Twenty years after the band’s debut album, Placebo have embarked on a world tour to celebrate their legacy. Their alternative rock stylings, suffused with hints of glam-rock swagger, earned them a passionate following in the UK. Fans were out in force to witness Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal return to Birmingham at the Barclaycard Arena, and were justly rewarded for their loyalty.
Molko and Olsdal are famously uncomfortable with Placebo’s history- catapulted to fame by hits like Nancy Boy and Pure Morning, the band has struggled to escape from the songs that shaped their success in the 1990s. Over the years, Placebo have attempted to distance themselves from these formative tracks, and consciously excluded them from most of their live sets.
This anniversary tour marks a change in approach, according to Molko. Before the tour opened, he hinted that it would include “songs in the set that I’ve sworn never to play again”, as a tribute to the band’s dedicated following. Pure Morning and Nancy Boy- both classic examples of Placebo’s fixation on sexual hedonism and drug use- helped open and close the show respectively.
Some of Placebo’s downbeat songs don’t seem like the immediate choice for a stadium tour; the ethereal Lady of the Flowers, for example, isn’t exactly a sing-along. But overall, they transitioned from melancholic break-up ballads such as I Know to floorfillers like For What It’s Worth very well, consistency be damned.
Sexuality and gender were central to Placebo’s initial success, with public commentary gravitating towards lead singer Brian Molko’s bisexuality and gender ambiguity. Over the years, Molko’s aesthetic has hovered somewhere between the ghost of Dorothy Parker and a Thermian from Galaxy Quest, and his personal expression of gender remains principal to Placebo’s music. The highlight of the gig was Molko’s impassioned welcome to “ladies, gentlemen, and those of us who find ourselves somewhere in between… There are more of us than you think.”
Bassist Stefan Olsdal came out as gay in the late 1990s, and has previously used Placebo gigs as a means of protesting repressive anti-LGBT+ regimes. Whilst performing in Rabat, he took the opportunity to protest homophobic laws in Morocco by writing 489 (referring to article 489, which restricts same-sex relationships) on his chest. This concert was no exception- in an emotional moment, Olsdal raised a rainbow bass guitar aloft, delighting fans.
However problematic they find their biggest hits, Molko and Osdal managed to find joy in them once again on Thursday night. For me, there was something electric about knowing that I might never hear these songs played live again, that I witnessing something precious and transitory.
The past is no longer a foreign country to Placebo. The set had many tributes to fallen musical icons- Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Kate Bush (who isn’t dead, but is a Tory, so probably is as good as dead to most Placebo fans). The tour feels like catharsis for the band- by performing Sleeping With Ghosts and Song To Say Goodbye, Molko and Olsdal appear to be signalling that they’ve come to terms with the Placebo’s past.
But if the duo feel comfortable with their musical vision now, that doesn’t extend to the world around them. During their penultimate song, a furious rendition of Infra-Red, the face of Donald Trump flickered ominously behind them. The precarity of our modern world seems at the forefront of the band’s minds.
Placebo’s latest live set acknowledges the band’s turbulent history, grieving and savouring it before facing up to the challenges of the future. They released their first album the year I was born, and young fans like myself are facing a historical turning point with Placebo’s music at their side. It’s not enough, but it’s something.