Depeche Mode, Wembley Arena, London <br/> Placebo, Empress Ballroom, Blackpool

Wembley, prepare to be pummelled!
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The Independent Culture

The last Depeche Mode gig I attended, right here at Wembley in October 2001 when they were promoting the dreary (and criminally mis-named) Exciter album, I was so bored I felt like eating my own eyes.

Since then, the superannuated synth-rockers have got a few things out of their systems. Dave Gahan solo? Waddling at Glastonbury like a mallard who'd had an accident in his leather trousers. Martin Gore solo? As if we're really gonna go all the way to Shepherd's Bush just in case he encores with an acoustic "Blasphemous Rumours".

And they've arrested their decline with a half-decent album (Playing The Angel), which augurs well for their return to the British live stage.

The backdrop is portentous. A giant typewriter golfball embossed with the words "ENJOY, SEX, PAIN, ANGEL, LOVE", and containing a dot matrix screen, across which drift words like "misery", "grief" and "torment", and the biblical reference John 1:5 (I looked it up: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it").

And, when the Mode lope on, they're looking the part. Gahan is suited and slicked back like Silvio in The Sopranos (he soon strips to a waistcoat, then completely topless), and pirouettes with the microphone like a skinny, spinny James Brown.

Gore, with black angel wings and a weird knitted "Mohawk" hat, is a sweeter, less strident presence. (Third member Andy Fletcher, and touring keyboardist Pete Gordeno hide behind flying saucer-shaped consoles.)

It's a good start, but it isn't long before they show worrying signs that the torpor of 2001 hasn't shifted completely. For an eight-song stretch between the irresistibly propulsive "Question Of Time" and the dirty sex-gospel of "I Feel You", the set sags something chronic and you're telepathically commanding them: play something fast.

Eventually, they pull out the big guns. "Personal Jesus" is stunning, with Gahan charging up the catwalk to throw the inevitable Christ poses, "Enjoy The Silence" is one of the timeless pop love songs, and who ever believed they'd lighten up enough to play "Just Can't Get Enough"? When they pummel Wembley into submission with the monstrously magnificent "Never Let Me Down Again", it's impossible to understand how anyone can have no time for the Mode.

"I was confused by the birds and the bees", the Lilliputian, Luxembourgeois leader of Placebo sings, beneath the gilded plaster of Paris of the 110-year-old Empress Ballroom, and you realise how little has changed during the latter tenth of that period. The lyric is from "Meds", the title track of Placebo's fifth album in 11 years, and the opener of tonight's show. Perhaps the main criticism to be made of Meds is that it trawls the same old topics: hard drugs, each-way sex and self-harm. But that demographic needs a laureate like any other, and Brian Molko may as well be it.

"Someone call an ambulance," he sings on "Infra-Red" (the second track tonight), "there's gonna have been an accident". Admit it: if that couplet was written by Cave or Cash, you'd all applaud.

Last time I (or, for that matter, anyone in Britain) saw Brian Molko onstage was at Wembley two years ago, duetting with Robert Smith on "Boys Don't Cry". Smith was a shuffling, mumbling creature, while Molko hogged the vocals. At the time it felt odd, but in retrospect it looks like the symbolic passing of the torch.

In the second decade of their career, it now looks as though Placebo, like The Cure, are shaping up to be evergreen dinosaurs of alternative rock.

After a hit-speckled set ("Every You Every Me", "The Bitter End", a drastically - and disastrously - slowed-down "36 Degrees", a more effective deceleration of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill") they close with the anthemic "Nancy Boy", which of course boasts another killer couplet: "Eyeholes in a paper bag/Greatest lay I ever had". If Cocker or Morrissey had written that...

If love is too much to ask, is it time to afford Placebo a little respect?

s.price@independent.co.uk

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