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Placebo - Apollo, Manchester 12/03/15

13 March 2015, 11:00 | Written by Joe Goggins

"We haven't played this song in a very long time. It's been years, for many reasons."

The crowd's interest is piqued. Placebo have just subjected us to an extended run of tracks from their latest full-length - 2013's Loud Like Love - and anything they could muster from the good old days, even the infamous stab at rap rock that was "Spite and Malice", would be very welcome indeed. From the way Brian Molko introduces what's coming, you'd surely have it down as a genuine classic. "Nancy Boy", maybe, last played in 2010, but through violently gritted teeth? Or perhaps even "Pure Morning", a pariah in the world of Placebo setlists, and the holy grail for any fan who saw the band for the first time after 2004.

Instead, it's "Special Needs", a track that the band actually played - night in, night out - as recently as 2009. It's superb all the same - the guitar tone is gorgeous, even if, lyrically, Molko's ham-fisted tale of glitz and glamour grates a little - but the melodramatic and misleading manner in which it was introduced suggests that Placebo are fully aware of the problem with their live shows: it feels like a knowing wink.

The last time they played here at the Apollo, in December of 2013, their second drummer, Steve Forrest, remained part of the cohort - he's since been replaced by Matt Lunn - but otherwise, things have hardly changed. The setlists are almost identical. In recent years, it's never been customary for the band to mix up the song selection - they've stuck to the same running order with immovable rigidity - and whilst that previously seemed self-defeating (doesn't it get boring?) tonight goes a step beyond that.

Placebo - or at least whoever handles their online presence - have made no secret of the fact that their entire back catalogue has recently been made available on streaming service for the first time, whilst their website - headed 'Placebo20' - talks of a "two year period of retrospective activity". Surely, then, a slew of cuts from their superlative self-titled debut are in order? Nope. Just the one, "I Know", which goes down a storm, and only one song from each of their next two albums, too; the perennially-thrilling "Every You Every Me" from Without You I'm Nothing, and "Special K", showing its age now, off of Black Market Music.

It has to be stressed, though, that the band have never been tighter onstage. Molko's voice remains gloriously and almost bafflingly untouched by his many well-documented years of hedonism, whilst bassist Stefan Oldsal's gleeful body language speaks volumes. Their expanded live lineup are well-drilled by now, too, but the tracks on which they're most crucial - the new ones - go down fairly flatly with the crowd. The classics - "Meds", "The Bitter End", that fabulous cover of "Running Up That Hill" - fare much better, even though they're the same pre-Battle for the Sun efforts that have been aired at pretty much every show since 2009.

There is an outrageous irony to the fact that Molko refuses to play "Pure Morning" on account of finding the lyrics cringeworthy, and yet is more than happy to trot out the much-maligned "Too Many Friends", with the now-infamous opening line "my computer thinks I'm gay / I threw that piece of junk away". He's never quite been Leonard Cohen on the writing front, but Battle for the Sun and Loud Like Love have marked an alarming decline in the quality of Placebo's output and for Christ's sake, somebody needs to tell them. They're both terribly generic, and they're both sorely lacking in character, despite boasting one of the most iconic rock voices of the past two decades. The 'hits' portion of tonight's show is superb, but having to sit through "Scene of the Crime", "A Million Little Pieces", "Rob the Bank" and "Purify" back to back to get there feels like a test of endurance. Combine that with the fact that any fan who hadn't checked beforehand could well claim to have been brought here under false pretences - "two year period of retrospective activity" - and it's clear that a much more balanced setlist is a must next time out: patience is wearing thin.

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