Pet Shopping

One of my earliest favourite groups also happens to have been one of the best pop acts of the last 30 years, and a real pioneering force in electronic music (despite often not getting the recognition their remixes and B-sides deserved). Pet Shop Boys have been writing hit music since the early 1980s – for this post I am going to focus on the stuff that I know best, from their earlier albums and releases.

Named after some friends who worked in a pet shop in Ealing, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe first met in an electronics shop in Chelsea in 1981. Tennant worked for Smash Hits, and on a trip to New York to interview The Police he used the opportunity to meet with a hero of his; Hi-NRG producer Bobby O, who suggested making a record together. That record was West End Girls. It made some waves in various scenes in the USA, and was a minor hit in Belgium and France.

After parting with Bobby O and signing with Parlophone, they released Opportunities (Lets Make Lots Of Money), which only managed to chart at 116 in the UK. But the new version of West End Girls, recorded with Stephen Hague, entered the charts in October 1985, and started a remarkable rise which saw it reach #1 by January 1986. It went on to sell 1.5 million copies, and was #1 in 9 countries, including the USA.

The album Please followed (so named because they wanted people to be able to say “could I have the new Pet Shop Boys album, ‘Please’?”, and you could be forgiven for thinking that this new band were another synth pop band making synth pop hits. Then some rather different things started happening.

First of all came the brilliant remix album “Disco”. It seems strange to imagine it now, but the remix was a pretty new artform in the mid-1980s, with few people indulging in it. For a mainstream artist to put out a 6-track album of extended dance remixes was very unusual. But what really catches your attention is just how good these remixes are – here are my 2 personal favourites.

But then something much, much stranger happened; It Couldn’t Happen Here. If people were still harbouring the impression that the Pet Shop Boys were a normal pop band, this surely will have been the moment when the penny dropped that they were anything but. A surreal and sometimes baffling film, it is nevertheless well worth watching if you are a fan of the group and their videos. It was originally envisaged as an hour long film based around 1987’s album ‘Actually’, but grew into a full length feature that was eventually released in 1988.

One interesting thing that may or may not have any significance is the lead actor from Biggles: Adventures In Time sitting there supping his beverage, and the presenter from a Wide Awake club interview 2 years before sharing a very similar choice in style…

This interest in the wider arts, and their willingness to take creative risks, has marked the Pet Shop Boys’ career ever since. Occasionally it has resulted in some poor choices and critical barbs, but it is certainly something they should be lauded for, as it has helped them reach the heights they have done along the journey.

As well as this film, 1988 saw the release of Introspective. Another superb collection of extended dance tracks, Tennant has since said he regrets releasing it so soon after ‘Actually’ as it may have put some fans off. It does though contain some of their best work.

At this point, I can imagine some people not being convinced that the Pet Shop Boys were really as innovative as I am suggesting, as many of these tracks and remixes seem pretty straightforward by modern standards. That would make this a suitable time to introduce any Pet Shop Boys beginners to “The Sound Of The Atom Splitting”.

“The Sound Of The Atom Splitting” was created on the spot as a compliment to the a-side of the single “Left To My Own Devices”, specifically the line “Debussy to a disco beat”.

Trevor Horn provided the inspiration for the line, so they took the best part of an hour and used the drum pattern from ‘Left To My Own Devices’ with Neil playing Debussy-esque chords over top of the chaos. The vocals were added later, and were inspired by a line from a film by Derek Jarman called “The Last of England”: “A man says, ‘What’s that sound? It’s the sound of the atom splitting’.

Neil Tennant: “I thought, ‘That’s a good line’. I thought the sound of the atom splitting was the sound of a nuclear explosion; the sound of the end of the world…The lyric is a dialogue between a fascist and a wet liberal. The right wing person is rather amused by the liberal because he’s obviously so feeble he’s never going to do anything.”

The Sound Of The Atom Splitting

Although they had now peaked in terms of commercial success, the Pet Shop Boys carried on making great music. Behaviour is widely held by many to be their best album, and is a fantastic record, if much more downbeat and reflective than previous LPs. Tennant has since said the record was partly inspired by Depeche Mode’s ‘Violater’, which is probably one of the finest albums of modern times. One of the standout tracks, ‘My October Symphony” featured Johnny Marr on guitar, and it was around this time that Tennant collaborated with Marr and Bernard Sumner to write several tracks as Electronic, Marr and Sumner’s new project.

Look out for the monkey on roller skates

Pet Shop Boys – My October Symphony

Electronic – Disappointed 12\” Mix (mix by 808 State)

Of course, this only really brings us up to the very start of the 1990s, but there’s more than enough here to help you get familiar with a great band. I leave you with this curio from Ramsey Street…

Santero

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