Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour

This week sees the 25th anniversary of one of the most important and exquisite albums of the early 1990s. If you’re not a fan, you might not even have come across Behaviour – it was the least successful of their early releases. But ask anyone who knows them well, and they will tell you that this is one of Pet Shop Boys‘ finest moments.

It begins with the very soft introduction to Being boring, among many other things a poignant reminder of Christmases long ago. An unlikely festive hit, it struggled its way into the bottom end of the top twenty, and continued to slide around the lower reaches of the chart for the next couple of months.

Over the two minutes or so that it takes for the vocal to turn up, you really know everything you need to about this album. Whereas Pet Shop Boys‘ previous release Introspective (1988) had been a six track collection of extended dance mixes, this time around you would meet a cavalcade of string arrangements, synth pads, and joyous, melancholic lyrics.

Proceedings take a darker turn with This must be the place I waited years to leave, which sees singer Neil Tennant transported back to his school days in a dream. While the rare nine minute extended version has even more atmosphere, even on this shorter version the analogue synth and vocoder lines lend it a particularly mournful tone – Pet Shop Boys travelled to Germany to record much of this album with synth legend Harold Faltermeyer, which gives it a unique sound.

The quietest moment yet comes with To face the truth, which sees Tennant giving an extremely unusual vocal performance while Chris Lowe could almost be playing his pad section live. With its simplicity and understated vocals, it’s an almost unique song in Pet Shop Boys‘ back catalogue.

In a perfect transition, the uptempo How can you expect to be taken seriously? comes next. Much has been written about this song, knowingly contemplating who the subject might be, which we won’t touch on here – let’s just say it’s a satire on fame, fortune, and charity. Ultimately released as a double a-side single with hordes of creative remixes in the extravagantly named Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You) / How can you expect to be taken seriously? package, the years that have followed have seen it largely forgotten, and sadly so.

Closing Side A is the lovely piano-driven piece Only the wind, which could only really be improved by being its Nightlife Tour version as found on the Montage DVD (2001), which is worth braving the unwatchable visuals to hear a hugely atmospheric remix. The original Behaviour version is still worthy of your attention, a lovely song which reminds you ever so slightly of the British obsession with the weather.

Side B opens with the haunting My October symphony, apparently the song that inspired November Rain. In spite of the vaguely Soviet sounding introduction and the repeated nods to the October Revolution, the lyrics reveal little directly about its deeper meaning, leaving much to your own interpretation. As it should be. But I’m tempted to wonder whether Tennant is questioning his socialist teenage self, and asking him to reinterpret his feelings about the revolution.

So hard is next, the lead single, with its enormous analogue synth backing. This was the era when digital synthesis was at its height, and Pet Shop Boys were, as always, to be found doing entirely the opposite. Commercially, they may have suffered, but their place in history was assured by this album.

Nervously seems to split listeners, depending on the degree to which they identify with the lyric. It’s probably autobiographical, with Tennant telling us how nervous he was as a teenager, learning about the excitement of the adult world without ever getting very close to it. If you do identify with it, it will no doubt mean a lot to you, but for me it’s always been a little dreary, and by far the least interesting song on here.

After that, you can’t help but see The end of the world as filler, and while it is a little vacuous compared to some of its neighbours, in the broader context of the album, Tennant is telling us about his teenage self learning that relationships come and go.

By the end of Behaviour, we’ve grown into adults, and so it’s time for one of the three songs from Pet Shop Boysoriginal 1983 demo. There, it was called Dead of Night, and was accompanied by two largely awful songs. Here, Jealousy is rounding off an exquisite album in appropriately grand fashion. Disappointingly, the strings on the original album version are from synthesisers, but even so, the middle section drops the listener into the centre of an enormous orchestra, with rippling harps and huge brass instruments.

Although it was released late in 1990, Behaviour really closes the first decade of Pet Shop Boys albums, the singles from which are collected so beautifully on Discography (1991). The era of deep and wistful introspection was over – next would come the computer age, with its bright lights, computer graphics, and Lego CD cases.

If you can still find the double CD version of Behaviour, paired with Further Listening 1990-1991, definitely go with that. If not, the regular version is available here.

Trance Atlantic Air Waves – The Energy of Sound

Fifteen years ago this week saw the release of the first real Enigma side project in a long time. Made up of Enigma‘s Michael Cretu and his long-time production collaborator Jens Gad, it is ostensibly a cover version album. However, unlike normal albums of this kind, it’s actually pretty good.

The first track is Lucifer, originally performed by The Alan Parsons Project in 1979. The portamento and guitar leads swell over what is, really, what sounds like a fairly typical Enigma backing track of the period. In a good way.

Second is a cover of Harold Faltermeyer‘s Axel F (1984), now with added samples of someone saying “Give me a big beat,” and another one which you’ll have heard before in The Happy Mondays‘s Hallelujah. Famously, Michael Cretu claims that he doesn’t actually listen to much contemporary music, and that does show sometimes, but this is still a pretty banging track.

Exactly what events led to this collaboration is difficult to fathom. The Enigma project was between albums, with the last album of the original trilogy Le Roi est Mort, Vive le Roi! having come out a couple of years earlier and the follow-up The Screen Behind the Mirror not due until two years later. Cretu’s wife Sandra wasn’t recording at this time either, so perhaps this was just a stopgap, or maybe it was just a bit of fun. The first single Magic Fly had come out the previous year, and was followed by Chase and Crockett’s Theme over the following months.

The great version of Crockett’s Theme is the next track in fact, originally performed by Jan Hammer in 1986. The vast majority of tracks are excellent – they’re all old synth instrumentals, which are rightly regarded as classics by the world at large. This one is particularly good, with bouncy drum lines and a massive synth lead.

Next up is Dance with the Devil, an odd choice given that the original, a 1973 hit for Cozy Powell is largely a drum solo. It works pretty well, but it’s probably the weakest track on what is actually a very strong album. Then the fifth track is the softer and more Enigma sounding Addiction Day, led by a brilliant morphing portamento sound. It’s also one of a couple of exceptions on this album, being a new track written by Jens Gad rather than a cover.

A long take on Ecama‘s 1978 hit Magic Fly follows, now with added samples saying, “I said shut up,” which isn’t too charming. It does sound a little dated now, fifteen years on (remember, in the case of this track, it was only twenty years old when the album was released) but it’s good nonetheless. This is the Wonderland Mix, and without having heard the “original” it’s difficult to know how they actually compare, but it’s a strong lead single.

Chase, also originally performed in 1978 by Hansjörg (better known as Giorgio) Moroder, is up next. It’s a much more atmospheric track than the original, although again it isn’t exactly contemporary, even for the late 1990s – the remixes done a couple of years later for Giorgio’s remix project are much more lively. It is good though – the atmosphere suits it, and it’s another great track.

There are then two more Gad/Cretu originals: Twelve After Midnight and L-42. Although obviously otherwise unknown, both fit in perfectly alongside their more esteemed neighbours, driven again by strong synth leads and sampled spoken vocals. L-42 could even have easily squeezed onto the previous Enigma album and fitted perfectly.

The final track covers Evangelos “Vangelis” Papathanassiou’s 1976 hit Pulstar. More of an extrapolation than a direct cover, it follows a similar pattern to the other pieces – the original melody is accompanied by spoken samples and lots of big synth backing. That description may not do it justice, and just so we’re clear, it is, of course, excellent.

Looking from the distance, both of fifteen years, and from not really knowing its history, Trance Atlantic Air Waves is an odd side-project, but although dated now it’s a good album, and a worthwhile look back at a handful of instrumental synth masterpieces from the preceding thirty years.

To my surprise, you can actually find this album on iTunes, here.