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Arts: Return of the Old Romantics

John O'Reilly discovers that Eighties New Romanticism was, and still is, all about broken-hearted nostalgia
IN ONE sense, The Big Rewind Tour, comprising Culture Club, The Human League and ABC, sold itself on its sheer nostalgia appeal. And despite the longevity of these bands, they didn't seem wasted by age. There was ABC, fronted by the ageless Martin Fry, whose image from their very inception sold the idea of adult pop, or, to the cynic, wine-bar pop. There was The Human League's Phil Oakey, whose closely cropped hair emphasised in your imagination all the more his previous incarnations as an androgynous hairdresser. And Boy George, the grand dame of the evening's panto, was just a plumper version of his former self.

But the strange thing was that, as the crowd sang along to ABC's "Look Of Love" and The Human League's "Mirror Man", you realised that the defining feature of all these bands the first time round was a premature nostalgia for the past.

They all sang of love gone wrong, as in songs such as "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me": "You've been talking but believe me/ If it's true you do not know/ This boy loves without a reason/ I'm prepared to let you go." They sang of lost innocence, as in ABC's "All of My Heart": "Once upon a time when we were friends,/ I gave you my heart. The story ends/ No happy ever after now we're friends." And even in the eccentric but moving lyrics of The Human League, of lost heroes cut down by an assassin in "Seconds": "Outside was a happy place/ every face had a smile like the golden face/ For a second/ Your knuckles white as your fingers curled/ A shot was heard around the world."

In matters of style, Martin Fry took his haircut, if not his entire look, from Bryan Ferry, while Boy George went one better by aping the whole of Roxy Music, though tonight George was more reserved, wearing a simple black suit set off by a semi-religious headpiece. It is a trademark of George's that if his headgear were any bigger, it would need planning permission.

The fact that the audience sang along to so many songs underlined the fact that all these bands came of age in the debris of punk, re-inventing the three-minute pop single with simple pop hooks that grabbed the listener despite incomprehensible lyrics such as on ABC's "Look Of Love": "If you judge a book by its cover/ Then You judge the look by its lover." These bands wrote love songs in a post-punk era that was thoroughly knowing about the debased vocabulary of love. Their songwriting marked a return to the ethics of Tin Pan Alley without ever quite believing in it. And that is true nostalgia. But above all, the evening was, for many, nostalgia about nostalgia. Part of the crowd of over 9,000 could only have experienced flashy, decadent, Eighties culture through the luxury of extra-dry Pampers.

Like all pantomime, at the heart of the evening were a few parables. Firstly that we need cliches, especially pop cliches to make sense of our emotional life, to feel that we are not alone. As Boy George said, introducing "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me": "Here's another song about a bitter romance that you all know about." And he wasn't just referring to his relationship with Jon Moss. Secondly, that the gender divide between rock and pop is breaking down. At the NEC, there were as many men singing along to tales of tragic romance as women.

And perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the audience's response to Boy George, which suggests he has been out of the mainstream for too long. He is a showman; a trouper whose gravelly voice, he explained to the crowd, was a result of the flu. In an evening dripping with nostalgia, George's appeal rested in the fact that he is a real star in an age of shallow celebrity.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper