Review: Pet Shop Boys in Concert

Pet Shop Boys are unusual. A pokerfaced parody of a pop band who happen to write brilliant pop music, they have achieved commercial success on a level that most bands can only dream about, while sidestepping the constrictions of celebrity. You might just recognise Neil Tennant (the one who sings) but Chris Lowe (the other one) could moonlight as your local dentist and you’d never know, not least because he chooses to appear onstage at Sydney’s Carriageworks in a giant mirror ball helmet. As Tennant sings on ‘Opportunities’, one of their best songs: “I’ve got the brains/You’ve got the looks/Let’s make lots of money.”

A bit of spare change left over from the band’s royalties (22 of their singles have entered the UK Top 10) has clearly been spent on set design: scrims, props, lasers, smoke machine, data projection, the works. What with multiple costume changes and dancers to share the stage, there’s no shortage of bright and shiny things to look at. It’s a meticulously planned spectacle, even if little of it makes thematic sense — why are the dancers wearing enormous animal skulls? Perhaps as a memento mori, a reminder of the melancholy undertow which characterises so much of the Pet Shop Boys’ music but which seems missing tonight.

The hint of sadness is replaced with joy, and you’d have to be made of stone not to get a lift out of songs like ‘Rent’, ‘Suburbia’ and most especially ‘It’s A Sin’, which is the sound of a guilt-ridden Catholic conscience being purged on the dance floor. “When I look back upon my life/It’s always with a sense of shame/I’ve always been the one to blame”  Tennant sings — an odd way to begin a pop song, but it’s glorious, and gets a huge response. That’s the Pet Shop Boys for you: they’re clever bastards, sincere and knowing at exactly the same time, always one conceptual step ahead.

Pet Shop Boys turn most assumptions about musicianship upside down. Neil Tennant has a reedy, flat singing voice, and Chris Lowe does almost nothing onstage apart from look fabulous. Most of what we hear is pre-programmed. All those rockers sweating it out with guitars, popping their veins to let us know how much they care, appear like fools in comparison. Pet Shop Boys win the game without even trying. They drop ‘West End Girls’ about thirty minutes into their set, as if to get their first and most iconic single out of the way. Most bands would hold such a hit close to their chests like a trump card, only to deploy it with a flourish and a satisfied smile at the last possible moment of play — but Pet Shop Boys aren’t most bands.

Even amid a rich selection of audience favourites the real highlights were the newest songs, from last year’s album Electric. A buzzing ‘Fluorescent’ and a slinky ‘Thursday’ in celebration of the public holiday (“It’s Thursday night/Let’s get it right/I wanna know you’re gonna stay for the weekend”) changed up the tempo, and the final song of the night was Electric’s closing track, ‘Vocal’, an irresistible slice of acid-house which flashes back to the glory days of Britain’s late-80s rave culture. “I like the singer/He's lonely and strange,” sings Tennant, who is both of these things and more, “Every track has a vocal/And that makes a change.”

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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