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Pet Shop Boys

The mid-80s and 90s belonged to the camp and confectionary PET SHOP BOYS, an iconic, post-modernist synth-pop team (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe), whose ideas and ideals reached out to the disaffected youth of Britain who were looking for answers from the dance-floor. While no one could ever forget their debut earworm-of-the-highest-order, `West End Girls’ (a flop first time around until re-worked to hit gloriously in 1985), the pair went on to become the UK’s most successful duo by way of `Opportunites (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’ – a dig at yuppie Britain, `It’s A Sin’, `What Have I Done To Deserve This’ (pitted alongside comeback diva DUSTY SPRINGFIELD) and a commemorative cover of the ELVIS hit, `Always On My Mind’. Visually, the duo were akin to a more technoid SPARKS or SOFT CELL, sharing the latter’s sizeable gay following, while ironically, also being idolised by thug-ish football “casuals” for their immaculate taste in designer garb.
Formed in London, England, in August 1981, by former UK Marvel Comics editor Neil Tennant and architecture student Chris Lowe (they met at an electronics shop on the Kings Road, Chelsea), their fixation with the dance scene propelled them to create their own blend of stylish pop music. Working his way up the journalistic ladder to become Smash Hits assistant editor, Geordie lad Tennant (now in his late 20s) had more than enough intelligence on the burgeoning music scene to gravitate into the fickle pop world; he’d performed in sixth-form school ensemble, Dust, who compared themselves to The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND. Five years his junior, Blackpool boy Christopher Lowe played trombone for late-70s dance act, One Under The Eight.
After two years spent plugging away recording demos as West End, PET SHOP BOYS met up with Stateside Hi-NRG disco producer Bobby (O) Orlando while Tennant was in New York interviewing The POLICE. As luck would have it, the man was impressed by a demo tape and subsequently worked together with PSB on several numbers, including `West End Girls’. Released in April 1984 as their debut UK single for Epic Records (b/w `Pet Shop Boys’), it was weighed under by the growing playlist of dance records on the market, although in France, Belgium and parts of east coast America (mainly New York), the production made inroads on to the airwaves.
Extricating their contractual ties with Bobby O, the PET SHOP BOYS signed up with manager Tom Watkins, who secured them a deal with Parlophone Records, early in ‘85. The duo’s first effort for the label, the sardonic 80s critique of `Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’ failed to make an impact, but hot on its heels, a Stephen Hague-produced re-make of `West End Girls’ finally gave them a major breakthrough late in the year, hitting No.1 in several countries including Britain and the States.
Not so instant, but marking them as contenders to succeed in 1986, `Love Comes Quickly’ entered the Top 20, but fell short of expectations overseas. Their parent debut album, PLEASE {*8}, was an unmitigated transatlantic Top 10 success, a classy collection of intelligent synth-pop, infectious melodies and wryly observant lyrics, which became the campy duo’s trademark. `Opportunities…’ was hastily re-released in clanking, mechanically remixed form, and hovered around the Top 10 (both sides of the Big Pond), whilst a further major hit from the album, `Suburbia’, improved on their UK standing. The ‘Boys even penned a song about the Italian strain of the expensively kitted-out thuggery, `Paninaro’, a track featured on their first Top 20 remix album, DISCO (1986) {*4}.
`It’s A Sin’ gave the lads their second home-soil No.1 in summer ‘87, while a few months on they also teamed up with sultry 60s songstress DUSTY SPRINGFIELD for the transatlantic Top 3 smash, `What Have I Done To Deserve This’. The fact that the Americans had taken so keenly to the PET SHOP BOYS was odd, given that nation’s notorious inability to appreciate irony; it’s arguably a testament to Tennant and Lowe’s finely-honed melodic mastery and perfectionist production that they broke the US market where other quintessentially English pop bands (ERASURE et al) had consistently failed.
ACTUALLY (1987) {*8}, was another successful slice of sophisticated pop nous, containing the aforementioned two singles (and the excellent `Shopping’), as well as the poignant `Rent’ hit, and two further No.1 singles by way of the flamboyant synth/strings remake of `Always On My Mind’ and `Heart’; all incidentally packaged in the duo’s first and only movie, It Couldn’t Happen Here. For this diversion of sorts, Neil and Chris journeyed on a self-discovery tour round their version of modern-day England. On their travels they harked back to their childhood days and how things had changed, not necessarily for the better. Beaches, boarding houses and a blind preacher all played their part, along with biker gangs and SS nuns, in this symbolic pastiche of PET SHOP Britain.
On the back of another Top 10 volley, `Domino Dancing’, the pair further indulged their penchant for dancefloor-styled albums with INTROSPECTIVE (1988) {*7}, which included extended soon-to-be Top 5 hits, `Left To My Own Devices’ and `It’s Alright’, plus a version of a track they’d produced for Patsy Kensit’s EIGHTH WONDER: `I’m Not Scared’. On the other side of the spectrum, 1989 saw the prolific PET SHOP BOYS working with such esteemed and diverse artists as DUSTY SPRINGFIELD (on the `Nothing Has Been Proved’ hit), Liza Minnelli on her album, `Results’ (who duly hit the UK charts with their melodramatic, collaborative cover of Stephen Sondheim’s `Losing My Mind’) and with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr on ELECTRONIC’s inaugural smash, `Getting Away With It’.
A fresh decade finally got underway for the PET SHOP BOYS when `So Hard’ dented the Top 5, a polyrhythmic piece of well-constructed pop that bolstered sales of their near chart-topping BEHAVIOUR (1990) {*7}. Uncharacteristically introspective, spawning supplementary hits from the wistful `Being Boring’ and `How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously’ (the latter a double-A from the following March pitted with a masterstroke splicing of U2’s `Where The Streets Have No Name’ and FRANKIE VALLI’s `Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’), it was tongue-in-cheek pop genius all the way for the dynamic duo.
Not counting the obligatory DISCOGRAPHY: The Complete Singles Collection (1991) {*9}, highlighting 18 superb edits plus minor hit addendums, `DJ Culture’ and `Was It Worth It?, it would be another three years before `Can You Forgive Her’ and a celebratory cover of The VILLAGE PEOPLE’s `Go West’, extended their reign over the charts. Both from their list-topping VERY (1993) {*8}, a consummate distillation of the PET SHOP BOYS’ unique grasp of pure pop, further examples of their happy/sad, tongue-in-cheek flair was presented on respective #13/#14 hits `I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ and `Liberation’; note too, that a limited-edition dance CD, “Very Relentless”, was included with initial copies – PET SHOP BOYS proving they were hip to a music style they had helped create.
But for an “Absolutely Fabulous” charity hit with Edina and Patsy (aka Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley), Tennant and Lowe had maintained a fairly low profile, releasing only another hit platter, `Yesterday When I Was Mad’ (from a sophomore volume of DISCO 2 {*3} remixes in ’94) and a B-sides, chronological collection in ’95: ALTERNATIVE {*6}, featuring that aforesaid missing link, belated hit 45, `Paninaro’.
1996’s BILINGUAL {*6} boasted the usual spread of Top 10-ers (including attendant hits `Before’ and `Se A Vida E (That’s The Way Life Is)’), although PSB were getting rather old-hat while wearing out plenty-a head-gear in the process; `Single-Bilingual’, `A Red Letter Day’ and a re-hash of Bernstein & Sondheim’s West Side Story opus, `Somewhere’ (from a special edition of said set in ’97), continued their run of glory.
Nearing the end of the millennium, credible pop music was now big fashion again, it was just that Tennant and Lowe were losing themselves in the mire of mediocrity; the 1999 Top 10 album NIGHTLIFE {*6} – which featured the appallingly limp-wristed `New York City Boy’ – was proof enough that they were losing the plot somewhat. In among the co-productions with either David Morales, CRAIG ARMSTRONG and Rollo (the latter of FAITHLESS fame) – including conveyor-belt hits, `I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’ and `You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’ – was the self-produced/co-GEORGE CLINTON-scribed `Happiness Is An Option’; the star appeal continued with `In Denial’, a duet with KYLIE MINOGUE.
A few years on, the ‘Boys were back in town with a collaborative effort, Closer To Heaven; all very high-brow but definitely low-key stuff: outside the West End, that is. That the PET SHOP BOYS – a band so closely aligned with the 80s and, to a lesser extent, the 90s – should even choose to keep on recording into the millennium was a brave step, although thankfully, RELEASE (2002) {*6}, made few concessions to musical fashion. Instead, it cast a knowing, wary eye over contemporary music without getting hung up on it. With JOHNNY MARR lending a seasoned hand and Messrs Tennant and Lowe freed from the role of uber-hip cultural commentators, the songs – including Top 20 breakers `Home And Dry’ and `I Get Along’ – were given unprecedented room to breathe. The result was an aesthetic makeover of sorts, a record more befitting of their age. Surprisingly, the PSB’s DISCO 3 (2003) {*6}, received rave reviews in the NME, although the reality was we’d heard them all before.
It seemed incredible that such a modernist act had now been recording for two decades, yet that was the story which the highly entertaining POPART – THE HITS (2003) {*8} – showcasing single hits `Miracles’ and `Flamboyant’ – had to tell, a more complete anthology than 1991’s “Discography”, if no less playful.
Ever the highbrow playboys, PSB subsequently collaborated with Dresden Sinfoniker to recreate the score to Sergei Eisenstein’s early Soviet-era silent classic, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN {*4}, a flop electro production completed for retail in September 2005 with new lyrics; they’d performed it at a free concert in London’s Trafalgar Square the previous autumn 2004.
As indicated by its title and choice of producer (TREVOR HORN), FUNDAMENTAL (2006) {*6}, was a back-to-basics effort, all the easier and more convenient given that electro-poppy 80s material was back in vogue. Back in the Thatcher era, the duo, at particular times, dabbled in politics; in 2006, the state of the world – and more specifically the nature of Anglo-American relations – had moved them to craft their lyrics accordingly on the likes of lead single `I’m With Stupid’ (video courtesy of “Little Britain” duo Matt Lucas and David Walliams); `Minimal’, `Numb’ and their first failure-to-launch, `Integral’, were arguably the stand-out pieces.
Celebrating 25 years in the business, CONCRETE (2006) {*6} – a live double-set recorded that May at the Mermaid Theatre for Radio 2 with the BBC Concert Orchestra – had a different angle to all on board; re-workings of `Rent’ and `Nothing Has Been Proved’ highlighted among guest spots for RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (on `Casanova In Hell’), actress Frances Barber (for `Friendly Fire’) and ROBBIE WILLIAMS (on `Jealousy’).
Disregarding the mainly compiled collection of associated remixes for other artists (BOWIE, MADONNA, RAMMSTEIN, et al), “Disco Four” (2007), the PET SHOP BOYS were re-opened for business with a definitive Top 5 (US Top 40), YES (2009) {*7}. Working with Brian Higgins and his Xenomania tag-team, the record ticked all the right boxes for modest hits `Love Etc.’ and `Did You See Me Coming?’. Further examining their pop nuances, a promo-turned-bona fide chart single EP, `Christmas’, turned out to a festive cheer for covers of MADNESS’ `My Girl’ (2 versions) and COLDPLAY’s `Vida La Vida’ (segued with `Domino Dancing’).
Delivered on the back of a concert CD/DVD package, PANDEMONIUM (2010) {*6} – live from The O2 Arena the previous December – yet more compilation sets “Ultimate” (2010) and “Format” (2012), plus the electro-classical ballet, THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING (2011) {*6} – based on the Hans Christian Anderson story – the PET SHOP BOYS returned from Berlin with ELYSIUM (2012) {*6}. Not particularly enterprising, the record’s nostalgia-motif and smoothed-out bliss and glitz was rather throwaway on even its best bits such as `Your Early Stuff’, `A Face Like That’, `Ego Music’ and the solitary minor hits, `Winner’ (from the London Olympics) and `Leaving’.
Approaching 30 years on Parlophone-EMI Records, PSB ventured out on their own x2 Records (via Kobalt label Services) for 2013’s highly commendable Top 3, ELECTRIC {*8}. Awash with a smorgasbord of Stuart Price-produced single-fodder that desperately tried in vain to penetrate the download market, `Axis’, `Vocal’, `Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’, `Thursday’ (featuring rapper EXAMPLE) and `Fluorescent’, were the high spots for fans of the rebound krautrock-meets-MORODER style; even a visionary version of SPRINGSTEEN’s anti-war piece, `The Last To Die’, was slick and sombre.
If nothing had been proved by the PET SHOP BOYS that they’d long-become an English institution, album number thirteen (excluding all the remix/compilation/OST flak), SUPER (2016) {*7}, was once again for “electronic purists” only. Introspective in small doses, nostalgia reared its groovy head with `The Pop Kids’, `Twenty-Something’ and `The Dicator Decides’. Okay, no hits, but the Top 3 set was KRAFTWERK in places, and the usual grandiose and equally cosmic in others. Tennant now 61 and Lowe 56, the men from the ministry of multi-layered pop might yet have another album or two in the tank.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Apr2016

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