CD Review

Retro Futura: A Journey Back to the 80s

Posted on
Retro Futura: A Journey Back to the 80s
Belinda Carlisle (Photo: Joe Puccio)

Totally awesome would be the most appropriate description of the predominantly UK-centric version of the annual Retro Futura concert, the all-1980s package tour that celebrates the decade known for big hair, bold fashion, and bombastic music.

The NYCB Theatre at Westbury on Long Island, NY, played host to the popular multi-act event on Friday, the 13th of July – but for those in attendance, the night was anything but unlucky.

This year’s edition features six standouts who dominated MTV back when the Music Television channel actually lived up to its moniker.

The evening’s main draw, the still-adorable Belinda Carlisle, arguably stole the show with a terrific set loaded with nothing but chart-toppers that altered between her stellar solo career and her early days as frontwoman of new wave pioneers The Go-Go’s. Leading off with her first ever individual hit, “Mad About You,” off the singer-songwriter’s 1986 self-titled debut effort, Carlisle managed to capture the crowd right off the bat and she succeeded in never losing them. “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got The Beat” both sounded as crisp as they did nearly 40 years ago when the two tracks initially catapulted the Go-Go’s into pop stardom, while “Vacation’s” infectious chorus seemed to be “all the fans ever wanted.” Carlisle’s only number one single, “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” proved to be the perfect closer, as her signature cut managed to whip her loyal followers into a frenzy.

ABC’s Martin Fry (Photo: Joe Puccio)

Although only allotted four songs, English pop idol Limahl (see below for RF’s interview), of Kajagoogoo fame, made the most of his criminally short performance. A casualty of sharing a bill with five other acts, Limahl’s brief set didn’t prevent him from being one of the show’s most revered artists. Shockingly, the synth-pop icon had never played in the United States before this string of dates. Perhaps that motivated the impervious-to-time, soon-to-be 60 year old – who doesn’t look a day over 40 – as his soothing vocals were flawless on “The NeverEnding Story” and the sexy, bass-heavy “Too Shy“. At its conclusion, the general buzz in the packed room was the hope for lengthier future appearances of the gifted singer, either on his own or with his Kajagoogoo cohorts.

ABC, led by the dapper Martin Fry, scored the coveted closing slot on this particular night. While Fry is the only original member of the Sheffield, England-formed New Romantic outfit, his undeniable charisma erased any doubts of his ability to still captivate the crowd in front of him. Though labeled a pop star, Fry is more accurately a jazzy throwback to soul singers of another era, a cool cat with an unmistakable charm and a silky voice that was evident on numbers like “Poison Arrow,” “(How to Be a) Millionaire,” and “The Look of Love.” Interestingly, Fry picked his highest charting U.S. single, “When Smokey Sings,” an ode to Smokey Robinson, as the kick-off to his portion of the festivities, rather than save it for last. But the decision succeeded in generating an electricity right from the start that never waned. And in an unintentionally comical moment, Fry accidentally kicked Carlisle’s mug that she’d unfortunately left behind, smashing it into pieces, prompting him to quip that he’d make it up to her in the form of an ABC t-shirt.

Limahl displaying an early 80s photo of himself (Photo: Joe Puccio)

As ABC has managed to stay afloat with a mostly new lineup, Modern English’s performance was fortified by boasting four fifths of its classic roster, with the only change being Roy Martin inheriting the drum kit from Richard Brown. The distinguished Robbie Grey and his polished vocals shined on “Moonbeam,” off the band’s latest album Take Me To The Trees, as well as the vintage “Hands Across The Sea” and the quintessential “I Melt With You.” Guitarist Gary McDowell, bassist Michael Conroy, and keyboardist Stephen Walker rounded out the players, who put on a smashing set.

One of the decade’s most memorable songs is undoubtedly 1986’s “Your Love.” Known both for its irresistible hooks and philandering lyrics, the most endearing aspect of the track has always been the powerful, Steve Perry-evoking vocal chops of Tony Lewis, vocalist and bassist of the now-defunct power pop trio The Outfield. After taking a hiatus following the tragic death of bandmate John Spinks, Lewis is carrying on as a solo act and his rousing five-song set showed that he hasn’t missed a beat. Whether it was Outfield classics like “Since You’ve Been Gone” or, natch, “Your Love,” or the brand new “Into the Light,” off the appropriately-titled Out of the Darkness, Lewis delivered a home run of a performance.

Getting the nostalgic evening started was Annabella Lwin, formerly of early-80s act Bow Wow Wow. Lwin, who actually joined the group as their singer at the adolescent age of 13, revved the early-arrivers up with a trifecta that climaxed with “I Want Candy,” the 1965 Strangeloves ditty that became a Bow Wow Wow hit nearly 20 years later.

Retro Futura is the latest manifest to the 80s revival and should be a priority to attend for enthusiasts of the decade.

Click here for Retro Futura’s upcoming tour dates.

Royal Flush had the pleasure of chatting with Limahl ahead of his NYCB Theatre at Westbury performance, where he fielded questions about Kajagoogoo’s VH1 Bands Reunited appearance, his dismissal from the band, and why this tour marks his first time playing in the U.S.

Royal Flush: Is it a fact that this tour is your first ever in the U.S. and if so, why didn’t Kajagoogoo ever perform here?

Limahl: It is. I came here when “Too Shy” was a hit and I did a lot of promotion including American Bandstand with Dick Clark, Entertainment Tonight, VH1, and MTV, but no live shows. That’s because eight months later, the band fired me in a phone call (laughs). So we never got to tour. Then I had a lot of solo hits in Europe but “The NeverEnding Story” only got to around 16 on Billboard in the U.S. so the demand didn’t seem to be there. This is the first time a promoter has approached me to do live shows in America so it’s weird the way that worked out. But I’m an antique now and I’ve gained value with age (laughs).

RF: Kajagoogoo were featured in an episode of VH1’s Bands Reunited in the early 2000s. How was that experience and looking back, are you happy you did it and with the way it turned out?

Limahl: I’m happy, they’re not (laughs). They felt that television edited it to show the drama. But in a way, they just cut to the chase. They showed the truth. I think the band was naive and they didn’t understand that people were fascinated by that. How can you be this band with a number one hit all over the world and then fire your lead singer with a phone call for no apparent reason? I think it was difficult for everybody because when we broke up, very little was said. Then suddenly there we were, under the spotlight of the TV cameras and the crew and we had to revisit all that excess emotional baggage. But from my point of view, I was glad that the truth came out because I didn’t want people thinking I’d gone off on a solo career by my own choice and that I had thrown my toys out of the pram, so to speak.

RF: Do you feel part of the reason you were let go was because the other four members had known each other previously and you were an outsider?

Limahl: I think that is one of the parameters of the recipe that led to the split, yes. Three of them went to school together. I was an outsider. But you know what, Joe, if they called me tomorrow to do some gigs, I’d do it because there’s always this poignant place, and I’m going to be cheesy now, in my heart where I have to look at the good stuff that came out of my short time with the band. Although we were only in the public eye for eight months, we’d been together for three years. And I remember the rehearsals, the songwriting, the gigs, the record deal, and the excitement of getting to number one. And, of course, that uniqueness that you get from five individuals, five personalities. You can’t replicate that anywhere else. So the idea of getting back together with the guys always excites me because I think they’re bloody talented. I look at my cup as half full, not half empty. Life’s too short, don’t hold grudges, and I focus on the great things that came out of it. I’m doing mainly Kajagoogoo stuff on these shows and in a way, the album (White Feathers) we made is now even more special because we only made one with the five of us on it.

RF: Do you think there will ever be new music from Kajagoogoo?

Limahl: Never say never. Writing a song is a bit like learning to ride a bike. Once you’ve been through that process, you never forget it. I have a list of song ideas on my phone. I still get inspired. I might look out the window and get an idea and I immediately write it down. Whether I do anything with those ideas by myself or with somebody else, I don’t know. There could be new music. But you know what? We’re running out of time in terms of years. I’ll be 60 this year – even though I realize I don’t look it (laughs).

RF: Was there a song other than “Too Shy” on White Feathers that you felt should have been just as big or bigger?

Limahl: I think “Hang on Now” is on par with “Too Shy” but it was the third single and it should’ve been the second. If it was, I think it would’ve been a bigger hit. I love that song and I’m doing it on these shows.

RF: Your career coincided with the rise of MTV, which allowed, or perhaps forced, you to make videos for “Too Shy” and “The NeverEnding Story.” Did you enjoy that process?

Limahl: Absolutely. In 1980, when the first polyphonic synthesizers came out, they kind of influenced our whole sound. There were all these new bands like the Eurythmics, Soft Cell, and Human League, and we were all playing around with these fantastic toys and incorporating those sounds into the songs we were writing. Then there was this added excitement, this new medium, the music video. So you’re writing lyrics and you’re imagining these concepts for a story and a video and then a 24-hour music channel comes out? Wow! It felt like a revolution. It was very exciting.

RF: Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran co-produced White Feathers. Are you still in touch with him?

Limahl: No, not really. You meet people in this business and in life in general and they’re in your life and then out of your life. I’ve had very little contact with Nick over the years. It’s kind of weird how that goes. But even though he’s not calling me, I bet he thinks of us every three months when he gets those royalty checks (laughs).

RF: 80s music tends to get a bad wrap with common complaints being it’s cheesy and overproduced. How do you look back at that period?

Limahl: In the late 70s, we went through the punk period and there was a lot of anarchy, politically, in the UK. We had miner strikes that caused power cuts and there was a financial depression and I remember that vividly because we lived in candlelight with no TV or radio three nights a week. Punk was about anarchy and pain and the whole vibe was depressive. Some journalist coined the phrase ‘new wave’ but it really did feel like that, like a new wave of optimism in the 80s, so we were suddenly colorful again and being flamboyant and breaking free from that darkness. It was a political statement as much as it was a musical one.

RF: I understand you’ve been bitten by the acting bug in recent years. Do you have acting aspirations and what’s your daily life like now?

Limahl: Well, I’ve always respected acting. What happened was, two years ago, I moved 17 miles north of London, and now I’m in a quieter place. I have a garden now and I like watering my plants – it’s so relaxing (laughs). And I’m getting older so I’m a bit more chill. I started taking acting classes, went to film school, I’m in director and comedy workshops and all sorts of stuff. I’m also going to do a scriptwriting course. I’m just enjoying finding something new to do at my age, a new creative outlet that may work alongside music. I might work on something and someone will say they need theme music or a song or whatever. They could work hand in hand. And if they don’t, that’s fine. If they do, that’s great. But I’m sure I’ll always keep making music as long as I can keep singing and moving!