but this is still ‘Phil talking’. Think 80s pop and you can’t help but thinking of Don’t You Want Me but there’s a good half dozen songs League numbers that send you spinning right back, Mirror Man, Love Action, The Sound Of The Crowd, Louise, The Lebanon, (Keep Feeling) Fascination, each and every one sung along to by 10,000 or so 40-somethings buoyed by booze and nostalgia. Okay so Let’s Rock Exeter might not be the coolest festival around, it might even cheapen the music a little (not sure how I feel about all the ‘comedy’ costumes, probably just me being a miserable bugger), but for fans of this stuff it’s bloody good fun and fantastic value (£45 a ticket to see 12 bands...that’s er...less than £4 a band). Sort out the queues and the loos and it’d be even better.