Anyone who thinks that "snake" is the appropriate verb for a queue has never been near the Barry Manilow fan club. 650 of the 10,000-strong membership, 98% women, queue at the reception desk of Birmingham's Metropole hotel, and the decibel level is crushing. This queue writhes and cackles, shrieks and hugs, squawks and elbows itself in the ribs. Conference attendees creep round the sides, clutching their mobile phones as talismanic protection.
The fan club are signing in for a two-day convention: videos, discos, lipsynching, charity bazaars and dissection of the great man's life and personality. Anoraks, crimplene trousers - haven't seen those since before Barry first hit the headlines - tinted glasses, t-shirts that smear the imp-like tortoise-grin of the crooner across myriad acres of generous upholstery, denim jackets on which the owners have written "Barry" in glitter and glue, compete for devotion honours: "I'm going to these two, Manchester, Cardiff and Wembley". "Nicola's doing it all: Birmingham, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Wembley, Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester. The only one she's not doing is Dublin."
Few performers inspire such devoted fiscal outlay as Barry Manilow. This convention alone costs pounds 155, without concert tickets. A bus full of women are laying out pounds 100,000 between them following him: a sort of crusty tour for Middle England. One passenger translates lyrics into sign language for her deaf husband so that he gets to share gems like "Baby take me/ high up on a hillside/ high up where the stallion meets the sun": something, for which he is, no doubt, extremely grateful.
The majority of Manilow's fan base are empty nesters able to squander their readies on themselves, but there is a surprising number of twenty and thirtysomethings here, even a tiny baby. Sheila, a bubbly supervisor at the Halifax, and her friend Lynn, are two such. Sheila ("I'm not his number one fan. This whole queue is full of number one fans"), is seeing 12 concerts, at a cost of about pounds 800, and Lynn, a shop assistant, five. What is it about the man? "Everything", says Lynn. "He's good with us. He just treats us well. And he's got a lovely face. He's absolutely fantastic, onstage and off. I heard the song "This One's For You" 18 years ago, and that was it. Gone."
Further along, Annette and friend ("don't mention my name, work thinks I've got 'flu") are doing six each. "It's everything about him," says the ill one. "Personality. Charisma. Charm. Wit. I heard "Mandy" on the radio and it stopped me dead in my tracks. So I got my husband to get me the record and he sent for it off the telly. I've got all his records now". "We used to help run our local fan club," says Annette. "We still meet every week in Bradford, play records, talk about him, compare photos".
Jan Aylett, running the merchandise stall, is having a busy day. "I couldn't guess how much we've taken, but everyone buys something". Cheapest memento is a keyring at pounds 2, top whack a jacket at pounds 55. Jan's been a club member since 1984 - since most fan club memberships don't last the year, Manilow's longevity is outstanding. "I didn't really know any other fans" says Jan, "So I wrote away for a pen pal list and made loads of friends". Jan's devotion is unflagging: "It's just him. It's nothing you can put a finger on. He just makes you feel special. You'll notice it in the fans tonight: right until the lights go out, everybody's going round chatting".
Showtime in the NEC arena, and the anoraks have been shed, either for best anoraks with fake-fur hoods, or for the sort of spangles you associate with Frank Sinatra playing Vegas. Several hundred people clutch bunches of silk flowers with illuminated blobs at the bottom. The auditorium buzzes with tales of Barry, of concerts past, romantic moments with conspicuously absent husbands. "His voice is so clear," says a girl from Hemel Hempstead, "It's like the Fifties all over again". She can't be more than 22. The PA system plays "Really Love To See You Tonight" the cover version off the new album that's been hyped around the talk shows all week, and the screaming starts.
Then the lights go down and the big-nosed love-god is onstage, grey suit, blue shirt, grey tie, singing "All Around the World" and bringing howling women to their feet. "This is our first time," he says. "I promise I'll be gentle with you...unless you like it a little rough..." The arena crackles to the sound of 5,000 nylon-covered thighs crossing over themselves.
Barry talks us through his albums: "Great songs on this one. This is my favourite album of all time" - no-one could accuse him of hiding his light under a bushel - and picks out audience members to chat with over microphones. "Have you got any requests, any liddle songs you'd like us to play up here?" he asks Sharon from Lincoln. "Anything you do is fine by me, Barry," she says. "Do you love me?" He asks Linda from Barnsley. "I do, Barry. Do you love me back?" "I do, darling. I love you sooo much". The roof comes off.
Late in the first half, a husband takes the empty seat beside me. Men seem to be indulgent of their wives' obsession with Manilow, on the whole. "I'd rather it was someone on stage than someone in the office", he says, settling down. He surveys the waving lights in front of him, sighs. "I don't know," he says. "It's like a cross between the Catholic religion and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I'll be mopping the old girl up on the way home".
The Barry Manilow tour is at BEC Bournemouth on Friday and Saurday. Cardiff International Arena: 19, 20. Wembley Arena: 22, 23, 24.Reuse content