One Direction are on a mission. Right now, the situation calls for damage control – and the remedy is a charm offensive.
On Friday, the band spoke out for the first time since Zayn Malik’s surprise departure, less than two weeks ago. And on Saturday, the remaining quartet, regrouping in Dubai for the final show on this leg of their mammoth On the Road Again Tour, made clear their collective intent to keep the band together.
“We are One Direction and we’re not [going anywhere],” Liam Payne declared to the crowd.
While all eyes were trained on the remaining four members, much thought was spared for the one who was missing. But while Malik’s vocal parts were tastefully divided up, and his existence carefully exorcised from all video projections, there was no elephant in the room. When the camera crew were called on to share fans’ placards on the big screen, they smartly singled out a message that read “Are you and Zayn OK?”
“We are good, I can promise that,” said Liam.
Sharing a collective ambition to spell out their ongoing bromance to the world, the remaining quartet were professional to the hilt. Apart, that is, from their time keeping. Despite pledges that this concert would not be a repeat of Justin Bieber – who famously made UAE audiences wait for two hours, two nights running in 2013 – One Direction took to the stage more than an hour after the scheduled 8pm start time.
Still, at 9.05pm the lights went down and the smartphones came out. And as 1D launched into opener Clouds, the collective hyperventilating shrieks were shrill to say the least.
Thrashing through the tour’s familiar set list, the tempo was kept up withSteal My Girl, Little Black Dress and Where Do Broken Hearts Go.
Things really erupted with Midnight Memories, boasting a huge guitar riff straight from the school of Queen’s Brian May.
Live, One Direction are more rock than pop, distorted chords and stadium-sized drums brought to the fore. But it’s a sanitised take on rock, not the edgy expression of the 1960s or the rampant indulgence of the 1970s – but the smooth, MTV generation of 1980s rock, the hair metal-lite of Def Leppard or Van Halen.
Of course, all that sound is the work of their backing band, who were impeccable – but then One Direction can probably afford the best musicians in the world.
And what of the four lads themselves?
Harry Styles was the crowd’s favourite, his brunette bouffant framed by a foppish, white, long-sleeved shirt. Liam was the mouthy, cheeky one, decked in a baggy open blue shirt, white vest and Adidas cap. Louis Tomlinson was the smouldering, moody, heavily tattooed (and least talkative) type. And youthful Niall Horan, in a plain black tee, looked like he was trying the hardest. Happiest on the many songs on which he has a guitar round his neck, Horan stares longingly at his own backing guitarist’s hands for tips. Perhaps he’ll flee next and form a metal band.
But that’s unlikely because, onstage at least, the remaining quartet really seem to like one another. Charm offensive or not, for fans the band’s strength has always been their seeming genuineness, their light-hearted camaraderie. The way Liam nips on a union jack hat and strokes Niall’s neck. The way Louis force feeds Liam with a stray cheese burger that has been thrown onto the stage. The way Harry devoted five minutes of stage time to getting 32,000 people to sing crew member Phil a Happy Birthday.
If the band are to stand the test of time, it’s this down-to-earth charisma that is paramount.
The evening’s most tender moment comes with UK number one Little Things, a sea of phone screens lighting the stadium in an affecting glow. The spell is then suddenly broken by a half-hour wait because of an “unsafe barricade”.
Things kicked back off with the nostalgic pop of Night Changes, before ramping up the retro rock with Alive and Diana. The stadium exploded withWhat Makes You Beautiful – with a Sevens-sized crowd singing back the “oh-oh-oh” refrain. For Girl Almighty, tens of thousands of hands clapped along with the chorus, before Story of My Life wrapped the set anthemically.
“I’ll give it to you Dubai – you’re the best audience we’ve had all tour,” declared Liam.
A few minutes later they were back, encoring with unplugged ballad You and I, before the rocky Little White Lies.
“We really appreciate you being there for the last five years – let’s keep it going, we’re having a laugh,” said Niall, reiterating the message before set closer Best Song Ever, which opens with a gargantuan guitar attack reminiscent of The Who’s Baba O’Riley.
The setlist’s most notable absence was Clash-aping radio smash hit Live While We’re Young.
At it’s core, this was good, clean pop. And pop that has the power to cross generations – the group of excitable middle aged women to my left, loudly discussing their favourite member, seemed to be loving it every bit as much as the toddlers scampering around at my feet.
One Direction won’t be remembered as a classic band, or a group who did anything that hasn’t been done before – the manufactured boy band goes back to The Monkees, after all.
But they did make history in the UAE, staging the largest concert the region has ever seen.
And whether One Direction really weathers the post-Zayn storm or not in the long term, it may be some time before we witness a phenomenon quite this large again.