Updated: May 10, 2020
Janet Kay, Carroll Thompson and Glenn Tilbrook on the same bill is an impressive line-up for any festival, even more so for a five-year-old local arts festival in south east London. But Sydenham’s tiny Home Park on Sunday night featured all three in a free concert to close off the fifth Sydenham Arts Festival. The few hundred of us there were given a treat.
I wandered down there with my wife and the kids – the kids complaining about being dragged to “mum and dad’s music” – in time to catch the second half of Kay and Thompson’s set, and the sounds of lovers rock pulsing out on a warm, damp evening made quite an impact. I caught my wife’s eye and we both had a bit of a well-up – daft really but the sound really took us back to a different place and time many years ago.
Neither of us were big on the lovers rock scene, but this music was everywhere when we were growing up. You didn’t have to be ‘into it’, you just knew it and hearing classics such as Thompson’s I’m So Sorry again made us realise their enduring quality. Like much of the best music, we realised we’d taken it for granted because it was just so good.
Lovers rock is a genre you don’t tend to hear much these days, even in an age where the past is more heavily-mined than ever. I’ve often wondered if, despite all the talk of the capital’s dominance, that’s because it was originally a London thing, more specifically a product of the sound systems in south London in the 1970s. And something that was a genuine product of the streets – music that was ours and was always around us, even if ‘we’ were suburban white kids.
Both Thompson and Kay still move around the stage like the Queens of lovers rock they are while also exuding a real warmth and appreciation of their audience, and their voices are as good as they ever were. Both too, as you’ll see from their websites, are still heavily involved in a whole range of creative activities. Inevitably, the set finished with Kay’s classic Silly Games, the first song by a black British reggae artist to top the UK charts and still an absolute classic.
Headliner Glenn Tilbrook fetched up with his new band The Fluffers, delighted to play a gig in the park in front of the flats where his gran and grandad used to live and opposite the flat above a kebab shop where, back in the day, Squeeze and Japan stared at each other from opposite sides of the room at a party. I need little persuading to go and see Tilbrook, Chris Difford or anyone connected with Squeeze play live, and I’ve waxed lyrical (see what I did there?) about them before. But there’s always a fear that seeing a veteran favourite live will prove once too much. I needn’t have worried.
Tilbrook and The Fluffers turned in a set of infectious joyfulness that mixed new numbers with classic Squeeze tunes. So alongside tunes from new album Happy Ending we got Slap n Tickle, Goodbye Girl, Labelled with Love and Annie Get Your Gun. Tilbrook paced the set by throwing in a beautifully melancholy, stripped-back version of Up The Junction, and he and the band finished the set with a jam reaching back all the way to the first Squeeze album and Take Me I’m Yours. That extended take included Tilbrook demonstrating the quality of his voice with a short burst of Loving You, the Minnie Ripperton classic that was Kay’s first hit, and the band making sure I’ll never be able to listen to Daft Punk in quite the same way again by throwing in “I’m up all night to get fluffy”.
There were a few technical glitches, and the crowd was neither as big or as warmed up as it could have been, but this was still a triumphant romp, rounded off with a tightly-coiled rendition of Pulling Mussells From A Shell.
If the Sydenham Arts Festival can build on this first evening concert next year, it will deserve a far bigger crowd than witnessed Sunday’s effort. And, as someone who has done that thing of crossing the river from where I grew up in north London, I appreciate exactly how much it means for my adopted manor to be able to hold its head high on the capital’s cultural scene.
Our kids hated it, which is as it should be. Music means most when it’s yours, and our kids will discover and love their own sounds for their own reasons. Maybe they’ll remember and come to appreciate some of what they heard when they were young in later years, as we did – and if they do, they might happen upon a similarly perfect evening in the unlikeliest of places too.