CHE GUEVARA AND DEBUSSY TO A DISCO BEAT: PET SHOP BOYS
To speak in Smash Hits magazine copy, where would pop be without “ver Pets”? An erudite ex music journalist and an awkward, fun loving would-be architect combined to produce thrilling pop moments set to pristine electronica, topped off with some of the best millinery in pop. Like a Shakespearean chorus sagely documenting the times and joining the dots of modern life, they can be arch, witty, political, detached, wistful, superficial and wise, sometimes all at the same time. And we still don’t really know much about them as people. They’re not ‘celebrities’. There’s no solo projects. They don’t write overtly ‘confessional’ songs. They simply operate as a unit, dedicated in the pursuit of pop perfection. Here are their 10 best moments.
10. Can You Forgive Her?
Pointy hats! We kick off with this comeback single from 1993, ushering in a rebooted era where the boys imagined themselves as computer generated bots in a surreal world of liquid bubbles and unhatched eggs. The dunce’s hats and orange boiler suit outfits are certainly their most identifiable look and is a powerful “non-image” image for a band who set out to minimise the pop star aesthetic and define themselves by everything they were dead set against.
Nicking the title from an Anthony Trollope novel (of course), “Can You Forgive Her” has a brilliant Bond-theme swagger to it, updating their trademark orchestral stabs (is that how you would describe them?) to something approaching futuristic, whilst still sounding identifiably “them”. It’s a loose coming-out story of a man slowly coming to terms with his past to address the panicked claustrophobia of his present, and when Neil Tennant deadpans, “She’s made you some kind of laughing stock/ Because you dance to disco and you don’t like rock”, he casually drops in one of the best lyrics in all of pop.
9. It’s A Sin
All great pop music should have some sense of the dramatic. “It’s a Sin” is all drama from start to finish, bookended by two galactic explosions that wouldn’t sound out of place on “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. In between we have a pulsating, throbbing backdrop recalling “I Feel Love” over which an imposing sounding organ lords over the listener like a severe Catholic priest. A Catholic education has long provided a rich mine of material for pop, but this doesn’t follow the usual trope of anguished guilt or confession. Instead, it’s full on fire and brimstone anger and rejection. Even when he gets to the confession booth in the middle eight, Neil Tennant asserts that “I didn’t care and I still don’t understand!” No Hail Mary’s here, then.
Although - technically speaking - it’s about all kinds of sin, there’s enough lingering, eyebrow raised innuendo in the line “Everything I long to do/ No matter where, or when, or who” to suggest this is about one type of sin in particular. The overall effect is quite relentless, and certainly one of the most unsubtle songs in the PSB library. But there’s a sense of urgent, clock ticking doom in the final thirty seconds, and a fevered, desperate recounting of something in Latin to suggest that - for all the defiant anger - in the end there’s a panicked final sprint to avoid the burning gates of Hell.
8. Love is a Bourgeois Construct
“Intelligent pop” sounds like a genre that should come in a box with a “handle with care” sticker on it. The best pop music works because it’s often daft, stupid, not particularly over-thought, and is aimed squarely at the heart (and the feet), not the head. It would be therefore easy to dismiss Pet Shop Boys as an exercise in pop theory, but the fact that they often reach all three targets in the same song, (and only occasionally misstep into something too knowing) shows not only that they understand what works in pop music, but also that they love it.
“Love is A Bourgeois Construct” is a case in point. It must be the only pop song in history to include the word “schadenfreude’, yet it shoots down its own loftiness by being funny and (in places) oddly affecting, with the narrator both dismissing the very notion of love, whilst helplessly succumbing to it. It’s the story of a lonely, lazy leftie troubadour, in thrall to a life of socialist theory (topicality alert!) , whilst the capitalist reality of the world slowly unravels his own existence. The narrator namechecks Karl Marx and Tony Benn as he longs for a life in a secure academic bubble, scornfully turning off the emotional side of his brain, because to face up to it would be to admit his own, painful heartbreak.
Musically, it adopts a few classic tricks. Flaunting their classical credentials, the chord progression is based on Michael Nyman’s “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds”, which itself is based on a Henry Purcell banger. They also throw in a Go West-style male voice choir to add a bit of an extra communist vibe, and the whole thing is given an electric sheen of newness by producer Stuart Price. Joseph Stalin and Tchaikovsky to a disco beat.
7. Domino Dancing
Domino Dancing marked the end of what Neil Tennant described as their ‘“Imperial Phase”. Four of their previous five singles had reached either number 1 or 2 in the charts, and so this single - peaking at number 7 - was deemed a commercial failure and the start of a period where they could no longer rely on getting into the top 10. But whilst the dictates of fashion may have started to curve away from them, they hadn’t lost artistic momentum. Pop artists have often taken a Latin detour, with varying degrees of success. But listening to ‘Domino Dancing’ makes me realise that it wasn’t a stretch for Pet Shop Boys. A lot of their early songs had a regimented Latin Freestyle bassline to them -until this, they just hadn’t gone the whole hog and added Spanish guitar and brass to the equation.
I’ve heard that the “watch them all fall down” line is a reference to AIDS and whilst they obviously did write about this devastation in other songs (‘Being Boring’, ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’), I think there’s a temptation to retro view a lot of PSB songs through a ‘gay lens’ that may not always be there. It might be of course, especially in the line “I’ve seen you dance with danger too many times”. But I prefer to see it more universally as a comment on the questioning of the worth of a relationship when the messiness of infidelity and deceit come into play. Whether or not the song is ‘gay’ or not may be ambiguous, then. The video, however, is another matter…
6. King’s Cross
Their first two albums - particularly ‘Actually’ from where this song comes - are often seen as a reflection on Thatcherite Britain and the widening cracks that emerged as a consequence, cracks that a lot of people fell through. Wide-eyed economic advancement (‘Opportunities’), privatisation (‘Shopping’), Clause 28 (‘It’s a Sin’), urban decay and the creep towards a loss of law and order (‘Suburbia’) are recurring themes But ‘King’s Cross’ is possibly their most Thatcherite song. It exudes a quiet desperation for a section of society not just forgotten, but abandoned as the ladder of opportunity is hoisted up.
Way before it’s rejuvenation as a wizard-inspired tourist attraction with a lovely, Instagram-able roof, King’s Cross was a pretty grim place in the 80’s and 90’s. As an emigre from the North East, Neil Tennant could observe King’s Cross as a first destination for anyone escaping from ‘Northern parts and Scottish towns’. But it describes with aching simplicity, the brutal reality of swapping one dead end life for another. It’s an anti Dick Whittington morality tale, in that the freedom that London presents actually closes the walls on these lives. The lack of any kind of safety net restricts choices and places people on a daily survival course in an era where we were told to ‘choose life’ and the Big Bang taught us to control our own economic destiny.
From the outset, the narrator feels “the smack of firm government” and quickly acknowledges “we’ve been had.” The decay of homelessness and prostitution (“I’ve been guilty of hanging around”) pervades the song and seeps into the subdued musical palette. The only moment of defiance is the assertion that “you leave home and you don’t go back.” But ultimately, it’s unclear which version of hell - the one they’ve left of the one they’ve arrived at - is preferable.
5. Always On My Mind
Pitchfork described this track as a kind of victory lap, and in the context of them owning the charts in 1987, it pretty much is exactly that. It’s a glorious left turn proving they can do something unexpected, but equally gives them a chance to showily exhibit a heap of sonic tricks that show - more than anything - that they know how to do a “moment”. From the weird industrial growl of the start onwards, this is an uninhibited euphoric four minutes of joy, culminating in the slow build and release segment at from 1:50 to 2:04, which sounds like the song itself has just taken a hit of poppers.
This being Pet Shop Boys, there’s a twist to the lyric. The song essentially poses a series of questions (Maybe I didn’t treat you/ Maybe I didn’t hold you etc…) which I guess you’re meant to read as a contrite apology and plea. But in the songs closing moments, Neil Tennant breezily wonders aloud “Maybe I didn’t love you…,” rendering all those early questions obsolete. It turns the song around from being sung by an apologetic lover to a cynical one. Less ‘Always On My Mind’, more…”you were never on my mind in the first place.”
4. West End Girls
When “West End Girls’ became number one, it seemed to me it was the sound of sophisticated adulthood. I didn’t have a clue what it might be about, but it sounded otherworldly and impossibly grown up. The sound of drinking coffee, relationships, having your own door key, being allowed into town on your own, eating garlic bread (it was 1986). The clipped sound of stilettos on a high street sounded mysterious, the washed-out synth sounds and the heartbeat drum pattern felt portentous.
It still sounds mysterious now, almost a bit dreamlike, in that it feels like overheard snatched conversations, dark corners and murky blurred lines. For a band that never sold themselves on sex, this is a darkly sexual record. Even disregarding the overt client/rent boy vibes of the video, the questions it asks (do you get it how often? Which do a choose, a hard or soft option?) deliberately grey an already confused landscape. There’s heightened sexual tension too in the contrast between East End pieces of rough, and haughty West End temptresses. Even the depiction of a “denim world” and “going underground” sound slightly dangerous and sordid, The song leads you round London’s West End in a twisting journey of dark alleys, testing your fortitude by asking how far have you been? And how far will you go?
‘West End Girls’ feels incredibly “London” even now - perhaps enhanced by that video which makes it plain where the songs roots lay. But from that high street opening soundscape onwards, it could really be about any town on a Friday night, exploring the excitement and tension of what might happen and where following your basest desires might lead.
3. Left To My Own Devices
As a manifesto for your future pop career, fusing Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat was a pretty successful plan. This song is a distillation of their classical leanings fused with house music to produce something grandiose and epic, but also slyly intimate. It reads like an outsiders anthem - a rejection of youthful gang uniformity, a celebration of introverted world building, where loneliness and the pursuit of an insular life triumphs over the dull pursuit of merely belonging to a tribe. The recounting of the narrators very British daily routine - drinking tea, phoning a friend, going shopping - doesn’t sound that boring at all when you consider it’s a life that has been single mindedly fashioned for themselves, without any pandering to the demands of others.
Lyrically it sounds autobiographical (apparently it isn’t), musically it feels like it should be over reaching itself (it doesn’t), and when the it ends in a show tuney flourish, you’re left with the feeling that a life spent in your own head is a life well spent.
2. What Have I Done To Deserve This?
I’ve written about the perfection of this record elsewhere in the blog so I'll link to that instead.
Not much more to add, other than Pet Shop Boys - along with New Order - are great at putting random grinding electro sounds in at the start of their songs.
1. Being Boring
Pet Shop Boys are all about euphoria in some degree, but euphoria comes in very different guises. The 1990 “Behaviour” album has often been described as ‘autumnal’, ‘wintery,’ and ‘reflective’. It’s almost introspective. It’s all those things, but it also has moments of quiet euphoria, and “Being Boring” revels beautifully in the joy of being a defiant survivalist.
(It also deftly pin pricks at their own static image as performers, stubbornly presenting themselves as ‘non-performers’ in an age of smiley over enthusiasm.)
The song works on a personal level about the devastation of the AIDS epidemic at a time when there was no obvious route out of the misery it inflicted. But it also works as thrilling ‘caterpillar to butterfly’ tale of finally becoming the person you really are (“I never dreamt I’d get to be, the creature that I always meant to be.”) In between, we go on a three-act journey that ends in private grief but personal achievement, kick-started by the inspiration of a Zelda Fitzgerald quote – “she refused to be bored, chiefly because she wasn’t boring” – who Neil Tennant amusingly brushes off “someone’s wife….a famous writer in the 1920’s”.
We then fast-forward to the 1970’s, a jumping off point of escape where the narrator bolts through a closing door….seemingly just in time, as he’s warned “you’ll have nothing left, and nothing to care for.” (Note: in this second verse, possibly the only use of the word ‘haversack’ in popular music).
We end in the 1990s where, marvelling at what he’s become, the narrator observes with a hollow detachment, “all the people I was kissing, some are here and some are missing.”
It ends on absolute heartbreak when he admits, “But I thought in spite of dreams. You’d be sitting somewhere here with me.” But it doesn’t apologise, and although its looking back in the past, it answers its own question. How could life ever be boring, when you’ve created your own world as amazing as this?