pet shop boys

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Can You Forgive Her?


Pet Shop Boys



Billboard’s Top 10 Alternative Songs, 11 September 1993:

1. The Juliana Hatfield 3, My Sister
2. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul To Squeeze
3. Blind Melon, No Rain
4. Bjork, Human Behaviour
5. The Catherine Wheel, Crank
6. New Order, World (The Price Of Love)
7. Smashing Pumpkins, Cherub Rock
8. Pearl Jam, Crazy Mary
9. Urge Overkill, Sister Havana
10. Pet Shop Boys, Can You Forgive Her?

Yesterday, I mentioned that “What Have I Done To Deserve This” was my absolute favorite Pet Shop Boys song roughly half the time… The rest of the time, it’s this one.

1993 was an odd time for popular music, in both good and bad ways, as seen by this list of post-Nevermind alternative hits. (Yay, Catherine Wheel! Boo, Blind Melon!) It was also a good time (perhaps the first good time) for gay-identifying artists to start talking about their personal lives without being totally cagey in interviews.

Lesbians were the first to come out, actually.  In the fall of the previous year a new singer-songwriter named Sophie B. Hawkins had a major hit with an explicitly lesbian (and wonderful) song called “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover.” Melissa Etheridge came out in January of 1993, shortly before releasing an album she very specifically titled Yes I Am. And that August kd lang, who had come out in a 1992 Advocate interview, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair getting her face shaved by House of Style host Cindy Crawford. (Also, on a more personal level, I first fully realized that I was gay in late 1993, though it would be four years before I actually worked up the nerve to tell anybody.)

Can You Forgive Her?" is a really unequivocally gay song, as are most of the tracks on Very, which was released in September of 1993. From the synthesized trumpets that kick off the album’s lead single through the campy (yet oddly heartbreaking) cover of the Village People’s “Go West" at the end, Very is a gay parade of found love, theatrical spectacle, intergenerational flirtation and Buckingham Palace fanfic. So in retrospect, it’s hard to believe that “Can You Forgive Her?” was released fifteen whole months before Neil Tennant publicly outed himself in a cover story for a then-new gay lifestyle magazine called Attitude.

Actually, in a move that angered Tennant, Attitude sent out a press release leaking the cover story ahead of time, and the story was technically broken by the Sunday Times, a Rupert Murdoch paper. Just one month previously, Murdoch’s News Of The World had run a full-page story with the awful headline “Pet Shop Boy’s Grief as Gay Pal Dies of AIDS,” a reference to the passing of Chris Lowe’s live-in friend (and presumably lover) Peter Andreas. (Chris, notably, has never publicly spoken about his sexuality at all, though you can, and should, read more about Neil’s coming out here.) 

Not that lots of people didn’t already know that the Pet Shop Boys had a homosexual singer/lyricist, of course. If it wasn’t obvious by the lyrics of “It Couldn’t Happen Here” or the naked Adonis bouncing around on a trampoline in the NC-17 “Being Boring” video, a list of their collaborators over the years (Derek Jarman; Ian McKellan, out star of the “Heart" video; Liza freaking Minnelli, for God’s sake…) made things quite clear to those who cared to know.

Very is, I think, the Boys’ best album.  In the UK it was also their most commercially successful, selling over five million copies and spawning five top 20 singles.  The videos from that era, though, are pretty horrid-looking now: five different clips of Tennant and Lowe cavorting around in dunce caps and Crayola-colored overalls in front of some very, very primitive-looking CGI.

There are a number of blogs out there that post lots and lots of images of the Pet Shop Boys.  In a way it’s frustrating, because there’s almost never any info alongside the photographs.  When was the photo taken?  Who was the photographer?  What magazine/album sleeve did it appear on? 
This is one of my general gripes about Tumblr more than anything, and not a slam against those dutiful fans that just want to disseminate images of their favorite duo looking like a sociopathic ecstasy dealer and a middle-aged businessman waiting to board the Orient Express, respectively.
Of these PSB image Tumblrs, psbelectronica is probably my favorite.  It’s maintained by a 16-year old in Greece who also fancies Jarvis Cocker and the young Peter Sellers.  (And who can blame her!) High-res

There are a number of blogs out there that post lots and lots of images of the Pet Shop Boys.  In a way it’s frustrating, because there’s almost never any info alongside the photographs.  When was the photo taken?  Who was the photographer?  What magazine/album sleeve did it appear on? 

This is one of my general gripes about Tumblr more than anything, and not a slam against those dutiful fans that just want to disseminate images of their favorite duo looking like a sociopathic ecstasy dealer and a middle-aged businessman waiting to board the Orient Express, respectively.

Of these PSB image Tumblrs, psbelectronica is probably my favorite.  It’s maintained by a 16-year old in Greece who also fancies Jarvis Cocker and the young Peter Sellers.  (And who can blame her!)

"Absolutely Fabulous" is technically not a Pet Shop Boys single, as the track is credited to Absolutely Fabulous and doesn’t appear on any of the duo’s numerous singles collections.  It’s a very minor blip on the PSB radar, and not a particularly great blip at that, despite reaching #6 on the UK pop charts.  But I’d like to discuss it for a minute, anyway.

In November of 1993 I started keeping a weekly list of my 40 favorite songs.  The Pet Shop Boys only made two appearances by the time I (sort of) outgrew my Casey Kasem fandom in 1997.  Part of it was that Pet Shop Boys songs weren’t very popular in America anymore, because I was far too young to be going to clubs and because the internet hadn’t made its way to the suburbs yet.  (Also the mp3 didn’t exist yet.)  In April of 1994, “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing" got as high as #22, based probably on one or two video screenings on VH-1, which I watched rather religiously.  And in October, "Absolutely Fabulous" debuted on the countdown, alongside Brandy’s "I Wanna Be Down,” Urge Overkill’s “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” and an Aerosmith song that doesn’t even sound remotely familiar to me now.  A couple of weeks later “Absolutely Fabulous” would peak at #23.

Released in the midst of the Very promotional cyle (after “Liberation,” before “Yesterday When I Was Mad”) as a benefit for Comic Relief, the song consists of Neil singing the words “Absolutely Fabulous” over and over in-between clips from the popular television program of the same name.  (“LaCroix, darling, LaCroix.”  And so on.)

The original 1992-1995 run of Absolutely Fabulous consisted of eighteen episodes, or less than one full season of an American show.  (There were as many episodes of AbFab as there were of $#*! My Dad Says, to give you a comparison, at least until Jennifer Saunders decided to revive the show in 2001.)  In the US, these dozen-and-a-half episodes were replayed on Comedy Central several times a day for much of the nineties, which meant that they repeated a lot.  And since British programs don’t fit into American commercial break schedules, there was always a lot of filler required between episodes, so Comedy Central would show the “Absolutely Fabulous” video quite often.

Basically it’s a highlight reel from the show, mixed with studio footage of Chris and Neil, still very much in their Very-era matching-outfits-with-geometric-hats phase.  (Although this time thankfully there’s not so much of the crappy CGI.)  It’s not especially clever and musically it doesn’t hold up well to repeated listens, but I really loved that show.  It was one of those extremely gay things I was into at the time without realizing that they were gay, because I hadn’t quite figured any of that out yet.  (Also, again, no internet.) 

"Absolutely Fabulous," bizarrely, remains the greatest Tennant/Lowe hit in Australia.

20 Favorite Pet Shop Boys songs of people I know.

Based on an informal Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr survey last week, where I asked people for their single favorite PSB song:

1. What Have I Done To Deserve This? (5 votes)
2. West End Girls (3.5 votes*)
3. Can You Forgive Her? (3 votes)
3. It’s A Sin
5. Opportunities (2.5 votes*)
6. Rent (2 votes)
7. Always On My Mind (1 vote)
7. Being Boring
7. Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend
7. Closer To Heaven
7. Domino Dancing
7. Go West
7. In Denial
7. Miracles
7. Miserablism
7. My October Symphony
7. New York City Boy
7. Single-Bilingual
19. Flamboyant (.5 votes*)
19. Left To My Own Devices

[*I asked people for their one favorite song, and a number of people replied with two.  In those cases I gave each song a half point.]

So let’s get these numbers up.  What’s your favorite?




Pet Shop Boys



Do you know who Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes are?  If you don’t, PLEASE pause whatever you’re doing right now and prepare your ears and your dancing feet for the amazingness of “Get Dancin’,” a #8 UK hit in November 1974 that sounds slightly like a sleazy party but mostly like something that belongs on The Muppet Show.

Disco Tex, the man in the pimp hat and white boa who gets so excited that he wets his chiffon by the end of the song, was the brainchild of sixties music guru Bob Crewe and a frontman who otherwise went by the name Sir Monti Rock III.  Back then he looked like this, and now he looks like this.

Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes caught the attention of a twenty-year old history student named Neil Tennant, who decided nearly a quarter-century later to namedrop the group on “Electricity,” possibly my favorite track on 1997’s Bilingual album.  It’s sort of a sleazy hip-hop song with that slow talk-rapping that pop singers could occasionally get away with in the nineties, though usually not to great commercial effect. (see also: “Rescue Me,” “The Professional”).

"Electricity" doesn’t sound much like any other Pet Shop Boys song.  It’s paranoid-sounding, almost, especially with the sample of the lady who keeps asking what it means.  (What what means we’ll never know.)

It’s funny, because I always wrongly assumed the song, with its references to lip synching and dancing in formation with a couple of boys, was more a sinister commentary on the rise of boy bands like 5ive, *Nsync and the Backstreet Boys.  I realize now, though, that the timing wasn’t right for that:  the Backstreet Boys were the only group of that ilk to have had any success by the time Bilingual appeared.

In the liner notes to the 2001 Bilingual reissue, Tennant explains that “Electricity” is actually about a drag queen trying to pick up a guy at a bar:

This lyric is a monologue by a drag queen. She’s talking to a boy in a bar after she’s done her show in which she lip-syncs to a tape recorder with a couple of dancers: ‘I take them on the road with my reel-to-reels! I’m an artist, honey-you know how that feels’. She’s on this tour; playing gay clubs around America. And I think she is an artist. I’ve no idea why I wrote it.

"Electricity" wasn’t a single, but it’s one of my favorites of the pair’s album tracks.

Passive Fandom

Behavior was the first Pet Shop Boys album I got.  I bought it used, I think, in roughly 1999 at a CD store called Slipped Discs, which is a great name for a CD store.  I thought the album was… okay.  I liked “My October Symphony” a lot, but that was about all, really, until I had an epiphany with “Jealousy” many years later. 

The local public library had Alternative, the double-album of B-sides, so I checked that out one day and made myself a non-chronological mixtape of my favorite 90 minutes out of the 134-minute collection.  At the time I was driving a 1988 Honda Accord with a cassette player back and forth to school every day. 

Very was the second proper Pet Shop Boys album I got, in (I think) 2003.  I bought it mainly because of the bumpy orange plastic cover, which is still one of my favorite album package designs, and because it appeared on Rolling Stone's list of the greatest albums of all time.  I had a co-worker, a fratboy-ish professional wrestling fan, who really loved it and talked about it all the time.  (He was a talker.)  I liked it a lot better than Behavior, and still do.

My boyfriend had Actually on cassette, and when I met him he was driving a 1992 Ford station wagon with a cassette player in it, so we used to listen to that, sometimes.  I want to get it on vinyl but can never find it anywhere.

I didn’t buy Fundamental, but in 2006 I worked for a college radio station whose signal was technically owned by a private high school.  We had to carefully listen to every CD to mark off where the swears were.  (Anyone who’s ever worked in college radio knows that the sheets sent by record labels, the ones telling you what’s clean and what’s got cuss words, are almost never accurate.)  So anyway, I took Fundamental to work and copied it onto my work hard drive while I listened for F-bombs.  Besides “Minimal” I wasn’t that into it, and when the album was erased during Matthew’s Great Job Quitting Hard Drive Troubles Of 2008 it was lost.  Besides “Minimal” I haven’t replaced it.

Bilingual came next.  My roommate/best friend at the time had it and didn’t like it, so he gave it to me.  The second half is a little monotonous, I admit, but I really liked the first five songs, especially “Se a vida e,” and I’ve come to appreciate “A Red Letter Day” a lot. 

Introspective I downloaded at some point in 2009, along with a kajillion remixes of songs from that era.

I have most, but not all, of Yes on my computer, and some, but not all, of Nightlife.

I still don’t have Please or Release in any form, and aside from the Please singles included on Discography, their first singles collection, and the Please B-sides that made onto my Alternative tape, I don’t actually know their 1986/2002 songs very well.

I guess I’m a pretty passive fan.

Critics weren’t as into Nightlife as previous Pet Shop Boys albums.  Pitchfork’s Paul Cooper, in his 3.2 review, particularly singles out “New York City Boy,” the album’s second single and a song I still hum merrily to myself on those three or four occasions a year when I’m lucky enough to find myself in the Big Apple:

Superficially, the track is a sort of coming home song and a reply to the Boys’ version of the Village People’s “Go West.” But, taking a second to examine “New York City Boy” (for that’s all you’ll need), you’ll soon realize that it’s actually just a blatant rip off of that song. The track boasts a chantably identical chorus in addition to the same massed choir belting out the song in the worst Andrew Lloyd Webber fashion. Tennant barely makes an appearance; I hope that his decision to cop out of vocal duties was prompted by his shame and putting his band’s name to such goop.

Goop?  Well I never.  He also calls out some of the song’s lyrics, suggesting that the line about feeling the deal is real is gag-worthy.

"New York City Boy" is actually quite polarizing, for some reason.  The biggest Pet Shop Boys fan I know hates it now, though at the time of its release the song spent nine weeks at number one on his personal weekly favorite songs list.  (I am not the only one who does these things.)  And other fans I know really can’t stand it, either.

But I like it, I really do.  I actually think it’s one of the all-time great New York songs, along with “Manhattan,” “New York’s A Lonely Town,” “New York At Night" and "What New York Used To Be.”  What Cooper calls a blatant “Go West” ripoff is actually, I think, just another disco-inspired anthem with a male choir.  And really, that is not a bad thing.

Lyrically, “New York City Boy” is a celebration of the teenaged moments when you first take adult steps into the world.  There’s lyrics are extremely hopeful, an unusual thing for Tennant lyrics. 

(Interestingly, though, 7th Avenue meets Broadway in Times Square, right where MTV put their big street-facing studio in 1998.  For decades the area was widely known for its abundance of seedy porn theaters, but by Nightlife’s release in 1999 the area had been totally “cleaned up.”  So, depending on when the song takes place, the kid’s running to the city to either get a handjob or to sit in the TRL audience.  I like to think both.)

The 12 Best Titles of Pet Shop Boys B-Sides

1. The Boy Who Couldn’t Keep His Clothes On
2. I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)
3. How I Learned To Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll
4. We All Feel Better In The Dark
5. The Truck Driver And His Mate
6. Sexy Northerner
7. The Former Enfant Terrible
8. Miserablism
9. The Sound of the Atom Splitting
10. I Want A Dog
11. A Man Could Get Arrested
12. Disco Potential