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A BRITISH CAT among the Vegas pigeons

While the 1980s are a decade now long forgotten in most parts of the world, Las Vegas has proved that time is no barrier to continued success. Gambling’s Paul Sculpher talked to former Bros singer and Caesars Palace showman Matt Goss about how he made it big in Sin City

As I left Matt Goss’s latest show in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, I picked up an interesting comment from a gentleman I was chatting to in the seats. As we discussed the show and its dancers my new friend moved on to the topic of Goss himself. “That guy had an amazing voice and what a show – but who was he?” I suspect that given time, America is going to figure that one out.

Cast your mind back to the days of the late 1980s and what some might call the ‘boy bands’ of the day. Not quite as far as A-ha, the Norwegian purveyors of ‘Take On Me’, but a bit further back than the Backstreet Boys, purveyors of, well, nothing memorable really. In the middle ground between the two there was a phenomenally successful act who took the charts by storm. Women aged 15-25 at the time will need no reminder of the appeal of Bros, a South London trio that included the twin brothers Matt and Luke Goss, who simply blitzed the late-1980s music scene with huge tunes like ‘When Will I Be Famous?’ and ‘I Owe You Nothing’.

Although the scale of their domination at the time was quite remarkable – with impact all over Europe and platinum success in Canada (although, interestingly, not even one chart single in the USA) – you could say the same about a number of acts over the last 20 years. The current fad for ex-celebrity coverage has uncovered what often happens to similarly successful artists – and it includes reality TV shows, comedy weight gain and often desperately depressing attempts to cash in on past glories from an ageing fan base with tours featuring the original material.

Fast forward to Las Vegas, 2010, and although it would be unfair to say that everything in Vegas is on the cutting edge of musical fashion, the executives booking acts for the entertainment circuit don’t generally take risks on unknown artists. Wayne Newton, for example, just rang up his 50th year of performing in Sin City while Celine Dion is headed back there shortly; and with the constant need to bring bodies in to feed the gaming, booking agents do not suffer failed gambles lightly.

Matt Goss doesn’t have to worry about filling seats, however. As he relaxes in his suite at Caesars Palace before his latest sell-out gig in ‘Gossy’s Room’ – a converted nightclub right in the centre of the casino – I ask him how he feels about the road that led him from being a 16-year-old with his first record deal all the way to a residency at one of the best-known entertainment spots on the planet.

“Well, it’s certainly been a journey,” he says. “People talk about the Bros days as being just a manufactured boy band, but I think that’s pretty insulting – I’m proud of those days. Sure, I’ve moved on as a person, but who hasn’t changed since the late 1980s? I’m over 40 now and look back on it all as a kind of Saturday job in the music industry, albeit one where we played massive Wembley gigs. It was a crazy whirlwind of success at the time. Seeing 15,000 people queuing outside an HMV shop for a record signing was pretty extreme, as was 9,000 people lining up outside the Television Centre for a Wogan interview, but 20 years on I wouldn’t change anything”.

As the interview progresses, we reflect on the show itself. Goss clearly knows where his allegiances lie and when I mention Caesars as a pretty big-time venue in Sin City, he opines: “When people think of Vegas, they think of Caesars,” much to the satisfaction of the PR lady in the room. There’s a lot of truth in that, however. There’s a reason why the movie blockbuster The Hangover was based at Caesars Palace, and it wasn’t just to shoehorn in a lame gag about whether Caesar himself lived there. The fact is that there’s just something iconic about the place, and anyone flying into Vegas right now will find that one of the first things they see in the cab from the airport will be a huge billboard advertising Goss’s show. The show started during March 2010 and I’m keen to know how the Vegas connection first came about.

“I live in LA, and met up with Robin Antin [creator of the Pussycat Dolls] while hanging out socially. At the time I had self-funded a new album and she took a listen and immediately said ‘you have to be heard’. We found a way to get the music in front of George Maloof, the owner of the Palms, and picked up the gig from there at first. That might make it sound easy, but it really wasn’t. From there we put together the band and the rest of the outfit – it’s 14 people altogether performing – and worked them into the ground before getting the cohesive performance we really wanted.”

Goss is an intense guy with a piercing gaze, and while he points out that he’s very much comfortable in his own skin these days, it definitely feels like there’s a touch of the brooding artist about him. He still has the boy band looks to show off – in fact I can’t think of an artist from 1988 who looks less changed 22 years on – but if he ever had, it seems unlikely he’d have much of a devil-may-care attitude about it. He explains how there’s still some residual guilt about the heady days of 80s success.

“Right at the peak of Bros my sister Carolyn was killed by a drunk driver. We had a No 1 single right around then and of course we had to keep working since we – and our management – felt we only had one shot.” He goes on to tell a story of meeting up with some members of the US marines after a show and feeling a connection with them that led to exchanging some precious personal items – a valour coin from the marine in question for a treasured Indian coin featuring the Hindu god Ganesh from Goss – with tears all round. It’s clear that there’s more to Goss than just a singer with a work ethic and a spectacular history of success.

As we are tying up the interview, Antin breezes through the suite and introduces herself, reminding Matt that the show was scheduled to start one minute ago. Ever the gentleman, Goss apologises as if this were some sort of outrageous imposition on our time, which is probably befitting of a man who has “Civility costs nothing” tattooed on his arm. He has a compelling charm that comes with the confidence of a history of stratospheric success mixed with life experience and a healthy dose of humility. He’s a handsome bastard too.

At the show itself it’s very difficult to know what to expect other than that there will be no old Bros material. The casual observer might wonder exactly how strong a singer a 1980s pop act might have required, but there’s no doubt that even the grind action bar residents in the dive casinos of Las Vegas are a cut above your average club act – and anything promoted this heavily is not going to be a karaoke howler.

And thus it proved. Opening with an electrifying cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstitious’, the show rocked the house. The 14 members, performing on a stage that used to be known as Cleopatra’s Barge and could sway as if at sea, are fused together as a unit, with Goss, seven musicians, two back-up singers and four dancers, known as the ‘Dirty Virgins’. To say the setting is intimate would probably be an understatement – there are a couple of seats that are so close to the scantily clad dancers that the muscle memory of many a Vegas regular might tempt them into tucking a dollar bill or two into the lingerie on display a few inches away.

Goss’s voice is a revelation, spearing high notes and showing real intensity during a variety of material, perhaps evenly split between covers and originals. There’s a fair amount of talk during the show as Goss believes in a little audience interaction and the stage is even invaded by a couple of characters who look like fans from the early Bros days. Certainly, a fair proportion of the audience are from the UK and of the right age to have been fans since the early days, but that being said, with just two shows per week constantly sold out, the Brit contingent may well be snatching the tickets before the locals have the chance. Certainly, with a show this good, once the Brits in Vegas have had a look, word will spread to the US audience to fill the gap.

You can’t possibly watch the show without at least a passing thought for Frank Sinatra himself, although there is without doubt a British feel to proceedings too. From the screen in the background showing highlights from the 1966 World Cup final to Goss himself referring, satisfyingly, to ‘arseholes’ rather than ‘assholes’, there’s no doubt that he’s proud of his roots and feels no need to pander to the locals. As I was informed before the show, there’s no Bros material on show, although one lyric does refer to a “cat among pigeons” – a hit from yesteryear – and causes a frisson of recognition around the room. Given that the ladies of a certain age who turn to each other with a smile at the lyric would probably recognise that Goss looks just as good now as he did back then, it’s probably nostalgia for their own innocence as much as remembered lust, but nothing interrupts the propulsive flow of the show.

Afterwards Goss mingles with the crowds and poses for innumerable photographs before enjoying a drink or two with the team. He’s happy to chat to us even now, when he’s earned the right to relax and spend some time with his colleagues. In a candid moment, he expresses a wish for the people back home to feel proud of him, which feels less like a cry of insecurity and more like a mature man’s wish to be recognised as a professional flying the flag at the top of the performing tree. I assure him that, as a Vegas reporting regular, I couldn’t be more chuffed for him and Goss gives me a bright-eyed man-hug. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’d already sold more records than artists these days could ever dream of, and clearly works now as much for the pleasure as for the glory, I’d say that the boy would go far.
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