After 25 years, more than 50 million worldwide record sales and 39 top-30 singles, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are still pumping out the tunes. Fans never seem to tire of them; perhaps it's because they're so inoffensive. They seemingly stumbled upon the formula that would propel them through three decades in the public eye from day one: one silent type, stood behind a keyboard; a more outgoing, intellectual front-man entertaining the crowd; lots of outrageous hats (to be shared by all).
The boys' latest album, Yes, released in March, brought the Brian-Higgins-led Xenomania treatment to Tennant's sardonic lyrics and Lowe's blanketing synthesisers. The pair left their "egos at the door" (in the words of Tennant) so that someone else could pick up the reigns. The production team also co-wrote three of the tracks, as well as bringing in The Smiths' Johnny Marr, and string arranger Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire). All of which was well-received, ironically, considering it took a load of outsiders to make Tennant and Lowe sound like themselves. The group found more favourable form when picking up an award for Outstanding Contribution to Music at the Brit Awards earlier this year.
At tonight's sold-out gig, people were on their feet from the off. The band played a selection of tracks from Yes, including "Pandemonium" and "The Way it Used to Be" as well as classic barnstormers such as "Go West" and "Always on My Mind". The impressive backdrop, modelled on the the cover art of Yes, comprised stacks of white boxes on to which projections were splashed (it reminded me a bit of Rachel Whiteread's Embankment when the artist filled up Tate Modern with, well, white cardboard boxes in 2005). The boxes were then removed, and used as various props, such as platforms for scantily clad dancers (turning the camp factor up to 11, two extras wore cube-like masks for much of the early performance). "It's completely amazing, like nothing else you've seen in a rock show," says Tennant, in the tour's expensive-looking programme. Another highlight was the band's cover version of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida", a nod to their treatment of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" in 1991. "It's a Sin", "Being Boring" and "West End Girls" (what else) finished off the evening, with, at one point, the band sporting what appeared to be pot plants for hands.
It is a tribute to the pair's success as a band that they are more than just a gay-centric club-classic generator; dance-music enthusiasts, pop-lovers and anyone ready to dress up, get drunk and have a good time are well up for it too. And despite a mix-up with tickets that caused the journalists reviewing the gig to miss a couple of the group's first songs (how prissy are hacks?), the evening coasted along smoothly. The ever-dependable rising star Frankmusik provided the support, before the night proper kicked off.