Back in the days when the “M” in “MTV” actually meant something, teenagers all over the country depended on a weekly syndicated show to get their fix of the newest music from the UK. Sure, kids in New York, Chicago, and LA had stations that played the latest hits from across the Atlantic, but for most of us, we had to rely on “Rock Over London” and host Graham Dene.
Each week, Dene introduced us to bands too obscure for your average radio station. It was where a lot of us first heard about The Smiths, Tears for Fears, and scores of other bands that would eventually become hugely popular after finally being picked up by MTV. I rushed to the radio every Sunday night to tune to K-102 in Miami to pop in a cassette and record what would be my soundtrack for the next seven days.
It was because of “Rock Over London” that I jumped up and did what I’m sure was a ridiculous looking happy dance when I first heard the announcement of the Retro Futura tour. I had discovered Howard Jones, Paul Young, and The English Beat on the show back when I was an awkward music nerd, and I couldn’t believe they were all a part of the same tour.
But it wasn’t just those three acts, Katrina Leskanich (of Katrina and the Waves), Modern English, and Men Without Hats were also slated to perform at The State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ. As someone who used to spend an embarrassing amount of time schlepping to the only decent record store in Dade County to pick up UK imports and copies of Smash Hits magazine, I’m pretty sure my heart stopped for a minute.
The crowd at the State Theater last week initially seemed like a bit of a mixed bag. There were more than a few people there only to see one or two bands and a few miserable looking kids who had obviously been dragged there by their parents. The rest of the crowd looked pretty excited, but I wasn’t sure if they would be excited enough to justify me standing up and dancing all night. I didn’t want to be the lone person dancing because that person always looks kind of dumb.
Katrina walked on stage to a half-filled theater. The show’s 7 PM start time likely made it difficult for some people to make their way through rush hour traffic before she started her set. Yet despite facing quite a few empty seats, she put on an energetic four-song performance that had the crowd on its feet for her finale, the 1985 chart-topper, “Walking on Sunshine.”
I was surprised to discover the second act on the bill was Paul Young. I expected the singer to be further in the lineup, based on a string of hit singles in the 80’s. It wasn’t until I really thought about it that I remembered that while Young had a slew of hits in the UK, he only had a few hits in the US. Nonetheless, he merited more than a four song set. Young had seven songs in the Billboard Hot 100, but three top twenty singles, and the number one smash, “Every Time You Go Away.” He’s also an incredibly dynamic performer.
I should probably admit that I had more than a few Paul Young posters on my wall as a teenager, so I might be slightly biased. His show in 1985 tour at the Sunrise Musical Theater was one of the best concerts I saw in that decade. He was just as charismatic on stage last week as he was back when I could wallpaper my room and not get an argument from my husband for doing so. His short set included his first US single, “Come Back and Stay,” “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down,” and “Some People.” He closed out the set with the previously mentioned, “Every Time You Go Way.”
There was a bit of a break as the stage crew swapped out instruments to set up for Modern English. My only real experience with Modern English in the 80’s was their dreamy single, “I Melt With You,” which I first discovered on the “Valley Girl” soundtrack. That song continues to be the only reason I still look at Nicholas Cage fondly, despite all evidence suggesting I should not.
Modern English was one of the bands to perform on the first 80’s Cruise, and they won me over with their two absurdly entertaining sets. I went through their back catalog and decided they were robbed in the 1980’s. They should have gotten a lot more airplay on radio and MTV.
This six-song set included songs from their earlier albums and one new track, “Moonbeam” from their recently released record, “Take Me to the Trees.” If you have complained recently that there’s no good music anymore, download the new album. You won’t be disappointed.
Up next was the one band that regularly got me weird looks when I would bring them up at parties. The English Beat, known simply as “The Beat” in the UK, may not have seen a lot of chart success in the US, but they had a rabid fan base thanks to their catchy songs that fused punk with ska and reggae. It wasn’t until the band members broke up in the mid-80’s and formed two separate bands – General Public and The Fine Young Cannibals – that a lot of Americans went back to discover their earlier work.
Dave Wakeling was the sole remaining member of the original group on stage, but he had assembled an energetic group of musicians to join him. It wasn’t the first time San Diego reggae singer, King Schascha, had toured with Wakeling and he proved to be almost as important as the lead singer. He didn’t just fill the spot vacated long ago by Ranking Roger; he brought a unique and infectious energy. The band performed six songs including English Beat favorites, “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “I Confess” along with the General Public hit, “Tenderness.”
The next band to take the stage was Men Without Hats. The band is best known for their 1983 hit, “The Safety Dance,” but also scored a top 20 hit at the end of the decade with the peppy single, “Pop Goes the World.” Lead singer, Ivan Doroschuk, proved to be animated and lively. The crowd responded in kind, even if most of them only knew his one big hit.
There was much longer break between Men Without Hats and headliner, Howard Jones. The singer and keyboardist seemed an unlikely star when he first hit the airwaves with 1984’s, “What is Love?”. At a time when pop stars were frequently pin-ups, Jones came more across as your geeky best friend with the keytar than a global hitmaker. Nonetheless, while many of those new wave acts struggle to tour outside of Europe, Jones continues to enjoy a sizable following here in the States.
The last few times Jones has toured the US, he’s done so with only Jonathan Atkinson on drums and Robbie Bronnimann on keyboards. This time around, he’s added Emily Dolan Davies on electric percussion and brought back Robin Boult on guitars. Boult has worked with Jones on and off for a good portion of the star’s career. The additional musicians gave Jones’s set a more dynamic, substantial sound and feel.
Being part of a larger tour meant Jones had to pare back his set list. Gone were most of the tracks from his recent releases as he stuck mostly to the songs that were chart successes. The sole exception was, “The Human Touch” from 2015’s album, “Engage.” Even if the song was unfamiliar to most of the audience, it was a good fit with the rest of the set.
Jones’s ten song performance leaned heavily on his first two albums, 1984’s, “Human’s Lib” and “Dream Into Action,” released the following year. The crowd danced and sang along to hits like, “Like to Get to Know You Well,” “New Song,” and the ballad, “No One is to Blame.” His encore featured a reworked version of “Things Can Only Get Better” and had the entire audience chanting along, “oh, oh, oooh” that was the hallmark of the song.
By the time he left the stage, the crowd of mostly forty and fifty-year-olds was exhausted. It was way past most of their bed times, and it had been a fairly long evening. They may have left the venue ready to hit the sheets, but they left chatting happily about the bands they had just seen. For most of the audience, it was the first time they’d had the opportunity to see those Rock Over London bands and it was a show they wouldn’t soon forget.