The Pet Shop Boys. They are so quintessentially English, and so damn cool. They had a fantastic image from the start, and today you know immediately you hear something by them, it’s them. So where did it all start? Well, 30 years ago, having had a few false starts, they had their first number 1 single and released their debut album, Please.
The mid-80s were a time of huge optimism, of talking loud and pushing your way up the ladder. Shoulder pads were wide, mobile phones were as large and sleek as a house brick, and people were interested in making lots of money. Ironically, the Pet Shop Boys own ironic anthem to the greed of the time, “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” crashed and burned outside the top 100 on first release in 1985.
No matter, after “West End Girls” became one of the coolest Christmas Number Ones we never had, reaching the summit in the first chart of 1986 (thanks for nothing, Shakin’ Stevens) they were destined for much greater things.
In late March 1986 they released Please. At this time, in my school, Toyah (a boy called Richard Wilcock who had his surname misappropriated by us so we could give him that nickname) came in one day wearing a trench coat and listening to a new cassette on his walkman. The album was Please, and it was soon doing the rounds.
Does anyone remember ‘Toneburst’? It was a weird idea whereby a new cassette contained a few seconds of what amounted to a hearing test at the beginning of the album. The idea, I think, was to demonstrate that the recording was such high quality you could clearly hear all the frequencies on it. Of course, if your hearing was buggered, I’m not sure what purpose it served. Anyway, Please was the first album I heard this ‘phenomenon’ on.
So, first things first. The title. Another hint at the playful humor possessed by these two chaps. The simple idea was, you would go into your local record store and say “I’d like the Pet Shop Boys, Please”. It’s genius. How had no-one thought of this before? They, of course, came back for the second album with the title Actually. A slightly more snarky response, and it would only really work if the record store employee said something like “I suppose you’re here to buy the new Madonna album?” to which you’d reply, “No, I’d like the Pet Shop Boys, Actually”. Maybe. Ooh, they haven’t done that one yet. Then again, it’s not definite enough. I’ll leave the clever titles to them, shall I?
The titles weren’t the only clever things about the Pet Shop Boys. The lyrics are chock full of literary references and historic figures and events.
So, once past the weird Toneburst, what did you get to hear? Well, this album is the sound of escapism. It’s cinematic, synth symphonies. It’s classy American dance music with charismatic English pop sensibilities. Rhythmically, this album hits all the ‘du jour’ notes particularly from across the Atlantic. Every song has cow bells, bongos and cymbal crashes straight out of the electro scene. Collaborations with Bobby O may have fallen flat but the influences remain pretty easy to spot.
The lyrics seem to have a common theme of ‘getting away’, of being in the big city, of love and excitement. It may be dressed up in irony and literary references, but this is an album made by two people just fully confident in their songs and ready to burst onto the scene. It ended up setting the groundwork for even more success with their second album and a fair few number one singles to boot. But there’s also a bit of an innocence to this album. It’s so free and unconstrained by expectation.
Off we go then. First up is “Two Divided By Zero”. The title ‘spoken’ by a 1980s calculator which, like a “Speak and Spell” machine, provided an electronic, emotionless voice to say out loud the functions you were asking it to perform. It sets the tone for the album at large. The lyrics, “Let’s not go home, let’s run away”, and the aforementioned electro-style beats. But what makes this stand out is the beautiful ‘orchestration’. You get the feeling the synth strings could have been written with a full orchestra in mind. Possibly, this has been borne out by their “Concrete” album, performing their songs with said full orchestra, well worth a listen if you haven’t. I’ve never been convinced of any arguments that synth-led tunes lack emotion, or can’t be ‘real songs’. This whole album should be the ultimate answer to anyone still trying to convince you otherwise.
What comes next is the clicking of heels on the pavement, and a background of traffic noise. The cymbals come in, the bass drum, then the wonderful chords and the now-classic bass line. Bum bum bum, bu-bum-bu-bum. Neil Tennant provides the most English rap ever, and the hook is instantly recognizable. Back in 1986, most rap music still hadn’t cottoned on to the use of a sung hook chorus. I’m not saying this is a rap track, but it does tread those boards very convincingly. The music is what makes this track though. The use of those symphonic style chords, washing over the irresistible beat and bass. It’s a perfect pop song, and it sounded like nothing else in the UK charts at the time.
Next is the re-worked version of “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lot’s Of Money)”, which did manage to get into the top 20 on release. You can hear the original on the special edition re-release of the album, and although the song is virtually the same, the production, and beats, are a little tighter, and brighter. The song fits in more cleanly with the rest of the album in this guise, I think. It is also something of a blueprint for them at this time. I can hear elements of this song in “In The Night” and also “Paninaro”, both features on the Disco album releases later in 1986. It’s almost as though they knew they had a great song on their hands and just wanted to make sure they nailed it. Perhaps exploring a few different ‘takes’ along the way, which became different songs. I know this is not a fact, but I can’t help drawing on the similarities between those three tracks when I hear them.
Next comes another single, and a criminally under-performing one it was too. “Love Comes Quickly” is perhaps best heard on the Disco version. I don’t know why! I think it’s just the extra length and space given on that version. The song deserves to be longer. But as it takes it’s place on Please, it provides the first ‘breather’ from the faster paced electro rhythms. It is a beautiful song. More dreamy chords. The use of a high pitched “ah” sound as part of the beat. The vocals are great. Neil Tenant seemed a little nervous and uncertain as a vocalist to start with. I think this song, utilizing his falsetto to great effect, really stands out as the top vocal performance on the album. ‘Love comes quickly, whatever you do you can’t stop falling…’ I’m always expecting another word. But it just hangs there, filling in the gap with “oooh-oooooh” instead. Gorgeous from start to finish.
“Suburbia” is up next. Another song you must be familiar with. A sort of synth romper stomper through a night of violence and mayhem in the dystopian suburbs of the not-so-distant future. ‘Let’s take a ride and run with the dogs tonight, in suburbia’. The song is a riot. Well, it seems to be describing one. Not in the centre of a big city, but in the great sprawling “slums of the future” we have been building in England. Well, maybe not, but it seemed that way to the Pet Shop Boys in 1986! This album contains so many songs with great, sing-a-long unforgettable choruses. This is yet another of those. It sort of feels like you can draw a line fr0m “Suburbia” to “It’s A Sin” without too much getting in the way. It’s at the more ‘grandiose’ end of the PSB spectrum.
There’s a brief ‘Reprise’ of “Opportunities…” which has only bothered me for years for the simple reason I can’t quite make out what the loudest male voice is saying. It has always sounded to me like “who wants a manc….who wa….who wants a marked Samantha Fox album?”. Maybe it’s nothing? Maybe it’s everything? He seems to be told to “shhhh” just after saying it. Maybe it was recorded in Neil Tennant’s Smash Hits office. Anyway, now you’re stuck with what I’ve been hearing for the last 30 years. Ok, not all the time. Only when I hear that track.
Most of these songs could easily have been singles, and “Tonight Is Forever” is no exception. It’s fast-paced and features more escapist ‘big city’ lyrics. I love the way it starts, and ends, with the electronic pulse/beat. ‘Tonight is forever, tell me now you don’t disagree, tonight…is the first night’. There are quite a few PSB lyrics which trail off, or appear to maybe miss words. It’s the first night of what? It’s like the great unanswered question about the song “Rent”. What’s the word that’s missing between “I love you” and “you pay my rent”. Is it ‘because’, ‘and’, ‘but’, or even ‘actually’? Don’t let me distract you though. This is another great PSB song on this great PSB album. The melodies seem so effortless. The orchestral style arrangements. It’s quite downbeat yet uplifting at the same time. The music, British and sometimes dour, providing the sobering counterpoint to the runaway American beats.
Speaking of American influences, I have no idea what’s going on in “Violence”, but it feels both musically and lyrically much more in tune with the other side of the pond than here. It’s this album’s oddity I think. It has an almost seedy organ playing throughout. Pushing little melodic riffs onto the synth stab chords and Mantronix-style beats and bassline. Instead of having MC Tee rapping about a night out with some ladies, or how fresh he and his bassline are, you have Neil Tennant singing about….erm…well, it’s sort of what it says it is about. Violence. I have just noticed the chorus, a chanted repeat of the title, doesn’t actually say “Violence, who needs, violence”. Something else I’ve misheard all this time. It’s “Violence, breeds violence”. You all knew that. Sorry it’s taken me 30 years and this review to figure it out. It’s dark, cool and almost ‘menacing’. It’s the song that takes you down the dark alley and threatens you with a flick knife. But even then, in the lyrics, you get the sense that the ‘sons and brothers’ are looking for escape ‘anything to give their lives some meaning’.
Back we jump into more familiar PSB territory. “I Want a Lover” has (synthesized) horns, screeching car tyres and another tale of escaping from the humdrum. Maybe it is the humdrum, because it’s just about having sex, not making a connection. ‘Driving through the night, it’s so exciting’. If anything feels like PSB on auto-pilot, this may be it. It’s still a great song though. I have had to come to the conclusion that this is a flawless album and it’s one I am happy to make.
Now comes the first of many excellent ‘PSB ballads’. That’s a huge insult, to call it a ballad. “Later Tonight” is just the only song on the album with no drums. It’s piano and voice for the most part. You get some beautiful melodic play and the strings come in. We also get another (potentially) unfinished line ‘you wait ’til later, ’til later tonight, ‘cos tonight, always comes’. Always comes what? Too soon? Too late? Maybe none of these things. But it lets the song finish and drift off with the piano and a slightly dark undertone you realise may or may not have been there throughout. It’s a beautiful song and really showcases Neil Tennant’s great vocals. A wistful lyric seemingly about longing for the attentions of the unattainable.
The album could have finished there. But we get “Why Can’t We Live Together?” The more I hear this song the more I can hear 1986 Madonna singing it. It fits right into the ‘Into The Groove’ style of pop song. Immediate, catchy, and ‘fun’. ‘You may not always love me, I may not care, but intuition tells me baby, there’s something we could share, if we dare, so why don’t we?’ It has ooh’s and yeah’s and baby and all that mid-80s throwaway goodness. It could be tacky, but with the Pet Shop Boys we are always in safe hands.
This is an absolutely stunning debut album that is jam packed full of hits and ‘could have been hits’. It has beauty, fun, danceability and just needs to be listened to again and again. Please.