"We were never being boring—we were never being bored."
"I was faced with a choice at a difficult age,
Would I write a book? Or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head, I heard distant feet,
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat."
Pet Shop Boys are a British pop duo formed in 1981, when Blackpool native Chris Lowe and Newcastle native Neil Tennant met by chance in an electronics store. Singer Neil and keyboardist Chris rocketed to fame with their first international hit, "West End Girls", in 1986, and dominated the #1 spot in the pop charts in Britain for another two years.
The two became famous for their unique sound, which they famously described as "Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat". Behind the intensely danceable beats lie Chris Lowe's subtly skilful compositions and Neil Tennant's poetic lyrics. Tennant, a former editor and a professed bibliophile, gives a lot of the songs a literary bent.
Despite popular misconceptions due to Tennant's typical dry delivery, their music is not inherently ironic. While they have done a few ironic songs ("Opportunities"), a surprising proportion of their songs are honestly emotional. Another interesting bit about their music is that Neil often plays a character in their songs, and not necessarily a male character. In "I Made My Excuses and Left", for example, he sings as Cynthia Lennon walking in on John
and realizing her marriage is over.
They are also successful producers and collaborators, having produced Dusty Springfield's Reputation
and Liza Minnelli's Results
, and having co-written or produced songs for Tina Turner, David Bowie
, Robbie Williams, Electronic, Girls Aloud
, Kylie Minogue
, and The Killers
. Many other artists are fans and have publicly cited them as influences, including Madonna
, The Killers
, George Michael
, Belle and Sebastian
, and, curiously enough, Axl Rose
and Trent Reznor
Since "West End Girls", the duo have released ten studio albums and in 2009 received the "Outstanding Contribution to Music" award at the BRIT Awards. Discography:
- Please (1986)
- Actually (1987)
- Introspective (1988)
- Behaviour (1990)
- Very (1993)
- Bilingual (1996)
- Nightlife (1999)
- Release (2002)
- Fundamental (2006)
- Yes (2009)
- Elysium (2012)
- Electric (2013)
They have also co-written and produced a musical, 2001's Closer to Heaven
, starred in a film, 1987's It Couldn't Happen Here
, written a new score for the classic movie "Battleship Potemkin" in 2004, and plan to premiere a ballet, The Most Incredible Thing
in March 2011.
Pet Shop Tropes:
- Age Progression Song: "Being Boring". Snippets of Neil's life in his teens, twenties, and forties.
- Animated Music Video: "Liberation" (and actually, all of the Very album singles), "Love etc." and the background of the second version of "Opportunities", so retro and pixelled!
- Anti-Love Song:
- "I'm With Stupid", "Pandemonium", "Rent" ("I love you, you pay my rent..."), "So Hard", "Love Is a Catastrophe".
- "Love Is a Bourgeois Construct" is a subversion. The last lines of the final verse make it clear that it's all sour grapes—that the speaker's philosophical objections to love will completely disappear if his former lover returns.
Love is just a bourgeois construct/ so I've given up the bourgeoisie / until ... you come back to me.
- Anti-Christmas Song: "It Doesn't Often Snow At Christmas". The verses are about how the Christmas message is getting lost and it never snows like it's supposed to, but the chorus is about enjoying it anyway because you're with someone you love.
- Armor-Piercing Question: "I don't know what you want but I can't give it any more" is an Armor-Piercing Song, but the opening couplet really drives the knife in:
"Did you get what you want? Do you know what it is? Do you care?
Is he better than me? Was it your place or his? Who was there?"
- Attention Whore: Brutally satirised in "Shameless". Also: "Flamboyant". Or ""How Can You Expect to be Taken Seriously".
- Auto-Tune: Release marked the beginning of the Boys' Auto-Tune usage, with "London", "Love is a catastrophe" and "Here" featuring the trademark effect on their lead vocals. The software's normal function – slightly correcting the pitch of a singer's voice so it remains on key – was used from Release onward as well.
- Back to Front: "One Thing Leads To Another": The song begins with a man dying after a car crash, and ends with the man's girlfriend moving out. In between, the man falls into depression and loses his job, goes to a bar, gets drunk, picks up a woman and gets her in bed only to find she's a pre-op transsexual, tries to drive home in drunken confusion, and wrecks.
- Based on a True Story:
- "Your Funny Uncle", "Being Boring", and "Postscript" were all inspired by and dedicated to friends who had died of AIDS.
- "So Hard" is about an unfaithful couple they knew at the time.
- The Beard: "Can You Forgive Her?", "Bet She's Not Your Girlfriend".
- Big Applesauce: "New York City Boy".
- Big Ol' Eyebrows: Neil and Christ sported these as part of their Nightlife getup.
- Book Ends: Alternative was a two-disc compilation of b-sides and rare tracks. It features a variety of styles, as PSB were influenced by the trends in electronic music over the years. But the final song (1994's "Some speculation") is stylistically and thematically very similar to the first song (1985's "In the night"). The liner notes even lampshade this.
Chris Lowe: We've kind of come full circle from "In the night". We end the album with this umba-bumba-bumba thing again.
Jon Savage: And the same thing about people not knowing quite what's going on, and people being unfaithful, and... general sneakiness.
Chris Lowe: Back where we started, like it never happened.
- Bread and Circuses:
- Mentioned amongst the fascist regimes of the antagonist in "The sound of the atom splitting".
- "Luna Park" describes an amusement park being used for these purposes, even name-dropping the trope. Subverted in that the populace knows that the bread and circuses are superficial enjoyments, but prefers them to confronting reality. (Word of God states that the song is a metaphor for the United States.)
- Breakup Song: "I Get Along", "I Made My Excuses And Left", "The Way It Used To Be," "You Choose".
- Cold War: Oh, so many. Touched on by "West End Girls", "It's Alright", "My October Symphony", "Go West", "London", "Building a Wall"... Neil is a history major, and Russian history is one of his favorite subjects. Once Chris jokingly described one of their songs as "the only PSB song which is not about Russian history".
- Coming Out Song: Very, very thinly veiled in "Was It Worth It?", three years before Neil publicly came out. The official coming out song is "Metamorphosis". Nevertheless, they had given thin hints all over their career: that whispering of East End boys in "West End girls", the lyrics of "Later tonight" going about "that boy never cast a look in your direction / never tried to hook for your affection"...
- Concept Album: A good number of their albums have some unifying theme to it—Actually is about yuppies and Thatcherism, Introspective is about, well, introspection, Bilingual is the story of a hapless businessman soul-searching in a foreign land, Fundamental is about life in the Blair years, and then Nightlife, which is about, well... Elysium and Electric are paired, as songs for both of them were written at the same time: Elysium is about growing older, while Electric is about rediscovering one's youth.
- Conscious Hip Hop: "West End Girls", one of the first rap songs to hit #1 on the Billboard chart (and possibly the only time a couple of nerdy white Brits have made it onto the US R&B charts), which drew heavy influence from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message".
- Continuity Nod: The 2006 video for "I'm With Stupid" had the guys from Little Britain parodying the 1993 videos for "Go West" and "Can You Forgive Her?"
- Cool Shades: Chris Lowe, usually.
- Cover Version: "Always On My Mind" (Elvis Presley), "It's Alright" (Sterling Void), "Where The Streets Have No Name/Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" (mashup of U2 and Frankie Valli), "Go West" (Village People), "Losing My Mind" and "Somewhere" (Stephen Sondheim), "If Love Were All" and "Sail Away" (Noël Coward), "Viva La Vida" (Coldplay), and "The Last to Die" (Bruce Springsteen). Some music bits of "Se a vida é" were famously taken from a previous latin song.
- The Cover Changes The Meaning:
- "Go West", released in 1993, added another layer of meaning to the original—the video makes it clear that it's also addressed to the former USSR.
- Also, their cover version of "Always On My Mind" features the line "Maybe I didn't love you." without any qualifiers (which is the last lyric in both in the album version and the early-fade version of the single mix), which doesn't exactly change the meaning, but does make it substantially less ambiguous.
- Springsteen's original chorus lyrics for "Last to Die" where "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" For PSB's version, they changed it to "Who'll be the last to die for our mistake?", adding an air of shared remorse to the anti-war theme.
- The Cover Changes The Gender: notably averted in "Try it (I'm in love with a married man)", "If love were all" and "In private" (the version they made in 2006 with Elton John), giving the three of them a heaping helping of Ho Yay.
- Crapsaccharine World: "Luna Park".
- Deadpan Snarker: "Shopping", "Shameless". In Real Life, both of them. Also, "I'm With Stupid".
- Deconstruction: The covers of "Go West", "Where The Streets Have No Name" and "Always On My Mind", as well as deconstructing an entire genre with "How I Learned To Hate Rock And Roll".
- Dark Reprise: "Dreaming Of The Queen"— The chorus starts off as Her Majesty and Lady Diana discussing how fleeting love is. It ends with the narrator waking up alone in a cold sweat and realizing he has AIDS.
- Distinct Double Album: The Greatest Hits album PopArt was structured in this style; one disc called Pop with the more poppy stuff and one disc more experimental and arty, called Art. The limited edition version carried a third disc called Mix - no prizes for guessing what that consisted of.
- Double Think: What sustains the constructed reality of "Luna Park".
- The Eighties: Too many people still relate them to The Eighties, mainly because they started their career then and enjoyed worldwide success then, although their career spans more than three decades, up to now, and still were successful from the 90's onwards (although noticeably less mainstream).
- Epic Rocking: The entirety of Introspective, especially "Always On My Mind/In My House"(9:05) and "It's Alright"(9:23). Also, some of the extended/12" mixes, eg "It's A Sin"(7:40).
- Everybody Knew Already: Neil Tennant's sexuality, which isn't a Transparent Closet because he never really was in the closet before officially coming out in 1994.
- Everything Sounds Sexier in French: "In the Night", "Legacy", and the French version of "New York City Boy", retitled "Paris City Boy". A lot of songs on Bilingual have Spanish or Portuguese.
- The "Winner" B-side, "A certain "Je ne sais quoi""
- False Utopia: "Luna Park", which, according to Word of God, is a metaphor for the United States.
- Fanservice: Reportedly, Chris Lowe once posed as a centerfold in a teen mag. Also the entire point of the video to "Domino Dancing"—while there was a lot of Ho Yay with the two shirtless wrestling boys, the girl they are fighting over is definitely something to look at too.
- Glory Days: "Young Offender", "The way it used to be", "Hit and miss".
- Gold Digger: The narrator of "Rent" ("I love you / You pay my rent...").
- Grief Song: "Your Funny Uncle". It really, really shows in the vocals, and they only did one take because Neil broke down crying afterwards.
- Heavy Meta: "All Over The World" is a pop song about pop songs. And an interesting case in "We're The Pet Shop Boys"—originally written by My Robot Friend, they were so amused by it that they recorded their own cover.
- Oddly, "Hit Music" is a subversion—it's not about hit music at all, but about going to the club as a form of escapism.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: They've stated that their use of one-word titles on most of their works is deliberate.
- All of their song titles are written with proper sentence structure, Instead of Using Capitalization That Is De Rigeur of Song Title Naming.
- Instrumentals: Most of the "Chris tracks", namely "Music for Boys", most of the Relentless album, and most their Battleship Potemkin score for that film.
- The Invisible Band: The videos for "Liberation", "Home And Dry", "Miracles", "I'm With Stupid", "Numb", "Integral", "Love, etc"... As they get older, they appear less on their own videos (and record sleeves). For the "Yesterday, when I was mad", Chris was completely replaced for CGI images from him.
- Isn't It Ironic?: "Shopping" gets used a lot in scenes where characters are shopping. It's a socialist-influenced criticism of privatization during the Thatcher era.
- I Want My Jetpack: Combined with Zeerust in "This Used to Be the Future".
- I Was Quite a Looker: The narrator in "Gin and Jag".
- Larynx Dissonance: In the songs where Neil plays a female character, he sings in his normal voice. Odd, because his falsetto is very convincing.
- Last Note Nightmare: Inverted with the 12" single mix for "Suburbia" (a length-edit of which was used for the video), which opens with dogs barking, an eerie tribal drumbeat, ominous synths, and foreboding speech, before segueing into an upbeat dance-pop song (the 7" single version, while very similar to the video edit, uses a similar but shorter and somewhat less dramatic intro, whereas the album mix intro isn't at all dramatic).
- List Song: The bridge of "I Want a Dog" (the B-side version) is just Chris reading off a list of dog breeds (the club mix was used for the album - its bridge is a lengthy insrumental section). "Paninaro" rants about passion, love, sex, money, violence, religion, injustice and death, all mentioned as a list in the song. And "We're The Pet Shop Boys" ends with a list of their song titles.
- The Loins Sleep Tonight: Simultaneously Played for Drama and Laughs in "Casanova in Hell".
- Lonely Funeral: "Nothing Has Been Proved" (written by the Pet Shop Boys for Dusty Springfield, but performed by the Boys on the live album Concrete) gives one of these to Stephen Ward, a physician who committed suicide in 1963 after becoming embroiled in the Profumo affair.
- Long Title: "Where The Streets Have No Name/Can't Take My Eyes Off of You", "I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Anymore", "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk", "This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave". Inverted with the album titles, which are always one word.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Many PSB songs are a good example of this. They are well-known for their upbeat, hi-nrg music populated with sad, melancholic or pessimistic lyrics.
- "The End of the World" is a really upbeat song, despite all the interpretations of the lyrics.
- "It's a Sin" is also quite upbeat, with lyrics about the repeated sins he has committed (or been taught to believe he has committed) in his life.
- "What have I Done To Deserve This" is about acquiring a job and falling in love with someone there, then getting dumped and losing his money.
- "Go West" sounds so poppy and optimistic. But it's about AIDS, dead friends, lost gay utopia, and the fall of the communist dream. (At the time PSB covered it, in the wake of AIDS, the song's original gay-utopia ideal had given way to irony.)
- "Love Is a Bourgeois Construct" is probably their "tranciest" song to date, but it's about a man swearing off love completely in the aftermath of a sudden breakup.
- Madness Mantra: The title line in "I Want To Wake Up", eventually morphing into "I want to wake up with you" as the narrator sounds increasingly terrified.
- Man on Fire: The sequence to "King's Cross" in It Couldn't Happen Here.
- Mating Dance: "Tonight Is Forever", "Hit Music", "We All Feel Better In The Dark", and "The Boy Who Couldn't Keep His Clothes On" are all pretty much metaphors relating dancing to sex.
- Mind Screw: It Couldn't Happen Here. The whole movie.
- Money Song: Subverted in "Rent", "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)," "Shopping." Sadly, for some listeners who didn't get the joke, these songs cemented them falsely as amoral children of the profit-loving 80s.
- The Movie: It Couldn't Happen Here was intended to open in cinemas instead of their going on tour. It didn't work out.
- Narcissist: The B-side "Delusions of Grandeur".
- Nice Hat: Chris Lowe. Always. See page picture (he's the one with the feathers). Also, the famous cone hats for the "Can you forgive her?" video, a black version of which were used in the London 2012 closing ceremony.
- Non-Appearing Title: "Postscript", "The Night I Fell In Love", "Love, etc", "Legacy". In fact, "Postscript" holds the distinction of the title not appearing... anywhere, in fact... for some time as an occupational hazard of being a  (the title eventually showed up in the commentary booklet with the 2001 rerelease and in the official lyrics on their website).
- "Not Wearing Pants" Dream: "Dreaming of the Queen".
- One-Word Title: Every album.
- Oop North: Chris is from Lancashire, Blackpool, and Neil is from Newcastle. Also the subject of "Sexy Northerner"—"Don't you dare imply/that it's grim up North"...
- Pachelbel's Canon Progression: "Go West", in which the progression is more prominent than it was in the Village People original.
- Protest Song: "Shopping" is about Thatcherism. "This Used To Be The Future" is about Iran and nukes. A lot on Fundamental is meant to protest the Iraq War and Tony Blair, especially "Integral", which is about the proposed national ID cards in the UK. It's the only song they've ever done where Neil sounds genuinely pissed off (well, maybe bar The theatre - another protest song), and one of their very few songs where the video correlates to the message of the song. See Surreal Music Video below. Not to mention "I'm With Stupid," which is a satire of the relationship between Tony Blair and George W. Bush done as a gay love song.
- Raised Catholic: The genesis for many of Neil Tennant's lyrics, most notably "It's a Sin". "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave" was inspired more specifically by his experience in Catholic school.
- Real Life Writes The Song: The exuberance of Very is a direct result of Neil being in love at the time.
- Real Person Fic: "The Night I Fell In Love" is Author Avatar/Eminem. According to Word of God, "I Get Along" is Tony Blair/Peter Mandelson and "I'm With Stupid" is Tony Blair/George W. Bush.
- Red October: "My October Symphony" is all about the parade held in remembrance, and is the story of a Russian composer wondering whether it will be canceled since the Soviet Union fell. See also Cold War.
- Refrain from Assuming: "Opportunities" gets this a lot, and is often referred to by its subtitle, "Let's Make Lots Of Money".
- Ripped from the Headlines: "Nothing Has Been Proved" thoroughly and explicitly tells the story of the Profumo affair, which notably occurred 26 years before the song was released. Justified because it was written as the theme song for Scandal, a movie based on the affair.
- "I'm With Stupid" and "Integral" are satires of UK prime minister Tony Blair and his policies, specifically his close relationship with George W. Bush and the Identity Cards Act 2006 respectively.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Mocked in "How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?" and "How I Learned To Hate Rock And Roll".
- Significant Anagram: Likely unintentional, but "Pet Shop Boys" is an anagram of "They boss pop". Also, music producer Shep Pettibone named a mix for a PSB song as "Shop Pettibone mix".
- Single Stanza Song: They've done a few. "The Samurai in Autumn" comes to mind.
- Shout-Out: To name a few, The Beatles, Disco-Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes, Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Oscar Wilde, Dmitry Shostakovich, Che Guevara, Debussy, Harold Pinter, Gerhard Richter, Yevgeny Zamyatin...
- Song Of Song Titles: Second half of "We're The Pet Shop Boys", in an interesting self-example (which as pointed out above is actually a cover of My Robot Friend's Shout-Out to them).
- Soprano and Gravel: More like "countertenor and baritone", but anytime Chris appears in a track this happens. Interesting is the Dusty Springfield duet "What Have I Done To Deserve This?", where her voice is actually lower than Neil's.
- Spelling Song: "Shopping", "Minimal". Mashed up together wonderfully during the 2006 tour.
- Spoken Word in Music: Done a couple of times, but most notably in "It's A Sin", where they sampled a NASA countdown because it sounded cool. Also: the intro for "DJ Culture", their extended mix for "Somewhere", their 1986 "italian" mix for "Paninaro" (sampling Chris Lowe's words from a TV interview), and some TV snippets on "Electricity".
- Stealth Insult: The verses of "Yesterday, When I Was Mad" involve some rather mean insults dressed up as compliments being delivered to the subject:
Then we posed for pictures with the competition winners
And argued about the hotel rooms and where to go for dinner
And someone said "It's fabulous you're still around today.
You've both made such a little go a very long way!"
- Stepford Suburbia: "Suburbia" which discusses the endless boredom and consequent potential for trouble inherent in suburban life.
- Straight Gay: "The Truck Driver And His Mate". Possibly Chris Lowe himself—he's never confirmed or denied one way or the other.
- Surreal Music Video: Several of theirs, but most so, the video to "Can You Forgive Her?". The song is about a guy with a girlfriend who knows more about his sexuality than he does. The video? Two guys in traffic cone hats and orange jumpsuits riding tandem bicycles, feeding geese, playing psychic air hockey with a spiky blue potato, turning into human drills, walking on a miniature Earth with a couple of emus, and burping orange bubbles. And no, they don't do drugs.
- Take That: Two notable examples.
- U2: PSB mashed up their very poppy cover of "Where The Streets Have No Name" with the very poppy "I Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", and released it as a double A-side with "How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?". U2 reportedly said "What have we done to deserve this?" But after that, U2 stopped taking themselves so seriously, and we got the wonderful Achtung Baby.
- "How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously" is itself a Take That to pompous-but-shallow pop acts with a tendency to self-righteously spout off about various social issues without a great deal of understanding of them. Given the nature of the single the Take That to U2 is clear, but it also references a then-popular boy band double-act called Bros.
- Eminem: Due to Mr. Mathers' rampant homophobia, they recorded "The Night I Fell In Love", a sweet Affectionate Parody about a college kid having a one-night stand with an Eminem Captain Ersatz. (It could be about any rapper, but the lyrics reference "Stan", a single of his, and Dr. Dre, his producer.) Eminem responded rather less maturely than U2, and ran them over with his car in one music video.
- A more minor example in "The Theatre" clearly shows their opinion of Andrew Lloyd Webber: "I was only hoping for a bit of cash/From a patron of the arts—or at least The Phantom of the Opera..."
- The "The" Title Confusion: Officially, the band is "Pet Shop Boys", no "the". However, they don't mind if it's included, and they even refer to themselves as "the Pet Shop Boys" during live shows.
- Title Only Chorus: "I Want to Wake Up", "How can you expect to be taken seriously?", "Saturday Night Forever", "You only tell me you love me when you're drunk", "I don't know what you want but I can't give it anymore"...
- Totally Radical: From "I Want To Wake Up": "Turning in my sleep, you called me a fool/To fall in love, is it so uncool?" Really breaks the mood in an otherwise haunting Sanity Slippage Song.
- Averted in "The Night I Fell In Love"—for a 48-year-old singing the part of a maybe 19-year old, he sounds incredibly natural.
- Transparent Closet: Chris Lowe's sexuality, at least in media coverage; he has never confirmed or denied any statement about his sexuality.
- True Art Is Angsty: Poked fun at in "Miserablism".
Just for the sake of it, make sure you're always frowning. / It shows the world that you have substance and depth.
- Uptown Girl: "West End Girls" ... probably.
- Urban Legends: A surprising number of people believe that the band got its name from the practice of inserting hamsters and gerbils into bodily cavities. The truth is more prosaic; they simply knew some people who worked at a pet shop. Too many people think they both were lovers or a couple once in the past, but they have denied it several times - just friends and flatmates in London before they started the PSB, and since then workmates and friends.
- A Wild Rapper Appears: UK rapper Example drops some verses over the bridge of "Thursday".
- While You Were in Diapers: Subverted in "Young Offender" with the line "I've been a teenager since before you were born"; it sounds like the kind of boast usually seen with this trope, but is in fact an admission that the singer has not emotionally/mentally matured since his teenage years.
- Zeerust: Commented on in "This Used To Be The Future", and combined with I Want My Jetpack.