The top 40, back in 1977, was an unsettling place. I was 11 and too young for punk — the girls in ballet tutus and torn fishnets and boys with starched mohicans and kilts, like Bay City Rollers rejects. At pre-teen parties I’d pretend, instead, to fit in as an Ilford mod in pork-pie hat and hush puppies. I must have looked like a pensioner.
All the time, I yearned for something more. Something with meaning. When I unwrapped Barry Manilow’s fifth album, I found it.
Barry Manilow Live, screamed the cover, in neon-blue lettering above an image of Barry in a navy jumpsuit with arms outstretched, eyes to the heavens as if he was being crucified. Without hesitation, I joined the Barry Manilow Fan Club.
Membership entitled me to a badge and an occasional info-packed newsletter. It was enough. This was an age when receiving anything in the post was still a thrill.
Looking back now, Barry Pincus (he took his mother’s maiden name at his barmitzvah) seemed like one of us. He could have been born, like me, in Ilford. He could have been raised in Redbridge, nurturing dreams at the Jewish Youth Club and 12th Ilford scouts. I didn’t want to be a singer; but a showman with a microphone? You bet. Barry was showbusiness in shoulder pads, with collars like Concorde’s wings and a one-piece so tight it looked like it was stitched onto his skin.
He was the Jewish John Travolta. Grease was cool, and Saturday Night Fever cooler still, but Barry outshone them all. He even looked like my best friend Gavin from Gants Hill, who went on to be something big in photocopiers.
Manilow answered our Shabbat prayers. He was Bowie, for barmitzvah boys everywhere. He was kosher kitsch. He was one of us.
Better still, his melodies were pure magic. New York City Rhythm was Technicolor escapism, especially viewed from Jim Callaghan’s bleak winter of discontent. And when I discovered that women were hurling their underwear at the stage, I had to know more. What was the glitter ball voodoo-magic that made grown women act this way? I’d scour the newsletter, when it arrived, trying to understand Manilow’s magnetic attraction.
No mention of Barry-fandom can pass without reference to his sexuality. When I mention this now, the reaction is always “What did your parents think?” And I always answer the same way: “They didn’t think anything at all — as far as I know. And anyway, they were too busy listening to Johnny Mathis.”
In 1977, Barry’s act was just another version of the high camp that defined a decade. Besides, he was singing about love and girls. It was Mandy, not Andy.
Am I still a fan? Of course. Despite a permanently startled expression and an act that feels more at home in the show rooms of Vegas than anywhere else, his songs still sound great.
Daybreak is feel-good writ large and, as for Copacabana, was there ever a lyric that revealed more about inner conflict? Barry Pincus was that showgirl all along, the yellow feather, dancing the merengue and the cha-cha and trying to be a star while Tony tended bar. In the end, he married Gary, not Tony, in an apparently secret ceremony in 2014.
He only came out, officially, a few weeks back. I thought he’d stepped out of the closet years ago, leaving the frilly frocks behind. But really, it makes no difference at all. Manilow’s new album, This is My Town, has just been released and if he tours these shores anytime soon I’ll be there, in the stalls, waving my lighter in the air.