Pet Shop Boys: Peripherally

By Jeff Pike

Here's one of those stupid Seattle stories. You'll know the type right away. A friend and I are sitting around his living room, listening to Pet Shop Boys b-sides, as we do. We're the only people we know who love the Pet Shop Boys as much as we do. In many ways, our hapless love drives us together, and is one of the things that keeps us together.

"Hey," he says through the rosy haze of melody and beat, "Kurt Cobain liked the Pet Shop Boys, don't you think?"

"Huh?" I say. "I don't know. I don't know if he ever even heard them."

"But, if he had, he'd have liked them, right?"

"Oh, yeah," I say. "Sure. Of course."

You may imagine our disappointment when, years later, I ran across a bootleg of Nirvana at a Minneapolis in-store, in which Cobain begins spontaneously riffling the nearby records...the "P" section, to be exact. And there and then announces to the world his disdain for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, our beloved Pet Shop Boys. Typically, my friend and I scrutinized the evidence. "That was 1991?" he says. "He probably hadn't really heard Behaviour yet." (Later it would occur to me, somewhat fatuously--not to mention the question of taste--that the first words most of us ever heard from Neil Tennant were, "Sometimes you're better off dead, there's a gun in your hand and it's pointing at your head.")

Then the news came that it was Axl Rose, actually, who was the major fan--that Rose had attended the Pet Shop Boys' show in Los Angeles in 1990, one of their only dates ever in the U.S., and reportedly had even had flowers sent to Neil Tennant in his dressing room backstage.

Well, somebody has to have the taste around here. Me and Axl have long had a rough time of it. I'm one of those who judged him harshly for his xenophobia, his misogyny, and all the other hysterical tendencies of those late '80s releases--appreciating the rock starness of them as such but nothing of their substance, a stance similar to one I took toward the Rolling Stones in the mid-'70s (I confess the '60s shit was just too cool and caught me up).

Now I liked to think about me and Axl sitting down to talk some things over, such as...The '80s output of the Pet Shop Boys compared to the '90s: '90s. The only weak spot on Behaviour: the opening of "How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?" The best song on Very: "Liberation." The better of the two albums: Very Relentless. The best disc on Alternative: 1. Axl might be inclined to answer these questions '80s, none, "Dreaming of the Queen," Behaviour, and 2, or any imaginable combination thereof. There are as many varieties of obsessive Pet Shop Boys fans as there are people approximately, each with their own stubborn and often infuriating and intractable biases. It's when you get into some of the side-projects and collaborations of Mssrs. Tennant and Lowe, which we are about to do (not to mention the b-sides and other obscure productions and mixes), that the confusion and range of opinion really increases exponentially. But the real points here are that me and Axl would be having a conversation, and that we would hardly be wasting our time listening to this music for hours and hours.

Pet Shop Boys fans can sometimes be divided into two groups: those who wonder what Neil Tennant does and those who wonder what Chris Lowe does. One place to look for an answer is on Electronic's self-titled debut from 1991. "The Patience of a Saint" and "Getting Away With It" offer some clues. The first has that instantly familiar hush of the Pet Shop Boys, that sound so uniquely their own and not like anyone else's, stately, uplifting, neatly executed. Paradoxically, it also exhibits the haunting feeling that pop songs from around the globe share: those hits from France or Malaysia or Brazil that just stay with you no matter how mystifying the language. "Getting Away With It," the better song, has neither that sound nor Chris Lowe. Yet all of the Tennant earmarks are in evidence: a wistful, ironic tone of lush romance marked by hints of bitterness and funny turns of phrase. Ipso facto, Mr. Watson, case closed.

The best collaboration between Electronic and the Pet Shop Boys exists on a single. "Disappointed" is one of those nigh perfect pop dishes: aching melody, churchly keyboards, soaring vocals, and lines like "Disenchanted once more/Disillusioned of course." It seems to mean so much. It's also a fine collaboration, as you can hear strains not only of Tennant and Lowe but of Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr as well, who should not be overlooked (New Order and the Smiths are topics for another time).

Another good place to see what they bring to the party, and one of their best collaborations, is Boy George's "The Crying Game," the song he was born to sing. Me and Axl might have to hash out some issues about Boy George and the movie itself (actually, I can hardly wait). But I know we'd agree that this Pet Shop Boys-produced version is eminently the superior. Credit for it likely goes chiefly to Lowe, since the song itself was written by Geoff Stephens. I have a feeling this is a song me and Axl would be happy to listen to over and over.

Similarly, Eighth Wonder, another of their collaborative triumphs. I have no idea really who this French group is, and neither does Axl, but a song such as "J'ai Pas Peur" would have its period of heavy rotation. It is at once so beautiful and so precisely military in its affect as to almost defy description. The vocals alone seem to descend directly from heaven, as though sung by angels. Me and Axl don't have any idea what she's singing-it's in French, and we skipped those classes-but we can recognize "ah baby" when we hear it. And percussive minor-chord strings provide drama and Tennant's requisite sour touch.

I'd want to breeze through the oddballers that don't work for me, or seem outright failures: David Bowie's "Hallo Spaceboy," Blur's "Girls and Boys," and Tina Turner's "Confidential." None of them evince the spark or inspiration of the other collaborations, yet they all show a nice willingness to try, and none are missing the trademark sound, which dependably succeeds when all else fails. They're decent product. At the very least I think that's something good for Axl to see, and of course I'm also interested in what he makes of Tina Turner in general.

Then, just because I think this EP-ish disc is as important to the canon as it is frequently overlooked, I would insist on hearing the whole of Relentless, the 37-minute second disc that accompanied the U.K. release of Very (the product was thus christened Very Relentless). I like to think that whereas the '80s releases by the Pet Shop Boys were dominated by Neil Tennant-for the better, don't misunderstand me, for the better-Relentless by contrast provides a well-deserved showcase for Chris Lowe. Vocals on these six longish tracks, with the exception of "One Thing Leads to Another," are absolutely minimal and frequently only fragments of language if even that. The music is lush, inspiring as always, full of dramatic loops and twists, and always pegged and driven by the beats. It's not, properly speaking, a collaboration, but whew, I'm dancing all over my living room. Axl will too. At any rate, I'm certain it will provoke a fruitful discussion.


Now the time is right for the "grande dame" projects, starting with Dusty Springfield. Reputation, from 1989, cuts neatly in half. The first five songs are weak and uninteresting, hardly worth hearing, but the last five, all Tennant-Lowe songs and productions, make a fine half hour or so set. It's hardly their strongest material, or Springfield's either, but each comes with its own moments: Springfield's Tennant-like rap on "Daydreaming," the pop swoop and clunk of "In Private," Springfield's vocal on "Nothing Has Been Proved," and the strings and beats and hooks everywhere. Can you imagine the headiness for Tennant, hearing his influence on Springfield in "Daydreaming"? This would not be the time to remind Axl that he was once a rock critic, though if it came up I would hasten to point out that he never wrote for Spin, and likely wouldn't.

We're on a roll, so now it's time for the whole of Liza Minelli's Results, also from 1989. This whale, still somewhat new to me though Axl may be quite familiar with it and have much to tell me, has likely (and wrongly) been neglected for its brand name. Yet in the early going it seems good at every point. Even the Sondheim number. Even the "Rent" cover. For me, in this wan and dimming year following the disappointment of Bilingual, it's like getting a whole new Pet Shop Boys album. I'm giving it 30 points in the next Village Voice poll--but quietly, so Axl won't suspect that I am really a rock critic.

(This article originally appeared in Popped.)