Self-consciously lurking on the fringes of pop music,
THE PET SHOP BOYS eschew the raunch of rock ’n’ roll in favour of a blandly aloof stance with just a hint of serious Art. Alastair Mabbott previews their new stage show, a theatrical extravaganza with more contrived camp than Ken Russell.
reat duos are built on the clash of opposites. and it‘s as a mismatched pair that the laconic Pet Shop Boys have prospered.
Lowe, the hi-NRG fanatic who converted Smash Hits journalist Neil Tennant to dance music in 1982, and Tennant, now 36, who was at the time a devotee ofthe acoustic strummery school of songwriting, made The Pet Shop Boys a hybrid of several traditions, and then began to spawn a few of their own.
The Pet Shop Boys, despite their inﬂuences and 12-inch remixes. have never been a convincing dance group. Their songs are too wordy, too poppy. and Tennant never managed to shake off the values ofthe NME reader he once was. Quoting Graham Greene, who once distinguished between his ‘Novels’ and his ‘Entertainments’, Tennant remarked that Please and Actually were Novels, Disco, the collection of remixes, an Entertainment. In which case, their last album, Behaviour, probably stands as an alligator-hide-bound tome. More than most dance proponents, he likes his bit of substance.
Few British pop stars have the inclination to build a context for themselves the way Tennant does. but as an ex-pop scribe it was inevitable that he would before the press did it for him. One of his favourite parallels for his career is that ofplaywrights like Noel Coward who bit the hand of the middle-class audience that fed them and to which they belonged. Not what you might expect from a group that heard ‘Blue Monday‘ and realised that New Order had beaten them to
ﬂ the sound they wanted to achieve, but a
testament to their uniqueness. How many
other ‘disco' records can you find that are
§ about staying at home feeling introspective, ; and get played by people staying at home
Tennant's attachment to theatrical
“The List 17-30 May 1991
tradition goes deeper than dropping the names of a few playwrights. After a long time resisting the calls to play live, declaring that when they did it would be a grand production unlike anything else in the pop world, the duo took their premiere stage show on the road. and it was the pure artifice that their records had promised. Lights, action. costume-changes, dancers, their own understated humour, all displayed on an uncluttered stage in front of specially—commissioned Derek Jarman films. This year, they‘re doing it again. aiming to have even less in common with run-of-the-mill ‘gigs’.
Their approach hasn‘t won them universal approval, but they‘re a group that make people care enough about pop to argue about. When they emerged, they were attacked as a cynical affront, the tail-end of early-80$ post-modernism, when the gears of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s marketing were as visible as the band themselves, and Scritti Politti's and ABC‘s ‘contrived' pop-about-pop sold truckloads of copies of Songs To Remember and The Lexicon Of Love to aspiring semioticians who liked the stance but felt too guilty to love the music.
The Pet Shop Boys hadn‘t paid their dues around grotty dives either. Accused of existing as no more than a comment on pop stardom and consumption, so unemotional that they could only engage with topics like ‘Shopping‘, ‘Rent’ and ‘Suburbia‘ to the tune of banal disco, they were the polar opposite of U2, who were cheered on by quaking stadiums in their quest for ‘authenticity‘ and ‘soul‘ in the vast sun-baked wastelands of the Mojave desert. While Bono paid homage to Jimi Hendrix. Elvis Presley and every grizzled bluesman who’d ever tuned his guitar to an open ‘E‘. Tennant and Lowe were still gushing about Bobby Orlando‘s disco classic ‘Passion‘. They recorded ‘Nothing Has Been Proved‘
with Dusty Springfield. They were starting work on an album with Liza Minelli. Within three years, The Pet Shop Boys would cover 5
a U2 song, preserving its admirable melody and deflating its pretention — and just as a final poke in the eye, weaving in choruses from that hideous and unthinkany shallow thing. a disco single. Winners on points: The Pet Shop Boys.
So entrenched is the view ofThe Pet Shop Boys as Charlatans, mocking the sincerity and authenticity of rock with camp and glorifying artificiality. that it was largely overlooked that Tennant had started singing more personal and autobiographical songs