I’ve been fan of pop duo Pet Shop Boys for longer than I’ve been drinking tea in bed, which given I owned a Teasmaid at 14, is bloody ages. Perhaps this was an early indication that rock ‘n’ roll was never going to be my bag. As a teenager, with my nose pressed apprehensively against the glass of adulthood, I needed a band that shone a light into the future; of Opportunities and spurned lovers, parties every night and of course rapped lists of dog breeds. Neil Tennant’s lyrics of debut album Please captured it all; the excitement and desperate longing to leave Suburbia for nocturnal pleasures in New York and West end towns.
Let’s not go home
We’ll catch the late train. Two divided by Zero. 1986
The urban disco thrills and cowbells of Please celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, yet still it returns me to a place of being understood; where my uncertainty was pulled to the shoulder of a wiser man. Soundtracked by Chris Lowe’s exquisite drum programming, euphoric strings and celebratory horn riffs, pop music had never sounded so crisp and thrilling.
Tennant sensibly writes songs from the viewpoint of different protagonists, and I might have put my life in the hands of any band in 1986 (apart from T’pau obviously), but Curiousity Killed the Cat would have abandoned me after 2 albums, and Johnny Hates Jazz after only one. And although Chris Rea remains a road trip guilty pleasure, Pet Shop Boys are still going; making sense of my life. The only thing Neil and Chris haven’t helped me with is the children.
They introduced me to the back catalogue of Dusty Springfield, Liza Minelli, and to the apocalyptic coast of Derek Jarman’s Dungeness. The Pet Shop Boys I mean, not my children. They enlightened me to Italian sub-cultures of Paninaro, to heartache and home sickness. They’ve introduced me to 12″ mixes, Issey Miyake inflatable jackets and Shostakovich’s 12th symphony via the analogue synths of Miserablism. I’ve discovered Welsh male Miner choirs, Girls Aloud and the inner lives of famous fans like Robbie Williams, Brandon Flowers and Elton John, all of whom have mistaken my favourite band for their own.
I’m unsure why Neil Tennant and the enigmatic Chris Lowe aren’t more treasured. It might be because Tennant is gay, or because they love pop music, alongside an ongoing snobbery about electronic music; the belief that because machines are making the music they must also be writing it. Even Boy George, who collaborated on 1992’s The Crying Game, was apparently shocked when Lowe sat at a piano and turned out to be an actual musician. While David Bowie was so taken aback by Tennant adding lyrics via his cut-up technique to their remix (and duet) of 1996’s Hallo Spaceboy that he thought it worth wearing high heels for the performance.
They’ve been around long enough to tackle the vacant modern fame, yet demonstrate the possibility of maintaining some privacy and decorum. If there’s been any three in a bed romps, the door was shut.
Just crossing the street
well, it’s almost heroic. Flamboyant. 2004
Over 52 singles, all backed with one or two non-album b-sides, often related to the a-side: the minimal electronica of I want a dog as perfect partner to the bedsitter in Rent. The wistful understatement of A new life gently answering What have I done to deserve this?, and more recently the symphonic C&W of You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, backed by the Chris Lowe sung Lies.
1990’s The End of the World even encouraged me to be a novelist. It glamourised writing pursuits unpolluted by the distraction of social media, pacing the room and indifference of literary agents to your endeavours. At least I know who to blame.
Sitting down to a composition
Test the limits of your inhibition
From the hedonistic escape of Tonight is forever, to the midlife crisis of culottes and synthesiser sweeps of I don’t know what you what but I can’t give it anymore, to the majestic strings and deserted amusement arcades of a derelict Luna Park, to the death of parents on 2012’s elegiac and electronic MOR (EMOR if you like) Leaving (and mother album Elysium), they have occasionally even replaced my friends and family.
Like all great bands, they polarise opinion, possibly since the mission defining statement of the goading lead single from 1993’s Very – the otherworldly crunch of Can You Forgive Her? Lifting its title from Anthony Trollope, it included the line I didn’t know I had been waiting all my 19 years of life to hear –
she’s made you some kind of laughing stock
because you dance to disco and you don’t like rock
– because yes, straight boys like good music too. I’d never been happier to be help fund expensive taste in suits, a Chelsea property, Russian history and a hat collection to rival Mr Benn’s.
They’ve also transformed the traditional laziness of the cover version. The dirge of Willie Nelsons’ Always on my mind replaced by synth riffs barnstorming enough to tear clouds from the sky, underpinning a heartbreakingly plaintive vocal. Not only did the video see the equally rare sight of Chris Lowe grinning and men painted as zebras, but it also pissed off ‘real’ music fans by beating the Pogues’ to Christmas number 1. Good times.
They’ve written a musical, a ballet and recently a spoken word soundtrack to Alan Turing, just as they have soundtracked my life. Imminent new music might lack the Smash Hits rush of studying the credits of a 7″ as I walk it home with another seminal cover, yet it taps into those teenage years; when you invested your soul in the music that spoke to you and for you. Always iconic, seldom ironic, Pet Shop Boys are a songwriting team of the finest pedigree. Nothing is the kiss of death like being branded national treasures, but shhh, they might just be.
Now I sit with different faces
in rented rooms and foreign places
All the people I was kissing
some are here and some are missing. Being boring. 1990.
but the dead don’t go away
They made us what we are
they’re with us every day. Leaving. 2012