Take That at the O2, Sunday, 5th of May, 2019

‘Cause we’re all stars
For one last night
For all of time
A hundred years
A million more
I’m by your side

Take That, “Everlasting”

The greatest pop music has the ability to capture eternity in a single moment. It lets you exist simultaneously in the vibrant, dazzling NOW at the same time as transporting you to days, hours, minutes from decades ago. And I’ve never experienced a gig which epitomised this time-travelling power as brilliantly as Take That’s Odyssey show.

This was an evening of equal parts nostalgia and celebration. With alarming accuracy, this show managed to pierce the veneer of foggy memory and brought me back to points in the past with shining clarity, from 1994 to 2006 to 2017 and beyond. This evening’s Odyssey was almost perfect in its encapsulation of everything that matters so much about the band, and why so many of us have stuck with them for (almost!) 30 years.

My love for TT has had its ups and downs over the years. Almost 30 years ago, in the early 90s, I was determinedly an indie kid. In 1992 I fell in love with the shoegazing scene dominated by bands like Ride, and in 1993 my whole world was changed by Suede and, especially, the Manic Street Preachers. Boys with guitars were all I cared about, and the shiny, seemingly superficial world of commercial pop made little impact on my life.

And then, in 1994, Take That happened to me, and I realised just what I was missing out on. A few months before I turned 20, I realised just how much fun being a teenager could be when a boy band like this existed in the world. Yes, timing has never been my strong suit, especially as their split occurred less than two years later. And unfortunately for me, most of their time as a reformed band occurred during my foolish 30s, when I was largely uninterested in music, and so I missed out on many incredible TT tours, to my eternal regret. But I’ve been making up for lost time since I turned 40, and have now seen them four times since 2017. Just in time for them to announce an impending hiatus following this tour. Did I mention my timing problem?

Although Odyssey is billed as a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the band – the original five having met in 1989 – their first TV appearance was not until 1990, meaning the longest anniversary any particular fan could be celebrating this year is 29 years. But as I became a fan in 1994, Odyssey coincides nicely with my quarter of a century of TT fandom. So despite having been initially put off by the prospect of shelling out over £100 to watch the boys from the back of the O2, that’s exactly what I did this sunny Bank Holiday evening. And it turned out to be one of the greatest gigs of my life.

I arrived at the O2 with time to spare so, after admiring the two-sided tribute board at North Greenwich station, I whiled away the time in a series of massive queues: first for merch, where I bought a highly impressive programme and the cutest mug in the world, then for the ladies (when will the O2 improve their woefully inadequate facilities?), and finally for the security check to get into the arena. I’d never had a ticket for anywhere other than the floor at the O2 before, and my chronic vertigo made the walk down the un-banisterred steps to my seat a wobbly one, but once there, I was very impressed with my view of the main stage, with its huge, globe-like centrepiece, as well as my proximity to the B stage. I settled myself down and prepared for the evening ahead.

My view on reaching my seat.

This feeling of time-travel started early with Rick Astley who bounded on stage at half past seven to the unmistakably exuberant SAW synths and drums of “Together Forever”. It’s hard to think of a more perfect opener for this tour, as he barrelled through a setlist full of his early poptastic hits mingled with his more soulful post-SAW tunes. And somehow, I never knew just how much I needed to be in the middle of a throng of thousands boogieing to “Never Gonna Give You Up”. Suddenly it was 1987, and we 40-somethings were lost in our reignited teen spirit. It was the most perfect opening this night of timeless pop.

As soon as Rick left the stage the Odyssey show began by stealth. The globe began flickering with waveforms and appropriately, what looked like the time travel vortex from Doctor Who. Every so often a snatch of speech could be heard, most notably the infamous phrase form Gary that shattered a million hearts at the point of TT’s split in 1996: “the rumours are true”. This display was, for many people in the crowd, the soundtrack for their last dash to the loo and bar, but I stayed in my seat to soak it in.

The mysterious globe flickers into life…

Which meant that by the time the lights went down and the choral refrain of “Never Forget” rang through the venue as the giant globe started to rotate to eventually reveal the three boys, my excitement levels were already off the charts, and for once the proclamation that “today this could be the greatest day of our lives” that followed felt truly earned. “Greatest Day” may be my least favourite Take That single, but this time I was well and truly up and dancing and throwing my arms in the air like I believed it. This was the power of the Odyssey show.

Visually, this show was stunning. The massive globe, on turning, revealed a cut out section which in all honestly, made it look like a giant Pac-Man, from which the boys repeatedly appeared. Onto this and behind it were projected a series of scenes. from disco-tastic dancers to a desert landscape to an actual Earth globe. This was hugely impressive, but the true spectacle of the evening was its note-perfect evocation of the history of the band. From the moment they descended from the mouth of the Pac-Man and launched into an energetic rendition of “It Only Takes A Minute”, every song attacked you with an army of memories. For me, I first encountered “It Only Takes A Minute” in a live rendition that accompanied the “Pray” single. At the time I’d deemed it “amusingly crap” but noted in my diary that it “at least makes up for its naff tune and overuse of the word “girl” by having some brilliant spiky techno noises in it”. At the O2, with those spiky techno noises in full blast and the entire stage lit up in blue and pink, it sounded pretty damn fantastic. It was followed by the more recent and utterly pristine pop of “These Days”.

“Could It Be Magic” was a joy – the first Take That song I ever heard, back in 1992, and while it did had not been enough then to catapult me out of my indie snobbery just yet, I remember thinking that this troupe of cutely impish lads were definitely on another level from recent boyband contenders such as NKOTB. Having whet our appetites with a previously Robbie-led song, we were then treated to the real thing – or as near as this Odyssey show was able to give us. The huge Pac-Man head swivelled back round to show a massive video, clearly filmed recently, of Robbie singing the first verse of “Everything Changes”, before swivelling back round to reveal the three present boys to take on the rest of the song. It was a hugely effecting moment, and a great way to acknowledge one of the two missing elements from the current TT line-up – the other, of course, being Jason, who has vanished so completely from public life that he was represented later only by a short segment of pictures and conversation snippets.

Over and over again, by some magic, I found myself reliving the moments I first heard each song as they came by. “Sure” was the first new song the boys released after I became a fan, when I was still living in Australia. There was an interminable wait for it to be locally released in those Spotify-free days, and when I finally got my hands on the single, I was impressed. I wrote in my diary: “I love it, it’s sort of narcissistically svelte and of course more stylish than in humanly possible and the video is the first of theirs I’ve seen in which they actually perform a choreographed dance routine which consists of much gloriously fishnetted thrusting and twirling and they really are the most wonderful pop group ever.” Here at the O2 it was glorious to witness that thrusting and twirling routine again – though sadly without the fishnet tops this time.

“A Million Love Songs” was a thing of sheer joy and wonder, with the crowd singing along to every “ooooh” and “oh yeah”, swaying along to the majestically emotive saxophone. And “Love Ain’t Here Anymore” brilliantly made use of the different voices of the three boys, with Mark and Howard sharing the second verse – though to be truthful, I’d have been happier if they’d taken a verse each. The three piece TT are by far their strongest when they work as the three equally and brilliantly talented performers that they are, rather than Gary and his backing singers.

At this point the huge screens turned to a desert landscape and three massive motorbikes descended from the ceiling onto which the boys gamely straddled and pretended to ride. This was for one of the three new songs on the “Odyssey” album, the buoyantly optimistic “Spin” with Howard on exuberant lead vocals. The concert was then elevated into even higher levels of euphoria as the boys launched into the frenetic “Cry”, which saw them sprinting down the side aisle to the B stage for its rave-tastic climax, and finally those of us in the seats at the back were able to get a closer look.

Next up on the B stage was “Said It All”, one of their most powerfully emotional songs, and I was so glad to be able to witness Mark singing his heart-breaking middle 8 at relatively close range. It was followed by “How Deep Is Your Love”, performed with a single guitarist, and of course it brought back less than great memories. It was their final single before their 1996 split, and I must admit that my diary entries from the time are very chaotic and emotional (sample: “all the nightmares came today… and it looks as though they’re here to stay”. Yes, I quoted Bowie in my despair at Take That’s split, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about my life as a music fan.) I did like their take on this Bee Gees tune at the time, though it’ll never go down as an utter classic amongst their covers in the way of “Could It Be Magic” or “Relight My Fire”. The live version here was quite lovely too, with Barry Gibb appearing on screen to warble a bit of the verses himself, which to be honest was not really necessary when you have three amazing voices available from the boys on stage.

Appropriately, once back on the main stage, we were thrust forward in time to their return ten years later (from my 2006 diary: “Take That! Take That are reforming! Touring in May! This is shaping up to be a fucking surreal year.“) “Patience” was followed by “The Flood” and “Back For Good” and you have to just stand in awe (swaying and singing along, of course) at band powered by a back catalogue so incredible that three entirely different, entirely classic songs can just casually follow one another like that.

And “Back For Good”. What is there to be said about such an iconic song? Of all Take That singles, this is the one I have the most vivid memory of the moment I first heard it. In the mid-90s I was still in my teenage bedroom in Perth, and obsessed as I was with the UK music scene, I would wake myself up at ungodly hours of the morning so that I could listen to the pop music programmes on BBC World Service. It was at one such bleary 2.45am in March 1995 when this song entered my life. I recorded that moment in my diary, of course. “It began with strings and strumming guitars (could it be Jason?!) perhaps a little tasteful, a little mature, but then the chorus comes in, and that gloroius moment in any first hearing of a TT song, the moment where the harmonies first appear. “I want you back! I want you back!” the boys trill, angelically. And by the second chorus, I am lost in it.” And I was very much lost in it once again at this gig, simultaneously at the O2 and in the teenage bedroom, hearing one of the greatest pop songs of all time, for the first time.

And speaking of classic pop songs, a new classic if there ever was one is “Everlasting”, Mark’s lead vocal of the three new Odyssey songs. It’s an utterly perfect encapsulation of the joy of pop music, of everything Odyssey represents, that unbreakable connection between bands and fans that can last decades: “every song that made us cry made the voices of our lives sing in harmony.” Watching the three boys sing this at the same mic, arms around each other, promising us eternity in an hour, was one of the emotional highlights of the evening.

The gig came to a riotous climax with “Giants”, “Shine” and “Never Forget”, the band again just throwing out classic pop singles as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. And then it’s only Lulu appearing at the top of the Pac-Man, dressed as a terrifying butterfly, cackling out her lines from “Relight My Fire” in demonic fashion. There was now a huge gospel choir on the stage, making this a more soulful and less disco rendition of the tune, but it was still a massive thrill for any TT fan to see this song sung with Lulu, just as it was in their 1994 tour, the video of which I watched more times that is probably strictly healthy back in the day.

And then… It pains me to say this, but at this point, the so far perfect show took a massive downturn. Not because of the next song, “Babe”, which was utterly divine, though somewhat ruined for me by some absolute idiots nearby who decided to carry on a loud conversation throughout the song. But following such a slow, melancholy tune with an even slower, even more melancholy version of “Pray” was a bizarre decision for the end of the show, when the crowd should really have been whipped up into outright frenzies of emotion and hysteria.

I wrote at length in my post about Take That’s recent show at the Royal Albert Hall just how much the original version of “Pray” and its dance routine mean to me. I will admit to being disappointed to learn that they were doing the slowed-down “Odyssey” version on the tour, but was willing to concede that the boys have a right to experiment and change things if they wish. And my apprehension was assuaged by the knowledge that they’d added an interpretation of “Pray”‘s lyrics using Makaton signs. I devoted the best part of the last decade of my life to studying the experience of music for deaf people, and it made me happy that the boys had added this inclusive element to one of my favourite songs of all time.

But I’m sad to say that it really, really did not work. The mood of the crowd, already muted after “Babe”, went into almost complete torpor during this second mournful song. But even more unforgivably, it was almost impossible from my vantage point to see what they were actually doing – and as I was in the first tier of seats, god only knows what the people on upper levels could make out. The stage was for some reason suddenly lit very dimly, and there was no projection onto the screen behind them. To include a signed language in a section of their show, but make it impossible for most of the crowd to actually see, was such a massive misstep that it boggles my mind that no one thought to point it out to them. It borders on disrespectful to the very people I assume it was aimed at – the deaf and hard of hearing, for whom visual communication is so important.

Happily, the night still ended on a high, with the most powerful, soul-stirring rendition of “Rule The World” I have had the privilege of witnessing. And despite the slight deflation of my mood at the end, I still left the O2 confident that I had just witnessed one of the best gigs of my life. One misstep aside, the Odyssey show is conclusive proof, as if any were needed, that Take That are not just the greatest pop group in the world, but one of the greatest of all time. With their unrivalled back catalogue of stunning, stirring, life-affirming pop songs, they deserve their place alongside ABBA, the Bee Gees and yes, even the Beatles. They truly are a ground-breaking band, in shattering the boundaries of what a boy band can achieve – and if that seems trivial, it’s only because the boy band world has never been sanctioned by the predominantly straight and male domain of music criticism. The experiences and opinions of millions of women and gay men, for whom Take That have been so hugely important over the past (almost!) 30 years, are everlasting proof of the significance of Take That in music history.

I don’t know how long it will be before I see Take That again, or in what form they (or I) will take when they return. The planned hiatus may span at least five or ten years, and what will a late 50s or 60-something boy band look like? But the one certain thing is that I feel incredibly lucky to have been the right age to have this band in my life from the 90s through to now, from my youth through to my 40s – even if I didn’t turn up for every album or every tour. For three decades, more or less, they’ve been providing us with the best thing in the world – brilliant, life-enhancing pop – and the world’s going to be just that bit more drab and monochrome, without another TT show to look forward to for the foreseeable future.

So to Mark, Howard and Gary, I hope you enjoy your well-deserved break after Odyssey. And when you’re ready to come back, we’ll be there, for one last night, and for all of time.

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