I’m with stupid

I fell in love with the jacket first. It was long, black and nipped at the waist. It took several days to notice the man filling out the coat, and several weeks to realize that the song he was singing and the duo in which he was performing would become the sonic punctuation of my adult life. The Pet Shop Boys embody the essence of Thinking Pop, offering an intelligent guide through the paradoxes, hypocrisies and lies of media, nation and selfhood. Even at thirty seven years of age, they remain the soundtrack of my life through the marriages and breakups, through the professional successes and failures. No other popular cultural performer has been as influential and credible – for as long – as PSB. Unlike Madonna, they do not use Abba samples to get down with the kids. They don’t look like an extra from Flashdance. They are satisfied to grow up and age in public. Adult love, loss, triumph and decline are catalogued by PSB’s words, rhythms, clothes and politics.

The Pet Shop Boys have staying power. Twenty years after Neil Tennant appeared in that flowing coat clumping through London’s streets, they have released their fifteenth album, the ninth of completely new music, in May 2006. Critics are already listing it amongst their best. Titled Fundamental, it attacks weak political leaders holding strong views on war. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have always been political, in a stoic and coldly threatening fashion. Songs such as Rent and It’s a sin from the Actually album attacked the duplicity of an Iron Lady with a caustic will for social destruction. Although the bends and twists in sexual relationships and intimacy have been a constant companion to their backbeat, the excesses of greed, jealousy and envy have been dominant textual fodder. During our era of limp gossip being reported in the news as news – Nicole Ritchie buying new sunglasses, Paris Hilton attending another party, Lindsay Lohan choosing a new shade of lip gloss – the Pet Shop Boys draw us to the urgent and important. Using the relentless energy of disco, they create a disco(urse) of difference. They use pop to attack pap.

There is a font for their chic smartness. Tennant holds a history degree and his interest in the former Soviet Union in particular was to serve both the lyrics and iconography of the band well through their career. Songs like October Symphony and even the cover of the Village People’s Go West became anthems for rethinking socialism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There is another member of the Pet Shop Boys who observes history, stoic and reserved. Chris Lowe has moved through the 1980s and 1990s behind sunglasses, transforming the iconography, ideologies and clothing of masculinity. As with Tennant, there is an origin for his subtle understanding of bodies, space and meaning. Chris Lowe studied architecture at the University of Liverpool. His consciousness of fashion and physical spaces bled into the sonic architecture and style that would provide the bedrock and façade of the Pet Shop Boys, making them much more than another electronica band, like Erasure or Depeche Mode.

They are smart – too smart – in a dumb time. PSB were not invited to Number 10 after Tony Blair was elected into office. The Prime Minister could counter the (verbal) punches of Noel Gallagher. He simply could not fathom the political or linguistic palette of the Pet Shop Boys. After such active avoidance, and in his third term, Blair now must manage pointed sexual barbs from Tennant and Lowe’s new album, which suggests that he is also an inept lover. Words matter to the duo, almost as much as rhythm. They have given their albums single word titles – Please, Actually, Introspective, Behaviour, Very, Bilingual, Release and Fundamental – and often deploy full sentences for their song titles, like I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it any more and You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk. For their current album, they adopted the full Kraftwerk effect, with sharp song titles as well. Psychological, Minimal, Numb and Integral duel with the disco excesses of The Sodom and Gomorrah Show and I made my excuses and left.

This combination of words and images – history and architecture – creates a scheming soundscape. They have maintained a singular function for the last twenty years: to translate underground dance rhythms into popular culture through smart lyrics, puffed up jackets, pointed hats and more pointed politics. Their persona has created an archetype. The quiet, understated, unmoving and laconic anti-pop stars move through dance music without dancing. Their videos show them watching other people at parties, watching other people having sex, watching other people living their lives. They are distanced – disconnected – aloof – from their context. They perfected their archetype in the videos for Very. Wearing dunce caps and egg-shell helmets, along with primary coloured jumpsuits, they wandered through post-Soviet Russia and a computerized matrix looking more comfortable than in their ‘real’ context of Major’s Britain.

The gift that the 1980s gave to popular culture was to bring sharp-edged design to the loops of sound. While fashion cynics became fixated on the Joan Collins shoulder pads and the Molly Ringwald water-stained taffeta, it was the razor-edged lettering, the clean lines of design and the splash of colour is the greatest stylistic revolution of the 1980s. The Pet Shop Boys, through their detached view of the world, created an intimate fusion of pop and design. Working with Mark Farrow, the detail of their visual work was precise and conscious. Graphology, packaging and texture mattered from the start of their career and it has continued in the subsequent twenty years.

They also took chances by deploying operatic and theatrical techniques in 1991 through the staging and costuming of David Alden and David Fielding. They then produced their own musical, Closer to Heaven in 2001 and a new soundtrack for the extraordinary film, Battleship Potemkin, in 2005. They have been prepared to make mistakes and take chances. It was no accident that their career anthology was titled Pop Art. It signaled either a double-barrelled noun to describe their work or a linear trajectory from pop to art. More likely, the two words provide semiotic tennis rackets that allow their sounds and vision to bounce and resonate between these categories.

Their new album has tracked this Pop↔Art reverberation, seeing a revival of their career and a reassessment of their influence. Although their hardcore fans have stayed with them since Very’s release in 1993, each subsequent album enacted a stark separation from the previous remix. Bilingual remade the English duo into the soundtrack for a European community. Nightlife brought rhythm and movement back to the night-time economy, and Release – their great experimentation with rock structures and instrumentation – was an album of regret and loss. But for the chart-based fans of music, they have been quiet since the brilliance of Very and the charting singles Go West, the stomping disco cover, and the fag hag anthem, Can you forgive her?

Spurting from this recent history, Fundamental becomes even more extraordinary. It aligns their long journey of suits, sights and sounds. For those who have not followed their career in the last ten years, it seems like a come-back. For those who have stayed with their musical journey with faith and openness, the sheer quality and topicality of this release could have been predicted. The revelation is the breadth and freshness of their vision. It is an album glacial in its emotional intimacy.

The War on Terror has provided the hook on which to hang these tracks. The Pet Shop Boys are sharp and probing in their anger. The neo-conservative fear of foreigners bubbles into the lyric of Indefinite leave to remain. An attack identity cards and the disappointments of the Blairite third way pump through Integral. The pounding politics of I’m with stupid transforms the Blair and Bush ‘special relationship’ into a homoerotic encounter between the mediocre and obtuse. The video highlights the camp comedy of the track with the Little Britain writers Matt Lucas and David Williams re-staging the Pet Shop Boys’ video history. This collaboration has overshadowed the more significant reunion between the Pet Shop Boys and the producer Trevor Horn.

They first worked together on the 1988 single Left to my own devices. But Horn has rejoiced in bringing Barry White orchestration and the bumping excesses of disco into the 2000s. Alexis Petridis realized that The Sodom and Gomorrah Show allowed Horn to “pull … out what you might call the Full Frankie: timpani, thwacking hi-NRG bass, cascading synth lines, jagged guitar chords and, as was once mandatory on his productions, a booming voiceover that breaks into puny-earthlings-I’ll-destroy-them-all cackling’. For the duration of one album in Howard’s Australia, Bush’s America and Blair’s Britain, happy, monogamous, heterosexual, suburban family life is placed in the backseat of the four wheel drive. During Fundamental, the outsiders to such heteronormativity can slam down a couple of Brandy Alexanders and unsteadily strut to a club with dull interiors, bright lights and sweaty rhythms. It feels good to be part of a community of listeners, dancers and thinkers who care more about ideas and politics than a tax rebate or a plasma screen television.

It is the random but trackable movements between the bright past and pallid present that make Fundamental a landmark in pop. Andy, a fan from London, described his response to the album for the BBC.

‘Just when the dump[s]er seemed to beckon, it’s an astonishing return to form – right up there with the PSBs finest album, Very and Behaviour. Minimal is a better New Order song than anything on the last New Order album, the Sodom and Gomorrah Show is a 21st century Welcome to the Pleasuredome, Integral is a furious disco stomper. Even Numb isn’t bad. A great Trevor Horn album, a great Pet Shop Boys album… back! Back! BACK!’

I understand Andy’s enthusiasm. Popular culture generally, and popular music specifically, has let us down since September 11. Part of it is the Australian/American Idol effect. Pallid ballads and try-hard rock covers have been the soundtrack to the Iraq War. We need a cultural circuit breaker, a rupture in the conformity and consensus of invasion and hyperconsumerism. That is why this album is the pop musical equivalent of the film Casablanca. This metaphor drills down to the level of songs, with the hard, painful and frighteningly intense Bogart moment of Minimal playing off the Berman softness, silence and secrets in Numb. The fragile confidence against the odd, performed to perfection by Peter Lorre, slices through with the final track, Integral. The wisdom and reflection of Claude Reins is captured in the lyrical masterpiece of the album – Twentieth Century – that remains second only to Being Boring as the Pet Shop Boys’ theme song. Just as Casablanca is more than a war movie, so is Fundamental more than a war album. It offers a space to talk about and through words like terrorism and foreigners, invasion and war.

This survival against the odds – even while George Michael keeps getting arrested and Britney Spears continually breaks up with Kevin Federline – the Pet Shop Boys have settled into an important role: the undertakers of popular music. They gather the dark, damaged and decaying. Tennant’s mournful tones, that confirm that there will not be a happy ending to romance, love or lust, is counterpoised with the hopeful swirling synthesizers of disco. Luke Turner realized that “they’ve rightly realized that making an album chock-full of screaming camp bangers would merely make them look like a pair of decaying, bleach-blond queens spilling out of their sleeveless vests in some forsaken provincial nightspot’.

Instead, the evenness of Tennant’s tone is tempered – lightly – with an ice cold slither of rage. There is none of Coldplay’s blandness or Madonna’s leotards. Right now, we do not need legwarmers. We do not need roller skates. Actually, we require a bright, sharp spotlight hitting the paradoxes of this paranoid time. As Alexis Petridis confirmed in his review of Fundamental, “you listen wondering who else in pop music would do something like this. And for the first time, the answer comes back, nobody’. Being defiant – rather than boring, banal or compliant – it is the Pet Shop Boys who might be able to reconnect popular culture with political change.

They have always been the pop stars that most captured the ambivalence of Generation X: inauthentically authentic, socially courageous, media literate, intelligent, but also endlessly distracted by the cut of a good jacket. When opening the blackness of Fundamental’s packaging, a promotional card tumbles from the disc, advertising Pet Shop Boys ringtones. While the teen ringers are part of the pop audience, they are not the primary listeners for this work. Optimism and hope are for the young. Regret and disillusion come with experience. In the opening song Psychological, Tennant asks “Is it a cry for help/or call to arms?” Life teaches us that – to survive this long dark night of hyper-capitalism – despair must always be plaited with anger. The Pet Shop Boys’ role in teaching Gen Xers how to age with an edge must not be underestimated. Fundamental reveals the next stage in understanding the changes in the mirror, and the changes to society.

In April 2006, a month before Fundamental was released, Edward Said’s posthumously published book On Late Style was released by Pantheon. Said remained interested in the creative abilities of artists in their final years. Beethoven, Genet, Mozart and Strauss are of particular focus. Said confirmed that the late works not only capped a lifetime of work, but an expression of “artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty … unresolved contradiction’. The tension between disenchantment and pleasure creates the impetus for creativity. The mastery of form and experience with technique triggers a desire for resistance and refusal. Instead of a late style showing clarity and confidence, self assurance and peace, it is the darkness and denial that characterizes the quality of artists in the latter stages of the career.

Popular cultural time will always move at a greater pace than high cultural texts. For the Pet Shop Boys to still be producing chart music in the 2000s is an astounding example of pop longevity. They confirm Said’s argument: Fundamental has captured their late style. Andy Gill in The Independent believed that “the result may be the very best album of their career, a mature and considered work which satisfies head, heart and feet simultaneously’. They are masters of form and technique, but need to express the paradoxes and contradictions that have emerged in their music and lives.

The label of ‘dance music’ has blocked the Pet Shop Boys from being recognized as powerful social commentators. Their critiques of Thatcher, through the songs Opportunities, Shopping, King’s Cross, and Rent, were profound. Yet their attack on Blair is even more cutting and damaging. While Fundamental is their Casablanca with myriad innovations and rejuvenated clichés, their Claude Rains track of Twentieth Century should be played on repeat by every political leader with aspirations for war.

‘I bought a ticket to the revolution

and cheered when the statues fell.

Everyone came to destroy what was rotten

but they killed off what was good as well.

Sometimes the solution

is worse than the problem.

Let’s stay togeth r.’

Tennant’s history degree has served him well. Similarly Chris Lowe, who has worn sunglasses through much of his pop life, sees the future more clearly than most. The Pet Shop Boys offer a history lesson from pop, and a lesson from the last century, to be carried into the next one hundred years. They not only sing the problems, but are the soundtrack for the solution.

Taken from: Arts Hub Australia
Interviewer: Tara Brabazon