Suspended from the ceiling in front of me was a deflated giant Rubik’s cube and a bright yellow Pac-Man. These aren't usual decorations on a cruise ship but I was at the mandatory muster drill in Studio B, the ice-skating rink on Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas, while the crew gradually transformed it into 80s-themed night spot Club Tropicana.
In a few hours this Throwback festival would take 3,200 of us back to the 80s over three nights and two days of song, dance and fancy dress. I had already spotted spotted Tony Hadley and UB40 along with Pat Sharp and Bobby Davro. Sister Sledge were due to embark the following day in Le Havre as they were headlining on Saturday night.
Tracks like Spandau Ballet’s True and Gold, UB40’s Red Red Wine and Sister Sledge’s We Are Family have been part of the soundtrack to my life over the last 35 years at weddings, fun nights out and special occasions. I never imagined I would see them perform live, especially on a cruise ship over the same weekend.
Cruise entertainment and comedy were once considered a bit of a joke. It was a place where young hopefuls could get experience before jumping ship to progress up the ladder on land. Yet as passenger numbers and expectations have increased (two million people now cruise each year in the UK) along with new mega ship construction and on-board technology, entertainment standards at sea have also soared.
Having sold 25 million records in his time as part of Spandau Ballet and with a robust solo career, I was keen to find out from Tony Hadley if he ever thought he would perform on a cruise ship. Even though he wasn’t on until Sunday night, the finale, he was there from Friday evening to soak up the festivities (and satisfy thousands of selfie requests all weekend).
“There was a time when if anyone suggested a cruise you would have thought, ‘that’s cabaret hell,’ but there’s been a bit of a sea change, pardon the pun,” he laughed, after greeting me warmly in the makeshift VIP area of the ship. “Fifteen years ago you wouldn’t have played at a racecourse or a cricket ground either, but it’s a different world now and the way people receive live music is changing.”
According to the Entertainment Retailers Association Britons spend over £100 million each week on digital entertainment with music up 9 per cent on last year.
“You couldn't have done this 20 years ago, new ships have given us the opportunity to take the best elements of the festival and the cruise, and bring them together,” said Throwback director Jonathan Blackburn. “Our guests have a real immersive 80s experience.”
Hadley says that in much the same way that going to a movie theatre didn’t die out when home cinema arrived, people still want to see musicians play live. “It’s an experience, despite the technology people still want something that is real and tangible,” he said. Reflecting on what’s offered as part of the cruise festival – such as live music, accommodation, restaurants, a day trip and spa – Hadley thinks it makes sense. Instead of going to the pub, a restaurant and then a concert, everything is in one place – even your bedroom. “You don’t have to get a cab home do you,” he laughed.
Then recalling the muster drill a couple of hours earlier, he continued: “I thought it was funny when they said, ‘If anyone in the evacuation is slightly dazed and confused…’, I thought that’ll be most of the passengers,” he chuckled. “But the people who come here are really lovely.”
Robin Campbell, vocalist and guitarist of UB40 – who had three UK number ones and 39 Top 40 hits – said that even ten years ago he would have outright said no to performing on a cruise ship. “It is my worst idea of a holiday,” he smiled, revealing that the main problem is that he gets seasick. In the end the band persuaded him to take the gig. “This particular event looks after the artists and it’s well organised,” he said.
Before Throwback the only ship they’ve ever performed on was in the 1997 movie Speed 2. “And, of course, that boat never left land, but this is the real thing,” he laughed, admitting that he’d just taken some Kwells as a preventative measure. “I was told there’s a storm on the way, so I’m not looking forward to that.”
It isn’t only the improved production technology on board cruise ships that is contributing to the success of eighties revivals like Throwback, eighties nostalgia has been around for years now, evidenced by the popularity of TV series such as Stranger Things and Glow, and the ever-abundant 80s revival festivals. Throwback – which nods to 80s success Love Boat – is bang on trend, just as 80s fashion – from tie-dye, to neon and baggy blazers – still dominates fashion fads.
In Simon Reynolds’ Retromania he notes that “there has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artefacts of its own immediate past” and that towards the end of the twentieth century nostalgia has become more bound with popular culture than ever.“We feel pangs for the products of yesteryear, the novelties and distractions that filled up our youth,” wrote Reynolds.
At Throwback there is eighties nostalgia everywhere, and festival-goers’ costumes range from Ghostbusters and Hi-de-Hi yellow coats to Culture Club and Adam Ant.
Debbie Sledge, her daughter Camille and Tanya Tiet, who Sledge describes as her “adopted daughter”, have been on the road since May with their family. Their last show of the tour was Throwback’s headline act on Saturday night and a passionate seamless performance brought the house down. They love hearing stories about how their music has touched people’s lives over the years through family occasions and milestones.
“The excitement from people is so inspiring for us,” said Debbie. “It’s a circle, because we’re excited and people are excited – everybody’s happy.”
Throwback returns on October 1, 2020 as the Ultimate Festival at Sea with headliners Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond and The Jacksons, plus more.