Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant
Four songs. Four cities. A sequence that is sufficient in its own to understand the artistic journey of the most famous duo in Synth-pop music, and thus pop music, typical of the ’80s, strongly influenced by electronic music and by its iconic instrument: the synthesizer.
Let’s go back in time to the summer of 1981, when two music-enthusiast 20-year-olds, Neil Tennant, music journalist with a degree in history, and Chris Lowe, a student of architecture, meet by chance in an electronics shop in London, and there a friendship/partnership sparked which still continues unabated over forty years after. The two friends begin to write together during their free time, and their music is inspired in the albums of the British bands that were pioneering electronic music during the early ’80s such as Visage (Visage, 1980), The Human League (Dare, 1981), Depeche Mode (Speak & Spell, 1981) and Ultravox (Quartet, 1982). From two fellows with such an ample cultural background, something simply catchy and trendy could not be expected. In fact, they succeeded in creating an original, elegant, and refined style, packed with reflections and cultivated quotes, but without renouncing the rhythm and “lightness” typical of pop. And all spiced up by imaginative and theatrical- but never vulgar- looks.
Piccadilly Circus, London
West End Girls
London. The two young men are enamoured of a famous district in central London called West End, so much so that initially they call themselves “West End”; later they come up with the very original name “Pet Shop Boys”, derived from some friends who work in a pet shop. This is a lively and vibrant district where shops and entertainment venues are concentrated, traditionally opposed to the East End, a poor and disreputable quarter.
It is in the capital city where the spark of their first song, “West End Girls” (1984), ignited, even if, paradoxically, this song is born in the USA, when Tennant goes to New York to meet a certain Bobby Orlando, who will become the first producer of the duo. So, the song is recorded in the United States and is “contaminated” by the hip-hop style prevailing there, which, among other things, is perfectly suited to the social issue of the song. In fact, in this pretty melancholic track there are no signs of the so much loved colours of the West End but there emerges London’s social inequality that spreads “in every city, in every nation”, thus becoming the identifying element of the modern world. The lyrics also (indirectly) mention one of the most representative sons of this social chasm- Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and his trip “from Lake Geneva to the Finland station” that brought him back to his motherland in 1917 to become the leader of the Revolution. To these learned references we could also add the inspiration mentioned by Tennant: The Waste Land (1922), the masterpiece of American-born English poet Thomas S. Eliot, in which the modern human condition is described in terms of desolation and barrenness.
A song that is also fully consistent with the apocalyptic feelings that dominated the heart of the ’80s, in this case seen through a political and sociological prism.
Piazza San Babila, Milan
Milan. Without a doubt it is the capital of Italian and international fashion. Productive, dynamic, but bleak as well, the city is perfectly described in «Milano ‘83» (part 1 and part 2), a famous documentary by Italian film director Ermanno Olmi. Pet Shop Boys land in the city in 1986 to promote their first album, Please, and find other analogies, besides the fog, with their beloved London, from neon signs to social unrest. They are determined to open new horizons in the Italian music scene dominated by the so-called “Italo-Disco”, that is the “Made in Italy” electronic music by Righeira, Baltimora and Gazebo. This is a quite commercial genre, but that they, all in all, appreciate. In any case, in the Lombardy city they are completely caught by the Italian youth subculture known as the “Paninari”. The term derives from the places where these well-to-do boys used to meet and where quick meals could be eaten, such as the Burghy fast food restaurant at Piazza San Babila. Designer clothing, flamboyant colours, and their own jargon full of neologisms. All this leads Pet Shop Boys to even dedicate them a song, that is precisely called “Paninaro” (1986), and that was released specifically for the Italian market. Even if the duo does not plan to fall within the music category these adolescents like the most- very “light” songs such as those by Wham! and Duran Duran-, the track is a hit.
This is one of the few Pet Shop Boys songs in which Chris Lowe provides the majority of the vocals. Its distinctive feature is a chorus that gives the composition a youthful flair. Apocalyptic tones still persist, but revisited with an epic outlook. The duo delves deep into the fashion of the “Paninari”, which can be easily attributed to superficiality and ostentation, and they identify the adolescents’ behaviour in connection with some serious issues (passion, love, sex, money, violence, religion, injustice, and death), as if they wanted to find a heroic element in their wish to get social recognition.
The Black Gate, Newcastle upon Tyne
It’s A Sin
Newcastle upon Tyne. The Northernmost stronghold of the Roman Empire, and subsequently, of the Christian world. This peaceful and hard-working city is famous for its shipyards, steel, and steam engines, and even if it maybe not a typical art city, it is worth noting that it is the birthplace of three music «masters»: Mark Knopfler, leader of Dire Straits, Sting- who certainly needs no introduction-, and finally, our Neil Tennant, vocalist of the Pet Shop Boys. This small town is closely associated with “It’s A Sin” (1987), probably the duo’s most popular song and the jewel of their second studio album called Actually. This is a grandiose and enthralling song, and it is not by chance that great Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn chose it for the famous dance scene in his biopic “Bronson” (2008).
This markedly autobiographical song stems from the stern education Tennant received while at St. Cuthbert’s Catholic High School for boys. A very hard experience. In the lyrics, the “sense of shame” immediately comes to those who listen as the key to understand the song: shame is an emotion that expresses uneasiness resulting from behaviours found to be wrong or inadequate, and therefore, it is associated with the sense of guilt, that is, the parallel fear of harming others. Negative emotions but in any case, useful to recognise that something may not be going well in our behaviour. But, if at the very base of it, there is some manipulation of the concept of “sin” for other purposes, the educational aim is not achieved. There may be long debates on the religious and moral meaning of the «sin» in the title of the song, and many artists have already dealt with that in their works. Just to mention a few, Giotto, Hieronymus Bosch, and even film maker David Fincher, who structured his cult thriller Seven (1995) on the seven deadly sins.
Red Square, Moscow
Moscow. After Rome and Constantinople, the cradle of a new Caesar: the Tsar. Throughout the 20th century, it was the capital of the dark Eastern Bloc. Later on, the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the yield, at least apparently, to the West.
In 1992 the Pet Shop Boys, which as we have seen from the times of their first single have been interested in the relation between East and West, release a song that reflects the historical change they are witnessing. The name of the track is “Go West”, and it is later included in the duo’s fifth album, Very (1993), the famous one packaged in a unique orange jewel case with raised bumps, and which was even exhibited at the MoMA.
Besides, it is interesting to see how this piece, one that fans love most, is in fact a cover of the Village People’s track (1979) by the same name. In this song, the New York dance band, building on the myth of the “West”, invited to a new and happy life in California, more specifically in San Francisco, a particularly open and tolerant city.
Based on this, the Pet Shop Boys create a captivating and choral product, and also introduce some musical elements of the Russian national anthem. Tennant and Lowe ironically question their own times, characterised by the wane of utopias: the invitation to “go west” clearly certifies that Communism has failed, but at the same time, it prompts us to reflect on Capitalism, the actual conditions of the West, and in particular, on these aspirations and opportunities that make up the so-called “American Dream”, even if this is perhaps a utopia in the closing credits. Similar topics are addressed, although in an anything by ironic way, in Darren Aronofsky’s masterpiece “Requiem for a Dream” (2000).
The cover of the “Go West ” single
Variable and constant
During the ’90s we witnessed the fragmentation of not only the world but also the music scene under the of a renewed sense of freedom. The Very album, called this way because it is “very of everything”, is conceived to herald a new era- the “Very-era”, characterised by trendsetting live performances, post-modern costumes, quotes from abstract art and pop art, as well as the frequent use of computers and the emerging virtual reality. A strategy triggered by the need to survive in a hyper-competitive world, that now starts to think that they are too pop for electronic music, and too electronic for pop music. On the one hand, the extraordinary bloom of dance music and the “electronic extremism” of ascending techno bands such as The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers; and on the other hand, the pop giants such as Michael Jackson and Madonna; finally, the threatening advance of the pervading “grunge” subculture, that is opposite to their artistic philosophy.
The Pet Shop Boys, however, survive, and have become a constant in a changing world; they have inspired individuals such as the Daft Punk, and still write songs, as demonstrated by the great success of the Fundamental album (2006) and, in particular, its closing track called “Integral”. Hearing is believing.
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