Being old is big business in live music nowadays, in a way it wasn’t even 25 years ago. When Take That were still a boy band in the early 1990s, as opposed to a man band, the idea that in middle age they would be one of the most successful live groups in Britain would have been laughable. Yet here they are, playing eight nights at the O2 Arena, making it a total of 34 shows they have played there since it opened, more than any other act.
Just as fanciful would have been the idea that Pink Floyd’s drummer could put together a group featuring Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, and tour the world performing only songs Pink Floyd recorded before 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, the ones his former bandmates David Gilmour and Roger Waters don’t play. Yet here they are, too.
The two shows are in some ways very similar. In neither instance is there the slightest interest in new music: Take That simply run through their recent greatest-hits album, Odyssey, in order (which is certainly one take on the heritage rock notion of the complete album performance); Mason’s is a delightful time machine to a distant past. In both there’s a very clear admission that these concerts are nostalgia vehicles: Take That come on stage in camped-up early-1990s sportswear; Mason’s group spend much of the set bathed in the oil-on-water projections on the back of the stage. Very 1967.
Take That’s music feels more current, not because they’re younger than Mason, but because their songs were never of a specific moment. Whereas current teen-pop trends always place themselves firmly in the now, Take That’s were always pastiches of classic styles and so were never dependent on context. The verses of ‘Never Forget’ are borrowed from Marvin Gaye; ‘Shine’ took on late Beatles (or, less charitably, ELO); ‘Everything Changes’ has been altered to become northern soul; ‘Back for Good’ is the Bee Gees — so much so that it prompted a music industry urban myth that it was really written by Barry Gibb. The gig is seamless, hugely entertaining and wholly redolent of watching a Saturday-night variety show.
But it’s Mason’s music that feels more alive. This is partly because one knows somebody rich enough to own most of the sports cars ever made — he’s got a 1962 Ferrari that’s apparently worth north of £30 million on its own — isn’t doing this because he’s worried about whether he can afford the big bag of Rolos at the garage, whereas Barlow does seem to be a bit of a dessiccated calculating machine (‘Even if it’s a flop, we’re still going to go on tour next year and play to 600,000 people,’ he said last year, when Odyssey was released).
But it’s also because, while completely of its time — no one could mistake ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ for something recorded last year — the music still sounds completely alive, because no one else ever sounded like early Pink Floyd, ramshackle and questing and ecstatic. You don’t need to be tripping to feel the sense of possibility opened up by ‘Astronomy Domine’, one of those thrilling moments when you can hear a new direction in pop being pointed out. More than 50 years on, the sense of discovery hasn’t been erased.
It seems unlikely to me that in another 25 years’ time Take That will be able to do as Mason is now doing, playing the songs from Take That & Party to the purists who only like the early stuff, even if they want to. But, equally, when Pink Floyd decided not to release ‘Vegetable Man’ in 1967 — too weird, too spooky — they wouldn’t have imagined 3,000 people would be cheering it to the rafters decades later. But that’s the power of old: the past is a foreign country; they do things profitably there.