Pop: The lunatic fringe returns

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The Independent Culture

Embassy Rooms, London

When in doubt, a compere should go for a combination of hyperbole and deference. "One of the greatest bands of all time has agreed to play the Embassy Rooms," boomed a voice in the sweaty crushed-velvet bunker under Tottenham Court Road. "Please welcome the legend that is ... ." I might have bought it if I hadn't clocked Martin Fry an hour or so before the gig, slurping a cappuccino in a nearby branch of Aroma, wearing a pair of embroidered denim bell-bottoms, a plastic Next carrier bag stowed beside his chair.

have never quite been away; it's just that the public hasn't taken much notice of them since 1989. And when I say "them", I really mean him: Fry has been the one fixed point in 18 years of shifting membership.

Age, however, has not withered him. Not, at least, from where I was standing. His bones and his notes are all as clear and prominent as they were in 1983. He still sports that immaculate Hitler Youth fringe - a smooth blond sheet ironed south-south-west across what must be the strongest jaw in show business. His swoopy voice still pays homage to Bowie and Bryan Ferry, all agonised vowels and over-enunciated dentals and plosives. And his sartorial discipline remains cutely intransigent. Betraying no desire to dress down to the conventions of a less extravagant age, he began the set in a shiny aquamarine suit, strangle-buttoned white shirt and salmon-pink tie, and concluded it in a gold lame three-piece, lustrous as one of Shirley Bassey's handbags.

This wasn't an isolated outing for . The current half-hearted Eighties revival - which allowed Nik Kershaw, David Sylvian and Green Gartside to launch comeback albums at a baffled public - has seen to that. Last year, Fry joined Culture Club and the Human League on a nostalgia tour of Britain. A live album and 40-date tour of the States are imminent.

So where - apart from between Abba and Ace of Base - should we place ? They were, I suppose, a Roxy Music for the spritzer generation. And by the time the spritzer had gone out of fashion, so had they (in the UK at least). Like Depeche Mode, who are still regarded as a going concern in Eastern Europe, 's fan base is continental. The singles from their debut album Lexicon of Love are mainstays of the VH-1 playlist, and their official appreciation society is run by a man called Melvin who lives in The Hague.

Members of the Holland hardcore were present at the Embassy, and looked as pleased as Gerry Anderson fans in the presence of Virgil Tracy. A phalanx of paunchy thirtysomething men went into a spontaneous football chant of "Mar-Tin! Mar-Tin! Mar-Tin!" between numbers. A woman with elaborate hair-ribbons, Goth eyeliner and an ivory fan - who could easily have been a member of Strawberry Switchblade, turned up to show solidarity - enthused at the feet of her idol. And Martin just lapped it up, grinning with unaffected pleasure and gratitude, jigging about on the Embassy's tiny stage, unable to stop himself issuing a bright falsetto "wooo!" of delight every 30 seconds or so. "Isn't it hot here?" he exclaimed. "You're hot, Martin!" boomed a man at the front of the crowd. "So kind!" he replied, visibly charmed. "Wooo!"

His acolytes gamely attempted the higher registers in "All of My Heart", joined in enthusiastically with the "woop-woops" in the opening few bars of "When Smokey Sings", and hollered along so loudly to the choruses of "Poison Arrow" ("Who broke my heart?/ You did, you did .../ You think you're smart/ Stupid, stupid") that they drowned out Martin and his backing singers.

Did it matter that most of his lyrics, on closer inspection, now seem rather ludicrous? Not to me. The forcefully nonsensical text of much of Eighties pop is now, I think, one of its chief sources of pleasure. Try singing Spandau Ballet's "Gold" on a karaoke night and you'll hear what I mean. ("I'm sorry that the chairs are all worn/ I left them here I could have sworn ... ") The decade was a boom-time for suited pseuds offering random agglomerations of rhyming couplet. There's nothing, perhaps, in the oeuvre to match the loopy constructions that Simon Le Bon had the temerity to squeeze into some of Duran Duran's more obscure album tracks - "Aphids swarm up in the drifting haze", perhaps, or "My head is full of chopstick/ I don't like it" - but Fry at the height of his powers managed to pluck some engagingly ga-ga material from the word tombola. "That Was Then But This is Now" is a particularly potent example: "More sacrifices than an Aztec priest/ Standing here straining at that leash .../ Can't complain, mustn't grumble/ Help yourself to another piece of apple crumble." You couldn't make it up. Except of course, Martin Fry did in September 1983.

Nicholas Barber returns next week