Where To Start... Pet Shop Boys
In the pantheon of great British groups few have the pedigree and enduring quality of the Pet Shop Boys.
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are true pop treasures and almost everything they have touched in a 35 year career has turned to pop gold. Famed for their wit, musical progressiveness and ability to adapt and change with the times the duo have racked up an enormous amount of hits and a seriously impressive and remarkably consistent back catalogue.
It would be easy to list everything in their repertoire (shout out to ‘Introspective’ and ‘Behaviour’) but instead we’ve picked out five landmark records that tell the story of their ascension to UK pop icons.
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The debut Pet Shop Boys album does what all good debut albums should do and established the aesthetic of the band which would endure right to the present day. Everything starts here. From the one word title which would become their trademark to the subtly minimalist artwork of small scale photo on white background to the emotive, lyrically rich and luxuriously crafted synth pop, it’s all present and correct.
The early part of the 80s saw Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe readying themselves for pop greatness in different ways, Neil as deputy editor of Smash Hits and Chris immersing himself in the electro disco club sounds of New York.
On ‘Please’ they realised their long time pop ambitions. It’s clear from widescreen filmic dramas like ‘Suburbia’ and the yearning ennui of ‘Love Comes Quickly’ that Pet Shop Boys already had higher reaching poetic ambitions than many of their synth pop peers and the songs here define a perfect midpoint of the decade, one of mass excess as on the piercing cynical satirising of 80s mercenary capitalism on ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’ as well as the urban decay of the cold, dark misery of peak Thatcherism on ‘West End Girls’.
With a perfectly realised sound and reputation as prime pop provocateurs their debut set them up to rule the end of the 80s and redefine synth pop.
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Neil Tennant is often credited with coining the phrase ‘imperial phase’ with regards to pop success and here is where it began for the Pet Shop Boys. The songs on ‘Actually’ were all written around the same time or earlier as the debut and it could be considered as something of a companion piece but it’s clear that it’s a significant step up.
Their first number one single ‘It’s A Sin' is a hugely thrilling slice of daring pop abandon which highlights their fearlessness in the face of possible opprobrium and outrage while the darkly beautiful and tender ‘Rent’ is quite simply one of the greatest songs ever written and evidence of Neil’s growing lyrical prowess.
Now a genuinely successful group they could invite legendary singer Dusty Springfield to duet with them on ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ and they even felt empowered enough to write a song intended for Madonna which went on to become ‘Heart’ their third number one single.
Who needs the Queen of Pop, anyway? The Pet Shop Boys conquered everything in 1987 and ‘Actually’ is without doubt their most iconic album.
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For a band that defined the 80s the question was how would they adapt to the new decade? After the introspective and contemplative 1990 album ‘Behaviour’ Neil and Chris needed a big statement to reconfigure the group and they delivered with their most euphoric and exuberant album. This album is Pet Shop Boys turned up to 11 and its relentless mega dance pop aligned with some of their best songs and writing makes it an essential listen.
There’s good reason for this to be the most celebratory PSB album as it’s the first to be released post Neil Tennant openly discussing his homosexuality for the first time. There are no boundaries or constraints on ‘Very’ and it’s title is pretty self explanatory. Songs like ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ ripple with excitement whole a heady blissful ecstasy characterises almost everything here culminating in their national anthem of Village People cover ‘Go West’.
It remains the only one of their albums to reach number one and when you think of the Pet Shop Boys you immediately think of those brilliantly inventive and striking computerised images of the cone heads and gowns that they were wearing during this period, a reminder of how great they are as a visual as well as musical group.
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The Noughties were a difficult period for the Pet Shop Boys as they entered their third decade as a major pop act in a period when the entire musical landscape and industry was rapidly changing.
To their credit Neil and Chris were always open to changing with it and 'Fundamental' is their best album of this period and skewers the age of reality TV, vacuous celebrity culture and post 9/11 poisonous political spin in typically witty Pet Shop Boys style.
Coming off the back of maybe their only real misstep of their career in 2002’s disappointing ‘Release’, ‘Fundamental’ was PSB back in pure pop mode, still willing to push the boundaries and confront people with difficult truths like on the all time classic ‘Soddom and Gomorrah Show’.
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Moving into their fourth decade the boys hit a hot streak working with famed producer Stuart Price and begun a trilogy of albums produced by him.
‘Electric’ is the first of those collaborations and it is by far their most hard edged dance production reminding people that they are always predominantly an electronic group. Less lyrically focused than some of their earlier records this is a maximalist sonic journey across the dancefloor. It’s a record almost exclusively comprised of six minute long club bangers and shows their appetite for club music hasn’t dismissed with age. This record goes off.
The second Price collaboration, 2015’s ‘Super’ is similarly poppers o’clock while this year sees the final part of the triptych in ‘Hotspot’.
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Pet Shop Boys will release new album 'Hotspot' on January 24th.
Words: Martyn Young / @martynmyoung
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