LAST weekend, the East End boys went up West: East 17 played in the Albert Hall. And why not? Shame on anyone who thought they were just Take That with more tattoos. They're serious dance producers, closer to the Chemical Brothers than to Bros. But somehow, gasp their record company, they've "managed to become embroiled in a media-invented, ludicrous teenybop rivalry with Take That".

Well, maybe. On the other hand, maybe East 17 aren't as put out by the comparison as they would have us believe. Just ask Blur and Oasis: a dose of ludicrous rivalry never hurt record sales. If the media did invent it, then I, as an agent of the media, would like my cut. And if you don't want a teenybop reputation then don't incorporate illustrated merchandise leaflets in your album sleeves, be less indulgent of your hairdresser's demonic sense of humour, and stop doing those Ted Rogers 3-2-1 hand gestures. The schoolgirl element of the Albert Hall audience would vanish, and you'd be left with me, half a dozen clubbers, and a scattering of parents wondering where their children had gone.

Instead, the noble auditorium was shaken by the screams of East-Seventeenies weighed down by whistles, cameras, programmes, luminous tubes and T-shirts so big that the logos were at tummy height. Bed sheets had been ripped up to make the banners that draped over the balconies, many of them positing an unscientific theory that related the borough of Walthamstow to the anatomical dimensions of its male residents.

Why this devotion, when, on the pretty face of it, Take That put twice the preparation, energy and imagination into their shows - and they avoid balancing baseball caps backwards on top of their heads as well? One answer is that East 17 are the teenyboppers who pretend they aren't. They seem tough and risky, because they act their age, not their audience's. They don't talk down to their fans. Indeed, they barely talk to them at all, except for the odd swear word from Brian Harvey, the rascal.

Only Terry Coldwell and John Hendy have learnt proper dance routines. Brian prowls around as if ready to shove an unsuspecting pensioner into a canal at any moment. An even more idle idol is Tony Mortimer, the one with the plain shirt, the hairstyle that isn't hilarious, and the trousers that don't hang around his knees. He has spasms of enthusiasm, but quickly regains his composure and wanders off to talk to the musicians. Not Take That with more tattoos, then, just Take That with less commitment.

Some of their music does deserve to be taken seriously. Just a few bars of their high-velocity rave beats and rapping are all it takes to get you making those hand shapes, whether you want to or not. But elsewhere they're on shakier ground. The dawn-of-time stuff, with Brian raving about "the corridors of creation", is cringingly sub-Meat Loaf. They're never very convincing when they're being tender, either, as on the ham-mittened Christmas single "Stay", despite the best efforts of Brian's aching voice.

Besides, they still have the teeny trappings: the band, backing singers and dancers doing the hard work for them, the big-budget stage set, a festive Transylvanian snow scene. I wish they could decide whether to be grown-up or not. Otherwise, they'll never be more than the second best of both worlds.

Sadly, I was in the ticket queue during Nitin Sawhney's set at Amnesty International's Royal Festival Hall concert. The final two acts, Galliano and Eddi Reader, were high-quality known quantities. The remaining name on the bill was unknown to me, but should, by rights, be known to everyone. Zap Mama are five beautiful women with microphone headsets, as used by telephone operators and Janet Jackson, which free them to mime, dance and turn cartwheels as they sing.

Their singing is fabulous and joyful. Even the clucks, clicks, screeches, hums and breaths are in tune. The group shift mid-phrase from English to French (the T-shirts on their merchandise stand say "Citizen of the World" in 10 languages), from jazz to opera to soul. In among the poly- rhythms I detected, if I'm not very much mistaken, Pygmy songs, Zairean lullabies and Arabic pop tunes. OK, so I'm quoting from the programme notes. My own knowledge of Pygmy culture has lamentable gaps. For that matter, I didn't know that a cappella music could sound so exciting before I heard Zap Mama on Monday. Ranged on the stage around them were keyboards, guitars, drums and more drums, waiting to be played by Reader's band and Galliano. Maybe it was just the lights, but these redundant objects seemed to be blushing with embarrassment.

Marc Almond has been passed around record companies like a foster child who refuses to swap his diamond choker and leather jacket for a school uniform. At his latest home, Mercury Records, he seems to be behaving himself. By which I mean, he's still wearing the diamonds and leather, he's still accompanied by dancers who could pack away their costumes in a camera case, but the album he has coming out in the New Year is not in French, it's not acoustic and some of it even sounds a little bit like Soft Cell. He played quite a few songs from it on Wednesday at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, so it seems as if he's taking his promotional duties seriously, and he wafted through "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye" to keep the browsers happy.

Not that he had any need to Soft Cell-out. Without extinguishing the torch songs or the typically smart lyrics about damaged glamour and tainted love, Almond has given his new material a commercial shading of sado-disco beats and glam guitars. "Adored and Explored", for instance, was this year's second best dance-rock-single-with-a-harmonica after "Reverend Black Grape". More on Fantastic Star next year. In the meantime, Almond's clear, actorly delivery and shameless showmanship were in good order. It's no wonder there was so much cheering, loudest of all from Mercury Records executives.

PS If enjoyable Christmas albums are - like Santa Claus - something you believed in as a child but have since grown out of, then the Pointblack/Virgin compilation, Even Santa Gets the Blues, starring Isaac Hayes, Hadda Brooks and BB King, could restore your faith.