What might well have been a short-lived novelty bash, Pet Shop Boys — the droll, all-electronic London duo of ex-Smash Hits journalist Neil Tennant (vocals) and Chris Lowe (programming) — instead developed into one of the most influential and era-defining overground dance-music groups to emerge in England during the 1980s. Savvy pop sense, lushly inventive production and Tennant’s deadpan pronouncements have kept the duo’s unmistakable records popular; the replacement of glibly acerbic jokes with more serious, reflective lyrics has prevented the creative stagnation that sandbagged so many of their peers.
As Tennant would later opine (in Behaviour‘s “Being Boring”), “I never dreamt that I would get to be / The creature that I always meant to be.” Nonetheless, he did, and the Pet Shop Boys refined their skills and dropped some of their pretensions to become, not just the stylish musical realization of the sort of content affluence relatively unknown in England, but — in the singer’s lyrics — a chronicle of life as a maturing homosexual, of love’s mundane details and AIDS’ profound devastation. If not quite British pop’s ultimate bright young materialists, Pet Shop Boys occupy a significant sociological spot in the charts. In a very loose sense of style, pose and effect, the Pet Shop Boys are the Roxy Music of their generation.
Smart young gay pleasure-seeking suburbanites dreaming of the joys wealth and fame might bring, the Pet Shop Boys initially sounded like smug stockbrokers investing in a growth industry. Produced in the main by Stephen Hague, Please has all the ingredients of the band’s formula: shapely, soulless power beats given co-billing but not real pre-eminence, layered with extended strains of fake strings and Tennant’s Al Stewart (as archly scripted by Martin Amis) voice. But it’s all been left out in the rain with too many loose ends and a tragic lack of subtlety and soul. Tennant’s haughty lyrics scatter in-jokes and self-amused esoterica throughout “West End Girls” and the wry “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money).”
The Disco remix album employs an assortment of American dubmen (Shep Pettibone, Arthur Baker, the Latin Rascals, others) for extended versions of those two songs, plus “In the Night” (the B-side of “Opportunities”) and other selections from Please: the dreamy “Love Comes Quickly” (botched by the incongruous ticking sequencers) and the sarcastic “Suburbia,” subtitled here “The Full Horror” and loaded with barking dogs and other ambient ephemera. A crackling snare drum on “West End Girls” is likewise an extraneous annoyance. While it’s nice that the pair can acknowledge the crassness of their motives, how much better does that make the music sound?
Virtually a sonic translation of the ambivalent cynical fiction of writers like Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis that became popular around the same time, the uncertain attitudinal incoherence of Please is traded for a decisive formula on actually, a crafty album of naked ’80s yuppiedom (or, of course, a scathing indictment thereof) with songs like “Shopping” and “Rent” offering incisive social satire (or merely basking in the fruits of stardom) sure to be mistaken by those hoping to have their arrogance certified. To be fair, the duo’s melodic sense shows remarkable improvement, and the well-arranged record (entirely programmed on Fairlight synthesizer) draws as much from Abbey Road as Kraftwerk. Tennant’s voice has lost none of its creepy unctuousness and songs like the abominable “One More Chance” are virtual rewrites of past hits. But “It’s a Sin” has a brilliant refrain, and Dusty Springfield’s guest vocals on “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” salvage that tune handily. (In early 1988, actually was reissued in the US with a second disc containing two versions of Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” and “Do I Have To?”)
The following year, the Pet Shop Boys wrote, “performed” and produced the magnificent “Nothing Has Been Proved” for Springfield to sing on the Scandal soundtrack. The pair played much the same role on Liza Minnelli’s ungodly Results. Co-producing the record with their frequent studio collaborator, Julian Mendelsohn, the Pet Shop Boys did a lot of the programming and wrote most of the material, leaving Liza to emote absurdly over coy and starkly inappropriate songs like “Don’t Drop Bombs” and “I Want You Now.” (Actually, a schmaltzy remake of “Rent” doesn’t come off too badly.) Slathering strings (arranged by Art of Noise’s Anne Dudley and Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti) on top of pulsing synthesizers creates the superficial impression of a sympathetic environment for the melodramatic chanteuse, but the vast stylistic gap between singer and songs makes the record quite comical.
The boring and redundant Introspective jams six songs (four of them also issued as singles) into 48 minutes, largely dispensing with such needless formalities as melody in favor of protracted pre-mixed dance grooves. “Always on My Mind” makes a repeat appearance in a nine-minute house version; “Left to My Own Devices,” which employs an orchestra, is yet another of Tennant’s droll and insufferable diary entries; “Domino Dancing” deftly inserts a salsa breakdown into the middle of a standard mid-tempo concoction.
Where Introspective revealed absolutely nothing about the men behind the smug facade, “Being Boring,” the first song on Behavior, is downright generous in its reflective view of the band’s shifting existence and the decimation wrought by AIDS. Co-produced by Harold Faltermeyer, the album returns to the lush and tuneful musicality of actually, with Tennant singing lyrics that are, for a change, not simply irritating. While “How You Can Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” provocatively addresses an unnamed pop star, “Jealousy” and “So Hard” — both touching breakup songs — and the new-love “Nervously” prove that Tennant can actually manage emotional conviction in his lyrics and delivery. Opening the Pet Shop door to a bit of equally unfamiliar musical styles, Johnny Marr is one of two guest guitarists.
Packed in a brilliant embossed opaque orange jewel box, Very is another musical peak. Sounding more comfortable, confident and good-natured than ever, Tennant and Lowe gathering up a steaming dance brew — generalized disco as reinvented for another time and place with elements of trip-hop, house, jungle and other contemporary developments, including the Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine-styling “Yesterday, When I Was Mad” — that is as potent in its way as any overproduced ABBA hit. Punching holes in the quiet dusky afternoon gloom that frequently pervades their records, Tennant plays it lighthearted and a little light-headed, humbling himself mildly in “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” detailing his pickup routine in “To Speak Is a Sin,” indulging a regal tabloid fantasy in “Dreaming of the Queen” and paying grand tribute to the fans of drama in “The Theatre.” Even the ominously titled “Liberation” is simply about the power of love. Lowe matches his partner’s sunnier disposition with a genial whirlwind of engaging, frequently exciting music that mixes its cagey reference points (a lot of ’70s soul touches, but also courtly horns and, in “The Theatre” sensibly enough, showy fanfares) to excellent effect. Limited quantities of the British edition included a six-song bonus disc, Very Relentless.
The Pet Shop Boys’ discography is heavy with remix records and compilations. The annotated Discography batches up 18 A-sides from the pair’s first six years, from “West End Girls” through “Suburbia” (a rerecording of the Please track), “It’s a Sin,” “Always on My Mind,” “Being Boring” and an absurd 1991 hi-NRG cover medley of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” plus the new “DJ Culture” (boring, housey) and “Was It Worth It?” (peppy and romantic neo-disco).
An apparent attempt to up their cred in heavier dance circles, Disco 2 contains remixes by David Morales, Jam & Spoon, Junior Vasquez and others of Very’s “Go West” (a cover of the Village People oldie), “Liberation,” “Can You Forgive Her?,” “Yesterday, When I Was Mad” and “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” as well as Behavior‘s “So Hard,” the 1990 B-side “We All Feel Better in the Dark” and the fragment “Absolutely Fabulous,” all edited into one endless, cliché-packed, exhausting megamix that has its moments but too often clubs good songs into shapeless corpses of endless repetition.
Casting around for something else to anthologize, the singles-oriented Pet Shop Boys gathered up their B-sides and format leftovers and filled the two discs of Alternative with 30 also-rans, an uneven but ultimately illuminating collection that goes back, recording-wise, to 1983, includes three Lowe vocals, a Stephen Sondheim song cut as a demo for Minnelli and compositions by Brecht/Weill and Noel Coward. The lengthy booklet interview by Jon Savage gives the contents the intriguing context impossible to glean from the far less fascinating task of listening to all of it. (Tennant’s explanations of the sources of titles — an aspect of tiny impact on the final result — are extraordinary.) A treat for fans, this stylistic hodgepodge is a courageous showcase for a big band’s smaller efforts.