After 90 minutes of teasing foreplay, blood and spunk remain resolutely unspilled...
Let’s take Placebo on their own terms. Let’s forget that rock stars have been spilling ‘shock’ revelations about their druggy bisexual antics for the past 30 years. Let’s ignore the fact that men in drag have been part of British popular culture since the Victorian music hall era. Let’s overlook their worryingly single-minded ’80s influences, from The Cure to Sonic Youth, the Banshees to the Pixies. Let’s concentrate on that helium-voiced love monkey onstage with the Sonny Bono bowl-cut, whacking seven shades of Thurston Moore out of his guitar and bellowing a tune called ‘Brick Shithouse’.
And let’s meet the New Placebo too: calmer, sadder, more reflective. At several times during this opening night of their latest tour, Brian Molko slows the punkoid fury to a standstill and sways in a lonely spotlight, tugging on a cigarette, baring his freshly soiled soul. He’s Edith Piaf’s whiny little sister for the desolate lament ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ and the wracked serenade ‘Burger Queen’, sifting through the dregs of an affair, sucking on the fag-end of despair. But the slight problem of being taken seriously as a tormented torch singer is highlighted when he sobs the line “[I]takes all day to get an erection[/I]” and everyone cheers. Ho hum. It seems The Kids aren’t quite ready to swap Glam Brian for Glum Brian just yet.
Mostly, though, the tone is one of workmanlike graft and controlled pyrotechnics. Placebo may have left an infamous “trail of blood and spunk” across the country on previous tours, as revealed to [I]NME[/I] and quoted by every reviewer and interviewer since, but both commodities remain strikingly absent from their somewhat passionless and highly mannered live show. The polysexual peacocks who people Molko’s songs seem like little more than juvenile riffs on Brett Anderson’s louche netherworld, and at least that comes wrapped in magnificent tunes. Placebo are troupers, but still not premier league players just yet. Yes, there is a new introspective subtlety to their sound, but this is of little use when Brian still lifts most of his lyrics from the [I]Ladybird Book Of Slightly Rude Rhyming Couplets[/I] (“[I]degradation/masturbation[/I]”, “[I]sister/blister[/I]”, etc.). Yes, there is a lovely feline glide to the New Order/Smashing Pumpkins thrum of ‘You Don’t Care About Us’, but almost every other tune is ’36 Degrees’ revisited and reheated.
And, yes, Placebo boast a formidable rhythm section in skyscraping Stefan and supercharged Steve, but Brian still makes for a half-cocked frontman. He may draw inspiration from the other-worldly narcissism of Bowie and Bolan, but his stage persona sticks closely to the heads-down guitar orthodoxy of classic small-time indie-rock. Behind the sensational headlines and decadent postures, Placebo are essentially The Wedding Present in drag.
There are high points, though. We note the pleasingly full and savage sound, the ear-shafting guitar effects and intestine-stretching bass. We strongly approve of the monster tribal stomp through ‘Nancy Boy’, with its strobe-strafed mid-section meltdown. We are impressed by the rapturous response afforded brand new songs, including the coruscating Pixies-ish howler ‘Every You Every Me’ and the clattering, incest-tinged fable ‘Scared Of Girls’. Placebo rock this sleepy seaside town to its core, no question about it.
But the encore airing of ‘Pure Morning’, quite possibly the worst single ever released by any band this side of The Smurfs, proves a bombastic half-tune too far. When that excruciating “[I]friend in need… friend with weed[/I]” nursery rhyme plods into view, your [I]NME[/I] reporter becomes physically ill and has to vacate the venue at full gallop. This is no exaggeration. Anything to escape a hideous, hollow, drama-queen wallow which epitomises all of Placebo’s worst qualities and none of their saving graces.
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Take them on their own terms, give them the benefit of the doubt, keep an open mind – but even then, Placebo still don’t quite deliver the promised Viagra effect. After 90 minutes of teasing foreplay, blood and spunk remain resolutely unspilled. We go home unsatisfied.