Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pet Shop Boys, "Performance", "Pandemonium"

Pet Shop Boys' "Performance" tour is fondly remembered and with good reason. The duo were still at the peak of their critical and commercial powers and could basically do no wrong. The mere thought of staging such an audaciously theatrical exhibition of pop music (it would be a bit of an insult to refer to this show as a mere "concert") would have been risible in the hands of virtually any other group.

I've been a PSB fan for more than twenty years, "Always On My Mind" is in my inner pantheon of top 80's songs, and yet I've never seen them live and until now I'd never seen "Performance". How can I even think about trying to get caught up with all the new music being released when I can't even catch up with all the big moments in the careers of bands I've been a fan of since I was a teenager? BTW, I love the fact that there's still so much to hear and see and buy and discover about bands that I've been listening to for twenty years.

I don't completely understand the technical aspects of this, but I believe the DVD is a transfer from the original VHS master, so the video quality isn't as sharp as what you'd normally get with DVD's these days. But I think the fuzziness of the video actually enhances the viewing experience because of the soft lighting and odd camera angles.

In the first half of the show, Tennant and Lowe are fringe characters, it's as if they're making cameo appearances in their own performance. There's a whirlwind of activity going on around them and it's clear that the show is meant to divert attention away from them, which they succeed in doing for the most part. In the liner notes, they spoke about wanting to distance themselves from the idea of putting on a concert. Once you get rid of the hassles of playing instruments, then you're free to present a more creative product on stage. They explain that when you go to the opera, the orchestra is hidden from view and whatever it is they're doing during the performance is scarcely important. They conceived of a tour that would more closely resemble a modern dance performance (albeit one soundtracked by their music) than a concert, and they hired choregraphers, art directors, and dancers from the "serious" art and dance worlds in order to make it happen. It's no accident that they called it "Performance". Sure, you don't see crowd shots and encores (you know what I mean) when you go to the opera, but other than small details such as these, it feels like an authentic show you'd see in a "real" "concert hall". I felt underdressed while watching it in my living room.

Some people might have felt ripped off by going to a PSB show only to discover that the pop stars they paid money to see were reduced to being bit players (if they were living in a cave before the night of the concert and had no idea what they were in for). But you could say the same thing about plenty of pop concerts in the 90's and 00's -- a Britney Spears concert basically showed her as the featured player amidst a storm of dancers and wild sets, with hardly a band (or a microphone!) to be found.

The second half of the show is a bit looser, more "fun". It feels less like a challenge, artistically speaking, with all the pig masks and bizarre costumes, and more like a concert with the PSB's biggest hits.

They also took a bunch of risks with the setlist, skipping a number of big hits (e.g. "Heart", "Being Boring") in favour of two songs they wrote for Liza Minelli (in particular, "Losing My Mind" is incredible and is arguably the highlight of the DVD) and b-sides like "My Funny Uncle". Almost all of their risks paid off. They claimed that there was a semi-autobiographical story arc to the performance, which was sometimes obscured by, uh, certain artistic decisions (i.e. I'd rather watch the show than be distracted by wondering about how such and such a mask could possibly be related to the song). But what can you say about the likes of "Jealousy", when the story and music mesh together perfectly? When it works, it works.

Fast forward to 2009, and "Pandemonium" finds PSB's fitting nicely into their role as elder statesmen of dance pop (in this case, I've heard the live CD but only clips of the DVD). Neil Tennant isn't afraid to be the point man for the concert, crooning and egging on the crowd like most lead singers at most concerts. The video screens and costumes are a dazzling display of bright colours, and while some of the artistic pretentiousness is still there (e.g. dancers wearing large monocoloured cubes on their heads), it pretty much feels like the norm in a world where Lady Gaga is as mainstream as you can get. Wow, how much DID Gaga steal from the Pet Shop Boys?

My memories of the "Bilingual"/"Nightlife" period of the late '90's are very negative ... I remember them being excoriated by the press at the time for making mindless disco music for gay clubs instead of the witty, funny/sad sexually ambiguous pop that they had been known for. Except that the generally positive review grades that are collected on PSB's Wikipedia pages clearly contradict my recollection of how well their music was received (I never even heard the albums, just the singles). Still, I've never been able to warm up to a single like "New York City Boy". It was one thing to cover Village People ("Go West"), quite another thing to try to one-up them by writing original songs that are meant to sound like them. The song is OK, but it's hardly the best use of PSB's talents.

Otherwise, this is about as good a mix of old and new PSB as you could hope for. "Always On My Mind" still gives me a rush, "Why Don't We Live Together" is bubbly and charming, and their cover of "Viva La Vida" is a nice treat for a live audience. "Being Boring" feels like the most emotionally charged song on the disc. It's completely a period piece -- more than any other PSB song, it takes you back to a specific year and captures the spirit of a particular time that feels like it happened a million years ago. I've always thought it to be one of their most overrated songs -- I've *never* liked the chorus -- but the verses leave me with a lump in my throat, more so in 2010 than ever before.

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