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Concert review: Pet Shop Boys, Electric (Live at the 02 Arena, London)

“You’ve got the brawn, I’ve got the brains, let’s make lots of money” was the anti-Thatcher mantra that mechanised its way through Opportunities, Pet Shop Boys’ ‘greed isn’t good’ satire back in the 1980s. The irony above ironies being that Tennant/Lowe have earned more filthy lucre from the song’s subsequent use in television than they ever did on record. Hell, the BBC even used it in their report announcing the death of Mrs T. herself. Perhaps that was the idea all along. Now that’s what I call ennui.

Another paradoxical point about this pioneering pair is that they refused to tour their ‘early stuff,’ chiefly because they stood to lose a fortune by insisting on only performing as a part of a multi-million mega stage show. But with the Pets’ record sales in nosedive mode, try keeping them from treading those boards now and you’d probably be sent to stand in the corner of some vast arena with a pointy hat on.

Like 2009′s ingenious Pandemonium tour, this new production is a collaboration with feted Madonna producer Stuart Price and designer Es Devlin. It follows a similar formula of most previous Shoppy outings: a song they gave away here, a couple of B-sides and a slew of hits there. But whereas the Pandemonium tour innovated a through-line vibrancy that offered depth through substance, in 2013 there’s less budget, less narrative but more of a challenging setlist (bye-bye signature songs Being Boring, Left To My Own Devices, hello a clutch of unfamiliar tracks from last year’s low-key Elysium and forthcoming dancefloor-dedicated Electric).
It’s all also rather eccentrically sequenced, so that it’s a good half hour before a top tenner appears in the shape of Suburbia, and unsurprisingly, gains the first rapturous reception of the night. More brawn than brains then.

As usual, it’s a costume spectacular of deadpan Dadaism – mirrorball helmets, stilts and pogoing Yetis straight out of a 1960s episode of Doctor Who, but with just two – yes, two – dancers plus the conical brothers themselves, the deviant disco often looks extremely empty, with a feeling of not very much happening on stage other than a few so-so projections and a bit of banging strobing (reclaiming I’m Not Scared, not performed for over 20 years, was certainly a cross-crossing highlight in more ways than one). There’s just far too much of Neil just walking around a big empty stage while the unexceptional dancers wear a succession of outlandish headgear. Less cardboard, more dead wood.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that, visually and conceptually, this rather static show is a huge compromise from what was originally planned. The original Electric concept was scaled back very late in the process – primarily for financial considerations. However, what’s most surprising is how short the set is: 100 minutes versus 130 mins when they were last at the venue. Bearing this is mind, was there really a need to truncate or merge so many of the songs? Especially when they’re such classic crowd pleasers as Rent, I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing and the orchestral high energy of Somewhere.

Cut and paste shortcuts aside, I doubt PSB will worry too much; Neil is 59 this month and probably feels it. The last time I interviewed the dynamic duo, he told me his favourite tour Pet Shop Boys had ever staged was 1994′s Discovery, which didn’t come to the US or Europe. His reason? “It was cheap and cheerful shit entertainment.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Steve Pafford

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