Pop would be an immeasurably more boring place without Pet Shop Boys. Bob Stanley of St Etienne once said their album titles represented ‘the very marrow of Englishness’ – Please, Actually, Introspective, Behaviour, Very, Super – and at a time when nobody’s quite sure what being English means, it’s good to still have them and their particularly erudite hedonism around.
On paper, their setlist tonight looks a bit lumpy and strange – it’s stacked with new stuff and a few older singles at the beginning, with some songs (In the Night, Se A Vida É, Home and Dry, The Sodom and Gomorrah Show) getting their first regular airings for the best part of a decade on this tour. However, far from being lumpy and strange, the first rush of thumping, slamming electro is thrilling.
Opener Inner Sanctum, which felt a little undercooked on last year’s album Super, makes total sense as two circular podiums spin around to reveal Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Hats are a very important part of the Boys’ lore, and the two they start the night in are doozies: they’re globe-like silver baubles, though Tennant’s has exploded outwards at the front to reveal his face.
Pet Shop Boys have dealt with the idea of their legacy very differently to their contemporaries. This year marks three decades since their definitive album, Actually, and given the way that literally everyone in pop is happy to trade on anniversaries at this point (witness The Hoosiers touring to mark a decade since their, er, landmark album) you could probably forgive them for following suit. Instead, they’ve got Stuart Price, the producer of their last two albums as well as Madonna, The Killers and other noted synth-centric banger-makers, to retool their songs with a fan’s ear, working in nods and winks to remixes and revisions. Everything would sound very much at home in Berghain, the legendarily intense Berlin super-club Tennant and Lowe are fond of popping by for Sunday lunch when they’re in town.
Thirty years ago, Tennant and Lowe wore the accusation that they ‘couldn’t cut it live’ as a badge of honour – ‘cutting it live’ was something rock bands did, and they were always, as their third song of the night puts it, ‘the pop kids’. They can cut it now, especially with three young musos behind them on synth-drums, keyboards and, occasionally, electric violin. Some songs turn into neon-lit, laser-guided club stormers – the opening sprint through Inner Sanctum, Opportunities, The Pop Kids, early b-side In the Night, Burn, New York City Boy and Love Is A Bourgeois Construct would knock lumps out of most Boiler Room regulars – and others into different realms completely. New York City Boy sheds its Studio 54 giddiness in favour of wriggling electro, while Left To My Own Devices is shorn of the huge orchestral pomp which Trevor Horn gave it and given a new, squelchy, acid bassline. Best of all is the reinvention of Home and Dry from 2002’s unloved Release, which becomes a weightless, glassy, sparkling, longing hymn. The unexpected addition of Love Comes Quickly, from 1986’s Please, is a big highlight too, as are the trenchcoat, shades and Soviet-issue karakul which Tennant uses to get into character for The Dictator Decides.
The staging, designed by Es Devlin (who’s also put together live set-ups for Adele, Beyoncé, Kanye and Jay Z), lifts everything as well. In keeping with the Super artwork there are circles everywhere, from the dais Tennant and Lowe arrive on to the projected blips of light which spin behind them like a huge raved-up particle accelerator. The second this-is-a-Pet-Shop-Boys-show moment comes during Opportunities, when the enormous screen behind Tennant and Lowe is lit with a shifting, flashing grid of multicoloured versions of Andy Warhol’s Dollar Sign; gradually, the acid house smiley face flashes up too. You don’t get eyebrow-cocked shots at the cynical commercialisation of youth culture and the slow demise of culture revolutions as its adherents slide toward middle age at a Heaven 17 show.
After a final sprint through more hits – It’s a Sin, Left To My Own Devices, Go West, Domino Dancing, Always On My Mind – they’re off. For all the banging and lasers, they’re still pop kids at heart.