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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


I realise that even the title of this article sounds like one the Pet Shop Boys would happily give to one of their own new releases. Let's hope they take the hint.

When I wrote a vinyl voyage about the band's 1990 masterpiece "Behaviour", my conclusion (and not a particularly insightful one at that) was that the record was so exceptional because it bore the hallmarks of so many of their collaborations. I really enjoy this period of their career from the club influences of "Introspective" through to the classic shiny pop of "Very" but the band were at that time seen as one of the most highly regarded musical influences by many of their peers.

They were experimental and challenging but without ever losing the ability to understand what made great pop recordings and everybody wanted to gain some of that lustre. The exciting part of all this is that the band were always in charge of their direction and with whom they would choose to involve themselves. They were always looking for how this would benefit their own creative development rather than just being guns for hire.

Even if you look at their dabbling into cover versions at that stage, I doubt any band could pull off both Elvis's anniversary tribute with the epic "Always On My Mind" and Sterling Void's deep house classic "It's Alright" without becoming a caricature but instead add to their reputation as genuinely interesting musical explorers.

And by the time, their venture into "Where The Streets Have No Name" emerged in 1990, it seemed nothing was beyond their incredible interpretive abilities. They even managed to turn "Go West" into a football terrace chant and I'm sure they enjoyed the irony of that.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Dusty Springfield who they had brought back into the spotlight with her welcome cameo in "What Have I Done To Deserve This" in 1987. Dusty had been trying and failing to make comebacks since the late 70s (including an ill-fated attempt, backed by Peter Stringfellow) but had never really found a sympathetic partner prepared to work with her painstaking approach in the studio.

However, for the band, she was a long-standing musical inspiration and so they were very patient. They worked with her on her successful comeback album "Reputation" including two popular singles "In Private" and the exceptional track from the film "Scandal" (still a favourite film of mine) "Nothing Has Been Proved".

The fascinating part of this song is that it is a very typical Pet Shop Boys lyric, telling a story and full of detail. For a soul performer like Dusty, it seemed a strange choice as her back catalogue would not normally push you to give her that sort of song. But she had been performing very narrative songs like Peter Allen's "Quiet Please There's A Lady On Stage" during her more recent stage performances and the band obviously thought it was something she could handle.

But it is the final coda where Dusty goes off script and really soars with a soulful vamp with the lyrics - "it may be nothing, it may be true..." and it just takes the until-then very controlled delivery onto a whole new level. Apparently, the band were not expecting it but were only too happy to keep it.

It is a clever record in that it is absolutely about the film's content but by choosing Dusty to sing with a very modern backing it creates a terrificly effective cross-generational dimension. They would go on and create a similar nostalgic vibe with their production of "The Crying Game" by Boy George - so different is his vocal performance that it sounds almost as if it was initially designed with Dusty in mind.

Of course, keen chart observers will remember that they tried a corresponding trick of resurrection when they were brought in as producers for Liza Minnelli. Again, this was a tremendous highlight for them and Neil Tennant set about creating a song palette for another of his great inspirations. She was performing in London and held a series of enjoyable recording sessions with the band during the day, though apparently the concept of pre-recorded backing tracks was a novel and surprising development for the visiting singer.

The lead single, "Losing My Mind" was a sure-footed reintroduction of Liza Minnelli - a cover from Sondheim to a dance PSB beat. The rest of the album, however, was a little patchy with tracks like "Love Pains" sounding like the well-worn trick of putting a diva with a big voice with a four to the floor beat - Ethel Merman, Eartha Kitt... they'd all had a go. "Don't Drop Bombs" now seems like a terrible mismatch - perhaps because the Pet Shop Boys lyricism needs a more detached vocal than Liza Minnelli is able to give.

This is interesting when you consider a song like the infectious "I'm Not Scared" which the band had recorded with Patsy Kensit and Eighth Wonder. Her vocal range is more limited and has less power and yet blends far more comfortably with the panoramic sound that the Pet Shop Bays have created so seamlessly across all their work.

"I'm Not Scared" was a massive hit all over Europe and Japan with its barking dogs and whispery vocal from Patsy, making an entire continent (and this particular inhabitant of it, to this day) come over a bit unnecessary. Somehow they captured a vulnerability that was difficult to find in Liza's "Results" albums more pacy recordings.

However, "So Sorry I Said" which was written especially for Minnelli is a beautiful ballad and was the song that remains her favourite. But the other highlight is her re-working of the very theatrical "Rent" that had been on their "Actually" album and was the song that had first drawn her to the band. You can hear the influence in one of their later songs like "Jealousy" on "Behaviour" with its emotive vocal and swirling crescendo bearing the marks of having a little diva delivery injected into it.

One of the other key introductions on "Behaviour" was some rather shimmering guitar textures - some of which had been delivered former Smith, Johnny Marr. Of course 1989 marked the introduction of indie supergroup with Marr and Bernard Sumner from New Order teaming up to form Electronic with Neil (primarily) and Chris joining in the fun on occasion.

I always enjoyed "Disappointed" which came out in 1992 which was a single-only release but although its backing was first created by Sumner and Marr, Neil's lyrics and vocals make it sound very much like a slightly more jagged PSB release. So I am not going to include it today.

On the first album, however, I think that it is the tracks with all three of these creative minds coming together that create the most exciting blend and that would be "Patience Of A Saint" and of course, the astonishing debut single "Getting Away With It" which manages to highlight all three of their unique talents. The interplay between the two deadpan vocalists only heightens the intended atmosphere, as the song, written by Marr, was intended as a dig at his former partner and particular writing style.

The Pet Shop Boys would take up the same theme with their track "Miserabilism". I've added the superb extended version for your delectation, you lucky people.

Even when he's carrying out back up duties nobody sings like Neil Tennant and that's why he has been called on in the past to deliver on other artist's work. Perhaps one of the best is his shadowy counterpoint (delivered with the equally delightful Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy) to "No Regrets" by Robbie Williams. His performance acts almost as an inner voice to Williams main vocal and so enhances the entire production of the record.

Williams would return the favour with a respectful guitar-led cover of "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing" - a song that particularly resonated with him at the time. They would team up again when the band co-wrote and produced "She's Madonna" which was something of a change in direction for Williams with an Kraftwerk-like backing and came from his "Rudebox" album which even now is something of a by-word for commercial disaster - popular opinion that more copies of it had to be melted down than any other major UK release.

Still "She's Madonna" - despite a self-indulgent video - is a clever song written about Tania Strecker who had been Robbie's girlfriend and previously, film director Guy Ritchie's, before she was rather unceremoniously dumped for the subject of the record.

And speaking of Madonna...

Not only were the Pet Shop Boys accomplished writers and producers for themselves and other artists as well as sometime collaborators and vocalists, they also turned their hand to remixing a version of Madonna's #1 single "Sorry" in 2005.

The song certainly had an 80s dancefloor vibe at its heart and so unsurprisingly, a few PSB flourishes did not go amiss - they recorded some added vocals. Their version was so popular with Madonna that it is their arrangement she used when she played it live in concert.

Interestingly, she was at the time as far away from her debut as Dusty was from hers when they worked their magic with her.

They had recorded extra vocals before when remixing KLF's cheeky remix of "So Hard" but that seems to have been the limit of their involvement in that particular remix. However, when they decided to take on guitar bands again, they created probably their finest remix. Although unlike U2, the band were more than willing participants.

Blur's "Girls & Boys" had always sounded like an 80s throwback with as Alex Cox said "A Duran Duran bassline" so unsurprisingly it took on an even more exciting dynamic once it entered the hands of some real 80s experts and yet created a version that sounded more exciting and more current than even the original.

So pleased were they with the arrangement of the mix that the Pet Shop Boys would perform their own cover version of it live. It is - as one of their remix albums of the time was called - relentless - and so feels positively euphoric with its new synth-choir stings puncturing it throughout.

So there we have a little journey through the Pet Shop Boys fascinating side projects - writers, performers, producers, remixers but I suspect they felt all of their Christmases came at once when they were asked to work with David Bowie to re-record "Hallo Spaceboy".

The song from "Outside" had been written with Brian Eno and had, as the opening track, felt harsh and dark - not that that was a problem but it certainly wasn't too commercial sounding (and not, it should be remembered, too many years post-Tin Machine).

So the Pet Shop Boys were approached to re-record and remix "Hallo Spaceboy" for a single release. It was their idea to add a second verse borrowing from the "Major Tom" musical iconography. This was an idea about which Bowie originally was unenthusiastic but was won over as the production took place and Neil's vocals added a new dimension to the story - making the final part of the trilogy.

Bowie (like Madonna) had very clear views about what he wanted in the studio so the fact their ideas were taken on is a tribute to their abilities in all of the guises we outlined earlier. As a single, I love it still.

If you have already made it through my piece on "Behaviour", my admiration for the Pet Shop Boys attention to detail and breadth of musical understanding will be a familiar theme.

However, their credibility has brought them into contact to almost every genre of music (they have even remixed German metal giants Rammstein) and they have always used this to maximise their creative intent, bringing in new textures and themes into their writing and production.

Perhaps that's why they are still name-checked as an influence and regularly invited to collaborate still - The Killers and Lady Gaga were their sponsors when they were awarded the lifetime achievement at the Brits. They still seem open, if rightly still with a high quality control threshold, to joining their acolytes.

Their collaborations, on their own, should give them Spector-like kudos for their production dexterity. Mercifully, although they have always kept their own sense of identity, they have always remained open-minded and collaborative. Their reputation remains largely unsullied and are still capable of glorious heights either for themselves or others.

Living proof that you can be strongly focused but generous spirited (along with a winning dollop of irony and self-awareness). We're lucky to have them.

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Jan 31, 2021

Most interesting. Lots there for me to be getting my research teeth into. Thanks, Tony

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