Retrospectual: Last Great Dreamers hit London to celebrate 25 years of their debut album
It’s every young musician’s dream: get noticed, get signed, make a record, get noticed again, and – blam! – fame comes a knocking.
On 14 November 1994, four hopeful, London-based musicians released their debut album. And as they turned on the news, each of them heard the same phrase: “You’re a star!”
Actually, it might have been “Eurostar” – the high-speed cross-channel rail link happened to launch that day too – but it doesn’t matter.
The point is that Retrosexual by Last Great Dreamers was finally out to buy, and the band who’d spent the past year being championed by the high and mighty at ‘Kerrang!’ magazine could get on with the job of being rock stars.
Unfortunately, things didn’t pan out as they’d hoped. Distribution wasn’t the best, airplay was sparse, and though the Dreamers’ fans rallied and their supporters in the rock press did their best to sell the band as the next big thing, Retrosexual turned out not to be their launchpad to stardom.
However, much fun was had in the wake of the record’s release, and it has endured as a cult favourite in certain quarters.
In fact, I’ve often wondered whether the band would have sprung back to life in 2014 if they hadn’t had an album in the bank – a shiny disc for old fans to point at and ask people: “Have you heard this?”
To mark Retrosexual’s silver jubilee, the band have issued the album on vinyl for the first time ever. And to mark this, tonight – 16 November 2019 – they’re performing a celebratory show at the Latin Groove Lounge in Camden, north London, not far from their old West End stomping ground.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
It’s the morning of the gig, and the Dreamers – frontman Marc Valentine, guitarist Slyder, bassist Tim Emery and drummer Rik Pratt – have joined a handful of fans on a hired minibus, complete with a driver, for a trip down memory lane.
Billed as “the ultimate super-fan experience”, the tour comes with a “Magical Mystery” prefix, a goody bag of, well, goodies – vinyl album, T-shirt and badges – plus a pub lunch with the band.
Tickets for this one-off voyage were limited and sold via the band’s website, to help fund the vinyl release. And the bus leaves at 11am sharp.
All aboard, then? Let’s go.
“This is a first for me, doing coach tours,” says Slyder, leaning over the back of his seat to address his passengers/hostages. “But I like talking.”
This is true, and if the guitar-god stuff doesn’t work out for him this kind of thing wouldn’t be a bad back-up plan. Every tourist loves a story whose second act begins: “I was absolutely hammered.” And Slyder has loads.
The first stop is Marc’s old abode in Mornington Crescent, just down the road from the Lyttelton Arms (née the Southampton Arms) – the pub where the band christened themselves Silver Hearts in 1989.
As Marc wanders past what was once his front door – still red, to his delight, and with a big ’25’ at the top, which seems fitting today – Tim suggests checking whether he has any mail.
To the left of the doorway, tucked in a corner, is what looks like a bagged-and-tagged urine sample. Just 10 minutes in, the piss-taking has begun.
After a doorstep photo session we climb back on the bus, and it’s ‘full steam ahead’ to Waterloo’s railway arches, the home of Alaska Studios, where the band used to rehearse and record.
Though Retrosexual was recorded at Newcastle’s Lynx Studios, the demos that led to the band being signed in 1993 were produced at Alaska, as were many of the tracks on the second album, Crash Landing In Teenage Heaven. Marc even worked here, along with the band’s old bassist Paul Harrison.
As such, Alaska is a vital piece of Dreamers history, and the band had planned to take us inside the place – until they discovered that it had closed down in 2017.
So instead we stand by the door while Marc and Slyder tell us more tales, including the one about the band’s Transit van being stopped and searched by armed police – the peak of what sounds like regular interest from the Met.
The van, it should be noted, was bright orange with a painted-out Camden Council logo on the side.
Of course, no tour of LGD landmarks would be complete without a trip to the Marquee in Charing Cross Road, where the band played around 30 times, by Slyder’s estimate.
Unfortunately – and this is becoming a running theme – the venue closed in the mid ’90s. It’s currently a Wetherspoon-owned pub called The Montagu Pyke, but we let that pass because it’s lunchtime.
Afterwards, we walk off our vegan burgers and chips, wandering through Soho as Marc and Slyder point out coffee shops, pubs and other buildings that the Dreamers frequented way back when: Garlic & Shots, Bar Italia, and The Royal George on Charing Cross Road.
The band and many of their contemporaries were regular schmoozers, to use the lingo of the day, at the George. It was here, too, that Slyder remembers hearing of Kurt Cobain’s death.
“I was in a nightclub in Yate,” adds Tim. “That’s my alibi, anyway.”
Tim has only been with the Dreamers since January – he and his partner-in-rhythm Rik joined at the same time – but he’s a fan from back in the day, and he has some memories of his own to share.
Back on the bus, he recalls going to see the band at the Marquee: “I thought the show was just fantastic. They had the ’70s look at the time, and I thought that was brilliant, because everyone else was wearing skinny jeans – the flares thing was really cool.
“But I remember turning to my mate Andy and asking: ‘What do you think of the band?’ He said: ‘They’re really good from the knees up.'”
Speaking of knees-up, the blurb for tonight’s gig promises that the band will “play the album in its entirety followed by a second set of fan favourites”. For those who have the stamina, there’s also an “after-show party including a special DJ set from Marc and Slyder’s Glitterball club night”.
In the ’90s, flyers for the Glitterball advertised it as “the only ’70s rock night in London” and extended an invitation for patrons to “get down and get with it”. And here in Camden, a quarter of a century on – for one night only! – its spirit lives on.
As, it turns out, do Slyder’s old trousers.
Yep, the guitarist has ventured into the furthest recess of his wardrobe and unearthed a pair of his old strides – brown, checked ones from the mid ’90s. And they still fit him, the jammy sod.
Come show time, the Top Of The Pops theme – the Whole Lotta Love version, of course – pumps out of the PA, and Chrome Tonic, Retrosexual’s opening track, is off and running.
The setlist, for the first half of the show anyway, is obviously no secret, but what’s lost in surprise is made up for in anticipation.
It’s been a long time since some of these songs were performed live, but the crowd greet them like old friends.
When the band acknowledge the presence of actual old friends – ex-members Ginge, Steve Grainger and Dave Halley are all in the house tonight – the nostalgia meter shoots in to the red.
Just before Kings And Keepsakes, Dave fetches a copy of Retrosexual on vinyl from the merch stand and takes to the stage, commandeering Tim’s mic, to advertise its majesty.
As he’s speaking, Slyder kisses him gently on the back of his head. Aw.
From where I’m standing (bass side of the stage), Slyder’s guitar seems a little low in the mix, but it improves as the night goes on – or perhaps my ears get used to it. There’s also some sound leakage from a club upstairs, which isn’t ideal.
But this band have slain bigger dragons than these, and the sense of occasion lifts them high on to fans’ shoulders and parades them around as conquering heroes.
When Marc takes to a keyboard for Retrosexual’s closing track, Lovely, the song plays like a wistful coda to the Dreamers’ very existence – the kind of thing fans will hear in their dotage and think, ‘did all that really happen?’.
“When I’m far away, she is brighter than the day. On the wind, hear her voice, see her smile…”
For now, though, Marc, Slyder, Tim and Rik show no signs of stopping.
It’s edging half ten, and they’re about to launch into a second set, followed by the aforementioned after-show disco till 3am – the tale of which will be heard on Retrosexual’s 50th anniversary bus tour in 2044, and is guaranteed to feature the phrase: “I was absolutely hammered.”
Twenty five years on from the likes of Save You, Charlie and Far From Home, and 30 years since the band formed, it’s cheering to see so many people gathered to wish them a happy anniversary.
To the world at large, Last Great Dreamers might not be stars. But to their fans and friends – their family, if you will – they burn just as bright.