Electronic – Getting Away with It

When they first appeared, three decades ago this week, Electronic must have been a bit of a revelation. True, New Order had been steadily evolving from rock to pop over the preceding decade, but a collaboration between Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, the extraordinary guitarist from The Smiths, must have conjured up ideas of something guitar-heavy. It wasn’t – Getting Away with It was, in a way, both Sumner and Marr’s first experiment with true pop.

The single version is, as I’m sure you know by now, exceptional. It’s a pop song, with synth strings and sweet acoustic guitar work. There’s something a little quirky with it, of course, but it still holds together beautifully. On vocals, Bernard Sumner and Neil Tennant – neither of them particularly accomplished vocalists, but both great in their own way – harmonise perfectly, bringing a delightfully humanist quality to the song. It’s definitely nothing like New Order or The Smiths, and although it is a lot like Pet Shop Boys, the pop lyric doesn’t feel like something that Neil Tennant would have come up with on his own.

The definitive track listing appears to be the digital reissue, pulling all the different tracks together in one place, and that takes us next to the lead track on the 12″, the Extended Mix. This is an extended version very much in the 1980s style – take the first verse and strip it back a bit, add an extra instrumental verse, and mix original elements in, one by one. It’s a worthy version, but to a modern ear, there’s surprisingly little new here until the long breakdown section in the middle, which could honestly be dispensed with.

By 1989, artists were already sending tracks off for a multitude of weird and wonderful remixes, but Electronic seem not to have been especially aware of this, so the various singles of Getting Away with It are largely peppered with alternative versions. The extended Instrumental is lovely, and unusually for an instrumental version, it stands well alone. This includes the longer orchestral ending that would appear on later versions of the single mix.

There is a b-side, though – and this is perhaps a surprise, given that it seems to have since flown completely under the radar. Maybe this was intentional, as it was omitted altogether from the CD release. Lucky Bag is a beatsy, early house instrumental that provides occasional echoes of Bobby Orlando‘s huge bass lines. It’s hard to know exactly what Electronic would have been thinking with this, to tell the truth – it’s nice, but also instantly forgettable. Maybe it’s an extended experiment, or maybe it was always intended to be a b-side. Either way, it’s a nice diversion.

There are remixes here, but there’s nothing particularly great. For whatever reason, the common trend at the time with remixes was to cut the original back, add beats, add a few cheesy synth lines, and a bit of a calypso arpeggio, and call it done. So it is with Graeme Park and Mike Pickering‘s remixes. The Nude Mix is an uninspired dub version with weird down-tempo, almost rave-inspired synth lines dropping in all over the place. The Vocal Remix is, I would assume, their attempt to add the vocal back in for a more radio-friendly version, and while there’s plenty to enjoy here, both mixes really seem to fail on most levels. They’re nice, but just not quite good enough, and while the final fade on the second mix comes a little suddenly, it really can’t come too soon.

It’s nice to get another version of Lucky Bag to close the release, but the Miami Edit is a curious version – slightly more beat-driven than the one on the 7″, but far from different enough to really be noteworthy. On the UK release, this was hidden away on the second 12″, which seems appropriate – it’s a nice treat, but nothing particularly special.

So Getting Away with It is a bit of a mixed bag – a great track, but not, perhaps, such a great single. Electronic, for the time being, showed all the signs of being a one-off experiment, but perhaps inevitably, given the success of this release, they got back together for the 1991 Electronic album, which then inexplicably went on to skip Getting Away with It from its original track listing altogether. But with Getting Away with It, they assured us that there was something special about this collaboration.

We reviewed the US CD single. The five versions of the original track from here can be found on this digital release.

Pet Shop Boys – Actually

By 1987, thirty years ago this week, Pet Shop Boys were comfortably at the top of their game. Actually may have only peaked at number two on the charts, but it yielded two number one singles, plus another number one that wasn’t actually on the album (Always on My Mind), a number two, and another top ten hit. That’s quite impressive, by anybody’s standards.

It opens with One more chance, one of the many songs that they originally recorded with Bobby O in 1984, and that had already been released as a single in some territories. They completely re-recorded it for their second album, and then remixed it as a 12″ version, removing an entire verse in the process, and that’s the version that opens the album. Putting 12″ mixes on your album was still considered pretty revolutionary at this point, and so this is an unusual but undeniably catchy opener.

Then Dusty Springfield turns up out of nowhere – literally, as she had barely recorded anything for about a decade – to duet on the brilliant What have I done to deserve this? The shift of dynamic is ingenious – neither of the first two tracks really have much in common with anything on the debut album Please, and yet they still sound familiar.

Shopping is next, a social commentary on Thatcherite 1980s Britain. This is the single that never was – it’s catchy and you’ve almost certainly heard it before, but it was never released anywhere apart from on Actually. In a way it has some similarities to Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money) from the first album, and you have to wonder whether they intentionally wrote it as a “catchy” song. Pretty good though.

The singles alternate on each side of the album, so next comes the album’s one flop – the autumn single Rent only peaked at number 8. It’s a beautiful track though, one of the gentlest of Pet Shop Boys‘ early career, supplemented on the single by a couple of brilliant François Kevorkian remixes. The album version is a bit more plodding than the single mix, but still a brilliant track.

The pressure to write hit singles was clearly on at this stage, and so Hit Music pastiches a number of other people’s songs. It’s my least favourite track on here, but you can still easily appreciate the songwriting talent behind it – there’s a wonderful melancholy in the middle section that seems to appear from nowhere. This is also the second of three consecutive songs to talk about paying bills and rent (It Couldn’t Happen Here contains the line “Who pays your bills?”) which does make you wonder slightly what was going through Neil Tennant‘s mind at the time.

Side B opens with the slowest track on here, the exceptional It Couldn’t Happen Here. Famously co-written with Ennio Morricone and scored by Angelo Badalementi, it’s a beautifully melancholic piece about a friend of Neil Tennant‘s who had been diagnosed with AIDS. It also gave its name to the 1988 film which Pet Shop Boys famously released when they were unable to fund the tour they wanted to stage.

This leads to the enormous opening single It’s a Sin. If you don’t like this, you have no soul. Appearing on pretty much every top 100 list in the last thirty years, it hit number one across most of Western Europe and made the top ten pretty much everywhere else. With an appropriately overblown video to accompany it, it is a truly era-defining track.

I Want to Wake Up is the only track on here other than Hit Music that realistically never would have been a single, but it’s a strong album track. Strangely, Johnny Marr chose to rework it for his 1993 Remix, which took it to a very different place. Then the album version of Heart is, of course, not quite as good as the version that topped the charts six months or so later, but it’s still an excellent song, particularly when you reach the trick ending.

Nothing can really prepare you for the haunting quality of Kings Cross, another song about Margaret Thatcher, the then-British Prime Minister who was at the time busy selling off the nation’s public services. But even a conservative would appreciate this song on some level – it’s an exceptionally beautiful, if poignant, closing track.

So Actually sees Pet Shop Boys at their chart-topping, era-defining best, and anything that followed could never be this good. Or could it? If nothing else, the thirty years that have followed have been full of surprises.

At the time of writing, your best bet is to wait a little before purchasing Actually. It will be available again soon with the accompanying disc Further Listening 1987-1988.

Artist of the Week – Pet Shop Boys

Here’s another one from the archives, again from late 2004, from my old radio show Music for the Masses. In the fourth week, the artist of the week was Pet Shop Boys. Apologies in advance for any inaccuracies, oddities, unintended plagiarism, or anything else like that.

Pet Shop Boys were formed in August 1981 when music journalist Neil Tennant and dropout architecture student Chris Lowe met by chance in a London electronics shop. In 1984, after three years of recording rough demos, Tennant arranged a recording session with the New York-based electro producer Bobby O, with whom they recorded their first two singles, including the classic West End girls, which saw huge underground success.

Following this, they were signed to Parlophone in the UK, reissued West End girls, and the rest is history. The rest of the singles from the first album Please were less successful, but they still managed two more top ten hits. However, it was with their second album Actually that they really saw huge success. The album only reached number 2, but it yielded three number ones and two further top ten hits.

1988 saw the release of their third album Introspective, which would ultimately go on to become their best selling album ever*, yielding further hits, and they started the 1990s on top form with another studio album Behaviour and their singles album Discography.

Their return in 1993 saw one of their biggest hits ever with the smash hit Go West only just missing out on the number one position, and the album Very eclipsing the success of many of their previous albums.

The 1990s saw a steady decline in their success, but they continued to release some of their best material with 1996’s Bilingual and 1999’s Nightlife exploring between them aspects of dance and South American music. Their most recent album, unfortunately also their least successful to date, Release, saw a complete change in direction, with a guitar-based project.

They released their second singles collection PopArt last year, and this saw some success, and they are currently touring far-flung reaches of the world, as well as planning further events to accompany the live accompaniment to the film Battleship Potemkin which took place at Leicester Square in September. They will most likely be back next year with a new album.

This is repeatedly claimed by Neil Tennant in interviews, but I’ve come to doubt it in recent years – Actually seems a much more likely candidate.

Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls

Eighteen months or so before it hit the number one spot pretty much everywhere in the known universe, Pet Shop Boys released their debut single West End Girls. Having travelled to New York a few months earlier and blagged some studio time with Bobby Orlando, they recorded their debut single with him, and released it through Epic in the UK.

It opens with the drum pattern from Michael Jackson‘s Billie Jean, released a year or so earlier, gradually building in Bobby O style, adding an element every bar or so until it’s become totally enormous. This is particularly noticeable on the 12″ version, which takes a couple of minutes to get to the vocal, having worked your way through the choir sound, the handclaps, the cowbells, and the vocal samples, all of which pepper all of Bobby O’s singles (and why not? It’s not a bad trademark to have!)

Neil Tennant‘s vocals are less confident, and a lot less polished than on the final release, and in 1984 you might have been forgiven for thinking he wasn’t the greatest vocalist in the world. You still might not in 2014, but you can at least hear his vocal style, albeit with a slightly affected American accent at times.

The two half extra verses (such as the section about Joe Stalin) make for a fun novelty inclusion if you’ve not heard them for a while, and while it lacks the haunting darkness of Stephen Hague‘s 1985 reworking, it’s still an entirely enjoyable track. Not number 1 material – not even Top 40 material – but if this had been all Pet Shop Boys ever recorded, it wouldn’t have been a bad legacy at all.

The b-side, the eponymous Pet Shop Boys is, according to Tennant, the track that he chose to play his colleagues at Smash Hits when he returned to the UK, being too embarrassed by his vocal performance on the a-side. Which is understandable really – but then, so is the fact that Pet Shop Boys has never been released anywhere since. The “hip hop instrumental,” as it’s described, isn’t really very good – in fact the Theme for the Pet Shop Boys which appeared on some later releases (with absolutely nothing to do with the act we’re talking about here) is rather better.

History from this point on is unequivocal. Pet Shop Boys decided to re-record West End Girls, transforming it into one of the best tracks that ever hit the charts, and leaving Bobby O diluting his own reputation by re-releasing the original version in 1986, 1992, 1995, 2001, and 2003, plus various awful medleys and megamixes. And when I say awful, I mean appalling – you could get a juggernaut through some of those edits.

But ignoring the checkered history that would follow, the original 1984 release of West End Girls is a pretty special track, and is well worth owning in some form.

There are countless different releases containing tracks from this original single, and it’s difficult to advise exactly which one to go for, but this 2003 release may be a good one to start with.

Pet Shop Boys – Very

Neil Tennant often refers to Pet Shop Boys as having had an “imperial phase,” some time in the mid-1980s, when everything they released turned to gold. What’s perhaps apparent now is that there wasn’t a single “imperial phase,” as much as a gentle decline into mid-1990s obscurity as they reached what might have been the twilight of their career. Very should be considered imperial – it’s their only number one album to date, and delivered one of their biggest hit singles in the shape of Go West.

It seems an entirely appropriate moment to write this review too, with their latest album Electric having the incredible claim of being their most successful for two decades. Very was their 1993 comeback, released an astonishing twenty years ago this week. Let’s take a listen…

The first track is the totally brilliant Can You Forgive Her? which turns out to be about a gay man coming of age, although honestly I think you can enjoy the song on any number of levels without knowing this. It’s essential, imperial Pet Shop Boys – quite unlike anything that came before it, and yet at the same time entirely theirs. It’s got all their hallmarks, such as the incredibly clever and witty Tennant vocal, and it’s delivered over a slightly naughty 6/8 rhythm. Couple all of that with a video with pointy hats in it, and you really have something incredibly special.

Next up is the sadly inferior original version of I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing, later beaten into fine shape by The Beatmasters. It’s still a sweet song, again with great lyrics, but the production is something of a let-down once you’ve heard the remix. The beautiful Liberation follows. It was a surprising fourth single, but worked extremely well, and given the mood of the song was also a surprisingly big hit. Perhaps the naff house mixes which backed it up helped somehow.

A Different Point of View is classic Pet Shop Boys, in that there’s nothing especially remarkable about it, but somehow it’s a beautiful track, perfectly delivered. This being the early 1990s, it’s got a bit of a house sound to it, but otherwise the production is fairly simple pop – rather overloaded as many Pet Shop Boys tracks are and should be, but nothing too groundbreaking either. Then Dreaming of the Queen brings its hilarious (and now slightly poignant) lyric, again alongside exquisite production.

It’s always nice to have an album with hits that come thick and fast, and Very is one of those. Yesterday, When I Was Mad was the final single, either the fifth or sixth depending on whether you count Absolutely Fabulous, and is a charming and wonderful commentary on the boys’ life in the limelight, with odd tempo changes that seem counterintuitive but work perfectly.

Side B is a little less radio-friendly than Side A, but it still never disappoints. The Theatre is beautiful, perhaps the only song which harks back to the previous album Behaviour (1990). One and One Make Five is a little silly and insubstantial, but it’s also fun and fits in nicely. To Speak is a Sin, a leftover from the Bobby O era prior to Please (1985) is a perfectly delivered description of nervous first encounters.

By Young Offender it’s almost tempting to suggest that we’re deep into filler territory, and the remix is much better (in fairness, it is). But we’re not – this is a dark and deeply atmospheric track which is quite beautiful. And One in a Million would be an exhilarating, uplifting final piece to close the album off.

Would be, if it weren’t for Go West, sitting right on the end, and every bit as glorious as it is camp. It’s almost out of place, and for all the post-Soviet overtones, it is still a little bit silly. But it’s also brilliant, and really should have been number one instead of the infinitely less memorable Boom! Shake the Room!

But wait, even that’s not the end! Leave the CD playing for a few minutes more, and there’s something very special tacked onto the end. Entitled Postscript, or I Believe in Ecstasy, the minute-long bonus track actually features Chris Lowe singing. A totally brilliant ending to a quite exceptional album.

Without a doubt, Very is Pet Shop Boys‘ peak. They had shown their maturity already with the previous album Behaviour, but they were still more than capable of pulling their pop punches and adding a string of hits to their belts. Whatever you think of the subsequent albums, it would be a long time before they hit pop perfection to this degree, and it would be even longer before their commercial success caught up with them to this degree.

You need to own at least one of the two double CD versions of Very – either Very Relentless, which you’ll need to buy second hand, or the more recent Very / Further Listening 1992-1994Ideally both.

Pet Shop Boys – Electric – Live in Singapore

It’s not often that Pet Shop Boys play in Singapore. In fact, by my reckoning, this is only the fourth time they have visited. The first time was in 1994, when according to Melody Maker one of the dancers lost some of her clothing onstage, meaning they got severely told off for indecency. But twenty years later, they returned for the first date on the Asian leg of their Electric tour.

The venue this time around was the Compass Ballroom, tucked away in a Las Vegas-style convention centre on little Sentosa Island, connected by a causeway to the rest of Singapore. For such a well-connected city, this was not the easiest venue to get to, and neither was it the easiest to find.

Once I did manage to find it, the venue turned out to be a convention centre ballroom in entirely the normal sense – a huge venue with a weird starry roof. The speaker racks were all right up by the front of the stage, and from the introductory music the acoustics towards the back seemed to be strangely dead, with a weird echo on some of the higher sounds. Was this going to be an issue during the concert? Time would tell.

More than anything, I was fascinated to see whether Singaporeans are actually capable of enjoying themselves at concerts, but many of my doubts would be dashed, as most of the crowd were actually pretty lively right from the start. Just not particularly in my corner of the venue.

Eventually the lights went down and Axis began. Everyone remained resolutely seated, but there was some enthusiastic clapping. I couldn’t really see anything much – you could just about make out Neil and Chris behind the projected foreground, but even the cameras seemed to be unable to find them.

Is that the sound of One more chance? Yes it is! Brilliant! There were obviously a lot of fans around who remember the 1980s. This mixed into A face like that, which confused a lot of people. Chris Lowe was hidden behind a lovely metal synth rack, and both he and Neil Tennant seemed to be wearing what looked like coats made from cable ties.

Some equations on the projection, and the sound of something that’s clearly from the 1980s. Oh, it’s Opportunities! Finally the foreground projection falls away rather clumsily, and I realised I was actually going to be able to see something after all!

“Good evening, we’re the Pet Shop Boys.” Damn! I’ve come to the wrong concert… oh, it’s OK, Memory of the future begins. At some point during Opportunities everyone had stood up and were doing hands-in-pockets dancing. For Memory of the future they all sat down again.

Then came Fugitive and Integral. Hmm, Integral is a bit subversive, isn’t it? I wonder if anyone else who attended thought that? After that, Neil and Chris wandered offstage while the dancers did a bit of freestyle dancing with horns.

I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, and they reappear, now wearing Egyptian masks for some reason. They perform about half of a song, and then wander off again to get changed. Then Suburbia, and everyone stands up again. It’s getting a bit silly now with all the standing and sitting. I think I might just ignore everyone else from now on.

Next up is I’m not scared. Ooooh, lasers! The people sitting next to me are pretty bored though. Neither has actually applauded yet. Then a surprise – Flourescent – which hadn’t been played before on the tour up to this point. The lasers continue, with lots of pretty colours and flashy things.

The cover of The Last to Die vaguely wakes up the man on my right, who applauds politely, but the man on my left has pulled his phone out. Three times during this song he checks the time. Meanwhile, back on stage – Somewhere. Neil and Chris disappear half way through, leaving the instruments to play themselves. The instrumental sounds weird on its own – almost as if they forgot to finish the song before wandering off.

Leaving. Neil and Chris try their hardest by appearing with mirrorball hats, but everyone sits down nonetheless. The man on my right is looking at his phone again. Curious to see what’s so important, I risk a quick peek – he’s actually reading Jamie Oliver‘s biography on his phone. During a concert. A very expensive concert, too. Not a fan of the newer stuff, then. Actually, a lot of the crowd are getting bored, which is a shame. OK, “Good evening Singap…” hold on, where are we again?”

Then Thursday. Ladies and gentlemen, Example! Oh, he’s on the telly. A lot of shifting occurs onstage, and for Love etc Neil and Chris are dancing in their beds. Brilliant. Neil’s head is a little bit off though. Then I get excited (You get excited too), for which they have revived the riff from the Bobby O version. I wonder if anyone else spotted that.

Rent. The back projection has turned into a load of electrical circuitry. Very nice. Then Miracles. The Jamie Oliver fan on my left and the grumpy guy on my right are both very bored indeed now, but they wake up again for It’s a Sin. There are lots of flashy lights, and the venue goes wild. And everyone gets out their camera to film it for… what exactly do people film concerts for?

Domino dancing, and reluctantly everyone gets up again. OK, now the dancers are silver cookie monsters on pogo sticks. I want a pogo stick. Neil turns up with a fez. I want a fez. People are even singing along. At the end, they continue singing! Not Grumpy though – he can barely bring himself to applaud politely at the end of each song.

He wakes up again for Go West, as does everyone else. One last track, announces Neil, so what have they forgotten? Oh yes, Always on My Mind, and now the Jamie Oliver Fan is singing along, although he’s a little tone deaf, so I’m reminded of Joss Ackland in It Couldn’t Happen Here. Then which the concert is over. A load of fluttery bits get fired into the audience with a bang, about four bars from the end of the song. I wonder if they were meant to go off right at the end? Anyway, they go offstage, and the crowd make a very respectable amount of noise in order to try and get them back.

They reappear, to perform West End girls. Oh yes, we forgot about that one, didn’t we? The place goes wild. A few people sneak off during Vocal to jump the taxi queue, but by and large the venue remains pretty lively right through to the end.

So in conclusion, I’ve been to livelier Pet Shop Boys concerts in the past, but I’ve not seen anything quite this lively before in Singapore. The boys pulled off an exceptional show, and most of the audience seemed to enjoy it too. Well worth the trip!

The full track listing:

  1. Axis
  2. One more chance
  3. A face like that
  4. Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money)
  5. Memory of the future
  6. Fugitive
  7. Integral
  8. The Rite of Spring
  9. I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing
  10. Suburbia
  11. I’m not scared
  12. Flourescent
  13. The Last to Die
  14. Somewhere
  15. Leaving
  16. Thursday
  17. Love etc
  18. I get excited (You get excited too)
  19. Rent
  20. Miracles
  21. It’s a Sin
  22. Domino dancing
  23. Go West
  24. Always on my mind
  25. West End girls (encore)
  26. Vocal (encore)

There are heaps of videos of the event available on the internet including some official ones by Singaporean TV company MediaCorp, if you search hard enough

Also, if you speak Japanese, here’s a review posted on Saturday night from someone with the slightly questionable name of Mao Mao, translated into vaguely comprehensible haiku form thanks to Google Translate here.

Edit: after writing this piece I found further coverage from MyPaper, the Straits Times, Bandwagon, Today Online, and SpinOrBinMusic. Be warned that most of these contain the words “retro” and “eighties”.

Pet Shop Boys – Bobby O Demos

There’s one set of demos floating around which really deserved to be an album in its own right – Pet Shop Boys‘ 1984 demos recorded with Bobby Orlando. Around the time of the initial success of West End Girls, they recorded a whole fleet of demos, which are entirely unlike their finished counterparts, and are totally brilliant into the bargain. How different would their history have been if they had released this as an album?

Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) comes first. As with the final versions, it kicks off with a repeated drum sound, although this time it’s an 808 woodblock, among things. Then the bassline, which has been recycled from West End Girls. This is a much darker and gloomier version of the track, thanks to the deep choir of which Bobby O was so fond, but it’s pretty good nonetheless, despite the ill advised vocal acrobatics towards the end.

1988 b-side I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too) comes next, trying ever so hard to adhere to every Bobby O stereotype you can think off (the bass part, the choir, the big snares, the warbly synth arpeggios… all that’s lacking is the female vocal). But then, a couple of minutes in, it becomes almost recognisable as the final track – except somehow more energetic, and possibly even better. Well, without that awful synth part, anyway.

Two Divided by Zero is very recognisable as the completed track from Please (1986) – except that it’s totally awful. Stephen Hague dropped the dreadful transposed drum sounds and callbacks to West End Girls and turned it into something altogether darker, moodier, and more atmospheric. Without going anywhere near a choir sound, either, believe it or not. And I’m not sure who thought the “your momma” sample was funny…

Rent is somewhat spoiled by the awful drum introduction and poor vocal production, but you can hear the beginnings of one of their best songs here. If you really strain your ears. It’s a Sin on the other hand, is quite glorious. It’s enormous, electronic, and the choir is actually serving a useful purpose here. Even the drum breakdown in the middle fails to ruin the mood, because it comes back bigger than ever afterwards. They surely must have realised they had a number one hit on their hands already, mustn’t they?

In the Club or in the Queue sadly never got released anywhere in the end. It’s nothing special, I suppose, but it might have made a nice Please or Actually b-side at least. The car samples don’t help much, but the piano does after all the Hi-NRG of the preceding tracks, and it’s good to hear something a little more experimental too.

The last two tracks would end up on their debut album Please a couple of years later – I Want a Lover and Later Tonight. Both have fairly modest production, suggesting that Bobby O may have left the boys to it for much of the recording. Or so it seems, until the inevitable attack of the killer handclaps half way through I Want a Lover. The last track, at least, is pretty calm.

Whether the artist likes it or not, there’s something very special about listening to demos like this. You feel you have much more of an understanding for where the song came from, and how it evolved into what it became – something which no amount of commentary from the artist can give you. And this collection in particular I’d particularly recommend.

You’ll have to poke around on the internet to find this set of demos – the chances of Pet Shop Boys releasing it commercially are slim to negligible.