My Top 10 Live Bands – 1

Iron Maiden

Tremble with terror, ye unbelievers! No recording industry fortress can withstand the unstoppable musical force unleashed upon this mortal realm by the musical alchemists of Albion!

Iron Maiden are so much more than just an astonishing and amazing live spectacle. They’re a living, breathing, libertarian resistance that glories in taunting an entertainment elite that long ago decided such louts were just too uncouth, too incorrect and generally unworthy to tread the sanctified and hallowed halls of the mainstream media complex.

Cast out and denied the limelight that was rightly theirs, Iron Maiden set about raising an army of fans and building an entertainment war machine the likes of which this world has seldom seen.

They have succeeded, and they have swept all before them.

My personal relationship with Maiden began way back in 1986, when I first saw them play live at Hammersmith. For any readers who remember, this was the gig that featured a brief appearance by some hapless kid who was placed there courtesy of Jim’ll Fix It…ahem, moving swiftly on.

I’ve seen them four times in total, roughly once a decade, and on each occasion I’ve witnessed how this insatiable media monster has grown bigger, stronger and ever more ambitious with the passage of time. With musicianship, equipment and a stage spectacle second to none, Iron Maiden have first conquered and then colonised parts of this world where the corporate media machine often fears to tread.

Fronted by the coolest living Englishman, an Iron Maiden gig isn’t just a great concert, it’s a major event. The ground trembles as the beast approaches, accompanied by a roar of jet engines as a customised Boeing 747 named Ed Force One touches down. This is no magic carpet for a spoiled pop princess, but rather a fully liveried workhorse transporting band, crew and tons of equipment to every conceivable corner of the globe. Naturally, Bruce Dickinson himself is at the controls as Ed Force One continues its epic journey to spread the dark gospel.

Oddly enough, the sheer scale of an Iron Maiden gig means that it’s actually best viewed from a bit of a distance. The stage and lighting are of such epic proportions that it’s easy to miss the bigger picture from close up. Naturally, there’s no need to worry about not hearing if you’re further back, as Iron Maiden’s infamous four axe attack can be heard for miles around.

Now well into their fourth decade in the music business, Iron Maiden have managed to avoid the rock ‘n’ roll tiger traps which have turned far too many of their contemporaries into monosyllabic, shambling caricatures. They’re fit, able, independent and spoiling for the next conquest.

Any band that’s big enough to headline Glastonbury but turns it down is a band that deserves our undying respect and admiration. Iron Maiden exist in a parallel media universe which they’ve conjured into existence through sheer force of will (and maybe some dusty, arcane powers) making them the undisputed overlords of all they survey.

Go see the beast on the road, and pay homage to the world’s greatest living rock legends.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 2

Marillion

This is one band I was lucky enough to first witness in their pomp, way back in the 80s while they were still fronted by the legendary Fish and Misplaced Childhood rode high in the album chart.

I already knew that they were all first class musicians, but I had no idea just how tight and polished a band could be on stage. Anyone who bought Misplaced Childhood on vinyl back in the day will know that it’s a full-blooded, unashamed prog rock creation consisting of only two tracks, side one and side two. As it was their latest release, I was understandably looking forward to hearing some album cuts performed live on stage. What I didn’t expect was to witness the whole damned thing! Every last note and nuance, performed live, in sequence, with no breaks and no mistakes.

It was then I realised I wasn’t just watching a kick-ass live band, I was in the presence of true musical greatness. Marillion’s huge but tightly controlled energy dovetailed perfectly with the word-perfect recitals of the audience to produce a potent and mesmerising musical mix.

I’d had my first hit of the Marillion magic, and I knew had to have more…and so I did. I saw them twice more before the world came to an end when Fish left the band. After losing one of the finest lyricists this country’s ever produced, the future looked bleak for the last and greatest performing proponents of prog rock’s hugely demanding yet dying art.

Like many other fans from the Fish era, I wondered if it was the end of the road for Marillion. Still, after four hugely respected, often cited and much loved albums, that ain’t half bad.

But then, something extraordinary happened. Some obscure, small guy from Kendal joined one of the tightest rock bands in history to retool, rebrand and relaunch.

Marillion quickly stepped out of the mainstream spotlight as new singer Steve Hogarth and the rest of the guys set about building a new kind of band, a band based more around audience access and crowd funding than courting the continued goodwill and patronage of the major labels. This was a bold and revolutionary move in the early 1990s, but one that’s proved crucial to Marillion’s continued success and close relationship with its fan base.

So, after watching from afar for more than a quarter of a century, I finally decided to take the plunge and see this “new” Marillion in late 2016.

To say I was blown away is something of an understatement. Time and age seem to have only improved Marillion’s live performances, as focused experience has gradually replaced youthful exuberance. With a hi-tech video system, custom made movies, and the most balanced and powerful live sound you’ll ever hear, Marillion introduced FEAR, their eighteenth studio album to a seemingly insatiable audience.

Marillion are one of the few bands who’ve manage to pull off that seemingly impossible trick of moving with the times while also standing still. As highlights from the ever lengthening Hogarth era were delivered at full power, I realised that the tracks I was hearing could’ve been penned at any time since the late 1980s to the present day.

As I’ve said before, a Marillion gig is a masterclass in layered power rather than raw volume, and its effects on the audience are profound and long lasting.

After a long dry spell, I’m hooked on the M-stuff once again. Wanna try some?

My Top 10 Live Bands – 3

VNV Nation

Once in every decade or so, a musical movement or maybe a movie franchise appears that just looks, sounds and feels like nothing else. Like a brand new branch springing from a mature tree, this unexpected creative offshoot bursts out of the existing cultural body in a completely unpredictable way, yet somehow manages to look like it was pre-destined to appear all along.

VNV Nation arrived in our psyche in just such an unexpected yet predictable fashion during the creative drought of the mid1990s; starting very small, but rapidly evolving into an entire musical sub-branch in their own right. This Anglo Irish duo somehow managed to blend an almost New Wave futuristic synth vibe with state of the art technology to produce a stunning series of auditory sculptures which are often imitated, but never bettered.

Working tirelessly both on the road and in the studio, VNV Nation have built up an impressive album catalogue as well as a hugely dedicated following, and all without the blessing or endorsement of the mainstream media machine.

Having been a fan of their music for quite a while, I was more than pleased to finally have the chance to witness a live performance.

They didn’t disappoint.

Although not the greatest of technical singers, Ronan Harris’ voice nonetheless oozes an authentic and heartfelt sincerity which perfectly matches the more spiritual aspects of VNV’s best work. Meanwhile, the physically imposing Mark Jackson stands like a stylised Soviet foundry worker as he hammers out the industrial foundations of a seemingly endless stream of underground anthems. With two guys working, and I mean working the desk all evening, the sound started at a high point and was absolutely flawless within a very short time. There are plenty of much bigger and much richer acts who could learn a lot from that level of dedication and professionalism.

Illusion, Homeward, Legion, Standing and the majestic, incomparable Beloved were just a few of an ever growing catalogue of firm audience favourites that kept us all jumping pretty much from start to finish. VNV delivered exactly what we all wanted, which was an orgy of hardcore electronic tracks which transcend mere dance music to become something much more akin to audial art.

They were flawless, and the reason for their fans’ dedication and almost obsessive loyalty was clearly expressed in the symbiosis between those on the stage and those on the ground. It was as though the very gods of synthpop themselves had descended to bring us the good news.

Preach it loud!

Like all truly great gigs, I just didn’t want it to end, but all good things must pass in time. However, that’s not before the guys delivered their trademark wind-down of Perpetual, which ekes out the last looping, chiming chords of the gig and leaves the audience both on a high and hungry for more.

VNV Nation have more than earned their success, and their live gigs are a testament to the old showbiz saying which reminds us that, no matter what, talent will out.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 4

Ultravox

If there’s a single band that encapsulates all that’s best about the music of the late 70s and early 80s, then that band must surely be Ultravox. With a dark, new wave undercurrent, superb arrangements and a willingness to step off the pop reservation, Ultravox effortlessly bridge the language gap between mainstream music and the alternative counter-culture.

There’s no doubt that they arrived on the scene with perfect timing, at the end of an era when unconventional and experimental tracks like Vienna and The Thin Wall still stood a chance of chart success. Seriously, does anyone believe singles like those would’ve gotten a look in five years later? I sincerely doubt it.

Like so many talented bands from that brief flowering of analogue alchemy, I wasn’t able to catch Ultravox in their Monument heyday, but I was thrilled to finally see Midge and the boys performing live at Sheffield’s O2 Academy during their highly regarded Return to Eden tour. This was doubly exciting for me as I’m already on record stating that Rage in Eden is my favourite album of all time.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as Midge Ure strode onto that stage in a silver-sheen suit and proceeded to blast out some serious hard-core guitar chords. Within half a minute those chords had morphed into the opening riffs of New Europeans, one of the great unsung new wave classics. Not only does it sound fantastic, but it perfectly packages the zeitgeist of that struggle between the printing press and the microchip, played out against a backdrop of grey concrete and glaring new neon.

The gig that followed this blinding opener was a nonstop parade of new wave classics, reminding us all just how imaginative and prolific they’d been during that short burst in the early 80s. Although some hair was thinning here and some waistlines thickening there, Midge and the boys more than proved that they could still throw down with the best as they displayed a level of musicianship which, let’s be honest, was all too rare among some of their more readily marketable contemporaries.

With an unassuming stage set combined with sound and lighting to die for, Ultravox re-established their credentials as some of the more serious musicians from a decade that started deep, but quickly shallowed into an identikit ensemble of sickly synthetic pop confections. It’s ironic how those dark, brooding foundations of the Ultravox sound were once a drag on commercial success, yet now they’ve become the very feature attracting a new generation of admirers in this new millennium.

Whilst they may not have been the vaunted megastars of yesteryear, there’s no denying that Ultravox have outpaced, outlasted and out-created nearly all of their contemporaries. There are no humiliating twenty minute slots on some washed-up-by-the-sea revival tour for Midge and the boys, and their enduring appeal is proof positive that substance always outlasts style in the long run. I’ll wager there’s many a big-name from yesteryear who secretly wishes they could still headline in their own right, instead of hitching their one-hit wagon to a burgeoning and cynical nostalgia machine. A lesson for us all methinks.

Though the years may have changed them physically, Ultravox’s commitment to their sound, their performance and their audience remains as bright and youthful as those heady days of top ten success and Smash Hits centrefold splashes. Though they may never again write or perform as a cohesive unit, it’s clear that those New Europeans have more than a couple of ideas inside them still.

Do you want Friars with that? – Dessert

What better way to round off a multi-course musical banquet than something sweet, uplifting and not too heavy?

Everybody knows that one of the best and most enjoyable rituals of a live gig is the false ending followed by the (almost) inevitable encores, and naturally Marillion were only too happy to oblige. Being a Friars gig, there was no way they could sneak out of the building before delivering a rousing rendition of Market Square Heroes, their very first single from the dim and distant days of the early eighties. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are local bylaws compelling them to play it whenever they set foot in the smallish town where it all began. Although it’s undoubtedly the most famous song about this unlikely musical mecca, Steve Hogarth did remind us that Bowie himself also

Charlie from David Live

tipped his hat to the very same square in the first line of Five Years.

Maybe it was because Marillion had played a mere forty-five minutes, or maybe it was the joy of going home early that gave Steve the energy to launch himself into the air with such gusto and abandon during the shouty bits of the song that launched them. Whatever the cause, he looked and sounded like he was having as much fun as the rest of us.

Naturally we were all awaiting the finale, which most of us figured had to include a Bowie number. My money was on Starman, which kind of fitted into the whole idea of the day.

Well, we did get a Bowie number, but not the one I’d imagined. Mind you, that hardly mattered less as the first unmistakable chords of Heroes filled the theatre, the sound rising to the rafters and somehow lifting us all with it.

I never saw Bowie play live, but as all the musical contributors piled onto the stage and Charlie from David Live took the microphone, it was as though the spirit of the great man himself had returned for one final appearance. I’ll remember the way my hair stood on end for many a year to come.

Dave & Sue Stopps

Naturally, it was only fitting that both Dave and Sue Stopps were cajoled onto the stage for their own personal, and hugely deserved round of applause. After all, it was their hard work, dedication and persistence that brought us all together in the creation of the world’s first, most dramatic and easily the most memorable monument to one of this nation’s most enduring musical talents.

As the music faded and the atmosphere dissipated along with the audience, many of us stopped beside the Earthly Messenger to reflect on what the past has given us and what the future may hold. If I’m honest, I think we also lingered to drink up the last dregs of that wonderful atmosphere, in a brightly lit place where we set aside our squabbles to create something very, very special.

I like to imagine we all fell asleep feeling just a little bit heroic that night, and I like to believe we deserved it too.

Just for one day.

Images courtesy of Alan Jones

Do you want Friars with that? – The Main Course

With the Dung Beatles and John Otway having set the bar incredibly high, there was a sense of palpable and growing excitement as the tech staff busied themselves preparing for the hugely talented Howard Jones to take the stage.

Now I can’t have been the only one who had the image of a big-haired, bat-sleeved eighties keyboard wizard etched into his memory, so I doubt I was alone in my surprise when that techno minstrel’s stripped down, almost lounge scale set up began to take shape. Perhaps somewhat naïvely, I’d expected banks of preassembled equipment to be wheeled onto the stage to deliver old favourites and new experiments. However, time waits for no man and so I confess my curiosity was piqued as that middle-aged but still very recognisable musician took to the stage behind a single keyboard, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and some kind of new-fangled, multipurpose percussion pad.

Howard Jones Alan Jones crop
Howard Jones

Whether conscious or not, Jones’ stripped down performance was a reflection of both the change and continuity experienced by most of his now older and hopefully wiser audience. In the same way that the concrete brutalism of Jones’ heyday has been reshaped and remodelled, so his musical expression has adapted and evolved to blend in perfectly with its environment. Gone are the artificial colours and flavours of his synthesised eighties concoctions, replaced by a warmer, more organic and holistic musical output. All the old favourites were there, but reimagined in a more carbon-neutral and less overbearing package. Not too loud, not too abrasive; not too shrill and guaranteed not to upset anyone from anywhere. Yes indeed, Howard Jones’ extremely competent and very watchable performance was a true reflection of the world in which we now live.

Perhaps it was selfish of me to expect to hear those synthpop classics in their original forms, but none of us can choose where we come from. In the end, I’m a child of concrete, fluorescent light, smoking indoors and no internet to tell me what I should be outraged about next. Howard Jones put on a great show and I’m glad to have been there. I just wasn’t expecting his music to be wearing carpet slippers and a safety helmet.

That’s how I found myself in a reflective kind of mood as the applause faded and the techs returned, this time to clear all available space for the imminent appearance of the mighty Marillion.

For anyone who’s never seen this legendary live band, a Marillion gig is best summed up as a masterclass in the studied application of musical power as opposed to the blunt-force assault of mere volume alone. With only a small handful of line-up changes over the decades, Marillion are unquestionably one of the slickest, tightest and most respected live acts anywhere in the world today. While many others have burst brightly and disappeared just as quickly, Marillion have remained a constant and extremely well disciplined star still burning brightly as they approach their fourth decade in music.

Their performances are the stuff of musical legend, whilst their relationship with an intergenerational fan base is one of the closest of any band to its audience. Indeed, after their short run of chart success in the eighties, Marillion turned their back on chasing mainstream success, and by doing so they built themselves one of the strongest and most fanatical followings in music today.

Naturally, being the world’s premier touring prog rock band, the big joke was how many of their ridiculously long tracks they’d manage to shoehorn into a mere forty-five minutes. I confess I was curious to see how they’d handle such a restriction on their usual running time of two hours plus.

Steve Hogarth Alan Jones crop
Steve Hogarth

With a stripped down stage and few of the usual whistles and bells that accompany a successful live act, it was kind of refreshing to see the guys cram so many old and new favourites into such a short space of time.

The crowd went crazy when the perennial Easter made the cut, and we were all treated to Steve Rothery’s legendary guitar solo that features so prominently on that decades-old track. It was wonderful to hear Afraid of Sunlight once again, a firm favourite of mine.

As ever, Steve Hogarth was in fine form, leading many of the uninitiated to wonder just how such a big and clear noise can emanate from someone who sounds so much bigger than he really is. That precocious and seemingly ageless vocal talent has earned him the affectionate nickname of Windy Shrimp in some quarters.

I’ve actually lost track of how often I’ve seen Marillion play across the years, but their gigs never grow old, never get tired and they never look or sound like they’re just going through the motions. I’ll wager they picked up a few new followers at the Bowie Benefit that night.

All in all it was an amazing evening, and we were full to bursting with four delicious and very different musical courses. At the end of the night came the question that springs to every restaurant patron’s mind as the plates are being cleared away…

Have I got room for dessert?

Images courtesy of Alan Jones Photos

Do you want Friars with that? – The Starter

Don’t mind if I do, and lay it on thick while you’re at it!

What better dish to compliment the world’s first David Bowie statue than a double helping of local music talent? With no less than four top quality acts donating their fees to the statue fund, my musical taste-buds were already tingling as I took my seat in Aylesbury’s impressive Waterside

The Dung Beatles

Theatre.

I don’t like to fill up on starters, but as this was a special occasion I decided to just go with the flow. Besides, it’s downright ungracious to refuse a course when the chef’s showcasing his skills for free.

First up were the Dung Beatles, and if I’m honest, I can’t say my expectations were all that high. After all, it’s another Beatles tribute band, which is fine if you like that sort of thing. Now it may be heresy to say so, but I’ve never been a massive fan of the Fab Four. Maybe that’s because I’m a child of the seventies and eighties, but I figured I’ve heard pretty much everything a tribute band could offer the boys from the Cavern Club.

I wondered just how wrong my preconceptions were as I counted a grand total of nine onto the stage. My interest was especially piqued as I saw the four piece brass section take their places, not an occurrence you see all that often in tribute bands. As the first crystal clear chords chimed out, I realised I was hearing a well-oiled and carefully calibrated machine clicking effortlessly into gear. These guys could really play, and they’d clearly been practicing…a lot.

John Otway

Never before have I heard such bold tribute choices as Sergeant Pepper and The Walrus. The Dung Beatles have clearly set out to be so much more than just another Beatles band, and they’ve succeeded completely. They were as tight as a drum and sounded so damned good that I think I can finally understand what all the fuss is about.

As I said earlier, I’m not a massive Beatles fan, but I’ll sure be seeing these guys again, given half the chance!

The first act had left me in a buoyant mood as I eagerly awaited the appearance of the legendary John Otway. The last time I’d seen one of Aylesbury’s favourite and daftest sons was at the Wellhead, which means I’m talking in decades here. So I wondered if time had changed both him and me enough to make the experience a little less scintillating in middle age.

I needn’t have worried really. If anything, the man who got famous for falling over on telly was even more daft, amusing and unsettlingly perceptive than he’s ever been. That same old self-deprecating humour hid the same old insight and sensitivity this professional jester often slips into his songs. It’s easy to miss if you’re laughing all the time, and I think he plans it that way.

Never one to let life get too serious, Otway regaled us with his old stories and firm favourites like his hilarious rendition of Blockbuster and, of course, his Cumbrian dad’s Space Oddity was a no-brainer for such an occasion. One of my most enduring memories of that whole special day was of my other half laughing for a full half hour straight as John reminded us that music and mirth make good bedfellows.

Like all good starters, both acts were finished just as I was getting a taste for them, but I was far from full and eagerly anticipating the main course as the funniest man in rock left the stage to raucous and heartfelt applause.

The Thin White Duke’s Shadow

At last the big day dawned, cold and bright.

After all the hype, the uncertainty and the tireless campaigning of Sue and Dave Stopps, the world’s first statue of the late David Bowie was finally revealed, in the seemingly peculiar setting of Aylesbury’s market square.

That Sunday afternoon was the culmination of a long fundraising and planning campaign to have this legendary musician’s cultural contribution honoured in bronze, and also to highlight this market town’s significant yet unsung contribution to modern music.

For anyone who’s not familiar with the story, the legendary venue of Friars Aylesbury is where Ziggy Stardust made his first appearance here on Earth, while the Spiders from Mars were born in the long-demolished dressing room.

This was all before my time, although that early wave of live music legends cemented

The Earthly Messenger

Aylesbury’s unlikely reputation on the gig circuit, ensuring I had easy access to a whole host of brilliant and innovative acts when my turn came around. Looking back now, I sometimes find it hard to believe just how lucky I was.

Like so many sons of this small but sparkling jewel in Britain’s musical crown, I was only too happy to answer the call when the appeal was launched to honour one of this nation’s most remarkable, innovative and enduring musical performers. Although I’d never had the privilege of watching Bowie perform live, I gained a great deal of personal satisfaction from helping to preserve and promote this legend’s legacy after his premature passing.

So that’s how I, along with a crowd of other sponsors, musicians and well-wishers, ended up standing under the arches beside Aylesbury Crown Court on that chilly spring morning.

There’s often good reason to criticise local authorities as obstructive and bureaucratic, but Aylesbury had gone all out on this one. The Market Square, already immortalised in Marillion’s debut single, became a musical focal point once again as the air shimmered with an LED archive of Bowie’s timeless videos and live performances. Local rockers the Callow Saints put in a terrific performance to entertain the crowd, but with the great man never far from the stage, it wasn’t quite clear who was supporting who. It’s really something to be headlining from beyond the grave.

There was an expectant air as we huddled beneath those arches, staring at a custom printed cover all set to reveal the Earthly Messenger to the waiting world. As the clock struck two, both Steve Hogarth (Marillion) and Howard Jones tugged on the string…and nothing happened. It’d worked flawlessly during rehearsal, but that’s showbiz for you. I’m sure David was having a rueful chuckle somewhere in music heaven.

The applause rose quickly, and I joined in as I realised I wasn’t looking at a single image of the great man, but several. Ziggy Stardust floated, in the air, somehow suspended in time as the Thin White Duke looked on, finally at home with himself and his accomplishments.

A sweeping bronze chorus line of Bowie’s other incarnations spiralled across the wall behind, reminding the world of the master performer’s constant creativity and re-invention.

Sculptor Andrew Sinclair explained how he wanted to capture as many faces of Bowie as possible, as his long and varied career meant that his identity was forever shifting in the minds of his audience. How we remember him often depends on the time and place we first crossed paths, be it on the turntable, through the radio or the internet.

Speaking of the internet, social media went crazy of course, with comments both for and against the Earthly Messenger raging back and forth across Facebook and Twitter, the forever homes for malcontents and could’ve-beens. Some bright spark has already defaced this privately funded endeavour with a political message about homelessness, and I’ve read several online rants about wasting public money. However, they are all wrong. This project was funded entirely by a group of people who wanted to honour one of the twentieth century’s most recognisable men. Clearly some in this world are just too embittered to endure anything that isn’t about them. Well, I’m sorry you didn’t get as famous as David Bowie but you’re just not talented or creative enough. Your ill-informed, pinch-faced scribblings are easily erased.

As for me, I think Bowie’s memorial is as bold and striking as the man and his music had always been. He was never afraid to take chances both with his image and his reputation, and I think that pioneering, risk-taking spirit is expressed perfectly in this unconventional dedication to that most unconventional of pop icons. Really, it could not have been otherwise.

I for one am extremely proud that my name will forever be seen in the Thin White Duke’s shadow.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 5

Depeche Mode

Every once in a while, an avid music fan is lucky enough to catch a band at the very peak of their pomp. While it’s great to find exciting up-and-coming acts and somehow more real to see performers once the media machine has discarded them, sometimes we hit that sweet spot. Ironically, we’re often ignorant of that truth at the time.

That’s what happened to me when I saw Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace in July 1993. Still riding high on the huge success of Violator and touring to promote Songs of Faith and Devotion, this once plastic synthpop band from the early eighties had somehow transformed itself into a worldwide musical phenomenon.

If I’m honest, I don’t really know what I was expecting because I’d turned out as much to see the Sisters of Mercy in support as I had to see the headline band. After all, that kind of combination doesn’t come along every day and so I jumped at the chance of getting two for the price of one.

As the light faded and the boys from Basildon took to the stage, I quickly realised that I was witnessing something far greater than just a few blokes twiddling with keyboards: this was an all-out musical assault by a band of hardened professionals who’d honed their skills both in the studio and on the touring circuit.

I remember being blown away by the sound quality, innovative use of video and the sheer energy and excitement of the crowd; something I’d only really experience at rock gigs before then. If Dave Gahan was on something that night, it was still during those early days when energy and endurance are enhanced and the piper is still totting up his bill for the user.

It was really terrific to hear all those old hit singles remixed and re-delivered, yet still so comfortingly familiar as to create a slightly disconcerting effect where it was difficult to reconcile the live experience of the moment with the countless years of radio repetition that had burrowed deep into my brain.

For me, the standout moments were the band’s performances of Enjoy the Silence and Stripped, both of which are considered by many to be the finest recordings of those two singles ever made. The video of a hand writing the word “stripped” over and over is one of the simplest and most impressive effects I’ve ever seen at a live show.

Although I’m sure they’re still very good now, I don’t think I’d want to watch Depeche Mode again today. I want to remember them as the conquering heroes who held the world in the palms of their hands, standing high on the crest of a wave that was always destined to crash upon the gently declining shores of age and familiarity.

I know they continue to tour and attract huge worldwide audiences, and so they should, but sometimes a kind of magic chemistry occurs between band and audience. Like a user forever chasing that first high, the wise music fan knows that any attempt to recapture those few golden hours will inevitably end in disappointment.

I’ll leave Depeche Mode as I found them, in a place where age, scandal and mediocrity can never diminish them.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 6

John Foxx & Louis Gordon

Just like my previous posting in this series, John Foxx is another legendary musician I just assumed I’d never get to hear play live. In this case it was a simple accident of birth, with my being a little too young to go out gigging while he was on the road.

By the autumn of 1997 I was well into my twenties, and by sheer blind luck I passed the now demolished Duchess in Leeds and caught sight of his name on the upcoming gig list. Naturally I was through the door in seconds, and I’ll never forget the barman’s world-weary roll of the eyes as he confirmed that yes, it was the John Foxx, and yes, I could buy advance tickets.

Next thing I knew, I was standing on the street with tickets in hand, less than five minutes after first glancing through that window. Needless to say, the next couple of weeks really seemed to drag as the gig slowly approached.

At last the great day came, and I recall an unexpected feeling of trepidation creeping over me as I waited for the maestro of discordant harmonies to grace the Duchess’ tiny stage. Would he be any good? Could he be any good? How could a middle-aged bloke hiding behind a keyboard expect to engage even an expectant and partisan audience like this one? After all, although Foxx is a fine lyricist and a musical visionary, he’s not exactly a rock front man. How would he pull it off?

As the lights dimmed and both Foxx and Gordon appeared in logo-less black polo necks, my questions about how the great man would win us over were instantly answered.

He used his music. What else?

As the first thumping techno beats of unfamiliarity gradually morphed into the iconic Burning Car, I began to realise I was witnessing something very special. This was John Foxx 2.0; remixed, re-engineered and reimagined for the coming millennium. Unchanged and yet enhanced, balancing both the security of the familiar and the shock of the new by creating a perfect equilibrium between those opposing poles.

With a dizzying array of cutting-edge equipment somehow spliced together with older, more outdated devices, firm favourites were remixed and repackaged; new and improved, yet always faithful to the established and trusted brand.

The King is dead, long live the King!

It’s striking that among all the technological wizardry, one of the things that impressed me most is just how well both Foxx and Gordon could sing and harmonise live on the hoof, especially during those oddly melancholy and off-key moments which are his hallmark.

Foxx and Gordon were nothing short of triumphant conquerors that night, reminding an increasingly pushbutton industry that there’s more to electronic music than simply assembling files. Although the output may be digitised for the information age, Foxx’s great strength has always been that his synthesised concoctions spring from the heart and soul of a true artist.

Long may he reign.