What’s The Topic? Pet Shop Boys
It seems hard to imagine that Pet Shop Boys (never the Pet Shop Boys) have been around for thirty years and counting, but they have been, you know, and have gone on to be the most successful duo in British music history. Formed in 1981 and still turning out engaging, interesting, and challenging material all these years later, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s somewhat unlikely survival in an ever-shifting pop and electronic music landscape is a testament not only to the quality of the material but to their inventiveness and their refusal to be pigeonholed or defined in any way but their own. The electronic band were a permanent fixture of the late 80’s singles charts, and while there best-known work remains their earlier material they have continued to turn out interesting, challenging, emotional, pop music.
And it’s the “pop” in pop music that really helps delineate what Pet Shop Boys are. They’re electronic, yes, but they’ve used real instruments as well. They’re social and political, yes. They’re dance music and disco, yes. But above all, Pet Shop Boys are a pop band, and they’ve stayed remarkably true to that definition whilst simultaneously proving just how far the definition of what “pop music” is can be pushed. The deadly serious can mix with the playfully coy. The ambiguity can mix with the clearly defined. All these contradictions resolve themselves in a singular band who bring their own cool aloofness and worldview to melodies that remain irresistible. Intelligent, well-written, well-crafted pop that effortlessly stands the test of time? What more could you ask for?
Well, it’s a thirty-year career for one. After a few singles, their very first album, Please, came out back in the deep, dark days of 1986, and they’ve been releasing regularly ever since. And quite apart from the studio albums, there’s four remix albums (the inventively-named Disco, Disco 2, Disco 3, and Disco 4), there’s a host of compilation albums with bonus tracks, there’s the odd soundtrack or two, the obligatory couple of live albums, B-side compilations… You get the idea. There’s a lot of material out there. That’s daunting enough, though it means there’s lots of interesting nooks and crannies to explore away from the main albums, should one be so inclined. Equally, despite being hugely important in the mainstreaming of electronic music, there’s something strikingly… old-fashioned about Pet Shop Boys. At least part of that can be put down to music and melodies, which, despite mostly electronic arrangements, can often feel very theatrical, though Neil Tennant’s crystal-clear annunciation and slightly distant voice also contributes. And sometimes that distance and remove doesn’t always make for an easy entry point (though the extent to which Tennant’s voice has been criticized for being flat or affectless is vastly overstated – he’s a genuinely gifted vocalist). And there is something undeniably arch and often camp – and, yes, gay – about the group, which can be a barrier to the uninitiated. But get past those barriers and there’s a mature, grown-up group with a huge sense of fun to be discovered, a band which welds emotional content to dance music, intelligence to a beat, and who are also capable of just turning really, really great pop songs.
Entry Point: Very
The 80’s were a period where Pet Shop Boys were essentially unassailable. Hit followed hit followed hit, and their reputation was pretty stellar. That came to a bit of an end with Behavior which, though critically well regarded at the time, still felt like something of a disappointment, and as an album it feels rather sluggish and over-wrought compared to its predecessors. As with Introspective, there’s also a slight sense of samey-ness about it, with lots of sincerity and heartfelt emotions not quite adding up to as much as they might.
Very course-corrects this to such a degree that it becomes their best album up to that point. Killer first single “Can You Forgive Her?” kicks off the album with a huge statement of intent – by turns bold, funny, loud, driving and hugely enjoyable, with Tennant’s sharp vocal and the fully electronic arrangement light-years away from Behavior‘s lush melodies and melancholy. It’s a blisteringly good single and about as effective an album-opener as you could hope for. It’s followed by the light playfulness of “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing”, a gently teasing self-confessional about someone finally falling in love that’s just a little bit funny, a little bit camp (sample lyric: “I feel like taking all my clothes off / and dancing to the rite of spring / But I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing), and just generally good fun, before moving into “Liberation”, a much more sincere and heart-felt track. That constant shifting of tone and style means Very never becomes repetitive and gives the album much of its scope and depth. Elsewhere there’s real emotional punch with “Yesterday, When I Was Mad”, a blistering, furious attack on critics of the band, sarcastically drawled out by Tennant at his finest (“And someone said it’s fabulous you’re still around today / you’ve both made such a little go a Very. Long. Way”). There are attacks on hypocrisy (the wonderful “The Theatre”). There’s a song about cruising, or at the very least, picking someone up in a bar (“To Speak Is A Sin”, one of the album’s slower numbers). There’s the heartfelt sincerity of “One In A Million”. It’s the sheer variety of music and subjects that makes Very a joy to behold.
Ah, but before we leave, there’s also that single to be addressed. Pet Shop Boys had been camp before. They had covered other people’s material before (the all-too-appropriately named “It’s Alright” on Introspective, the excellent “Always On My Mind” from the same album, the Bono-annoying “Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”). But never have those two tendencies come together quite so… dramatically, shall we say, as they do in “Go West”. It’s not like covering a Village People song was going to end up being anything other than camp, but this elevates things to a whole new level, including big crashing cymbals at the song’s opening, a male voice choir, and Neil and Chris stomping about Red Square in Moscow (and a fully computer-generated landscape) while wearing silly hats in the video – silly hats are something of a running theme on Very, and indeed throughout their latter career and something to be very much applauded. It became the biggest single from the album (reaching the number two spot in the UK charts), it became a football chant, and if it’s not their defining song (that will always be “It’s A Sin”), it’s a huge validation of their approach to the material and to the reinvention that Very embraces and embodies.
Very lies a little under a third of the way through Pet Shop Boys’ career, so you can either go forward in time or back. If you go back, start with Please, their debut album. It’s a well-crafted piece of pop, and through a couple of tracks inevitably sound a bit dated these days, the essentials of the duo’s songwriting are already in place, in addition to white there’s a few indispensable tracks (the inevitable “West End Girls”, the equally good but different “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)”). Their second album, Actually, is Please multiplied by 100 – everything that’s great about Please (the songwriting, the pop sensibilities, Tennant’s vocals) is just pushed to a whole new level and it’s about as satisfying a straightforward pop album as you can get. There’s a few singles which are as good as anything in their career – “It’s A Sin”, of course, but the quieter brilliance of “Rent” should never be under-estimated, nor the good-fun silliness of “Heart”. But there’s also a unity that very much works in its favour – Please is a good album, but it’s just eleven songs lined up one after another. Actually feels like a full-blown album, with thematic aspects reaching across different songs to give a sense of cohesion. That’s true of the sound design as well, with fog-bound synth-horns sweeping across the whole album (and especially present on album closer “King’s Cross”, which deserves special mention anyway – it’s an astoundingly good song). Spare a thought, too, for Introspective, which already finds Neil and Chris moving on to new territory, with much longer club-length mixes of songs, the first (but by no means last) Latin influences showing themselves on “Domino Dancing”, and a less straightforwardly pop, more experimental feel. The jazz piano, for example, on the rather wonderful “I Want A Dog”, sounds like nothing up to this point in their back catalogue, and the song has apparently-throwaway lyric about desiring the animal of the title, while Neil Tennant’s vocal give greater depth to the seemingly-simple words by hinting it not a pet he’s looking for at all, or at least not one with four legs… It’s playful, funny, ambiguous and just a straightforwardly great track, distinct from, but very much connected to, what’s come before it.
If you go forward in time, give Nightlife a go. Bilingual followed on from Very‘s success and while not actively bad, it’s not exactly their best work either. Nightlife is a huge improvement, at turns sweepingly dramatic (“Vampires”), hugely danceable (the triumphant “Radiophonic”), experimental (“Boy Strange”), and it’s an album that embraces more than a few genres – country on “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” (and what a great song title that is), electronic melancholia on “I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More”, dance (“For Your Own Good”) and more. The camp aesthetic is still in evidence – there’s a duet with Kylie Minogue, in case there was any doubt, and there’s the straight-up disco of “New York City Boy”, a trying-a-bit-too-hard attempt to write their own version of “Go West” – but it’s balanced against an album that’s constantly shifting styles and genres to produce a very satisfying whole.
And at the most recent end of their career, there’s Electric and their newest release, Super. Both are set up to prove, after the relatively muted Elysium, that there’s life in the old dog yet. Both albums are propulsively electronic, stripped of both the melancholia that soaked Elysium and any acoustic instruments, and both are more than worth taking time for. The mixing on Electric isn’t quite as perfect as it could be – a result of the speed of its release – but the songwriting is generally terrific. It’s an album that sometimes shows its influences – the extremely Kraftwerk-ian “Fluorescent” with its wobbly analgoue synth sound – but never allows them to become overbearing or dominant, and the results are very good indeed. Super is often described as Electric times ten, and it basically is, taking everything that worked on that album while mostly stripping out the bits that didn’t (“Love is A Bourgeois Concept” is a great title but the song itself doesn’t quite live up to it). So for example there’s more Kraftwerk influence on the utterly brilliant “Sad Robot World”, which is somehow even better than “Fluorescent”, but there’s also a streak of humour through Super which helps give a warmer feel to the album (definitely check out “The Dictator Decides”, arguably the funniest lyric Tennant has ever written). If nothing else, Super proves that, even after thirty years, Pet Shop Boys can still find new, inventive ways of doing what they do best – writing superior, perfectly crafted pop.
As mentioned a bit earlier on, there’s a lot of ephemera in addition to the studio albums, and they’re rarely a good place to begin when beginning an exploration of an artist. Some of the material is extremely good nevertheless – the B-sides compilation Alternative contains some really excellent material and comes highly recommended. Equally, Disco is a great remix album, and a perfectly good way to listen to some of the early hits (it also has the great non-album tracks “Paninaro” and “In The Night”). Definitely find a few moments, though, for the PopArt DVD, a greatest-hits video compilation. Pet Shop Boys have always had a striking visual dynamic to everything they do, and have worked with some extraordinary talent over the years, both behind the camera (Derek Jarman directed the “It’s A Sin” video), and in front of it (Ian McKellan prancing about as the world’s least convincing Nosferatu in the video to “Heart” is a joy to behold). Seeing the visual unity to the Very singles, which even links in to the album’s packaging, gives a good idea of just how much attention to detail there is, and the videos on the compilation embrace a huge variety of different styles, from the CGI landscapes of Very, to the basically-just-soft-porn of “Domino Dancing” (including topless boys
frolicking fighting around in the surf over a girl it’s clear neither are remotely interested in), to the baffling “some rats by a railway track” that is the entirety of “Home And Dry”… one thing you can say of Pet Shop Boys videos – they’re never predictable. Oh and PopArt – The Videos has that most rare of phenomena, a genuinely enjoyable commentary track, from Neil and Chris (the first time we see Neil on screen, Chris on the commentary track is moved to comment, “oh here she is”, which pretty much sets the tone for the whole thing).
The Way In: