Pet Shop Boys: What have I?

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Let’s face it, I am not the key demographic for the Pet Shop Boys.  And by that I mean, I am not at all into synth dance music.  I would also mention that I am not a homosexual, but that is not always integral in listening or appreciating what Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have to offer.  Up to this point, though, I may not have been much of a fan of PSB were it not for my friend Steve.  He kept bringing the group up in our musical summit discussions that we had during our long phone discussions after we graduated from high school and had done what we were initially going to do with college.  I had no feeling either way about the group after their first success.

While I liked the one song almost everyone knows of the group, their first single, West End Girls, it wasn’t something I couldn’t live without.  There was a couple other songs on their début that I had similar feelings about, Opportunities and Love Comes Quickly.  The first was quite clever, and I really liked it as a 15-year-old.  Love Comes Quickly was good, too.  Still, the group was not enough for me to spend my money on.  I had very little in the way of cash then, so any amount was hard-earned.

It was around this time that I discovered The Band and soon after,  John Hiatt.  Somewhere in my senior year, it was Neil Young.  Between those three sources and everything new coming down the pike, PSB just faded into the background.  Steve kept me updated, though.  He kept treating them like a relevant band, and not some dance pop afterthought.  He convinced me to get their cd’s even if I got them through Record Clubs, like CBS and BMG.

Record clubs were prevalent back in the 70’s and especially in the 80’s and 90’s for me.  They allowed for one to get a bunch of albums quickly for a relatively cheap price.  The catch was that one then needed to order a certain amount of albums in the next few years.  The albums were not real expensive, but shipping sure was.  Even more of a catch was they would send you one album per month unsolicited, and it was up to you to turn it down, supposedly ahead of the time that they would send them to you.  I didn’t bother with any of that.  I just sent the albums back return to sender.  I wasn’t the only one, apparently.  The rise of Amazon.com, along with changing music trends (read: stealing via Napster and utorrent) brought the practice to its knees.  It’s just as well.  The musicians did not get any money from royalties at all from it.

My PSB collection was complete as of 1996’s Bilingual.  I developed a new appreciation for the group, but Steve took it a step further.  He collected all the singles and went completely down the rabbit hole.  Some of them I took cotton to, but I did not catch up to him until the group issued re-releases of their albums as double length, with the second discs containing the unreleased tracks from each era.

Up until the Nightlife album, it was possible for me to skirt around the issue of Neil Tennant’s sexuality.  Why this matters should make sense when you take into consideration that I was raised Catholic with a non practicing Baptist father who nonetheless quoted the Bible when it came to discussion of same-sex relations.  While not being of that persuasion myself, I grew up in a time in which most of the attitudes were fluctuating heavily.  I could appreciate Sam Kinison’s approach on the matter (which got his first comedy album barred from ever being released on CD).  In the same respect, I often appreciated the Dennis Miller line, when talking about Depp and Greico “I’m the furthest thing from homosexual, but these guys are hot.”

Just like society, I have gone back and forth between acceptance of homosexuals as people, while being confused at best about flamboyance in general.  Part of me has stubbornly insisted upon the idea of gay people as those who would prefer to “frolic” instead of getting work done.  When I first saw this scene from Braveheart, I was amused and somewhat justified in my harshest instincts.

In the coming years, when Mel Gibson came under fire in Hollywood for this, his supposed distaste for Hebrews, and his apparent abuse of women, I defended him.  To view Gibson as any of these things is as simple thought process as my views as homosexuals as soft.  I mean, if Jodie Foster supports Mel Gibson, can we be so sure that we understand his soul?

In the same way, how can I just one person by the actions of a few?  I know that every person must be judged on their own merits, but it does not always keep me from being afraid that corruption by sin I have no interest in will destroy us, while ignoring the corruption of my own sins.  It is something I battle with to this day.

PSB, and the voice of Neil Tennant,  has helped clarify my soul.  One cannot listen to Tennant and Lowe and believe that homosexuals are all flamboyance (Go West, New York City Boy), all repentance (It’s a Sin) or even 100% proud (In Denial).  PSB has shown me one thing that all homosexuals are: human.  I am thankful for that.

This past week, when I saw them live at the Paramount in Seattle, I saw people from all stripes, but, to be sure, this was a big night for gay.  Gay men, especially.  It was an incredible show that they put on.  Simultaneously they are professional, proud, exuberant and happy to be there in front of an adoring crowd.  For a group consisting of exactly keyboards and a singer, they filled our world with sound.  My world was opened up a little more, and life was a bit more right from that night on.

  1. What Have I Done To Deserve This? (with Dusty Springfield) – Actually (1987): What a masterful command of style and storytelling.  Much has been made about the Boys bringing Springfield’s career out of mothballs to create a song that seemed like anything but a gimmick.  The attitudes pervasive in this work resonate even more than another classic, Don’t You Want Me? by Human League.  You get the story through the lyrics, the music and their voices.  This is an experience, not a message.  I have lived this song.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wn9E5i7l-Eg
  2. Being BoringBehaviour (1990): This is a song that partially arrives out of a criticism that the group was boring.  I could attest to this thought.  It’s not easy getting through a many complete PSB albums for me.  This song is a lot like the others, in that it gives an important example of how interesting the group can be if one is paying attention.  The song reminds me of the book The Great Gatsby, for anyone that survived that period.  One of the quotes of author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda was another inspiration, actually referenced in the song:  “she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring“.  Even further into the complexity of the song is thoughts about Tennant’s friends that have died of AIDS.  It seems to be the song is a refusal to accept the word of others when evaluating one’s own life and times.  Like all the best music, it’s a song that holds much meaning for many different people. I think of this often when not out on a Saturday night, when instead I settle for a beautiful life of domestic bliss with my wife and kids.
  3. In Denial (With Kylie Minogue) – Nightlife (1999): An incredibly powerful song, with a message that binds everyone, no matter what beliefs they have.  A father who is struggling with something that he describes: “It’s a problem that I’m not solving.”  I have the hardest time with the concepts discussed in this song.  The idea that a man could marry a woman, have children and eventually decide that he is gay.  My problem is not with someone making this decision, as much as it is when they make it.  Being married and then having children is a commitment that should not be entered into lightly.  Much of popular media has painted the story in sympathetic terms to the person who made these decisions, instead of the persons whose homes broken because of it.  The same thing applies to married spouses who decide later that they wanted to leave for someone else of the opposite gender.  It’s a negative result of a generation that decided it was more important to find themselves than to honor obligations.    It’s not a homosexual thing, although the evolution of acceptance within our society threw a wrinkle into it that allowed some to sidestep the intellectual dishonesty of going against one’s word.  In Denial does none of this.  It takes the problem straight on and identifies it.  “You should be quitting all these
    Queens and fairies and muscle Marys” has the same resonance for me as that moment in Braveheart.  The daughter is obviously an adult with her own opinions.  There is no mention of a spouse, but the impression is that she sees her father taking unnecessary risks.  The father doesn’t disagree with the thoughts of his daughter:  “…Is that enough / My life is absurd / I’m living it upside down / Like a vampire / Working at night and / Sleeping all day...”  So he tries to drop risky behavior, and instead admits in all believability, what he is.  It’s totally believable and heart-rending.  The smartest and most honest thing about the song is when the last line asks the question (by and of both people):  “Can you love me anyway?”
  4. It’s A SinActually (1987): Yes, it’s quite obvious that Neil Tennant was raised Catholic.  This song mirrored the way I felt for many years before I got married and purged those feelings.  The song really resonates.
  5. Discoteca / Single – Bilingual – Bilingual (1996): Two just plain fun songs from the 1996 album.  There is no hidden subtext here, even if there is a story that is behind both songs, joined in the rhythm track, as well as the following line: Hay una discoteca por aqui? Like the author, I don’t speak the language.  It doesn’t keep me from understanding.  It has the feel of someone who rushes through life hearing a rhythm and wondering where the nightclub really is.
  6. Home and DryRelease (2002): This is a remarkably simple song with a beautiful message: someone misses their love.  It runs through my mind when I want to be at home with my wife and kids.  It was many years later when I saw the befuddling video for the song.   They just really gave up:http:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eU_HP8Cn8Q
  7. You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk – Nightlife (1999): Leave it to Tennant / Lowe to make a rock solid real life situation of a title that sounds like a gimmick song.  The feelings mustered when hearing the song are so intense, one can’t help but feel it’s something they’ve gone through in their own life.  Tennant has the gift of relatability that rivals Springsteen of the Darkness on the Edge of Town era.  Thing is, Tennant has never lost this ability.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-zy1Dc0_mM
  8. Love, etc. – Yes (2009): So amazed that they can come up with such incredibly catchy singles in the third decade of their career.  These guys are machines.  This song would be the best song of just about any other synth pop group’s career.  A wonderful start to a very good album.  The video is pretty awesome, too.  I don’t know why they couldn’t have done this for Home and Dry:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InBiaRBUjUs
  9. Can you forgive her? – Very (1993): A song of such raw emotion, it brings us back to Tennant at a young, uncomfortable age.  The images evoked are simply tragic.  He has a girlfriend who feels a sense of competition with a friend (presumably male) in his past, and she ridicules him for it.  Things don’t seem to work right in their relationship, as they are wont to do when the attraction is not there.  In an age where it really mattered to be “outed,” the protagonist is “…in love, but it feels like shame…”.  Leave it to Tennant to take a literate source for inspiration, in this case the 1865 Trollope novel of the same name.  It’s a starting point, but a relevant one.
  10. The Ghost of Myself – Nightlife (Extra) (1999): For anyone who’s ever looked forward to looking back.  So many crossroads we pass.  What if our decisions came back to haunt us?  Great tune, so assured in sound, in complete contrast to the lyrics.  I can’t believe this was a B-Side.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DnOF3xPnzY
  11. LeavingElysium (2012): Such a haunting melody, in spirit a companion piece to The Ghost of Myself.  So smooth and sad all at once.
  12. Left to My Own Devices – Introspective (1988): Another look at what we have done, what we want to do, what we could do…if only.
  13. I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing (7 inch version) – Very (Further Listening) (1993): Different keyboards bring out the intensity of this song over the gaudy sound of the original.
  14. The truck-driver and his mate – Bilingual (Further Listening) (1996) A driving beat, a wailing moan and compulsion.  Anyone who’s been on the road can relate.
  15. The Last To DieElectric (2013):  A Springsteen cover that would have been better than most of their Fundamental album, covering a lot of the same subjects.
  16. West End GirlsPlease (1986): It’s hard to deny the qualities of this song.  It’s also hard to hear a bunch of people bring it up every time you mention PSB.  We get it, you haven’t heard them since 1986.  Shut it, already.
  17. The Samurai in Autumn – Release (2002): A cool title with a beat worthy of it.
  18. Love Comes QuicklyPlease (1986): “…Sooner or later, this happens to everyone, to everyone…”
  19. Closer to HeavenNightlife (1999): I wish I could include all of this album.  And Yes.  And Bilingual.
  20. SuburbiaPlease (1986): Sounds ageless as Synth music can.  A highlight to the live show, I have included one without the dead beast skulls for your enjoyment.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Ks4ksMXGBw
  21. MetamorphosisBilingual (1996): “…Somebody spoke and I went into a dream…”
  22. Happiness Is An OptionNightlife (1999): It’s not surprising that a fan of PSB might have to be reminded this.
  23. I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too) Introspective (Further Listening) (1988) Great live version shown above with Love, Etc.
  24. Se a vida é (That’s the Way Life Is) Bilingual (1996): See #19 and #22.
  25. I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It AnymoreNightlife (1999): Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

What I hope for you is a connection that gets past what you hear about any band.  If I stuck to that, it’s likely I would have stopped with PSB after their first album.  Then I would have missed a lot of life worth living.

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2 thoughts on “Pet Shop Boys: What have I?

  1. Wow! It’s obvious that you put a lot of time and thought into this piece. I really enjoyed reading it. Some of your song choices really surprised me. I am inspired to compile my own PSB top 10 now. I’ll share it with you when I do.

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