Pet Shop Boys: Discography US CD 
- West End Girls
- Love Comes Quickly
- Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)
- It’s A Sin
- What Have I Done To Deserve This?
- Always On My Mind
- Domino Dancing
- Left To My Own Devices
- It’s Alright
- So Hard
- Being Boring
- Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)
- DJ Culture
- Was It Worth It?
I was in a thrift store last weekend and my wife said “do you need this?” At first, I didn’t think so, but then I thought for three seconds more. I had gotten rid of most of my Pet Shop Boys CD singles I had laboriously collected in their imperial period of 1986-1994. I had listened to them one more time before selling them off, and was especially taken with the quality of the B-sides all over again, so I thought that I should buy a copy of “Alternative.” Which I did, for a dollar, in a thrift store at exactly the time that I had decided that I should finally own it, which previously had little cachet for me with all of those CD singles I used to have. The same thing happened this time. I also bought this CD in a thrift store for a dollar! Very symmetrical! Only this time was where I got a concise chunk of 7″ mixes and edits which I no longer had.
I was interesting hearing this large body of work in a coherent fashion, from start to finish. I have had the laserdisc of this title since day one, but how many times have I watched it? Realistically, I have already listened to this CD more times. It’s kind of hard to imagine that a song like “West End Girls” broke them worldwide in such a dramatic fashion. It’s an interesting number, but it does not sound like a juggernaut. It’s a weird synthpop/rap number. The production telegraphs what synthpop was turning into. Less an oddball endeavor and more of a production line of popular music. Sonically, the records of PSB are not profound. There is nothing too exciting happening, though to their credit, they usually managed to instill at least a few scant inserts of real instruments to add a little life to their tracks. The guitar of J.J. Belle performed much the same functions here that Chico Hablas performed on early Yellow albums; giving the perfection a human element and some slight randomness among the programmed beats.
What gives the music its core identity to my ears, is the relationship between singer/lyricist Neil Tennant and the functional soundscapes that partner Chris Lowe constructed. No matter if the track was a dancefloor monster [“Always On My Mind”] or a delicate ballad [“Rent”], one could be assured that Mr. Tennant was not going to perform with a single hair out of place. His almost unnatural poise and reserve, to me, is the very soul of PSB across these 18 tracks. Where others might have pushed themselves vocally on a hi-NRG number like “Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” Neil would never let himself get all in a lather. No, he sits behind the music bed, spinning his wry observances of the characters in his songs in a thoroughly decorous manner. One gets the impression that in the hands of others, the Calder-like balancing points between the arrangement and the singer and lyrics would topple into chaos. Now that I think of it, I’ve not heard and PSB covers. Perhaps that’s the reason why? Apart from my media blackout lifestyle.
I like most of these songs. “Love Comes Quickly” was built on an insistent throbbing bassline that was most compelling. “Suburbia” was remixed for single issue in a more frantic mix than the album. “Its a Sin” always sounded like their “Ultravox” song to my ears… if Ultravox had a penchant for hi-NRG disco. Admit it… can’t you just hear PSB tackling a track like “White China;” the closest that ‘Vox ever came to the style of PSB? Sure you can! One regret among these classic early tracks that I have is that the version of “Opportunities [Lets Make Lots Of Money]” here was the 1986, heavy-handed remix that was the second release. I much preferred the original 1985 version with the vocoders and the that elegant coda that no other version had.
Two of the best transgressive cover versions the band ever committed to tape are among my favorite PSB numbers. When “Always On My Mind” came out, it easily became my single of the year; back when I stayed current. I could not get enough of it and was pleased that I could buy it in a streamlined CD5 single. If reworking an Elvis obscurity into a disco stomper was transgressive, then doing the same with the far more recent, and far more high-profile “Where The Streets Have No Name” was beyond transgressive. Particularly at that point where U2 had been anointed singular rock superstars; almost the last of that rare breed. Then mashing it up with The Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” took transgression about as far as it could possibly go, reminding us that at the end of the day, our saviors U2 were still just entertainers.
About halfway through the program, chinks began appearing in PSB’s formerly watertight artistic armor. “Heart” was the first single here that flirted with banality; not surprising given the fact that the liner notes revealed that they had written it with Madonna in mind, but were too chicken to offer it to her, lest she reject it. Then, their next single “Domino Dancing” sounded as if it were still chasing after the Latin Madonna sound found in her “Las Isla Bonita” hit. The Trevor Horn singles [“If Left To My Own Devices,” “It’s Alright”] were among the last really big Trevor Horn singles I can remember hearing as he mostly sat out the last half of the 80s; possibly fatigued by his tireless mixing of FGTH 12”ers from 1984-1987. The final two track were fresh for the album, and “DJ Culture’s” Gulf War inspired lyrics were too oblique to stand scrutiny as an actual protest. Tennant was getting a bit too precious here, and the production/arrangement by Brothers In Rhythm and longtime producer Stephen Hague suggested that they realized that they were getting stretched a bit this, but by that time it was probably too late. “Was It Worth It,” skirted a bit too close to the then-ascendant PWL sound. I would have swore on a stack of bibles that Phil Harding must have mixed it, but then I’d be wrong. It was Paul Wright [who?].
But the rumblings that PSB would not be anything less than a synthpop dynasty were relatively low key. While the music could be straightforward or even banal, the emotional landscape that Tennant created these intriguing snapshots in was assiduously adult in nature. This gave the juxtaposition between the two member’s work many frissions of allure as the songs were often about complex emotional states and dynamics that were neither the domain of simple pop songs nor dancefloor material. That’s why, musically, though I can’t find PSB as compelling as a Simple Minds, Ultravox, or Japan, I can still get wrapped up in their dryly fascinating songs due to wha Mr. Tennant invests in them. They are an adult pop band in a similar way that Roxy Music were an adult rock band. They toiled artistically in a domain of adolescence while driving toward artistic goals that were far more mature and complex in nature.
– 30 –
Somewhere I have a video, i think it’s a VHS tape of an old South Bank show, where Liza Minelli is commenting on them and she says that what she loves about them is that they write these songs that are very emotional and then perform them in a state of detachment.
It was love at first listen with me and them, you posted yesterday a photo of a Simon LeBon tableflip and that was something that they captured in the lyrics of West End Girls There’s a sensation of alienation in a lot of their work and to someone who wasn’t “One of the Crowd”’ for whom it was made quite clear to that the “Crowd” wasn’t interested in considering my membership, well, their music spoke to me.
The Pets have been one of my very fave recording acts for decades now. For my money, nobody has ever bettered them when it comes to marrying wistful, contemplative lyrics with upbeat happy music.
Meanwhile, funny that you hear Ultravox in It’s a Sin, whereas I always thought it to be a ringer for prime Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It’s a rare moment when Neil Tennant gets riled up enough to come near the boom I hear in Holly Johnson’s voice.
Taffy – You never know. When I hear “Liverpool” I hear Ultravox!! It was certainly closer to the Ultravox mark than what Ultravox were doing in 1986!
I of course have been enjoying the PSB output over the decades. They may have strayed occasionally from the stuff that initially attracted me to them, but they’d always get back to it in due course. Their 21st century albums were more hit-and-miss with me, but there was always at least a single or two on most of those albums that I really enjoyed, and they appear to have gotten their groove back more recently (I also really liked 2006’s “Fundamental”). I think you’re quite fair in describing them as one of those bands that most of “our people” wouldn’t be rabid about, but their core is still something enjoyable. The concert you and I attended some [redacted] years ago of theirs remains one of the most astonishing events I’ve ever attended.
You may recall that one of the DJs at WPRK that used to follow my show was ReMark; he was (and still is) a massive PSB fan and now lives in London where he can get as much of them as anyone can!
chasinvictoria – Oh yes! How could I forget ReMark? Truly the most massive PSB fan [even at 5’7″] I have ever known. I can still see him, in my mind’e eye, going nuts on the Visage dance floor when PSB came on.