Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife

There is little doubt that the late 1990s were a turbulent period for Pet Shop Boys. After the enormous success of 1993’s Very, Britpop had arrived with a very noisy guitar-fuelled bump, so 1996 saw them reacting by exploring Latin American rhythms and Russian choirs on the brilliantly eccentric Bilingual.

But the bubble had definitely burst, and so it is with their 1999 album Nightlife. It opens in astonishingly good form with the anthemic For your own good, taking heavy influence from the dance scene of the day (particularly Faithless) and doing what Pet Shop Boys always did so well – decisively making it their own.

At this point, Tennant and Lowe were firmly stuck into production of their successful but perhaps slightly misguided musical Closer to heaven, which would debut a couple of years later. Many of the songs on this album made it into the musical too, and the title track Closer to heaven is no exception. Originally inspired by Arthur Baker‘s infinitely better remix of Babylon Zoo‘s Spaceman back in 1996, it’s another enormous track, and could easily have been a single.

But the choices of singles from this album were a little strange, and the first was the expansively titled I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it any more. It’s a great track, and it’s unapologetically a Pet Shop Boys track, but this was an era where only the fan base was going to buy it. Maybe that was the right decision after all – or maybe something else would have sold better. Either way, as a PSB fan, it’s difficult not to love it.

I expect Happiness is an option would have divided people at the time, but it’s difficult to dislike – it’s just so full of unadulterated happiness! Again, taking heavy inspiration from some of the hip hop records of the time, it draws heavy inspiration from classical music, adds a contemporary beat, and brings everything together in quite brilliant fashion.

Then comes the completely unpredictable third single You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk. To all intents and purposes a country song, it could easily be totally out of place here, and yet this is a Pet Shop Boys album – you almost expect it to be eccentric. It’s another brilliant moment.

The first half of the album closes with Vampires, arguably the best track on the entire release. There’s something both beautifully haunting and also very contemporary about it, which is a very catchy combination. And while Radiophonic may have little tangible connection to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it still makes for another exceptional Faithless-inspired piece.

But as the first paragraph hinted, this was a troubled period for Pet Shop Boys, and although the first half of the album could easily be part of their best release ever, the latter half is sadly among their worst. The only one has little to say in its favour – a dull lyric, and a moronic chorus – although it does at least boast some interesting production. Boy strange has a marginally more interesting lyric, but little else to say in its favour.

In denial does at least boast Kylie Minogue as the guest vocalist, but otherwise I suspect it might have been better left for the musical. Then New York City boy comes across as little more than a failed attempt to emulate the success of Go West. True, it seems less bad now, fifteen years on, but it’s still a little gratuitous. After all that, Footsteps seems positively uplifting, but there’s really nothing special about this closing track either – the lyrics in particular are well below Tennant’s normal standard.

Even if you disagree with some of those later statements, you must recognise that Nightlife is a troubled album. It almost feels as though somehow, deep into the musical, they realised that it was going to take another couple of years to finish, and they were already three years on from the last album, so they needed to throw something together as quickly as possible. Ever the professionals, they still managed to craft it into a reasonably cohesive album, but it does lack the gravitas of, say, Behaviour or Very.

Despite an exceptional array of b-sides, there still isn’t a deluxe version of Nightlife, but you can still find the original album all over the place.

Pet Shop Boys – The Musical (Demos 1998-1999)

Between 1998 and 2000, Pet Shop Boys did something very unusual, and effectively broke the fourth wall. Working on their forthcoming musical Closer to Heaven they put together a number of CD-R compilations of demos and half-finished versions. Many of them would ultimately work their way onto Nightlife (1999), and so they offer a fascinating insight into the recording of a later-period PSB album.

The first disc is dated July 1998, and opens with an early version of For Your Own Good. Although it contains many similar aspects to the finished version which would open Nightlife the following year, it’s much more bare and unpolished. The bass line in particular is uncharacteristically simple for Pet Shop Boys.

Next up is Something Special, which would never appear on a formal release under PSB’s own name. It’s a good song, even in this very stripped down early version. It’s perhaps easy to see why it never made it onto a Pet Shop Boys release though – it’s definitely been written especially for the music.

The next track exhibits similar qualities. A Little Black Dress is something of an oddity, but it’s a strong song. Then In Denial Part 1 is an early version of the Kylie Minogue duet from Nightlife, in which Neil Tennant does all of the vocals for himself. And says a naughty word.

Each of the fifteen tracks on this first disc is worth hearing, but some are particularly interesting, as you get to hear what Pet Shop Boys sound like when they’re not taking themselves too seriously. The demo of title track Closer to Heaven is a particularly good example, this time with the original Babylon Zoo-inspired “take me high” section.

A couple of rather corny tracks follow – a rather cheesy early version of Drunk (missing its You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re) and a track which never got a PSB version of its own called Call Me Old Fashioned. Both are good songs, and show a lot of potential, but would definitely benefit from a spit and polish.

Next comes the instrumental Hedonism, which like many of these tracks would ultimately appear on the original cast recording album Closer to Heaven in 2001. It’s a great traditional PSB instrumental b-side, and it almost feels a shame that it got hidden away on that album rather than a “proper” release.

This is also true of Friendly Fire, first performed live at the Somewhere Concerts in mid-1997, and ultimately thrown out as a b-side to I Get Along (hidden on the DVD version) it finally got a prominent release on Format last year. It’s a great track, full of classic Tennant/Lowe chord changes and witty lyrics, and really deserved better.

Next up is the second half of In Denial, and then a spectacularly poor version of a rather silly track Tall Thin Man. The silliness works rather well on the later studio version, but not so much on this take, which barely features any instrumentation whatsoever.

Then comes the best of the bunch, Vampires, in a version which isn’t entirely removed from its final completed form. It’s still not entirely finished, but much of the haunting nature of the track can be heard, which makes it very listenable. Unlike The Only One, which follows it – one of the weakest moments on the very weak tail end of the Nightlife album, this demo proves that it never really had a lot going for it.

The penultimate track is For All of Us, and although it’s a little out of Tennant’s vocal range, it definitely deserved an outing as a proper Pet Shop Boys track. Similarly, the closing piece Night Life, the not-so-subtle Bee Gees tribute, deserved more than just a DVD b-side release several years down the line.

The second volume of demos is pretty similar to this one, but moves some of the tracks around, moving Tall Thin Men to the opening and closing with Closer to Heaven. This also adds a new track, Nine Out of Ten, after In Denial, which must have been recorded immediately after having been written, as Tennant doesn’t seem to have entirely figured out how to fit the lyrics to the music.

The second addition was never to be heard of again, but is a fun tribute to The Shamen entitled You’ve Got to Start Somewhere. It’s almost a shame that this track got forgotten, as it’s actually pretty excellent.

As with all the demos we’ve listened to before in this series, the Closer to Heaven demos are a fun educational experience – you really get a feel for the Pet Shop Boys writing and recording process, as they worked their way through the album Nightlife and the subsequent Closer to Heaven musical.

As with all the collections featured in the ‘demo’ series I’ll leave you to track these down for yourself. More information is available at psb-discography.com.

The Million Sellers

Tomorrow is the sixtieth anniversary of the UK chart. To celebrate, the official chart company has compiled a list of the 123 singles that have sold over a million copies. It’s quite a list. I won’t bore you with the whole lot, but here are some highlights which caught my eye:

1. Elton John – Candle in the Wind (1997)
2. Band Aid – Do They Know it’s Christmas? (1984)
3. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody (1975)
4. Wings – Mull of Kintyre (1977)
5. John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – You’re the One that I Want (1978)
6. Boney M – Rivers of Babylon (1978)
7. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax (1983)
8. The Beatles – She Loves You (1963)
9. Robson Green & Jerome Flynn – Unchained Melody (1995)
10. Wet Wet Wet – Love is All Around (1994)
13. Aqua – Barbie Girl (1997)
18. Wham! – Last Christmas (1984)
21. Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Two Tribes (1984)
24. The Human League – Don’t You Want Me (1981)
29. Britney Spears – Baby One More Time (1999)
31. Culture Club – Karma Chameleon (1983)
32. Village People – YMCA (1978)
33. George Michael – Careless Whisper (1984)
52. Soft Cell – Tainted Love (1981)
53. Blondie – Heart of Glass (1979)
67. Michael Jackson – Earth Song (1995)
69. New Order – Blue Monday (1983)
72. Kylie Minogue – Can’t Get You Out of My Head (2001)
74. Babylon Zoo – Spaceman (1996)
75. Whigfield – Saturday Night (1994)
85. Natalie Imbruglia – Torn (1997)
91. Pink Floyd – Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) (1979)
97. Gotye – Somebody That I Used to Know (2011)
99. Donna Summer – I Feel Love (1977)

Elton John sold an incredible 4.9 million copies, with Band Aid following on 3.69 million, and the entire top seven topped 2 million. And it’s still pretty incredible that Frankie Goes to Hollywood managed to release three such amazing songs and then nothing else whatsoever.

The full list is here: Official Charts Company.

More tomorrow…