Snogging blokes in eyeliner is so passé

Placebo | Brixton Academy, London
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The Independent Culture

Placebo are one of those bands who have sold millions of records and who can pack out the Brixton Academy two nights running, but who haven't quite filtered through to the public at large. It's a strange situation, and it's easier to explain the second half of it than the first. The reason why most people have never heard of Placebo, and why an even smaller segment of the populace could name their lead singer or whistle one of their tunes is simple. It's because Placebo are rubbish.

Placebo are one of those bands who have sold millions of records and who can pack out the Brixton Academy two nights running, but who haven't quite filtered through to the public at large. It's a strange situation, and it's easier to explain the second half of it than the first. The reason why most people have never heard of Placebo, and why an even smaller segment of the populace could name their lead singer or whistle one of their tunes is simple. It's because Placebo are rubbish.

Their glam-grunge repertoire is drearily limited, and features far too many monotonous, metronomic chuggers that can be told apart only by which laughable sex-and-drugs nursery rhyme Brian Molko (that's his name) is whining nasally over the top. Vocally, his range of notes and emotions rivals that of a tracheotomy patient. As a spectacle, Placebo aren't much more stimulating. Stefan Olsdal, the very tall bassist, stalks around, and for the encore he takes his top off. But the trio still looks lost on the Academy's enormous stage. Molko usually stands still, scrubbing away at his guitar. Perhaps he believes his maroon suit and elfin prettiness are distraction enough, but as his hair thins he'd be advised to make contingency plans.

To be fair, Placebo's second album, Without You I'm Nothing, has reasonable depth and variety. The new one, Black Market Music, is a step back to the rhythmically rigid formula, but it, too, has a couple of decent tracks. You'd wish the group well if Molko weren't so keen on being compared with David Bowie - with whom he dueted at the Brits - and Marc Bolan - whom he impersonated in Velvet Goldmine. In that company, quite good isn't good enough. Three albums in, it's about time Placebo contended with their heroes, rather than just copying them.

Still, there are millions of record sales to account for, and on Wednesday there were thousands of fans in eyeliner and glitter for whom Placebo obviously fill a gap. The most plausible explanation is that because the group conform so doggedly to a traditional image of doomed, subversive glamour, lots of people are sheltered enough to be titillated.

If nothing else, Molko has a knack for self-mythologising. The most amusing example of this came when he told interviewers how Placebo reacted to the whirl of their sudden superstardom by pushing themselves to the brink of hedonistic death. It would have been a more effective rock'n'roll yarn if the superstardom he was thinking of hadn't amounted to getting one single in the top ten.

However funny this self-delusion might be, though, it is a kind of talent, and Placebo's talent is to portray themselves as dangerous, decadent libertines. Actually, Molko's insistence, almost three decades after Ziggy Stardust, that resembling a girl and snogging a boy are desperately risqué things to do reveals just how conservative his thinking is: now that the blokey Ocean Colour Scene and the bland Boyzone have openly gay singers, putting rude words in your songs and make-up on your face is not exactly pushing back boundaries.

On some level, though, Placebo offer their fans a tried and tested way of standing out from the crowd, and, of course, blending in with another crowd. (On Wednesday, for instance, everyone cheered obediently at the big-screen footage of an American flag dissolving in flames.) Furthermore, Molko speaks up for political involvement, reading and being nice to your mum, so as a hero for adolescents, he's healthier than Westlife and Slipknot.

What's depressing is not so much Placebo themselves as the paucity of competition. If Molko's secondhand pouting can secure him such a fervent following, why isn't someone else playing the epicene debauchery card, someone with more imagination and more musical mates?

What's Brett Anderson up to these days, anyway?

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