Secret Affair/Squire @The Arts Centre Norwich 04/05 2019

3 stars (out of 5)

0

Saturday night in downtown Norwich is a pretty wild affair down by the river. According to a local JP (sez our taxi driver), 75% of plod in Norfolk is gathered in this 200 yard stretch on a Saturday night into the wee hours.

So it was a quite lovely thing to tie the boat up and leave it to whatever fate had in store for it whilst we headed for the opposite side of town. The Arts Centre is one of those old, ecclesiastical buildings which, although wonderful, begs the question ‘what do we do with it?’ So ‘turn it into a multi-purpose performance space’ seems an excellent solution all round.

First up on an ‘all mod cons’ card, Squire. A tidy little three piece who have worked hard to earn that most unwanted of tags – ‘nearly men’.

As the 70’s tipped over into the 80’s, there was a collective sense of ‘what the hell do we do now?’ for the trad guitar drums and vocal set-up. Punk – the ‘commercial’ bits of it anyway – had morphed into power pop, amongst many diverse other things, ska was busily rejoicing in a second coming and electro and new romantics were just starting to make waves.

Glen Matlock, newly fired from the Sex Pistols, formed The Rich Kids with Midge Ure and had a couple of hits. The Undertones headed in a ‘poppier’ direction than was suggested by the crunching guitar on ‘Teenage Kicks’ and one of the weirder abominations of a very confused time, The Pleasers, a bunch of pretend Beatles in preposterous 60’s suits and shoes signed to Arista records, if memory serves me right, for stupendous amounts of money, none of which would be coming back once the punters had seen through the trick. And in the States, The Knack was pulling off a similar trick with the admittedly irresistible ‘My Sharona’.

And as Ska dragged Trojan-style reggae back through the door for a welcome reprise, The Jam’s massive success, fronted by the massively influential ‘modfather’, Paul Weller, meant that all and sundry record company A and R types were running around like headless chickens looking for bands who could straddle the 60’s retro, mod, power pop, post punk power vacuum. And as The Knack had shown, taking “Sharona” to Number 1 and staying there for the best part of a couple of months in the USA, if you got it right, the rewards were beyond human comprehension.

With me so far?

Right. So…

Squire so very nearly ‘made it’ to the top table, they really did. Two singles, “My Mind Goes Round In Circles” and particularly “Walking Down the King’s Road”, became big airplay hits and so very nearly delivered that elusive hit that opens all the doors. Recorded for the same label which pressed Secret Affair’s cuts and indeed produced by Ian Page and Dave Cairns, the two main men from the above mentioned, they were in the right place at the right time for teenage music fans looking for that smartly-dressed retro thing. However, much though their sound chimed in with the mod’s second coming, they were actually more a cross between power pop and that paisley-shirted Californian sunshine pop sound. Anthony Meynell’s jingle-jangle Rickenbacker is solidly backed by a really crisp rhythm section, especially enhanced by the fab harmonies from the bass player and the onstage sound is really ‘clean’; and all the tunes, be they from singles, album tracks or recent stuff, fit together in a coherent and very listenable way.

But the problem now was the problem then; there’s no ‘killer’ track to provide the hit which then opens the floodgates for less memorable tunes to do the heavy lifting to sustain the ‘career’ and get the airplay to sell more albums. So, they will probably always live in that unenviable box marked ‘nearly men’; but for all that, they were a really pleasant listen, and you could see why the Secret Affair lads felt they were worth the time, back in the day and indeed now.

Anyway, Time for Action.

On troop Secret Affair and once again on the occasion of a celebration of 40 years of their hit album ‘Glory Boys’, we are reminded 1979 is a very long time ago. In their sharp mohair suits and stylish shirts, they look like a bunch of retired London gangsters fronted by a grumpy deputy headmaster. But you can’t help that, that’s what happens.

But the sound. It is AWFUL. Off we go with “Dance Master” and “Walk Away” and it’s just a muddy mess with Ian Page frantically gesticulating to the backstage (or as frantically as super-cool mods gesticulate) to give him more volume. Dave Cairns repeatedly peels off into the wings to fiddle with various bits of kit and the keyboard player just seems to be swamping everything with great doomy chunks of Procol Harum. Things hit something of a stride when Page lets rip on Smokey Robinson’s mod anthem “Going To a Go-Go” but even then the phrasing seems a bit odd and he sings like a man who can’t quite hear himself and to be honest, stir in a three piece horn section blowing up a somewhat unbalanced storm and, well….

The horn section finally got working on “All the Rage” and from this point on, things started looking up. A quicksilver solo from Dave Cairns, a proverbial master of the Telecaster, dovetailed neatly into a tidy faux-Hammond solo with distinctly jazzy overtones and you could be forgiven to thinking these lads have definitely ‘grown’ in terms of musical ambition and accomplishment. The band’s cover of Junior Walker’s “Roadrunner” is another interesting one. As a very young man, as he was when the hits happened, Ian Page’s top-end foghorn of a voice was strident to a fault and could catch the attention of the terminally hard of hearing on the worst radio in the world but at the best part of sixty, his voice still has that hard, steely edge which means that, on songs like this, he sounds in part like an old style blues and soul ‘shouter’, but with slightly strange phrasing, which means you either like or actively dislike their cover of this song. I will admit I liked it but not as much as the crackling, stomping ‘dance hall’ version of arguably the greatest gem in the Northern Soul vault, Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You” which was famously condemned to the Detroit dustbin having ‘sold’ about 3 copies ‘back in the day’. Now TV commercials fight over the rights. You just never know.

‘No Doctor’ sees the band getting seriously warmed up for the sprint to the finish and then indeed comes the four – card trick to guarantee the encore.

First of all it’s a gripping version of their hit “Sound Of Confusion”, which seems, in the strange way that this sometimes happens, as fresh and as relevant now as it did then. The church-style keyboards at the beginning give the whole thing a sort of gothic shadowing, which works well on stage. And then – straight into the anthemic and authentic mod call-to-arms, “Time For Action”. Page can’t help but laugh as the crowd, who by now are moshing away merrily in significant numbers in this standing-only venue, sing all the difficult bits for him in a time-honoured call and response stylee. And at the end it’s all ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ and gloriously messy, as the original single. What a joy it is to have a genuine ANTHEM in your locker.

This morphs into a personal fave of mine, “Let Your Heart Dance”, the hit follow-up which I got as a picture-sleeved demo. During the thunderous tom-tom breaks on this one, Page leads the crowd on bits of “Land Of A Thousand Dances” and, inexplicably, “Let’s Twist Again” (Let’s not!) before blasting towards the finish line.

The band knows they’re on the home stretch now and the show starts to glow with that sort of joy in performance which has been conspicuous by absence so far. And at that point they pull a rabbit out of the hat. The main man from the Purple Hearts, another ‘nearly but not quite’ band if ever there was one, leapt onto the stage and led the band in a spirited and stirring blast through their two mod nearly-hits, “Jimmy” and “Millions Like Us” before Page takes back the reins and drives it breathlessly home for their probably most remembered ‘pop’ hit, “My World”, which once again and in fairness has aged very well. In a ‘retro’ sort of way.

Off they go and back for a rather forgettable encore of title track “Glory Boys” and “I’m Not Free (But I’m Cheap)”. But by that time they’d delivered the goods in a well-judged half hour which had punters smiling on their way out into the rain and in many cases I suspect to a big Northern Soul DJ mash-up at Carrow Road as part-celebration of Norwich’s return to the Premiership.

Sound of Conclusions? It was pretty good, but the messy, uncoordinated early section of the gig compromised things for me more that a bit. And Squire? Well, yes, all very lovely but they needed that ‘killer tune’ in the set for the rest to coalesce around and in the fatal words of the A and R man for many a band’s career, ‘I don’t hear a single’. Which you can’t say for Secret Affair. And the Mods still love them. And why shouldn’t they? And if for no other reason, Secret Affair should be congratulated on surviving ‘King’s new clothes syndrome’ back in 1979 to still be in a position to celebrate 40 years of “Glory Boys” in 2019 with such aplomb. And that, in itself, is no mean feat.

Steve Jenner, (with Quiz Of The Week – live from Norwich!)