The Critics: From boy band to little boy lost
Sunday 09 November 1997
When Mark Owen played Radiohead's "Creep" at the Shepherd's Bush Empire on Tuesday, he had a different agenda in mind. On his first solo album, Green Man (RCA), he tried on Sergeant Pepper and Donovan's paisley-patterned musical cast-offs, but since its release last year, he has donned the threadbare brown cardigan of grunge. Owen has told journalists of his love for Radiohead, and his tour band are skinny boys in long-sleeved T-shirts who bash out generic indie rock. His rendition of "Creep", then, was a serious and respectful statement of intent. Any resemblance to Take That's three minutes of role-playing was purely coincidental.
That was Owen's point of view, anyway. In fact, his "Creep" and Take That's "Teen Spirit" were no different. He seems to think that transforming himself into Radiohead is no more complicated than a style makeover on daytime TV: at the start of the programme you're the prettiest member of a pretty band; an hour later, you've put on a black T-shirt, you've hired some anonymous jobbing musicians, and, hey presto, you're a reluctant spokesman for the disenfranchised youth of the Nineties, even if your voice is a cross between those of Jonathan Ross and Orville the Duck.
Owen is disqualified from indie messiah status on several counts. For instance, Radiohead's Thom Yorke resembles a baby goblin with a hangover, while Little Marky - who received two-thirds of Take That's fanmail - is a smooth-skinned Smurf with an enormous dimply smile and Timotei hair. As he sang "I want a perfect body", he wrung the hem of his black T-shirt with both hands, flashing a close- to-perfect midriff and eliciting an eardrum-puncturing squeal of delight from the crowd. Yorke's exposed stomach has the potential to elicit squeals, too, but they're unlikely to be ones of delight.
Owen's years of dancing in Take That, meanwhile, have left him with a seemingly involuntary propensity for sudden hip swivels and robotic arm movements. When he attempts some indie choreography, such as collapsing forward so that only his tight grip on the microphone stand stops him knocking himself out on the stage, he merely looks as if he's been studying videos of Blur or the Verve, in preparation for an appearance on Stars in Their Eyes. You can take the boy out of the boy band, it seems, but taking the boy band out of the boy is a lot more problematic.
With the closing line of "Creep" - "I don't belong here" - Owen pointed at the stage. One could almost feel sorry for him, as he struggled to ignore the banner which asked him to "Get your kit off, show us your lunchbox". His audience consisted almost entirely of girls between the ages of six and 14. As for the grown-up indie fans he hoped for, I can confirm only one sighting, and that, mysteriously enough, was of the guitarist from Pulp. Maybe Owen doesn't belong here, in front of fans with whistles in their mouths instead of cigarettes, but in that case, where does he belong? He doesn't seem sure.
In many ways, Owen's support band, Northern Uproar, were better suited to shepherding the young audience along the bumpy road from pop to indie. The Uproar, who were the new Oasis for 15 minutes in 1995, are four unattractive, unhygienic, Red Stripe-swigging teenagers: many of the spectators must have been reminded of the big brothers who Biro rude words on to their Gary Barlow pencil-cases. None the less, the band's second album, Yesterday Tomorrow Today (Heavenly), is full of breezy, Dodgy-ish, old-fashioned pop, like Oasis in a remake of That Thing You Do! The group didn't create much of an uproar, but they could make a respectable living by changing their name to the Northerners and selling some songs to Kavana.
Daft Punk aren't, at a glance, daft or punk, although if you leaf through their press cuttings you'll see that no journalist can resist arguing that they are one or the other or both. It's simpler to say that they are a Parisian techno duo in their early twenties whose acclaimed debut album, Homework (Virgin), strolled into the UK Top 10 earlier this year, despite giving the impression that it was made with a second-hand drum machine and a child's Casiotone keyboard. With a sound that resides between the big-beats of the Chemical Brothers and the laidback Euro-cheesiness of Jimi Tenor, Daft Punk have had two club smashes, "Around the World" and "Da Funk", the latter of which is probably less famous for its squelchy keyboard line than for its video of a dog-headed man walking around New York. This is appropriate: Daft Punk are so fame-shy that they insist on wearing masks for photo shoots (a tactic which Northern Uproar have been sadly reluctant to emulate).
This diffidence means that their live performance consists of two blokes standing behind mixing desks. Still, there was always something to look at at the London Astoria, whether it was their name flashing in pink neon, or the serried ranks of spotlights, or the two mirror-image screens, continuously flicking between films and animations.
The music was not much easier to recognise than les garcons. Each track was chopped up, mixed up and souped up, and the album was made to look like preliminary sketches for the show's garish pop-art painting. The hit singles aside, however, there was too much generic techno hammering to allow Daft Punk a Prodigy- ous level of success. I expect that suits them fine. This way, they can keep wearing their masks.
Daft Punk: Nottingham Rock City (0115 9412544), tonight.
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