Monday 28 May 2018

Music: Pet Shop Boys - pop's great survivors

Still crazy after all these years: New album and tour for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.
Still crazy after all these years: New album and tour for Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The upper reaches of the charts is not normally the place you would expect to hear a song inspired by TS Eliot's modernist masterpiece The Waste Land, but English Lit students paying very special attention to one of 1985's most emblematic songs might have recognised the influence.

'West End Girls', the debut single from Pet Shop Boys, was the hit in question and, in the words of its vocalist and chief songwriter Neil Tennant, Eliot's epic poem was in his mind when writing the words. "What I like about [The Waste Land]," he said at the time, "is the different voices, almost a sort of collage. All the different voices and languages coming in, and I've always found that very powerful. So on 'West End Girls', it's different voices. The line 'Just you wait till I get you home' is a direct quotation."

He's wrong about the last bit, but then memory can play tricks on impressionable young men. It's easy to forgive him, though, because 'West End Girls' is one of the great pop songs of the 1980s - a decade where pop truly flourished.

It may have been a UK and Ireland number one on its release in October 1985, but it was originally recorded - in very different form - in early 1984. Its first producer Bobby Orlando accentuated the influence that hip-hop had on Tennant and Chris Lowe at the time but, listening back to it now, it clearly lacked the commercial spark that would make the retooled song such a hit 18 months later. That said, it become an underground hit in the dance clubs of the US - an environment that Pet Shop Boys would be no strangers to by the end of the decade.

It was Stephen Hague - then a comparatively unknown record producer who worked his magic on 'West End Girls' and on 'Please', the band's debut album that appeared in early 1986. The American would be an important figure in helping to hone the pair's pop instincts into well into the '90s and helmed their first five albums.

Those pop smarts haven't dimmed one bit by the passage of time as their aptly named new album, Super, so engagingly demonstrates. Produced by their now regular collaborator Stuart Price, it's a collection of banging club tunes and expertly-crafted introspective ballads that harks back to their commercial heyday, but is not enslaved to the past. It's further evidence that they're one of the few emblematic bands of the '80s who have matured very gracefully.

And, unlike so many of those '80s bands, Pet Shop Boys' output from that time still sounds great. It's synth-pop that sounds utterly and unashamedly of that decade, and it's a document to all that was great about pop music in an era when Stock Aitken Waterman were trying their damnedest to make their production line hits sound as homogeneous as possible.

If there's one album that truly captures the greatness of Pet Shop Boys, it's their second, Actually, from 1987. Here's an album that's clever and witty and inventive and packed with superior pop songs. Tennant skewered Thatcherism in the band's early years, most notably on 'Shopping', a song that some erroneously saw as a paean to consumerism. It's nothing of the sort. "I heard it in the House of Commons [that] everything's for sale," Tennant sings of the Tories then hobby-horse, privatisation. 'Rent' casts a similarly jaundiced look at money, exploring as it does the pitfalls of a financially one-sided relationship.

'It's A Sin' looks back to Tennant's Catholic upbringing in Newcastle and also hints at the difficulty of being gay in the Britain of the '80s. Homosexuality may have been decriminalised there in 1967, but the likes of the Sun still considered gays to be fair game. It's fair to say Pete Waterman wasn't mining such territory, and it's partly as a result of such preoccupations that Pet Shop Boys were the subject of a symposium organised by the University of Edinburgh last month.

But what Waterman would have given for the album's finest moment. 'What Have I Done to Deserve This?' saw the duo team up with Dusty Springfield on one of most inspired collaborations of the time. It's got everything that's great about Pet Shop Boys in under four minutes and a lovely vocal from a lady whose once glorious career had fallen on lean times.

It would give Springfield the biggest US hit of her career and Tennant and Lowe were heavily involved in her 1990 comeback album, Reputation (whose single-word title would have fitted right in with the PSB aesthetic).

They wrote four of its 10 songs and acted as producers too. Perhaps they will see fit to revisit the album live when it reaches its 30th birthday next year, but for now there's Super to promote. And, speaking of which, an Irish date or two this summer would be very welcome.

l I was sorry to learn of the demise of TXFM, the greater Dublin station that emerged from the ashes of the lionised Phantom. As an alternative music station with a handful of good presenters, it offered a respite from the tedium of so much Irish radio, including the mid-afternoon fare from its Digges Lane stable-mate, Today FM.

Seriously, would you rather hear some decent tunes on TXFM, or suffer four-and-a-half hours of forced fun from Dermot and Dave and Louise Duffy?

Chances are, TXFM would have thrived 20 years ago when the internet was still in nappies. But this is now, and the brutal truth is radio is nowhere nearly as important as it was in breaking new bands or introducing music lovers to great new songs.

A mate, who's never to be seen without headphones clamped to his ears, listens to Apple Music all day and when he's not on a diet of old favourites and new picks, he's listening to Newstalk and Radio 1. He's 30, urbane, musically adventurous - but rarely, if ever, gave TXFM a whirl.

He'll still have a chance to check out Joe Donnelly, Claire Beck et al: it will continue to broadcast until its licence expires in October.

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