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Class ?

Main Category: Synth Pop
Also applicable: Smart Pop, Lush Pop, Dance Pop
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Pet Shop Boys fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Pet Shop Boys fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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PLEASE ***1/2

Year Of Release: 1986

So maybe I'm gonna sound shocking, or maybe I'm gonna sound stupid, or maybe you knew it all already, but here goes: for me, the best thing about Pet Shop Boys isn't the way they mess around with their synth loops and tricky arrangements (which they didn't really mess that much with on their first album), and it isn't even the unforgettable hooks they insert into their songs (some of which are pretty generic on Please), and it ain't even the lyrical content (hey, lotsa people write half-biting half-mock-hedonistic satire, these guys didn't start the fire). It's Neil Tennant's amazing voice. Yup, you heard: I honestly think the guy's one of the best vocalists to appear in the world of pop music in the past twenty years. And yeah, I'm perfectly well aware of how many times this voice has been called "thin" and "slight" and whatever, but if you take "thin" and "slight" to be synonymous with "elegant" and "gorgeous", I guess we have something going there with the rest of the critical world. Really, there's just something about his range, tonality, and general singing style that I seriously can't find anywhere else. Of course, they're doing synth-pop, and synth-pop has a tradition that dates back to Kraftwerk and is continued with Depeche Mode, namely, that the singer has to sound detached, cold, almost (or totally) robotic, kinda like if you're doing death metal, you have to do the Cookie Monster thing. But that Tennant guy, he actually manages to soud robotic and loveable at the same time.

What I mean to say is I'm biased, actually. The Pet Shop Boys' debut isn't that strong, to tell the truth. They're not innovating a whole lot on here. They're just doing what Depeche Mode were doing, only beefing up the arrangements a bit and probably taking just as many lessons from The Art of Noise. But the singing is so damn strong that even the mediocre material is often elevated. Like, take the generic love ballad 'Love Comes Quickly', with totally conventional lyrics from Mr I Quit My Dayjob So I Could Show Everybody How Much I Hate Guitar Music - but it's one of my favs on the album just because I can't resist that constant vocal modulation. It's not exactly falsetto, is it? Except in a few parts of the chorus. It's not that overtly saccharine hicky tone you'll find on, say, Modern Talking records. It's different. It's also very very good. And it goes to show how much depends on the guy who's singing your stuff in the end. Now imagine if Neil Tennant was the lead vocalist in XTC! Ah! NOW we're talking!

Actually, I dig the hell out of the entire first side. 'You've got the brawn, I've got the brains, let's make lots of money' - you could think that 'Opportunities' was the Boys' personal anthem, because that is what eventually happened. I was quite surprised to find out that a lot of critics at the time actually took these lyrics at face value, but I'll refrain from the obvious conclusions. In any case, I don't have any problems with the fact that if you take out the vocals, you'll be left with a thoroughly unexciting, run-of-the-mill backing track with electronic drums, simple dance loops and occasional ooh-ooh "backing harmonies". Please is all about Neil Tennant and pretty much nothing else.

The other, presumably even bigger hit 'West End Girls' is also excellent - and if you don't pay much attention to the lyrics, you'll never guess the song is about paranoia and madness rather than sappy romance (because the thing that tends to remain in your head after all is said and done is just the 'East End Boys and West End Girls' refrain). The "rapped" verses aren't probably the best field for Neil to experiment on, but the chorus still remains the central point of attraction, and it's fun to see that synth-trumpet solo midway through. There's also 'Two Divided By Zero', the first track on the album and the first track to introduce the Boys' unbeatable "cosmic" style of delivering the goods - they obviously like it when the music/vocals seem to be raining down upon you from outer space, and while they'd be doing it even better in the future, the approach on 'Two Divided By Zero' is hardly bad either.

Finally, there's 'Suburbia', and again, take a close look at the lyrics to find out that the song isn't a little romantic ditty, but is actually a harsh critique of suburban life (or ghetto life, whatever). Then try not to sing along to the chorus and, once you succeed, realize that you've just committed an act analogous to rejecting intercourse with a beautiful stranger. (Actually, I didn't sing along to the chorus - but then again, I had my wife sitting in the same room as me while listening to the song, so I can't be blamed). Anyway, the important thing is: a pretty murky lyrical subject is given a pretty beautiful arrangement. That's interesting, at least.

The second part of the album is somewhat less inspiring in songwriting terms, yet thanks to Mr Neil, nothing really turns me off - not even the one hundred percent cheesy synth stomp of 'I Want A Lover', the Boys' equivalent of ABBA's 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)', I guess. Yet as far as highlights go, only 'Violence' counts, I guess - it's cool and funky, with a wonderful transition from "romantic" mood to "harsh" mood and backwards. You could say the lyrics are preachy and way too obvious, and they are, but I don't mind as long as the guy who sings them is Neil Tennant. THAT voice. The guy could sing Rush's entire catalog and I wouldn't have to blush once.



Year Of Release: 1987

They change the mood a bit on here - dropping the gloomy, ominous synthtones of Please and making this follow-up more smooth, inoffensive, and, well, radio friendly. Predictably, that's not a good thing; as far as generic synth-pop goes, Actually is probably the closest these lads ever came up to it. The good news is that the songwriting is more consistent: in pure melody terms, this is an improvement, as pretty much every song with a couple minor exceptions has a solid hook to implant in the listener. So, while the final grade is the same, the two records don't sound that much like each other - keep it in mind.

The "let's make lots of money" formula works here in a particularly cynical way as the Boys join forces with Dusty [Relic, but still a powerful relic of Britain's pop past] Springfield - dueting on the saccharine dance track 'What Have I Done To Deserve This?'. Not much irony in the song, and an abundance of crassness and stuff, but at least the gloopy synth-horns work well with that couple of memorable riffs, and in the back of my mind I keep thinking that maybe Neil's repetitive (sampled) "what have I? what have I? what have I done to deserve this" refrain in the background sounds so dumb because he intended it to sound so dumb. Ah well, prob'ly not. In any case, the song's not particularly offensive, but is hardly a highlight either. Same goes for the monumental ballad 'It Couldn't Happen Here', which, as usual, is only salvaged by Neil's delivery: anybody else at the wheel and I'd never even have noticed that the song went past me, but every time he goes 'I may be wrong...' and the corny orchestration goes soaring whoosh in the sky, something draws my attention back.

Fortunately, there's lotsa songs here where you don't have to play Hamlet and deliberate until it's too late upon whether liking them threatens your personal sense of honor and nobility or not. 'One More Chance', for instance, gives you a good chance to shake your booty to a good pop hook, which is always better than shaking it to God only knows what. Besides, the lyrics are good. So goddamn sleazy in that typical Eighties sleazy way, which is actually not sleazy at all because it's all so smooth and so full of nightclub references, but it's kinda the analogy of Seventies sleaze. A fun period piece.

I'm a big fan of 'Shopping' and 'Rent', too, the two songs in the middle where the Boys finally bare their teeth and start mocking the society that was giving them lots of money so they could mock it some more. 'Shopping' is based on a minimalistic, but effective synth riff, and a monotonous refrain which spells out the title letter by letter and hammers it into your head until you can't take it no more - which is good as far as I'm concerned, because the more we're going to associate the process of shopping with the intrusive nastiness of that chorus, the faster we're moving forward to a decommercialized society. (And that's no lie baby - hey, don't get mad at me, I'm basically just trying to retell the Boys' actual message here). 'Rent', on the other hand, is a bit more complex, and presents the protagonist as a decadent parasite relying on his partner to finance him - not actually specifying the sex of the partner, ho hum, but then again, it doesn't really matter, does it?

'Hit Music' is almost surprisingly raunchy and edgy for a song that sports such a title and such an unassuming set of lyrics. With that insistent, slightly aggressive bass rhythm, and that sneering, robotic delivery of the chorus, you wouldn't really know - again - if the Boys are being serious or if they're just putting you on when they sing about the beauty of "hit music". But doesn't ambiguity form the cornerstone of every good song? And 'Hit Music' definitely is one. Wouldn't necessarily say the same about 'It's A Sin', because, while the vocal melody and the song's strange, out-of-nowhere (well, not exactly out of nowhere - Pet Shop Boys are supposed to be playing Decadence Par Excellence for the Eighties, and that always comes with a certain warped religious aura to it) religiousness certainly pull the scale in the right direction, the naggin' obnoxious proto-techno-beat and ultimately trashy synth rhythms drag it in the wrong one.

So anyway, if you got very little tolerance for synth-pop, by all means skip this piece. If anything, I view it just as a transitional point, destined to give the Boys a firmer commercial stand so that they could get away with more experimentation and unpredictability in the future. You know - bands often need that kind of shit so that their major label would tolerate their excesses. That doesn't mean it's B-A-D, but, like I said, if you hate all synth-pop but the most inventive one, it'll certainly look that way to you. You'll miss on the great album cover, of course, but hey, you can just scan that one if you wish. Or sumpthin'.


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