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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


The Pet Shop Boys have been purveyors of fine electronic music for over 35 years.

35 years...

They are the best selling musical duo in the world and have sold over 100 million albums. They are truly unique, tremendously influential and never ever dull.

I make this declaration because sometimes it's easy to forget just how important they have been over the years.

So I hope to remind you (because I hope you won't disagree with the premise) with not one but two #DiscDiscussions about their work - starting with one centring on their 1990 album "Behaviour". It was an album that seemed to derail them for a while with their audience but I think is still their best work and you can hear its influence still.

As you know, I often like to take a bit of a run at these vinyl voyages, setting up the background and looking at the context leading up to the release and then its aftermath. This is particularly important when looking at "Behaviour".

For many years, I had always thought my favourite Pet Shop Boys album was its predecessor "Introspective" which was an unusual album in that it only had 6 tracks all of significant length (two were over nine minutes long) and the singles which you will recognise from the period are not included but instead their heavily dance-influenced extended versions appeared.

The first single "Domino Dancing" had not made the Top 5 which was a rarity for them and concerned Neil Tennant - hence he always refers to "Introspective" onwards as the end of their "imperial phase". However, the album included an acid house remix of 1987's Christmas number one, the epic "Always On My Mind", which had originally been recorded for a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, and as if by way, of complete and deliberate contrast Sterling Void's house anthem "It's Alright".

You can also find their version of "I'm Not Scared" which they would give to Patsy Kensit and Eighth Wonder for their breakthrough hit - of which more next time - and what I still think is one of their most triumphant singles, "Left To My Own Devices" which they recorded with legendary producer, Trevor Horn. Apparently, the original intention was for the band to do something very different from their usual working style and record quickly in a short session with Horn. Anyway, six months and a full orchestral arrangement later (their first time to use this) they had created a masterpiece.

The band were in their pomp and it is from this period that their newly launched Funko Pop versions are modelled.

The truth is that the band were enormously prolific at the time and had had four number ones within a two year period and were releasing singles with alacrity. In the midst of the releases around "Introspective" they had even managed to get the sublime "Heart" their fourth single from their second album, "Actually" to reach the top spot.

"Introspective" however, provided a very different sound for a mainstream record with a highly developed sense of club culture and built a very intricate sonic landscape. Its concept of hiding its singles within much longer mixes did not diminish their reputation for fine songwriting and equally catchy hooks in the slightest, as it would become their second highest selling album ever, being nominated for best album at The Brits.

But within the band, there was a sense that they wanted to make their next album a little differently and so they chose to record in Munich with Harold Faltemeyer (of "Axel F" fame) who had a very distinctive style of production. Despite much of their sound being machine produced their is an analogue warmth to "Behaviour" which is unexpected and together with the introduction of guitars for the first time (some played by later collaborator - Johnny Marr (again more next time) - they created a gentler but more sophisticated texture for the entire album.

Perhaps there is no better place to start than the beginning and the simply wonderful opening track "Being Boring", which was originally written after an accusation that the band were boring - and admittedly their studied lack of animation will have confused many who were used to the peppier presentation of the majority of 80s pop.

The lyric stemmed from the observation that one could never be bored, if one was never boring and seemed a backlash to the current more heavier times. Later, Neil would say that he was writing about a friend of his who sadly passed away after contracting AIDS. It is a truly beautiful song and one that inexplicably became their first hit in years not to make the Top 10 only reaching #20 in November 1990 - perhaps lost in the whole pre-Christmas release stampede that so dominated the UK record buying public at the time.

However, when the band would later begin live dates in 1991 on their "Performance" tour, they chose to leave it out of the set. Their audience rather vociferously complained and it was eventually included as an encore and has stayed in the set largely ever since.

It really sums up the acutely sensitive aspect to the band and, despite being more subdued than the previous album's work, still has a drive and tempo that makes it such an uplifting experience. It is still one of their finest pieces of work.

You can hear the mood carried across into the equally nostalgic "This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave" which both Neil and Chris had put together from their experiences leaving their Northern homes to move to London. "My October Sky" and "Only The Wind" add to a sense of melancholia that swirls around the album but it makes the atmosphere much less frenetic than "Introspective" and considerably less dated as a result. Indeed, it may well be Marr's guitar that strangely gives a more relaxed vibe to this part of the record.

Of course, the lead single from the album was "So Hard" which was another intelligently written and crafted record but it perhaps bridged from "Introspective" more readily with its broader sounding production and more aggressive beat.

It is a deeply dark record around suspicion in a relationship capped off with the classic line - "we've both given up smoking so whose matches are those?". It creates a remarkable air of tension that the relentless nature of the house rhythm and stabbing synth hooks adds to very effectively. It was a big hit from the the album but often undeservedly overlooked now, perhaps because it is the most contemporary sounding of all the songs from the album.

"So Hard" was also remixed into a Stadium-trance version by The KLF with Neil cheekily re-recording his vocals to create another equally exciting version. It's quite hard to find now but worth it, if that's your bag.

Interestingly, the video promo was shot in Newcastle which is Neil's home town and seems to try to capture the sense of nostalgia that "Behaviour" sets out to create for the majority of its duration. That said, I think their appearance may be the most exciting thing to ever happen on Tyne/Wear Metro.

Indeed, suspicion comes once more to the fore in the album's closer "Jealousy" which again is an observation on the potentially suffocating nature of relationships. This sounds - not least through Neil's exquisitely enunciated vocal performance - like a song from a musical and it is not so surprising when you consider that this was around the time of their preparing Sondheim for their collaboration with Liza Minnelli (you guessed it - next time). It has all the drama and storytelling you would expect from that genre and yet never loses the wistful introspection that infiltrates the whole album.

Perhaps they should have called this album "Introspective".

Of course, one of the things I have always enjoyed about the Pet Shop Boys is their sense of humour - often exceptionally ironic. Nor are they backward in calling out attitudes which they feel need comment.

And on this album we were given the comparatively scathing "How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously" which was an attack on musicians who felt they needed to make political comments in order to boost their credibility. The band had always tended to keep their own counsel and found many of their peers' diatribes, pompous at best. They would continue this more aggressive commentary on their next album with the scathing "Yesterday When I Was Mad".

It's another under-rated and often overlooked song that had quite a powerful remix added to it for its single release.

Apparently, their ire was particularly fuelled by Bono who had been very dismissive of the band and their disco sound and he was an evident target. However, to compound their dismay, they released the single as a double A-side with their cover version of "Where The Streets Have No Name" mashed up with camp classic "Cant Take My Eyes Off You". Though recorded at around the time it did not actually appear on the original release of "Behaviour".

That's how you get your own back.

it is a masterfully drole concept and performance and the public loved it.

Bono however, did not and apparently on hearing it was heard to say "What Have I Done To Deserve This". So perhaps he does have a sense of humour after all.

U2 would start to experiment with dance rhythms with their next album with the unassailable Perfecto remix of "Even Better Than The Real Thing" (I couldn't have said it better myself) and they certainly embraced the disco vibe when it came to their own "Pop" album later in the decade.

For a record that celebrates its thirtieth anniversary, "Behaviour" still sounds wonderfully current. The depth of its production gives it an overall rounded ambience, without the rigidity that some synth-heavy albums have. Listen to a track like the expertly chilled "Face The Truth".

The writing feels intensely individual and as ever the vocal delivery is measured and yet absolutely on point. There seems to have been an enormous amount of personal investment in tis creation which might explain their disappointment at the release's more muted reception.

However, there is no doubting that this is the first album where they aimed for a more subtle approach especially when compared to its barnstorming predecessor - and indeed its more deliberately pop-friendly follow-up, the delightfully camp "Very". This is a tremendously open-minded album with a myriad of influences from the theatre, from the dance floor or even the indie charts coming into play.

Unsurprisingly, this is the period of their career where they were undertaking collaborations with a range of other stars old and new, all with something to glean from. It is unsurprising that the band's palette broadened and their approach became more diverse and challenging.

But on this period of fascinating collaborations, there's more to come....

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24 janv. 2021

Being boring is, I agree, sublime. They never were at any point and it's always shone through. I can remember hearing West End Girls for the first time and being instantly aware that they were something special. I shall get the CDs down and have another play. Thanks, Tony.

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