Placebo Still Capture All Your Angst As Perfectly As Ever
The band's sold-out London shows this week were a testament to how much they've mattered for more than 20 years.
Photo via PR
1. It's Brian Molko's fault that I learned the term "bisexuality," thought 'oh: this explains everything' then immediately demanded answers from my parents about it over one of the most uncomfortable family dinners of my pubescent life.
2. I didn't get the answers I was hoping for (the usual unfounded stereotypes of "greed" and "promiscuity" came up, though to their credit that conversation would go much differently today) and so I observed Brian Molko and Placebo, the band he fronted, with even greater intensity.
I thought that by cramming his carnal lyrics into my skull and poring over magazine spreads in which he was photographed in bold lipstick, pastel mohair jumpers and candy necklaces—always framed by curtains of black hair, with the poise of a classic actress, holding a cigarette like it was a lover—the secrets of sexual fluidity would reveal themselves to me. They didn't, really. That would all come in my mid-teens when the twin forces of underage drinking and My Chemical Romance would combine to make same-sex snogging acceptable, nay, "cool"—leaving a trail of disposable photographs and extremely close friendship groups in its wake. But Placebo always held a significant place in my little heart, not-so-quietly informing me from an early age that bisexuality was: a) a thing, and; b) didn't make a blind bit of difference to how savagely you can shred a guitar.
This week, Placebo took to south London's Brixton Academy to play two sold-out dates of a 20 Years tour (they formed in 1994 so it's basically the 20 years since "Nancy Boy" catapulted them into eternal relevance tour), so I linked arms with my most emotional friend and we took ourselves to see them.
The first thing we notice, and which I'm delighted to report, is that Placebo still pull in a lot of teenagers with box dyed black hair and the sort of awkward body language only exhibited by people still growing into their own faces. "Where do they all come from?!" My friend asks, baffled. The answer, obviously, is we don't know because we're old now. Gone are the days of bunking off school to queue outside the venue from midday so you could get a spot against the barrier, in are the days of failing to check the set times and missing the first two songs because you were necking a pint in Wetherspoons. Still, from the point we tumble into the venue onwards, the set holds every ounce of the effortlessly charming yet firmly defiant energy I had anticipated.
Brian Molko doesn't say much to the crowd—partly because he's been having problems with his throat, which led them to cancel a few regional dates on the tour, and partly because the performance speaks for itself. They play "Without You I'm Nothing" over a montage of David Bowie footage projected onto the backdrop, opting to eschew any grand declarations about the pertinence of the show's location or Placebo's obvious debt to him artistically (among the footage is a clip of Bowie and Molko jamming "Without You I'm Nothing" backstage at New York's Irving Plaza in 1999). Towards the end of the show, the backdrop displays three giant packets of Marlboro Reds featuring Donald Trump's disgusting toad face above the warning "seriously harms you and others around you". Then bassist Stefan Olsdal holds his rainbow bass above his head like he just won the World Heavyweight Championship, all the stage lights focus on it, and the opening chords to "Nancy Boy" ring out from across the stage. All in all it's pretty in keeping with the way Placebo have conducted themselves over the last two decades—putting things out there the way they see them, and raising a singular amused eyebrow in response to any offence caused. The fact that they exist they way they have, they way they do, is statement enough.
Recording their 1996 self-titled debut album in a council flat in Deptford, southeast London, Placebo's sonic and visual aesthetic was in part a reaction against their surroundings and upbringing (Molko's father had hopes for him to go into banking). In addition to that, "A lot of our cross-dressing and transvestism was a political statement against the music scene at the time which was very laddish and macho," Molko told Kerrang! In 2009, "We wanted to stand up and be counted. There's no better way to do that than by putting a bunch of slap on, wearing a skirt and fucking with people's heads."
That they very much did. Placebo always stuck out like a streak of bright red lipstick on the otherwise pallid face of British culture. They released their debut album the same year "Three Lions" went to number 1 and Oasis spent 134 weeks in the charts. Spice Girls happened too, of course, representing the glazed exterior of manufactured girl-and-boybands who occupied the other end of the popular music spectrum. Overall, though, the landscape was not primed to receive the camp goth-rock of a couple of crossdressing outsiders scintillating under the influence of Depeche Mode and Sonic Youth. Perhaps their closest touchstone in terms of rebellion in response to drab masculinity and conservative politics was early 90s Manic Street Preachers, and by the time Placebo rolled into public consciousness Richey Edwards—their primary lyricist and gender-bending critic of anything normative—had already been missing for a year. Nevertheless, Placebo shot to number 5 on the UK albums chart where it returned for a 13-week stay in 1997 after the release of "Nancy Boy"—a song about drugs and cruising in which Brian Molko sings in no discrete terms about lube and jizz. "It's not absurd. It's obscene," Molko said of it at the time, "A song this rude should not be number 4 in the charts."
We're a fair few years and innumerable political catastrophes on from Placebo, now. In many ways things have progressed, in others they have not. Over the last five years in particular British chart music has seen a general shift towards sexless homogeneity via Adele, Coldplay, Sam Smith and the annually updated roster of X Factor winners. It's hard to envisage the Brit Awards making room for a song about a comedown with a music video depicting an attempted suicide in any of their categories these days, or the top 100 featuring anything as batshit as Kate Bush wailing "BABOOSHKA YA YA" while wearing a Halloween costume for "Sexy Medieval Knight". But Placebo's entire back catalogue has remained a constant source of excitement, solace and, tbh, arousal, for generations. If nothing else speaks to that, the fact that—in 2017—grown women slow wining in their seats to songs off Black Market Music next to teens losing it to the newer material with absolutely no awareness of anything around them certainly does.
Until this week I had only seen Placebo play once before. I'm not sure what year it was, suffice to say my mam had to escort me based on one of two circumstances: either I was so young I hadn't yet fallen into a friendship group containing people who also liked Placebo, or so young my parents still viewed those friends (they were older, of course) as "liabilities" who couldn't be trusted to send a text without killing me in the process. Either way, sometime in the early 00s my mam and I went to see Placebo together and had a lovely time. Somewhere within the murk of teenage memory there is the distinct shape of us having a meaningful conversation as we filed out of the venue after the show, in which we bonded over what we'd just seen. Unfortunately I can't recall any of it because we were interrupted by a teenage goth who dropped to his knees and asked for my mam's hand in marriage and, as always, banter has trumped sentiment in the battle for brainspace. When I asked her about it recently, though, she said, "I remember thinking this is what it must have felt like seeing Bowie perform for the first time."
I have no doubt that, this week, several confused and starry-eyed teenagers or initially reluctant chaperones would have stumbled back out onto the cold, dim pavements of Brixton with the same feeling.
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