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A Perfect Ten: It’s Bloody Pet Shop Boys, Sweetie!

Pet Shop Boys in 1988 movie It Couldn't Happen Here

Pet Shop Boys deserve admiration for many reasons. They taught us it’s never too late for a career in pop music and that perfectionism pays (at least sometimes). When they broke through with “West End Girls” in 1986, they were working together for six years but they took their time to polish their sound. As a seasoned Smash Hits alumnus, Neil Tennant proved that you could be a music critic and a visionary artist. His degree in history often shone through in the duo’s lyrics. A good example is their 2012 B-side “Hell.” Their music is reasonably varied (from pop-dance to pop ballads to show tunes to slight Latin influences to the shades of soft rock) yet they never strayed from their signature style—to the delight of their fans. To be honest, their help in plucking Dusty Springfield from obscurity is a reason enough for all the accolades.

Pet Shop Boys’ output is so consistently great that I could even skip the dance floor anthem that gave the name to this piece. I guess I can be forgiven because it was released as a single under the other name. It’s a testament to Pet Shop Boys’ songwriting prowess that I had no problems with selecting ten other quality tracks with both unforgettable hooks and interesting backstories. I could easily choose ten more and write that they are “great bangers” or “highly atmospheric stuff”. A good example of the latter is “Two Divided by Zero“—a great entry point for those who wish to familiarize with the Boys’ oeuvre album by album. Their diehard fans (aka Petheads) would probably scoff at this attitude, arguing that the real strength of the duo lies in their B-sides and rarities. I believe this chronologically arranged list satisfies both camps.

“Paninaro” (1986)

Pet Shop Boys have an unique gift of writing hard-hitting songs about continental Europe youth subcultures. “In the Night” covers Zazous—non-conformist jazz lovers of Vichy France. This B-side to “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” was immortalized in the eyes of my generation by The Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch.” Milanese Paninaro were more contemporary phenomena. Their name comes from the Italian word for “sandwich” and was inspired by their favorite cafe. Like Zazous, they adored stylish clothes and American lifestyle. Like most of the Italians, they were also avid soccer fans.

The band used their consumerism as a backdrop in the song about the importance of love in a fast-paced and ruthless world. Cold, quasi-martial beats suit this unfriendly environment. The song is sung mainly by Chris Lowe who sounds progressively more desperate. This B-side to 1986 hit single “Suburbia” samples his very thought-provoking quote from the contemporary Entertainment Weekly interview. “Don’t like much really, do I? But what I do like I love passionately is something” is an attitude I share with Chris. (I am not a fan of country and rockabilly, either). “Paninaro” got a new lease of life in 1995 when the updated version with additional rap verse became the single promoting compilation Alternative.

“King’s Cross” (1987)

The closing track of Actually LP is my favourite Pet Shop Boys song. It also had a chance to be their biggest hit. Neil Tennant claims that tabloid The Sun suggested it should have been charity single after disastrous fire on King’s Cross St Pancras tube station. 31 people died in the underground ticket hall, 100 were injured. Understandably, the Boys didn’t want to fuel the speculation that they somehow predicted the catastrophe and nothing came of this idea. Thus this historic landmark is indefinitely more often associated with Harry Potter than PSB.

With all due respect to the fire victims, it’s a shame. “King’s Cross” is a gorgeously melancholic depiction of uncertainty suffered by the disenfranchised of Thatcher-era Britain. The final key change only adds to the feeling of gloom and dread. Just don’t think about the image of a man on fire from the movie It Couldn’t Happen Here too much.

“It’s Alright” (1988)

The late ’80s witnessed a mini-trend of upbeat songs about dramatic political events. US of course had “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Germany had “So Many People” by Neue Deutsche Welle survivors Hubert Kah. Pet Shop Boys also decided to address the worldwide turmoil at the end of the Cold War.

They did it in a quite unusual way for them—recording a cover version. It was even more original choice, because “It’s Alright” wasn’t some “period piece” like “Always On My Mind”, “Go West” or “Somewhere“. Chicago house pioneer Sterling Void released this single with the vocals by Paris Brightledge just one year before. The musician benefited from this exposure—he was asked to remix the cover version and the original reached UK charts as a re-release. The song contains a strong message about the power of music that is able to transcend everything. By any means treat yourself to the euphoric full version from the album!

“Left To My Own Devices” (1988)

The second single from Introspective LP is another Pet Shop Boys track that makes me cry out: “Those lyrics are about me!” Just like the lyrical subject of that story, I like solitude, I always do my best to escape the rat race and I don’t care much for cars. We get a glimpse of Tennant’s historic eloquence with an ultra-British shoutout to the Roundhead general. Today the song is mostly remembered thanks to the phrase “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”. Is it an apt description of Pet Shop Boys art? If you continue reading, you’ll get a few more clues. It’s also not a coincidence that Introspective is the only longplay represented here by two songs, though at the end of the day it’s a tough choice for me—this album or Very.

“Being Boring” (1990)

I get a feeling that it is one of the most often analyzed Pet Shop Boys songs but some basic facts are worth repeating. The duo borrowed the title phrase from the works of Roaring Twenties icon, Zelda Fitzgerald. “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring” is a quote from her Eulogy for a Flapper. “Being Boring” is also a kind of eulogy—for the friends of yore PSB lost to AIDS. Nevertheless, the lyrics are simple and universal enough to remind us about the value of friendship 30 years later. Black-and-white video directed by Bruce Weber adds to the timelessness of their achievement.

“The Survivors” (1996)

At the surface level, this is a perfect playlist follow up to “Being Boring”—a gorgeous, slightly baroque composition intended as an homage to the victims of AIDS. It’s definitely one of the highlights of Bilingual LP. In reality, it’s creepier. One of the inspirations for Tennant as a writer was a suicide of his female colleague from Smash Hits. Also, PSB wanted to debunk the rumour they had AIDS themselves. They didn’t achieve their goal entirely—in 2008 Parlophone had to calm down some radio DJs who “heard” that the duo got killed in a plane crash in Indonesia…

“In Denial” (1999)

It’s hard to believe that in 1999 Pet Shop Boys were bigger stars than Kylie Minogue. That’s why this beautifully arranged, Broadway-worthy track didn’t become a single from Nightlife. I don’t think this was a well-thought decision. Most people agree that the duo’s “imperial phase” (the phrase coined by Tennant himself) covered their first three albums but in Europe it stretched until “Se a vida é (That’s the Way Life Is)”. “In Denial” would be a great extension and an introduction to the second coming of the Aussie Princess of Pop. Maybe the label heads were scared of the song’s topic—the pain caused by hiding one’s true sexuality. Maybe the Boys were ahead of their times…again.

“Flamboyant” (2004)

Is it about David Beckham? Did they see Lady Gaga in the crystal ball? Is it solely about Japanese pop culture, as the video suggests? Does it matter? “Miracles” was the UK Top 10 culled from the platinum-selling and critically acclaimed Pop Art-The Hits compilation but “Flamboyant” is a better song. It’s a scathing review of celebrity excesses that proved sadly prophetic in the Instagram era. Pet Shop Boys are (or rather were) the undeniable pop stars but it’s hard to call them hypocrites. We still don’t know much about their private lives. This enigma sometimes led to ridiculous rumours. In the late ’80s some people believed that Neil was going out with a Polish girl. In reality, they were just friends and her son became one of the toddlers in “It’s Alright” video.

“Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” (2013)

Like the majority of British musicians, the political attitudes of Pet Shop Boys can be described as progressive. For example, they expressed their disdain for DJT and his ilk on the 2019 Agenda EP. It doesn’t make them the slavish followers of the Labour Party. They viciously criticised Tony Blair’s liaisons with G.W. Bush in “I’m with Stupid“. They also vocally protested against the state-approved violations of privacy of that era in “Integral“.

In “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” they suggest that left-wing rhetoric may be the way to obscure insecurities that have nothing to do with the fight against capitalist oppression. It may be reinventing the wheel but no one will nitpick when such an infectious beat kicks in. It’s only my minor quibble that this beat is not entirely their invention. The boys sampled Michael Nyman’s 1982 composition “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds”, previously used in the Peter Greenaway-directed movie The Draughtsman’s Contract.

“The Pop Kids” (2016)

Synth-pop has a reputation of being a futuristic genre but there is a strong thread of nostalgia running through this post. Of course, Pet Shop Boys never pretended that their youth was a rosy time. School bullying was an inspiration for their smash “It’s a Sin”, after all. “The Pop Kids” is a recollection of a fonder memory. The characters in the song are the old friends of Neil. The “Rock is overrated” sentiment shows they didn’t change much from the times of “Paninaro”. At the same time, PSB seem to listen closely to the modern electronic scene. Ecstatic moaning in the middle eight recalls the anthemic eccentrics of Empire of the Sun. If you’re worried about what’s left of this relationship, you should like the Full Story version of that song.

Written by Kordian Kuczma

Kordian Kuczma is a writer, tour guide and teacher from northern Poland. One of his biggest dreams is to write the comprehensive biography of Pet Shop Boys. Being a good European boy, he chose to live his life in the company of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Kordian's path is a strange and difficult one.

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