For a band performing tonight for over three decades in their career in a crowded O2 Arena, Pet Shop Boys were never even meant to be stage wear. Although the overwhelming majority of tonight’s set is comprised of material from the duo’s vaunted “imperial phase,” those hits weren’t performed live until that phase was over in 1991. Indeed, in a arena much like tonight’s in 1999 – but instead faced with half-empty audiences and a bankrupt promoter – Tennant and Lowe nearly put a stop to it. While 2022’s Pet Shop Boys might seem like quite a British institution, like many British institutions, their endurance might seem inevitable while in fact being anything but. Indeed, that an outfit famous for nostalgia and throwback to even make a Greatest Hits set suggests a rapprochement with their own institution status, as well as the fact that they are now at the forefront of three critically acclaimed hits. albums produced in collaboration with superproducer Stuart Price. Price is the music director for tonight’s Dreamworld show – credited with turning Pet Shop Boys into an all-electronic act under his direction, tonight’s arrangements are tougher, sleeker and owe a lot to the band’s own remixes .
The show begins with flashing lights and a sample of Chris Lowe’s deadpan Blackpool accent speaking the opening lyrics to “Love Comes Quickly.” This trick is repeated throughout a show that aims to create a kaleidoscopic and cohesive expanded universe of Pet Shop Boys hits. “In Dreamworld, being boring is a sin,” Tennant purrs through an introductory monologue-manifesto for the next two hours, “where West End Girls meet New York City Boys.” For opener ‘Suburbia’ – with its invincible chorus masking nightmarish prophecies of the ‘slums of the future’ – the pair stand in the classic Pet Shop Boys formation, side by side, with large upside-down metal pitchforks obscuring their faces.
Despite this, tonight’s staging is more understated than recent Pet Shop Boys live releases. It’s not a set that requires gimmicks or great theatrics to hold the audience’s attention. Set design by Tom Scott – currently designer of the Playhouse’s new Cabaret production and hired after Tennant was impressed with his work on A Very Expensive Poison by Lucy Prebble – plays beautifully with the Pet Shop Boys imagery. Two lampposts serve as either a moody street scene for “West End Girls” or a campy kitchen sink theater for a terrific “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” emphasizing the role of dark city streets as arteries of the lyrics of the Pet Shop Boys. Brilliantly, the stagehands (roadies seem too rock a term for Pet Shop Boys) are dressed in bricks with high visibility helmets and hard hats. As for Tennant, his outfits run the gamut, from high-end flight host to Berghain sugardaddy before ending on the Northern bouncer coming out of retirement for one last job.
Reflecting the Pet Shop Boys’ loyalty to their dance music roots, Lowe was elevated to a backstage DJ where he would remain for the majority of the set. These dance music roots find their best expression in a terrific pairing of 2013’s Vocal track – a hymn to the old-fashioned joys of vocal house music – and 1989 single “It’s Alright”, a cover of one of early rave anthems from Sterling & Void. “The lyrics were specific to 1989,” Tennant points out, “and somehow they apply today.” Tennant is right – his reference to “Eurasian people on the brink of oppression”, and his vague but poignant hope that all will be well is surprisingly moving. This isn’t the only reference to Russia’s war with Ukraine, West End Girls’ lyrics are subtly changed to “from Mariupol to Kyiv station”.
The set also contains other ghosts. Note the video directed by Derek Jarman for ‘Lease’ played in full during this track – recently you could watch this video as part of Manchester Art Gallery’s Jarman retrospective – and the umbilical cord from Jealousy and Being Boring, both of which refer to the life of the friend of Tennant’s childhood, Christopher Dowell, who died of AIDS-related complications during the height of the Pet Shop Boys’ success.
For all the welcome innovations in pop – and indeed the way pop music is written – over the past decade, tonight’s set is a curious reminder that mainstream pop is currently lagging behind in terms of scope and subject. Review the themes covered tonight – war, economics, Catholic guilt, AIDS, sexual repression and the suburbs. Even the covers catalog remarkable breadth, from the Village People to Stephen Sondheim. In recent interviews, Tennant has expressed contempt for pop stars whose only subject includes themselves and perhaps those around them. As the O2 Arena rings out with the final chimes of ‘Being Boring’, tonight acts not only as a celebration of British pop’s most singular and effective export, but also for pop with ideas at the above his station and an increased curiosity about the world around him.
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Words: Fergal Kinney
Photo credit: Crepin shovel
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