So here he is, Merry Christmas

THE CRITICS ROCK
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"LONDON ARENA! My people!" boomed Gary Glitter, body wrapped in a silver dressing-gown, head wrapped in a fake-fur wig. "Lea-der! Lea- der!" we chanted, not looking too sensible ourselves.

I'd expected Gary's people to be students. Instead they couldn't have been in higher education since his heyday 20 years ago. But that didn't stop them donning foil wigs, silver epaulettes, sequinned jackets, and glitter (of course), along with tinsel, foam reindeer antlers and bobbled red caps. Gary has successfully conflated himself with Santa Claus. His tours are now an annual festive event, a Rocky Horror panto, and the audience dresses up for the occasion.

This particular gang show, though, was a case of nice gang, shame about the show. Gary fell off his platforms and slipped a disc last year, so all credit to him for sprinting around and lobbing his mike stand in the air, even though he was probably wearing a silver truss. But, to plagiarise a Santa Claus pun, I was disappointed by his presence. When no other band was being glam, he must have seemed like a burst of colour, further over the top, more glitzy than anyone else. But in a year of concerts by the Rolling Stones, Take That and Blur, his show just looked tawdry. I know it's meant to be bad, but there was an extra, plain-bad badness on top of the ironic, knowing badness.

Christmas is coming, Gary's getting fat, the joke's wearing thin. He is a small-voiced Elvis impersonator, and once you've heard "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)" and "Hello, Hello, I'm Back Again", you still have to get through a lot of dull, ersatz rockabilly, padded with drum solos (sorry, drum duets). That's not to say it wasn't a great event, I'm just not sure how much Gary had to do with it. All that glitters ...

Come with me now to a world where rock'n'roll never existed, where Chuck Berry never picked up a guitar and Elvis Presley kept his mouth shut. Man-made fibres have triumphed over denim and leather; Perry Como and Henry Mancini are fab and groovy; elevator music has been elevated to Top of the Pops. This is the world of the Mike Flowers Pops. It's the world of Mr Prince, Jim Morrison and his Doors, Bjork ("a little lady who hails from north of the Arctic Circle"), and well-known songwriting duo Lou Reed and Andy Warhol. You wouldn't want to live there, but it's an exceptionally entertaining place to visit.

Shortly after Jarvis Cocker started talk of rock'n'roll being the new comedy, Mike Flowers popped out of nowhere with an easy-listening version of Oasis's "Wonderwall" ("A song about walls, wonder and of course love"), whose brilliance has been confirmed not only by its unexpected popularity, but by the po-faced responses it has elicited. "The powerful melody of the original is largely absent from this reworking," tutted Music Week. It's a shame they can't see the funny side. Even Oasis's Noel Gallagher, writer of "Wonderwall", was at the gig on Wednesday.

And no wonder. Flowers (aka 35-year-old technician Mike Roberts) resembles Dan Aykroyd in a David McCallum wig, double-breasted suit, and a large- knotted white tie. From the moment he opened the show by conducting the Casino Royale theme with his back to the audience, his deadpan characterisation was as precise as those of Steve Coogan, Craig Brown or Viz. He put the velvet into the Velvet Underground, injected some pizzazz into David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes", and then displayed his disarming, knowledgeable affection for his subject with numbers by Bacharach and Jimmy Webb.

The 13-piece orchestra is faultless, from the Sounds Superb Singers, in their sequins, satin, and frozen grins, trilling out "ba-da-ba-da-dahs" along with Flowers's mid-Atlantic tenor, through the cheesiest of organs to the light-entertainment brass. As a pseudonymous kitsch-monger with a wig and an Oasis connection, Flowers is better than Gary Glitter. And as a novelty Christmas single, "Wonderwall" is more deserving of the Number One spot than its predecessors by Mr Blobby and East 17.

For someone who doesn't own a newspaper, Mick Hucknall is adept at firing employees. Most of the original Simply Red have been given the golden handshake over the years, and now there are only three names in the band that matter: Hucknall himself, Mark Fisher and Patrick Woodruffe.

Not familiar with the last two? Fisher was architect of the stage at Wembley Arena. On a smaller scale than the one he designed for the Rolling Stones' last tour, it was no less impressive. In the centre of the Arena was a catwalk curled like a cat's tail, with a small square platform where the cat's rear would be. Or to put it another way, it was a giant question mark, with the band crowded onto the dot, while Hucknall - "Bonnie Langford gone to seed" in the wise words of TV's Mrs Merton - did a royal walkabout along the stem. Later in the show, another platform arose in the middle of the question mark's loop, and was caged by five lighting stands, telescoping hydraulically around it like a giant robot hand about to close its grasp. This last effect was the work of Woodruffe, the lighting designer, who was responsible for several other dazzling creations. The trouble was, for a considerable proportion of the concert on Monday, Simply Red were upstaged by the stage.

There's a poster currently advertising whisky with the slogan: "On a scale of nought to 10, no one's ever given it from one to nine." Simply Red are the opposite: never outre enough to provoke a nought or 10. Hucknall is enthusiastic, but resolutely unsexy. The band were as smooth and professional as you would expect of people fearing for their jobs. The material from the new album can only be said to be quite nice: tastefully diffident jazz-funk at odds with the bravado of its title, Life (What's the next album to be called? The Universe and Everything?). Exceptions included "So Beautiful", a Caribbean-flavoured lullaby, in which Hucknall's luxurious voice wickedly offset the abrasive lyrics. The show shifted up a gear from quite nice to very nice.

But it wasn't until a run of songs at the end that The Red reached top gear: "Stars", "Infidelity", "The Right Thing", "Money's Too Tight to Mention" were all heartily life-affirming pop songs, and the show was saved. Neither nought nor 10, but closer to nine than it had seemed at the start.

Simply Red tour in January.

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