32 years since their first stage appearance at the Fridge Nightclub in Brixton Pet Shop Boys took the Royal Opera House by storm with their customary quirkily eclectic stage show and an absorbing mix of latest songs (from the Album Super) and standards from down those 32 years. It’s clear that old electronic-disco, synthpop-dance music aficionados never die – they just rock on sending the sell-out crowd happily wild in the process.
It’s a four night residency at the Royal Opera House – House Music is the strap-line – and continues the well-worn furrow that the Boys have ploughed – alongside the big stadia gigs such as the 02 and the like around the world – of performing in diverse venues – The Royal Albert Hall, Trafalgar Square and the moat of the Tower of London to name a few.
Called Inner Sanctum it’s thus appropriate that the gig should be introduced by the song of that name from Super – their latest (13th) studio album. Super is the middle work of a trilogy produced by Stuart Price (starting with Electric), an unashamed, upbeat disco-pop album and the pulsating backbeat and surging rhythm of Inner Sanctum combined with the explosive laser-and-light visuals started the evening off with a full-on assault on all the senses to which the audience immediately rose from the comfortably plush Opera House stalls to bop along for the duration of the show.
Cleverly, the second song was a their most well-known – West End Girls – and a gig-list of latest tracks alternating with familiar hits continued throughout the show. Thus we had their recent hit – The Pop Kids – followed by a live debut of In The Night – the track made famous as the intro to The Clothes Show.
You’re never far away from an intriguing lyric when Neil Tennant is involved and from Love Is A Bourgeoise Construct the line Searching for the soul of England / Drinking tea like Tony Benn seems particularly apt and prescient with the current travails in the Labour Party. The intro to this is provided on electric violin by Christina Hizon, who also plays keyboards and adds vocals, as do percussionists Afrika Green and Simon Tellier. In my experience it is unusual for Pet Shop Boys to have additional musicians on stage and these three were very much part of Creative Director Es Devlin’s design concept: effectively lit and visually compelling, floating in on stage-trucks, the three instrumental stacks replaced the two giant peach-like pods that greet the audience as the curtain rises to the intro beats of the first number. The pods swivel, slowly, and as the fronts come into view showing that they are two halves of one pod, they reveal within them our first sighting of Tennant and Lowe. It’s a spectacular opening and shows that, although its the music that is all important, the Boys are always fascinated by the theatricality of the show and there’s never going to be a dull moment.
With his multiple costume changes, Tennant favours a long coat and a dose of quasi-militaria and so, on stage, as the live debut of The Dictator Decides begins, we see him donning a hussar type hat with tunic so that he can bemoan the state of dictatorships, then, now and in the future: Today I met with the generals / and the head of my secret police / discussing conspiracies and prison facilities / for opponents I can never release. Prescient as ever, Turkey immediately comes to mind.
And so to the quirkiness: three aliens appear, silver-clad from top to toe, vaguely reminiscent of all alien depictions from Close Encounters to Star Trek: I expected them to dance. They didn’t. They held Tennant in a vaguely sinister triangulation, staring at him as if he were the alien and then, as he moved across the stage, they moved with him without losing their fixed distance from their subject. A student once wrote a full dissertation on the line I love you / you pay my rent from the song Rent (not on the set-list here): so, mate, how do you feel about having a go at explaining these aliens?
Then, of course, the eclectic: the final number of the show proper had to be none other than Go West, the Pet Shop Boys iconic cover of the Village People song which has become a kind of signature tune for them as well as being heard in every football stadium throughout the land with adjusted lyrics, of course. (Nayim / from the half-way line for all you Arsenal supporters reading this, Chris). When the Boys performed the song at the Brits Awards 1994 they were supported by a full-scale Welsh Miners Choir in overalls, helmets and head-lanterns, on stage. At the Royal Opera House, the Boys went for a different take: 32 purple, orange, green and, er.. pink Michelin men crowded onto the stage to dance (?) along to the song. Eclectic…? Yeah. Effective? Yeah. Funny – definitely: after all these years the Boys haven’t lost their dry and understated sense of humour. My guest did wonder though, being very familiar with backstage at the ROH, how all these fatties managed to move around behind the scenes without crushing a couple of unfortunate ASMs along the way.
Why 32? The show is billed as “30 years of music-making” but the clue is in the first line of this review.
There had to be a reprise of this of course and in the encore rendering of Always On My Mind (not a cover, as is generally thought, of the Elvis song but of the original Brenda Lee version) the well-upholstered hoofers re-appeared with a substantially more energetic choreographic representation of the song rendering them fat and tyreless Michelin people. As with all Pet Shop Boys quirky eclecticism, don’t ask, just immerse.
The real dancer appeared during New York City Boy and delighted the crowd with his athletic and innovative hip-hop street moves – but he’s not identified in the programme.
And whilst Tennant moves sedately and seductively about the stage, getting the audience to sing along at appropriate moments with that languid economy of movement that is his trademark, throughout the show the genius that is Chris Lowe stands static and immobile, apart from those elastically intuitive fingers, behind his Korg Triton creating the sound that has always developed and progressed throughout the years but that is unmistakably Pet Shop Boys.
A consummate performance by a consummate band: roll on the third album in the trilogy. (And, yes, I did get the tee shirt).
Review by Peter Yates