Continuing the Fabulous Fourths album feature, a 33 at 33 special: this is Pet Shop Boys Behaviour
It’s 1990 and, soundtracked to the sound of Sinéad O’Connor and Adamski, the new year of a new decade got off to a fiery start as the riots dominated the headlines in Britain as Margaret Thatcher’s controversial ‘Poll Tax’ – hated before it even came into force – was introduced on a incandescent public.
By November, the Iron Lady – Conservative arch-protagonist of so many Pet Shop Boys songs of the 1980s – was forced to resign as Prime Minister, being replaced by the mild and meek (by comparison, at least) John Major. As the coiffured old sow put it so succinctly, ”No! No! No!”
It was certainly time for a change.
The trajectory of synthpop had undergone many great evolutions too, the main one being that it had kind of dissolved. As the eighties mutated into the nineties, the fashion of big, bouncy, keyboard-led tunes had seemingly passed: David Bowie had refashioned himself as a beardy rocker in the thankfully short-lived Tin Machine, hip-hop was in the ascendant, and something called grunge was hovering ominously around the corner.
With the release of the fourth Pet Shop Boys album in October 1990, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe found themselves with a healthy dose of critical approval, if not quite the whopping multi platinum sales figures of the late eighties.
The duo’s exhilarating opening gambit of Please (1986) – Actually (1987) – Introspective (1988) may be the holy triumvirate for getting into PSB, and that’s in no small part due to the records symbolising the electronic duo’s chart-slaying “imperial phase” when they were conquering the world and racking up hit after hit after hit without even appearing to try.
Nevertheless, the reputation of the more downbeat, autumnal Behaviour has only increased in time.
For many, this is The One.
For direction, the pioneering pair turned to Giorgio Moroder’s former right-hand man, analogue synth guru Harold Faltermeyer.
For inspiration, take an Essex quartet who’d just released their most acclaimed work to date.
Neil Tennant freely admitted during an interview that they felt the need to up their sonic game during the recording sessions for Behaviour at Faltermeyer’s studio in Munich in the spring of 1990.
“We were listening to Violator by Depeche Mode, which was a very good album and we were deeply jealous of it.”
Keyboardist Chris Lowe, couldn’t help but agree, conceding that “They had raised the stakes.”
Lowe also once remarked that his bent would be to underpin La Mode’s tuneful songs with a just discernible noisiness, thereby shifting it away from straightforward pop music. You could say that with Behaviour they managed to achieve that, and without the need to involve synthy stadium rockers.
In a concerted shift away from straightforward classic pop of old, Lowe laid down substantial layers of warm strings that rode on more direct beats associated with downtempo house as opposed to the more pronounced dance grooves of earlier albums.
Perhaps the experience of working with Broadway Legend Liza Minnelli the previous year inspired a more theatrical, less frenetic feel.
The music presented a much heavier orchestral signature, and took on a more reflective, serious tone to accommodate the more personal themes of the songs — subject matter that dealt more with relationships and the dynamics involved in maintaining them as opposed to the more clever or crass lyrics that Tennant had been known for.
Melancholic and atmospheric as hell, Behaviour was the duo’s most personal set of songs to date, and gave the listener a chance to embark on another wondrous journey into the PSB world, a synthesised cityscape of hopes and dreams, pain and loss, life and love. Tennant’s comments in the 2001 expanded reissue Behaviour/Further Listening: 1990–1991 is a perfect summation of the period.
“When this album came out people said they were amazed that the whole rave thing seemed to have passed us by. We, of course, thought we had shamelessly jumped on the bandwagon.”
To which Lowe responds, with his typical Blackpool bluntness:
“The thing is, we were ahead of it, because some of Behaviour is like deep house and the naff old reviewers were still trapped in acid house. Whereas we had moved on.”
Conversely, by not bending to pop’s fickle breeze, Behaviour sounds like a timeless pop capsule of perfection whatever the surroundings, and would collectively garner the best reviews of any Pet Shop Boys record.
The magnum opus of October symphonies, I’ll give you ten good reasons why it’s their greatest album, kicking off with this majestic beauty.
This is their masterpiece, a song even Tennant calls “our moment of pop perfection … our Shangri-La”. Its roots are painfully autobiographical. One of Tennant’s best friends from childhood, Chris Dowell, died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989; he was a friend with whom Neil shared the “invitations to teenage parties” that are mentioned in the first verse.
The second verse of Being Boring sees the singer transported to London in the seventies, when he studied at the North London Polytechnic, got into Bowie and glam-rock fashion and came out (“My shoes were high and I had scored”). In the third verse, Tennant is looking back, and as he says in the commentary to 1996 fan club CD, About, imagining a life when he is continuing to do what he does, but Dowell has died. That sense of loss is utterly heartbreaking.
This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave
This must be the track the PSB had earmarked for the 1987 James Bond film The Living Daylights, only to be passed over in favour of Norwegian pin-ups a-Ha. Actually musically, that’s correct, but the lyrics, which places Tennant back at school in Newcastle, were very much 1990 rather than 007.
It’s grand, epic, and laden with a foreboding sense of drama. In fact, in some ways, This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave sounds like it would have been the perfect vehicle for Liza Minnelli had a second album with PSB materialised.
As reviewsrevues’ Phil Shanklin pointed out, fitting Behaviour into the context of the times there would have been two occurrences that undoubtedly influenced this album – the spread of AIDS and the fall of the Berlin Wall. A threat of a return to tyranny is used here both in a public school setting and with its sampled Russian voices, the escape from repressive communism.
To Face The Truth
To Face The Truth is one of a few songs on Behaviour that Neil Tennant had started writing in the early 1980s. It’s a beautiful balladeering tale of unrequited love which brings into sharper focus the sense of melancholy that simmers throughout the album. The frontman noted later that the vocal melody changes he makes in the third verse were a trick he learned from Dusty Springfield, having just worked with the legendary diva on her reputation album. “It’s about lying in bed but your lover’s somewhere else,” Tennant explained in the booklet that accompanied the 2001 reissue of the album.
Has anyone captured the plaintive desperation and feeling of impending heartbreak in song better than this? I wonder. It’s frightening.
How Can You Expect To Be Seriously?
This is where Tennant/Lowe pay lip service to contemporary sounds while slaying certain (unnamed) contemporaries. While the New Jack Swing elements veer into pastiche and have dated less well the rest of the record, the slightly heavier guitar riffs seem to indicate the damning direction the lyrics of How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously? are meant to apply to.
By the nineties, the established rock god and their self-aggrandising charidee efforts almost became an industry in itself. But like Tennant I won’t mention the obvious culprits by name. Oh, alright I will, hi Sting, hi Bono!
“You live within the headlines and everyone can see/ you’re supporting every new cause and meeting royalty.”
As if to ram home the message, the Bono baiting continued to an even more hilarious degree when they combined U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name with the sixties Brill Building classic Can’t Take My Eyes Off You for a cheesily effective disco medley and got to number 4 in the singles charts in 1991. The fact that it was a double A-sided single with this very track from Behaviour shows the point the boys wished to make.
Only The Wind
The calm before the storm, perhaps. In what was a turbulent year both meteorologically and politically, Neil Tennant blows the weather metaphor into a full-blown domestic drama with a gusty lyric he was inspired to write on the spot after hearing the juxtaposition of Chris Lowe’s subtle melody and piano chords amid Hurricane-like weather with dustbin lids flying through the air, sparking thoughts of anger.
The result is Only The Wind, a gentle, elegiac gem that suppresses an inner turmoil of domestic violence. and one which marks the duo’s passage from pop artists to lasting potential as the premier songwriting team of our times.
“No one’s been lying, ‘cause we don’t lie anymore,” sings the fragile-voiced narrator. Eventually the guilty party does bring themselves to say: “I’m sorry.”
My October Symphony
Neil Tennant’s professed favourite track on the album, it’s obvious from the title alone that My October Symphony is brimming with class, erudition and sophistication.
We’re on political territory here again as the track indulges Tennant’s love of Russian history (in this instance the life of Soviet composer Shostakovich and the October Revolution of 1917), in particular reflecting the changes in Russian society since the loosening of the country’s repressive regime all filtered through a classy, swirling melody with some lovely string work from the Balanescu Quartet, plus guitar star Johnny Marr.
A relentlessly wry observation about lack of trust and the suspicion that brings, making the idea of a stable relationship almost impossible.
The lead single from the album feels most like it is a natural successor to Introspective with its brilliantly pile-driving intro and throbbing synths that hark back to Faltermeyer and Moroder’s groundbreaking work with Donna Summer in the seventies. One of the most underrated 45s in the entire PSB canon.
This is a tender tale of a sensitive male finding a like-minded soul, and the nervousness at the beginning of a sexual relationship with two lovers who “much too shy to talk of love”.
The synth soundscape builds to a climax with layered oral sounds for added aural pleasure.
Of course, Neil Tennant being the king and queen of understatement, nothing is made explicit but this is perhaps the boldest attempt yet to open the closet door.
Co-producer Faltermeyer had considered the song as an “LA Ballad” of the sort Tennant/Lowe would explore to its nadir with 2012‘s Elysium, but the trio stuck with the minimalist electronic version you hear on the LP. Indeed, the lyrics are so emotively Broadway I’m surprised it wasn’t considered for the boys’ noughties disco musical Closer To Heaven.
The End Of The World
Lyrically, this breezy penultimate track comes cross as a pretty straightforward plea not to give up on life just because they’ve been unlucky in love.
“It’s just a boy or a girl
It’s not the end of the world”
Well, that’s pretty sound breakup advice, right? Who needs Dr. Phil?
Musically, The End Of The World is smooth, melodic, and mid-tempo that was a late addition to the album, slotting in nicely before the (after hours) climax. Tennant has also confirmed the influence of Depeche Mode’s Violator, even mimicking the guitar sounds of Enjoy The Silence.
In many ways this is the other side of the coin from the club pulsations of So Hard where the indiscretions are half-hidden, almost for the other to discover, but here the neurosis of one partner becomes all-consuming in the devastating mantra
“Where’ve you been? Who you’ve been? You didn’t phone when you said you would.”
Jealousy was the first proper song that Neil and Chris wrote together, that they had earmarked for Actually, for which they approached legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone to do the string arrangement. He was too busy, but in 1990 with Harold at the helm, the finished track’s stately drift between naive, tender melancholy exploding into a bombastic orchestral denouement that’s every bit as dramatic as it sounds. As the harps swoop it’s a fitting finale.
This was Pet Shop Boys’ music as it would be, from the first day, to a T.
A perfect ten, then.
Fabulous Fourths: Kate Bush’s The Dreaming is here