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Reviewed by David Medsker
hen word first leaked in 2004 about a one-off benefit show at Wembley that would feature producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn and the bands that he either produced or played in, Bullz-Eye editor Will Harris and I started looking at flights to London. Keep that in mind as you read this review of the long-overdue DVD release of the show, now titled “Slaves to the Rhythm,” because you will soon see that objectivity on the subject does not come easily considering that I own nearly every song performed during this incredible 140-minute show. Well, I sold the Belle & Sebastian album a while back, because I had officially hit my twee quotient, but you get the idea.
Backed by a small army of performers, including a full orchestra, four female backing vocalists, and a dozen or so musicians of various stripes, Horn fittingly opens the show with the two biggest hits from his band the Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Living in the Plastic Age.” Former bandmates Geoff Downes and Bruce Wooley joined him on the songs, along with backing singers Debi Ross and Linda Allen. In fact, the list of backing musicians at this show is a who’s who of English pop. Horn’s production protégé Steven Lipson played rhythm guitar, and 10cc’s Lol Creme played whatever instrument Horn needed him to play. Horn, meanwhile, still plays a mean bass, and his vocals on the Buggles songs were flawless. He even wore his trademark Coke bottle glasses while singing the Buggles songs. Sweet.
The set list, wisely, is not in chronological order, though the first half definitely focuses on his work during the first half of the ‘80s. UK pop duo Dollar perform “Give Me Back My Heart,” which was the first song Horn produced, and ABC, who received a massive ovation, performed “The Look of Love,” “Poison Arrow” and “All of My Heart.” Original ABC members Mark White and Steve Singleton have long refused all invitations to rejoin the band, so singer Martin Fry fleshed out his lineup with Kajagoogoo’s Nick Beggs on bass (in a dress, no less), and Andy Hamilton, the unofficial sixth member of Duran Duran, on sax. Horn also got German outfit Propaganda to perform together for the first time in years, and the performance of their song “Dr. Mabuse,” complete with a “Day in the Life”-type string crescendo, is one of the show’s highlights.
Indeed, picking a defining moment in the show is rather difficult. Is it the first-ever live performance of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Left to My Own Devices” with a full orchestra? (Like ABC, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe received a huge ovation.) Is it the first-ever live performance of Art of Noise’s “Close (To the Edit),” where Horn rocks that bass line like he wrote it yesterday? (Favorite line of the show, to Art of Noise bandmate Anne Dudley: “Start the car, Anne.”) Is it Grace Jones – wearing a ridiculous headdress, of course – tearing up “Slave to the Rhythm”? (Wow, was that Orson Welles-style introduction really done by Ian McShane?) What about Seal rocking the bejeezus out of “Killer” and “Crazy”? (Well, as much as Seal can rock, anyway.) Perhaps it was the one-time-only Yes lineup of Steve Howe, Trevor Rabin, Chris Squire, Alan White and Geoff Downes performing “Cinema” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart”? (All members of Yes were easily the worst dressed of everyone on stage.) Worthy nominees all, but from here, there was one performance that stood above the others, and it had one hell of a back story to go with it.
Ladies and gentlemen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
First, the back story. Holly Johnson, the unmistakable lead singer for Frankie, declined to participate in the reunion – which marked the first live dates by the band in 17 years – so Frankie held an open audition for a new singer and had VH-1 UK document the entire process, beating “Rock Star: INXS” to the punch by at least a year. The winner was one Ryan Molloy, roughly half the age of the other Frankie members but blessed with a very Johnson-like voice. His first gig with the band: the Prince’s Trust show, yikes. As it turned out, their performance during dress rehearsal was so good that Horn decided that they should finish the show. Did they live up to the expectations?
Hell, yes. And to go one better, the most surprising thing about their set is that the best song was not “Relax” or “Two Tribes.” Mind you, their performances of those songs were great as well – there are even a couple shots of Grace Jones rocking out to “Two Tribes” – but their ten-minute (!) version of “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” had to have been the reason that Horn moved them into the closing slot. It flat-out killed, and the band’s set showed that Frankie may have straddled the Trevor Horn line between rock and pomp better than any other act he’s worked with.
As for the ones that got away, Tom Jones has to be at the top of the list. He recorded a video for the show, which was nice, but having him there to perform “If I Only Knew” would have been sweet. Also, where was Spandau Ballet? His mix of their song “Instinction” was tailor-made for an event such as this, as was Godley & Creme’s “Cry.” Creme’s in the backing band, for crying out loud. Was Kevin Godley really that busy? There are also some spotty bits with the mix, where they seem to get stuck between the board feed and the house speakers and it will go from deep echo to crystal clear from one syllable to the next. Fortunately, that sort of thing happened mostly during the between-song banter, so no harm done.
For anyone who knows and admires Trevor Horn’s work, this DVD is as no-brainer as they come. It’s painstakingly assembled, and the set list is nearly bulletproof. Oh, and it’s for charity. Dig in, Anglophiles.