Backstage tonight, in the very spot that Dappy and co will be cotching later, the Venetian artist Canaletto painted his 1750 watercolour ‘The Thames From The Terrace Of Somerset House’. He captured a moment in London’s history when wealth was flooding into the capital, the massed boats on the river appear full of mercantile energy, the well-dressed family posing in the bottom corner proudly display the fashionable wealth of Georgian England.
A quarter of a millennium later, and the families are again posing on the riverbank. But while there might seem a world and class between the young mums in “Na Na Niii” tees, their kids sporting Dappy hats, and their Georgian counterparts, there is one important parallel between Canaletto and N-Dubz. Both artists are peddlers of the aspirational spectacle. Just as Canaletto’s painting was consumed by a newly emergent middle class, who could identify with this image in public galleries, N-Dubz too are storytellers of wealth, offering the fantasy of celebrity class, with their glitzy brand of hand-me-down hip-hop and grime-pop crowd pleasers.
The music, as you might have guessed, is uninteresting. Their recent output, which garnered them a clutch of MOBOs, has released the tenuous grip they had on crude poppy hip-hop, with those hooky Dappy melodies, and gone for a larger, blander urban sound. What is interesting however is that everyone tonight appears to identify with their rags-to-riches story.
Because in the N-Dubz universe everything is attainable. Despite the obvious chasm of quality, there was always a Mike Skinner-ish soberness about the limits of their horizons. They carried some of that business-shy reticence of early Grime. Their videos were set in detached houses, not mansions. They drove an Audi, never a Bentley. In short, theirs always seemed like a journey to the safety of Middle England, not the pop stratosphere. Success can be measured in domestic details, as on Ouch, where big screams greet the promise of emancipation through home entertainment packages: “Now remember when we were financially unstable / Channel 1 to 5 no Sky or cable.”
Tulisa is the WAG who sang first, and despite tonight’s shifts of costume between classy Spanish rose and Swarovski Adidas, can’t disguise the fact she has the wardrobe DNA of a glamour model. Her stripper moves are honed, and while her slightly hokey invocations of friends and family is a nice line in feminine maturity, it bears the distinctive polish of a press conference or Hello caption. When the boys come in dressed in military uniform, Fazer as an officer, Dappy as aviation history’s most unlikely flight mechanic, they make a visible pantomime of social rank through clothing, those symbols of status the high street has been steadily collapsing for decades.
“I remember when we didn’t have a pot to piddle in” recounts Fazer, as they receive their framed triple platinum discs halfway through their set, before going on to suggest the band now have a “Triple-A rating” which might be news to the financial markets, now that N-Dubz are officially bigger than Greece. This mini press conference cleverly positions the audience as paparazzi. “Photo opportunity!” shouts Tulisa, and for a moment the fone flashes of a thousand mini-Canalettos match the intensity of their screaming. N-Dubz know their stagecraft.
“I officially took off my ears. I can hear you now,” Dappy informs the audience at one juncture, which does actually go some way to explaining that key he’s been singing in – he was tone deaf for a period and had to sleep with the shower on just to blot out the tinnitus. Over the years he’s had the misfortune of occupying the role of media working class clown, the recidivist chav, Groucho Marx via Catherine Tate. Tonight, for all the daft energy, his vulnerability is worn all over his mug, the kind of vulnerability that prompts the sadistic edge to his press coverage. The hyperactive touchy kid who might just snap if we push him hard enough. To see him confused by the smug cockiness of the Buzzcocks panel, or telling an interviewer with forthright earnestness that he wished he’d got a couple of GCSEs, you begin to suspect there are larger relationships in play here than the deeply troubled one he has with his milliner.
The energy almost spent, Fazer strolls out to encore with a Paisley do-rag hanging out the front of his trousers – a nice hip-hop post-coital touch, like a suggestive boxer fresh from cleaning up. Accidentally losing it in the thicket of screaming fans he panics for a second: “I’m gonna need that back.” “Seriously,” chips in Tulisa, “it cost a lot of money.”