It's amazing what a little glam can do. Goldfrapp are one of the biggest sensations in UK music at present. Now, that's something of a strange state of affairs when you consider that much of the band's music is wilfully retro-weird quasi-ambient electronica which, under normal circumstances, surely wouldn't excite much attention outside of the kind of diehards who spend their spare time searching Ebay for old Robert Rental tapes, and dream of owning a Wasp synthesizer. Ah, but here comes the secret weapon: in Alison Goldfrapp we have a bona fide glam-rock star, the long-lost love child of Marc Bolan and Marc Almond (look, just bear with me on that one, OK?). The band's neat juxtaposition of bump 'n' grind beats with vintage-flavoured electronic sweeps and squonks has created a mutant disco music as accessible as it is, at times, incongruously left-field. Goldfrapp are an odd sensation, but there's no denying they are a sensation. This is just one of three shows at the Brixton Academy, and they're all sold out. A self-consciously trendy (but almost entirely mainstream) crowd has gathered to do the Goldfrapp glam-disco stomp. And I bet none of them have ever heard of Robert Rental.
I suspect, however, that our support band, Hot Chip, have heard of Robert Rental, and a host of other old-skool electronic artists besides. Hot Chip are an endearingly nerdish bunch, like a group of librarians who've been spending far too much time listening to Devo albums. Ranged behind keyboards, with a video screen looming behind them (showing - neat touch, this - another Hot Chip gig, slightly out of synch with the real thing) they're everything a pop group is not supposed to be, and yet they make a surprisingly groovy pop group. Their songs tumble along in a catchy procession, assembled from precision-tooled electronix with a garnish of guitar, and while Hot Chip don't have anything so conventional as a lead singer, they do have a slightly otherworldly-looking chap (I'm pleased to note he resembles Ford Prefect from the Hitchhiker BBC TV series) who demonstrates a winning way with a nimble light tenor. I suspect the band's resolutely uncompromising stage set-up - nobody ever comes out from behind those keyboards - will count against them in the pop-crossover stakes, but electronic librarians everywhere will love 'em.
In the studio, Goldfrapp comprise Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory. On stage, Goldfrapp comprise Alison Goldfrapp and a backing band. The musicians are a self-effacing bunch who look somewhat uncomfortable in their space-age rocker garb (the bassist seems to have staged a slight style revolt by wearing a hilarious white cap which fairly screams 'mid eighties Top Of The Pops appearance'), but they deal efficiently with reproducing the Goldfrapp sound in a ful-on live rock band manner. There is no big intro, no ceremony. It all just starts, with a cranked-up 'Utopia', an old-skool Goldfrapp number from back in the days when the band was a touch more trip-hoppy than it is today. In a way, it's a counter-intuitive opener, because many people in this crowd, here on the strength of the recent hits, clearly don't recognise the tune. But they all cheer Alison herself as she strides out, wearing huge glittery platform shoes and skimpy black everything else. The big reaction comes when the band swings into the second song, the magnificently thumpin' and pumpin' 'Train' - a number purpose-bult for stamping along to in big glittery platforms. Sure enough, the crowd gives it a massive, but curiously polite, ovation. This is an enthusiastic, but very well-behaved audience. Behind me in the crowd, I hear a voice remark in matter-of-fact tones, 'Very good, Alison' - like a schoolmaster who's just been handed a neat bit of homework.
And, in that, you have the curious paradox of Goldfrapp. The crowd is keen, but almost supernaturally well behaved - even when the stompiest songs crop up in the set, there's not the slightest hint of boisterousness in the assembled multitudes. And the paradox extends to the on-stage action, because although the Goldfrapp show is a full-on glitzy extravaganza, complete with squadrons of gyrating dancers in crazy costumes giving it loads to those slinky glam-disco hits, Alison herself, at the eye of the storm, cuts a curiously detached figure. The dancers swirl extravagantly around her, but she doesn't join in. In fact, she seldom moves away from her vocal position - even during instrumental passages, when there's surely no reason why she can't come to the front and freak to the beat, engage with the audience and whip up the crowd, she still hangs back, as if reluctant to move away from the comfort zone defined by her carefully-positioned monitor wedges. I'm reminded of countless Goldfrapp interviews I've read, in which it's mentioned that for all the strutting glam-babe persona we see on stage, Alison Goldfrapp's real personality is, in fact, quite introspective and shy. I think I'm seeing those conflicting aspects of her character fighting it out before my eyes. The glam-disco queen, fronting a glitzy electro-glitter show with all the sass and sexiness you'd expect - but always, always, tempered by a certain reluctance to really let go.
The set is a consummate lesson in booty-shakin' electro-rock. All the showstoppers are here - 'Fly Me Away', 'Ooh La La', 'Ride A White Horse' - for which the dancers don mirror-encrusted horses' heads, in a move that looks like a surreal version of a Mafia-style threat. But it's not an endless procession of smasheroonies - older and more obsucre numbers also crop up - a reminder that there's more to Goldfrapp than the big hits that everyone knows. From first to last, the showbusiness never lets up. The dancers switch costumes and routines, and, in a delightfully unexpected moment, golden glitter in the form of thousands of little strips of metallic foil suddenly cascades onto the crowd from somewhere up in the roof. Well, that'll confuse enemy radar if nothing else. And throughout it all, Alison Goldfrapp maintains her slightly aloof demeanour, even as she's getting on down with the rumbling groove of 'Strict Machine'. She's an intriguing performer, skilfully, sexily, fronting music which trawls in influences from the outer environs of electronica to the greasiest, glitziest corners of the glam garage, but always keeping some of herself back. I wonder how many of the politely cheering throng here at the Brixton Academy have sussed that?
For more photos from this gig, find Goldfrapp by name here.