West End Boys
There’s always been more than a hint of the theatrical in the Pet Shop Boys’ sophisticated, literate synth-pop. Their sweeping melodies, grand arrangements and smart observations suggest that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have a natural flair for the dramatic. Contrary to these indications, however, the duo has continuously struggled to harness their music to a live presentation. For one thing, Pet Shop Boys are not a “band” in the traditional sense of the word at all, just a couple blokes with keyboards and songwriting talent.
Somewhere catches the Boys six years after their overblown, choreography-run-amok Performance tour, and with a scaled-down stage show. Despite the danceable music, it’s a generally low-key affair that suits a pop act that’s well into middle age. Still, you get the feeling that something’s not quite right.
Somewhere was filmed during a two-week residency at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End (but of course) and features a 14-track sampling of the Boys’ sparkling backcatalog. The stage set is minimal yet classy. Lowe stands behind a keyboard inside a cubbyhole at the very back of the set. In front of him are some steps that lead down to the stage, while on either side are huge projection screens that depict what looks like a gathering of a half dozen close friends, lounging around on a sofa and occasionally dancing.
Not long into the show, you get the feeling that Tennant and Lowe would much rather be hanging out on that couch instead of on stage; at the end of the show, they do literally step into the footage and put their feet up. If it weren’t for occasional close-ups of him tapping his feet, you’d think that Lowe had been replaced by one of those stage robots from Kraftwerk. He stands stoically as he does in nearly all the Boys’ videos, wearing headphones and playing his keyboard in a way that doesn’t seem to correspond at all to anything you’re hearing in the music.
That leaves Tennant to carry the show, and he honestly has no use (and little talent) for being a Frontman. He generally wanders around looking lost and tentative, sometimes posing as if he were doing a cover shoot for the Boys’ next single. He’s more like your bookish, slightly dorky older brother than any kind of a rock star. At least he knows it, leaving most of the stage presence and dancing to backing vocalist Sylvia Mason-James and dancer/choreographer Les Child. Mason-James is a seasoned pro and carries her mantle well, and her rich, husky voice is a nice contrast to Tennant’s well-mannered croon. And when Child comes out in drag and begins to strip during Bowie cover “Hallo Spaceboy”, well, you can’t accuse his interpretation of being too abstract.
The real story with Pet Shop Boys and with Somewhere is the music, and on that point the show is flawless. The selection favors then-recent albums Very, one of their best, and Bilingual, probably their least strong. Highlights include the rousing, excellent Bilingual-era b-side “Truck Driver and His Mate”, the devastatingly frank “Can You Forgive Her”, and an acoustic “Rent”. If Somewhere has a pinnacle, it’s “Being Boring”, Pet Shop Boys’ best song and one of most affecting singles of the pop era. When Tennant sings, “We were never being boring ... we were never being bored” and the projection screens switch to showing the audience grooving and singing along, the show resonates in a way it hasn’t up to that point. You only wish there were more moments like this.
In addition to the show, Somewhere includes a half-hour backstage “documentary”. Filmed in black and white, it’s good-natured and worth a once-over. In an interesting flip-flop of their public image, Lowe comes across as affable and relaxed to the verge of laziness while Tennant is more aloof and uptight. The most revealing moments come not from the band but from their crew and the Savoy’s house manager. Fresh-faced programmer Pete Gleadall, when asked how much of the show’s music is prerecorded, delivers this gem: “Prerecorded’s possibly not the best word ... but ... 99 ... really everything”.
Somewhere‘s DVD presentation looks and sounds great. But, at only 90 minutes, including the backstage footage, it feels a bit slight. Pet Shop Boys’ most recent tour found them doing away with theatrics and bringing on backing musicians for more of a live band feel, suggesting that, years later, they’ve yet to figure out how to do themselves justice in concert.