When I started attending concerts in the early ‘90s, they were all pretty similar: artist, music, big screen. But in 1991, I attended Pet Shop Boys’ Performance Tour and for years, I would tout this as my favorite concert ever due to its amazing theatrical aspect…Sets! Costumes! Pumpkin-headed dancers! A demon attacking Catholic school boys!
I was amazed to find that show is online – and my nearsightedness had missed some of the more, uh, subtle sexual aspects in person.
Pet Shop Boys were definitely ahead of their time when it came to live performances, and they would continue to be the future of music throughout their career – one of the longest lasting partnerships in the music world. With a new CD out now and a world tour next year, they remain one of the most “drama free” bands in music.
But really, the Pet Shop Boys have always been more than a “band.” They have explored music in a variety of formats by creating films, CGI videos, stage musicals, orchestral symphonies, and MANY remix albums. It is easy to feel dumb while reading through their history of projects and accomplishments (for me at least). They have always had social commentary, yet with the clubby tunes, it is easy to just enjoy the music. Call them synth, pop, electric, dance, new wave, whatever, they have been true to themselves, not caught up in fame or attention, and continue to be artistic in their live shows. From last year’s Hyde Park performance…
Pet Shop Boys began when Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met at a music store in London in 1981. Their mutual admiration of electronic and dance music brought them together, and after nearly 40 years, they are still regularly releasing music. With multiple lifetime achievement awards, millions of records sold (75-100 million!), and labeled the most successful duo in UK music history by The Guinness Book of Records, it is safe to say the Pet Shop Boys are “kind of a big deal.”
Perhaps when your first song is huge, maybe you know you are destined for success. When “West End Girls” was unleashed in clubs in 1984, Pet Shop Boys started on their path to being part of music history. “West End Girls” gradually reached number one in multiple countries and remains their most well-known song. In fact, The Guardian just labeled it as the number one song on their “The 100 greatest UK No 1s.”
They followed it up with hit after hit: “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” “Love Comes Quickly,” and “Suburbia.”
Their debut album “Please” contained those four successful singles (that remain awesome today), and launched their pattern of one-word titles.
(Check out those baby faces!)
While Tennant is generally the frontman for the group, we got to hear Lowe “sing” (in hat and sunglasses, of course!) as he provides the main vocals for the “Suburbia” B-side, “Paninaro.”
In the end, “Suburbia” became a monster hit for the duo.
Proving it wasn’t a one-album fluke, their next disc, “Actually,” produced more legendary songs. “It’s a Sin,” “Heart,” “Rent,” “One More Chance,” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This” (with special guest Dusty Springfield) kept their momentum going, and landed them on multiple “best albums of the ‘80s” lists.
That same year, the Pet Shop Boys appeared on an Elvis Presley tribute program and spawned yet another track that remains popular for them, “Always on My Mind.”
“Always on My Mind” was included on their next release, “Introspective,” part of six tracks of extended remixes and orchestration. With “Domino Dancing” and “Left to My Own Devices” on there as well, the disc remains one of their best sellers, and sent Tennant and Lowe onto their first tour.
Adopting a more “reflective” sound, per Tennant, they moved onto “Behaviour,” which produced the huge singles “So Hard” and “Being Boring.”
With “Behaviour” doing well, and another successful cover track (U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” blended with the ‘60s tune “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”), the guys kicked off their first world tour, the aforementioned Performance Tour. Again, this was not a plain “band plays music” concert.
While I understand some artists before PSB did use theatrics, it mostly relied on the singer’s persona. “Two guys and computers” don’t exactly make for great entertainment, especially when the guys in question have been called “detached” and “deadpan.” Tennant and Lowe collaborated with award-winning stage directors to give the audience a true production, and the US finally saw them in person. Reminder, not exactly a show for kids!
Pet Shop Boys did take a break to work on side projects, but it was not a “break up” like we typically get in a successful band of this era. They gave us the “Discography” compilation, and Tennant worked on music with Johnny Marr (The Smiths) and Bernard Sumner (New Order, Joy Division) for the band Electronic. (If you missed our recent article on New Order, give it a read!)
The break wasn’t very long and PSB was back on the charts – and back to upbeat dance music – in 1993 with “Can You Forgive Her?” They began doing CGI videos (because, again, how exciting are “two guys and computers?”), which were popular on MTV at the time. Inspired by video games, the “Go West,” “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” and “Liberation” videos continued the CGI pattern and made “Very” another well-selling album for the duo.
Tours, remix albums, new albums (“Bilingual” and “Nightlife”) wrapped up the ‘90s for Pet Shop Boys. They entered the ‘00s and considered other music genres and video styles, plus added musicians to the group. They continued the cycle of remix albums, touring, new albums (“Release” and “Fundamental”), and another well-stocked greatest hits, “PopArt: Pet Shop Boys – The Hits.” They scored Grammy nominations and in 2009 picked up a huge honor: Outstanding Contribution to Music from the British Phonographic Industry (aka Brit Awards). They performed a medley of their hits with a little help from Lady Gaga and Brandon Flowers (The Killers).
Ok, seriously, how badass do they look walking out to the stage?!
The award led to “PopArt” landing on the charts again, plus their newest album, “Yes” appearing, helped by the dance singles “Love Etc.” and “Did You See Me Coming?”
They set off on the year-long Pandemonium Tour, which took them all over the world again. If you missed it, they released the whole concert on CD/DVD, and of course it is visually theaterical. There was also a headlining performance at the epic Glastonbury Festival at the end of the tour.
Surely it was retirement or break up time now? Nope! In an article for Huffpost, James Ruddick explored how a duo could stay together that long, when history shows egos and money break up some of the best partnerships. While noting their personalities are very different, and that they seemed like “indifferent brothers bound only by blood,” they admit they would not be here without the other.
Tennant: “I wouldn’t have the confidence to go solo… I’m clever but Chris is a genius.”
Lowe imagines it the other way around as he had “no ambitions to become a pop star until he met Tennant in a record shop.”
With no feuds, and retirement not of interest, Tennant and Lowe released more remixes and B-side albums, plus gave an understated (ha!) performance of “West End Girls” at the closing ceremonies at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Their 2012 album, “Elysium” was labeled as mellower, not as dance oriented, but Tennant described it as “the Pet Shop Boys’ most beautiful album.” After this long in the music industry, and life in general, certainly being reflective is allowed. Who hasn’t mourned love by this time in their life?
“I know when enough’s enough and you’re leaving You’ve had enough time to decide on your freedom But I can still find some hope to believe in love.”
They did return to their dance origins for their next new release, “Electric” and kicked off the Electric World Tour which ran from 2013-2015. Perhaps more subdued than past tours, the show featured the band with just two dancers performing in front of huge screen screens. It did offer this epic look from designer Jeffry Bryant, which would be perfect in our social distancing world…
After the two-year tour, they went right back to work and produced another successful dance record. “Super” became their 13th consecutive top ten album, debuted at number one on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Album chart, plus “The Pop Kids” was their 11th number one on the US Dance Club Songs chart. Not enough? Billboard named them the number one dance duo/group over the last 40 years. It’s like these guys know what they are doing…
While we try to avoid politics at OC Music News, please allow this brief moment… In early 2019, the Pet Shop Boys released the EP “Agenda.” Per Tennant, “It contains three satirical songs and one rather sad song. I think it’s because of the times we’re living through.”
From “Give Stupidity a Chance:”
“Instead of governing With thoughtful sensitivity Let’s shock and awe the world With idiotic bigotry”
So yea. *cries in American* It is a rather clubby song though. Another track on the EP is “On Social Media” which reflects the obsession to post our entire life online for likes (#blessed), and unfortunately, the anonymous online arguing that has gotten even stronger this year (#notsoblessed). But hey, it is a fun song.
In the fall of 2019, PSB announced a world tour and new album would appear in 2020, plus a tour with New Order. They gave us “Dreamland” as a teaser for the upcoming album, “Hotspot.” “Burning the Heather” and “Monkey Business” followed and showed they still have the dance vibe, plus Lowe has the moves to match.
While we did get the disc in January, the rest is a no go, of course. With the tours postponed, the guys have kept busy in quarantine, sharing “Pet Texts” on their site, adding memories and playlists. Tennant has been amazed at not having a schedule. “On my afternoon walks on empty country roads I’ve been taking photos on my phone of solitary trees,” he said on an Instagram Q&A. “I feel a kinship with them at the moment!”
Although our live entertainment has been taken from us this year, we can delight in another gift from Tennant and Lowe… Presenting the lockdown version of “West End Girls.”
With next year being their 40th anniversary, let’s plan to celebrate Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe for the decades of fantastic music and their unending (and drama-free) partnership.