A glittering gem of a joy-filled gig from the wondrous Mark Owen.
‘Well. Proof, as if any was needed, that Mark Owen is going to Save Pop Music: he covered “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and did not change the “boy” to “girl”.
Out of all the many musical delights that 2003 held for me, Mark Owen’s comeback was a sparkling, glee-filled revelation. I had bought his debut “Green Man” when it first came out in 1996, and had been impressed by it, but in the early post-Take That world I was much more enamoured with Robbie’s debut album and early gigs. Then Mark seemed to disappear completely from the music scene, and so it came as a complete surprise when he reappeared in 2003 with a deliriously wonderful new single. On the 30th of July I wrote in my diary:
‘None other than His Cutesome Grinningness himself, Mark Owen of all people, releases a new single next Monday, and it’s fan-flaming-tastic, “Four Minute Warning” it’s called, and he was on SMTV last Saturday looking EXACTLY like he did ten years ago, bloody hell. Hope he tours soon.’
Very rapidly, he overtook Rob as my favourite ex-That member, and I thrilled to his new swivel-hipped sexy-pop-indie-boy persona. I was feeling excited about a new pop song for the first time in ages, and it felt wonderful to be reunited with that same fizzing adrenaline rush that Take That had brought into my life nearly a decade earlier.
So it was with great excitement I headed out to my first Mark Owen solo gig on the last day of September 2003. It was my first time at the Islington Academy, which, like Brixton, was then Carling sponsored but now brandishes O2 branding. I found it a different kind of experience. From my diary:
‘Well. There was the amusing novelty of queuing for a gig in the courtyard of a snazzy shopping centre. There was an actually quite good indie boy band support. There was perhaps evidence that I’ve been to too many gigs in my time from the fact that, from my four rows back vantage point at the start of the gig I took a look around, sized up the crowd and its likely movements and thought, I’ll be second row by the end of the gig. And I WAS!!!‘
I have tried to google the name of the indie boy band, but to no avail. Can any of my fellow Mark adorers reading this remember who it was?
‘But who cares about all that! For Mark came onstage and commenced leaping up and down like the delightfully unhinged sexmunchkin of genius pop that he is!‘
Oh yes. I was well and truly smitten with the new Mark that exploded before us on stage that night, and it was wonderful to see him appear so ecstatically in his element.
‘Ah, it was good to be in a proper screaming hyperventilatingly excitable throng once again. Mark was amazing, clearly loving every minute of it. Singing, dancing, prancing about, he just looked so at ease, like a man who’d found his skin at last.‘
But unusually for my frenetically-scribbled post-gig diary entries, I actually managed to write about the music before I got too lost in my pop lust.
‘And the songs! My god, this album will be a storming one. So many completely unfamiliar songs, completely etched into my consciousness by the second chorus. And the tunes that I’ve only heard snippets of from the official website already seem like old friends. Needless to say “Four Minute Warning”, three songs in, was a complete blast, and the point at which I lost all reservations whatsoever and began the traditional leaping about like a loon. It had to be done.’
But that’s quite enough not about the gorgeousness of Mark.
‘Oh the skinny, sexy, sexyskinny thing, this Great Pop Thing.’
But even then, I couldn’t help being drawn back to the gloriousness of the pop spectacle I’d just witnessed. Mark may have been a visually stunning delight (as he remains to this day, ‘tache and all!), but he was so much more than that. I’d commenced my entry with an elated scribble about how he covered “Can’t Get you Out Of My Head” without changing the gender of the object of desire, proving that he understood what made that song such pop perfection, and that he wasn’t scared to sing about lusting after boys – pop is, after all, no place for testosterone-fuelled posturing.
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. This gig was full of moment after moment of glorious, sexy, silly, idiosyncratic pop perfection. Mark was turning into a incredible pop thing, and for a music obsessive like me, it was a thing of pure joy to see one of my old faves return in such dazzling form.
‘It takes pop genius to convincingly, exhilaratingly cover Kylie, Beyonce AND the Cure in one night. And breakdance. And embellish the sweet, groovy “Gravity” with ludicrous Elvis impersonations. And, you know, a wonderful unique voice, which I’m sure is only just coming into its own, simultaneously fragile and strong. Ah, and it was excellent to hear “Jaywalker”, with those filthy lines about putting a diamond on someone’s tongue. And he acted out the “stone on your middle finger” line very naughtily.‘
And of course, all of this exuberantly sparkling performance accompanied a collection of thrilling and wonderful songs, many of which I heard for the first time that night, but would go on to soundtrack the months to come once his second album “In Your Own Time” came out.
‘Moments! The raucous singalong of “Clementine”! The moment when he jumped suddenly down to the barrier and sang a rockin’ tune from there! (sadly not near me, thoough it did allow me to get into 2nd row as the crowd pushed forward). The sad and reflective “Baby I’m No Good”, not so much for the song itself but for the break between verses when he stood back, just standing still as the crowd erupted into screams and applause, and looked quite overcome by it all.’
And once again I’d gotten so carried away by Mark’s sheer pop brilliance that I’d forgotten the most crucial part of my report.
‘My god! I haven’t even mentioned what he was WEARING! Well gloriously he was all in black again with the skinny white belt on those hips. And he had on that strange thick black bracelet that he always seems to wear these days.’
There was one thing that made this gig particularly important for me. I’d reached the stage in my music fan life where many of my faves were advanced in their careers, and getting towards a time when many bands might call it a day – indeed, two of my absolute favourite bands, Mansun and Suede, did just that in 2003. But Mark’s solo renaissance felt like something new that had many glorious years ahead of it.
‘I’ve been getting the feeling recently that my fave bands are on their last legs in a way, closer to the end than beginning or even middle, and with their best years behind them. That I can’t look forward to another seven years of Manics gigs, for example, or think that Riverside was the first in an endless line of Bowie gigs for decades to come. But, gods and goddesses willing, Mark’s got decades of joyous pop in him. I can so easily see myself going to my 23rd Marky gig a decade from now, and him still being a vibrant and exciting star then.‘
Of course, things turned out vastly different to my predictions, both in my own personal world and in the worlds of my favourite bands. I may have been correct about Bowie – I’d see my last gig by him less than a year later. But here in 2020 – seventeen years later rather than seven – I’ve still got Manics gigs to look forward to. As for Mark, he would soon be swallowed back up into the Take That fold, and solo tours became few and far between – and to my shame, I wasn’t always paying attention when they happened.
But I still have the memories of this glorious gig to cherish, as well as my second (and so far final) Mark Owen gig in December 2003, which I’ll write about in a post to come. And, having caught up on his complete four album discography, Mark’s solo career now has a hold on my heart that few other artists can compete with. I hold out hope that a new album and tour will happen one day, but until then, I’m content with these memories of 2003, and how even in that year that was brimming over with musical delights for me, Mark Owen’s return stands out as a unique, glimmering, joy-drenched highlight.