This was a gig like none I have experienced since the distant days of the very early 2000s: a phone-free gig. And it was a revelation. I may be left with no mementoes in the way of photos or videos, but but by the end of the night I found myself wishing that all my gigs could be phone-free from that moment on.
In the run-up to the release of their eighth studio album “Never Let Me Go”, Placebo announced a series of intimate shows to launch their new era. It had been almost exactly 18 years since I last saw the band in 2004, and I was impatient to enter their darkly devious rock universe once again. But there was a small hitch: the tickets went on sale on the 17th of March, when I had just tested positive for COVID for the first time. Would I be well enough two weeks later to trek all the way to Islington to see the boys? I decided to risk it, and I’m so glad I did.
Luckily, by the end of March I was feeling much recovered, even more so than a few days earlier when I’d roamed up to South Kensington to see Liam Gallagher. The last week of the month saw a late re-emergence of winter chilliness, and it was a shivery night on which to venture up the Victoria line to Islington, to find out exactly what a phone-free gig would be like. This aspect of this gig was provided by Yondr pouches, into which our phones were placed and securely locked, only to be opened again at the close of the gig.
Being mostly a solo gigger, I had been a little apprehensive of feeling awkward, standing there in the crowd as we waited for the band to take the stage, with no phone to provide a distraction in the shape of social media or other apps. But I could not have been more wrong. Once I’d procured myself a drink and took my place in the crowd, the dawning realisation that I could not even so much as look at my phone to see what time it was brought on a huge sense of serenity. I was able to fully appreciate the buzz of anticipation as I sipped my wine and looked around at the crowd, who were an even mix of old and young, male and female. How odd it felt to be in a room of people just being people, human beings untethered to the digital world, unhindered by the constant distraction of notifications. It was a blissful snapshot of what life was like before we fell to the tyranny of technology, and of the instant gratification of constant content.
Due to this lack of phone-based distractions, the thrill of the moment when the lights dimmed and the clanking and screeching intro to “Forever Chemicals” struck up was intensified. But even that could not prepare me for how I would feel once Brian and Stefan took the stage and pummelled into the main song. The dark, dirty, pure rock energy of the song felt like something I hadn’t experienced for decades, and given that it was nearly two decades since I last saw Placebo, that could well be true.
Given that my favourite Placebo eras centre around their first four albums, I might have expected to be disappointed that the setlist was comprised almost entirely of tunes from their latest album and the latter half of their discography, but it mattered not one bit. The new album “Never Let Me Go” was less than a week old at the time of this gig, but in the months since then it’s found a place in my estimation up there with their 90s and early 2000s output. The recent singles were greeted like all time classics by the ecstatic crowd. “Beautiful James”, with its epic keyboard refrain, was one I’d always suspected would be storming live, and it did not disappoint., but even better was “Happy Birthday In The Sky”. As the lights strobed and flickered during the “I need my medicine” refrain, I had a strong sense that I was at that moment receiving the medicine I so badly needed – both an escape from the demands of the modern digital world, and from the troubles and worries that had crept into my life of late.
Stefan appeared completely unchanged from my last Placebo experience – still a statuesque and skinny yet robust rock presence. Brian may now have long hair and a moustache, but once he started singing he was still unmistakably Brian, his voice pure and clear and stronger than ever. He didn’t speak to the crowd at all, but was full of smiles and energy. Stefan only spoke once, to thank the crowd after an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” erupted for him.
But this lack of communication in no way made the gig feel like a distant, cold thing. The music spoke volumes, with the choppy rhythms and jagged edges of the Placebo sound shocking through us like bolts of pure energy. There was a glorious moment in “Surrounded By Spies”, which began spindly and seductive before escalating into a euphoric cacophony of pulsating lights and restrained fury. I realised that at any other gig I’d probably have had my phone out at that moment trying to capture it, and therefore, actually missing it.
There was just one blast of the Placebo I remember from times of old, which came in the form of the insidious “Protect Me From What I Want”. It’s true that I would have loved to hear classics like “The Bitter End” or “Pure Morning”, but with such incredible new songs on offer, this hardly mattered. The incredible “Sad White Reggae”, my favourite track from the new album, had the crowd locked in its infectious, crooked melancholy. “Try Better Next Time” was a big-chorused mosh monster, and “Too Many Friends” from 2013’s “Loud Like Love” was a massive singalong, all the more powerful given its theme of the tyranny of social media and the nebulousness of online friendships.
I have not been in a gig crowd so completely immersed and engaged in the music for many years, This gig was a stark wake up call to everything that smartphones have robbed us of when it comes to live music. And even more importantly, this gig brought me back to the live Placebo experience, something that I’d neglected for 18 years. I left this gig knowing that on this form, Placebo are clearly one of the bands that I’ll remember 2022 by, and I can’t wait to see them again in November.