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PET SHOP BOYS

October 1, 2006
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“Kicking in chairs and knocking down tables” is probably what Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe felt like doing when their debut single, “West End Girls,” went nowhere upon its initial release in April 1984. Instead of destroying furniture, Tennant and Lowe went back to the soundboard to remix the song. Upon rerelease in 1986 on the album Please (EMI), “West End Girls” became a huge hit, topping the charts across the globe. They may have not invented the remix, but few acts have seized on its redemptive power like the Pet Shop Boys.

Prior to meeting in a London electronics store in 1981, architecture student Lowe was playing “Hello Dolly” on the trombone, and Tennant was a journalist for Smash Hits magazine, ineptly interviewing fellow Marvel Comics geek Marc Bolan. The chaps' shared love for disco catalyzed the formation of West End, later renamed Pet Shop Boys because it sounded more like an English rap group. While interviewing The Police in New York in 1983, Tennant fortuitously slipped a demo to Bobby Orlando, the Hi-NRG producer behind Divine and the Flirts.

Despite the Bobby O touch, “West End Girls” barely rose above the day-glo Top 40 din that dominated the charts in the Reagan/Thatcher era of the mid-'80s. Inspired by Grandmaster Flash's song “The Message” and T.S. Eliot's poem “The Waste Land,” “West End Girls” — a hybrid of melodic synth pop and maudlin lyrics — sparked only marginal interest in the United States. On the FM dial, L.A.'s post-punk/new-wave beacon KROQ (with its roster of taste-making ex-pat Euro DJs), broke the original import during the pastel-splashed Olympic summer of 1984. In 1985, Pet Shop Boys signed with EMI and recruited Stephen Hague (New Order, Erasure, OMD) for retooling; by early 1986, the rest was chart-topping history. The band had a string of hits, including “Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money),” “It's a Sin” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (a duet with '60s pop icon Dusty Springfield). In 1990, Neil Tennant joined New Order's Bernard Sumner and The Smiths' Johnny Marr to open for Depeche Mode at Dodger Stadium as part of the group Electronic — just one of the many side projects that have kept the Boys in the limelight. While slow to catch fire, Pet Shop Boys burned white hot through the rest of the '80s and early '90s.

With PSB gaining much respect in the music industry, big-name artists began lining up to work with the duo. Liza Minnelli, who hired PSB to produce her 1989 Results (Epic) LP, said of the duo: “To find somebody who you like enough and trust enough and respect enough to say, ‘Forget it, I'll do whatever you want,’ is quite amazing.” While recording the PSB-inspired/remixed “Sorry” for her 2005 Confessions on a Dance Floor (Warner Bros.) album, Madonna reportedly exclaimed “I fucking love them!”, underscoring a mutual admiration stretching back to PSB's 1988 song “Heart” (written for but never delivered to Madonna by PSB, who were too shy to give it to her at the time). Other multimedia cohorts include photographer Bruce Weber and the late director Derek Jarman. “I suppose some people think pop music and theater shouldn't mix, but I think pop music is theater,” Jarman had said of his recurrent work with Tennant and Lowe, which included directing the PSB video for “It's a Sin.” Additional cinematic and theatrical ventures include soundtracks for Battleship Potemkin and The Crying Game (on their own Spaghetti label), as well as their film, It Couldn't Happen Here, and musical, Closer to Heaven.

Although Fundamental (EMI/Rhino, 2006) is only PSB's ninth album in 20 years, Tennant and Lowe constantly update their sound, securing their standing in the cultural index. More than 80 DJs and producers have remixed their songs, including Moby, KLF, Sasha, Frankie Knuckles, Basement Jaxx, Tiga, Scissor Sisters, Richard X and Michael Mayer. Covers such as “Always on My Mind” and “Where the Streets Have No Name;” B-sides and compilations (Disco 1 through 3, Introspective, Discography, Alternative, PopArt); and productions with Elton John, Dusty Springfield, Blur, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono and Madonna garnered them further critical acclaim, heightened their commercial profile and deepened their cultural cachet.

Fundamental reunited Tennant and Lowe with Trevor Horn (the Svengali producer for ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Seal), who had worked with them on PSB's third album, Introspective (EMI, 1988). Proving PSB's long tooth still bites, the first single from Fundamental, “I'm With Stupid,” prods dubious couplings (Bush/Blair, stars/fans, musical duos) with PSB's trademark sardonic lyricism and catchy electro-pop. The video pits the satirical comedy duo Little Britain as performers lip-syncing the song for Tennant and Lowe onstage. While the exasperated alter egos call out for approval, the Boys sit tied together and classically unresponsive in an empty theater. Echoing a sentiment shared by a legion of devotees, Little Britian whimpers “We love you,” into the dark silence as the curtain descends. Considering what is said of imitation and flattery, if such unrequited fawning is not a measure of respect, what is?

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