For all of those who don't fit in,
Who follow their instincts and are told they sin,
This is a prayer for a different way.
- 'A Red Letter Day'
The most successful duo in UK chart history, having amassed over thirty top twenty hit singles and twelve hit albums, the Pet Shop Boys are Neil Francis Tennant (born 10 July, 1954 in North Shields, Tyne And Wear) and Christopher Sean Lowe (born 4 October, 1959 in Blackpool, Lancashire).
When they met in August 1981, in an electronics shop in London, Neil was working for the teenage music magazine Smash Hits and Chris was studying architecture. Discovering a shared interest in dance music they decided to start writing songs together, and began to record demos with Neil handling vocals and Chris on keyboards and drum machine. At first they called themselves West End, but soon changed the group's name to Pet Shop Boys.
In August 1983, while in New York for Smash Hits, Neil met disco producer Bobby Orlando. Impressed by Neil's knowledge of and enthusiasm for his recordings, Bobby O, as he was known, offered to produce some tracks for the Pet Shop Boys. They worked together on several songs, one of which, 'West End Girls', was released as a single in April 1984 by Epic Records. Despite some modest success in the clubs, the record failed to make any commercial impact and their association with both Epic and Bobby O fizzled out.
Returning to the UK, the duo signed to Parlophone, although their first release for the label, 'Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)', was another chart flop. The next plan was to re-issue 'West End Girls', although this proved impossible as Epic still held the rights to the original recording. Consquently, a re-recorded version of the song became their third release. Slower and generally more polished than the original, the record entered the UK chart in November 1985, climbing steadily over the last few weeks of the year, and finally reaching the number 1 position in January 1986.
The early part of 1986 was spent finishing off the first Pet Shop Boys album, Please. Released in March, the sleeve was an act of rebellion against the excesses of the 1980s, bearing only a one inch square photo of Neil and Chris in the middle of twelve square inches of white card, accompanied by the title and artist credit in tiny, lower case print. The album reached number 3 in the UK and spawned three further top twenty hits that year: 'Love Comes Quickly'; a remixed version of 'Opportunities'; and 'Suburbia'. The duo also finally achieved American success, as the UK re-recording of 'West End Girls' also topped the US chart. The year ended with the release of Disco, a mini-album compiling extended remixes of the four hit singles and two of their B-sides, which followed its parent album into the UK top ten.
1987 was an even busier year, although the duo spent the first half of it out of the spotlight recording their second proper album, Actually. The first taster for the album was 'It's A Sin', which became their second UK number one single in July and took them back into the US top ten. This was closely followed by 'What Have I Done To Deserve This?', a duet with Dusty Springfield, which reached number two on both sides of the Atlantic. Actually was released in September and gave the Boys another top ten hit album, followed by another top ten single in 'Rent'.
While this was going on, Neil and Chris had decided not to tour, opting instead to showcase their music in a feature film, It Couldn't Happen Here. Despite a soundtrack crammed with tracks from Please and Actually and guest appearances from the likes of Joss Ackland and Barbara Windsor, the film was neither a critical nor commercial success. Like The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour or The Monkees' Head, the film was slated for having no discernable plot and being a mixture of symbolism, surrealism, and out-and-out weirdness.
However, despite the failure of It Couldn't Happen Here, the year ended on a high note. Back in the summer, Neil and Chris had recorded a version of Elvis Presley's hit 'Always On My Mind' for a tribute TV show to mark the tenth anniversary of the King's death. They had not planned to release the song officially, but public demand was so high that they gave in and released it as a single in time for it to claim the coveted Christmas number 1 spot.
As 1988 dawned, copies of Actually were quickly repackaged with a free 'Always On My Mind' single, and the album climbed back up the chart. This was the high water mark of the duo's commercial success, and was topped off by the March release of 'Heart', the final single from Actually, which became their third UK number 1 in less than twelve months. Around this time, Neil and Chris also wrote and produced 'I'm Not Scared', a single for Patsy Kensit's band Eighth Wonder, which became another top ten hit.
The duo's next move was slightly more experimental. Rather than another collection of three minute pop songs, 1988's Introspective consisted of six lengthier tracks. Although marketed as a new album, rather than a remix album as Disco had been, critics noted that there were only two new Tennant/Lowe compositions: 'Domino Dancing' and 'Left To My Own Devices', both of which became top ten hit singles. The other tracks were a remix of 'Always On My Mind'; the duo's own recording of 'I'm Not Scared'; a remix of the previous year's 'Rent' B-side 'I Want A Dog'; and a cover of Sterling Void's house classic 'It's Alright'. This didn't deter the fans, however, and the album was another top ten success.
After half a decade of studio-based work, 1989 was dominated by the duo's first live tour. Naturally, this was no ordinary rock show, with theatrical-style sets, dancers and specially shot background films made by Derek Jarman, who also directed the whole spectacle. Due to its lavish nature, the tour comprised only fourteen shows, in Japan, Hong Kong and the UK. Their last single of the 1980s, a re-recorded version of 'It's Alright' was released to coincide with the tour and became another top five hit.
The rest of 1989 was spent collaborating with other acts. Neil and Chris wrote and recorded 'Nothing Has Been Proved', the theme from the film Scandal, with Dusty Springfield on vocals, and also produced half of the songs on her comeback album Reputation. They worked a similar magic on Liza Minnelli, producing her first ever UK hit single 'Losing My Mind' and other tracks for her album Results; and as if to prove their eclecticism, Neil co-wrote and sang on 'Getting Away With It', the debut single by Electronic, the band formed by New Order vocalist Bernard Sumner and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. Both Neil and Chris would subsequently contribute to another track, 'The Patience Of A Saint', for Electronic's debut album.
With these extra-curricular activities out of the way, Neil and Chris set about recording their fourth album in Munich with keyboard wizard Harold Faltermeyer1 at the controls. The idea was to produce an album of upbeat pop songs, but instead the resulting Behaviour album was their most subdued and, ironically, introspective set to date. One of the few uptempo tracks, 'So Hard', was chosen as the lead single and duly returned the duo to the UK top ten, but the follow-up 'Being Boring' struggled only as far as number 20, breaking their run of ten consecutive top ten hits.
There was some debate over what should be their next move. The Behaviour track 'How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?' underwent a substantial remix in preparation for a single release; an EP of cover versions was also considered. In the end a compromise was reached - the single was released as a double A-side with a newly-recorded cover of U2's 'Where The Streets Have No Name', which inexplicably burst into the chorus of Andy Williams' 1960s hit 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' at strategic points. As well as claiming the record for the longest titled hit single in UK chart history, 'Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)'/'How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?' restored Neil and Chris to the top ten.
A further release from Behaviour, 'Jealousy', took their total of top twenty hits to sixteen - time for a greatest hits album. Featuring all their hits and two newly-recorded songs, Discography - The Complete Singles Collection was released in time for Christmas 1991. The two new tracks soon became hits in their own right: 'DJ Culture' preceding the album and 'Was It Worth It?' following soon afterwards. Strangely, although the latter was something of a return to the earlier, high-energy Pet Shop Boys sound, it became the first of their singles to peak outside of the top twenty2, reaching only number 24.
Following the release of Discography, Neil and Chris took some time off from being the Pet Shop Boys. Much of their energies in 1992 were directed towards running their own record label, the strangely monikered Spaghetti Records. The label's biggest success was Scottish singer Cicero3, who scored three hits, the biggest of which, 'Love Is Everywhere', reached number 19. The label's other major success was the theme from the film The Crying Game, essentially a Pet Shop Boys recording but with lead vocals provided by Boy George. Again showing their diversity, the Boys contributed songs to both Kylie Minogue and Tina Turner, while Neil collaborated again with Electronic on their top ten hit 'Disappointed'. For some reason, Chris also saw fit to record a single with footballer Ian Wright on vocals: 'Do The Right Thing', which came worryingly close to reaching the top forty.
Regrouping to record a fifth album, the recording sessions went so well that they returned with two. Two singles appeared first: 'Can You Forgive Her?', an unusual break from their traditional dance oriented sound4; and then 'Go West', of all things a Village People cover, which became their biggest hit of the decade, reaching number 2. Upon its release in October 1993, the CD of the album Very5 appeared in two formats: a single disc in a bright orange embossed case; or a double disc in card sleeves within a similarly tactile plastic wallet. The second disc of this package, Relentless, was another six-track album of lengthier songs, this time with a harder dance edge than the main disc6. This unusual formatting, combined with the duo's high profile following the success of 'Go West', propelled them to the number one spot in the UK album chart for the first time.
Around this time, Neil put an end to years of media speculation by announcing in a magazine interview that he was gay. 'It seemed churlish not to,' he would later observe. The duo had always had a large gay following, and the revelation had no adverse effect on their popularity. Over the next twelve months, a further three singles were taken from Very; 'I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing', 'Liberation' and 'Yesterday, When I Was Mad' all reached the top twenty. During this time, Neil and Chris also recorded a benefit single for the Comic Relief charity: using samples from the TV comedy Absolutely Fabulous over their own backing track, the single was titled 'Absolutely Fabulous' and credited simply to 'Absolutely Fabulous'.
Although there would be a three year gap between Very and the release of their next studio album, the duo's profile remained fairly high thanks to two new compilations. 1994 saw the release of Disco 2, another set of remixes. Although the idea was welcomed by fans, the album itself proved something of a disappointment. Rather than including six full-length mixes as per the original Disco, Disco 2 used excerpts from numerous remixes segued together to form one continuous 50-minute 'megamix', with individual tracks being sped up or slowed down as required to match the overall tempo. More satisfying was the following year's Alternative, a double album collecting all the duo's B-sides to date. Accompanied by the single release of 'Paninaro '95', a new version of the 'Suburbia' B-side, Alternative reached number 2 in the chart.
This flurry of archive raiding was followed in 1996 by the sixth 'proper' Pet Shop Boys album, Bilingual. Once again the album was heralded by two top ten singles, the understated 'Before' and the latin-influenced 'Se A Vida É (That's The Way Life Is)'. Bilingual covered most of the usual bases, from high-energy floor fillers to wistful ballads, but without being predictable - several tracks featured live percussion by SheBoom, an all-female drumming troupe. Two further top twenty hits were taken from the album: 'Single-Bilingual' and 'A Red Letter Day', the former featuring SheBoom, the latter including a guest performance by the Choral Academy of Moscow. During this period, Neil and Chris also performed a radical makeover on the David Bowie album track 'Hallo Spaceboy', which became Bowie's most successful single for several years. There was no Pet Shop Boys tour to promote the album; instead Neil and Chris played a series of live shows at the Savoy Theatre in London in June 1997. These were promoted by a new single, a dance version of 'Somewhere' from West Side Story, and a 'Special Edition' of Bilingual which saw the CD re-issued with a bonus disc of remixes.
With three years now being the official gap between each studio album, things went quiet for a couple of years, although Neil and Chris remained active behind the scenes. Neil organised a charity album, Twentieth Century Blues - The Songs of Noël Coward, which included contributions from such unlikely companions as Sir Paul McCartney, Robbie Williams and Vic Reeves, as well as an exclusive Pet Shop Boys recording. Another new Pet Shop Boys track appeared on the soundtrack of the 1998 remake of the film Psycho. The next eighteen months was spent writing; as well as having a new album and a musical in the pipeline, the duo had been commissioned by the BBC to write a piece of music to accompany their coverage of 1999's solar eclipse.
The new album surfaced in 1999 under the title Nightlife. Surprisingly, the first two singles 'I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More' and 'New York City Boy' peaked outside of the top ten. Despite this, in December Neil and Chris embarked on their first UK tour for eight years, which helped the next single 'You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk' into the top ten in the first weeks of 2000.
After two years' work, 2001 finally saw the fruition of the Pet Shop Boys' musical Closer To Heaven. Although other rock and pop bands' songs had been used in musicals, these generally involved a storyline loosely based around a selection of hit singles. Closer To Heaven took the opposite approach, utilising a dozen songs specially written7 to fit the story. The play itself was written by Jonathan Harvey, best known for writing the TV sitcom Gimme, Gimme, Gimme. Closer To Heaven tells the story of 'Straight Dave', an Irish lad who comes to London, auditions for a boy band, and falls in love with a girl... and a boy. Part music biz satire, part love story, Closer To Heaven ran for five months at the Arts Theatre, London, and spawned an original cast album, ironically distributed by Epic Records, who had let the Pet Shop Boys slip through their fingers some seventeen years previously.
After collaborating with Austrian DJ and producer Peter Rauhofer on a club-friendly cover of Raze's 'Break 4 Love', April 2002 saw the release of Release, easily their least PSB-esque album. Breaking with tradition, both the album and subsequent tour utilised real instruments, live drums and even guitars! The fans' reaction to the new direction was mixed, but Neil and Chris maintained a large enough fanbase to take the singles 'Home And Dry' and 'I Get Along' into the top twenty. A third single, 'London', was released in some European countries but - with typical irony - not the UK, although the accompanying remixes and B-sides helped flesh out Disco 3, another variation on the theme of remix albums, this time featuring a handful of previously unreleased tracks amongst the dance versions of familiar material.
With Christmas on the way again, another greatest hits album was called for. Rather than simply include the singles released since Discography, it was decided to compile all the duo's top twenty hits - all their hits, therefore, with the exception of 'Was It Worth It?'. Entitled PopArt, the set was split into two discs; the radio-friendly numbers appearing on Pop and the more cerebral works on Art, although the split between the two seemed fairly arbitrary. There was also a limited edition set, PopArtMix, which added a bonus disc of remixes. However, with Discography still available at budget price, PopArt sold poorly, although it spawned two more top twenty hits of its own: 'Miracles' and 'Flamboyant'.
Although their days of mass appeal are over, the Pet Shop Boys' continued ability to surprise - manifested in their 2004 soundtrack for the 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, for example - without alienating their fans means that after twenty years they still command an enormous number of dedicated followers in all corners of the world.
All releases on Parlophone unless otherwise stated.
- West End Girls (Epic Records, 1984)
- Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money) (1985)
- West End Girls (re-recording, 1985)
- Love Comes Quickly (1986)
- Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money) (remix, 1986)
- Suburbia (1986)
- It's A Sin (1987)
- What Have I Done To Deserve This? (with Dusty Springfield, 1987)
- Rent (1987)
- Always On My Mind (1987)
- Heart (1988)
- Domino Dancing (1988)
- Left To My Own Devices (1988)
- It's Alright (1989)
- So Hard (1990)
- Being Boring (1990)
- Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)/How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? (1991)
- Jealousy (1991)
- DJ Culture (1991)
- Was It Worth It? (1991)
- Can You Forgive Her? (1993)
- Go West (1993)
- I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing (1993)
- Liberation (1994)
- Absolutely Fabulous (by 'Absolutely Fabulous', Spaghetti Records, 1994)
- Yesterday, When I Was Mad (1994)
- Paninaro '95 (1995)
- Before (1996)
- Se A Vida É (That's The Way Life Is) (1996)
- Single-Bilingual (1996)
- A Red Letter Day (1997)
- Somewhere (1997)
- I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More (1999)
- New York City Boy (1999)
- You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk (2000)
- Home And Dry (2002)
- I Get Along (2002)
- Miracles (2003)
- Flamboyant (2004)
- Please (1986)
- Actually (1987)
- Introspective (1988)
- Behaviour (1990)
- Very (1993)
- Bilingual (1996)
- Nightlife (1999)
- Release (2002)
- Disco (1986) - remixes
- Discography - The Complete Singles Collection (1991)
- Disco 2 (1994) - more remixes
- Alternative (1995) - single B-sides
- Disco 3 (2003) - some more remixes plus some unreleased tracks
- PopArt (2003) - an updated singles compilation
Special edition albums
- Very Relentless (1993) - initial copies of Very came packaged with a bonus album, Relentless.
- Originals (1997) - box set of three CDs, Please, Actually and Behaviour, each in a miniature replica of the original album sleeve.
- Bilingual - Special Edition (1997) - the original Bilingual album re-issued with a bonus disc of remixes.
- PopArtMix (2003) - the two PopArt discs plus an extra disc of remixes.
Additionally, the first six albums (from Please to Bilingual) were digitally remastered and re-issued in 2001, each including an extra disc, Further Listening, which contained additional material from the same period as the original album.
- Television (1986, VHS/Beta)
- Showbusiness (1988, VHS/Beta)
- Promotion (1991, VHS)
- Videography - The Complete Singles Collection (1991, VHS)
- Various (1994, VHS)
- PopArt (2003, DVD)
- Highlights (1990, VHS)
- Performance (1991, VHS/2004, DVD)
- Discovery - Live In Rio (1995, VHS)
- Somewhere (1997, VHS/DVD)
- Montage (2001, DVD)
- It Couldn't Happen Here (1988, VHS/Beta)
The singles 'Home And Dry' and 'I Get Along' were both also released as DVD singles. Some early videos were also released on Laserdisc.
How many Pet Shop Boys does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two: one to change the lightbulb, and one to stand at the back looking bored.