’80s Rewind Festival’ sees ten pastel and shoulder-pad legends live in Durban for a night of hits featuring Rick Astley, Marc Almond, Howard Jones, Midge Ure, Village People – and Imagination frontman Leee Johns.
First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 02/05.
The marketing blurb for “80s Rewind” calmly notes that the line-up has, collectively, sold in excess of 300 million albums, and the set-list reads like the nostalgic mix tape the show promises to be: “Just An Illusion”, “Never Gonna Give You Up”, “Tainted Love”, “Vienna”, “Look Of Love”, “Wouldn’t It Be Good”, “We Close Our Eyes” and “YMCA”. Yes, people, also on the bill are The Village People, Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet, Nik Kershaw, ABC and Go West. Ten of the top ’80s and New Wave bands in South Africa for one night only. With the possible exception of Rick Astley, who has casually and comfortably morphed into a mix between serious singer and internet meme, and Marc Almond, who has established a critically acclaimed series of projects like recording Soviet folk songs and setting the poems of Verlaine and Rimbaud to music, most of the stars of “Rewind” need to zip back in time for the audiences to know where they are now.
“What have I been doing since the 1980s?” says Leee Johns from London in a voice that still contains the cheekiness of Imagination’s ever-more-daring, and revealing, stage outfits. “Oh my god, so many things – we have to go backwards to best explain that. I was in South Africa in 2009 for SOS Children – they’re a foundation supporting orphans, and I’m a patron for them, doing work around the world to raise money (John’s book ‘From Within the Heart’ chronicles this trip). I re-acquainted myself with some DJ friends and other people in South Africa who I’d met when I came out to do a big tour in the ’90s with Atlantic Starr. That was amazing! We were there for about five weeks and it was one of my best experiences – there was so much press and so much TV and we felt so much love for South Africa.”
“Rewind” was started in Henley-on-Thames in England in 1999 and attracted a surprise crowd of 30 000 people. It sold out in 2000, after which it was launched as a touring show to eager crowds across the United Kingdom and beyond, apparently boasting “the biggest line-up of artists since LiveAid”. In South Africa, response has been good, with the only complaints being that the ’80s hitmakers are only playing in Durban. Despite this, pockets of ’80s fever sweeping the country, with fans making plans for the trek to KwaZulu-Natal. While Spandau Ballet hosted a successful concert in Gauteng last year, and Midge Ure has ties with South Africa as a co-organiser of Live 8, it is arguable John who has the most frequent interactions with the African continent, beyond the memorable visit to South Africa by Imagination in 1994.
As ambassador for SOS Children, he was in Zambia last year to film a documentary, and also recorded a version of Stevie Wonder’s “Vision” with Mike Lindup (Level 42) to promote the organisation. During a South African tour in 1994, John dined at the Mandela house, apparently striking up a friendship with Zinzi Mandela, and later doing work for Operation Hungers. He also fondly remembers a visit to Cape Town’s Waterfront “with its wonderful working port, and great fish restaurants” – and the stark contrast of this when set against his visits to Langa and Thornton.
In their heyday, Imagination had chart hits in 28 countries, earned four platinum and nine gold records and was one of the most successful dance bands of that decade. Now the gold loincloth and suggestive dances of the 80s have been replaced by a more tailored look, but John continues a range of musical and creative work.
“I had a successful career in the ’90s, starting with a chat show at the end of the ’80s, and doing a variety of eclectic things,” he begins. These included spots on “Dr Who”, a number of Dance Chart and club hits (like “Let There Be Love”, “Mighty Power of Love”, “Call On Me” and “Your Mind Your Body Your Soul”) as well as writing songs for Maxi Priest, Shakatak and Club 69 amongst others. There have also been tours with both Imagination and the Leee Johns Project to the Soviet Union, the Middle and Far East, across Europe and the USA – and to Tahiti, where he met the country’s president. In 2005, he released “Feel My Soul”, a jazz album intended to explore new vocal vistas for the singer. He is also currently completing “Flashback”, a documentary series on the United Kingdom’s black musicians, producers and songwriters, which will be released as a commercial film, but also to educational facilities.
“There are so many other things, like a great duet of the Jamaican reggae singer, Junior Murvin’s ‘Police & Thieves’, that I recorded with Neville Staple, of The Specials, that we did before the riots came to the UK,” he says. “Later on this year, there’s the Imagination greatest hits video compilation, and we’ll be doing a lot of live shows around the world for celebrating 30 years with the band.”
What can South African audiences expect from his contribution to “80s Rewind”? “I love audience participation,” he says immediately. “When an artist performs, it’s about what you give to the fans, and what they give back to you. My website and my Facebook page are all fan-based and fan-run – these are friends who have introduced me to the 21st Century and remind me of how important the audience is to what we do. I’ve played often with Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet and with ABC so it should be a lot of fun. People also still keep asking me what costume I will be wearing – and they’ll just have to wait and see.”
* WIN: Leee John is also offering South African fans a chance to win his “The Fascination of The Physical” album, never before released in South Africa. To win one of five albums, simply send an email with the subject “Leee John Fascination” to email@example.com
and answer this simple question: when and where is “80s Rewind” taking place in South Africa. Entries close on Wednesday 15 February at 5pm.First appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” of 2012/ 02/05.