With untouchable stage presence and undeniable hits, Billy Ocean is only growing stronger with age, Music Editor Kieran Read reviews
About midway through Billy Ocean’s triumphant, heartfelt performance at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, near the start of ‘Love Really Hurts Without You’, it struck me that the songs Billy played weren’t made for people like me. This was a strange mid-gig revelation to have, and in no way is it me saying I didn’t enjoy the performance. He’s a personal hero of mine, someone whose songs have long sound-tracked my life from infancy to adulthood, the artist who I always drunkenly play when handed an AUX cord at 2am (where someone, without fault, always says: ‘Wait, Billy Ocean made all of these!?’ after playing a row of his songs). For the longest time, Billy Ocean felt like my own long time underrated gemstone, each track a time capsule of the titanic dance-pop grooves and syrupy smooth R&B of the 80s.
Instead, it dawned on me that the music was probably designed for the crowd around me, for the people actually alive in that decade. I was, by a sizeable margin, one of, if not the, youngest in the room. As I scanned the venue before Ocean came on, I almost believed I’d accidentally sat in a theatre interval or a school nativity. Watching how his infectious songwriting and winning performance touched the audience gave his music a greater context than I had ever understood before. And when I say these people loved Billy, I mean they were running down the aisles to touch him, throwing flowers, singing words to songs I’ve never heard of. For that hour, Billy Ocean was untouchable.
It was towards the end of the set, as Billy nailed the colossal ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get into My Car’, R&B anthem ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going’ and worthy set finisher ‘Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)’, that I changed this opinion again, hitting the (very cliché) realisation that his music wasn’t actually made for anyone in particular. Not for me, not for the 80s crowd, not for himself, instead made for everyone; Billy seems to love timelessness in his songs even more than he loves giving them long, convoluted titles. These tracks weren’t ‘time capsules,’ they were tunes that were living and breathing right there and then, as amazing as they’ve ever been. No song felt dated, every song felt emotionally charged and catchy; what Billy Ocean pulled together all those years ago still stand the test of time on stage now.
He killed it, by the way. I’m not just saying that through blind admiration either, he really, really killed it. This man was throwing down dance moves I’ve never seen anyone near their 70s even attempt, all whilst hitting a vocal range of which his younger self would be proud. The backup band (Billy’s own daughter a backup singer) grooved hard, a pleasure to watch in their own right. By enticing sing-a-longs, flogging his own merch and throwing out banter between tracks, Ocean transformed from musical legend to lovable, goofy everyman in a matter of seconds. The crowd loved it, and so did he; Billy had an ear to ear grin throughout the whole performance, and so did I.
It was a privilege to see a hero whose music has profound impact on my life perform, but even more of a privilege seeing what it meant to those whose lives long outstretched mine. Despite nearing the age of 70, playing to sold out halls of a largely elder demographic, Billy Ocean is still the coolest motherfucker around, but everyone who knows him figured that out a long time ago.