Pet Shop Boys, Critically (10)

Snippets from Chuck Eddy’s Village Voice review of Introspective (“18 Shopping Days Left,” December 13, 1988), which I’ll hopefully comment on later (feel free to jump in yourself). My only general comment is that the review is not as over-the-top about PSB as I half-remembered it being. In fact, it skews somewhat in the other direction: Chuck seems unconvinced by (and skeptical of) PSB overall — they pale next to his beloved Exposé, who are cited three or four times here — though in the end he can’t resist the “confusedly jubilant” pleasures of what he admits is “the best Pet Shop album.”

(Semi-interesting sidenotes: 1. Below Chuck’s review is Vince Aletti’s “Single Life” column, a rundown mostly of the acid-house hits then storming the UK, but with a few choice — and very complimentary — words about Introspective also, i.e., “six songs that ransack dance idioms from Brooklyn to Chicago with affection and wit.” 2. The second review after Chuck’s is Frank Owen’s review of the Pop Tarts, cheekily headlined, “Shopping in America.” Who remembers the Pop Tarts? No one? Thought so. I recall them being a kind of similar-to-PSB critical big deal post-something-or-other at the time, but nothing I read about them actually convinced me to listen to them. To this day, I’ve still not heard a note of their music, I don’t think.)

Introspective‘s got the first two Pet Shop cover versions, both of which apparently make fun of the originals; Tennant recites most of ‘Always on My Mind’ as if Elvis/Willie’s longing and regret were impossible, reads Sterling Void’s ludicrous acid-protest ‘It’s Alright’ almost as blandly. After 15-plus post-Bowie years of music-about-musicmaking, contemptuous theatricality like this ain’t so much subversive as just too fuckin easy.
“But so’s this analysis. Unless you’re of Exposé’s ingenuous ilk to say in the post-Bruce age that you’re posing is only to say you make no conscious stab at the intentional-honesty lie. Soul-sincerity’s as phony as phoniness by now, and distance-from-material encompasses all suckup-to-rockcrit crud from Los Lobos to Mudhoney. British whiteboys singing like British whiteboys beat British whiteboys singing like black men; ditto for products admitting they’re products.”

“And nobody knows products like these consumers of oligopological output in the dead-end world where everything’s for sale and money talks and streets are gold, these un-Iggylike pet-shoppers who’d rather buy a dog than be one. We’re all prostitues, shopping for someone to pet, so romance equals commerce: ‘I love you/You pay my rent,’ ‘You always wanted a lover/I only wanted a job.’ Introspective argues we’re taught competition as babes, eventually left not to our own devices but choiceless. The denial of self-determination stupidly distorts reality, but then again when I first heard ‘West End Girls’ three years ago I was ‘sold’ right away ’cause (just like ‘All the Young Dudes’) the first two lines suggest young people should blow their brains out. The cashier took my money.”

“Theoretically, these Boys negate my entire worldview. Not because they’re wimps (I identify with their wimpdom — they could probably kick my ass, actually), but because their ironic distance adds nothing, ever. Tennant’s toasty tongue-texture and minimalist language are fine, but too often he’s content to let us know he’s performing — he walks too fast and talks too slow, too constricted and stylized and arid, ‘conversational’ only if people who read books while you’re talking to ’em over the phone don’t make you nervous.”

“When the Pet Shop Boys succeed, they succeed despite themselves. Tennant’s monotone usually communicates more when it’s singing than when it’s rapping; in parts of ‘It’s a Sin,’ ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ (where at first he’s as passionate as his duet partner Dusty Springfield), and ‘Rent,’ something’s at stake. I was raised Catholic and I’m a househusband and Bee Gees fan, so lines hit me here and there. The masses take ‘Always on My Mind’ and ‘What Have I’ at face value (a la ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’) because face value is the only way these songs could possibly matter.”

“If the Boys are still more ‘about disco’ than ‘are disco,’ well, Poison’s more ‘about rock’n’roll’ than ‘are rock’n’roll’ (‘Your Mama Don’t Dance’ might be a joke too, y’know), and Introspective‘s confusedly jubilant enough to earn the comparison. These sly devils are a (plastic) pop group, not some late-capitalist zeitgeist. But sometimes they’re even funnier than the real thing.”

“Yet I’m left breathless by the hog-stomping Baroque disco-grandeur (shades of Alec Constandino’s Hunchback of Notre Dame) that opens Introspective, a Shopping Channel sellout that’s the best Pet Shop album for the same reason ‘West End Girls’ is their best single: most gleeful hooks, most persistent throb, most flamin maneuvers, most evocatively dopey writing, least cynical bullshit. The groove’s more sensuous, finally closer to Exposé than Erasure.”


Pet Shop Boys, Critically (8)


As promised, a few snippets from Barry Walters’s Voice review of Please, dated June 3, 1986. There’s a lot of funny and interesting stuff in this review, and it’s tricky quoting bits from it sans context — much of the review is centered around the then-merely perceived notion of the Pet Shop Boys’s gayness — so I’ll limit my sampling to specific bits which hopefully won’t require too much additional cross-explanation.

“I don’t know if the Pet Shop Boys are gay. If not, they should be, judging from Please, a top 10 hit. They aren’t of the Boy George I’m-so-camp-I’m-sexless variety. Nor do they wear bondage gear like early Frankie or fishnet stockings over their faces like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Their look is post-clone gay-next-door. The Boys could pass for straight, but their record collection gives them away. They used to be big fans of Bobby Orlando, who produced hits for Flirts, Waterfront Home, and Divine, as well as the original version of their own ‘West End Girls.’ Nowadays Pet Shop Boys are to hiphop what the Bee Gees were to disco, but with brains.”

{It’s remarkable, in a way, just how forgotten is the fact that “West End Girls” was a white UK version of — in 1986, apparently un-hyphenated — hiphop (though not the first; “Wham Rap,” anyone?), perhaps because the song’s obvious disco underpinnings muddied the waters a bit. (Tennant has said repeatedly that he had “The Message” and The Waste Land in mind.) The Bee Gees “but with brains” line is a triumph, and should’ve been cited in the Pets’ ad copy.}

“The songs on Please are about love, lust, making money, and watching civilization decay. Their music isn’t the Jesus and Mary Chain, but neither is it Howard Jones.”

{Which do you choose, the hard or soft option? The Jesus and Mary Chain reference is entirely apt, but it seems so bizarre to me now to think that Please and Psychocandy occupied the same universe at roughly the same time; one of these records feels to me like it was recorded yesterday, the other feels like it was recorded… well, 28 years ago. I still love parts of Psychocandy, actually, but it hasn’t felt like a part of the present since the year it was released.}

“Things can’t only get better, but to the Pet Shop Boys, sticking together helps. Songs like ‘Two Divided by Zero’ and ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ are classic cases of boy bonding, and you can imagine vocalist, ex-Smash Hits writer Neil Tennant singing them to his buddy on keyboards, Chris Lowe. On the spoken verses, Tennant’s sinuously prissy diction suggests a private school lad gone bad. When he sings the choruses, his thin, vibratoless tenor resembles Al ‘Year of the Cat’ Stewart.”

{Tennant quickly established his vocal gifts — “vibratoless” is apt, and part of the appeal — so the Stewart comparison, frequent in ’86 and ’87, didn’t follow him around forever.}

“Viewed as a straight love song, ‘Why Don’t We Live Together?’ updates Al Green’s ‘Let’s Get Married.’ Heard as a plea of devotion from one man to another, the song’s domestic dream becomes daringly political, even revolutionary. Maybe I want the Pet Shop Boys to be something they’re not. Yet after countless tales of woe and sleaze from smalltown boys not glad to be gay but still selling a walk on the wild side, I can’t help but get excited by a man who wants to settle down and get down too.”

“…smalltown boys not glad to be gay but still selling a walk on the wild side…” Wonderful stuff! It’s interesting to compare Walters’ 1986 are-they-or-aren’t-they comments on this song with Alfred Soto’s insistence, in 2013 (from our first PSB podcast*) that “Live Together” seals the deal on the question of their gayness.

More Voice/PSB throwdowns to come.

* And BTW, there will be more PSB podcasts eventually. Alfred and I recorded a fourth, with a special guest, which we had to scrap because the audio quality was so bad. but we hope to re-do it again, and we have others in line also. The whole thing is held up right now by technical (and employment) issues, but hopefully we’ll be back with some chats in the not-too-distant future.

Pet Shop Boys, Critically (7)

A reader, Tom Scarlett, was kind enough to send me a copy of Simon Frith’s (once upon a time) much-ballyhooed Pet Shop Boys feature from the spring 1988 edition of the Voice‘s “Rock & Roll Quarterly” supplement. The piece, which I hadn’t read in approximately 23 years (when I lost for good two large boxes worth of Voice clippings) was brought up in my podcasts with Alfred, and is also referred to frequently in Chris Heath’s Literally. Along with the Frith essay, Tom also included Barry Walters’s June 1986 Voice review of Please. Thought it would be fun to just quote a few passages from each, starting in this post with Frith (I understand that I’m taking huge liberties in doing this, no disrespect meant to Frith or the Voice, of course). Thanks a bunch, Tom!

(At some point later on I’ll link to some other Voice musings on PSB — including one by yours truly — but the one review I will not likely come across — another clipping lost in that stash — was Chuck Eddy’s review of Introspective, which he didn’t include in his compilation — though he did include a funny interview he conducted with Neil and Chris circa Behaviour — but which had at least one memorable line I’ve never forgotten, something along the lines of, “the Pet Shop Boys don’t want to be your dog, they want to buy your dog.”)

From Simon Frith’s “The Divine Commodity”

“Pet Shop Boys’ reputation as an instantly ‘classic’ pop group is all the more surprising because of the kind of music they make. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant got together at a time, 1984-85, when British companies were backing a plethora of electro-duos, most long since forgotten. There are quirky elements in synth-pop — weirdo sex from Soft Cell to Erasure, the electro-passion of Yazoo and Bronski Beat — but Pet Shop Boys were determinedly mainstream, boys with toys who lacked even the egghead pretensions of Tears for Fears… The Pets’ musical ‘authenticity’ was certainly not an issue (even now I have no idea what Lowe and Tennant actually do on their records), and the formula established by ‘West End Girls’ hasn’t changed much since. An essentially plastic sound, a conversational voice.”

“The Pets music is all surface and no depth, and in terms of the late ’80s British pop aesthetic it should, therefore, be worthless — they’re on the wrong side of the current ideological divide. The obvious pop contrast is the Smiths, signed to Rough Trade (not to EMI), beloved by John Peel (not Radio One’s daytime jocks), interviewed lovingly by Melody Maker (not mockingly by Smash Hits), profiled by the TV high arts program, The South Bank Show (not feted by the industry at the British Music Awards), refusing to make videos or to use machines, guitar-fixated, proudly uningratiating, independent, and miserable. If the Smiths defined the proper way of doing things, how could the Pets’ approach be validated?”
{Interestingly, Tennant, I think around the time of Behaviour (which did, after all, feature Johnny Marr on a couple tracks), referred to PSB as “the Smiths you can dance to.” I don’t think Morrissey has ever referred to the Smiths, however, as “the Pet Shop Boys you can stand around and put your hands in your pockets to” — at least I don’t think he has, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.}

“Rock journalists tend to think of pop history as a series of startling events, an epic tale of rising and falling youth stars and movements. But as Pete Waterman pointed out to me (and when I first met him in 1972 he was Coventry’s leading DJ), what matters more is the unchanging background of ‘ordinary’ pop taste, which in Britain has been defined since the mid-1960s by the sound of the weekend teenage disco. Defined, that is, not simply as dance music but also as the score to a certain sort of urgent leisure, sexual tension, and nervous style.”

“The point about good disco music is that it is, in itself, the sound of the unobtainable, time turned back on itself in an eternal loop. The best dance music gives us a recurring sense that, however clumsy, we can, we have (but we can’t, we haven’t) achieved a state of grace. And whomever they ware with on the dance floor, the dancers dance alone. The music is utilitarian, available, that is to be invested with pure desire.”

“When Tennant talks about the Pets’ records he talks in the detached terms of a critic. Each Pet song is treated as a production problem — how can its potential best be realized? — hence the somewhat frazzled deal with Ennio Morricone on Actually, and Tennant’s frustrated schemes to have a track produced by Narada Michael Walden to see if they too could make an ‘American’ single. But the Pets records aren’t just technical exercises. Unlike Stock, Aitken, and Waterman’s, their lyrics matter.”
{Wow, Narada Michael Walden; talked about a missed opportunity. This leads me to wonder, though: what is the Pet Shop Boys’ most American-sounding record? Do any qualify?}

“While writing this piece I happened to visit a fading Woolworths in Glasgow, a store that looked like the Woolworths of my youth, shelves overloaded with functional goods, no signs of ‘lifestyle.’ Woolworths once stood for economy, the working class making do, but now out of the speaker system came ‘West End Girls’ (this was Glasgow’s West End Woolworths). It sounded profoundly wrong, a critique of consumption that in this setting had no resonance. Listening to this suddenly too sweet confection, I realized suddenly what Pet Shop Boys have in common with the Smiths.


“Tennant, Lowe, and Morrissey are all Northern boys, their faces were first pressed to London’s display windows with the same mix of revulsion and need. Morrissey, Tennant, and Lowe are all dedicated record consumers. They all make excessively romantic demands of pop, expecting it to solve the world’s problems in three minute bursts of joy. The Pets make music for the shopping precincts and the disco while the Smiths hymned the bedsit and the library, but both groups are responding to the general confusion of consumption and self-worth.”
{Isn’t Frith’s comment here about “West End Girls” sounding “profoundly wrong” in Woolworths a repudiation of sorts to his thoughts above about “the unchanging background of ‘ordinary’ pop taste” and disco’s “utilitarian” dynamic?}


“I enjoy Morrissey’s over-the-top gesture of refusal — no sex! no sales! no fun! — but I’m too old to take it seriously, which is why, for me, Pet Shop Boys have a more profound point to make. They start with a delight in shopping but never without an undertow of regret. It may be pathetic to talk of the tragic vision of a passing pop duo, but at their best the Pets capture that sense of psychic space, that anticipatory tingling moment just before the money changes hands, when we know this will be the record, the shirt, the dance, the sex to change our lives, and they share the knowledge that the moment has already gone, the choice is made, our lives remain the same…

The-Smiths-NME---7-June-1986-419587west-end ad

“Desire determines aesthetics. It is the human attribute on which our sense of perfection rests, the mode of perception in which the ideal is defined, by its absence, when our feelings get sharper as their object gets more obscure. Pet Shop Boys understand all this better than anyone else except, maybe, Prince.”

{The sentence that begins, “It may be pathetic…” might be the best sentence ever written about the Pet Shop Boys — one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read, in fact, about ’80s pop. Too bad he didn’t expound on the Prince comparison, though.}


Pet Shop Boys, Critically (6)


The Status of the Gay Question: Phil Dellio’s 1988 Interview with Neil and Chris of the Pet Shop Boys (audio)

Getting this interview transcribed—or, even better, digitized and posted—was something Scott and I first discussed a few years ago, but there wasn’t any real context for doing so at the time. I wasn’t even sure I could still find the cassette where it resided—I knew I had two or three boxes of cassettes stored away downstairs, a mad scramble of mix-tapes and esoterica and some of the interviews I’d done in the ‘80s, but I hadn’t looked through them for quite a while. Deterioration had also crossed my mind.

Happy to say that I found the tape (along with some other interviews I’m glad I still have: Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny Thunders, John Candy…Huey Lewis—I won’t get sidetracked explaining that one), and now, with all these podcasts Scott’s been posting, we’ve got something approaching a rationale for putting it out there, and enough technology to avoid the transcribing I was always too lazy to do anyway.

The interview dates back to the fall of 1988, just after Introspective came out. (Possibly just before, I’m not sure—maybe I had been listening to a promo, but I don’t think so, else the copy I have now would be that very same promo, which it isn’t.) For me, it was the exact zenith of the Pet Shop Boys’ Imperial Phase, coming off of Actually and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” with an instantaneously striking, self-assured album that looked like it was going to sell even more, chart even higher, and be reviewed even better. The interview was done for a magazine out of Toronto named Graffiti, where, after reviewing records and contributing various pieces (some co-written with Scott) for the past couple of years, I’d just been brought on as an associate editor. So it was also the zenith of my own Imperial Phase, even though mine was secret and lasted only three months. Graffiti went bankrupt right before the interview made it to print, which is why it’s been languishing in a shoebox ever since.

What I remember…There was me, Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe, and a record-company woman. It took place at a prominent Toronto hotel (no idea which one), I think up in a swanky room but I’m not sure, and it was one of those junkets where I was slotted in the middle of a whole bunch of other interviews. I vaguely recall wanting to make them realize that I was different than everybody else, that I actually cared about the record and wasn’t just there for a byline and a cheque (cf. Matt Bianco, Men Without Hats, Balaam & the Angel, and some of my other illustrious work from that era). So I made sure we spent the first five minutes talking about Simon Frith. I felt confident that the people from Rock Express and MuchMusic would not be talking about Simon Frith. Something I’d forgotten: that the record-company woman seemed to want to steer the conversation away from Neil and Chris making fun of U2. They weren’t on the same label, and I don’t think there was a great deal of overlap in their audience at that point (probably more true three years earlier), so I’m not sure why that bothered her.

It’s of course an odd experience to travel back twenty-five years and listen to yourself at 27. The one condition I set forth for Scott in following through with this was that there could only be an acceptable level of cringe-worthy moments on my part. After listening to almost the whole thing, I’m 73% sure that that level is indeed acceptable. I’m a little too look-at-me in proclaiming my antipathy towards political music. (Basically true, but I did have “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” on my year-end in ’85.) I suggest at one point that I’m older and presumably more sagacious than the Pazz & Jop voters who by-passed Actually; again, I’m 27. And as for the best moment of all, well, that’s how you get titles for published interviews. Basically, and surprisingly, I sounded pretty much the same then as I do today.

Excuse all the mysterious ambient crashes and thumps. My best guess is that, just to keep things lively, I threw something across the table at Chris Lowe every 30 seconds or so.

Phil Dellio

Note: in some parts of this interview, particularly during the latter half, there is a noticeable decrease in volume. I’ve tried to boost the levels in those sections, but doing so naturally boosted the level of hiss as well (a tech genius with the proper tools could no doubt find ways around this). I think about 80-85% of the interview is easy to hear. The other 10-15% likely requires some volume or ear-placement adjustment on your own, though. SW


Or download

Pet Shop Boys, Critically (5)

Here’s the third in our series of PSB podcasts. This time Alfred Soto and I are joined by Ned Raggett to discuss Pet Shop b-sides, which leads into a discussion of: PSB’s Alternative (their double-disc b-sides collection); Sonic Youth vs. Pet Shop Boys; Diane Warren; Mick Jagger; Simon Reynolds… and much, much more!


(Or download part one, two, three, four)

(A couple listeners have mentioned the less than stellar sound quality for these podcasts. It’s true, especially, I presume, if you’re listening to them on a high-end playback system. When I monitor them, usually in computer headphones, they’re fine, though understand that my measurement for sound quality success here is that each speaker is merely audiible… wind-tunnel background noise be damned! In any event, I will work on improving this at some point, so long as I can figure out a cost-effective way of doing so.)

1) The buried treasure of Pet Shop Boys’ B-sides: Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian
2) List of songs written by Diane Warren (does not include, as erroneously stated by yours truly, Heart’s “Alone”)
3) Ned‘s Storify link with his Pet Shop Boys CD project


> > > Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend< < < (via Grooveshark, b-side to “Where the Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”)

“A Man Could Get Arrested” (b-side to “West End Girls”)

“The Truck Driver and His Mate” (b-side to “Before”)

“Saturday Night”/”Rent” (Suede w/Neil Tennant)


“Your Funny Uncle”

“Do I Have To”

> > > Miserablism< < < (via Grooveshark)

“Glad All Over” (Dave Clark 5 cover)

“Viva la Vida” (Coldplay cover)

Pet Shop Boys, Critically (3)

For our second Pet Shop Boys conversation, Alfred Soto and I are joined by critic, and self-described “chart nerd,” Chris Molanphy (whose chart musings can be found at Slate and NPR). Over a roughly 90-minute chat, the three of us delve into the Pet Shop Boys’ monumental, if short-lived, American chart run, which leads into (among other things) a meditation on what Neil Tennant once described as the group’s “imperial phase.”

Part one
Part two
Part three

(Or download part one, two, three)


Small clarification: At one point, I bring up the Billboard Top 10 from the week “West End Girls” reached #1 (May 10, 1986). However, revisiting Billboard online afterwards, I realized I was running down the Hot 100 “sales and airplay” chart as opposed to the Hot 100 “singles” chart; from what I understand (I’d need someone like — well, like Chris Molanphy to explain it to me!), the latter is the more important of the two. (It doesn’t change the PSB being at #1, though the rest of the chart is a little different. I trust this won’t cause anyone reading this to lose even 30 seconds of sleep.)

Hot 100 Singles


Hot 100 Sales & Airplay


Pet Shop Boys, Critically (2)

“Also, I can’t help feeling that I prefer the music of the Pet Shop Boys to the music of, say, Erasure partly because it is more authentic, more sincerely meant and much more, well soulfully, delivered, even (especially) in its flatness. I feel the same way about comparing the music of Joni Mitchell to – I’ll say it – the music of Britney Spears. Jimi Hendrix or Trevor Rabin? I mean to say! It surely is clear that Hendrix has something to say, Rabin does not. Led Zeppelin compared to Aerosmith, likewise. The Pets, Joni, Jimi, and Zep really meant what they were saying, and it shows in the music, especially at the point of composition. That’s what I hear, anyway. The mistake is of course to conflate authenticity with aesthetic value: clearly, Phil Collins means it, and that is the problem. Surely David Bowie’s use of artifice speaks to ironic distance, but then the project as a whole (pop art) feels meant, intended, done for a good reason. One feels that he had something to say. I can’t feel that about, say, Duran Duran, even though I like some of their songs. I suppose I mean that Run DMC are more authentic than Michael Jackson, in the end, and while that is not necessarily a good arbiter for taste or judgment, denying the truth of these perceptions seems like an odd thing to do.”

– Andrew Goodwin (interviewing Simon Frith) on authenticity and popular music

I feel I could go a 750 word tangent about this, but I’ll let it stew for a bit. Agree or disagree with Goodwin? Any other wild or sexy thoughts come to mind here?

Pet Shop Boys

Pet Shop Boys, Critically (1)


As a follow-up to our lengthy series of conversations (in 2010 and earlier this year) about Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, Alfred Soto and I embark on a similar excursion into all things Pet Shop Boys. Over a series of who-knows-how-many discussions, we will delve into the music and the guiding aesthetic behind our mutually-agreed-upon favourite synth-pop duo of all time (better than Erasure, better than Soft Cell, better, even, than Blancmange). Unlike our Roxy discussions, we won’t tackle PSB in a strict, album-by-album chronology, choosing instead to bounce around from theme to theme. It’s also our intention to engage other people in the discussion.

In our first chat, we delve into the latest PSB release, Electric, the group’s intrinsic (sometimes complex) roots in gay life and culture, and why PSB still matter, at least sometimes.

Part one
Part two
Part three

(Or download part one, two, three)