Thursday, 28 February 2013

Playing it straight-faced

It's been almost 30 years since the Pet Shop Boys introduced their tunefully deadpan blend of literacy and lyricism to the musical landscape. Back in the mid-80s, when they first released Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money), it was easy to dismiss them as yet another heavily synthesised duo, with tongues (and possibly something else) pressed firmly in cheek. And yet, despite a cultivated sense of ambivalence that suggested they could barely muster the energy to turn up for their own videos, something about this odd pairing of an architect and the assistant editor of Smash Hits caught our imagination. Remarkably, almost three decades later, the boys are still going strong, having seamlessly navigated countless pop trends, only to emerge as joyfully joyless as ever before.

Even after eleven studio albums, and countless other musical sidelines, there's still no sign of their creative muse deserting them. Rather than churning out repetitive derivations of their debut every year, the boys manage to maintain a relatively prolific output without over-saturating the market. As well as the live albums, cleverly constructed compilations and two enormous double-volumes of their collected B-sides, Neil and Chris have explored their artistry in a variety of unusual endeavors; amongst them a ballet, an instrumental score for Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, and a theatrical collaboration with playwright Jonathan Harvey. Unashamedly intellectual, and yet never less than accessible, their back catalogue is a testament to the power of great pop music. Tackling subjects as diverse as Catholic education and the Brown/Blair bromance, they create pop music that makes you think, and political statements that make you dance.

Their position as elder statesmen of pop was hard won, given the initial ambivalence that greeted their musical debut. Although electronic pop was as de rigueur as those airbrushed posters of a Lamborghini viewed through a Venetian blind, the boys' innate sense of ironic detachment left the tone-deaf critics confused. Others were so distracted by the formula, that they missed the wicked sense of fun. Over the years they've been spoofed by everyone from Raw Sex to Flight of the Conchords, but none of them were really able to see beyond the stony faces and immobile stage presence, which was always part of the joke.

But what of the songs themselves? Like the band itself, they were clever enough to be taken at face value, but with a deeper meaning for anyone willing to look beyond the glacial facade. In some ways, theirs is one of the most dated sounded back-catalogues in popular music. Whereas this might be a problem for other, less interesting acts, it's a virtue of the Pet Shop Boys that they've always managed to embraced contemporary sounds so completely. Whether it's the heavily sampled electronica of Please; the cold clubbing beats of Nightlife; or the post-Britpop guitars of Release; each album offers a powerful snapshot of the era it represents. But strip away the anachronistic veneer, and there's plenty to engage hearts, as well as minds, beneath the surface.

When Elysium was released late last year, the critics were quick to laud it as a long-awaited return to form, forgetting that they'd used the exact same terminology to describe the four albums that preceded it. In fact, when viewed as a whole, their discography is one of the most consistently excellent of any music act working today. They may no longer top the charts the way they did in the late eighties, but as an album act, and champion of the long-neglected B-side, they remain unsurpassed. So here's a tribute to ten of their finest non-single moments - gathered from down the back of the internet, since none of them had proper videos.

It Couldn't Happen Here, from 'Actually'

Despite the ignominy of having lent its name to the Boys' ill-advised foray into film-making, this lush, orchestral lament about the advent of AIDS in the mid-80s is a melodic melancholic masterpiece. Co-written with film composer Ennio Morricone, this track perfectly captures the complacency of a community that dismissed the threat of the disease as something that simply happened to other people. It's also notable for a full-on vocal performance from Neil Tennant, who was often criticised for speaking his lines, rather than singing them. 

Shameless, from B-sides collection 'Alternative'

This single that never was ended up as a B-side to Go West from the Very album. Written at a time when Big Brother was still a reference to George Orwell, rather than Brian Dowling reading off an autocue at Borehamwood, this upbeat chant-along classic shows a prescient insight into the desperation of modern celebrity culture. My only regret is that this song hasn't been updated to reflect the current desperation of today's 'celebrities'. If anyone could pen a lyric about Kinga ramming a bottle of Chardonnay up her Jacob's Creek, it's Neil Tennant. Plus, he'd no doubt pair it with a backing track that paired Debussy with a disco beat.

Only The Wind, from 'Behaviour'

I'll be honest - I struggled with the Boys' fourth album when it was first released. Having quickly embraced the electronic accessibility of their early stuff, I found Behaviour to be ponderous, slow and relentlessly downbeat. It didn't help that Chris Lowe's synthesisers had been drowned out by a full orchestra, which only compounded the wistful melancholy of the piece. As a 15 year-old already prone to bouts of insular contemplation, I needed my pop to be upbeat and euphoric - two words you'd be hard pressed to apply to this album. However, I stuck with it, and came to realise that the miserablism which had turned me off as a teen, now made this their indisputable masterpiece. And 'Only The Wind' is the jewel in this tarnished crown. With strings orchestrated by Angelo Badalamenti, and a surprisingly tender vocal (for a song about domestic violence), this song will haunt your brain like watching The Woman in Black on a comedown.

Hit and Miss, from 'Bilingual, Further Listening'

Although I eventually grew to love Behaviour, Bilingual never managed to win me over, and remains the one Pet Shop Boys album I could live without. It didn't help matters that the boys chose 'Before' as the lead single, which paled into inconsequential nothingness after the many high-points of Very. Too many of the songs favoured guest appearances by feminist drummers She-Boom, and the album's faux-Latin stylings felt about as incongruous as Neil Tennant turning up to a water-park in his black jacket and theatre scarf. However, this era wasn't without the occasional gem. The Motiv-8 remix of Red Letter Day was a dancefloor winner, plus there was also this fantastic B-side to Before. Mixing pounding percussion that hinted at the rockier sounds they were later to embrace on Release, with a disorientating swirl of synthesisers, Hit & Miss was arguably more interesting than anything that appeared on the album. 

Pandemonium, from 'Yes'

Featuring guitar and harmonica by Johnny Marr, this effervescently catchy selection is a love song of sorts, inspired by the relationship between Kate Moss and Pete Doherty. Originally written for Kylie Minogue, the song is sung from the woman's perspective, as she vacillates between celebrating and lamenting the fact that there's "chaos every time we meet." Of course, the song is written in such a way that the genders of the singer and subject are never explicitly referenced, which has always been key to the boys' ability to sidestep the ghettoisation that tends to limit the mass-market appeal of other gay artists. With a sing-along chorus and an insistent beat that could almost be a tribute to Chain Reaction, this is one of the catchiest songs the boys have ever recorded.

Indefinite Leave to Remain, from 'Fundamental'

Fundamental was probably the band's most explicitly political album, addressing issues of surveillance, terrorism and the 'special' relationship between Bush and Blair. This melancholy ballad appropriates an immigrant's status as an analogy for an unequal position in a relationship. Unlike the pounding 'Integral' that followed it, which used apocalyptic arrangement to express its anger, Indefinite Leave to Remain strikes a more wistful tone, using a solemn melody played by a brass band, and Tennant's plaintive vocal to suggest resignation and defeat.

Here (PSB Extended Mix), from 'Disco 3'

Originally written for the musical 'Closer To Heaven', Here was the stand-out track on Release, and focused on the non-biological families that gay people often build around themselves: "We all have a dream of a place we belong, where the fire is burning and the radio's on," sings Neil comfortingly. Despite its robust melody and uncomplicated sentiment, the boys always felt that the album version was "day one sort of recording," but that it had definite disco potential. By the time it appeared on the Pet Shop Boys' third 'Disco' collection, which featured remixed album tracks and new dance-oriented compositions, the track was rebuilt around a euphoric reprise of the main melody. 

Breathing Space, from 'Elysium'

For many fans, the last album Elysium felt like something of a disappointment, since it recaptured the melancholy of Behaviour, but without the standout melodies. Thankfully, even the lads' weaker albums always manage to squeeze in a classic or two, and Breathing Space is a case in point. Seamlessly blending a lead acoustic guitar with a repetitive but melodic synthesiser, the song bubbles along as Neil articulates his need to take a breather from the pressures of modern life. It's been speculated that this song might be hinting at Chris and Neil's plans to gradually wind down, but as long as they keep making tracks as gorgeous as this, they're likely to have a fight on their hands. 
Unfortunately, EMI have blocked this particular track on YouTube, so you'll have to have a look on Spotify for it. 

I Want A Lover, from 'Please'

Urgent, impatient and coldly electronic, this early track is interesting for the way it highlights the band's curiously impersonal sexuality. "I don't want another drink or fight, I want a lover, tonight," Neil sings, careful not to indicate any gender-specific requirements of the role. Here, as with the first track on the boys' debut album, Neil is once again making plans to leave with a companion. The big difference is that he's now dropped any pretence at planning the perfect crime, and he's just looking for an unapologetic fuck. Oddly, this adds to the strange eroticism of the song, even if copping off with Neil Tennant holds all the sexual allure of having your leg humped by a Sony AIBO. 


One In A Million, from 'Very'

It's hard to pick a stand out song on 'Very' since there were so many fantastic nuggets of pop joy, but this one feels particularly anthemic. As with many of the boys' most upbeat tracks, this is actually about a relationship's end, and someone's denial about the state of affairs. And yet, despite the doomy premise, it still manages to leave you with a big goofy grin on your face. And that's the magic of the Pet Shop Boys - you might not always know what you're supposed to be feeling, but at least you're always feeling something.

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