The bad boys of British pop back in Australia, older and wiser
East 17 may be England's boy band bad-boys, but their desire burns hard and strong for Australian shores. So much so that, following the release of this year's Dark Light album, founding member John Hendy insisted on an antipodean tour. "John was all fired up to emigrate to Australia a couple of years ago," frontman Tony Mortimer informs me down the line from London. "In 2010, I came back in to the fold, just in time to scupper his plans. Given I ruined that," he says, laughing, "and how much we all love the sunshine, it seems only fair to come for a quick visit now."
Mortimer founded the group, proudly named after the postcode of their hometown, Walthamstow, in 1991 with friends Hendy and Terry Coldwell. They were joined shortly after by the r’n’b stylings of Brian Harvey. It was former lead singer Harvey's apparent lack of commitment to rehearsal and live performance – plus a number of personal struggles you'll know from the tabloids – that led to him leaving the group in 2010, a fact diplomatically alluded to by Mortimer when he says: "We tried to get the original band back together; we tried really hard but sadly it just didn't happen." Constantly described as the bad-ass alternative to Take That, the group experienced massive success throughout the 1990s through a slick blend of rap and pop that saw them sell 20 million records globally (compared to Take That's paltry 19 mill).
It was a hectic time, with Mortimer's memories of the band's visits to Sydney particularly colourful. "I remember walking off the plane at the airport and thinking, 'Bloody hell, we English are part-reptilian! Look at all this sunshine!' When we wandered down into the terminal there were hundreds of kids waiting to greet us." He deadpans: "This time we're expecting a few of them to turn up, but this time with their own kids."
The new tour will see the band performing to smaller venues than the arenas they packed out in the early days, which would seem to suit recent singles like 'I Can't Get You Off My Mind' that eschew the political brattiness of their early days for more restrained melodic turns. This is not the East 17 you remember. However, playing less pyrotechnic-focused and more intimate gigs comes with its own share of concerns. "When you play the big shows," Mortimer explains, "there's this cushy sense of freedom because you're miles away from the crowd. The intimate ones are much scarier because you can see everyone's smiles, or god help it, their frowns! Actually, the lads were giving me a bit of stick in rehearsals the other day because we seem to remember Australians don't have very many inhibitions at concerts. Once, about 1995, some wag yelled out, 'Oi! Do you want another beer mate? Maybe it'll help ya sing better!'"
Despite the threat of heckling, or perhaps because of the promise of free beer, Mortimer is tangibly excited about touring again with a touch more maturity on his side. "We're quite happy that it'll never return to the madness of the early days," he confesses. "After we play our shows we're able to enjoy some find dining and a bit of good wine, and then still remember what happened when we wake up the next day."
Mortimer has promised his family that he'll also fulfill their (slightly misguided) ideas of what Australians look like. "I've told the missus and my daughters that I will definitely be come back looking just as tanned and muscular as the objects of their desire from Neighbours and Home and Away. Or I'll just buy a surfboard and turn up with that at Heathrow. Depends which is easier," he laughs. Fans should be excited about East 17's visit, because Mortimer offers no guarantees for the future, saying: "At the moment it's a lot of fun, and the three of us keep each other very amused. I think that music should involve a lot of laughter, because what's the point in life if it's all too serious? We're all looking forward to keeping up our game as entertainers, but if people think they'll be able to see us performing in our old age they're dead wrong; they'll need a bucket of painkillers to get us up on stage in the future!"