On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical) – Palace Theatre, Manchester

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This was wonderful.  It was mostly music from 1988 to 1991, which is just my era, so it was a brilliant nostalgia-fest!  But it was more than that.  It was the story of two immigrants who overcame adversity to live the American Dream.  It was their love story.  It was the story of how a  courageous woman fought back from terrible injuries.  It was full of emotion, like a 1980s musical, but also full of dance and colour, like a 1950s musical.  And how come I can remember all the words to all those songs from thirty years ago, yet I can never remember where I put my keys five minutes ago?!

Gloria Estefan (and the Miami Sound Machine – she didn’t use her name alone until 1989) didn’t become popular in the UK until 1988, when I was thirteen.  We’d just got our first CD player.  Cutting edge technology!   But we were taping music off the radio as well.  I quite liked the upbeat songs, like 1-2-3, Get On Your Feet, Oye Me Canto and Rhythm’s Gonna Get You, but, being hopeless at dancing, not to mention going through an extremely soppy phase starting in mid-1989, I preferred the ballads.  They were all in there!   Can’t Stay Away From You, Don’t Wanna Lose You Now, Cuts Both Ways, Anything For You, Here We Are …  and I still know all the words to them all.  And there was quite a bit of her earlier music too.  All those Cuban rhythms and dancing, all those colourful clothes!

It finished with Coming Out Of The Dark, her comeback song.  That didn’t do very well here.  I don’t know why not.  We were all so upset about the accident, which happened in March 1990.  She’d had one hit after the other, and she was so popular.  Such a lovely person.  I remember reading an interview with her, in Smash Hits or Just Seventeen or something like that, and thinking how terribly romantic it was that she’d married her first boyfriend.  It was such a positive time, as well.  That brief interlude.  The Berlin Wall was down, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, everything seemed possible.  It only lasted until the summer, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but that short period was a really special time.  I’ve got completely off the point now, haven’t I?  She had to learn to walk again.  The musical showed some of what she went through, the rehab, how difficult it was.  To come back from that, to get back to performing at the highest level … incredible.

To get back to 1988, Gloria was in her thirties, with an eight-year-old son.  She and the band had had success in the US earlier, but only a few years earlier.  The likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Kylie Minogue were having hits in their teens, and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were only in their mid-twenties.  Madonna was about the same age as Gloria, but she’d already been around for years.  The Miami Sound Machine (to add to the confusion, originally it was the band’s name alone, without the then Gloria Fajardo’s!) had released its first album in 1977.  So what on earth took so long?

Well, OK, sometimes it does take a while.  But what this musical showed was the specific issues faced by a Cuban-American group, performing Cuban-influenced music, trying to break into the English language mainstream market.  It wasn’t that the English-speaking public didn’t like their music.  It was that producers wouldn’t take a chance on it.  They’d been touring Latin America, but producers in the US were urging them to stick to the Latin market, and not even to sing in English.  I don’t know how accurate the musical was, but the way it showed it was that they were handing out copies of their singles in the street, offering to perform at clubs for free, and even playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Partly a marketing thing, but partly also general prejudice.  There were some fairly hard-hitting scenes with Emilio Estefan saying “This is what an American looks like” and talking about how, in his early days in Miami, he’d been faced with signs on apartments saying “No pets, no Cubans”.  It’s not an uncommon story.  “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish.”  No-one bleating about “wokeness”, or claiming that singing Cuban-influenced music in English was “cultural appropriation” or saying that someone should lose their job because of a comment they made twenty years ago.  Just someone talking about the difficulties which they personally had had to overcome.  And being proud to be an American, a Cuban-American.

And the musical showed how they went from being faced with signs like those to playing in Washington DC, with the Stars and Stripes as the backdrop to Gloria’s performance, to meeting President George Bush at the White House.  It was so positive.  People don’t talk much about “the American Dream” any more.  Is that due to modern negativity, or is just seen as an old-fashioned term?  Anyway.  They made it!  And how ironic it was that it was whilst returning from the White House that their bus was involved in that horrific accident.

I was going to say “two Latinos” or “two Hispanic people”, but I think that that’d perhaps mask the fact that the Cuban-American experience has been very different from, say, the Mexican-American experience or the Puerto Rican American experience.  It happens here too: the term “British Asian” perhaps masks the fact that the British Indian experience has been very different from the British Pakistani experience and British Bangladeshi experience.

Emilio Estefan left Cuba with his dad, initially for Madrid and then for Miami, as a teenager in 1967.  His mum remained behind to care for her elderly parents, and they were separated for four years.  Gloria’s family, the Fajardos left Cuba, where her dad had been a soldier with close ties to the Batistas, in 1959, when Gloria was only two.

Gloria’s mum had been a singer in Cuba, and had an offer from Hollywood but was stopped from going by her father.  The musical showed how she initially wasn’t happy about Gloria going into the music business, and being on tour when she had a young child, and how they became estranged for a time.  She’d later got a PhD in education, but, because the Cuban authorities destroyed all her certificates, she had to retrain from scratch when she got to Miami – where she was the family breadwinner, because Gloria’s dad became severely disabled.

It wasn’t mentioned in the musical, but he took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was captured by his own cousin and imprisoned.  He was eventually released, but then served in Vietnam.  The musical showed him in Vietnam, but, presumably to avoid controversy, didn’t spell out the fact that his medical condition was probably caused by Agent Orange poisoning.  Gloria cared for her father and her younger sister, aided by her beloved maternal grandma whilst her mum was retraining and then working, but still got a university degree.

Gloria Fajardo and Emilio Estefan – they had it tough, they struggled to get their music into the mainstream market, and then, at the peak of Gloria’s success, she suffered that horrific accident.  And they overcame it all.  What an inspirational story.  This is a wonderful nostalgia fest for those of us whose music collections have never really got past 1988 to 1991, but it’s so much more than that.  Great story.  Great music. Very, very impressed.

 

Pose (Season 2) – BBC 2

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It was lovely to hear Pose‘s Dyllon Burnside singing “God Bless America” before the Rafa versus Medvedev US Open final last month … even when you were as nervous about the match as I was!  He’s spoken very powerfully about the issues he faced growing up as a gay black churchgoing Christian in the Deep South; and Pose in general seems to be having quite an impact.  The first episode of the second season certainly didn’t pull any punches, with scenes including a depiction of a much-discussed December 1989 protest during mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, against the Archdiocese’s attitude towards the HIV and AIDS crisis at that time.  On a lighter note, we got Madonna – where is Madonna these days, incidentally? – popularising “vogue” music, in the year of the pointy bra tour.  Sorry, the “Blond Ambition” tour.

Hands up, I was never particularly keen on all that dance stuff – give me “Like a Prayer” over “Vogue” any day – so I was very pleased to hear music from Roxette and Soul II Soul, much more my thing, as well!  The standout characters of the first episode, though, weren’t just the dancers and models but also the doctors and nurses who showed such compassion to people living with, and dying from, HIV and AIDS at a time when political and religious leaders were handling the situation very poorly.  The world badly needs more compassion, and less aggression.

I’m trying not to dwell on the fact that a lot of the cast won’t remember Vogue being number one, or the pointy bra thing.  The lad who plays sweet little Damon, who disappointingly didn’t feature much in this first episode, wasn’t born until 1999.  1999!  It was rather nice to see Sandra Bernhard and Trudie Styler: that stopped me feeling so old!   Ask me what’s number one now and I will not have the remotest clue, but name any number one from 1990 and I’ll be able to sing it.  OK, caterwaul it.  It’s quite strange seeing my time portrayed on TV.

Anyway.  This was a pretty hard-hitting first episode, with much of the emphasis on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  As I said, it didn’t pull any punches.  As well as the “Stop The Church” protest, we saw funerals, coffins lined up, and even someone in a coffin.  We heard characters discussing how many people they knew had died of AIDS, and we were also told how less well-off patients were unable to access medication and had to rely on supplies left by better-off people who’d died.  It certainly got the point across.

However, there was plenty of music and dancing and ballroom competition as well – although sadly no Dynasty costumes as well!  It’s much darker than the first series was, though: there was no romance in the first episode of the new series and nothing about how Damon’s getting on at his Fame-like music school, and there were some quite violent scenes after one of the characters was mistreated by a photographer and other members of the House of Evangelista took revenge.  It wasn’t always easy watching, but it was absolutely gripping.  I started watching the first series for the ’80s music, but I’ve got really involved with the characters and the storylines now.  I’m not sure how many people in the UK are watching this, but I hope it’s a lot, because it’s something really different and it’s well worth the watching.

Blinded By The Light

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This started so well!  A Pet Shop Boys song, an A-ha song, and a shot of someone reading Smash Hits.  It doesn’t get much more promising than that!   Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually very good: it wasn’t a bad idea, but it was too full of tropes, stereotypes and negativity.  However, it was still worth seeing, for the glorious music – I thought it was all going to be Bruce Springsteen music, but, even better, it was like Greatest Hits of 1987 – and the ’80s nostalgia.  Pound notes, Walkmans, those traffic light thingies you hung from car mirrors, wearing too much eyeshadow … !  It wasn’t a great film, but it did get a lot of aspects of the ’80s across pretty accurately, and also highlighted the fundamental importance of music, especially during your so-called formative years.  Did anyone’s school actually have a radio station in the 1980s, though?  Mine certainly didn’t!

It was supposed to be a feelgood film.  I suppose it was, in some ways.  Plenty of music and dancing, and a happy ending.  British-Pakistani teenage boy growing up in Luton in the 1980s, and not feeling very happy about anything.  His dad had been made redundant, his mum was having to work all hours to pay the bills, he felt like a misfit at school, he couldn’t get a girlfriend, his parents had expectations of him that weren’t what he wanted, there were issues with racism in the area … and then a friend introduced him to Bruce Springsteen’s music, and the lyrics inspired him, and everything came right for him in the end.  It sounded great, but it just didn’t quite hit the right spots.

Too many tropes?  Most of them were tropes that could have been done so well, though. Loving but overly controlling British-Pakistani father, teenage kids who want to assimilate into British society but also stay close to their families – done brilliantly in East is East.  Geeky teenage boy who’s into politics, writes poems and somehow manages to get together with the cool girl – done brilliantly in the Adrian Mole books.  Supportive, inspirational teacher – done brilliantly in numerous films.  Teenager who wants to become a writer (/artist/singer/dancer/whatever), rather than get what his parents consider a “proper” job – again, done brilliantly in numerous films, and books.  There was nothing wrong with the tropes as such: the film just wasn’t all that convincing.  Maybe the characters didn’t work.  Everyone was so stereotypical.  And they were all, apart from the dad who was a bit of both, either goodies or baddies: there were no nuances at all.

It wasn’t exactly very realistic, either.  OK, fiction would be pretty boring if it was entirely realistic, but there are limits – at least make it believable!  The aforementioned supportive teacher entered one of our hero’s essays in a competition, and, whaddaya know, it won, and the prize was a trip to a writers’ conference in New Jersey, just near Bruce Springsteen’s home town.  Right, because stuff like that happens all the time.  He’d probably have got a £10 book token.  Also, no-one in Britain in the ’80s said “You did good” or referred to their homework as an “assignment”.

Then there was all this American Dream stuff.  In America, anyone can achieve anything!  No-one cares where you come from.  No-one feels negatively about anyone else.  Er, what??  Don’t get me wrong, I love America, but was that idea not all rather more 1890s than 1980s?  And it kept slagging off Luton.  What’s poor Luton ever done to anyone?  Maybe it was meant to be taken humorously, but I don’t like films or songs or books that sneer at places like that.  Why does Gurinder Chadha have to be so negative – not just about Luton, but about Britain in general?  See also Beecham House and Viceroy’s House !  I thought she overdid the controlling dad bit, as well.   But then Bend It Like Beckham was so good – that was everything this could have been and wasn’t, a really lovely feelgood film about a British-Asian teenager. Please, dear, get back to doing what you did so well in 2002!

Our hero did not, incidentally, end up in America.  He went to university in Manchester.  Nothing negative was said about Manchester, at least – that really would have been the final straw!   That was if they ever actually got to Manchester, given that they were rather worryingly following a signpost for “M1 London”.  And he suddenly realised that his dad was actually a really great guy who’d always done his best for his family, and his dad realised that he was really wonderful as well – yeah, yeah, yeah!  Subtle as a sledgehammer.

At one point, our hero and his mate took over the school radio station, blasted out Bruce Springsteen music, and damaged the DJ’s Tiffany record.  There are some Tiffany lyrics which sum this film up pretty well.  “Could’ve been so beautiful, could’ve been so right.”  Er, yes,  Could’ve been …

Smashing Hits! The 80s pop map of Britain and Ireland – BBC 4

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The music of the 1980s is the soundtrack to my life.  Well, to be strictly accurate, the music of the late 1980s and the early 1990s was the soundtrack to my formative years, but, however you put it, 1980s music is “my” music.  I’ve only got to hear the few first bars of a hit song from the second half of the 1980s and I am right back there: I can tell you exactly when it was from, and exactly what was going on both in my life and in the world in general at that time.  Take this morning.  I was in the gym (I go before work during Wimbledon), and on came Sweet Child O’ Mine.  I only needed to hear a few notes of it and I was back in 1989, listening to our form teacher read us the Riot Act over a load of graffiti having appeared in the locker area.  I don’t think the culprit was ever actually unmasked, but I do know that the lyrics to Sweet Child O’Mine were part of the offending artwork.

Life isn’t like that any more.  I haven’t got a clue what’s number one in the charts.  I assume people do still use the terms “the charts” and “the top 40” (and I remember when it was the “the top 30”), incidentally?  My sister and I used to find it hilarious that Mum and Dad referred to the charts as “the hit parade”, and that our late grandad, bless him, insisted on referring to a record player as a “gramophone”!    It’s rather depressing to think that I’m now just as out of touch as we thought they were back then.  Do millennials even know what a record player or a tape/cassette player is?  Do they ever go into a shop and buy a piece of physical media with music on it, or is it all downloads these days?  It’s a different world these days.  So it’s very nice that BBC 4 are allowing me to step back into my world for a little while, with this three-part series about the music of the 1980s.  Because it was the best music ever, right?!  Yep.  That’s what old people say.  It’s what Mum and Dad used to say, in the 1980s and 1990s, about the music of the 1950s and 1960s!

Do little kids still have playground versions of popular songs, by the way?  Like we used to have in the early 1980s?  “Relax, don’t do it.  Pick your nose and chew it.”  “Uptown Wally.  She’s been living in a Tesco trolley.  She had it off with the Action Man.  She left her knickers in an ice cream van.”  Maybe we were just weird at our primary school.  And that was actually rather rude for primary school kids to have been singing, come to think of it.  Er, moving swiftly on …

This is a different take on music history, because it’s about the way in which different British cities produced different music.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, but, it many ways, everything seems so uniform, so samey.  You go on holiday, and you’re in France or Germany or Italy or Spain and there are billboards everywhere showing adverts in English.  The same with slogans in shops or bars.  What??  What is wrong with the language of the country you’re in?  And there are branches of McDonald’s and Starbuck’s everywhere.  It’s all the same.  I tell you, three cheers for Greggs, who make a big effort to stock cakes and pastries that are relevant to the part of the country that each particular branch is in.  The National Trust do as well, to be fair.  I love it when I see bara brith in the tea room at Chirk Castle, or Scouse in the tea room at Speke Hall.  Uniformity is boring!

Towards the end of the 1980s, things did get rather uniform, thanks to Stock Aitken Waterman.  Whether it was Rick Astley from Newton-le-Willows and Sonia from Liverpool, Kylie and Jason from Down Under, or Big Fun who were a mixture of Mancunians, Midlanders and Londoners (what???), it all sounded the same.  Don’t get me wrong – I love SAW songs.  I would never have admitted that, back in the day, because only really uncool people admitted to liking SAW, but, come on, everyone likes those songs, don’t they?  But it was all artificial, and manufactured, and samey.

And then came the “Madchester” era.  Hooray!   I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in London in 1990.  No school uniform on school trips.  Presumably so that, if anyone did anything terrible, no-one would be able to tell what school they came from!  Practically every single kid turned up in a hooded top – bought from places like Stolen from Ivor – and a pair of jeans by Joe Bloggs of Cheetham Hill.  We thought we were the coolest thing ever, strutting round That London in all our Manchester gear.  “You’re twisting my melon, man.”   It was a local thing.  Like Merseybeat’d been in the ’60s.  There was a lot of local stuff going on in the ’80s and early ’90s.  Music meant something: it came from places and times and cultures.

“Madchester”, coming at the end of the 1980s, is going to be covered in the final episode of the three.  Next week’s Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  I’ve just booked to see The Proclaimers in November: I’m very excited about that.  I’d be even more excited if it was Wet Wet Wet, but I did get to see them a couple of years back.  Anyway, the first episode was about London, Coventry and Sheffield.  And it took us right back to the early 1980s – which was before my musical time, so it was quite educational, because I don’t really remember the “scenes” of that time.

First up, the New Romantics.  Definitely before my time – although I remember my older cousin being obsessed with Duran Duran.  I love Spandau Ballet’s music, but Through the Barricades is the only one of their hit songs that I was really into at the time at which it was out.  Incredible song!  True, To Cut A Long Story Short and Gold are incredible songs too.  Is there anything around now that can come even close to matching music like that?   And Karma Chameleon was one of the first records I owned: Boy George was such an icon, even to younger kids.  The programme, presented by Kim Appleby – and I well remember the sadness when Kim’s sister Mel died so tragically young, and the admiration for Kim as she bravely went on with her music career as a solo artist – and Midge Ure (“Oh, Vienna … ) explored the Soho scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how that gave rise to Adam and the Ants, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.

Duran Duran are from Birmingham, obviously, just before I offend anyone by seeming to count them in with the Londoners!   In fact, I thought Birmingham should have been given more credit here, because it was just as much of a New Romantic centre as London was.  And a lot of the talk was about the success of British bands in America.  “The second British invasion.”  British music was big.  It was so big!

A lot of this was put down to MTV and the influence of videos.  We didn’t have MTV, until the advent of satellite TV in the late 1980s.  We only got to see the much-discussed videos on Top of the Pops and The Roxy, about an hour a week in total.  But what a big deal the videos became!   I remember the first time that the video for Madonna’s Like A Prayer was shown in the UK.  There’d been a huge fuss about it, because it’d offended the Vatican!   That evening, I went round to my then best friend’s house for tea, and she and I and her brother were sat there, waiting for the video to be shown, like it was some world-changing moment!

And Smash Hits, the music magazine, was also given a lot of credit for the rise of the New Romantics.  Ah, Smash Hits!  Both it and Just Seventeen used to come out on a Wednesday.  In the third year of secondary school, we used to have double physics on a Wednesday afternoon.  I’m sure the teacher was a really nice woman who was much loved by her family and friends, but a) she couldn’t hold the class’s attention and b) she never seemed to notice what any of us were doing.  So we’d all sit there reading Smash Hits and Just Seventeen!  I never did learn very much about physics, but ask me anything about pop music in 1987 or 1988 and I’ll probably be able to tell you!

Sadly, the New Romantics movement didn’t last.  The programme put its demise down to Adam and the Ants miming on The Children’s Royal Variety Performance, during which they were apparently on in between The Krankies and Rod Hull and Emu.  I don’t remember that, so I’ll have to take Midge and Mel’s words for it.  But the music lives on.  ’80s music lives on!!

Next up came Coventry and ska, and, with this, much more of a sense of a particular city’s history and culture.  Sorry, London, but you don’t do regional identity in the same way as other cities do!  I was only thinking about The Specials last week.  “Free Nelson Mandela”.  Ghost Town is the other Specials song that everyone knows – and, as Mel and Midge pointed out, that (again, before my musical time, really) said so much about 1981, the year of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and elsewhere.  Music then was so much more about time and place than it seems to be now.  And a big element of ska was the influence of Jamaican culture on Coventry.  Funny, we’re hearing so much about immigration at the moment, but I’m not really getting a sense of Eastern European influence on music.  Or am I just too old and out of touch to know what’s going on?!

I’ve never really been into ska, TBH.  But this was Coventry’s thing.  A smaller city having such a big influence on music.  And then it was on to electronic scene, in Sheffield.  Again, its heyday was a bit early for me, but I love some of these songs.  “Don’t you want me, baby?”  “Shoot that poison arrow to my hah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-heart!”  And, again, it was about a time and a place – deindustrialisation in a Northern city in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.  The Human League, Temptation and ABC were the groups discussed.  “All I’m saying. It takes a lot to love you.”   Wonderful stuff.  And all rooted in Sheffield, a city badly hit by the economic problems of the era.

The synthesiser!   That led on – although the programme didn’t go into this – to the later electro-pop music, and that really was my era.  A-ha.  The Pet Shop Boys.  Erasure.  There was even a group called Electronic – a collaboration between the wonderful, wonderful Pet Shop Boys and Manchester’s very own New Order.  “However I look, it’s clear to see, that I love you more than you love me.”  Sorry, that’s way off the point.  Sheffield!  Early 1980s!  The banning of Heaven 17’s “We don’t need this fascist groove thang” by the BBC, in case it offended the president of the United States.  Maybe that song needs a bit of a revival?!

And that was Sheffield.  London.  Coventry.  Sheffield.  Music that grew organically out of the culture of a particular city, at a particular time.  All a bit mad, in its way.  But natural.  Not manufactured.  Not artificial.  Not uniform.  And all so very gloriously 1980s!   There will never be another musical decade like the 1980s, and the music of the 1980s will never die!