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Pet Shop Boys: Behind One Of The Finest Pop Packages Of All Time
In Depth

Pet Shop Boys: Behind One Of The Finest Pop Packages Of All Time

With their maverick musicality and arresting visuals, Pet Shop Boys established themselves as a genius singles act – and much more besides.

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As mission statements go, it lacks the fearless ambition of Madonna’s (“I want to rule the world,” she told Dick Clarke on American Bandstand in January 1984), but Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s rather more measured early goal of getting a disc into one of London’s cool import record stores has a directness of sorts. That they managed it with the fruits of their first sessions with dance producer Bobby O, but then went on to achieve so much more, is testament to a widely recognised flair for brilliant songwriting, the careful and constant curation of the whole Pet Shop Boys “package”, and their knack of somehow staying afloat in the shifting currents of the wider music industry.

Listen to the best of Pet Shop Boys here

Always on my mind: a genius singles act

To understand why Pet Shop Boys are the UK’s most successful recording duo of all time, revered synth-pop pioneers and – even in the 21st century’s fractured state of affairs – a much-loved cultural institution and significant live draw is to, in part, understand the story of the broader music business during the final two decades of the 20th century and into the new millennium.

When Pet Shop Boys broke through in late 1985 with a re-recording of West End Girls, the music industry was dominated by the singles chart and the buzz of the pop video, and it was starting to wake up to the commercial potential of the new CD format. Pet Shop Boys are an inarguably genius singles act, gifted with the powerful understanding of what makes the perfect three-minute moment. Across the early run of their career, the duo quickly became unstoppable: adept at creating atmospheric mood music (Love Comes Quickly, Liberation), presiding over glorious moments of pop theatre (the triumphant resurrection of Dusty Springfield on What Have I Done To Deserve This?) or helming confident club-flavoured statements such as Domino Dancing or Before.

Neil Tennant’s training as a journalist, paired with Chris Lowe’s visual skills – he studied architecture – and the duo’s shared fascination (and understanding) of contemporary pop culture shaped their musical drive into something of an art form. No act appears to spend as much time on the visual presentation of their work, from the carefully curated fan-club literature to their album covers and live staging. The use of trusted collaborators such as Derek Jarman (he directed the It’s A Sin video) or Bruce Weber (on the innovative Being Boring clip) helped craft a powerful brand identity for Pet Shop Boys, placing them of their moment, but rarely of the moment; slightly outside the pack but with more than a passing interest on where the pack is headed.

I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing: seizing on influences

Pet Shop Boys’ early material was influenced by the continental European music market, with mid-80s titans such as Germany’s Sandra and the Italo-pop stable a clear blueprint for some of their debut album, Please. By 1988 the duo were recording with Latin-pop impresario Lewis Martineé, who, for a brief moment, made Expose the biggest girl group in the US. By the end of the 90s, Pet Shop Boys were more obvious magpies, seizing on influences to see what would fit (the organic sounds on Release, featuring former The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, were surely a reaction to the Britpop revolution that had swept so much aside), while a highly successful tour of Latin America would shape tracks such as Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is).

It’s this ability to fuse complementary movements into the classic Pet Shop Boys formula (not so different, perhaps, to Madonna’s modus operandi) that is the hallmark of pop genius and the passport to longevity in a notoriously fickle market. It’s not always about the now, either; Tenant and Lowe have plundered the past just as successfully – their ability to pick a decent song to cover (Always On My Mind, Village People’s Go West; or getting Boy George to record their production of Dave Berry’s The Crying Game) has yielded them unexpected returns; Always On My Mind was a relatively low-key idea for a Elvis Presley TV tribute show with no initial thought to its potential as that year’s prestigious UK Christmas No.1.

Did you see me coming? Playing the game

But to cast the pair as fickle pop pirates is to undercook the steely intellect that drives them and the stories they want to share. One of the best Pet Shop Boys songs, 1990’s Being Boring, lays out in measured tones the ravages of the AIDS crisis and the realisation that there comes a point in everyone’s life when one’s past starts to play as big a part as the present and the future. 1993’s Can You Forgive Her? is a clever nod towards the band’s sexual politics, which were then starting to be defined by Neil’s statements as a gay man, but the narrative clearly describes adolescent uncertainty and those ever-so-awkward, universal understandings. Meanwhile, I’m With Stupid is the band’s brashest protest song, lampooning the over-close friendship of the era’s UK Prime Minister Tony Blair with President George W Bush.

And yet not everything comes with that depth. Pet Shop Boys can carry off a throwaway moment with the best of them. The comedy track Absolutely Fabulous, created with the BBC TV series stars, or the extraordinary pairing of U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name and Frankie Valli’s Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, from 1991, demonstrate they don’t always need to be taken so seriously. This band has always played the game – from a commitment to the endless merry-go-round of TV pop programmes prerequisite to 80s music promotion, to a gruelling commitment to live dates which is essential to band economics today.

The duo’s notorious reluctance to stage live performances in the earliest years of their career perhaps built a sense of expectation that has served them well. Certainly, their 1989 tour gave them a back-catalogue worthy of the arenas they were to fill, and the bank balance to underwrite the staging to a level that would match the quality-control criteria of their audio-visual output – resulting in something of a victory lap in their 1994 Discovery tour of Latin America. The COVID-19 pandemic aside, most years would see the band appearing at festivals and performing shorter tours around the world, with highlights including Pet Shop Boys: Inner Sanctum, which was staged a number of times at London’s Royal Opera House in the 2010s.

Absolutely fabulous: turning great pop into an art form

It’s no surprise that Pet Shop Boys’ 2003 hits compilation was titled PopArt. Few acts straddle that divide so successfully – so much so, perhaps, that it’s hard to decide where their true territory lies. Great pop is often an art form; Tennant and Lowe recognise that, and it was this lack of prejudice that set them apart from the get-go. Early interviews would find them evangelising Desireless’s Voyage Voyage or Bananarama’s I Heard A Rumour alongside cuts from the My Fair Lady soundtrack and Joni Mitchell albums. Neil is a huge classical music fan, and both men have proved adept beyond the boundaries of conventional pop.

At the height of their imperial phase, in 1988, they produced a feature film called It Couldn’t Happen Here. In 2001, they created the musical Closer To Heaven with celebrated writer Jonathan Harvey and, three years later, scored the classic 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. In 2010, Pet Shop Boys released an adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale produced as the ballet The Most Incredible Thing at London’s Sadler’s Wells. It generated strong reviews and, in 2014, the band’s A Man From The Future appeared in the line-up for that year’s Proms. It had proved quite a journey for the pair who had perhaps initially felt their work would be lucky to get much of a hearing beyond London’s Hi-NRG dance scene. In recent years, a run of albums with producer Stuart Price has seen the band focus again on club-oriented pop, with their 2020 record, Hotspot, blending the genre with introspective tracks such as Burning The Heather.

Was it worth it? Legacy and influence

Much has been made of Pet Shop Boys’ mannered image and, while it would be naïve to consider their impact as anything less than the result of a forensic attention to detail, it can’t be taken as coldly calculating, either. Tennant and Lowe, for all of their commercial instinct and success, have never been big on compromise. There’s a very defined way of doing things and, though positions may evolve, it’s always at the band’s pace. The very private dynamic of Neil and Chris is curiously undermined by their honest and effusive opinions on almost everything, routinely chronicled in Literally, the Pet Shop Boys fan journal. You’d likely be sure enough about their preferences for onions or the latest pop starlet, if not where the two men’s relationship actually first came from.

It’s this attention to the detail of their career – a canny understanding of what’s actually interesting about anything – and a sophisticated, and entirely maverick, musical flair that sets the band apart. In the 80s, this made them custodians of the sharpest singles and videos on the planet; in the 90s, it became an ability to pick and choose from a surprising spectrum of wider influences; in the 2000s, it became an edgier taste for experimentation and a fresh mastery of surprise; and, in the fractious 2010s, it presented as a more statesmanlike understanding of their place in the world.

Four decades into their career, Pet Shop Boys are national treasures, uniquely British and best-in-class evidence of the nation’s skill in that softer cultural power – a bit like the Royal Family or the lasting legacy of The Beatles. But Neil and Chris would likely hate a billing as limiting as that. Theirs is a universal appeal. The import racks of those record shops went long ago but, as it turned out, Pet Shop Boys needed a much broader canvas. There was more than one way to rule the world.

Check out our best Pet Shop Boys songs for the finest examples of their maverick, musical flair.

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