The Post-Imperial Pet Shop Boys



More than thirty years ago, UK electropop duo Pet Shop Boys surveyed their present pop moment and asked themselves, ‘Do you want to be rich?’ Unfortunately for them, the very single in which they posed the question – ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ – fizzled on the British charts and was at any rate so ironicly posed that you could almost feel the draught from vocalist Neil Tennant’s left eyebrow being raised. But Tennant (a former music journalist) and co-conspirator Chris Lowe were unusually clear-eyed about the business of pop music. They soon hit on just the right combination of wry vernacular lyrics and danceable melodies and were quickly on their way to becoming the most successful duo in UK music history.

But nothing stays the same. The mid-to-late 20th century music business model, which relied on singles to drive the sales of highly profitable albums, continues to disintegrate under the assault of digital. As a result, musical acts are increasingly reliant on live performance as their primary source of income. Whether it’s the greatest hits touring road shows of bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles, or acts like the Pixies and Bruce Springsteen who’ll perform an album live in the order of the original LP, increasingly the precisely familiar is the best way to guarantee a ticket sale.

Pet Shop Boys found chart success in the early 1980s just as the craze for synthpop duos was otherwise coming off the boil.The injured recall in much of Tennant’s lyrics, together with his Noel Cowardesque-delivery, only reinforced a baked-in nostalgia that marked many a Pet Shop Boys song like a bruise on a thigh.

Pet Shop Boys arguably perfected their sound with their second album Actually (1987) and the subsequent EP Introspective (1988). Donnishly labelled by Tennant as belonging to their ‘imperial stage’, Actually sold almost a million copies in the UK alone and both it and Introspective spawned eight straight top ten singles, three of them chart-toppers. Tennant saw the imperial stage of any act as the commercially useful results of the friction between an artist’s ambition and their existing preoccupations. Exemplified by the balance PBS found between the newly intricate melodic arrangements of songs like ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ and ‘Left To My Own Devices’ and Tennant’s waspish recitative, Pet Shop Boys possessed then the secret of pop. But a rise, imperial or not, is always followed by a fall.

Never quite as successful here as in their homeland, Pet Shop Boys haven’t troubled the Australian singles chart much since the mid-90s. Their single biggest hit here – a charity release based on the UK comedy Absolutely Fabulous hit # 2 in 1994 – wasn’t released under the Pet Shop Boys name and so liberally sampled catch-phrases from the show’s Edina and Patsy (‘Lacroix, Sweetie – Lacroix!’, ‘Chanel, Dior, Lagerfeld, Givenchy, Gaultier darling – names, names, names!’) that Tennant’s singular wit was necessarily absent.

Whatever the vicissitudes of chart success, Pet Shop Boys never entirely lost their ability to craft fine pop music. To get a sense of their post-imperial years, here’s a selection of the ten best Pet Shop Boy songs that never made the top ten.

  1. Liberation (Very, 1993)

Although his sexuality was never really in doubt, it’s easy to forget –perhaps only from this distance – that Tennant came out as gay in 1994. Liberation eddied slightly ahead of this self-disclosure and it gently brims with the new release of openness.

  1. Paninaro ’95 (Alternative, 1995)

A rare Chris Lowe vocal, this re-recording of a 1986 b-side sways along its orbit of hedonism until a wobble of sadness hits, as a lover present in the original version is in 1995 consigned to the past tense.

  1. To Step Aside (Bilingual, 1996)

Tennant’s wistful lyrics are less of an attraction here than the joyous eruption of gypsy singing sampled throughout, relaxedly married to a Balearic backing.

  1. Closer To Heaven (Nightlife, 1999)

A lovely falsetto from Tennant pushed along by a ticker-tape backing.

  1. Nightlife (B-side to single Home and Dry, 2002)

Airy, with such a strong Bee Gees influence that it’s no surprise PSB unsuccessfully sought out the brothers Gibb to contribute vocals.

  1. Somebody Else’s Business (Disco 3, 2003)

A superior club banger about a violable relationship which is perhaps tipping under due to mental illness.

  1. Minimal (Fundamental, 2006)

Mixes in electronica, design and Russian abstract painter Kazimir Malevich into a wonderfully fractal reflection of subject and form.

  1. Did You See Me Coming? (Yes, 2009)

PSB have rarely sounded so joyous as on this ode to the long con of relationships.

  1. Leaving (Elysium, 2012)

Written in the wake of Tennant’s parents’ deaths, this stately tune overcomes its occasional lyrical lumpiness by the tamped sweetness of its melancholy.

  1. In Private (Stuart Crichton club mix, featuring Elton John) (Fundamentalism, 2006)

PSB revisit this 1989 track, originally written for Dusty Springfield, this time as a duet with Elton John. The presence three once-closeted singers gives this tale of hypocrisy in sexual relationships perspective and more than just a little juice.

Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F. Menzies


Just back from the inaugural presentation of the Russell prize for humorous writing at the NSW State Library.

It was a tremendous honour to be asked to help judge this new award with Kathryn Heyman and Paula Tierney (no relation).

Our decision to award the prize to Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F. Menzies was a unanimous one and I was again lucky enough to be asked to write the citation.

‘Pomo with punch lines, Bernard Cohen’s The Antibiography of Robert F. Menzies is a novel in the most elegant state of disassembly. At times a reader might be encountering a novel, a biography, a political satire or the wittiest PhD exegesis there’s ever been. Two of its characters are described at a certain point as ‘Smiling like two schoolboys not busted for anything.’ and the biting wit of this novel busts Australia big time. It busts us as a people so concerned with telling each other how relaxed we are (‘Smile, love – it might never happen!’), that we are revealed as at heart anxious. How we, at the arse end of the globe, are always the last to know. How we tell jokes to take each other down a peg or as an act of self-depreciation to misdirect from a social unease. These small acts of nervy restlessness are indicative of our larger domestic history and how it is forever unsettled with its own self-described ‘eventlessness’. A novel this bursting out with this many surely choreographed elements is impossible to summarise in a single line but if it is about one thing it is about how the brutalities of the past are reduced to a sort of comfort by the virtue of being ‘over’.

The Antibiography of Robert F(ucking) Menzies is the most elegant kick in the teeth we didn’t know we needed.’