It goes like this.
June 6th, 1996. Two talented but directionless musical chancers from Manchester form a band. They call themselves ‘Baby Bloke’ and although they never play live, they produce the underground masterpiece “You’re Gormless”. The pressures of possible stardom and the glare of the media spotlight (possibly the headlights from the 192 bus) cause the band to implode. One member decides to quit to pursue a solo career, the other due to the band’s lack of musical direction. Baby Bloke call it a day on June 7th, 1996.
Having sampled the life of an international rock star, the former members of Baby Bloke discovered they couldn’t adjust to everyday life and formed a new band. ‘Gazebo’ blended the best parts of David Bowie and the Kippax Street Stand and in their brief time in the spotlight (June 8th-June 9th 1996) they produced the underground masterpiece “Lardy Boy”. The pressures of possible worldwide touring and the health strains incurred by the rock and roll lifestyle (possibly a badly adjusted keyboard rest) caused the band to implode. One member was sacked for poor timekeeping (by himself) and the other left due to a lack of sense of direction. And with that, Gazebo were no more.
Except, not quite.
An unknown alternative band from the UK called Placebo released their fourth single, “Nancy Boy”, on 20th January 1997. Sounding suspiciously like Gazebo’s only record “Lardy Boy” it reached no 4 in the UK hit parade. Sales of their debut album skyrocketed and it reentered the UK charts and eventually achieved Gold status. Destined for pop’s dumper up until that point and with only future appearances on ITV’s celebrity reality shows to look forward to, Placebo have their ripped-off version of Gazebo’s “Lardy Boy” entirely to thank for all their success.
Or at least, that’s the story that The Shirehorses – Mark Radcliffe and Marc ‘Lard’ Riley – would have you believe from ‘Mark & Lard’s Rock Family Tree’ in the liner notes from their debut long player “The worst album in the world… Ever!”. Being a huge Mark & Lard fan I can’t hear “Nancy Boy” without singing the words to “Lardy Boy”. When I heard the opening notes at Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena on 6th December 2016, I was so determined to sing the right words.
Except, I failed. Big time. I really should have known better.
Listening to Mark & Lard on the wireless and Placebo’s eponymous debut album really helped define that period in my life, just as listening to The Cure’s gloomcore epic ‘Disintegration’ (as discussed in “Return of the black eyeliner pencil (part 1)”) defined my life 7-8 years earlier. Therefore, when I found at that Placebo were doing a 20th birthday tour I was excited to snap up tickets.
After excellent support act Minor Victories were done, excited whispers circulated the auditorium. “They’re starting at exactly 8:23 with a video!”, “band onstage at 8:30 sharp!”. All true; the band opened with a short homage to Leonard Cohen (the song “Who by Fire”) and an alternative cut of the “Every You Every Me” video. The video was interesting, but honestly I wasn’t sure of the point. We were all waiting for the opening chords of “Pure Morning”…
Once the chords began, the six-strong band began to file onstage. The intro went on for a couple of minutes and for the whole time I didn’t so much have goosebumps as actual prickles. It’s one of my favourite Placebo songs, in fact it’s just one of my favourite songs full stop, and I was thrilled to hear it.
The setlist had three main parts. There was the opening few songs, to get the crowd up and jumping. Then came what Brian called “the melancholy section”, stretching until the end of “Lady of the Flowers”. And finally there was the party section, spanning up to the end of the first encore.
Most of the big hits were played, alongside a fair few album tracks and less well-known singles. There were some big and glaring omissions (depending on what your favourite Placebo songs are): “Taste in Men” was the big miss for me, but I’d also hoped for songs like “English Summer Rain”, “Every You Every Me”, “Ashtray Heart”, and “The Never Ending Why” (I’d also hoped they would do their cover of “21st Century Boy” but I thought that was too much to hope for). But generally the setlist was good – varied, a good showcase for the different types of song that they write, and covered everything from the earliest to the newest material. “Loud Like Love”, for example, was a song that I thought was only middling on CD but turned into a real set highlight when played loud.
In contrast to The Cure, exactly one week earlier, Brian Molko was a regular chatterbox. “Ladies, gentlemen and those of you who find yourselves in between” was a regular address to the crowd as he stopped to chat for a few minutes every 3-4 songs. It was a welcome change from the disconnect from the crowd the week earlier and really helped the atmosphere. It felt like a live concert, unlike The Cure, which just felt like watching a concert DVD (from a strange angle. With the sound down. And people walking in front of the telly every so often. And paying £6 every time I wanted a piss poor drink from the fridge.).
Another welcome change was the size of the auditorium. I remarked earlier that Manchester is too big for a concert. The crowd is too far from the band for any sort of atmosphere. Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena is less than half the size and everyone is much closer to the band. It shows; you could see every sly, shy grin from Brian and see every nuance in Stefan’s face as he ran the full gamut of his expressions from stoically silent to silently stoic.
The band were excellent and very versatile, with Stefan switching between keyboard and guitar and other band members changing roles around him like the 1974 Dutch team with Johan Cryuff. It’s worth pointing out that the band have a new drummer too. I’d been looking forward to seeing Steve Forrest, having watched him on many YouTube videos, but new touring band member Matt Lunn (formerly of Colour of Fire) played the drums “like a motherfucker”, to quote Brian as he introduced the band.
The singles were obvious highlights – “Pure Morning” and the closing salvo of “Special K”, “Song to Say Goodbye” and “The Bitter End” especially. A special mention must go to “Without You I’m Nothing”, which featured a backdrop of shots of David Bowie taken during their collaboration together. That was a personal highlight, and quite touching.
As much as it pains me to say it given the length of my fandom, Placebo were better than The Cure. The setlist was far more coherent and covered much more of the band’s output than The Cure’s. Although there were some leftfield choices, especially in the melancholy section, in general it made for more sense and really signed off on a high prior to the first encore. And the experience was much better – more crowd interaction, more energy, more reciprocity. And isn’t that the point of going to a concert in the first place?