London Shepherd’s Bush Empire
The Prince of Darkness tugs up his slightly-saggy leopard-print tights. He adjusts the strap on his ebony Miss Selfridge frock, and purses his lipsticked mouth. Then he picks up bandmate Stefan’s bass guitar and presses it into an amp, causing an unholy cacophony that threatens to collapse the star-spangled dome of the Empire in shuddering, earth-rending noise. And it lasts for ages. Have Placebo returned, nearly a year to the day after the conclusion of their last major tour, as the Goth Mogwai?! Er, no.
Let’s back up a bit. Placebo, tonight, are headlining an MTV-sponsored affair, complete with fancy video cameras which arc across the stage on robotic arms, VIP seating, and a crowd that seem, Top Of The Pops-style, programmed to mosh and cheer on cue. Really, if you were Brian Molko – cross-dressing locus of both tremendous obsessive adoration and equally vociferous hatred – wouldn’t you want to shake things up a bit? Trademark glitter and eyeliner meticulously in place, Molko has changed not a jot since last we saw him flouncing across the stage of Brixton Academy, drawling a verbose introduction to ’36 Degrees’ in his mid-Atlantic whine.
Indeed, even the smattering of new material introduced this evening sounds virtually indistinguishable from the old stuff. There’s the familiar blasts of twisted anger and brittle despair, the amphetamine riffs, the persistent suspicion that Molko might spontaneously sprout bat-wings and flap away halfway through each song. Placebo don’t really need to evolve, other than to shift almost imperceptibly from goth to glam. They have, after all, the release of Velvet Goldmine – in which Molko gets to pout on celluloid alongside a spangly-suited Ewan McGregor – to look forward to.
It looms ominously with the threat of imminent glam-revival, and Placebo seem determined to pre-empt the phenomenon. But they’ve achieved that long ago. From their inception, Placebo have been icons of inscrutable androgyny, all icy-cool posture and Kohl-eyed glower. They’ve nothing to prove as they bash out ‘Nancy Boy’, augmenting its collision of brutality and fiendish beauty by playing it louder and faster than ever. Or when they return for three single-song encores, accompanied by a roaring ‘Mwaaargh!’ from crowd and lingering feedback. So when they choose to surprise us by lurching into perversions of their established motif, it catches us even more unaware.
This happens with the aforementioned feedback-fest finale, and, gorgeously, when Stefan folds his supertall frame behind a keyboard and plays ‘Teenage Angst’ as if it were the most gut-wrenching, bleakest lullaby ever written. “Since I was born I started to decay”, whispers Molko, pausing momentously between each syllable, “Now nothing ever ever goes my way”. Sure it does, you’re on MTV. This, then, is the return of Molko and his minions – exactly what we expected, with jabs of insurrection. All of which makes it more difficult to predict what we have to look forward to once this ‘new material’ is more adequately aired. In the only spoken sentence his lordship utters all night, he inquires, “Is the future onstage, or is it in the audience?” Don’t know, Brian, you tell us.