Synthpop musing – Pet Shop Boys Alternative album

Cover to Pet Shop Boys' Alternative

I’m going through my collection of synthpop classics for the sake of inspiration and reminiscence – this one is Pet Shop Boys Alternative B-side collection.

I went to bed last night, stuck the headphones in and turned on Pet Shop Boys Alternative. Released in 1995, it’s a vast collection of all their B-sides up to Very, and it’s got some really phenomenal stuff on there. I got into synthpop and primarily PSB early, through the Greatest Hits and Disco 1 at first, then ‘Very Relentless’ arrived and changed my life. It felt unashamedly gay, in a way I wasn’t yet, and it was also this big, bold, joyous album.

However, Pet Shop Boys Alternative was the one that spoke most to me. PSB have always been a proper singles band – they gave value for money and their B-sides were never just cheap cast-offs – they were fully-worked songs that didn’t make the album cut. Interestingly, though, when you put them all together, you get this real sense of their experimental side, something that’s often forgotten when people focus on the singles and even the albums. The lyrics also have a tendency to be darker.

Neil Tennant didn’t come out until the summer of the year ‘Very’ was released and even then, their lyrical side often obfuscated sexuality. It was rarely overt, playing with pronouns and perspectives so the songs could be understood from multiple viewpoints. The lyrics on Pet Shop Boys Alternative, though, while still allusive, capture a much darker and contrastingly, campier side.

 


 

‘In the Night, ‘A Man Could Get Arrested’ and ‘Paninaro’ captured the feeling of being subversively queer, out to some but not all, and living a whole separate life. They were lyrics that mixed politics with pop and told stories of night-time manoeuvres, shady street characters and joyous abandon at the clubs. They also sound really urban. ‘Erasure’, another great synthpop band that survived the Eighties, are often spoken of in the same breath as PSB, but they’re light years apart.  

Vince Clark’s twinkling, plinky-plonk synths and tinny beats coupled with Andy Bell’s pseudo-operatic vocals tell stories that are like fairy tales, gossamer, insubstantial and dream-like, even in their four-to-the-floor stompers. PSB on the other hand, in the early years certainly, were defined by Chris Lowe’s massive beats-n-bass lines and these are even more apparent on the B-sides.

Those first tracks on Pet Shop Boys Alternative pound; big, rumbling foundations for Neil’s wry lyrics. A lot of folk don’t like Tennant’s voice. A lot of folk don’t get it. Someone (I can’t remember who) described his vocals on the doco ‘A Life in Pop’ as being immediate and sounding like a normal person. I love that. He speak-sings these stories in a faintly fey vocal but he has range. Even when he pushes against his limits it works, this is a normal man singing, not a trained vocalist. That makes them all the more relatable. It also works remarkably well with the textures of synthpop

On some of the tracks on Pet Shop Boys Alternative, though, Lowe’s crunchy, clanging, almost industrial beats push Tennant into new territory and on ‘A Man Could Get Arrested’ he even snarls and shouts.

“If you want to walk
Don’t talk 
Do it!

If you want to earn
Learn
How to do it!

‘I Want A Dog’ is a riot. It’s an inverse of ‘Paninaro’ – where the latter is a gigantic ode to fashion and clubbing, the former is about owning a dog instead of a cat. They perform the song with the same intensity (both feature rare Chris Lowe vocals), but ‘IWAD’ is almost a dub version of ‘Paninaro’, stripping back everything to its minimum. 

 

If those three earlier tracks of Pet Shop Boys Alternative form a kind of unofficial triptych, tracks 11 through 13 do the same. Starting with ‘I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)’ – a clappy, 808, throbby dance synthpop track that might be their first tune dealing almost directly in sex, it’s nonetheless bittersweet. Two poor lovers, “lying in the gutters”, hear the urban sounds around them forming a dance beat in time with their hearts, the lyrics almost describing the tune itself. It has this beautiful little synth line in it that is barely used, the song teasing us with it throughout. It’s spare, again stripping things back to essential, but the echoing snares, the electronic processing of the background vocals, guitars and sirens combine to make this Wilde-quoting tune an essential babygay synthpop classic – it’s all about the first rush. We’re broke, we’re lost in the middle of the city, but jeezuz you’re hot, and I don’t quite know why. Maaaaaybe…

‘Don Juan’ is a bubbling historical allegory about the situation that lead to the First World War and which surprisingly manages to be as essential as the preceding song. It’s almost louche – again sounding like it’s being played live, Tennant’s bored vocals sit well with the relaxed nature of the synthpop lines, but it still contains the same crunchy percussion and weird background samples. It also plays with key changes in a beautiful way and is dark, hauntingly so. 

 

 

 

Back cover to Left to My Own Devices single - Pet Shop Boys Alternative synthpop

Probably the absolute stand-out of the first disc for me though is the final one of this unofficial tetrad I’ve ascribed – ‘The Sound of the Atom Splitting’ is terrifying. I remember the first time I listened to the album (at night, in bed, through headphones lest my family heard me listening to such gay music), I’d kind of drifted off. The volume was up, loud, and I awoke with a start, my chest pounding with terror, as the first discordant notes played. Tennant spits acid lyrics in a total sneer:

 

“I hate you! I hate you!
Nothing will ever be the same
Oh, really? Don’t be silly!
I told you it was all a game
Whenever I see you or your work
it makes me feel like spitting
What’s that noise?
Oh that, we’ve been expecting it for ages
It’s the sound of the atom splitting

He’s a villain, him over there with the stocking on his head
Look, there’s another, they call themselves ‘pinheads’
What’s that noise over there?
Is it corrugated iron they’re hitting?
No, no, it’s perfectly normal
It’s just the sound of the atom splitting

Whose side are you on anyway?
Is that some kind of threat?
Well, I suppose it’ll have to do
as long as you don’t make too much mess
and would the last person to leave
once you’ve all finished kissing
turn the video on to record
You never know what you’re missing
Bread and circuses and maybe later
the sound of the atom splitting

Quiet at the back please! No hissing!
It’s the sound, the sound
the sound of the atom splitting

I hate you! I hate you!
Quiet at the back please! No hissing!
It’s the sound, the sound
the sound of the atom splitting”

It’s twisted, strange, venomous – as Tennant sings “corrugated iron” a literal junkyard beat swims in. The words ‘pinheads’ and ‘kissing’ are spat out. This tune was recorded live, from the drum pattern of ‘Left to My Own Devices’ (the single it backed up) and was inspired by the Derek Jarman film ‘The Last of England’. 

Tennant describes the lyric as being a dialogue between a “fascist and a wet liberal” – arguing at the end of the world. PSB are many things to many people, but this utterly caustic, darkly gay and all but hidden side to them is one of the most fascinating. Intellectual, vicious and camp, all at once. The only other synthpop bands I can think of who really capture some of this are Soft Cell at their best, and in a slightly different way, Jimmy Somerville and the Communards/Bronski Beat.

Cover for Go West Pet Shop Boys - Shamless B-Side Pet Shop Boys Alternative synthpop

This is only disc one and that’s not even covering some of the less abrasive songs, some of which are sweet, some of which are mournful. The second disc has their own version of ‘Losing My Mind’ on it, a song they helped Liza Minelli to cover, ‘Music for Boys’ (wink), ‘We All Feel Better in the Dark’ (clubbing or sex? Take your pick!), ‘Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend’ (one of the most openly “gay” songs they’ve done and a perfect partner for ‘Can You Forgive Her’) and two of my absolute favourite PSB tunes, album, single, B-side or otherwise:

‘Miserablism’ and ‘Shameless’ are gorgeous, and are very PSB. As a babygay, I was equally into synthpop as I was into indie shoegazer Britpop stuff, and ‘Miserablism’ really skewers that idea that to be taken seriously and credible, you have to be, well, miserable. And ‘Shameless’… Well, let’s just say that if you think that ‘Go West’ is the peak “What everyone thinks of Pet Shop Boys” song, you’re mistaken:

 


 

 

(Hello! Darling! Mmm…
How dare you! Do you know who I am?
You look fabulous!)

I know what you think
It’s clear as mud in your eyes
We’re the plastic poseurs and prostitutes
you’ve obviously come to despise
But you don’t know nothing
You’re not hot enough to matter
You don’t understand the glamourous life
a dream that no one can shatter

We’re shameless, we will do anything
to get our fifteen minutes of fame
We have no integrity, we’re ready to crawl
To obtain celebrity we’ll do anything at all

I’m ambitious
Believe me, I’m going to be big
I’m a slave to glamour
applause and clamour
my make-up, my wardrobe, my wigs
Don’t call me pathetic
I’m harder than you’ll ever guess
relentlessly tough
’cause when the going gets rough
the tough get their pictures in the press

We’re shameless, we will do anything
to get our fifteen minutes of fame
We have no integrity, we’re ready to crawl
To obtain celebrity we’ll do anything at all

Anything, anything, anything at all
We’ll do anything, anything, anything at all

(How dare you! Do you know who I am?
It’s an absolute disgrace!)

Tell me you love me
Admit it, you’re really impressed
Would it not amuse you
for me to seduce you?
Have you ever seen me undressed?

We’re shameless, we will do anything
to get our fifteen minutes of fame
We have no integrity, we’re ready to crawl
To obtain celebrity we’ll do anything at all

We’re shameless, we will do anything
to get our fifteen minutes of fame
We have no integrity, we’re ready to crawl
To obtain celebrity we’ll do anything with anyone
go absolutely anywhere for anything at all

(I’m terribly sorry!)

It’s incredibly representative of a moment in the Nineties, where we were buoyed up by Labour and shat upon the Tories, to paraphrase Withnail and I‘s Uncle Monty. Although it came out in ’93, when I was but 14, it came to represent my “coming out” years, alongside Absolutely Fabulous and other media that was both the fabulous thing and the satirisation of the same. I came out in a glittering period, the first generation to really be able to feel comfortable to go into gay pubs and clubs, and Very Relentless and those Pet Shop Boys Alternative B-sides really represented that for me. Shameless, indeed – we were mostly shameful, but we acted the part, daaaaarling.

Anyway. Pet Shop Boys Alternative is a gorgeous glimpse into the shadow side of the most enduring, popular and skilled synthpop acts in the world.

Oh. And Euroboy, which the boys claimed wasn’t named after the famous gay porn mag, is pure sex. 

(Which reminds me, I’m in the planning stages of a new gay zine which is based on the Take a Break cheap supermarket magazine style… Forgot that Euroboy had kind of beaten me to it…)

 

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Garry Mac

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