The more I listen to Pet Shop Boys, the more I think their electro-pop brand is really unique. It’s a tough act to marry bombastic, danceable production with witty, biting lyrics. Thanks to the keen awareness of the club music evolution and sly songwriting this British act was always one step ahead of the Stock Aitken Waterman assembly line mentality that permeated European airplay during their heyday. There is also a question: what do we mean by “Pet Shop Boys-like songs”? Most people probably reduce that dilemma to the tracks that sound like “It’s a Sin” and their take on “Always On My Mind”. I admit it’s harder to trace the influence of “West End Girls” or the duo’s ballads on the work of others… It doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.
This article highlights a few songs that rival the melodramatic and operatic qualities of PSB’s greatest hits. It’s not suprising that some of them were written by Tennant and Lowe. Several artists saw those two as experts in sonic grandeur and were eager to borrow that splendour for at least one track. I agree that sometimes similarities are not equal to the mindless aping of Pet Shop Boys. They could arise from the shared inspirations: hi-NRG, Italo disco, early house. For that reason I decided to shun the title “Ten Songs That Sound Like Pet Shop Boys which are not by Pet Shop Boys”, though it would probably be catchier.
Nevertheless, I hope your dancing shoes are comfy. It will be a smooth but long intercontinental ride…
Erasure – “Love to Hate You”
This one is actually a request. Martin, if you read this (you probably do), kudos to you! As a fellow late ’80s synth pop duo with a gay singer, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell invited comparisons to Pet Shop Boys by their simple existence. You can compare them in many ways, e.g. PSB had more Number One singles in the UK, but Erasure had far more Number One albums. I think that Martin singled out this 1991 smash because its rather unusual lyrics explore the concept of jealousy. My only quibble about the track is that the video doesn’t have enough time for its spectacular background dancers/singers.
Sandra – “Secret Land”
It’s already my second article on this website mentioning the German singer. Who would have thought? Originally this song was titled “Trenchcoat Man” and was sung by a male vocalist. The effort by trio Fabrique stalled on the charts in 1987. Maybe the German public was confused by multilingual lyrics (also in French). The intro has been co-composed by our another postapocalyptic jukebox friend, Hubert Kah’s Hubert Kemmler. Given a chance, I would like to ask the songwriters if the juxtaposition of “nobody knows who I am” and “everybody knows what I am” hide some deeper meaning. I hope it does. Sandra’s version climbed to number 7 in Germany in late 1988. There is also a lot of Pet Shop Boys-meet-Kylie attitude in one of her biggest hits, the cover of “Everlasting Love“.
Petr Kotvald – “Gejzír”
Yet another request. I know Michal reads this, cheers! Pop fans in countries other than the USA and Great Britain seem to be mostly loyal to their idols. The long careers of Nena, Laura Pausini or Alla Pugachova hammer this point home. Czech Republic is no exception. Mr Kotvald is going strong since his stage debut in 1977. This infectious love song is an amalgam of all the major trends in electronic pop I mentioned in the first paragraph. And aren’t those “dance moves” and his beret something we all should aspire to? Another sign of Pet Shop Boys popularity in Czechoslovakia is this “Always On My Mind” cover by Kotvald’s mate Stanislav Hložek.
Prefab Sprout – “If You Don’t Love Me”
Prefab Sprout are mostly known from their pop and folk songs. When it was time to issue the greatest hits collection A Life of Surprises in 1992, they tried dabbling at electronics. “If You Don’t Love Me” rose to number 33 on the UK Charts. The video is undoubtedly sexy but also I think quite feminist. Pet Shop Boys would probably appreciate the retro homage parts of it.
Momus – “The Hairstyle Of The Devil”
I know this track because it was number one on the private chart of a pen pal from Spain. Momus apart from the Greek god of mockery is a disguise of Nick Currie, Scottish musician and one-time Wired journalist. As the duo I discuss below, he is known for his outrageous sense of humor. As far as I know, this song out of 1989 LP Don’t Stop the Night was his only entry in UK Top 100. One of the more subdued entries in this post, it recalls emotionally drier Pet Shop Boys songs like “Rent”.
Sparks – “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'”
If you want to know more about the crazy story of this Californian family duo, check Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers. To cut a long story short, Ron and Russel Mael excel at slightly operatic singer-songwriter confessionals, but they never shied away from the synthesisers. They have Giorgio-Moroder produced album The Number One in Heaven in their resume. Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins LP was their 1994 comeback after the few years of an extreme commercial drought. You should watch The Sparks Brothers just to watch the emotional recount of that era by the lady from the video, the drummer (and Star Trek actress) Christi Haydon. In my opinion, referencing two famous versions of “My Way” is a great concept. The album broke big in Germany, probably because it shows not only Pet Shop Boys influence, but also some Eurodance flavours.
The Other Two – “Tasty Fish”
Speaking of The Sparks Brothers, it was a delight to see Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris of New Order on the screen. The duo also in private, they released an album The Other Two & You during their main band’s hiatus in 1993. The ballad “Selfish” is probably The Other Two’s calling card, but this danceable single is also of high quality. Only one more LP followed but it is still an interesting footnote in the history of synth-pop.
Liza Minnelli – “Losing My Mind”
In the late ’80s, Pet Shop Boys were in quite high demand as songwriters and producers. Eighth Wonder brilliantly embodied Introspective track “I’m Not Scared” in their cover version. It was their biggest hit (#7 UK, #1 Italy). Dusty Springfield owes the boys return to the spotlight. For me, the high point of this revival was her haunting ballad from the movie Scandal—“Nothing Has Been Proved“. Tennant and Lowe (and Julian Mendelsohn) helmed also the release of Liza Minnelli’s 1989 album Results. It was promoted by this passionate lament, written in 1971 by another man from the PSB universe, Steven Sondheim, for the musical Follies. As befits a top actress, you can believe every syllable she says, which certainly helped the song to reach number 6 on the UK Charts. The album included more interpretations of the older songs, e.g. “Love Pains”.
Electronic – “Disappointed”
You can praise The Travelling Wilburys as long as you want, Electronic is THE ultimate pop supergroup to me. Bernard Sumner (New Order) teamed up with Johnny Marr (once upon the time The Smiths) and got a little backing from Pet Shop Boys (later also from Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos). One of the, ahem, results was this heartbreaking floor filler from the soundtrack to the 1992 movie Cool World. The title pretty much sums up ticket-buying public’s reaction to this Who Framed Roger Rabbit retread. The album showcased an impressive who’s who of electronic music, including David Bowie.
Cicero – “That Loving Feeling”
In the ’90s Pet Shop Boys had their own record label Spaghetti Records. Their first published artist was an American-born Scottish singer David Cicero. His biggest hit was “Love Is Everywhere”—the UK Top 20 track with Tennant’s backing vocals. It’s not bad but I prefer this single that barely scrapped Top 50. Unfortunately, traditional synth-pop was not in vogue in ’90s Britain. Even featuring on The Crying Game soudtrack didn’t help him much. Due to copyright issues, official video is not available now. It featured Cicero as the soccer goalie. It looked more like a hockey game because it seemed that the crew didn’t understand the concept of offside.
Girls Aloud – “The Loving Kind”
Pet Shop Boys wrote this song with production team Xenomania with their own album Yes in mind but they decided that it suits the Girls better. I don’t consider myself a big fan of this beloved XXIth century institution of British pop, because many of their songs smell like a novelty to me. This #10 UK hit is just “beautiful but still dancey”, as Tennant describes it.
Flight of the Conchords – “Inner City Pressure”
Flight of the Conchords are a comic duo from New Zealand, mostly known from the TV series picturing their struggles as the expat folk musicians in New York. And as you can guess from this “West End Girls” homage from the second season of the show in 2008, this struggle was sometimes hard. Lyrics are outrageous but still somehow relatable and Zapp-like vocoder is a fun touch (baiting Daft Punk fans?) of course, Jemaine Clement went to even greater things later—sometimes with Taika Waititi, sometimes not.
The list could be probably extended with some bands that don’t share entire sonic palette with Pet Shop Boys but operate within similar mindframe. A good example would be Saint Etienne—another pop act that is incessantly interested in making sophisticated tunes and being unapologetically British. Still, twelve songs and few honorable mentions are no mean feat for the which followers never got so much attention in the synth-pop world as so-called Depeche clones.