“It is the anniversary of a dream”, states Alphaville frontman Marian Gold.
Since buying his first album at the age of 13, of Johnny Rivers live at the Whisky a Go Go, it had been a lifelong ambition of the Alphaville singer to perform at the famous venue. It was a dream Gold would finally release over 50 years later, as he crowned his 64th birthday on the Hollywood stage.
After 35 years in the music business, a fanfare on your own terms is probably a fair reward. And everything about Alphaville’s weekend experience in Hollywood was an indulgence.
The media included a luxury box set of four CDs (two discs for each night), DVDs and Blu-Ray discs of the concert, plus artwork of the live event. It’s packaged in a delightful box in the shape of the venue. Caricatured legends of the Whisky a Go Go stage, including Guns N’ Roses and Mick Jagger, queue for entry to see Alphaville. Why wouldn’t they?
It’s a real fans’ collectors’ item. For organisers Brady Harper and Vahe Shahinian, both fans themselves, it’s been a labour of love – with labour and love both generously given.
Everything about the event was generous, including the alcohol. Only, at 64, you can’t coast through performances any more. Inevitably, this meant lots of fun over the two nights, and a serious remastering job afterwards. To give credit where it’s due, the band has spent some considerable time polishing this up.
The result is a fabulous exploration of a deceptively broad magnum opus, from the oldest tracks to the new. About a quarter of the near-50 tracks are estimated never to have been performed live before (although the media pack is incorrect in a few cases – ‘State of Dreams’ and ‘Anyway’ were played in Paris, 2014).
Gold had pledged to play the band’s first album, Forever Young, in full. The tracks were split across the two nights, but a separate CD with the live performances in the same order as the original is a thoughtful touch.
The setlist is a mix of thoughtful combinations with occasional Ovidian twists. In the first evening, the wistful ‘Elegy’ is paired with the hopeful ‘Flame’, both rarities in the band’s regular set. Similarly, on the second night, the grave ‘A Handful of Darkness’ and euphoric ‘Heaven on Earth’ form a tribute to the deceased Martin Lister.
‘Heaven on Earth’ is particularly deserving of a new recording after becoming probably the most actively evolved track in the band’s live history. A Vangelis-inspired introduction from Lister’s replacement, Carsten Brocker, glosses over while Gold muses about the afterlife.
An ascending tricolon of Ascension Day, Euphoria and Beyond the Laughing Sky connect soaring progressive rock soundscapes from the mid-90s to current day. Shades of Nick Cave, Chris Squire and Pink Floyd emerge. Then follows Summer in Berlin, one of the band’s earliest quaint synth jingles, sounding every inch its age.
Attendees of the event were also invited to submit requests. Some beauties were unwrapped, including ‘Danger in Your Paradise’, with its catchy 90s arrangement, and the bluesy downtempo ‘Welcome to the Sun’ – both back-catalogue gems.
Perhaps the best ‘discovery’, though, is ‘Next Generation’, a nostalgic war-influenced song from the Dreamscapes compilation that keeps anger and remorse at a respectful distance before ending on a devastating air-raid siren. The urgency of Gold’s vocals breathes fresh life into something that manages to sound both old and new at the same time.
That leads us to the most striking thing about this four-disc set. Alphaville are trying to prove (however late in the day) that they are much more than a synth-pop band.
To those who attend regular Alphaville gigs, this may come as no surprise. The addition of a permanent bass guitarist has opened Gold’s eyes to EDM and the broad rock landscape, not just looking forward but looking back as well.
Golden oldies ‘Fallen Angel’ and ‘To Germany with Love’ mutate from gothic 80s hits into something approaching symphonic metal. Gold concludes this couplet by growling ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’ in hair-raising fashion. Some tracks drop into a turn-of-the-century indie landscape. They’re scarcely placeable, but no longer simply pigeonholed as the product of an 80s band.
Alphaville’s only previous commercial live album from 1999 – also recorded in the USA – presented a pop band with range. Twenty years on, From Hollywood with Love showcases a band with genuine variety. Pop, rock, metal, dance, EDM, indie, blues, acoustic. There’s not much that isn’t covered.
When a-ha drifted into rock in 2000 and Erasure into acoustic in 2006, both bands returned to base immediately afterwards. It’s tough reinventing yourself. For Alphaville, it’s like coming out in late career and making a statement with a powerful set of post-discovery recordings.
Just when you thought it might have been time to slow down, 2019 is a big year in the life of Alphaville.
It brings a 35th anniversary tour of Germany, the band’s first ever live performances in the UK (Brexit permitting?), and making up for lost time on the follow-up album to Strange Attractor.
At this juncture, losing half a year to a remastering effort is a big blow. But even if no new album follows, the months of work have been worthwhile.
At its best, Gold sounds as good as he ever has. And his musical imagination shows no signs of diminishing. Forever Young indeed.