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Very: How Pet Shop Boys Became New Cultural Stakeholders
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Very: How Pet Shop Boys Became New Cultural Stakeholders

Pet Shop Boys’ most successful album, ‘Very’ was released against the backdrop of a health crisis that was decimating the LGBTQ+ community.

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It’s a statistic almost guaranteed to fool contestants in a pop quiz: how many No.1 albums has Britain’s most successful musical duo enjoyed? The surprising answer is: just one. Despite scoring four No.1 singles in the 80s, Pet Shop Boys have made it to the peak of the British album charts only once, with Very.

Listen to ‘Very’ here.

The smartest strategic move

Twelve songs made up Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s triumphant fifth studio album, which, for the first time in their history, followed a reasonably indulgent hiatus (notwithstanding the pair’s first hits collection and a handful of singles). By 1993, the music scene was dominated by bland dance conglomerates, grunge and a fresh generation of boy bands such as Boyz II Men, East 17 and Take That. Pet Shop Boys’ previous album, Behaviour, had been received by some as being too downbeat, and, if the musical landscape looked a little unforgiving, a retreat towards the grand dance-pop of before appeared to be the smartest strategic move.

Another first: Pet Shop Boys would steer much of Very’s production themselves, though Stephen Hague’s safe hands are all over the final cut. The album also marked the moment when the band would take their visuals to a whole new level, with a series of grand stylistic themes accompanying Very’s singles – each one outdoing the last – and even influencing the packaging of the music in its physical formats (at that time dominated by the CD and the cassette). “Our idea was to get to the point where we didn’t have to be in the videos,” admits Neil.

With its kitchen-sink observations on a young, closeted man, lead single Can You Forgive Her? opens the album and sets the tone perfectly. Neil Tennant is adamant the story is not autobiographical, but the song also came at a time when his then-recent declaration that he is gay began to dominate many critiques of the band’s music. If it came as a shock to the pair, who had assumed the public read everything they needed into the work already, the lazy labelling in time started to sour. Released as Very’s second single, their exuberant cover of Village People’s minor 1979 hit Go West did nothing to dispel the perception, but with it Pet Shop Boys created the unlikeliest of revivals and made the track their own. Their last across-the-board singles success, with a UK peak of No.2, Go West now firmly claims its place among the best Pet Shop Boys songs. (It was also placed as the album’s closing track: don’t miss hidden moment Postscript (I Believe In Ecstasy), tucked away right at the close of the playout.)

A fantastic range of material

Between those better-remembered singles, Very offers a fantastic range of material. Young Offender, A Different Point Of View and I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing are terrific pop belters, with the latter picked as a single and featuring a very-out-there video clip. Perhaps the most exuberant pop number on the album is One In A Million, first started in 1984 and unearthed during Very’s recording sessions. At one point, the song was being considered as a project for Take That – a collaboration all of us would love to have seen.

The arch Dreaming Of The Queen is Neil’s favourite song on the album and offers a surreal twist on the AIDS crisis, then seemingly unstoppable. Its reference to Lady Diana (even then, long since a Princess) adds a powerful top note of nostalgia to the track, which complements Liberation, at its source a simple love song, but one which, given the political and social battles of the time, also bears interpretation as something broader.

Stories that get you thinking

Pet Shop Boys’ growing confidence with their lyrics is evident in compositions such as The Theatre, which matches its title’s ambition and embeds a trademark footnote of social commentary. To Speak Is A Sin documents a lost gay-bar culture and, while Pet Shop Boys are rarely considered a political band, they often use their platform to tell social stories that get you thinking.

Of course, dance music doesn’t always welcome that sort of distraction. One And One Make Five and, to a lesser extent, Yesterday When I Was Mad, drive the pace at a pitch that gets the band’s battalions of remixers routinely excited (and Very was initially packaged with a limited-edition second disc of largely instrumental experiments billed Very Relentless), but nothing allows the storytelling to overwhelm the moment.

Released on 27 September 1993, Very found Pet Shop Boys at a crossroads: amid shifting trends there came a new brief as cultural stakeholders, however unwelcome that clumsy assumption may have been. Still, the album’s title couldn’t have been clearer. Topping the UK charts and going Top 20 in the US, the secret to its success was that it was, simply, very Pet Shop Boys.

Buy Pet Shop Boys vinyl at the Dig! store.

‘Very’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

Can You Forgive Her?

Pet Shop Boys’ record label pushed for Can You Forgive Her? to be Very’s first single, ahead of I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing, and this punchy 6/8 electro-disco stomper certainly kicked off the album’s campaign in solid form, becoming the duo’s 13th Top 10 single in the UK. Vocalist Neil Tennant came up with the lyrics on a train journey to London from his home in Rye, East Sussex, and his recent reading of the 19th-century novel by Anthony Trollope lent the track its name. The classic theme of a mismatched romantic pairing was offered in more contemporary coding, with lyrics speaking of a man tortured by his girlfriend’s assumptions that he might be gay. By 1993, Pet Shop Boys’ work more overtly tackled themes of sexuality, though Tennant, who came out to Attitude magazine the following year, would point out the song wasn’t autobiographical. “I’ve never had sex behind a bicycle shed,” he said.

I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing

When UK house collective The Beatmasters remixed I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing for single release, they teased out the nagging guitar riff, but the album version is simpler, and Tennant has admitted he prefers its “economy”. With lyrics routinely compared to the sort of thing Noël Coward might have penned, the song has an air of English reservation about it: upbeat but somehow never letting too much emotion overwhelm the moment. It’s a lush, melodic gem that became Very’s third single, in November 1993, and made UK No.13. Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, then working occasionally with Tennant in Electronic, immediately got its nuance. “I remember when we finished the album, I went to Manchester and played it [to Marr] and, when I put this on, he started laughing, and laughed all the way through it,” said Tennant.

Liberation

Very’s most effective long song, Liberation owes something to the Behaviour-era single Being Boring. The two share a drum pattern and bass, but Liberation has none of that earlier track’s brooding sentiment. Its melody was influenced by Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the ballet Romeo And Juliet, and Tennant has said the tune for Liberation came to him while listening to that score in the bath. The late session guitarist JJ Belle played on the track, which was one of the final Pet Shop Boys singles to be commercially issued on 7” vinyl. On release, in April 1994, it became the penultimate Very single, peaking at No.14 in the UK.

A Different Point Of View

Pop was back in 1993, thanks to the breakthroughs of acts such as East 17 and Take That. A Different Point Of View is Very’s most out-there pop moment and, while there are clubby riffs on this earworm, it’s a song that divides the duo. “Chris never liked this song,” is Tennant’s simple verdict on a tune he also candidly admits can be “irritating”, while Chris Lowe recalled, on an expanded reissue of Very, from 2001 (part of PSB’s Further Listening series), “I did my best to mess it up.” “Chris played the tune on orchestra hits, just to annoy me,” recalled Tennant. “And even more annoyingly I really liked it. It’s a really good pop song. I think it’s too poppy for Chris.”

Dreaming Of The Queen

This multi-layered composition is Tennant’s favourite song on Very. With Anne Dudley, of Art Of Noise, conducting the rich orchestration, and a complex vocal that was double-tracked in octaves, Dreaming Of The Queen was one of the trickiest songs to record in an era when digital programming was still in its infancy. Its dreamlike lyrics are anchored in the health crisis of the era. “The idea of the song is that the person singing it has got AIDS,” said Tennant. “It’s a sadder song than you think.”

Yesterday When I Was Mad

The frenetic techno energy of this track made it an obvious choice for wider exposure in a chart climate increasingly overwhelmed by dance culture. Thus, Yesterday When I Was Mad became the final single from Very, in August 1994, almost a year after the album had been released. Such a long delay before hitting the shops was caused by the summer release of PSB’s standalone Comic Relief single, Absolutely Fabulous, but Yesterday When I Was Mad still reached No.13 in the UK. “It’s quite an unusual sounding record,” said Lowe. “It’s from our punk-disco range that we do every now and then… No one else would write a song like this.”

The Theatre

This glorious soaring anthem is undoubtedly the single that could have been, with lyrics packed with rich social observation that’s classic Pet Shop Boys. The dramatic presentation, with another strong orchestration from Anne Dudley, was inspired by the homelessness Tennant observes to this day in major cities such as London. “The song is a rather romantic idea,” he said of The Theatre. “I still think of London as a romantic place… the streets being paved with gold… and then there’s the reality.”

One And One Make Five

The PWL influences are overt on One And One Make Five, an uplifting house-inspired cut which is another pop gem on an album that covers most contemporary bases, so why not Stock-Waterman (Aitken had moved on by then)? Dance influences thread throughout Very, and this suburban disco track would have worked for any number of artists – there was even a time during recording sessions when it was assumed to be the album’s most obvious single. “Kylie had stopped making Kylie at this point, but we hadn’t,” noted Tennant.

To Speak Is A Sin

To Speak Is A Sin was one of the first songs Pet Shop Boys wrote. Initially demoed in 1983, it had been recorded with US producer Bobby O but was then set aside. Dusted down for Very, producer Stephen Hague bathed the simple melody in layers of atmosphere that perfectly amplify the poignancy of the lyrics. “I always thought it was about sad, old, lonely homosexuals not daring to talk to anyone attractive in a bar” was Chris Lowe’s pithy interpretation.

Young Offender

With a title from Lowe, Young Offender is one of Pet Shop Boys’ most celebrated album tracks, and is so indicative of Very’s commercial credibility that it could also easily have been a single. This midtempo classic is drizzled with delicious double entendres and rich in musical hooks, making it the album’s less familiar highlight. More subtle than some of Very’s hands-in-the-air belters, Young Pretender has an infectious urgency that all manner of electro padding does little to lessen.

One In A Million

Another all-out pop moment on the album, there was a time when One In A Million was considered as a possible single for Take That. Instead, this composition, with chords first mapped out in 1984, was recorded for Very and became a live favourite on the later Discovery Tour when mashed up in a cover of Culture Beat’s UK No.1, Mr Vain. One In A Million is a brilliant, euphoric track showcasing Tennant and Lowe’s flair for delivering great pop set pieces.

Go West

Very’s biggest hit, this cover of Village People’s 1979 single Go West is surely Pet Shop Boys at their most bombastic, and it lives on as one of the best football songs of all time. Its success has, however, been something of a mixed blessing for Pet Shop Boys’ legacy, the song’s essential inclusion among their live shows surrendering some of the undoubted poignancy that marked its origin. The pair first performed Go West at an AIDS benefit and, despite Neil Tennant’s initial reservations, it suited his voice and spoke to the obvious political, social and health crises of the era. Of its moment, then, but destined for an eternal afterlife as a stadium singalong, Go West was a fitting encore for Pet Shop Boys’ UK No.1 studio album. (The original CD pressing of Very features a hidden track at the end, Postscript (I Believe In Ecstasy), which is a rare occurrence of Chris Lowe on vocal duties.)

Buy Pet Shop Boys vinyl at the Dig! store.

Original article: 27 September 2021

Updated: 27 September 2023

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