I’d like to say that I was an early disciple of smart synthpop duo Pet Shop Boys, but that would be lying. Like countless others, I first heard their single “West End Girls” when it got a US release in 1985. The group had an intelligence and reserve that marked them as contenders in my Record Cell. I was familiar with Neil Tennant since my a friend of mine was obsessed with the UK pop mag Smash Hits and I often read her AirMail subscription copies for pointers. He managed to adroitly shake the curse of journalists becoming pop stars. I bought the album “Please” and from that point onward, I bought any singles and albums that crossed my path by the group.
The time of their emergence was the mid-80s and there had been a sea-change in the music scene as post-punk finally ran out of steam. PSB appealed to me in that I enjoyed “electronic music” but I recognized that their approach was hundreds of not thousands of miles away from that of, say, Ultravox. Still my favorite band at this time. No, the dance pop that PSB proffered was much more musically lightweight, but where the group gained gravitas was in Tennant’s emotive, and intelligent lyrics. The pair were making lightweight music that was more than it appeared to be on first listen. Their dance beats disguised a caliber of songwriting that was exceptionally high.
It spoke reams that I consider the group to have a body of the finest non-LP B-sides of any group I’ve collected. While their A-sides were often brilliant, the B-sides utterly smoked the A-sides they were paired with, on more than a few occasions. If the A-side was a ballad, then the B-side could often be a storming dance track that would be A-list material in any other hands. Or vice versa. That they were productive enough to do this repeatedly without breaking a sweat, marked them as real talents of a classic stripe.
As I said, I bought dozens of their singles, primarily on CD single as they were one of the first groups to really exploit the format. Between local record shops, mail order catalogues, and record shows, I would buy every CD single that had unique material on it. Gathering more than a few US promos and the like. For some reason, local emporium Park Avenue Music always seemed to get their Euro/German single variants. That was fine with me. As long as it had a mix that appeared nowhere else in my collection, it got purchased.
By the late 80s, it was common for a UK single to have a pair of CDs to better enhance a single’s chart potential. This, coupled with the explosion in dance styles as engendered by raves and E culture, trebled or quadrupled the amounts of remixes issued, which had only kicked off with a vengeance during the FGTH era a few years earlier. On multiple CD singles for a release, it was now becoming common to have multiple remixes of even the B-sides to a single. For a few years it worked for me. I would buy a PSB album for $12 and over the course of the year surrounding that album, I would scarf up various CD singles; 2xCD UK commercial singles, the Euro or German variants, US promos with unique mixes, and even US commercial CD singles as the United States joined the game late [as usual]. It would not be a stretch to say that an additional $100 would be dropped on releases associated with that $12 CD album.
I didn’t care. I was young, gainfully employed, and had nothing but money at my disposal. It was exciting to have another 90-120 minutes of material that was associated with, but not part of an album by artists that I collected. And I was collecting dozens of groups. And thus the record cell grew and grew. But by the 90s, the deal started to sour for me. This was a result of the fallout of the Second Summer of Love. The nexus of MDMA and daaaaance music pretty much killed it dead for me. With warehouses full of people off their minds on E, the standards for dance music got pretty low, pretty quickly. I found house music, boring and uninteresting, compared to what it replaced. And it did replace what had come before as effectively as a virus replaces the healthy cells in its victims. I can’t tell you how I tired of 4/4 beats with italohouse piano and samples of vocals repeated over and over for long minutes at a time with little or no variation. Since I was not out of my mind on Ecstasy, it sounded boring to me.
It was during the time of Pet Shop Boys’ “Very/Relentless” album and its attendant singles that I reached the end of my PSB rope. I was buying each single in the common CD1/CD2 paired approach, and was, particularly by this time, enjoying the results of my $10-12 per disc spent less and less. For every glimmer of dynamic pop and wit inherent in the group, there was now reams of reductive, unemotional dance porn. When I bought the penultimate single from “Very,” that was the straw that broke this camel’s back. Specifically, “Liberation [E Smoove mix].” 12:33 of a mind-numbingly repetitive house track that had exactly zero percentage of Pet Shop Boys remaining in it. What it did have was a wailing diva. A rapper who referenced Pet Shop Boys [the only link between this track and the band]. And lots of repetitive four to the floor beats, which had the scantest variation over the interminable 12:33 length. Just at the 8 minute plus point a normal reaction would be, “my gawd – this has to end soon, right?!” But you’d be wrong.
So when the amount of CDs exceeded the space on the racks to hold them, large collections of groups migrated to the off reck ghetto of the Record Cell. Dozens of PSB singles among them. And there they stayed until this year, when the long percolating plan to sell off music to fund things I actually want to hear at a time when I have no money otherwise to pursue this goal became reality. I’ve already sold several PSB rarities on eBay [see sidebar link] that have funded my purchases in the last week or so. Right now I’m listening to these singles for what may be the last time and I’m struck by two things.
One, I was absolutely correct to stop when I did. And two, those B-sides are some superb writing! The execrable “Liberation” single contains the brilliant B-side “Decadence.” For this late period in my collection, it remains one of the finest songs that PSB have written. It’s full of subtlety and proffers a witty and wise look at aspects of the human condition as seen through the compassionate, intelligent lens of Neil Tennant. As I plow through the stack, I feel that as I divest myself of these PSB singles, I would do well to replace them with the two PSB B-side collections EMI thoughtfully compiled over their long and storied career. I remember when “Alternative” was released in 1995, after I had bailed from the good ship Pet Shop Boys. I liked the limited edition flicker cover, but didn’t buy it as I had over 90% of the contents on the CD singles I already had. Now would be a good time to rectify that oversight.
Last year the group had another 2xCD comp of their B-sides and rarities since 1995 and the “Format” compilation also has my name on it. I’ve not heard a note the group have recorded since then. What I’ve read suggests that many fans view their albums as being a mixed bag since then. But the group were always generous with killer B-sides, and I think this new package will probably have a lot to offer these ears.
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