The Pet Shop Boys are where everything begins for me, when it comes to music. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was some time in the middle of 1988 that I borrowed my mum’s cassette of “Actually”, and suddenly, music became the most important thing in the world. So attending two shows at the Royal Opera House in the middle of 2018 felt like the perfect way for me to celebrate 30 years of Pet Shop Boys fandom.
The Pet Shop boys first unveiled the “Inner Sanctum” show at the Royal Opera House in 2016, but I missed out on tickets for that. So when they announced a reprise for July 2018, I went a little crazy and bought a front row balcony seat for the opening night and an orchestra pit ticket for the closing night. But I’m so glad I did, for I can’t imagine a more perfect way to experience this show: one night up on high with the most perfect view imaginable, and one on the dancefloor at the best rave in the universe.
Wednesday the 25th of July saw the heatwave that had gripped Britain for over a month reaching its zenith. I am someone who ceases to function at temperatures above 23C, so I was a bit apprehensive about dancing the night away in the sweltering heat. But undaunted, I set off for the Royal Opera House. London has its fair share of grand venues, but the Royal Opera House could quite possibly take the crown as the grandest, and it was a wonderful setting for this vibrant, transporting show. It was certainly a different sort of gig: you don’t get to spend the time before the band comes on stage standing on a bar-side balcony, watching London go by below you as you sip your Chardonnay from an actual wine glass, at, eg, the Kentish Town Forum. Once in the theatre itself, the surroundings of opulence and grandeur add a sense of occasion which the likes of the Manchester Arena (where I also saw this same show last year – gig no. 138, patient reader!) simply cannot match.
The curtain rose at 8pm and the show began with two large white spheres slowly rotating to reveal Neil and Chris, each with half a glitterball on their heads. First up was “Inner Sanctum” followed by the classic “Opportunities”, and I felt sure the balcony crowd would be up and boogieing but alas, just as at the Savoy in 1997, I found myself in the midst of a somewhat static crowd, who were quite content to do a shoulder bop in their seats. So I made the best of it, and leaned over the balcony as far as I could. In other circumstances doing this would cause me almighty vertigo, but it seems the magic of the evening had me immune, and I was able to revel in this luckiest of positions, with a completely unimpeded view of the spectacle below.
“The Pop Kids”, a nostalgic celebration of everything that the Pet Shop Boys stand for – dancing away to the pop hits every night in London – was backdropped by colourful spinning Rubiks cubes. Its lyrics are strikingly relatable to me: “Ended up in London / Where we needed to be / To follow our obsession / With the music scene” is pretty much exactly what I did myself in the 90s. “New York City Boy”, featuring a giant glitterball and a silver-suited dancer boogieing frantically next to Neil’s stately figure, was transformed into a joyous celebration, with the lyric “this is your reward day!” never feeling quite so apt.
It’s amazing how much of this show focused on recent tunes, with their last two albums “Super” and “Electric” representing a third of the setlist, and yet it all still felt like classic PSB. When the “bit of 80s electro”, as Neil put it, of “In The Night” morphed into the gloriously ravey “Burn” from their most recent album, there was no jarring sense of being yanked between decades, it just felt like one classic following another. Ditto when “Inside A Dream”, with Neil’s face projected on the huge screen making us feel like we are all in fact inside his dream, morphed into “West End Girls”, finally prompting some of the balcony crew to leap up and dance.
After “West End Girls” it was time to sit down again for the plaintive “Home And Dry”, but when “Vocal” ramped up the escalating euphoria of its techno refrain it was impossible not to be up and dancing again. It was around this time that the laser show went into overdrive, with spiky webs of red and blue and green lights. Viewing this from the balcony was incredible, sometimes wafting past me, through me, as though I could almost touch them, sometimes creating an ethereal platform of clouds and colour that hovered above the crowd below. It had looked amazing when I saw this same show at the Manchester Arena last year, but here in London, in this Victorian auditorium, it was surreal and magical and truly a thing of wonder.
There was a rousing rendition of “Sodom and Gomorrah Show”, and after that “It’s A Sin”, and nothing could keep me seated for that. If the Pet Shop Boys are where music began for me, it was this song that lit the flame. This song is the reason for every gig I’ve ever been to, for all the bands I’ve ever loved, for the fact that I writing this to you now. It all started here. And yet, as with every time I’ve seen them live, there is no sense of nostalgia, just the euphoria of the now. This is the power of the Pet Shop Boys.
The main set ended with “Left To My Own Devices” and “Go West”, the stage now embellished with at least twenty dancers in what appears to be massive multicoloured mobile fatsuits, which was a gloriously ludicrous thing to behold. Then it’s over bar the encore, an amazing “Domino Dancing” rejigged to be somehow both spiky and bouncy, and then “Always On My Mind”. The sight of those brightly coloured balloon-like dancers wobbling majestically and rhythmically back onto the stage to the sound of those huge world-conquering chords was one of the most utterly bonkers, wonderful, magical and just damn life-affirming things I’ve ever witnessed. Life is full of moments both sublime and ridiculous, comedy mixed through with tragedy and gravity, and no band understands this quite like the Pet Shop Boys.
Then it’s just a reprise of “The Pop Kids” before we middle aged pop kids were decanted back out into the sweltering London night. And then, three days later, I went back to do it all again. London’s fever had broken with glorious thunderstorms the night before, and it was out into a much fresher evening that I ventured to make my way back to the Royal Opera House on Saturday. No mooching at the bar with wine for me this night – just time to procure a bottle of water and a wristband before queuing to enter the grandest dancefloor on Earth.
It has to be said, while the balcony view was magnificent, watching the show from the orchestra pit felt like a huge privilege. Though the show was sold out, there was plenty of room to dance and move about. I guess that owing to the fact that the orchestra pit was not designed with dancing in mind, they can’t pack as many people in as they would on a more traditional concert floor. The combination of such proximity to the stage and unhindered dancing space made this feel like I’d won the pop concert lottery.
And the atmosphere in the pit was truly electric. Throughout the night screams and cheers pierced every chorus, every time the beat kicked in, every moment that was suffused with pop joy and brilliance. It truly felt like the euphoric, exuberant experience I’d always imagined a rave would be as a teen in the early 90s. And although my actual experience of raves back then were disappointing, dingy warehouse affairs, this made up for that a hundred times over.
And from this close position I was able to see a lot more of the action on stage. I was thrilled to see Christina Hizon again after her stellar turn on keyboards in Paul Draper’s band back in March. Here, she not only provided keys and backing vocals, but also the violin refrain for “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct” and some feature vocals in “Burn”. Is there nothing this woman cannot do? She is truly a star in her own right and I will follow her career with great interest and not a little envy.
And being so much nearer to the Boys themselves, I could revel in glorious details like Neil’s splendid holographic silver jacket, and his three-note keyboard turn for “Love Comes Quickly”. It was also wonderful to have a closer view of the dancers, from the hip free-styler of “New York City Boy” to the silver-suited robots of “West End Girls”. Best of all, though, was bopping along to the gloriously inflated dancers at the end. I feel like they are some kind of anti-Dementor: watching them, it’s as though I’ll never feel sad again.
All too quickly it was over, and I was almost tearful as I walked up the steps out of the orchestra pit. I never wanted to leave that joyful world of light, dance and song. The Pet Shop Boys brought the love of music to my life for the very first time 30 years ago, and since then, they’ve affirmed the importance of music to me time and time again. I can only reiterate what I wrote in my diary after seeing them for the first time, nearly 24 years ago: “it’s things like this that make life worthwhile.”
Thank you Neil and Chris, and long may you carry on making life worthwhile.