Let’s face it, people: friendships don’t last a lifetime. At least not in the intensity they originated from. I’m still learning to accept that fact as a normal part of growing up. Different settings in your life call for different people and also for different music (when you happen to be a nerd like me). But there’s been one constant over the past 35 years in my life: Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe better known as long-lasting British synthpop duo Pet Shop Boys. Like with every friendship there’ve been ups and downs in those past four decades but in the wake of their fourteenth album Hotspot I found myself facing these old musical friends once again so it’s a good moment on reflecting on these past years. If you’re not familiar with the work of the Pet Shop Boys I’m really not sure if this one’s for you but maybe it helps you to understand their pretty unique sound a bit better… and why I’m doing what I’m doing here because I probably wouldn’t have picked a life and career in music if it wasn’t for this band (among a few others, obviously).
The band’s debut single West End Girls was released three months before I was born, so we also share a mutual historic timeline here. Of course, I mean the ‘first’ version, recorded with iconic high energy producer Bobby Orlando in 1984. The single flopped pretty bad back then, by the way. Luckily the re-recorded 1985 version by Stephen Hague became a global smasher that went to number one in multiple countries. It was the much needed breakthrough by Tennant and Low who – despite their name and urban myths – didn’t run into each other in a pet shop but in one for synthesizers which makes way more sense. Their band name however remains pretty dull but that might go for many famous groups in pop history. Of course, as a twelve months old baby born in the former GDR (aka East of the Wall) I didn’t took notice of the song. Ask yourself about the earliest memory as a kid? Can you recall it? More specifically asked: Can you recall your first pop musical encounter? A certain song? Well, I can’t exactly but when it comes to imagery the two British gentlemen definitely played a role. One of my earliest memories is sitting in front of the TV and seeing these guys. The curly-haired one singing and the silent, grumpy-looking one on the keyboard. It’s the iconic image Tennant and Lowe have created right from the beginning. No extended band, no guitar and no excessive on-stage performance. Neil Tennant didn’t head for the showmanship territory of a George Michael and Dave Gahan and neither did Chris Lowe who headed for a more Kraftwerk-like approach and started using caps and classes pretty early on. It might have been unintentional at the beginning but by sticking to these characters the two created an iconic imagery people automatically connect with the band. And yes, the three or four year old me was surely influenced by that moment back in the late 80s. However, I can’t tell which song they played back then but I just assumed it was the wonderful Rent from 1987. Fun fact: One of the first pop tracks I really liked as a kid was Dusty Springfield’s In Private from 1988. Only a few years later I learned that it was produced by the Pet Shop Boys.
Two divided by zero
The late 1980s where the ‘imperial age’ as the band often describes it in retrospect. From 1986 to 1989 pretty much every song became a massive hit, creating some of their most memorable work – Suburbia, It’s A Sin, Always On My Mind, Domino Dancing, It’s Alright… You name it. I probably enjoyed a lot of them back then in the radio, simply because they were inevitable. After the really good but not as hit-packed Behaviour album from 1990 it looked like the duo’s 80s success was about to fade out but then came the colourful over-the-top Very album from 1993. The design was a Lego box, the band wore orange suits and crazy heads and they even turned the Village People’s Go West into one of the 90s most (over-)played pop anthems (especially in football stadiums). I remember we had a cassette of the record floating around in the house back then and it was probably the first album by them I listened to in its entirety. Over the next years I kept track of them, somehow noticing the Eurodisco-infected 1995 rework of their old B-Side Paninaro (which was the single for a B-Sides compilation) and the singles of their 1996 Bilingual album (including the uplifting Se A Vida É) but that was it for a while. I wasn’t really a fan back then.
That changed a little more than 20 years ago when 1999’s album Nightlife arrived. It was a pretty ambitious and diverse theme record, packed with nightly anthems for dancefloors and long walks home that followed it. Tennant and Lowe reinvented themselves with blonde hairdos, fake eyebrows and samurai costumes and I loved the whole idea behind it. Probably for nostalgic reasons Nightlife is still my favourite Pet Shop Boys LP to this day. I played it on repeat and remember that the CD had a short note in it which showed their entire back catalogue and within the next year I pretty much caught on the whole discography and bought every record. You know… the stuff you do when you’re 15 and fall in love with a band. To this day I find it kind of hard to describe what fascinates me about their work. Well, first of all I always loved the sound of electronic music, the soundscapes it can create which can trigger the listener’s fantasy in a more substantial way than guitar-driven rock music can. And I love a good melody, good harmonies and profound songwriting – and if you manage to combine them with lyrics that reach beyond the boring “I love you, you love me too?” scheme I’m even more excited. To this day the Pet Shop Boys make good synthpop with infectious melodies and clever lyrics which are partly ironic, often intellectual but barely dull. Yes, they’ve written plenty of not so good songs as well but the majority of their massive back catalogue remains pretty solid to this day.
You don’t pick the music you love, I’m pretty sure about that, it comes to you via weird circumstances in life in your life and depending on your origins it will have a different effect on you. And I totally blame these two for shaping my affinity for popular music.
The timing for that realization and my just started fan love for the band couldn’t have been more worse. You don’t publicly say that you love the Pet Shop Boys when you are 16, at least not back in the year 2000. I once decided to sing Being Boring publicly in my school’s music lessons and that didn’t help either. I’m pretty sure (and happy) that this changed a bit twenty years later but back then I always had to hide my PSB CD’s behind the ones from Korn, Deftones and Limp Bizkit. Tennant and Lowe were on a low point when it comes to coolness and credibility once the 90s were over. Still, they continued to record good music. 2002’s Release record was the first album whose release I actively followed. It was their more organic-sounding introspective album that also came with weird lo-fi music videos and pretty much the opposite of everything they did on Nightlife. Did I still love it? Hell yeah! It’s one of their best ones despite not being successful at all. In my twenties I continued to follow the releases, collected all B-Sides (tons) and remixes (even more) and there were still good moments despite 2006’s Fundamental sounding a bit like they were desperately channelling their earlier work. But when 2009’s Yes (yeah, they do stick with the one-word-titles) arrived the media was euphoric again, Love etc. became a moderate hit and suddenly all these new cool indie acts like Franz Ferdinand, Scissor Sisters and La Roux stated how these guys influenced them. Even the freshly started Lady Gaga called them an influence and performed with the band during a medley at the Brit Awards where they received a Lifetime Achievement award. Brandon Flowers of The Killers was also there and I remember seeing this and I felt as proud as never before. A new generation (well, my generation) grew up to become musicians and they grew up with the Pet Shop Boys, their sound and artistic vision and simply combined it with determination and confidence. “Yes, I love pop and I’m not afraid to state this loud and clear” I remember seeing them headlining Melt Festival in 2006 and a young girl next to me – who didn’t know them before – was pretty much going nuts about the music, constantly saying stuff like “Oh my god, that’s also from them? I remember that song from my childhood.” Tennant and Lowe survived long enough to experience their own revival it seems. Even the music critics made their peace with them. They now had official ‘icon’ status.
‘It’s in the music; it’s in the song …’
I grew older; I made it through university and tried to find my way in this strange thing of adulthood. Of course, the band was still there, they ‘survived’ my indie phase and the fact that more abstract and less pop music started to interest me as well. They remained a constant and the introverted 2012 album Elysium was just what I needed at a moment when I was lost. And so was its quick follow-up one year later. 2013’s Electric was the first one of the Stuart Price album trilogy and was a straight-forward dance record that was pretty unusual, even for them. It arrived just in time for the big EDM hype and tracks like Vocal were definitely shaped by it, so I’m pretty sure they already got a few new fans on board as well. The album came out when I just moved to Berlin and I remember listening to it while I was unpacking my boxes. A new chapter, a familiar band. 35 years later I’m still here and the Pet Shop Boys are releasing their fourteenth full-length Hotspot these days. The album itself feels a bit like they revisit some of their finest moments of the past, reciting themselves on many tracks which you will totally love as a fan. But most of it – it’s their best studio album since, well… quite some time. It got everything you’ll love or hate about them. And following 2016’s pretty mediocre Super record I wasn’t expecting them to return with such a strong output. Although they’re already in their sixties and many of the sounds might feel a bit old-fashioned for many contemporary electronic producers their music still somehow got a certain timelessness, maybe because they don’t mind sounding like 1996 twenty years later. Tennant’s unique voice still spreads got that ageless approach, the songs deal with reflections on youth and the hunger for life despite getting older. They are not trying to present themselves as hip and cool band anymore, they let the music do the talking and it does speak a clear voice that will hopefully also attract a new generation of music lovers. I wonder how many Years & Years fans started listening to them following last year’s duet with singer Olly Alexander on Dreamland.
I only met the Pet Shop Boys once. Not for an interview, they barely do them and usually stick to old leading media outlets which NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION obviously isn’t. I’m okay with that more or less. No, I met them on the streets of Berlin three years ago; they were honorary guests of a festival I worked for. Well, they were their as civilians and ‘incognito’ so our encounter as a bit weird. To cut a long story short, I wasn’t allowed to take photos and I didn’t get to tell them even the short version of the story you just read but at least I had a charming small talk with Neil Tennant and I made Chris Lowe laugh about something I can’t recall. It’s a nice additional side note in this ongoing musical relationship. These days I’m not that critical when it comes to their work like I used to be. I’m just genuinely happy that they are still around, that they release records every three years, continue to tour and still bring joy to my life. Sometimes it strikes me that I will most likely outlive them which is a pretty heavy thought as well. Of course, I don’t listen to them as much as I used to have but especially after a longer break this music triggers a lot in me. And yes, nostalgia plays a crucial part in that. They are the soundtrack to my life because I can connect every song and record to a specific part of my life, dating back to my early childhood. There are not many bands that are able to stick around as long as these two did which is another important factor. As an Oasis fan your story might have ended abruptly in 2009, my ‘pethead’ story continues. If you happen to have a similar long-lasting relationship with the band you can probably relate to all of this. And if you’d like to get to know the band a bit better I recommend two pretty good best-of records – Discography (1991) and PopArt (2003) – to get you started. If you like what you hear, head for the 1986 debut Please and move on from there. It might enrich your life as well. I don’t really know how to end this whole rambling. Maybe with a quote from my favourite song by these two: “I never dreamt that I would get to be the creature that I always meant to be.” Indeed, boys.
10 additional favourites to get you started
- Two Divided By Zero (1986)
- DJ Culture (1991)
- Young Offender (1993)
- This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave (1990)
- Closer To Heaven (1999)
- Jack The Lad (1986)
- Leaving (2012)
- Love Comes Quickly (1986)
- It’s Alright (1989)
- Always (2002)
The new Pet Shop Boys‘ album Hotspot arrives on January 24 via x2Records/Kobalt, followed by an extended ‘Greatest Hits’ tour later this spring.