Where To Start With... Pet Shop Boys
Stretching for approximately two miles between Sloane Square and Chelsea's footballing home Stamford Bridge, the King's Road in London has a special place in the history of modern music, largely thanks to it having been home to a fashion boutique owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood during the 1970s, where their designs kitted out The Sex Pistols and helped establish the visual aesthetic of the entire punk movement. But it was in an unassuming hi-fi store a little further down that same road that two young gents named Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe bumped into each other for the first time in 1981 and bonded over a shared love of dance music.
35 years later, the duo that have become known as the Pet Shop Boys stand out as one of the most successful electronic music acts of all time, shifting somewhere in the region of 70 million albums and having worked with everyone from Madonna to David Bowie.
They are, it has to be said, unlikely pop stars; ever the odd couple of the pop music scene, Neil Tennant has never been the swaggering frontman type and seems far too polite to have written the lyrics to a song as brilliantly cynical as 'Opportunities'. Chris Lowe on the other hand has turned being 'the quiet one' into an art from, having spent the last three and a half decades standing almost motionless behind an array of synthesizers and steadfastly refusing to smile in the presence of a camera.
Despite this, the Pet Shop Boys rose to fame in the early 1980s on a wave of synth-pop acts that also included the likes of Eurythmics, Wham! and Soft Cell, but the duo have outlasted nearly all of their peers thanks to their trademark juxtaposition of radio-friendly pop music and sharp, often ironic lyrics, not to mention their knack for striking visual presentation. Whether they're decked out in matching tuxedos, brightly coloured cycle helmets or pointy orange dunce caps, their sound is unmistakable.
Although their biggest hits came during their 80s / 90s heyday, the duo have remained an ever-present in the dance music charts on both sides of the Atlantic and their last full-length release, 2013's Electric, marked a return to their best form by combining their knack for an enduring melody with a sound very much at home on the dancefloors of their youth. Packed with trance-inducing rhythms and bubbling synth basslines, this was the Pet Shop Boys reminding everyone that they still know how to make a club banger or two and it was, in short, the best thing they'd released for a long time.
Their new album, Super, arrives in stores on Friday and continues in the same vein, only here they've combined the banging club anthems with a little more of the radio-friendly pop sound you'd recognise from their early years. One of the lead-off singles, 'Pop Kids', is a case in point and feels like a manifesto for the whole album, simultaneously recalling the best of their pop roots while experimenting with a forward-looking production style that's equally at home on the radio or in the clubs.
You can find the lyric video for 'Pop Kids' below, beneath that we've picked five key tracks from the band's long career as a guide for the uninitiated...
'West End Girls'
Taken from their debut album Please, 'West End Girls' was one of the first really big hits for the Pet Shop Boys, but if it hadn't been for The Police, it might not have happened. Neil Tennant was working for Smash Hits magazine in the early 80s and was sent to New York to interview Sting and the rest of the band, so while he was there Tennant arranged a meeting with influential house producer Bobby Orlando, who agreed to produce their first record after being impressed by a demo tape Tennant had brought along. He ended up producing most of Please and set the London duo on their way to stardom.
'It's a Sin'
With lyrics written by Tennant based on his experience of being a young gay man attending a Catholic school, 'It's a Sin' is a frustrated lament on the shame he was made to feel over his sexuality and as a result the song became something of an anthem on the gay club scene. Along with 'West End Girls', it is one of the only two songs that have been performed on every single Pet Shop Boys tour.
'Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)'
Despite their knack for creating an enduring, radio-friendly melody, the Pet Shop Boys' lyrics often provide a caustic counterpoint to their music and 'Opportunities' takes aim at the self-absorbed culture of the Margaret Thatcher era with an ironic lyric about “two losers” - as Tennant puts it - hatching a money-making scheme.
Originally a B-side to their 1986 single 'Surburbia', we've included 'Paninero' here on the basis that it features a rare moment of Chris Lowe's voice featuring on one of their tracks. Lowe had made a comment in a television interview some months earlier about his taste in music: “I don't like country and western. I don't like rock music, I don't like rockabilly or rock and roll particularly. I don't like much, really, do I? But what I do like, I love passionately.” Being the savvy gents that they are, the decided to sample the audio from the interview and sprinkle it throughout the song...
Our final pick is taken from their last album, 2013's Electric, and finds the pair in full-on, reach-for-the-lasers clubbing mode. This is a straight-up techno banger and hardly features Neil Tennant's vocals at all until the back end of the song, by which time you'll be too busy losing the plot on the dancefloor to care... it's brilliant.