Last night, in case you had the good luck to miss it, was the annual parade of naffness and mindless hoopla that delights in the name the Brit Awards. I was mildly disconcerted (read: massively freaked-out) to realise how few of the nominees I recognised. Not that I wanted to recognise them, but usually I would have expected to pick up the names of the kind of prominent (albeit shit) acts that get nominated for the brits by a kind of osmosis. This year, that seemed not to have happened. Who the flying fuck, for example, are the Fleet Foxes? (I know I could google them, but, like I say, I’m not actually interested.) It dawned on me while I was not-recognising about 50% of the nominees that I probably couldn’t name a No. 1 single (as we used to call them…) from the past 12 months. I’m trying to reassure myself that just reflects the fact that the charts don’t matter anymore, but, truth be told, I think both are a sign that I’m getting old, and so losing touch with what da kidz think is well sick. Innit.
Anyway, the presenters were, as always, terrible. I thought the producers had learned their lesson about ‘wacky’ presenters with the Mick Fleetwood/ Sam Fox debacle, but it would appear not. Kylie Minogue struggled (wo)manfully against the odds, James Corden was his usual, consummately untalented self, and Matthew Horne appeared to have borrowed his great-grandfather’s hairdo for the evening.
The live performances were pretty atrocious. U2 these days are nothing but a parody of themselves (and they weren’t ever worth parodying in the first place), Take That looked horribly like they were miming, Coldplay I am, as always, trying to ignore, and Duffy was…well…Duffy. I’m not a fan of either the Kings of Leon or the Ting Tings, but at least they turned in competent performances. For me, though, the highlight of the evening was always going to be the Pet Shop Boys’ performance.
So… did I think that was a disappointment, too? (Ooh, get me, trying to create suspense…)
Well, first of all, and to start this at a suitably shallow level, I loved their outfits. Part of the Pet Shop Boys’ appeal has always been their willingness to dress up in silly clothes (it makes the point, if it needed making, that, even when they’re trying to be serious, they don’t take themselves seriously), and last night’s were fairly spectacular. Chris’ pink wig looked familiar – I think he had possibly worn it in one of the videos from Very – but the stand-out prize has to go to Neil, with his vast, oversized coat, cheap-looking sunglasses, and precariously perched bowler hat. Truly, a costume of genius.
I also liked the idea of the vast talking heads for the (pre-recorded) acceptance remarks which the real-life performers then stepped out of, as though they were the products of their own imagination. (Which I guess, in a sense, they are.) The talking heads also gave them the opportunity for a great visual joke, when the pre-recorded video of Neil Tennant lip-synched to elements of his live vocal performance. In the early part of their career, the Pet Shop Boys were consistently dogged by rumours that all they did was mime to tape, so the reversal was a very elegant riposte. At least Neil Tennant’s slight struggle to sing the low last note on ‘Suburbia’ proved that the vocal was live last night (and may, in fact, have been deliberate, for that very reason).
The effect used on the vocals was rather distracting, although not a surprise – they used similar effects to ‘beef-up’ Neil’s voice both times I saw them live. It’s a shame, I think, as he really does have a good natural voice, and it’s only lack of confidence that makes him want to hide behind a digital effects processor. (The same could be said, of course, about Bono’s performance earlier in the evening – it’s not only ‘electronic’ bands who go to great lengths to disguise inevitable rough edges.) Chris Lowe seemed to have suffered from an attack of nerves as well, and decided to pre-program almost all of his parts. Given the kind of music they make, a large part of Chris Lowe’s function on stage has always been to press ‘Start’ on a midi sequencer and then look bored, but he usually plays at least the lead lines live. Last night he seemed to be able to spend a lot of his time with his arms by his sides, which was a shame, as it compounds the (unfair) rumours that he doesn’t do anything, and that Neil Tennant is the ‘talented one’.
I understand why they played a medley of lots of songs, rather than longer versions of fewer – it was basically a ‘look, we’ve done loads of really well-known songs’ manoeuvre – but I’m not sure it was the best decision. It made it look like the band are just a hook-factory, and although they are very good at writing hooks, they’ve always been about more than that.
The new material seemed to hold up reasonably well. The forthcoming single ‘Love etc.’ (available to listen to for free, in an officially-sanctioned, posted by their record company way, here) is good, I think, but not great. The other new song was, I assume, ‘All Over the World’ – those words were prominent in the chorus, and there’s a song of that name on the tracklisting of the forthcoming album – and I was less convinced by that, but it’s very hard to tell when you’ve only heard such a short snippet. The album has been picking up rave reviews, anyway, even though it’s not out for another month. *grinds teeth in frustration*
Lady GaGa was the latest in a long line of stand-ins for Dusty Springfield on the ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ section, and served mainly to show how great a talent Dusty was, and how much she’s missed. Given the constantly-swirling rumours about his sexual orientation, getting Brandon Flowers to sing part of PSB’s well-known song written from inside the closet, ‘It’s a Sin’, was… provocative… but, hey, there’s nothing wrong with provocative. (Mr Flowers looks, coincidentally, a lot better for having shaved off his beard, although he did appear last night to have a couple of dead roosters stapled to his shoulders.)
As so often at Pet Shop Boys performances, the dancers seemed largely superfluous. I think there was probably meant to be some kind of comment on the growth of western-style capitalism in China when they filled the stage with oriental-looking dancers during the song ‘Go West’. I’m being slightly disparaging about this – and they didn’t do anything with the idea, just presented it flat – but I guess there probably isn’t another band in the world that could have got a reference to the remorseless march of free-market exploitation onto the Brits. (Coincidentally, the last time they played ‘Go West’ at the Brits, they were accompanied by a choir made up of unemployed Welsh coal miners – they have a habit of making political points with the song.)
I’m rubbish at interpreting dance at the best of times (apparently ballet ‘means something’ to some people), but I’m sorry to say that the significance of the young men (and women) dressed in grey leotards completely escaped me. Still, it did give ITV’s director an opportunity to linger lovingly on their (very prominent) genitalia. Put it this way, I can tell you that at least one of the male dancers was circumcised… (Oh, and yes, yes I was looking. I keep telling you, I really am a very shallow person…)
All in all I thought the Pet Shop Boys did ok, but I can’t help feel it was a bit of a wasted opportunity. Over the last 15 years or so, which they’ve spent touring fairly heavily, they’ve turned into a good properly live band, who recreate a lot of their songs with actual, breathing musicians, and only some with the ‘press start now’ approach. By falling back on the ‘two blokes, one behind a keyboard’ thing, they played up very much to their established image. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s served them well over the years, and the Brits isn’t like Later with Jools Holland, where it was appropriate for them to show off their muso credentials. But I do worry that they’ve confirmed the (mis)perception that the Pet Shop Boys are all about the triumph of style over substance, and electronic bleeps over ‘real’ musicianship. In some ways, that doesn’t bother me too much – the kind of people who would dismiss a band on the basis of what instruments they play, or what image they adopt, aren’t really fans of music in the first place, just trend-followers – but it does frustrate me in other ways.
The Pet Shop Boys should be a great band on anyone’s criteria, goddammit! And they’re good musicians (live, Neil Tennant often plays ‘Rent’ acoustically, accompanying himself on guitar), and exceptionally gifted songwriters. I’ve said before that the PSB are something of an oddity in my musical tastes. I tend to go for bands like REM, and Radiohead, and so on. It’s the fact that they write such great songs that first turned me on to the Pet Shop Boys, and sometimes I could weep with frustration that so few other people seem to be able to spot that about them.
Ok, I’ll give up trying to persuade you now – I know it’s a lost cause.