Here he comes, the Mirror Man. He looks like a Hollywood-movie spook these days. Trim and toned in a long black coat, black leather gloves, dark shades, pale grey suit and a skinny tie. No more half-head of jet black hair cascading over half a made-up face. Now Phil Oakey is shaven-headed and lipstick-free. He means business.
But if it seems he’s not the one we used to know, an old friend left behind long ago, just look at the swifts scudding in the vanilla sky above Kew Gardens and listen. What a voice. Rich and deep one minute, powerful and urgent the next. The voice that changed everything. Instantly familiar.
And when it hurts you know they love to tell you. Until then it was all pounding drums and guitar solos for me. After that it was Roland synthesisers and metallic drum machines all the way.
She was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar back then. Now Susan, like Joanne, is 50. They're still dancing their gloriously uncoordinated dances, thighs out, arms in the air, as energetic as though they were still on the pull at the Crazy Daisy nightclub in Sheffield in 1979. But even then they knew they’d have a much better life. They gave us one, too. Not just at Kew but on and off for the last thirty years. Everything would have been just a bit duller without Open Your Heart, Being Boiled, Fascination and The Sound of Crowd.
The live show is slick, between-song banter kept to a minimum. This is no rose-tinted nostalgia fest. The songs sound as good now as they did then. The pared-down stage of white synthesisers on a white plinth as clean and crisp as the iconic cover of Dare in 1981.
Three large portrait video screens behind them show images to complement the music, the best a black and white stills montage of world leaders' faces from history merging into one another behind Sound of the Crowd. The Lebanon never made much sense but the Middle East catastrophes of today make it as current affairsy as ever.
But they’re only Human, a song that Phil, gloves and coat now discarded, introduced on the night as a band-saver. In the States and on the rocks in 1986, the League turned to those R&B dudes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They come up with a song that went to number one in the US and top ten in the UK. Not their greatest by any means but memorable for another spoken bit, this time from Joanne. I forgive you now and ask the same of you. While we were apart I was human too. You can take a girl out of the cocktail bar but you can’t take the cocktail bar out of the girl.
The greenhouse windows wobbled to the singalong throng when Don't You Want Me closed the show. And just as we were wondering what was left for the encore, Phil, now 57, proved again what a visionary he has always been. In a summer when Daft Punk have taken over the world with a sound inspired by Giorgio Moroder, the song Moroder wrote with Oakey in 1984, Together in Electric Dreams, brought the Palm House down.
So we danced on our picnic blankets, kicked over our half-full plastic glasses of cava, trod in what was left of our M&S snacks and remembered what it was like to be surprised by someone’s lies, however far it seems. We oohed and aahed at the fireworks at the end and threaded our way through the gardens to Kew Bridge swigging what was left in the bottle.
Yes, Phil was right all along. Distance heals the strongest pain. Things are much better now. Not even a nagging doubt remains.
Here's a link to the 12-song setlist.