The queue of excited teenagers and twenty-somethings was snaking down the side of the Brixton Academy, patiently waiting to get into the gloomy insides to see Cube Entertainment’s main acts in what was billed as the UK’s first K-pop showcase. It was still 90 minutes before curtain up, and somewhere among the crowd a reporter from BBC Radio 4 was doing some vox pop interviews, trying to find out who all these fans were. Poles, Dutch, Irish, Scots were all represented, along with Koreans who had flown all the way from Seoul to London to see their idols.
Most of the westerners had found out about K-pop via the internet, either on their own or through friends. Clearly, YouTube is a powerful and free marketing tool which is able to bypass the publicity machines of the established UK commercial pop promoters to connect directly with fans.
Entering at the stage door, I picked up my press ticket and followed the signs to the guest meeting area. A few other guests were in front of me. As we climbed the poky stairs to the bar reserved for the invitees, we squeezed past some young Asian men wearing black tie. They were waiting for someone to tell them what to do. They were gleaming and nicely scrubbed up. They looked very polite: you would happily take them home to your grandmother.
It was, of course, BEAST, preparing to meet and greet. The other guests didn’t notice them, and I wondered whether I should ask for their autographs, try to speak to them, wish them luck for the gig, or simply follow the other VIPs down the long dark corridor to the bar. I decided to be very British, and took the latter option.
The bar was dark and dingy, with black walls, black ceiling, black everything, though some powerful spotlights had been erected which managed to blind you everywhere you turned. The bar was at the back of the stalls, facing the stage, and the stalls were already packed with fans who were watching promotional videos of the Cube acts projected onto the big screen. They were already screaming.
I picked up a glass of fizz and turned back to the entrance to see if BEAST had figured out what to do.
Indeed they had. They had gingerly ventured down the long corridor and were now trying to enter the bar area. But they had come up against a large obstacle.
“Who are you?” said the security man. “They’re the artists,” said their minder. “You haven’t got the right passes. You can’t come in.” And that was that. They lingered at the entrance to the bar for a bit, talked to a few of the more knowledgeable guests who had spotted them, and then scuttled off. Oops.
It was time to mingle and try to make sure the generous hospitality did not go unappreciated. The Korean newspapers and TV journalists were there, other guests familiar to such events, and the man from the BBC was interviewing SOAS’s Professor Keith Howard about the K-pop phenomenon.
Suddenly, as if by private arrangement, groups of people in the bar area shuffled off to an unknown destination. No-one knew what was going on. The LKL team decided to divide our forces: Saharial followed the leavers armed with her Canon, while your editor stayed in base camp at the bar. Saharial had the better deal, because she found herself with BEAST, 4Minute and G.NA doing their photocall and meet & greet in the press room.
Then suddenly the artists paraded back into the bar, which was by now pretty much empty. No problems with the passes this time. BEAST still in their dinner suits, 4Minute in stylish white trouser suits, and somewhere among them was G.NA. They all looked so incredibly young. They smiled and waved politely.
Sadly, with no announcements made and with most of the remaining guests being K-pop novices, the stars did not get the welcome they deserved. But the audience downstairs caught a glimpse of their idols through the windows of the bar, and suddenly the volume of screaming increased.
The stars returned to the green room to prepare for their debut on the London stage, and the VIPs gradually drifted into the auditorium. The Circle seats were reserved for them, while the main audience was standing downstairs.
But the Circle was not just invited guests showing a polite interest. There were plenty of fans too who had managed to get on to the free ticket list. Glowsticks were being waved, and a sea of floating digital camera screens were focused on the stage. To my right, the Korean Class Massive were pointing their long lens, while to my left Saharial was putting her Canon through its paces.
Suddenly, the music volume turned up, and 4Minute appeared – five pretty young girls in their tight white trouser suits. The building shook with the bass as they danced their routine. But while the recorded soundtrack was well-reproduced, the singers themselves didn’t sound so good – more like accomplished karaoke than a polished studio performance. I guess that’s what you expect with a live song and dance act, particularly when the songs are as bouncy as 4Minute’s standout track Heart to Heart. Singing live isn’t as easy as the megastars make it look.
I sloped off to the deserted public bar to get a top up, and chatted to the bar staff. “What do you think?” I asked, as the building thudded to the bass. They were lukewarm. “It’s aimed at the teenage market,” one said, shrugging his shoulders. “They wouldn’t get far in The X Factor,” added another. A bit harsh I thought, but I had to confess that the tuning of the vocals was about on a par with the performances on the popular UK TV talent show, where energy and image are favoured almost above the ability to sing in tune before a live audience. Errors in pitch can always be ironed out in the studio.
I returned to the hall, where the girls were still running through their set of numbers from 4Minutes Left. They then started chatting to the audience, asking where they came from, and rehearsing them for the refrain of their next song1. Suddenly, there were only 4 of them left. HyunA had sneaked offstage for a quick costume change so that she could reappear for her single, Bubble Pop.
Next, G.NA gave us some of her Top Girl album, and spoke to us all in her Canadian accented English. And alone among the evening’s performers, the live performance of one of her tracks – Banana – was better than the version on the CD, the mix being less synthetic and the voice fuller.
Then BEAST appeared – in something more casual than their attire earlier. Ticker tape and streamers showered down on the audience. Fireworks went off as the song shifted up a key for the final reprise of the chorus. And finally the highlight of the evening, as BEAST performed their hit Fiction. I had long ago left my seat and was ignoring the health and safety notice which banned us from standing. It’s a glorious tune, which involves as much rapping as singing, and is thus safer for live performance, but in any event BEAST were the class act of the night. I wish I’d had a glowstick myself.
It was a feelgood evening. Being up in the circle, we felt a little bit disconnected from the performance. But while we didn’t get the full impact and energy that the audience downstairs was getting, it was still more than enough to send you home on a high.
Now, how about SM, YG and JYP joining up? Bring on BoA, Big Bang and the Wonder Girls. London is ready and waiting.
- Completely unnecessary, as the audience seemed to know the lyrics for all the songs.