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This Britain

5 Become 1! Not sporty. Just very scary

The sound system was terrible and the singing slapdash, but did 16,000 fans at the Spice Girls' reunion concert care? Not at all. They were revelling in hearing their favourite numbers again, while their heroines were making a mint. Cole Moreton reports from the O2

I'll tell you what they want, what they, really, really want; your money. That's why the Spice Girls are back. No other reason was obvious from the stage of the Dome sorry, O2 arena last night, even though Geri, now more brassy than Ginger, said; "We are home. Thank God we're home."

It was the first time the five original girls had performed together since 1998. They started with a video of headlines from their heyday and the words: "The power of five keeps the love alive." But it was the audience that would provide all the love in the end.

Just like Led Zeppelin five days earlier at the same venue, the Spice (no longer) Girls were proving that an old dog can recycle its old tricks and make some new cash. But if that gig was about hairy old men, this one was more like the advert in which an army of women get ready for the Christmas party to the tune of "Here come the girls!"

While (not quite as) Sporty, (not very) Scary, (never was very) Posh, and (certainly not a) Baby (any more) were up there pretending to be friends with Ginger (Brassy), the fans had come with their real mates, mums and daughters, ready to relive the wild old days.

They were 16,000 true believers, like the twentysomething in a hoodie saying "University of Girl Power"; or the ahem-something in the T-shirt that said "Mother Spice". They sang along to everything from the opening "Spice Up Your Life" to the closing, er, "Spice Up Your Life (Reprise)". Even the solo stuff.

The Spices were only ever a few years babies, broken hearts and all ahead of their hardcore audience. The little girls who bought "Wannabe" grew up and were there last night, alongside those who used to bring their offspring but secretly quite liked the songs all along.

This was a spectacular show, obviously, as if they were challenging Led Zep. If Robert Plant and the others had 1.5 million applications for tickets, the Girls sold out the night in a record 38 seconds. Tickets were 125 for Led Zep, but the money went to charity. The average was half that last night, but as far as anyone knew none of it was going to be given away.

In presentation, the Spice Girls proved as expert as a Jimmy Page riff. The first of many costume changes came after song number one. The biggest cheers were for Posh in spray-on gold lam. But the five women prowled the stage together in a pack for most of the show, their dance styles alternating between stiffly robotic (well, Baby had sprained an ankle) and drunken-lass-at-the-disco.

They had dancers to do the smart moves for them, including being led by the neck on silver chains. Empowerment, you see? These women have sold 55 million records. If they were chunkier except for Geri and Posh, naturally then what was wrong with that? It made them seem more real, and the show was so slick that sometimes it was the only sign.

Could they sing? Dunno. There was too much screaming and singing along to tell you that. But the audience was having the time of its collective life. Again. Just like the old days. Girl Power used to be the message but the message now was about being a woman: if you've got a crap bloke, a knackered career and life is flashing by, just get together with your mates and sort it out!

After a karaoke disco medley and just before the spiky debut single "Wannabe" came "Mama, I Love You", with a girls' choir backing to ramp up the drama and image of the five as girls. Geri Halliwell is 35 now, Mel C and Victoria Beckham 33, Mel B 32 and Emma Bunton 31 and they have seven kids between them. The sound was terrible, the singing revealed as shaky and frankly a bit slapdash, but it had ceased to be about the music.

The audience, providing all the genuine emotion, was now singing for itself. A huge bunch of women with heads full of memories were giving each other the audio equivalent of the group hug the performers were having. It may have been fake on stage, done for sound business reasons, but for many in the crowd it looked real. Posh and the others should have been the ones paying the fans. With a lucrative world tour to come, they could afford it.

A journey back to Spiceworld, 1998

Geri may have been miserable, but Britain seemed a happier place the last time the original five Spice Girls performed together, on 'Top of the Pops' on 5 June 1998. Her famous Union flag dress had been in tune with Britpop and BritArt, and Tony Blair was talking about Cool Britannia. He still seemed the fresh-faced, straight kinda guy who had been swept into Downing Street on a wave of optimism a year earlier.

The Good Friday Agreement had brought the real prospect of lasting peace to Northern Ireland, despite the bomb that would soon be detonated by the Real IRA at Omagh. The Middle East was relatively calm, too, so petrol was down at 60p a litre, just over half the present price. The average house cost 75,000 as opposed to 230,000 now.

France won the World Cup at home, and, in a far bigger shock result, Dana International, an Israeli transsexual, won the Eurovision Song Contest.

In Washington President Bill Clinton was forced to admit that yes, he had been guilty of having sexual relations with "that woman" Monica Lewinsky after all. In California, a couple of geeks started up a little search engine called Google. And as for the Millennium Dome, where the reunited Spice Girls appeared last night, even that seemed like a good idea at the time...