Pet Shop Boys: A Life in Pop

Pet Shop Boys - A Life in PopSynopsis: From their trailblazing first single, “West End Girls” to their current position as Britain’s foremost pop duo, A Life In Pop traces every ground-breaking step in the 20-year career of The Pet Shop Boys. Starting in their respective home towns in the north of England, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe retrace their remarkable journey in their own words. The film features some previously unseen live performances, rare television appearances (including their first ever from Belgium in 1984), and interviews with famous fans, collaborators and colleagues including Robbie Williams, Brandon Flowers, Tim Rice-Oxley, Jake Shears and Bruce Weber. A Life In Pop is a fascinating in-depth documentary film chronicling the Pet Shop Boys’ enduring success.

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Pet Shop Boys: A Life in Pop 7.5

eyelights: the duo’s many achievements. their candidness. the video and performance clips.
eyesores: the limited look at some of the pair’s landmark moments.

“The great thing about music is that just one record can change your mood. If you’re feeling depressed, you can put one record on and instantly you’re in a different place and happy or whatever.” – Chris Lowe

‘A Life in Pop’ is a 2006 documentary on the Pet Shop Boys. It was originally broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK as a truncated 60-minute special, but was subsequently released on DVD in a 2h20m full-length version. It covers the origins of the group as well as highlighting their many creative works.

Consisting of lengthy interviews with the duo, as well as with many of their collaborators and celebrity fans, the film gives an account of the band’s key achievements. It is supported by an abundance of excerpts from their videos as well as archival concert and film footage. It’s an excellent primer for novices.

But it’s also a great trip down memory lane for fans of the band. Having followed them since they exploded onto the scene in the mid-’80s, I was very pleased to revisit many of those moment. I even discovered a few things along the way, not just about them personally, but about their many creative endeavours.

The Pet Shop Boys are Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

Neil Tennant is from a middle-class, Catholic background (which explains some of his lyrics). He came from a small UK town, the type that meant having cows roaming about in the backyard. He got interested in music very early on, after seeing ‘The Young Ones’, featuring Cliff Richard, and discovering The Beatles.

He eventually started a group with a few friends. By then, he liked Davie Bowie, and The Incredible String Band. He moved to London in 1972 to study history and archaeology. He loved books and worked at the British Museum. He would work for Marvel Comics as a production editor, ending up in publishing for 10 years.

Chris Lowe lived right down the road from an amusement park called Pleasure Beach. He spent much of his time there. His grandfather was a trombone player, and he himself formed a dance band as a teen. Even though he calls himself moody, he feels that music exists to make people happy. He ended up in London, studying architecture.

They pair met in 1981. They lived around the corner from each other and got talking while Neil was having a keyboard adapted so that he could play it through his stereo. They became fast friends, really getting along, and complementing each other musically. They wrote a bunch of stuff but their first real song was “Jealousy”.

They became fans of Bobby Orlando. One day, Neil called him up for an interview and Bobby O decided to work with them, cutting the record “West End Girls”. It wasn’t a hit, but they remade it with Stephen Hague and only then did it become a monster hit, even in America. It would be the song everyone remember them for.

They didn’t have an act, though; they weren’t a live band. In fact, it would be years before they did concerts. But they decided on their personas: Neil would be the streetwise one and Chris would be the reluctant one. They’re both shy, but Neil took up the role of spokesperson by default, being the frontman.

I enjoyed listening to both. Neil was very straight-laced and genial, explaining everything with a certain amount of authority. When they were interviewed together he would take the lead. But Chris was also interesting: he is self-deprecating, poking fun at his moodiness, and talks in a positive way while giving off a guarded demeanour.

After “West End Girls”, they had a bunch of number ones back-to-back. Then they made the film “It Couldn’t Happen here”. They hadn’t even performed live yet, so their notion was that a movie might tide fans over. It was conceived as a one-hour film built around their latest album, ‘Actually’, but it turned into a feature-length film.

It was lambasted by critics.

Their chart success continued, however. It was only impeded after the release of the video to 1988’s “Domino Dancing”; it was considered homoerotic at a time when it wasn’t accepted. It would be their last top 20 in America. Despite this, however, they have become the fourth biggest dance artists, after Madonna, Janet Jackson and Donna Summer.

After “Domino Dancing”, their next album, ‘Behaviour’, did poorly. It has since been reconsidered. PSB are now respected for writing deeper lyrics than the usual dance fare; they are considered by some as makers of intelligent dance music, and have been nominated for countless Grammys and have won many notable awards over the years.

They eventually decided to go on tour, teaming up with Derek Jarman for their live shows, turning them into theatrical showpieces. They have been touring regularly since 1989 and remain incredibly prolific, having recorded 12 studio albums thus far, and an astounding supply of b-sides and other tracks – which they’ve compiled.

Unfortunately, chart success would never quite repeat their past glories. They were often far too offbeat: ‘Bilingual’ was ahead of its time, delving into Latin sounds a couple of years before it was popular, and ‘Release’, their so-called “rock” album, came at a time when electro was all the rage. But they never stopped writing and recording music.

They also produced a musical called “Closer to Heaven”, for which they wrote and recorded all new songs, and composed the music to a ballet, ‘The Most Incredible Thing’. They also produced a mostly-electronic score to ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and performed it live in Trafalgar Square to 25,000 people – who came out despite the pouring rain.

For all their detractors, Pet Shop Boys obviously also have many fans – not least of which are industry players. The film has an abundance of tributes and commentary by the likes of Frances Baker, Brendan Flowers, Liza Minelli, Tim Rice-Oxley, Jake Shears and Robbie Williams. They’re also emulated by a female duo called West End Girls.

Not bad for a couple of guys who were frequently out of synch with pop culture.

As they say, they set out to create their own world and wanted to make great pop music. Well, they’ve certainly achieved both. And ‘A Life in Pop’ is a very good overview of this eclectic and prolific duo. To think that, in the eight years since, they’ve added so much more to their legacy. It’s astounding, when compared to their peers.

I’m a fan. I wasn’t always, but their work ethic, the values that they promote and the continued quality of their output has converted me, even impressed me, over the years. They’re one of the rare groups now that I’m immediately interested in when they offer a new release; I know that it will usually be a quality work.

And when they’re on, they really on: I would defy anyone to not be taken by songs such as “Integral”, “Numb”, “Love etc.”, “The Way it Used to be” or “Fluorescent”. In my opinion, of the four albums they’ve released since this documentary was made, only one was a mixed bag. And it still had its moments.

Speaking of moments, the documentary also comes with a few bonus features.

The 2006 videos

Given that the release of their ‘PopArt’ retrospective was just a little before 2006’s ‘Fundamental’ came out, the new videos were not included on the ‘PopArt’ DVD. In fact, strangely enough, neither single for ‘PopArt’ was on that set. But most of them were compiled here.

I say “most”, because the video to ‘Flamboyant’ is not available on the Canadian DVD for some reason. It would have been nice to have all of these in place, on the ‘PopArt’ DVD, but here is better than not at all. And ‘PopArt’ was pretty stocked as is (more on that at a later date).

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Miracles: I wondered where this track was dug up from, as it isn’t listed on any of their albums, but it’s one of two new tracks from the Pet Shop Boys compilation ‘PopArt’. Which I don’t have (compilations… meh!). It starts with strings; it’s pretty, delicate, then goes sort of ambient for a bit before kicking in. At that point it’s fairly standard PSB pop/dance music, aside for an interesting bridge.

The video, which apparently cost a bloody fortune, is quite impressive. It’s got a water motif, starting (and ending) with a teenaged girl in a car, windshield wipers wiping the rain away. It’s shot from outside, and in slow-motion, so she is slowly revealed as the water is wiped off. The video mostly consists of people being splashed/covered with water or milk, all in slo-mo – the only exception is a girl whose red hair looks caught in the wind, but in super slo-mo. It’s a gorgeous video, actually, slick-looking. The PSB only show up on buildings; they have little role here. 7.5/8.5

2. I’m With Stupid: The lead-off track to their album ‘Fundamental’, “I’m With Stupid” was a minor hit for the duo. Personally, I’m not a big fan of it because it’s catchy and annoying at once. I like the lyrics to some degree, but I find it interesting that there’s some political subtext to it. I never would have guessed it.

The video is neat, though, because it’s self-deprecating. It’s set in a large theatre, with the curtains lifting to reveal  Matt Lucas and David Walliams (of ‘Little Britain’ fame) doing a sort of puppet show intro on the stage in a cardboard TV. Then the song starts and they lip synch to it, while wearing costumes that mimic some of the PSB’s sillier outfits from past videos. Then dancers join in for an ‘Around the World’-esque choreography. It’s silly and it shows that the PSB don’t take themselves too seriously, which I like. 6.5/7.5

3. Minimal: This is a classic Pet Shop Boys track in many ways. It was originally meant to be the first single from ‘Fundamental’, but it got switched around at the last minute. It’s not brilliant, but I find the chorus catchy and amusing, being spelled out by Neil in a completely synthetic voice – suitably minimalistic. And there’s a splendid Peter Hook-like bass line towards the end that made me triple check the credits just in case.

The video is nearly monochromatic. It opens with a white PSB bust forming out of CGI blocks. The rest consists of the duo performing, with Neil in tails and top hat, while Chris is in his usual cap, glasses and jacket. There are rows of fluorescents lined up behind them. It looks impressive – simple, but nonetheless a sight to behold. There’s also footage of a couple dancing on a plain set, in an artsy fashion. Apparently they are forming the letters of the chorus, but I don’t see it (I’ll just have to watch it a few times). Inexplicably, the bridge has white CGI flowers appear around Neil. Very nice. 7.5/8.0

4. Numb: There’s not much to this gorgeous song; it’s a simple but heart-wrenching anthem for anyone who is dealing with internal struggles or emotional pain and desperately wants some respite. For me, it hits the spot after a break-up, when you wish you could just switch it all off, but you can’t. I wish it were more interesting musically, but lyrically it speak volumes. Interestingly, this song was written by Diane Warren, who also wrote ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”, and who first offered it to Aerosmith. They declined. Their loss.

This video looks like it was cobbled from archival footage from the turn of the 20th century and was enhanced with CGI. The PSB barely show up. In white and black (there’s an emphasis on the white), it opens with the sight of a shipwreck in an icy climate. There are images of old photographs in the background. There are sullen people reminiscing, wandering about in what looks like a desolate Russian landscape. A crystal ball with pretty images in it shows up in the middle of a small city and keeps growing, captivating everyone. I have no idea what it means, but it’s kind of pretty. 8.0/7.0

Television performances

A few select television performances are also included here. I’m not sure why these ones in particular were chosen, but some of them were shown in the documentary, so maybe it was a rights issue. No doubt there are plenty of others that could have joined them.

But maybe that’s for another time, another DVD.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. West End Girls (Hits des Club, Belgium – 1984): This is the Pet Shop Boys’ first-ever TV appearance. The set-up is simple: it’s a darkened stage, there are a couple of panels behind them, and the letters “RTL” tower in back. Neil looks timid, but hides from the intimidation behind closed eyes or fakes his confidence by making fists. Chris just does his thing. They’re both dressed casually, à la ’80s, with slacks, loafers/runners and shirts. It’s not exactly my favourite version of the song; it feels weak. Was it a pre-album version? Is it live, or synched? An excellent moment comes at the end when Neil takes the piss out of it by lip-synching some of the sound effects. Ha! 7.5/6.0

2. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (BRIT Awards – February 8, 1988): Accompanied by Dusty Springfield, the PSB found themselves in the middle of a vast auditorium for this synched performance. Neil is dressed in an oversized suit and Dusty is draped in endless black material. She tries to be convincing, but their duet is weak. Meanwhile Chris is set up with a keyboard and what looks like a Commodore 64. He’s dressed in a vinyl hat and jacket with waders. Not sure what that’s about. God I hate lip-synching. This performance, in particular, looks utterly false, and it doesn’t even sound live. I can see why people wouldn’t like the PSB based on something like this; it’s a poor indication of what they can do. 5.5/5.0

3. Go West (BRIT Awards – February 14, 1994): Backed by two Welsh men’s choirs, who are dressed as miners (with their cap lamps on), the PSB come out wearing white poofy suits with miners’ caps and sunglasses. Obviously, Chris wears is cap backwards. Ha! The set up is simple: they’re facing the crowd and have screens and flashing lights behind them. It looks synched except for the choirs, which sound much louder than the rest of the track. But, who knows, maybe that’s synched too. I’ve never been a great fan of this track (or the original, really), but I have to give them extra points for the power of the choir. 7.5/6.5

In the end, while the television performances were disappointing, the music videos were well worth the time. In fact, I felt compelled to watch them again because there’s so much to them and they really are visually splendid. It’s a terrific companion piece to the documentary, especially since they’re from the same era.

I would highly recommend ‘A Life in Pop’ to fans of pop and electronic music or anyone interested in knowing more about the Pet Shop Boys. Surprise: there’s much more to them than just “West End Girls”. They may not be on everyone’s radar anymore, but they rightly should be. At the very least, they deserve respect.

It’s been quite a life. And it’s not over yet.

Date of viewing: April 6 + 16, 2014

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