Review: Pet Shop Boys — Dreamworld

Newcastle Arena, 27 May 2022

Another one for the “and finally” pile. Nearly two years after the inital date for this gig, the Pet Shop Boys roll into Neil Tennant’s hometown on a Friday night. I’ve always liked the Pet Shop Boys, even though in later years I’ve not followed them that intently¹. They’re one of those artists that sit very squarely in the middle of a particular kind of British culture: literate, and articulate pop music². That is not to say it’s entirely cerebral: anything but. Newcastle's Arena is rammed to the gunwales tonight, and as Neil himself points out, seeing as it’s a Friday night in Newcastle, the mood is pretty buoyant from the word go. Later on, I do notice one younger woman dancing in the standing area with the shortest and tightest hotpants in world history, but it’s only an entertaining and passing bit of colour in an already saturated night. She, like pretty much everyone else is having a high old time.

The lights go down and we see the first sight of the stage props, including the two … street lights? shower heads? that Neil and Chris stand beneath during sections of the set, and the screen system that begins by displaying a single horizontal white line. Very soon, this single line begins to split, and move, and we’re looking at an abstract representation of driving through anonymous streets, which is where the music comes in, with Suburbia. It’s a nice move to start with something from way back on the first album³, and one that almost everyone knows. Then again, with a set like this, nearly everyone knows nearly everything anyway, but everyone is singing along, and the mood is up from the first notes. The opening four numbers are all absolute classic bangers, before we get to the first change of mood, and the melancholy of Rent.

The next little section of half a dozen songs contains two of my absolute favourite PSB moments: So Hard, and Left to My Own Devices⁴ and they totally kill them, so if they hadn’t done another thing all night I’d have gone away happy. But Domino Dancing is in there too, so the big daft grin remains plastered on my face.

From where I sat, the sound was pretty good, though sometimes you have to fight against arena acoustics. But the stage set, screens and lighting were pretty impressive. Sometimes electronic music has to up its game with visuals because you don’t quite have the dynamism on stage that you have with the “typical” rock set up, I don’t think it really applies here because the Pet Shop Boys have a very particular dynamic of their own, a blend of the understated, the deadpan wryness, and peacock flamoyance, and all of this matches it perfectly.

There’s another nice touch. Neil does a sweet version of You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, acoustic, with guitar in hand, standing beneath one of the previously mentioned shower head thingys, before they do Jealousy. It’s really easy to forget sometimes that in amongst all the BPM, Tennant is such a wonderful lyricist, and they do some truly reflective and affecting songs when they bring it down a little⁵. They drop in the Sondheim song, Losing My Mind, which they produced for Liza Minelli to cap off that little section, before the pace ramps up again for the build-up to the end. They start that run with Always on My Mind, which for many acts would be the kind of thing you would use as a finale, or even an encore. Not here though, the big guns are still to come. But the audience are all singing along at the top of their voices and loving it. You could say the same of Heart as well, and (as you’d expect) that too goes down a bomb.

I have one personal niggle. They play their version of Sterling Void’s It’s Alright, which was on Introspective. It’s a song I’ve never really warmed to, and always fast forwarded the tape through when I listened back then. But I can’t like every single number in the set, can I? How greedy would that be?

Then we hit the final two numbers. first is a storming version of Go West, which morphs artfully towards the end to bring the bassline of Can You Forgive Her back in. I think it’s a nice touch⁶. These are the songs where you can’t really avoid the social context of when they were released, and the meanings they had then. Things have changed, but we are still having some the same arguments now, sadly. So what’s last you say? Well, the thunder crashes and we know it can only be It’s A Sin⁷. Somewhere, deep in the pit of hell in which she resides, I hope Margaret Thatcher was watching and squirming, as thousands of people⁸ sang along to the lyrics to that song at the top of their voices, a very vocal “fuck you” to a very nasty kind of thinking.

But the crowd know that’s not it, not quite yet. There’s one song they very definitely have not played. Fear not, pop kids, it’s the first song of the encore: of course they play West End Girls. But the very last song of the night is Being Boring. After introducing the band, and thanking us all for coming out, Neil dedicates the song to Depeche Mode’s Andy Fletcher, who died all too young earlier in the week.

It is perhaps an appropriate, and slightly downbeat way to finish. As Neil has mentioned during the show, the night is built (if a little diffusely), around the concept of dreams, and memories. Some memories are bittersweet, or tinged with just a little sadness, so the faintly elegiac tone seems perfect for the moment we wake up and leave. On the screens behind the last thing we see is the single white horizontal line that began the show.

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I’ve wanted to see the Pet Shop Boys live for many years, and for one reason or another never quite round to it. That is well and truly fixed now — boy was it ever! You simply cannot argue with a back catalogue of that size, that depth, and frankly, that kind of resonance for someone of my generation. Lots of these songs were a big part of the soundtrack to my teens, and parts of my twenties. They still sound brilliant now, all these years later. It’s funny how pop music is “supposed” to be throwaway and ephemeral, but the very best of it absolutely is not. When pop music is this good, it lives on, and rightly so.

¹ Though I did buy their 2016 album Super, which wasn’t bad at all.

² There’s a discussion to be had about how much this fits into gay subcultures, but it’s not really the issue here. Well, mostly. There’s definitely something to be said towards the end of the set and I’ll mention that, but there’s lots of crossover.

³ An album I did actually buy. Along with, er, Actually (which is of course the whole joke, according to Neil), and Introspective, which I played a lot duing my first couple of terms at University

⁴ The Faltermayer mix of So Hard is bloody brilliant, but Left to My Own Devices is a far trickier one. I love both versions, the Introspective version produced by Trevor Horn that has the strings on it, and the much leaner single mix, which I also bought on single at the time. Which I prefer very much depends on what mood I’m in, but they’re both wonderful.

⁵ That’s more that slightly unfair, and sounds harsh when it’s really not meant that way. Even the bangers are lyrically good when you take them apart. This is well crafted pop on every level.

⁶ Oddly enough, it reminded me a lot of a thing in later Jean Michel Jarre shows, where he mashes up Equinoxe 4 and Glory.

⁷ A song I bought on CD single when it was released, even though I didn’t have a CD player. I really wish I still had that CD now.

⁸ Apparently, the Arena’s capacity is around 11000.

Setlist

  1. Suburbia
  2. Can You Forgive Her?
  3. Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)
  4. Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)
  5. Rent
  6. I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More
  7. So Hard
  8. Left to My Own Devices
  9. Single-Bilingual / Se a vida é (That’s the Way Life Is)
  10. Domino Dancing
  11. Monkey Business
  12. New York City Boy
  13. You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk (acoustic)
  14. Jealousy
  15. Love Comes Quickly / Paninaro
  16. Losing My Mind
  17. Always on My Mind
  18. Dreamland
  19. Heart
  20. What Have I Done to Deserve This?
  21. It’s Alright
  22. Go West
  23. It’s a Sin

Encore

  1. West End Girls
  2. Being Boring

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