Saturday, 13 July 2013

18th June 2013: Pet Shop Boys / Jon Hopkins - The O2, London

"You have a certain quality which really is unique,
Expression with such irony, although your voice is weak.
It doesn't really matter cause the music is so loud,
Of course it's all on tape but no-one will find out..."

I may have mentioned last time that May and June saw me entering into a nice little seam of electronica, cutting like a very funky raspberry ripple into the vanilla sea of rock gigs I normally drone on about. 

Well, in terms of conventional instruments played, I think this gig sets a new record, as between the support and the main act there actually aren't any. I mean, there's a keyboard in front of Chris Lowe which he jabs at occasionally, but there's a moment in the middle of their Hi-NRG cover of Bernstein's 'Somewhere' where he just wanders off stage (leaving only dancers dressed as minotaurs in day-glo orange jumpsuits - this could only be the Pet Shop Boys) and the music keeps on playing without anything discernible being missing.

Yeah, by the way, these are some of the worst photos I've ever taken.
You're welcome.

You could complain, but it's there in black and white italics above and they've never made any secret of it. But to moan about most of the music we hear tonight playing itself is to miss the point of a Pet Shop Boys gig. They're serious electronic artists, honey, they don't need no guitars. Yes, that's right, they're electronic pioneers and dancefloor gods - what do you mean they're just a cheesy pop band?

It's a point which is hammered home tonight at every opportunity- from the title of the tour (and upcoming album), 'Electric', to the selection of banging choons which play over the PA while we wait, to the part of the gig where the duo are packed away into giant hard drives either side of the stage for one of their many, many costume changes while 'Love, Etc' plays itself with accompanying projections- and I don't see anyone complaining. 

Tonight's support fits the theme perfectly...

Jon Hopkins a name that's been on the outskirts of my attention for a while, but it's not until tonight that I get to check out what the moderate fuss is about. It's hard to describe just what is so mesmerising about his set- perhaps it's the continuous flow of tracks from nervous, pulsating beats to all-out dance floor grooves and then onto Balearic bliss with a side order of morning after style chill out. Prog fans like to say their favourite music takes them on a journey, but this cinematically epic set shifts about all over the place in moods and feels, from a dark London alley at chucking out time to the beaches of Ibiza, and conjures up more mental imagery than even the colourful backdrop projections suggest.

Yes, colourful backdrop projections. Not my fault if you can't see them.

So, what's Mr Hopkins actually up to on stage? Well, aside from gyrating around behind his laptop in a most endearing fashion, he uses pads and knobs to trigger glitchy, mashy, scratchy sounds which truly differentiate his music from your average chill out compilation. With some dubstep bass here and there and the hypnotic cycling keyboard theme of 'Light Through the Veins' providing his biggest "hit", 40 minutes passes in a flash and he leaves the stage to a mixture of bewilderment and rapture from this crowd. Clearly it wasn't for everybody. 

Pet Shop Boys

...don't care whether they're for everyone or not- even their fans. Taking a leaf out of the Steven Wilson book of stagecraft, they're not even visible to a lot of the audience for the first couple of songs - being encased in a giant tent where projections and shadows bounce off the front, while banging new album opening track 'Axis' starts things the way they are destined to go on all night. A mash-up of old classic 'One More Chance' and 'A Face Like That' from last year's somewhat overlooked 'Elysium' album establish the theme of pleasing the hardcore - and in fact it's not until song number 8 that anything approaching a major hit single pops up, with a joyous version of 'Suburbia' beckoning the entire crowd (a curiously varied lot, to be honest) to their feet for a bit of a boogie.

In the interim, Neil and Chris do pretty much whatever they please - and it's clear from the new album (which you can listen to here, and you should) that they're in a mood for a dance. That, and revisiting some long overlooked corners of their catalogue - hence minor hit 'Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)' gets mashed up with 'The Clothes Show' theme 'In the Night', then there's the oddly topical 'Integral' ("If you've done nothing wrong, you've got nothing to fear...") before the more chilled beats of last year's single 'Leaving', during which everyone takes the title literally and decides to go to the toilet - so many of them that I take a picture by way of passive aggressive protest. It's a shame, because it's a lovely performance, with this and 'Invisible' being some of Neil's best vocals, although he's in astoundingly good voice all night.


There's also time for a couple more new tracks - including Bruce Springsteen cover 'The Last to Die' (which, I suppose, is no more odd than the version of 'Always on My Mind' they play later), and the excellent 'Thursday' which give us both our first Chris Lowe trademark deadpan Mancunian vocals of the night and a guest appearance from Example, who pops in for a quick rap and a cup of tea. (Minus the tea.)

It's a bold set for the first two thirds at least (opening and closing with brand new, as yet unreleased tracks is a gamble which luckily pays off), and it necessarily does away with a few of the hits, but some of those that remain are given a makeover- 'I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing', for instance, managing to confound everyone by being prefaced with an excerpt from 'The Rite of Spring', before having the "electro" knob turned up to 11 whilst Chris Lowe wears a kind of Viking Transformers helmet.

Then there's a version of 'Rent' which I describe in my notes as 'dirty' (although I don't remember exactly why, I don't think there's any more gyrating on stage than at any other point), before they move into the home strait with a slam dunk final half hour of tracks from iconic 90's Best-Of 'Discography' including the first PSB song I ever heard, 'It's a Sin', and the big covers ('Go West', 'Always on My Mind') which personally I would live without in favour of something (anything, pleeeeease?) from the 'Behaviour' or 'Bilingual' albums. Still, earlier in the night they played my favourite B-side 'I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)' so totting up the scores I think they're still ahead.

My favourite part of this hit-tastic final section? The Latin-infused 'Domino Dancing' has always been a favourite, and it gets everyone up and samba-ing to the best of their ability (yeah, you can probably imagine), but it's enhanced for me by the two middle-aged ladies in the row behind and their "We love you Neil" banner. I hate to break it to you, ladies...

Pet Shop Boys Setlist

One More Chance / Face Like That 
Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money) 
Memory of the Future 
I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing 
I'm Not Scared 
Last to Die (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Somewhere (Leonard Bernstein cover)
Thursday (with Example)
Love Etc. 
I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too) 
It's a Sin 
Domino Dancing 
Go West
Always on My Mind

West End Girls 


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