In May 1997, I had epic plans for the Spring Bank Holiday Weekend: travelling up to Manchester for the mega Manics/Mansun gig at the Nynex Arena on the 24th of May. I decided to make an even longer weekend of it, travelling up on Friday the 23rd, returning to London on the Tuesday. And then, I decided nothing could be better than to start it all off on the Thursday night by seeing this new intriguing band Placebo.
“It seems that any band promoting the eyeliner/deviant angle will catch up with me in the end, no matter how hard I try to resist.”
I’d initially been put off Placebo by the unreconstructed Americanness of the band’s sound, but I was won over in the end by the abrasive lurch of their single “Bruise Prisitine”. However, it was more than just the cool tunes and glam aesthetic that enticed me into Placebo fandom. As a young person who connected more easily with music than with people, I always hoped to find kindred spirits amongst the boys (and occasionally girls) in my fave bands. But all my icons seemed to come from a vastly different place than I did. I was born in London, but by my mid teens had moved country four times – to Canada, then Australia, then Singapore, then finally back to Australia at 14. Most of my indie heroes in contrast had spent all their formative years in tiny backwaters of Wales or England.
And then there was Brian Molko, whose upbringing was if anything even more fragmented than mine – various parts of Belgium, Scotland, Liberia, and Lebanon. While being very different countries to the ones I grew up in, it was a real pull for me, to have finally found a pop star whose past mirrored mine in some sense. Someone who might understand that feeling of not really knowing where home is.
”People like that are rare enough as it is, let alone in the small town, working class world of pop star pasts. It’s nice to know that to be valid as a pop star you don’t necessarily have to have spent your whole life in WherethefuckamI, Wales. I’m bloody glad he exists.”
And so off I strode to Brixton that Thursday night to commence what I had begun to think of as the Weekend Of The Century. My first comment in my diary entry noted the fervour of the Placebo fanbase.
“Note: Placebo have v.v. enthusiastic fans. I got to the venue at a quarter past six and the queue sprawled right round to the back of it. Wonderment, then, that I still managed to get a place right down the front of the upstairs bit!”
One unfortunate upshot of being in balcony seats was that standing was forbidden “due to an unfortunate incident a few weeks ago”. My diary doesn’t record what this incident was, but I seem to recall it was a fan falling from the balcony during a gig. So I was not able to fully engage with the gig, standing and leaning over the balcony in a way I had for example at the Kentish Town Forum the previous December. But it was still a fantastic night.
“Before the band came on, the stage was flooded with dry ice. A pulsating techno throb clatters through the air, the lights go blue and ballistic and the stage is revealed to have two small cubic screens on either side. This was a truly stunning opening, setting the atmosphere perfectly and somewhat overshadowing the first few songs of Placebo’s set itself. Brian came on in a fetching little black dress, the bassist in an outfit nicked from Bowie doing “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” in the Ziggy movie. What with the epileptic light show and the band looking so marvellous I was somewhat envious of the throng below, particularly during ballistic anthems like “Teenage Angst” (dedicated to everyone who had to ask their parent’s permission to come out that night). But the moshpit looked absolutely terrifying so I was somewhat glad not to be trapped in the middle of it.”
I’d only been a Placebo fan for about a week at this point, but I’d listened to the album enough for the songs to seep into my consciousness. However, what surprised me about this gig was how so many of the unfamiliar songs were the absolute highlights, starting with “Without You”, the sixth song in, which I described as “strangely gorgeous.”
The first part of my diary entry was written on the Friday morning before I set off on my journey to Manchester. But I broke off here and headed to Euston, and the next part of my report was scribbled as I sat in a cafe at the station, with a jam doughnut and a hot chocolate, waiting for my train.
“From “Without You” onwards the gig progressed in several celestial leaps from standardly great to head shrinkingly amazing. The next tune, the first track on the album, Bri’s half pleading, half taunting shriek of “come home!” echoing twisted and lonely across the nation, or so it felt. “Bruise Pristine” was ballistic, though not quite so storming as I might have expected. “Teenage Angst”, however, was a major pop (yes! pop!) thrill. Then, “The Crawl”, another unfamiliar song but a definite highlight, slow, moody, distorted, mind-alteringly melodic (yes! melodic!). Then shockingly, my least favourite song on the album, “Lady Of The Flowers” turned out to be great as well. And “Nancy Boy” suddenly seemed like the GREATEST POP SONG EVER (yes! POP!) “
That was the end of the main set, but the encore was to prove even more astonishing, including “one of those “can this be the greatest song ever written??!” moments. The beautiful, sarky “Burger Queen”. I’d never heard it before but I can safely say I love it to death. It was very Bowie indeed, twinges of “All The Young Dudes” (and somehow “As The World Falls Down”), Bri calling out “hey you! hey you!” and pointing at various memebrs of the throng, but not me, and by this time I actually CARED and never wanted the song to end.”
Here I broke off my report again, and concluded it while I was on the train to Manchester “and quite frankly so excited I could weep”.
“The ending was throttlingly brilliant. The band leave again, the sweeping blue lights and searing dark noise of the intro return, and suddenly, somehow, the boys reappear, assaulting us with the positively classic feedback thrash of “Evil Dildo”. I haven’t been this thrilled by shameless avant garde noise for years.
And that was the end. “I went outside and and bought a poster, as you do.” By now I was 100% converted from interested onlooker to avid fan, and Placebo became a band I would go to see many more times over the years. And my next Placebo gig would come very soon indeed.
“I went home to put up my poster, eat a little, write even less and crash into bed with thoughts of seeing Placebo again in Manchester tonight. Which I will if there’s any tickets left.”
And I did. And I got a lot more than I bargained for, and not all of it good.