Pet Shop Boys are an English electronic/pop music duo, consisting of Neil Tennant who provides main vocals, keyboards and very occasionally guitar, and Chris Lowe on keyboards and occasionally on vocals.
The longevity of their career is generally attributed to their ability to create melodic pop/dance music with intelligent lyrics and striking style. They are one of the most consistently successful duos in pop music, particularly in Europe. Since 1986, they have had 38 top 40 singles in the UK including four number ones: “West End girls”, “It’s a Sin”, “Always on my mind” and “Heart”. They were very successful in the United States in the mid-1980s; however, their mainstream popularity waned by 1988 with their final top 40 single, “Domino Dancing”, reaching number 18 on the US pop chart. They have continued to be successful worldwide since then, however, and their popularity is still prevalent through their very active and devoted fan base.
Neil Tennant has consistently and sincerely labelled the Pet Shop Boys’ music as “disco.” Their music’s trademark sound is a combination of pure synthesised pop (which could qualify them as a New Wave group), with sometimes slightly over-the-top instrumentation, contrasting with Tennant’s laconic vocals, sometimes spoken-word or rap. Despite a history of implementing current musical trends from the underground (house, electro, jungle, techno etc.) into their productions, they have always maintained their own specific and defined sound. Their lyrics (mainly written by Tennant) have been described as articulate, stylish and poetic. Among their musical trademarks is the combining of pop hooks with detailed chord structures and soundscapes.
In March 1985, after long negotiations, the Pet Shop Boys cut their contractual ties with Bobby O with a settlement giving Bobby O significant royalties for future sales. Hiring manager Tom Watkins, they signed with the London-based Parlophone label. In April, Tennant left Smash Hits (where he had progressed to the position of deputy editor), and in July a new single, “Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money)”, was released, reaching number 116 in the UK. The B-side to this single, “In the night,” was used as the theme for the UK television series The Clothes Show.
Unperturbed by the low chart position, the band returned to the studio in August to re-record “West End girls” with producer Stephen Hague. Released in October 1985, this new version initially entered the charts at a similarly low position, but began a slow rise so that by January 1986 it achieved number one. It was subsequently number one in the USA, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, New Zealand and Norway, and sold an estimated 1.5 million copies worldwide. It remains the most-heard Pet Shop Boys song to date.
After the success of “West End girls”, the Pet Shop Boys released a follow-up single, “Love comes quickly”, on February 24, 1986. The single reached number 19 in the UK singles chart and was followed by their debut album, Please on March 24. In June 1986, the band announced a European tour; however, their plans for a theatrical extravaganza proved to be too expensive and the tour was cancelled.
Please started the Pet Shop Boys’ penchant for choosing one-word album titles.
New versions of “Opportunities (Let’s make lot’s of money)” and album track “Suburbia” were also released in 1986, followed by a remix album, Disco, in November.
The continued success of “It’s a sin” was followed by the release of “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” on August 10. Co-written with Allee Willis and also featuring Dusty Springfield on vocals, the single reached number two on the UK Singles Chart. Though the duo had wanted to release this track on their debut album, but they had been unable to persuade their record label that Dusty Springfield was a good idea; Parlophone had suggested that they record it with Tina Turner. According to the Springfield biography Dancing with Demons, Pet Shop Boys had lobbied to work with her for some time before she actually agreed. The song became a huge hit and resurrected Springfield’s career. This duet was also the start of a series of collaborations with high profile musicians throughout the band’s career.
Also in August 1987, the Pet Shop Boys appeared on Love Me Tender, a UK television programme on ITV commemorating the tenth anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. They were asked to perform one of their favourite Elvis tracks, and they narrowed it down to two options, “Baby Let’s Play House” and “Always on My Mind,” eventually settling on the latter. September 7, 1987 saw the release of the duo’s second studio album, Actually, followed by the single “Rent” in October, which reached number 8 in the UK. “King’s Cross” was due to be the last single released from Actually but was scrapped following the fatal fire at the London underground section of the station in November of that year.
Towards the end of 1987, the Pet Shop Boys started work on an hour-long film that would incorporate the songs from Actually. Working with director Jack Bond, the short film grew into a full-scale movie, It Couldn’t Happen Here, starring Barbara Windsor, Joss Ackland and Gareth Hunt. The film was eventually released in 1988 to mixed reviews. Footage from the film was also used for the music video to “Always on my mind,” now released as a single on November 30; it became both the duo’s third number one single in the UK and the Christmas number one single for 1987, infamously beating out “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues.
1988 started with another collaboration. Patsy Kensit’s band, Eighth Wonder, had the song “I’m not scared” written and produced for them by the Pet Shop Boys. The song became her biggest hit single and Pet Shop Boys included their own version of the track on their Introspective later that year. March 1988 saw the duo achieve their fourth UK number one single (and their last to date) with a remixed edit of “Heart”, different from the album version (NB: The single version is included in their Discography collection, whereas the album version is used in their “Pop Art” retrospective). The video to the single was a retelling of the Dracula story, starring Ian McKellen as the vampire who steals Neil Tennant’s wife. It was seen to be ironic since McKellen was a well-known gay figure at the time (he came out in the 1970s).
In the 1996 BBC Radio 1 documentary About Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant noted that their “Imperial Phase” ended in 1988. On September 12, the Pet Shop Boys released a brand new single, “Domino dancing,” and in the documentary Neil recounts his depression when hearing the news that the single had reached number 7 in the UK single chart. He felt that their major success was now over and that it was going to be a challenge to remain successful going forward.