This was a Friday night in Manchester that had been a long time coming. Nearly three years ago, in September 2019, Pet Shop Boys announced Dreamworld, an arena tour that was announced as their first Greatest Hits show ever and designed to coincide roughly with the release of their 14th studio album, Hotspot , which followed in January 2020.
Well, we all know what happened next. The pandemic led to the tour being postponed not once, but twice – and an anxious message was posted on Pet Shop Boys’ website before Dreamworld’s first date in Milan, in which they explained that they could not meet and greet fans on the way Fear of capturing Covid and derailing it all again, highlights the air of precariousness that still surrounds live music.
But luckily the Pet Shop Boys certainly reached the AO Arena. And if the idea of a Greatest Hits show was in any way a game to make ticket sales run more smoothly, it now makes even more sense as a way to celebrate the jewels in their back catalog with an audience of thousands after such a long delay.
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Jewels are no exaggeration either. Recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the most successful British pop duo ever, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been making their learned synth pop for over four decades, selling more than 100 million records worldwide.
While some would have interpreted the idea of a greatest hits tour loosely, and slipped into fan-favorite album tracks that never came individually on the list, the Pet Shop Boys have put together a formidable two-hour set list that correctly fulfills the task. Tennant was, after all, once the assistant editor of Smash Hits and is credited with inventing the term ‘imperial phase’ – when an action is at the peak of their commercial powers and creative expertise seems effortless.
It’s pretty easy to deduce where Tennant and Lowe think their own imperial phase begins and ends. Tonight’s selection consisted exclusively of singles, which mostly reached the top of the top 40, where there was only room for three from albums released after 1999.
That means all of their 1980s classics were present and accurate, including the series’ opener Suburbia, Love Comes Quickly, Rent, Left To My Own Devices and their number four: Always On My Mind, Heart, It’s A Sin – get fresh exposure by inspiring the title of Russell T Davies’ acclaimed Channel 4 drama about the AIDS crisis – plus the West End Girls, saved for the extras.
The latter was, of course, the debut single that introduced the PSB aesthetic to the world, where Tennant spoke-song a literary tale of a pressured London, where “sometimes you’re better off dead” over an atmospheric arrangement stamped with Lowe’s immediately recognizable bassline.
The staging, designed together with creative director Tom Scutt, was simple but extremely effective. Two cute mini street lamps formed the centerpiece, while video screens were inserted for excerpts from previous promo clips and flashy neon graphics.
Lowe was, as always, an enigmatic presence behind his keyboards, passive on a high lectern under a series of hats, dark glasses and thick coats, while the smart Tennant – an underrated frontman – was in a fine voice and encouraged the audience to a mass song during Domino Dancing .
Given the breadth of the PSB cannon, there is still room for curiosity, even when taking the ‘best of’ approach. It was a pleasure to hear their version of Losing My Mind from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies – it was never a hit for them, but the hi-NRG rendition they produced for Liza Minnelli was.
And it seems remarkable today that a song as unique as You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, an almost country-colored track with a finely-watched lyrics about a lover’s alcohol-based mood swings, could have reached number eight. – but it really did, as Tennant, with an eagle eye for chart positions, reminded us when he tuned an unfamiliar acoustic guitar.
The couple’s collaboration with Dusty Springfield, What Have I Done To Deserve This, was performed as a duet with Clare Uchima, one of three backing singers and percussionists who joined Tennant and Lowe. A similar method was used on Dreamland, the Hotspot track that originally featured Years & Years ‘Olly Alexander, who starred in Davies’ It’s A Sin.
They said goodbye to a gripping Being Boring, dedicated by Tennant to the victims of the arena bombing – which he summed up as a “horrific hate crime” – as the five-year anniversary of the atrocities has been reached. Its appropriately defiant chorus – “We were never being bored, we were never being bored” – is as good a manifesto as anything else for the Pet Shop Boys’ career, this amazing Dreamworld show and how to live life in general.