BY Michael Bracewell in Profiles | 17 SEP 18
Featured in
Issue 198

An Homage to Pet Shop Boys

To celebrate the publication of Neil Tennant’s collected lyrics, Michael Bracewell reflects on one of the great synth-pop groups 

BY Michael Bracewell in Profiles | 17 SEP 18

‘Remember those days, remember  those days ...’

Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant – better known as Pet Shop Boys (the name, like Buzzcocks, has no definite article) – are arguably the creators of more great pop songs than any group other than The Beatles. Their music harmonizes opposing qualities in which high emotion, social commentary and pure showbiz verve combine with the electronic energy of beats and the luxuriant romanticism of orchestral strings. From such a structure, their enduring  and deepening artistic strength proceeds – and, with it, the humanity and passion with which their songs observe, lament and celebrate the world and the stages of life’s way. 

In my opinion, some of the greatest British writing of the 1980s emerged not from the world of literature but from  pop. This is not to say that the latter espoused ‘intellectualism’ – far from it. Pop music is a four-minute form, part inspiration, part chance, a lineage of influence and fandom, honed by hard graft. ‘There was a lot of Woolworths in Ziggy,’ as David Bowie once remarked. In short, pop is a mass-market art form that seeks out every pleasure zone in a manner that lies beyond straightforward cleverness. But, post punk, a handful of artists emerged – notably Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey and Mark E. Smith – who could write in a way that also made the pop song do the work of literature, even great literature. Pet Shop Boys may have made PopArt (the title of their 2003 compilation  of greatest hits) but they never let the art compromise the pop. 

It used to be said – around the time of early Pet Shop Boys stompers such as ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ (1985) – that the duo was ‘ironic’. Not a bit of it. Tennant’s vocal can sound detached; but – as I once wrote to a chorus of groans in Blitz magazine in the late 1980s of the classic single ‘Suburbia’ (1986) – his voice is less detached than semi-detached. It’s a classically romantic quality that balances feeling and form, wit and melancholy, nostalgia and acceptance, out of which, ultimately, comes a sense of resolution – call it realism, call it spirituality, call it what you will.  

Then there is the sheer pop rush of it all – the lyrical and musical brilliance that achieves the all-important ‘lift’ in a track – the accelerating gear-shift that usually occurs about half way through and which distinguishes great popular songs. Pet Shop Boys are masters of this device; it’s exemplified in their earlier work by their cover of ‘Always on My Mind’ (a UK number one in 1987) and has been maintained throughout their career in compositions such as ‘Flamboyant’ (2004), ‘Home and Dry’ (2002), ‘Vocal’ (2013) and, magnificently, ‘The Pop Kids’ (2016). All of them, really. 

Pet Shop Boys, West End Girls, 1985. Courtesy: EMI

And then there’s always more. 

I have always found something faintly mystical and touching about male double acts. Bouvard and Pécuchet, Laurel and Hardy, Gilbert & George, Pet Shop Boys … what a disparate bunch, you might say; but, rightly or wrongly, such duos convey to me the notion of seekers after truth. Vulnerable observers of fate, comic, super-heroic, shape-shifters: one minute, they’re vaudevillians trying to carry a piano across a rope bridge, the next, they’re poets, virtually supernatural. Transposed to the rituals of classical Greek drama, you could say that these men (for I am thinking now of men) have roles as both characters and Chorus: participants in events and the cosmic commentators upon those events.  

Not so long ago, Gilbert & George told me that, really – beyond the spit and spunk and London streets and Batman villain grimaces and cycle couriers and toxic, chemical, crazy colours that define their art in visual terms – they see their life-as-art together as ‘a pilgrim’s progress’. They are witness-participant-seers on their visionary, spiritual journey through mortality and their times. 

Which included the occasion, years ago, decades even, when – so legend maintains – the young Pet Shop Boys knocked on the front door of Gilbert & George’s ceremonial home in London’s Spitalfields, to politely enquire whether the artists might like to create some artwork for their latest release. ‘Thank you.’ George replied, with equal courtesy, ‘but we never do anything that has a point.’

‘Ended up in London where we needed to be / To follow our obsession with the music scene.’

In the cinema of my memories, which is sleepless, it was a hot, late afternoon in the early summer of 1985, when I walked from Davies Street in London’s West End down the length of Oxford Street, searching for a copy of Pet Shop Boys’ first single, ‘West End Girls’ (1984). I cannot remember where or how I first heard it. Pop beyond punk had been at once exciting and appalling. On the exciting side, there was ABC’s album The Lexicon of Love (1982), a succession of blistering releases by Soft Cell and the imperial phase of The Human League. On the appalling side, pop went samba – best forgotten.

Vitally, this was still the pre-digital age. Developments in studio technology and, in particular, percussion technology, were enabling some fabulously epic, enfolding, urgent and eerie effects. To pop-pickers in search of beats  with meaning, Pet Shop Boys opened a world – which, strange to tell, was our world, recognizably – of love and loss and shopping and longing, of ecstasy  and isolation, fun and pop cool and, at times, near unbearable poignancy.

‘And we were never being boring / We dressed up and fought, then thought: ‘Make Amends’ / And we were never holding back or worried that / Time would come to an end / We were always hoping that, looking back / You could always rely on a friend.’

For myself, born in the dusk of the 1950s, I feel that, whereas my parents and grandparents had world wars as their rallying experience, my generation’s coalescent event was pop. The songs of Pet Shop Boys comprise, for me, a great dynastic novel of those who grew up through the twilight of modernism to inhabit a new machine age. And now, crossing a road, seeing my ageing reflection in a shop window, I am truly thankful for the life-affirming beauty of those songs: their fun, passion, wit and truth in the face of both darkness and light, youth and, amazingly, old age.

‘They called us the pop kids / ‘Cause we loved the pop hits /  

And quoted the best bits / So we were the pop kids – I loved you.’

All lyrics quoted by Lowe/Tennant. 

Published in frieze issue 198, October, 2018, with the title ‘Happinesss is an Option’.

Main image: Neil Tennant (left) and Chris Lowe from the band Pet Shop Boys, 1993. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Steve Pyke

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.