When Placebo appeared on the music scene some 21 years ago, their rise wasn’t overnight. But by the time they released the fifth single from their self-titled debut – Nancy Boy – they were peaking in the top five of the UK singles charts. Not bad for a group of unassuming lads led by the 5’6” tall androgynous frontman Brian Molko. They went on to have an instantly recognisable sound and were quickly noticed both by the general public and those in the industry, such David Bowie, who took them under his wing and even contributed vocals to 1999 single Without You I’m Nothing.
20 years on and the group put out retrospective compilation album A Place For Us To Dream, re-discovering their early hits and re-incorporating some into a career-spanning 20 Years Of Placebo tour, which kicked off last year and continued on to two shows at favourite venue – London’s Brixton Academy.
Drummer Matt Lunn alongside a three-strong supporting band of Bill Lloyd on additional keys and bass, Nick Gavrilovic on guitars and keys and Angela Chan taking up additional keyboards as well as violin, take to the stage and kick off the stomping rhythm of hit 1998 single Pure Morning, the larger than life character of bassist Stefan Olsdal bounding out to huge cheers ahead of frontman Brian Molko who makes less of a show.
Seventh studio album Loud Like Love’s title track is up next, the stage shifting in hue from bright whites to muted reds and greens, all the while a massive backdrop screen stretching the full length and height of the Brixton Academy stage shifting imagery between video excerpts and filtered live camera feeds of the band.
“Well look at all the people here tonight!” Molko says to the crowd, addressing his audience for the first and only time of the night. “Two weeks ago I completely lost my voice” he continues, going on to tell of trips to doctors and speech therapists and how he was convinced his voice would be better for the band’s dual Brixton Academy shows, the group having cancelled shows in Plymouth and Swindon ahead of tonight. “I’ve not fully recovered yet so I want to thank you in advance for your patience” he asks of his audience before going on to champion his loud band.
Soulmates, a re-cut version of fourth album Sleeping With Ghosts’ title track, allows the energy to flow across the Brixton Academy without attempting a song that stretches Molko’s vocal range ahead of more from the record by way of mid-tempo single Special Needs.
Olsdal hands bass duties over to Lloyd next, taking up position behind a keyboard for 2013 single Too Many Friends, the 44-year-old frontman’s vocals following a simple monotone chant rather than the song’s original tune, his vocal weakness making itself apparent.
Twenty Years, from compilation record Once More With Feeling, continue the downbeat, keyboard-led portion of the show before Olsdal swaps out his keyboard for a guitar to take on lead duties for I Know from the group’s self-titled debut, delivered very flatly by Molko’s inability to reach the track’s signature high notes.
Battle For The Sun cut Devil In The Details allows Molko to continue to chant along as does Loud Like Love tune Exit Wounds, the frontman shifting octaves from the song’s stinging chorus deflating it’s punch, the crowd in the stalls still swaying along merrily while those in the circle sink back in their seats. Keys and a light rhythm open Sleeping With Ghosts cut Protect Me From What I Want, Molko’s range tonight suiting the song, it’s haunting melody ringing out across the hallowed hall of the Brixton Academy.
A subdued outing of 1999 single Without You I’m Nothing sees video footage of Placebo advocate and mentor David Bowie’s time in the studio with the (then) boys appear on the huge backdrop, the huge loss of Brixton’s very own Starman still raw, particularly with those he touched so significantly, the group opting not to play Bowie’s vocal contribution of the single version of the song.
For What It’s Worth gets off to a stuttered start, but it’s faster pace ups the mood of the Brixton crowd before Meds single Song To Say Goodbye and Sleeping With Ghosts hit The Bitter End close out the main set.
When Molko et al. return, they run through massive 1996 single Nancy Boy, a song that departed their set for many years before being re-integrated for their 20th anniversary shows over the past year. And while I may have got a massive bear hug from the guy next to me for singing out every word to the early hit, Molko’s missing usual high notes impact this song for me more than most. Meds single Infra-red closes out the night, the band choosing to forgo their usual second encore of their renowned rendition of Kate Bush hit Running Up That Hill.
I don’t know if it was from experiencing my first Placebo show from a seated section with only a handful of gig-goers on their feet, the trio of lads I was sat next to mostly out of it between taking snorts of unknown white powdered substances or the subdued nature of the show due to Brian Molko’s limited vocal range tonight that left a bitter taste in my mouth. Indeed, on my wander to the tube I overheard a number of people speaking of the Placebo frontman’s vocals as being integral to their sound, with many songs losing their punch tonight.
If tonight had been my first Placebo show, I might have been deterred from returning. But it wasn’t and we know why tonight was as disappointing as it was. Get well soon Brian; we’re all looking forward to hearing those killer vocals at the next show!
Live review and photos of Placebo @ Brixton Academy by Kalpesh Patel on 23rd October 2017.
Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate