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The Guide to Getting Into Pet Shop Boys

One part fist-pumping synth-pop, another part celestial balladry – here's everything you need to know about Britain's most enduring duo. 

by Sean O’Neill; illustrated by Joel Benjamin
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19 April 2019, 9:30am

Lead illustration by Joel Benjamin

“I don’t like country and western… I don’t like rockabilly or rock and roll. I don’t like rock music, really. But what I do like, I love passionately.”

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So quipped Chris Lowe in a 1986 Entertainment Tonight interview, a line soon repurposed for Pet Shop Boys’ clattering, impassioned B-side “Paninaro.” Lowe’s is not the Pet Shop Boys voice you’ll have come to know – that would be Neil Tennant, the ex-Smash Hits editor with a biting whisper. Lowe usually stays behind the keyboards. But in that moment, he comes close to a manifesto: Pet Shop Boys, since their 1981 inception, have paired cool rejections of the world around them, with a firm love of all that sounds modern.

It's fared them well. Having sold more than 100 million records in 30+ years, they're the UK’s most successful duo. They've been played by Billboard-'approved' US club DJs more often than Donna Summer. Their songs are widely recognisable and beloved. They're still recording and touring, with more recent albums Electric (2013) and Super (2016) bringing highs just as soaring as the classics of three decades ago. They have never gone on hiatus.

Despite the above, most people know Pet Shop Boys as a band truly of the 80s, and to some extent 90s. New wave and disco were already on their way out by the time they met, bonding over music gear at a hi-fi shop in west London’s Chelsea. Off the back of Tennant’s Smash Hits connections, they eventually got to work with American producer Bobby O, fixer to Divine and The Flirts. Early tracks and demos drew on the fresh sounds of the New York dancefloor, with a British sensibility: synths jerking and nodding in staccato, bending around insistent basslines – more Italo, less disco. This production partnership with Bobby O was short-lived, but the music direction was clear: this was a band thoroughly embedded within the decade’s newer, dance-pop sounds.

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But Pet Shop Boys' music has always been more than the two unassuming men behind the decks could possibly be. You’re more likely to recognise the sweeping opening synth of “West End Girls” than this regular-looking duo in hats and sunglasses. This feels hard to imagine now, in a world where lyrics alluding to same-gender romances must be accounted for in the fullest context of the artist’s private life, and when our first question as an artist emerges is: “who are they really?” But this is a band who have consistently kept themselves at an arm’s length to their art. They tell the stories of suburbs and backstreets, give voice to a certain type of yearning, but there is no fraught confessional tone here. In fact, they often just look bored – Tennant yawns on the cover of their second and most successful album, 1987's Actually.

If this seems like a contradiction, it isn’t. Writer Mark Fisher summed it up nicely on a 2004 blog as: “eyebrows raised but achingly melancholic”. You see that result not in that classic Pet Shop Boys image, two guys casually stood behind a synthesiser while beats pump four to the floor like magic. You also find it in a back catalogue chronicling vast tales of love and loss, without feeling mawkish. “Maybe I didn’t love you quite as often as I could,” sings Tennant on “Always On My Mind”, those regretful lines delivered in melodic, nonchalant tones.

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Tennant came out as gay in 1994, long after the Boys’ self-identified ‘imperial phase’, and Lowe has never put his sexuality to public record. And yet their work is as full a reckoning with homosexuality as you will see in 80s pop. “It’s A Sin” is a heavy wink, lamenting the condemnation of “Everything I longed to do / No matter when or where or who.” The 1988 film for “Domino Dancing” is so homoerotic that Ricky Martin is an uncredited extra, and Derek Jarman’s visual for “Rent” sets the song to indulgent scenes of an aristocratic lady at leisure, making the whole thing feel almost like a record in drag. “King’s Cross” also received a Jarman treatment for the projections on their 1989 tour, and fans note that the images nod at then-cruising spots along Regent’s Canal. That the Boys’ more recent work skews a little less queer, as they themselves have become more open, suggests they have always been more interested in the enigma than the confessional.

Pet Shop Boys still sell respectably, but their 1993 release “Go West” was the last time they set a real fire under the charts or radio. In that absence, they have become exemplars in making pop songs without making chart songs. Their 1996 track “Before” sees them take up house grooves and soul vocals. It’s the lead single to Bilingual, an album heavily influenced by the burgeoning Latin crossover. But in a world then packed with house derivatives, it retained enough of their character to feel necessary. Few would argue that Pet Shop Boys peaked post-1992, but each album brings more than enough to love. This is as true of 1999’s late-night lament “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” as it is of 2016’s amyl-soaked “Inner Sanctum”, the neon opener to their most recent global arena tour.

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A vein runs through British pop, of artists who have at once been successful and defiant; think Girls Aloud, both arena-filling tabloid icons and heroes of a bloggish poptimism across the long indie 00s. Think Charli XCX, who has now had as many underground radio-averse mixtapes and albums as chart-mauling singles. Perhaps the Boys are best seen as antecedents of this tradition: as figures who opened up the space for pop music to be both. Their influence on the scene is clear. As songwriters, they produced some of the only choice cuts of fag-end era Robbie Williams. As performers, they brought David Bowie back into space. They accepted a 2009 BRIT Award for Lifetime Achievement with a career-spanning megamix, starring cameos from Brandon Flowers and Lady Gaga. If you need a quick guide to getting into getting into Pet Shop Boys, perhaps that whirl of a performance is the best place to start. And if you want to delve a bit deeper, try the below.

So you want to get into: Pensive, Elegiac Pet Shop Boys?

Pet Shop Boys met in 1981, the year the New York Times noted a “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.” It was common in those early years, as death ravaged the dancefloors of New York and San Francisco, for London’s gay men to write it all off and say “It Couldn’t Happen Here.” The band observe this line bitterly during the peak of the crisis, on the aforementioned track arranged by composer Angelo Badalamenti. He imbues it with the sort of celestial grief he would become famous for after his contributions to Twin Peaks.

Later on, 1990’s “Being Boring” is a euphoric yet bleak goodbye to that era and those lost to it. George Michael, citing the track as one of his Desert Island Discs, stated: “If people are gay, and have lost friends, they want to hear those people referred to, remembered, honoured. Neil’s work did that beautifully.” You see, Pet Shop Boys aren't just dancefloor commanders: they're chroniclers of a crisis, every bit as important as other great artists of the AIDS generation. Derek Jarman – himself a seminal filmmaker of the era, and two-time collaborator with the band – obviously thought so too. He was also one of many friends Pet Shop Boys lost to AIDS.

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But this softer, more funereal energy doesn’t just emerge as a reaction to tragedies. “The Patience of a Saint” – a swirling contribution to Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s supergroup, Electronic – sounds like a self-loathing lullaby set to some thumping synths. The duo have always been willing to collaborate with great contemporaries. By the late 2000s, Xenomania were the kingmakers of British pop, and had a penchant for the very sort of starry melancholia Pet Shop Boys could well claim to have pioneered. Their joint track, “The Way It Used to Be,” gets that just right – like all the best songs, it has a misty-eyed, propulsive energy that makes it perfect for walking through a city at night, wondering where it all went wrong.

Playlist: “Love Comes Quickly” / “King’s Cross” / “It Couldn't Happen Here” / “Rent (2001 Remaster)” / “Being Boring” / “Jealousy” / “Dreaming of the Queen” / “Your Funny Uncle” / “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” / “The Way It Used to Be”

So you want to get into… Poppers and Airpunching Pet Shop Boys?

There's an old fan theory that Pet Shop Boys have ‘Neil’ songs and ‘Chris’ songs: the Neil ones pensive, the Chris ones wearing their Italo and hi-NRG influences most proudly. This framework is less a true reflection of the band’s members, and more shorthand for an obvious fact: their albums are easily sorted by how danceable they are. Their third album, 1988’s Introspective, consisted of six dancefloor-bound mega-tracks, discarding the balanced light and shade of Please and Actually. Three of those mega-tracks are featured here, including intricate album cut “Always on My Mind / In My House”, a remix of their iconic Christmas number one and most friendly track to a wedding DJ. In this version, its anthemic horns are made conditional to a tantalising layered buildup, rather than being brandished across the song from start to finish. The result is all the more gratifying.

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Equally, “Vocal” is a 2013 cut in which the narrator is happy to report, live from the club, that “every song has a vocal”. It feels like a nod to the unspoken principle of the band's songcraft: that choruses and the dancefloor are not enemies, but bedfellows. Consider so much of their music as evidence: 1987's “Heart” is a skip-start anthem, their last UK number one, giddy and anguished about the possibility of falling in love. Written with Madonna in mind, the fact it stayed in their hands is not to say it wouldn’t have been a classic in hers. Decades later, their bright, pumping remix of The Killers’ “Read My Mind” gives a song about bursting out of the suburbs the expanse it deserves, 21 years after their own ode to “Suburbia.” In these ways and more, Pet Shop Boys take pop music and club music, and make them one and the same.

Playlist: Heart” / “Left to My Own Devices” / “Domino Dancing” / “Always on My Mind/In My House” / “Paninaro” / “I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing” / “So Hard” / “Before” / “Read My Mind” / “Vocal” / “Inner Sanctum”

So you want to get into… Whipsmart Artpop Pet Shop Boys?

Pet Shop Boys did not meet in – or grow up near – a pet shop. The name was quipped offhand, and they liked how it connoted something of the hip hop they were beginning to love. Debbie Harry’s frothy bars on “Rapture” had taken a rap vocal to the top of the Billboard charts for the first time in 1980 (hip hop wouldn’t top the American charts until 1990, and that was also, surprise surprise, from a white artist.) Pet Shop Boys’ 1984 single “West End Girls” is another example of this strange era, where the emerging hip hop scene shaped the vanguard of pop, while being gatekept from it. “West End Girls” catalogued references the band would keep returning to. Its stop-start rap-like fragments were also inspired by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and its proclamation “In every city, in every nation / From Lake Geneva, to the Finland Station” nods to Lenin’s revolutionary return by train to Russia.

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The Boys are no Marxist-Leninists – this year’s “Give Stupidity A Chance” puts them squarely in with Guardian-endorsed British Liberalism. But motifs of Marxism pop up again and again in their work. 2013’s “Love is a Bourgeois Construct” is a synth-buzzy take on turning to revolutionary politics and “flicking through Karl Marx again” after getting dumped. Elsewhere, they take on the trappings of celebrity and the poseurs of the British scene. “Miserabilism” sets its sights on the Morrissey-like aestheticisation of misery, and B-side “Shameless” theatrically plays up the desperation of getting famous for the sake of it, the chorus gleefully proclaiming: “We have no integrity / We’re ready to crawl / To obtain celebrity.” The key to getting into Pet Shop Boys is taking an interest in the references and in-jokes which permeate their discography, giving their poppy tunes a sharper edge.

Playlist: West End Girls / Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money) / Suburbia / It's a Sin / Go West / Can You Forgive Her? / Miserabilism / Shameless / Love Etc / Pandemonium / Love is a Bourgeois Construct

So You Want To Get Into… Pet Shop Girls?

Pet Shop Boys have always worked because of, and not in spite of, that distinctive Tennant vocal. But their collaborations with women across the years take their sonic landscape to new places: Dusty Springfield brings a warmth to their metallic 1987 single “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”, the song a duet between clueless suitor and reluctantly besotted city woman. Tennant begs, “I bought you drinks, I brought you flowers,” and in its triumphant final moments, their voices join in reunion. It’s a sentiment echoed by Girls Aloud in 2008, during their Boys-penned track “The Loving Kind” (“I’ll buy you flowers / I’ll pour you wine / Do anything to change your mind”). That their efforts sound more doomed than Dusty’s is no reflection on the song itself – it’s a hand stretched across two generations of smart pop, and a wistful gem amid the later efforts of both bands.

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Pet Shop Boys' late 80s collaboration with Liza Minnelli stands out among them all. Minnelli’s theatrical background seems to have tempted them into the back catalogue of master composer Stephen Sondheim. In the broadway production Sondheim’s Follies, “Losing My Mind” was the harrowed ballad of a suburban wife’s nervous breakdown; just at its climax, the character Sally howls alone from her dressing room, “Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor / Not going left, not going right”. Pet Shop Boys and Liza take that domestic melodrama and place it squarely over a club beat. Perhaps, at the band's core, this is their greatest knack: knowing just how much human experience works for the dancefloor. All it takes is the right beat.

Playlist: What Have I Done to Deserve This” / “Losing My Mind” / “The Loving Kind” / “In Private” / “I'm Not Scared - Disco Mix” / “If There Was Love” / “Falling” / “Occupy Your Mind” / “Sorry (PSB Maxi Mix)” / “Walking On Thin Ice” / “Absolutely Fabulous”

You can follow Sean on Twitter and Joel on Instagram.

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