In their Nineties heyday, Placebo offered a breath of fresh air from Britpop's lad culture behemoths Blur and Oasis. More likely to be enjoyed in bedrooms than bars, the London trio engineered an alt-rock sound free from the aggression of grunge bands such as Nirvana, and even managed to draw attention from David Bowie, who was so enamoured he appeared on their 1998 single, Without You I’m Nothing. "For outsiders, by outsiders" was how the cross-dressing lead singer Brian Molko described the band, but Placebo were hardly niche: between 1996 and 2008 they had five Top 10 albums and a Brit Award nomination.
But two decades after the release of their eponymous debut album, perhaps the best way to explain Placebo's significance is the noise that greeted the bass guitar which Stefan Olsdal returned to the stage with for the encore - striped in the rainbow colours of LGBT Pride it was met by mighty cheers from across the Brixton Academy as the band celebrated the culmination of their anniversary tour.
What followed when the roar died down was a rare performance of breakthrough hit, Nancy Boy, an anthem for the sexually confused and socially excluded. It was well-received as a treat but lacked the punch it landed with 20 years ago. Placebo–and indeed the audience–appear much more comfortable in their own skin now than they did as an emergent band, which took the edge off such songs about sex, drugs and lack of self-esteem.
Placebo may just be a duo these days, after the band's third drummer, Steve Forrest, left the group in 2015. But Molko retains the beautiful androgyny that won the group their cult following and, with Olsdal, the pair delivered the sonic precision of a band basking in the rewards of 20 years' hard work. When Placebo announced these shows last March, they promised something “very much for the fans and a chance for us to revisit a lot of our early material”. With a set list that included Pure Morning, the 1998 single often missing from Placebo's live gigs, they delivered.
But no collection of hits could compensate for Molko's damaged vocal cords. After the second song, the front man confessed he had lost his voice a week earlier and, despite doing everything possible to improve for these shows - including cancelling a date in Plymouth–he had failed. “The vocals might sound a little bit different,” he told a still-grinning audience.
For a band so reliant on Molko’s perfectly balanced nasal tones, this was to prove devastating. Molko sang every word of every song with vigour, and applied himself on stage with full emotion and conviction. He was clearly in his element, soaking up the adoration of their most devoted fans. But, song after song, Molko was forced to apply conservative restraints to every note. The result was not so much that his usually staggering vocal flourishes were absent, but any real sense of melody too. The only time Molko's voice was spot-on was when he wasn't actually there: in a peculiar never-been-seen music video for Every You Every Me that played before he graced the stage.
Otherwise, it was sad to see–and hear–Molko having to miss each crescendo, appealing for the crowd to “be the singer in Placebo”, and he seemed equally pained by his deficiencies. But in truth, the fans barely cared.