On the brink of salvation.
My favorite musical artists of all time—and there are no others who come close—are Madonna, Blondie and Pet Shop Boys. I wrote a book about Madonna that she sent to me autographed, but I've never met her (this must change!), I've met Debbie Harry three times (twice as a fan and once professionally) and I can now finally say I've met Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. My love came quickly, but the meeting took over 20 years.
Neil before me.
I am not a know-it-all PSB fan, but I've loved just about everything they've ever done since the beginning.
I seem to remember that "West End Girls" was the "It" song (it went to #1 in May of 1986 here, their only track ever to do so in the U.S.) when I was a fat teenager on a family trip to Hawaii, a trip awarded to my dad for goals he'd met during his second-career gig as an insurance salesman. Some of the others on the trip included a wealthy woman who'd caught her first husband in bed with another man and who now thought I'd be a great match for her gorgeous daughter (poor lady...this was pre-gaydar), a stupid wife who'd once made my mom cross the street to avoid presumed lesbians and would later show up in blackface for an office Halloween party and some nice people, too, including a pudgy family who made me feel less bad about never, ever taking my shirt off even in paradise.
I absolutely loved it there—we were on Maui and Oahu, and while the former felt unimaginably exclusive, I preferred the later for the big-city vibe of Honolulu. I went to the movies alone to see 8 Million Ways to Die for Desperately Seeking Susan's Rosanna Arquette, and I died when I found a store that sold kitschy, mass-marketed pop items; it was the kind of store that soon after became ubiquitous everywhere, the ones that sold amazing posters of whoever was on the Top 40, Marilyn Monroe postcards ('50s pictures, '80s fonts) and obnoxious slogan tees. Those stores died out in the '90s, but finding a Madonna-in-leopard swimsuit poster and one of her emerging from lavender curtains made me think this kind of store should exist forever. My main memory was hearing supercool pop piped through the store, including "West End Girls." I felt like a Pet Shop Boy without really knowing what that was.
With my VIPSB pass.
I went with my friend and event buddy Jason. We had to arrive at the venue at 4:15 PM (!) for the meet-and-greet even though the show was set for 8 PM and didn't actually begin until 8:45 PM. I was Babbling Brooke because I had no idea what I'd say to the Pets. Not unexpectedly the presence of an absolutely hot Brazilian guy near us failed to calm me.
When he asks for your name, your inclination is to give your number.
We first entered and gave our names to a cute-as-hell helper boy who gave us our laminates, then filed back outside to cool our heels until the Boys were ready for us. Then we filed back inside and down a short flight of stairs. Neil and Chris were positioned in an alcove on the same wall of the stairs, so it was impossible to see them coming until we were being waved over.
Unfortch, a strict no-cameras rule had been advertised, so while I taped my convo with the guys, we were so close to the beginning I didn't feel comfortable batting my eyes and asking them to break the rule. I should have, I know...I know.
The biggest shock was that Chris had no sunglasses or anything on and was like a completely normal person. I don't mean this disparagingly—I just mean it became clear to me he is always putting on a persona when he's working. Neil was all smiles and rocking a black polo. We shook both of their hands and I asked Neil how they'd whittled down their catalogue to form a set list. He said it was easy—they'd just gone through their songs with Stuart Price and picked what they liked.
I told Neil he gave me hope because I, as he once was with the UK's Smash Hits, am a teen-magazine editor. "Which one?" he asked, then paused for a moment when I gave the title. "Good name." Displaying a still-active curiosity regarding his old field, he asked who were the teen idols of the moment. Neither he nor Chris had heard of Twilight (bless!), but Chris asked if the Jonas Brothers were still big. When I said yes, he immediately wanted to know, "Are they gay?"
When I hesitated, they laughed uproariously. I should have said, "Are you?
" (I mean, he is
, but I think he's been more vague about being pinned down, right?) Both kindly signed the laminates and we were off. They couldn't have been nicer.
Jason doesn't know which is which, but he's got their autographs!
The guys looked older (sooner or later, it happens to everyone...to everyone) but handsome. This is oddly encouraging in that they're still here after 25+ years, still able to attract fans. I hope they continue making music until they or I am on life support.
We wound up outside again, but our VIP access gave us first entry to the G.A. show, which put us literally dead center at the front. I was leery after having once fought my way out of Madonna's Roxy show from the Confessions era due to undiagnosed claustrophobic hysteria, but I had to assume the fans of a couple of fiftysomething guys whose artistic strategy has been detachment would not kill me to get to their idols.
"Pandemonium"/"Can You Forgive Her?"'s Gilbert & Georgian look
We were next to the adorable Brazilian, who was fun to talk with as well as look at. One guy behind him stood swaying with his mouth wide open in some kind of drugged stupor, yet never fell over, thankfully. Watching one of the techs scale a rope ladder and make his way over the stage on some rigging was the best opening act ever—it was still going on when the show began.
Love & death for "Love Etc."
Over the years, I've seen PSB twice—I caught their extremely interesting and challenging 1991 tour in Chicago at the Chicago Theatre on State and the scaled back but still enjoyable Nightlife Tour here in NYC in 1999 (not sure of the venue), and I'd say this tour almost perfectly marries their grand artsiness with the utilitarian dispensation of crowd-pleasing songs.
Hard to believe those are white, cardboard boxes.
The show is excellent—I highly recommend going if you get a chance. It functions on different levels. If you just want a very easy-going oldies show, this works because as expected nobody in the crowd lost their shit and the guys are as passive as ever. But it's also pop art—their Warholian inspiration has never been clearer with a set defined by countless plain white packing boxes on which eye-popping visuals are constantly projected. It's also got a lot of dance to it, with a pair of look-alike black dancers (a guy and a girl) and two even more look-alike (they must be twins) white female dancers interpreting many of the songs as the stars of the show coolly present them.
A Pet Shop—not a Beastie—Boy. Also kinda Run DMC!
I went in with zero knowledge of the set list so was thrilled when they opened with "Heart," an early song of theirs that had once been mentioned for Madonna. Chris was ensconced in a sort of lighted DJ booth and Neil was out front, where he remained for much of the show not counting brief disappearances behind the boxes. The projections for "Heart" reminded me of Madonna's live interpretation of "4 Minutes," a massive digital display enhanced with a cartoonish pulse monitor. Most interestingly, the guys performed with (mesh) boxes on their heads. This segued into the brand-new (and flawless) track "Did You See Me Coming?" to which I'd have to say "no" since the show incorporated several surprise tracks. After this came a somewhat disappointing mash-up of "Pandemonium" and "Can You Forgive Her?"—disappointing only because the latter is probably in my Top 3 PSB tracks of all time if I don't think about it too hard, so I'd have rather had a full version. The projections took on a Gilbert & George look, with Neil & Chris appearing on the boxes as well as live and in the flesh.
Chris's jacket was absolutely fabulous.
Their recent hit single (elsewhere) "Love Etc." is amazingly catchy and came next. I have been thinking of using that phrase "but it helps" in a creative way soon. The projections were particularly brilliant here. Unless I am blocking out the memory of it, they skipped "Love Comes Quickly," which has been done elsewhere on tour—a shame, because it's a fucking killer song even if it nearly killed their U.S. careers by flopping after the hit that was "West End Girls" and before the hit that was "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)."
Interesting pic yet it seemed a bit silly up close.
The next section of the show was marked by Chris playing the electronic drums to "Building a Wall"/"Integral", both inconsequential tunes I could have lived without. "Go West" was a crowd-pleaser and embraced its naff roots with unironic aerobic dancers taking all our attention. (Men in white smocks mechanically removed boxes throughout the show.)
I just work here.
"Two Divided By Zero" came out of nowhere! So glad to see this lost gem live. It was brought to life with truly avant-garde, box-headed fashion models in the background. Just as surprising was the beautifully lit "Why Don't We Live Together," another tune I never expected in a million years to make the cut. Oddly, the dancers were awkwardly mincing about in terribly constructed costumes meant to suggest some of NYC's most famous buildings. Up close, it was appalling. But it did lead to Chris gamely leaving his safety zone for a quick stroll back and forth on the stage.
A rare moment of togetherness.
"Always On My Mind" also got the rather sedate (and bald, but that just means lots of testosterone) crowd jazzed; Neil himself seemed at his most buoyant resurrecting the
late Willie Nelson song that was one of their biggest-ever chart hits. But "New York City Boy"—added especially for us?—really got the old geezers around me (including me) bouncing. As I watched the dancers in their disembodying block suits, I was reminded of Mark Kostabi. Neil's acting was top-notch for "Do I Have To?"
"Closer to Heaven" marked the beginning of a very laid-back section, and not in a good way—though "Left to My Own Devices" was essential viewing with its riot of color. Neil was dapper in a tux for "Do I Have To?" following a sweet keyboard intro by Chris. I liked the black-and-white projections for "Kings Cross," but I've always found that song to be a difficult dirge to withstand. "The Way It Used to Be" and "Jealousy" felt like introspective overkill, bringing the concert to a stand-still—until the dancers took it to a new high with a sort of Euro tango to the death.
Illogically, the ballads were helped by the dancers.
I was blown away to see them perform "Suburbia," another early favorite of mine I couldn't believe they revived. As if they share my reverence for this song, the presentation was absolutely spectacular; the monotony of the boxes was a great representation of suburban sameness.
"Always On My Mind" did Willie proud
"All Over the World" and "Se a Vida E" had a slightly saccharine quality thanks to the feel-good lyrics and the shiny, happy dancers. Enthusiasm and ebullience aren't things for which I necessarily look to the Pets. If and when I do, I want "It's Alright" (which didn't happen here). Making things worse, it was followed up by another earteaser—"Domino Dancing" was trickled into a rather nice cover of "Viva La Vida" by Coldplay, Neil donning a cape and crown, but I was left pining for a full version of the former.
A double dose of Stefani.
Easily the night's best number was "It's a Sin," the perfect combination of all the show's disparate elements. It vibrated with life and death to match the lyrics' melodrama. The whole show would have been worth it just for this. When silver-foil confetti rained down on us, Jason remarked that this was his first time in the confetti zone of a concert. Everyone should be in a confetti zone at least once in their lives.
The King and Queen of America.
As encores, "Being Boring" (in frivolous hats and sunglasses) made a nice, slow good-bye and "West End Girls"—23 or so years after it had been my Hawaiian soundtrack—was its inevitable final send-off and booming counterpart.
It took me a couple of decades, but I met the Pets, something I can honestly say would not have been so much as a dream back when I first heard Neil's distinctive voice. The concert did a great job of connecting all the dots that have appeared in my life between then and now, most of which are tied to whichever PSB song was popular in the clubs at the time. (If we're talking fantasy set lists, I could've used "Was That What It Was?", "It's Alright," fuller versions of "Domino Dancing" and "Can You Forgive Her," "I'm Not Scared," "I Want a Dog," "Rent," "How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?"...but fuck it, their choices were pretty great.)
It ain't "Guydar," but welcome to my blog, PSB faithful!
Angela Becker (their manager, Madonna's former manager), if you're out there, I'll be in Vegas in September and I'd love to get that picture with them....