Barry Manilow: Britain’s love affair with easy listening’s greatest showman blazes on

Barry Manilow at the O2 - Redferns/Robin Little
Barry Manilow at the O2 - Redferns/Robin Little

Harry Styles wasn’t the only sequinned pop icon wowing his generation in London on Sunday night. Across town from his Wembley Stadium show, Barry Manilow served up a series of evergreen hits in a concert that resembled a karaoke party in a retirement home. The New Yorker may be 79 and cheesier than a slice of pizza pie, but his sweet-toned songs demonstrated music’s alchemic ability to form seams in people’s memories, spread joy and bond a crowd, whatever their age.

There wasn’t a word left unhollered by his 20,000 fans at the O2. When they changed the line in 1985’s Sweet Heaven (I’m In Love Again) from “I’ll sing it on the radio” to “We love you Barry Manilow”, the roof nearly came off the place. The chunky neon glow sticks that attendees were given on arrival were waved aloft throughout, the rave-up vibe helped by the fact that Manilow’s entrance music was – bizarrely – Underworld’s Born Slippy.

Manilow walked to the centre of the stage and struck a “ta-da” arms-out pose, at which point the lights burst on and we were off. Wearing a brown satin sparkly jacket (the first of many throughout the show), he played upbeat mid-Seventies easy listening track It’s A Miracle. This was precisely the kind of song from which disco emerged – just add a funkier rhythm guitar and heavier four-on-the-floor drum beat, and you’d be there. And it was when disco was at its zenith in 1978 that Manilow broke through in the UK with Even Now, the album which contained his infectious, Latin-infused track Copacabana.

“We met in 1978. I fell in love with you guys,” Manilow told the audience, addressing them like a long-lost partner. “And from then on I was smitten with Britain.”

Manilow grew up in post-war Brooklyn (“rough… kind of like Slough, but without the charm”). On Saturdays, his grandfather would walk him to a 25 cent record-your-own-song booth in Manhattan’s Times Square; in a poignant moment, we got a snippet of one of these recordings. He attended the New York College of Music, wrote jingles and became pianist – then producer – for Bette Midler. He achieved fame with his cover of Scott English and Richard Kerr’s song Brandy, changing the title to Mandy. In 2017, Manilow came out as gay and said he’d been in a relationship with his manager (now his husband) since 1978. He’d kept his sexuality secret for fear of disappointing his fans.

He really needn’t have worried. Can’t Smile Without You sounded like a mutual manifesto. Looks Like We Made It, This One’s For You and I Write The Songs were big, brassy ballads for which Manilow sat at a grand piano. Unlike other touring musicians his age, his voice is still strong.

Barry Manilow and friend at the O2 - Redferns/Robin Little
Barry Manilow and friend at the O2 - Redferns/Robin Little

“I’m so glad you still like these songs. Songs that remind you of your first kiss, or your first hickey,” he said at one point, summing up precisely the unique power that three-minute pop songs have. He lamented the lack of melody in modern music but embraced the 21st-century by showing a montage of TikTok videos to his song Dancing in the Aisles. In them, young people dance in the aisles of assorted retail outlets. The fans here at the O2 would surely have done the same had the security guards allowed them.

Mandy and Could It Be Magic – slower than Take That’s 1992 cover version – saw the glow sticks raised even higher. For Copacabana, Manilow donned a bright orange jacket while his backing singers wore yellow feather carnival outfits. It was manna from heaven for the ecstatic crowd. He ended with the stirring Let Freedom Ring, backed by a choir and in front of a vast Ukrainian flag.

“America and Britain have a lot in common,” Manilow said at the start of the song. “We both love democracy. We both love freedom. And we both love me.” The roar from the crowd suggested that easy listening’s greatest showman wasn’t wrong.

Until June 25. Tickets: barrymanilow.com