Ah, Girls Aloud. My beautiful dark twisted pop obsession. I spent five years guiltily hiding my love for them from girlfriends, friends, work colleagues, parents. And then five years (once they'd been deemed to be officially "ok" by the indie community) continually raving about their brilliance. But for all of that, I'd only ever seen them live once. And that was from the back of a tent at V 2006, my view hidden by a SpongeBob Squarepants on a stick (I still see it, blotting out my Cheryl-Cam.).
So I had to be here tonight. Ah, who am I kidding - I've been waiting for this for years. And it all went so fast. What do I remember? I remember lots of glowsticks and flashy lightsabre things (you know, the ones you see people hawking outside any big concert venue). I remember lots of screaming (most of it from me). I remember being nervously aware of being the only bloke not in a couple in my block. I remember rum. The rest is a blur. But I made some notes. In some sort of logically considered order, expressed as a torrent of thought.
Sound of the Underground
Lights out! There's a gap in the curtain and the silhouette of a female figure is visible. It's got to be one of the girls, surely? If it's the lighting director, those heels are entirely inappropriate. And then there's a backwards rewind through their career in video, winding back down to their first video. AND THEN THEY'RE THERE! Balanced on a giant illuminated sign saying "Girls Aloud", taking turns to belt out their debut hit. Initially static, the sign slowly lowers to the floor where they're met by five supporting male dancers, who end up partnering them for the rest of the concert. Not a bad job that. Who do I see about applying? Tight corsets, flashing lights, screams from the crowd. This is pop heaven. The track - ten years old - has aged well too. The first sign that someone actually wanted to do something different with a pop band. So not a standard mawkish ballad, as it has been ever since? How did that work out then? Not rocket science. Ace start.
No Good Advice
Studded with dirty glitter and jaw-droppingly brilliant. The guitar twangs filthily around as they stride about like cats on the prowl. At this point, I'm actually back to being 14 again. Except I didn't follow girl bands when I was 14. I sat moodily in my room, ate too much and listened to Oasis. I basically ruled. Anyway. what was my point again? Oh yeah, it's awesome. Everyone is on their feet by now.
Life Got Cold
They never really could do ballads, could they? A somewhat odd choice, given the breadth of material they have to call upon. Still, they sprawl on the steps and belt it out with considerable aplomb. At this point, it's noticeable how well Sarah Harding is singing. Always could fire out a tune, that girl. Go Team Harding!
Wake Me Up
I once remarked in a Newcastle pub that any decent indie band would "bum their own grandmother" for a guitar riff as good as the one that opens this. That didn't go down well. I do sort-of stand by my point. Beast of a riff and a beast of a pop song. The best thing about Girls Aloud's early career was the way they integrated that indie guitar sound into pop tracks. This is one of their finest.
.and this is one of their worst. Girls Aloud generally did two things rather poorly - ballads and covers. There's lots of stomping about and some nifty work from the male dancers but I use this as an excuse to take some photos. No, I'm not focusing the camera on Cheryl's derriere. How dare you suggest such a thing.
Dressing break, during which they play a video to 'Models'. Wish they'd actually played it live, great tune. Oh, but we get 'The Show'. Glorious electro-pop. And they swan about up the catwalk dressed in weird furry creations that look like Sesame Street crossed with the Rio Carnival. Actually, those two things aren't miles apart.
If you don't at least shake a bit of tush to that guitar riff, you're not living. Lots of excuse for cavorting with the male dancers. Cheryl is SERIOUSLY getting on well with her partner. Is that the one she's apparently seeing? It sure looks like it. If not, there may be some arguments post-show tonight.
Whole Lotta History
A pleasant surprise. Having said they don't generally do ballads well, this is their finest slow moment (though frankly, nothing off Chemistry can be faulted for one second). Nadine in particular sings this one quite beautifully. Vocal-wise, it's an absolute highlight.
Can't Speak French
We don't get the Basques and stockings off the video, but we do get lots of excuses for sultry swaying and wiggles. Fairly flat in comparison to the studio version though. Hard one to do live, though gratefully received (I still love how sad that guitar sounds).
Oh god, yes. YES!!! It's the pop equivalent of watching Frank Sinatra sing 'My Way'. The greatest pop song of the past 20 years, thrown about in a bundle of gleeful elastic energy. Frankly, with the quality of the track, they'd get away with a sub-karaoke version and I'd still be happy. The fact that they give it their all shows how much they realise its brilliance. Their finest moment. I'm literally jumping up and down in my seat at this point. I'm the only obviously heterosexual male anywhere near me. People are looking. I care not a jot.
Sexy! No No No
I've just about calmed down by the time they return. Back on top of the huge sign (though missing the PVC catsuits from the video - SPOILSPORTS); they make their way to the raised section in the middle of the stage to cavort around there. The band members now look a little alone on stage. Wait, why am I looking at them again? Eyes front David.
Neat. One of the finest takes from 'Out of Control'; it remains one of the moments where that PSB production experiment really worked. At this point, I feel the need to remark on how Nicola Roberts is looking absolutely stunning this evening. Often unfairly maligned in the band by idiotic boorish commentators, she's grown gloriously into her own style and look.
On the Metro
.and songwriting too. Though not initially impressed, after three months with the new material it's clear that 'On the Metro' is by far and away the finest of the new tracks from Ten. An elegant and fluid piece of electro-pop; following on from Cinderella's Eyes it proves that the hopes of arch-pop lovers everywhere lie within the depths of Nicola's red tresses. I'll stop now. Promise.
Call the Shots
Oh, we're being spoilt now. Just breathtaking glacial pop shimmer. Seriously, no-one does pop music this elegantly and brilliantly. The thought enters my head that they're probably going to be gone soon and I start feeling sad. They had no right to be given songs as good as this. No right. Glorious.
Something Kinda Oooh
They disappear into the floor and there's another video while they change again. Before returning to cavort again with their dancers and sidestep gouts of flame and smoke on their 2006 between-albums single. A good track, though one that always seemed to be lacking that final push to conclusion. Kimberley Walsh, classily subdued and cool during most of tonight, is really going for it here. One final dance before the show-tunes career properly grinds into gear? Either way, it's good!
Call Me Maybe
Über groan. Great as Girls Aloud are and brilliant as the track itself is, this combination simply doesn't work. It's like drunken girls-night karaoke. The crowd love it. So that's probably all that matters. But you're irked that this gets priority over something like 'Close to Love' or 'Graffiti My Soul'. Gah.
Beautiful 'Cause You Love Me
Far from their finest moment but it's a good opportunity to prove that they all could - and still can - sing rather well live. Sarah and Nadine are particularly marvellous here, stretching their larynxes around the tune with consummate ease. Phone screens everywhere. What happened to lighters? I miss lighters. The song wanes by the end but it's fun while it lasts. Legs getting restless though. Want a dance soon.
That'll do. It's not vintage but there's enough sass there to justify its existence. Cheryl gets to properly stomp about and do the pouting Geordie lass. She used to live near me. I probably walked past her at some point and got all giddy. Mind, that new rose tattoo really doesn't work. "When lovely woman stoops to folly" an' all that.
I'll Stand By You
Almost as if they're emphasising their transformation from reality TV pop scruffs to elegant A-Listers, they appear in figure-hugging red evening gowns, gathering together in the middle of the stage to croon their Pretenders cover. Considering how I expected they'd be pretty much ignoring each other on stage tonight, it's bittersweet to see how genuinely tearful they look. Especially Sarah Harding, who looks like she's going to burst into tears at any moment. Touching.
And this is how it ends. Their brassy, bold Mecha-Supremes moment (and their final great track) plays us out with a flourish and a farewell; they drop down through the floor and the house lights snag us out of the trance. It's the ideal way to finish tonight and the ideal way to end a career that has defied all logic or explanation. The fact is, great pop can exist and we need it to exist. Things like tonight, done without any pretence or pomposity, are wonderful, incandescent ways that we light the darker, blander and more facile corners of our lives with. That is pop. And while contemporary popular culture exists, it will always be with us. The trick is this: some songwriters and producers have a way of taking that sherbet and making magic dust with it. That's what Xenomania did. That's what Brian Higgins did. And that's why Girls Aloud are selling out arenas ten years after their logical shelf-life should have ended. It wasn't luck; it was simply great pop music. And as I walk out of the cavernous depths of Manchester Evening News, I'm not ashamed to say that there's a tear in my eye because if this is goodbye, it's one hell of a way to say it. And with ten years of reflection behind me, I'm not remotely afraid to admit that.
Official Site -