By 2006, Pet Shop Boys were already twenty-five years into their music career, and they still hadn’t released a live album. But that would change with Concrete, released a decade ago this week.
Of course, the problem with live albums is that they often aren’t actually very good. You normally just get a few marginally different versions of tracks, which are clearly being played with a lot of energy, but unless you were actually there in person, it’s hard to get a feeling for what was actually going on at the time.
Trust Pet Shop Boys to do something different. Concrete starts with the enormous orchestral swell of Left to my own devices, and as on the original, that orchestra is actually real. This time it’s the BBC Concert Orchestra, in a concert recorded for BBC Radio, and as you might expect from that fact alone, it truly stands out as an exceptional live album.
There’s an unusual mix of tracks on here – of the seventeen, there are six from the latest album Fundamental, but the bulk were selected for their suitability to play with an orchestra, so after the introductions we get Angelo Badalamenti‘s rather awful rearranged version of Rent, and then an adorable version of You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk.
After a pretty awful sleazy introduction, Frances Barber of all people turns up to introduce the first new track, The Sodom and Gomorrah show, marking the first of the surprise appearances on this release. There’s another on the next song, as Rufus Wainwright appears to sing the bulk of Casanova in Hell, which suits the music well.
Concrete is characterised by a few things, then – the orchestral accompaniment, the guests, and the unusual selection of tracks. Continuing on the latter theme, we now get an excellent version of After all, from the Battleship Potemkin soundtrack, followed by another guest appearance from Frances Barber, now in character as the flamboyant Billie Trix on Friendly fire. The latter just about works, although it does require a bit of an explanation from Neil Tennant beforehand.
Disc one closes with a triumphant version of Integral, and then the pairing of new singles continues on the second disc with the lovely (but largely hated by the fans) Numb. In an environment such as this, you might think that a 1980s acid house classic might not fit too well, but somehow It’s Alright sounds amazing alongside these neighbours.
After Luna Park comes a major surprise: Nothing has been proved, written for Dusty Springfield back in the 1980s but rarely performed by Pet Shop Boys, and sounding completely fantastic here. Then comes Jealousy, in its wonderful extended form, but which maybe could have done with a little more rehearsal, as Neil has to rush a bit when he announces the surprise singer, Robbie Williams.
More surprising, though, is the inclusion of the adorably silly Dreaming of the Queen, from Very. It’s great to see the duo taking their art with a pinch of salt, even here. There’s grandiosity – It’s a sin closes the main set – but there’s also definitely a sense of humour.
Of the encores, Indefinite leave to remain falls a bit flat now – it’s a nice song, but that’s about all you can say for it. But right at the end, it mixes into the orchestral version of West End girls, which, of course, sounds amazing.
Concrete definitely has its ups and downs, but you can’t question its inventiveness as a live set, and for the most part it’s quite excellent. It’s not often I would say this, but this is a live album which is definitely worth tracking down.
Which you can do by clicking here or looking in any major retailer of your choosing.