Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met in a Chelsea hi-fi shop in 1981, both interested in disco and electronic music. They formed a duo, based on a shared love of the singles ‘Souvenir’ by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and ‘Bedsitter’ by Soft Cell. They took their name from friends who worked in a pet shop.
Tennant and Lowe took a few years to find the right producer, but were wildly successful. ‘West End Girls’, produced by Stephen Hague, became an international #1, starting a couple of years of chart domination in the UK. The duo’s commercial star faded a little in the late 1980s, even as their records became stronger – their 1988 single ‘Domino Dancing’ peaked at #7, marking the end of what Tennant termed their “imperial phase”.
Clearly good friends, Tennant and Lowe have continued to make music together, although I haven’t listened past the 1990s – most fans favour the early work up to 1993’s Very. They’re a brilliant singles act, but they also have strong albums. This duo had it all – intelligent and well-written music that was on trend and phenomenally and deservedly successful.
Pet Shop Boys Album Reviews
Please | Actually | Introspective | Behaviour | Discography: The Complete Singles Collection | Very | Alternative | Bilingual
The Pet Shop Boys’ debut album is remarkedly assured. It probably helped that they effectively recorded Please twice. They recorded 11 tracks with hi-NRG producer Bobby Orlando over 1983 and 1984, releasing early versions of ‘West End Girls’ and ‘One More Chance’ (the latter would turn up on 1987’s Actually). The duo instead recorded with producer Steven Hague, formerly a member of Jules and the Polar Bears with Jules Shear. Where the original version of ‘West End Girls’ is more primitive and dance-oriented, Hague helps the duo attain a sophisticated pop/rock sheen. The duo would become more idiosyncratic and distinctive, but they’re already impressive here. Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay adds saxophone on ‘Love Comes Quickly’.
The music’s consistent – the difference between the singles and the album tracks is often that Tennant’s lyrics are less arresting on the deep cuts. Hague earned a writing credit on ‘Love Comes Quickly’, the record’s most effervescent melody. The most memorable song is the evocative ‘West End Girls’, a transatlantic chart topper with rapped verses from Tennant.
Please is an impressive debut, the Pet Shop Boys immediately finding their groove with sophisticated synth-pop.
The Pet Shop Boys’ second album is a step forward from their impressive debut. Stephen Hague contributes to a couple of tracks, but the main producer is Australian Julian Mendelsohn. It’s sequenced better – the hits are spread more evenly through the album, rather than frontloaded as they were on Please – while it’s more diverse and ambitious. New ideas include the Dusty Springfield duet on standout ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ and the heavily orchestrated ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’.
‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ is my favourite, but the most attention-grabbing song is ‘It’s A Sin’, written about Tennant’s time at St Cuthbert’s, a Catholic school. ‘One More Chance’ was was originally the band’s second single with Bobby O back in 1984, but it’s a strong album track here, as is opener ‘One More Chance’. Most infamous is ‘King’s Cross’ – the line “dead and wounded on either side, you know it’s only a matter of time” seemed to eerily predict a fire that killed 31 people, 2 months after the record’s release.
Actually is jam-packed with potential singles, the pop duo at their hitmaking peak.
The Pet Shop Boys took a different approach for their third album – its six tracks are presented as 12-inch dance mixes. Only two of the six songs were written for the record. Instead Introspective includes two covers and two repurposed Tennant/Lowe compositions – ‘I Want A Dog’ was previously a b-side and ‘I’m Not Scared’ was written for Patsy Kensit. The lead single ‘Domino Dancing’ marked a change in fortunes for the duo – only peaking at #7 in the UK, they never again reached the commercial heights they commanded during their early years.
Despite the unusual format and the dropoff in their commercial fortunes, Introspective continues the quality early streak from the duo. ‘Domino Dancing’ is one of their best singles, incorporating Latin pop into their sound. Their cover of Elvis’ ‘Always on my Mind’ originated from a British TV special – their warm and sincere version became 1987’s UK Christmas #1. ‘Left to my Own Devices’ is a great opener, with its dramatic string flourishes and Tennant dryly singing about a friend who’s a “party animal”.
Introspective follows an unusual format for a pop record, but it’s still highly successful.
The Pet Shop Boys sought to make a more adult and tuneful record with their fourth studio album. Looking to redefine their sound, they worked in Germany with producer Harold Faltermeyer, an expert in analogue synths. Tennant later noted that “it probably didn’t have irritatingly crass ideas in it, like our songs often do.” Behaviour is more subdued than before – even the faster songs like ‘So Hard’ and ‘How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?’ feel thoughtful and restrained. But filled with classy tunes, it’s the most consistently impressive album from their early period.
The restrained and classy opener ‘Being Boring’ sets the tone – it’s gorgeous, even if it’s not attention grabbing. Former Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr plays on the gorgeous ‘My October Symphony’, about the decline of the Soviet Union. There’s gorgeous balladry like ‘Jealousy’, and nothing even approaching a weak track.
Behaviour is the Pet Shop Boys’ peak, reeling in their chart instincts for a classily restrained record.
Discography: The Complete Singles Collection
The Pet Shop Boys released some impressive albums, but they were at their best as a singles band. Discography collects 16 of their previous singles, along with two new tracks. Discography includes their 1991 non-album single – a cover of U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, presented in an upbeat disco arrangement and interpolating ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’. The two new songs – ‘DJ Culture’ and ‘Was It Worth It?’ – have a tough act to follow, rubbing shoulders with some of the best pop singles of the era, but they’re still strong.
Neil Tennant came out in a 1994 interview, but he already signalled his sexuality clearly on Very. Bringing back the energy of their earlier releases, it was the campest Pet Shop Boys project to dat. The video for ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ featured the duo in orange overalls and improbably tall pointy hats. Furthermore, it opens with ‘Can You Forgive Her?’, with lines like “You drift into the strangest dreams/Of youthful follies and changing teams” and closes with a cover of The Village People’s ‘Go West’. Coming after the thoughtful and detailed Behaviour, Very feels frivolous in comparison.
Typically for an unabashedly pop album, the singles are the strongest songs. The highlight is the absolutely beautiful ‘Liberation’, as Tennant uses his upper register to good effect on a lovely melody. ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ and ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing’ are a strong opening pair. Elsewhere, Tennant delivers some pointed social commentary into the anti-royalist ‘Dreaming of the Queen’ and ‘The Theatre'(“We’re the bums you step over/As you leave the Theatre”).
If you found Behaviour a little too grownup you may enjoy the energy of Very, but it’s less substantial.
Behind their great run of singles and impressive albums, it’s perhaps not surprising that The Pet Shop Boys had a bunch of quality material left over for b-sides. They had long planned to name this compilation Besides, but Bob Mould’s Sugar beat them to the title with their b-sides collection. There’s perhaps nothing on Alternative as transcendent as their hit singles, but the more relaxed nature of the songs is enjoyable.
The most famous original from the collection is ‘Paninaro’ – written about the 1980s youth subculture of the same name, it was released as a single in Italy. A remixed version was used to promote this compilation. It’s fun to hear the duo tackle Brecht and Weill’s ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’, quite different from their own melodic sensibility. Tracks like ‘Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend’ and ‘Miserablism’ (written about Morrissey) seem impossibly strong to be relegated to b-sides, even though they’re from the group’s early 1990s prime.
Alternative is impressively enjoyable, an alternative history of the duo’s evolution.
The lifespan of pop acts depends on staying ahead of trends. Artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift have managed to maintain lengthy careers, but most enjoy a relatively short shelf life. Bilingual was successful – it reached #4 on the UK charts and spawned three top 10 singles. Nonetheless, it feels like a gracefully exit from the cutting edge of pop. In particular, Tennant’s lyrics are less acerbic than before – he’s uncharacteristically content on songs like ‘It Always Comes As A Surprise’ (“You smile and I am rubbing my eyes/At a dream come true”). Musically, Bilingual follows the lead of ‘Domino Dancing’, exploring Latin sounds – there are lyrics in Spanish and Portuguese, as well as a sample of Brazilian bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto.
Where Bilingual is sometimes insipid lyrically, it’s fine musically. The opening pair of ‘Discoteca’ and ‘Single’ is energetic and memorable. The single ‘Se A Vide E’ is breezy and tuneful, and there are strong yet understated pop tunes like ‘To Step Aside’. There’s weaker material too – the generic ‘Metamorphosis’ and the slow-paced ‘Electricity’ diminish the goodwill generated by the opening pair of tracks, while ‘Saturday Night Forever’ is a weak closer.
Bilingual is pleasant, but it’s a step down after a triumphant decade.
By my count, the Pet Shop Boys have made a further nine studio albums – I’m not planning to cover them at this point.
10 Best Pet Shop Boys Songs
What Have I Done To Deserve This?
West End Girls
Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You
Love Comes Quickly
Can You Forgive Her?
It’s A Sin
Always On My Mind
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