Pet Shop Boys, The
THE PET SHOP BOYS
Formed: 1981, London, England
Members: Neil Tennant, vocals (born Gosforth, England, 10 July 1954); Chris Lowe, keyboards (born Blackpool, England, 4 October 1959).
Genre: Rock, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: Very (1993)
Hit songs since 1990: "Can You Forgive Her," "Go West," "Absolutely Fabulous"
The Pet Shop Boys have spent almost two decades essentially exploring the possibilities of electro pop, a style that first emerged in the early 1980s but one that has served the duo well for most of their time together. Relying principally on a combination of synth riffs, drum-machine rhythms, and well-crafted vocals, they have consistently revealed that rare ability to produce original material with a strong pop ethos. Beneath the sugar-coated melodies and enticing dance-floor beats, the pair have offered an engaging and entertaining commentary on everyday life—from the vagaries of romance to the mysteries of sexual ambiguity, from the numbing banality of suburbia to the excitements of the metropolis.
Although the popular music journalist Neil Tennant and the architecture student Chris Lowe first met by chance in a hi-fi shop in 1981, it was two years before they truly embarked on their recording careers. Tennant took advantage of a New York trip to interview Sting to make contact with the disco producer Bobby "O" Orlando. After hearing a demo tape that Tennant and Lowe had put together, an impressed Orlando encouraged them to begin recording seriously.
At the time, pop music in the United Kingdom was undergoing some seismic shifts. The New Romantics and the emergence of MTV had returned glamour to center stage after the dark nihilism of punk; the synthesiser had temporarily sidelined the guitar, permitting bands like the Human League, Soft Cell, and Depeche Mode to apply the new technology in pursuit of chart success. The climate seemed right for the Pet Shop Boys to make their mark.
Yet their initial push proved fairly fruitless as "West End Girls" (1984) and "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" (1985) failed to make an impression. But early disappointments were swept aside when, late in 1985, "West End Girls" was revamped and re-released to become the number one single in the United Kingdom, repeating the feat in the United States early the next year.
The remaining years of the 1980s saw the Pet Shop Boys visit the Top 10 in Britain routinely—"Suburbia," "It's a Sin," "What Have I Done to Deserve This," "Heart," and "So Hard" all enjoyed high sales and high placings. In the United States, if their success rate was lower, they nevertheless kept up their American profile with songs like "Opportunities" and "Always on My Mind."
Gathering a strong following both in the mainstream market and among gay fans—the group's determined unwillingness to reveal their sexual inclinations merely added to the appeal and the mystery—they also transcended their singles ascendancy by releasing albums: Please (1986), Actually (1987), and Introspective (1988), which won the accolades of critics.
Their rocketing profile led them to work closely with the divas Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli; Tennant also collaborated with Bernard Sumner of New Order, a band that had been a large influence on the Pet Shop Boys. Spanning the worlds between pop, indie, and the rising club culture, the Pet Shop Boys seemingly could do no wrong.
By now Tennant and Lowe possessed the financial security and artistic confidence to pursue a range of ambitious projects. The album Behavior (1990) saw them jettison the superficial frivolities of their earlier work; "So Hard," "Being Boring," and "Jealousy" replaced exuberance with a more mature and melancholic approach.
But they never plowed the same furrow for very long, and, even when they attempted surprising arrangements, which recalled the excesses of Euro disco, the Pet Shop Boys merely attracted critical comment on their ability to deliver the ironic without blowing their credibility.
They continued these unlikely pursuits when the album Very (1993) spawned a number two U.K. hit—a cover of the Village People's "Go West"—and their image, in stage shows and videos, became increasingly outrageous. As concerned with artistic style as they were with musical merit, the group worked alongside the acclaimed British filmmaker Derek Jarman on their occasional but invariably lavish live productions.
Yet their extended run of British success was not mirrored in the United States. Short of single entries, the critically acclaimed Very barely cracked the Top 20 in America. Meanwhile, in 1994, the group took part in the Stonewall Equality shows at the Albert Hall in London, joining Elton John, Sting, and others and, in part, answering criticisms that they had not shown sufficient support for gay issues. That same year, "Absolutely Fabulous," a tribute to the U.K. television comedy series, also enjoyed British Top 10 status.
No new material emerged until 1996, when Bilingual grasped the vogue for Latin rhythms and granted the duo a further U.K. smash in "Se A Vide E (That's the Way Life Is)." Tennant was also pursuing a solo project, overseeing an album of songs by the late British songwriter/playwright Noel Coward. The resulting collection, 20th Century Blues (1998), gathered stars like the Divine Comedy and Marianne Faithfull and stressed the Pet Shop Boys' interest in the theatrical tradition.
The album Nightlife (1999) included a major club hit in "New York City Boy." On the strength of renewed American interest, the Pet Shop Boys toured the United States for the first time in eight years. Yet their main concern, as the decade drew to close, focused on a project for the stage. Working alongside the playwright Jonathan Harvey, they penned the songs for a show called Closer to Heaven, which enjoyed a West End run during most of 2001.
The busy pair still had time to record and release a further album of their own in spring 2002—Release, featuring guitar contributions from ex-Smiths Johnny Marr and a Lennon/McCartney-like track in "I Get Along." The project that proved that their vibrant brand of pop retained an enduring attraction.
Much analyzed but often evasive in their interviews, the Pet Shop Boys have developed a unique aura, built on a Midas-like touch as recording artists but further stimulated by their other creative statements: the clothes they wear, the stage postures they assume, and the images they present on video.
Camp, kitsch, very English, witty, and postmodern are among the adjectives that have been applied to the phenomenon of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Nonetheless, despite the visual and psychological games they have played, they remain, primarily, tunesmiths and craftsmen in the great Tin Pan Alley tradition.
Please (EMI America, 1986); Actually (EMI America, 1987); Introspective (EMI America, 1988); Behavior (EMI America, 1990); Discography: The Complete Singles Collection (EMI America, 1991); Very (Capitol, 1993); Bilingual (Sire, 1996); Nightlife (Sire 1999); Closer to Heaven (featuring the Original Cast) (Sony, 2002); Release (Parlophone, 2002).
C. Heath, Literally (London, 1992); P. Docherty and T. White (eds.), Design for Performance: Diaghilev to the Pet Shop Boys (London, 1996).
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