Live review: Pet Shop Boys & Johnny Marr, London Royal Albert Hall, April 2

This is an expanded version of a review that will appear in Record Collector magazine

Johnny Marr and Debussy to a disco beat

Pet Shop Boys first met Johnny Marr by chance in 1987 at the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles. Marr had just left the band that had made him famous, The Smiths, and mentioned to Neil and Chris – the self-proclaimed “Smiths you can dance to” – that he really liked the song Hit Music, from their newly released album, Actually.

It wasn’t played tonight, despite its place-checking of Kensington. In fact, it’s never been attempted live, but then neither has one other Actually track, I Want To Wake Up, which Marr updated for a groovy remix in 1993 and which was touted at the time as his favourite PSB song.

But that Californian encounter thirty years ago planted the seed for many future collaborations, coursing through four long-players, several flip-sides, plus a trio of gems as part of the electronica supergroup, Electronic. Cue their only top ten hit…

But although he and PSB have an intermittent recording history that now stretches back over a quarter of a century, this is, somewhat surprisingly, only the second time the godlike guitar ‘hero’ – “the Carlos Alomar of the Pet Shop Boys, once quipped Neil Tennant, to the sound of anyone who wasn’t a Bowiephile scratching their collective heads – has guested with the dynamic duo in concert form.

The only other occasion was with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at an intimate invitation-only symphonic showcase for Radio 2 at Manchester’s MediaCityUK in 2012. This year’s altogether grander Teenage Cancer Trust-funding extravaganza, which saw the boys swap Auntie’s own ensemble for the 66-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, leant heavily on the set list for the former. A little too heavily.

For this welcome diversion from the seminal synthmeisters’ long-running Super tour, this Albert Hall extravaganza makes use of the entire 15-song Sven Helbig orchestrated Salford set minus one, topped up by seven cuts from the PSB’s only other orchestral catalogue concerts; six from a 2006 Trevor Horn-helmed affair at the Mermaid Theatre (as immortalised in Concrete, the live album), and a solitary Later Tonight, which made its orchestrated debut in 2014 for the duo’s BBC Prom, and was their only other appearance at this most royal of venues opposite London’s Kensington Gardens. A bourgeois construct, if ever there was one.

Unfortunately the reliance on a five-year-old set list means the whole shebang is strangely skewed in favour of that year’s dreary Elysium album (the irredeemable Hold On and woefully pedestrian Breathing Space were the cues for the loos) and there’s absolutely nothing newer. It’s like their career ended in 2012. Perhaps it did.

It’s not as if their more recent dance orientated material wouldn’t translate in this setting. 2013’s Vocal single was arranged by Angelo Badalamenti for the prior Proms, as was Love Is A Catastrophe, from the often outlawed 2002 album, Release. And Beautiful People (orchestrated by Owen Pallet for 2009’s Yes, another ignored opus) would have been an obvious inclusion if a little more time had been applied to the track choices. Say more than five minutes. The recording does actually feature Johnny Marr on guitar after all. As does Electronic’s gorgeous Getting Away With It, exquisitely arranged by Anne Dudley.

Perhaps Tennant and Lowe feel it’s somehow inappropriate to perform the latter, such a epochal moment in pop, without both Marr and New Order’s Bernard Sumner. One thing’s for certain, Pet Shop Boys see themselves as not so Young Turks, delighting in their unofficial position as the elder contrarians of pop, and so it is a thing that of the 20 songs the boys and Johnny have recorded together, precisely one was performed at the Albert.

Mind you, when it’s the foreboding grandiosity of This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave you could almost forgive them anything. Almost. I’d have expected My October Symphony, also from 1990’s Behaviour (“officially our best album,” Neil deadpans), but again, the duo seemingly take a perverse pleasure in refusing to do the obvious.

For the faithful it was refreshing to witness a Pets set without the overplayed covers Always On My Mind and Go West. Though the latter’s camp cousin, a certain New York City Boy – never a great record to begin with – seemed shoehorned in and totally out of place, as were Marr’s wah-wah guitar lines, which proved inaudible to everyone but himself. No one got the mix, it’s gone route 66.

Johnny take a bow

Other highlights included five moving, melancholy songs about love and loss: featured in their “disco musical” Closer To Heaven, the boys’ own version For All Of Us, a handsome weepie orchestrated by Craig Armstrong, has never been properly released (though that’s about to change, with an expanded version of their contemporaneous Nightlife album on the way) so its inclusion tonight – only the song’s second live outing – is a welcome counterbalance to West End Girls and an imperial It’s A Sin, the perennial pair never failing to make a PSB set list somewhere in the world.

There was a sublime Survivors and, in another rare outing, a magnificent Miracles. The eternally epic It Couldn’t Happen Here, which leant its name to the duo’s 1988 flop film, was also played live for only the third time ever. Making up the quintet was Rent, as originally orchestrated for Liza Minnelli, shorn of its sleazy subtext and perhaps another nod to Broadway’s influence on the eclecticism of the PSB songbook.

Extracted from the as yet unreleased A Man From The Future suite, the broody and moody He Dreamed Of Machines didn’t quite work outside of its song-cycle setting. Though for me personally, it was a nice, topical touch to hear an evocation about computer pioneer Alan Turing’s code-breaking achievements at Bletchley one night then travel to that town the next day, from where I write this very review. I’d studied and worked at Bletchley Park in the ‘80s and bought my very first PSB product, the 12” of West End Girls, at a record shop in Bletchley’s Queensway, and still have friends and family in the area.

Elsewhere, the Introspective pair of singles, It’s Alright and the masterpiece that is Left To My Own Devices (the first song the boys recorded with an orchestra), were impeccably dramatic, even if the sight of opera singer Sally Bradshaw swaying to the boys’ beats was an incongruous classical/pop bridge too far. But it was the sight and sound of Chris Lowe playing the chords to a song he wrote in his parents’ dining room 35 years ago, but at the the grandest of pianos in this opulent arena, was almost worth the price of admission alone.

Summing up, Pet Shop Boys certainly showed off their signature mixing of contrasting musical genres, their skill in live performance and, evidently, their passion and respect for their art. Just lay off the five year old duds next time, fellas.

Set One:

Left to My Own Devices (with Sally Bradshaw)

Tonight Is Forever

This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave (with Johnny Marr)

Rent

Later Tonight

New York City Boy

Miracles

The Survivors (with Johnny Marr)

Leaving (with Johnny Marr)

Jealousy (with Johnny Marr)

Set Two:

Hold On

It Couldn’t Happen Here

For All of Us (with Johnny Marr)

Can You Forgive Her?

Breathing Space (with Johnny Marr)

He Dreamed of Machines

Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin (with Johnny Marr)

Indefinite Leave to Remain (with Johnny Marr) (first time since 2006)

West End Girls (with Johnny Marr)

It’s Alright (with Sally Bradshaw and Johnny Marr) (first time since 2006)

It’s a Sin (with Johnny Marr)

Steve Pafford

UPDATE: Record Collector’s magazine edit is here