The Pet Shop Boys is possibly the finest living example of how a popular gay sensibility can be bitingly intelligent; something that’s often forgotten. Their unique 22 year old brand of clever and immaculately crafted pop is as relevant now as it was when the unlikely couple started out with West End Girls in the 1980’s.
For proof of this, take a look at their compilation ‘greatest hits’ DVD, PopArt, boasting 41 remarkable music videos spanning their career.
With their ninth album Fundamental – widely considered one of their best releases to date – the boys take on the troubled state of the world in the 21st Century, and even throw in a song about a love affair between George Bush and Tony Blair.
The Pet Shop Boys came about thanks to a chance encounter between Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe in a London hi-fi store 25 years ago. “My entire life is grounded or founded on, not just a coincidence but by one chance meeting with Chris Lowe. If I hadn’t gone into that shop at that particular moment or if Chris hadn’t come into it when I was actually there, the Pet Shop Boys would never have happened”, Tennant told Skrufff.com.
Soon they were throwing together era-defining songs such as West End Girls, Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money) and Love Comes Quickly, combining Tenant’s high-brow intellectualism with Lowe’s club culture savvy and musical talents. They went on to create, often camp and tongue-in-cheek, songs with the likes of music legends Liza Minnelli and Dusty Springfield.
Anyone with an even slightly functional ‘gaydar’ could tell that the Boys were “one of us”. But it was only in 1994, that Tennant, who is the more vocal of the two, publicly came out in an interview with the UK’s Attitude magazine:
“What I’m saying is that I’m gay, and I have written songs from that point of view. So, I mean, I’m being completely honest with you here, but those are the facts of the matter,” he said, surprising pretty much no-one.
He’s always remained somewhat ambivalent about gay issues, admitting to Skrufff.com that “…actually in Britain I find the whole gay issue a bore really. The whole idea of gays was created in the 1970s as a political reaction against oppression and as the oppression fades away, so the idea of ‘gay’ will fade away and we will lose our obsession with someone’s sexuality, which I still believe is a weird thing”.
“There’s a generation of kids now who weren’t even alive during the eighties who like eighties music”.
Fundamental is The Pet Shop Boy’s first ‘horror’ record. Dark themes abound: paranoia, obsession, fear, impotency and growing old. The state of the word is lyrically compared to both Sodom and Gomorrah and a demented night-time funfair – all with an electronic beat.
It’s an epic Pet Shop Boys creation, boasting Kraftwork influences, eighties electronica and Eurobeat elements. It also includes two intriguing collaborators: Fundamental is produced by the legendary Trevor Horn, and features a song written the queen of schmaltzy power ballads, Dianne Warren, herself. Remarkably it still all sounds entirely like a Pet Shop Boys album.
The aim was to craft a set of “Epic songs” as Tennant put it, which led to the desire to work with Horn who’s been responsible for classic tracks by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Grace Jones and Seal. “He’s so good at doing epics. We were excited at making a great Trevor Horn album” Tennant says.
Even though Fundamental harkens back to the eighties in many ways, Chris Lowe says that, “I don’t think it’s retro”, describing the sound as ‘eighties’ “but kind of updated”. He reflects on the irony that, “There’s a generation of kids now who weren’t even alive during the eighties who like eighties music”. “I think that’s a bit odd”, he laughs.
One of the standout songs on the CD is Numb, written by prolific songwriter Diane Warren, responsible for such hits as Because You Loved Me, How Do I Live?, I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now. The Boys approached her for a song and she responded with a number of possible tracks, including one horrifically titled Kisses on the Wind. They chose Numb, which had originally been offered to Aerosmith (they had turned it down). It’s an unlikely musical coupling, but one that works remarkably well despite Tennant’s slight voice.
“Some people think my voice sounds disengaged,” Tennant told Britain’s Sunday Times. “But I think that gives the songs emotional punch. When people take a song and drag it by the scruff of the neck, they don’t necessarily get emotion out of it.”
I’m With Stupid, the first single, is described as a love song inspired by the relationship between Bush and Blair, but also doubles up as a tribute to anyone that’s been romantically involved with someone they’re embarrassed to be with. It includes the memorable line; “Is stupid really stupid or a different kind of smart”?
When asked why the album’s title was chosen, Tennant explains that, in addition to it being a comment on the growth of religious fundamentalism this century, “Fundamental had the words fun and mental in it”. He also adds that, “this is fundamentally a very Pet Shop Boys kind of album”.
And that’s damn fine thing too. The Pet Shop Boys have built up a remarkable body of work over the last two decades; doggedly and determinedly sticking to their unique British sound and an ironic, sometimes camp, and very intelligent take on the world. There’s no one else like them in popular music. They’ve proven that sometimes Fundamentalism can indeed be a very good thing.