NEW YORK 1998 REVIEWS

 

The New York Times August 1998

Jon Parales

Early 80's Return, With English Artifice

Pop nostalgia has a 15-to-20-year timetable: a 1950's revival in the 1970's, a wave of neo-psychedelia in the 1980's, tributes to old-school hip-hop in the 1990's. Right on schedule, hit-makers from the 1980's are swallowing some pride to share summer package tours and play the songs on their greatest-hits albums.

''The Big Rewind,'' the triple bill at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night, commemorates the early 1980's, when synthesizers, strange haircuts and peppy, self-pitying songs coalesced to splash image-conscious English bands across a brand new channel, MTV. In that post-disco moment, songwriters were juggling old-fashioned pop sincerity with the gleaming artifices of synthesized sounds and music-video fantasies. English musicians, in particular, were also trying to catch up with the innovations of urban pop and dance music. Three of those acts -- Culture Club, the Human League and Howard Jones -- are back and touring together, intent on proving that the songs, if not the fashions, will endure.

...Human League's set retraced the arc of a career in which conceptual integrity gave way to the lure of pop success. When it formed in the late 1970's, Human League pitted pop melody against the coldness of electronics; it used synthesizers to make stark, deliberately inhuman-sounding music. Its 1981 hit, ''Don't You Want Me?,'' is a bitter argument between a star-making man and the ex-cocktail waitress who has decided to leave him behind. ''The Lebanon'' is a bleak vision of civil war.

As synthesizers lost their novelty in the 1980's, Human League gave up on contrasting the human and the mechanical and switched to suave pop love songs, reaching a peak with ''Human,'' a straying lover's apology written by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Now the early songs sound like precursors of techno, while the later ones sound like attempts to ride a bandwagon.

At Radio City, Human League's singers -- Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley -- started out with a deadpan, robotic demeanor while band members played the skeletal arrangements; eventually, they switched to nightclub moves. Mr. Oakey sounded as if he was battling a cold, while the two women demonstrated a phenomenon that gathered force in the music-video era: They couldn't sing as well as they posed...