Pet Shop Boys

TrackAlbum / Single
West End GirlsPlease
It Couldn't Happen HereActually
Always On My MindParlophone R 6171
Left To My Own DevicesIntrospective
Being BoringBehaviour
LiberationVery
A Red Letter DayBilingual
Home And DryRelease
MinimalFundamental
Love Is A Bourgeois ConstructElectric

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Contributor: Stuart Huggett

Pet Shop Boys entered public consciousness fully formed when West End Girls became their debut hit late in 1985. The first of four UK number ones for the duo, it began an unbroken run of over 40 charting singles that only ceased when 2010’s underwhelming Together stalled outside the Top 40.

With that 25-year catalogue of hits under their belts, I make no apologies for this Pet Shop Boys Toppermost leaning heavily on Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s single releases. Even so, I’ve shared out some of the big hits with some less-remembered ones, plus the odd album track, from the whole span of their continuing career. Starting at the very beginning.

The familiarly moody version of West End Girls that topped charts around the world was in fact the pair’s second attempt to nail the song. The first was recorded with New York producer Bobby O and released in the US on his Bobcat label in 1984. A more urgent take on the track, with slightly different lyrics, it was licensed to various European countries, including Epic in the UK, but was entirely re-recorded when Tennant and Lowe signed to Parlophone.

West End Girls fixed the image of Pet Shop Boys in the public’s mind for good: deadpan, immobile, ripe for parody (French And Saunders, Flight Of The Conchords) and utterly English. Which is ironic, as the song was their attempt to pay tribute to New York hip hop. It still sounds distinct from the rest of their catalogue, partly because they were still recording in analogue at the time. Lowe’s lead synthesiser bassline would have a different feel if, as with most of debut album Please, they’d hung on to make the full change to digital recording before taping it.

While Please is an almost completely electronic album, Pet Shop Boys’ sound expanded hugely on 1987’s inescapable follow up Actually. Tennant’s lyrics were becoming more political, satirising and critiquing the Thatcher government on Shopping and King’s Cross, while It Couldn’t Happen Here, the record’s centrepiece, is a stately ballad alluding to the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The song also demonstrates the pair’s rising status in the music world, co-written by established film composer Ennio Morricone and with its orchestral arrangement arranged by then-rising David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, caught here post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks.

It Couldn’t Happen Here also became the title track for Pet Shop Boys’ baffling movie debut the following year, a Jack Bond directed state-of-the-nation travelogue themed somewhere between the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and the Dave Clark Five’s lesser-known John Boorman feature Catch Us If You Can. 30 years after its initial cinema and VHS release it remains frustratingly out of print, although a DVD version has been long-promised.

Actually found the Pet Shop Boys riding the crest of their ‘imperial phase’ (a term coined by Tennant) when they couldn’t put an artistic or commercial step wrong. Any of its four classic singles – It’s A Sin, What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Rent and Heart – could have made this list, the first and last of them both reaching number one.

In between, however, came the standalone single Always On My Mind. 1987’s Christmas number one, it famously kept the Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York from the top. Old school rock‘n’roll fans were none too happy with Pet Shop Boys’ gloriously over the top reimagining of the Elvis standard but it stands as the high watermark of their 80s productions, throwing countless orchestral stabs, firework explosions and samples of Joss Ackland (from Jack Bond’s film) into the mix. It concludes Pet Shop Boys’ live concerts to this day.

Having taken so much influence from Trevor Horn’s grandiose production work for his ZTT label, particularly the numerous 12″ mixes he masterminded for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, it was natural that Pet Shop Boys should hook up with him for 1988’s six-track disco album Introspective. Two of Horn’s productions made the cut, the concluding cover of Sterling Void’s house single It’s Alright and its hi-energy, operatic opener, Left To My Own Devices.

Taking months to record, the eight-minute Left To My Own Devices is Pet Shop Boys’ A Day In The Life, and then some. The self-descriptive lyric “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” is a little gauche but it sets up the song’s in-a-dream finale nicely. Although the later single version loses this final verse, it’s reinstated on the essential, and even lengthier, 12″ mix.

Turning down the tempo on 1990’s autumnal Behaviour, Tennant and Lowe created one of their best-loved albums, even if it marked the beginning of the end of their commercial invulnerability. Album opener Being Boring was released as the second single and stalled at number 20, the lowest-charting Pet Shop Boys’ single since their breakthrough.

The song is rightly regarded as one of their finest, however, perhaps the archetypal Pet Shop Boys composition, with Tennant’s memories of friends loved and now lost set to a lush accompaniment of strings, guitar and those whirling plastic tubes found in toy shops. The album version with its extended introduction is the superior mix.

1993’s bright and energetic Very would be the last of the Pet Shop Boys’ big hit albums, helped along by their new found enthusiasm for radical costumes, computer generated videos and innovative CD packaging. While the mood of Very is broadly upbeat, as with key singles I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing and the Village People cover Go West, it contains a handful of slower gems, including Dreaming Of The Queen, The Theatre and the understated single Liberation. One of Pet Shop Boys’ purest declarations of love, the Top Of The Pops performance is worth watching to spot a young and besotted David Walliams in the studio audience, years before he and Little Britain partner Matt Lucas joined Tennant and Lowe for 2006’s I’m With Stupid video.

As Pet Shop Boys stepped up their international touring, albums became more infrequent, and their sixth, 1996’s Bilingual, carries a strong Latin influence, as on singles Se A Vide É (That’s The Way Life Is) and the lyrical ‘Europe Is Our Playground’ adventures of double A-side single Bilingual/Discoteca. Recorded with the Choral Academy Of Moscow, A Red Letter Day is an exception to the Southern American mood, an optimistic song of love and bravery. Combining the Russian voices with remix elements brought in by Motiv 8 on the later single edit pushed A Red Letter Day to glorious heights, a euphoria reflected in its wonderful “Like Christmas morning, when you’re a kid/Admit you loved me and you always did” line.

Pet Shop Boys ended the decade with a return to club anthems on 1999’s Nightlife and began the next with 2002’s atypical Release. With stripped back arrangements and Johnny Marr’s guitar to the fore, it superficially appears to be an attempt to make a ‘natural’ sounding record, although this is subtly twisted by accentuating the electronic treatment of Tennant’s vocals on tracks like London and lead single Home And Dry.

A warm, enveloping love song, Home And Dry came with an uncompromising video directed by artist Wolfgang Tillmans, made up largely of footage of the urban mice that inhabit London’s Underground network. This far into their career it was clear that Pet Shop Boys were no longer concerned about bending to commercial pressure.

Produced entirely by a returning Trevor Horn, 2006’s ninth album Fundamental is invigorating and expansive. It’s also Pet Shop Boys’ most overtly political set, addressing the subjects of terrorism, fear, surveillance and the UK-US ‘special relationship’. If anything, Fundamental sounds even more relevant now than it did 12 years ago although Minimal is the only one of its four singles not to contain a political message. Tennant, Lowe and Horn’s talents combine seamlessly on an urgent electro homage to modern art, with a neat musical tribute to New Order slotted in near the end.

Following two of their more beautiful records, 2009’s soft-edged, Xenomania collaboration Yes and 2012’s gentle and orchestral Elysium, Pet Shop Boys finally parted company with Parlophone on their twelfth album, Electric. Released only a year after Elysium, Electric stemmed from that record’s writing sessions but Tennant and Lowe held the songs over, collaborating with producer Stuart Price (Les Rhythmes Digitales) on their most purely electronic album to date. It also contains, in Love Is A Bourgeois Construct, their funniest single in years.

To a melody borrowed from Henry Purcell via Michael Nyman, Love Is A Bourgeois Construct tells the tale of a jilted and jaded individual escaping the wreckage of his love life by reimmersing himself in the Marxism of his student days. The fact that, within a couple of years, the British left would be repopulated by just such politically reinvigorated gentlemen makes its humour (“Searching for the soul of England/Drinking tea like Tony Benn”) even more pointed today.

Pet Shop Boys have soundtracked British life as the country has lurched from Thatcherism to Corbynism, via the optimism of the EU project (Single-Bilingual) and the follies of Tony Blair (I’m With Stupid). True national treasures, Tennant and Lowe continue with their vital, understated observations of the world around them, social history you can dance to.

 

 

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Pet Shop Boys photo 2

 

Pet Shop Boys official website

Pet Shop Boys Discography

Pet Shop Boys Forum

So Pet Shop Boys – news & info

Pet Shop Boys Fansite

Pet Shop Boys official YouTube channel

Pet Shop Boys biography (iTunes)

Stuart Huggett cut his teeth writing fanzines and blogs and running tiny indie labels in Hastings, before moving to Brighton and fluking his way into an on-off career contributing to NME, The Quietus and more. His blog is here.

TopperPost #719

1 Comment

  1. Neil Waite
    May 17, 2018

    A reminiscent stroll down memory is always pleasant and this post is particularly so. The Pet Shop Boys were, again, one of those bands I would never admit to liking at the time. But I’m big and ugly enough now to admit to their brilliance. This is a great post which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had completely forgotten about the superb ‘Always On My Mind’ and now feel compelled to fill in the gaps in my PSB knowledge (and there are many). This is a splendid post. Thank you Stuart.

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