As one of the most important and influential electro pop bands lands in Hong Kong, Jules O’Brien examines how they got to the top.
Mainstream success and underground credibility have always gone hand-in-hand for Pet Shop Boys. With their iconic first breakout hit, ‘West End Girls’, Tennant and Lowe made their mark with their cheerily sarcastic lyrics half-spoken over a thumping early electro sound. Knowingly pop, yet always injecting fresh sounds into each album, Pet Shop Boys somehow never lost their musical credibility even while topping the charts when it was no longer cool to do so. They are officially the UK’s most successful duo, according to the Guinness Book of Records, which bears some contemplating, especially for one of the original synth-pop acts. Bursting on the scene when other similar acts dominated the charts, such as Gary Numan and The Human League, it’s testimony to their creativity and originality that 30 years on, Pet Shop Boys’ latest album Electric went straight to number 3.
Pioneers of rumbling 80s synth, which sits underneath their 30 years of material like a psychedelic tattoo, Tennant and Lowe have released 40 Top 20 singles and 22 Top 10 hits in the UK. With a twelfth album released in 2013, they don’t appear to have an end in sight.
The question is: how have they managed it? Pet Shop Boys have faced obstacles that might have ruined their career had they lacked the right approach. Perhaps the largest challenge was their short-lived success in the US, which declined rapidly in the late 80s and early 90s after a series of creative decisions that did not sit well with US critics. Wearing tuxedos on the cover of Actually in 1987 – when rock music materialised itself in bejewelled leather and tattered denim – marked the beginning of their decline in the US, after a stint of top ten hits. Controversially presenting homoerotic subtexts in music videos, and with Tennant coming out as gay to a then hugely discriminatory nation, pushed them even further out of America’s mainstream vein.
Meanwhile in the UK and Europe, Pet Shop Boys continued to dominate the charts. That kick of rebellion was something the protest-fuelled UK embraced. As Lowe put it in an interview: “To Americans, pop or rock music is not about enjoyment. English music is about excitement and enjoyment and the thrill of the whole thing.” Tennant’s lyricism is renowned for casting out a certain poeticism and learnedness which, although riding over largely conformist music, is often politically recalcitrant. The US might have overlooked the British cynicism in lines such as “Our gain is your loss, that’s the price you pay; I heard it in the House of Commons: everything’s for sale”, misinterpreting the song title ‘Shopping’ as trivial and one-dimensional. By incorporating political digs and sophisticated literary references with easy access dance songs and love songs, Pet Shop Boys allowed themselves to keep a firm reputation in both alternative and mainstream circles.
In a western world of materialism and visual extravaganza, perpetuating mainstream success has a lot to do with image – something Pet Shop Boys have always been serious about. Tennant and Lowe have gone through two famous transformations: the first in 1993 after a short break, where they replaced their black and white tuxes for avant-garde, brightly coloured costumes. The second came when both reined in their late 90s’ peroxide spiked haircuts for understated attire with the release of eighth album Release in 2002.
Nowadays you will find them in modern – almost futuristic – designer suits, Lowe still donning an air of composed chic behind retro sunglasses. Expanding on visual allure, Pet Shop Boys have always been selective with artwork and performance visuals, collaborating with established artists to create minimal yet intricately designed album covers and theatrical live shows. Their first ever tour stopped off in Japan and Hong Kong, wowing Asia with breathtaking projections and glitzy costumes.
An established name on the music scene can only take artists’ work so far, as seen in the flopped albums of behemoths we once believed would never cease to impress.
Tennant and Lowe have pushed through that barrier by riding an unyielding wave of innovation, exploring a prism of concepts along the way; the staple Pet Shop Boys pop cleverly grounded in each album despite the metamorphosis. As Tennant told The Guardian in 2011, “When you have a long career like ours, you have to keep things fresh.” The duo immediately impressed making unashamed disco references in debut album, Please, to a world where disco music had died in the 70s. And so they continued, from the trancey depths of Nightlife (1999) and the soft rock breezes in Release (2002) to the shadowy Elysium and 2013’s Electric, which hones in on the cutting edge, with grimier club music effects and rapper Example featuring on track ‘Thursday’.
Pet Shop Boys most famously collaborated with Dusty Springfield on track ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This’ in 1987 album Actually, before producing her own album in return. As the years have progressed, the pair has collaborated with acts like Kylie Minogue, Liza Minelli, Johnny Marr, Robbie Williams, David Bowie and Lady Gaga (among many, many others) – even writing Girls Aloud ballad ‘The Loving Kind’ in 2009 – proving themselves two of the world’s most sought after producers and songwriters. This is similarly seen in acts like Coldplay, a band that has monopolised the spotlight for so long purely by keeping in tow with musical trends. Switching from iconic guitar-powered balladry to synthetic stadium pop – and collaborating with names like Rihanna – has more or less assured them spots in the Top 10 over the last five years. But unlike Coldplay’s sad lack of versatility, Pet Shop Boys abound in it.
Winners and nominees of countless awards, including Grammys, Brits and Ivor Novellos, Pet Shop Boys have combined image, innovation and stunning musicianship to rule the world. Catch one of the most influential bands ever on their Electric Tour at AsiaWorld-Expo on the 26th as they stop off in Hong Kong for the third time.
Boom Exclusive Interview with Neil Tennant click HERE.