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45 at 33: Pet Shop Boys Being Boring

Thirty-three years ago, on Sunday 18 November, 1990, Being Boring by the Pet Shop Boys entered the British singles charts at a shockingly lowly 36, running out of steam the following week at No. 20 to become their lowest charting PSB 45 since they broke big with West End Girls five years earlier. 

By this point, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had mastered the trick of producing superior “throwaway” pop music designed for maximum commercial impact. Singularly exquisite and oh-so-sophisticated, Being Boring flopped as a single because it wasn’t remotely throwaway. It was still superior (and how), but it was art: the pinnacle of PSB artistry and most Wildean of all their compositions. The Dorian Gray of pop songs with a video to match. 

In one of our trio of interviews, Tennant told me he and Lowe “looked at each other with abject horror” when the chart position was phoned through. The fact that the duo were surprised when it entered at 36 instead of, say, the No. 4 of the previous single So Hard, suggests that they’d started to lose that laser-like focus on the charts. They’d also made their name, so it was understandable that they would begin to move in more esoteric and less obvious directions.

To my mind, Being Boring is easily one of their greatest works, but, conversely, also one of their weaker singles – if a single’s strength is judged solely on its immediate commercial impact. But, in this case, it shouldn’t be. Let me explain…

What do Axl Rose, Trent Reznor and Brandon Flowers have in common? The answer may well surprise you. One of the favourite songs of this American rock triumvirate is Being Boring, by English electronic extraordinares, Pet Shop Boys.

BB was issued as a single on the second Monday in November 1990, and was produced by synth-legend Giorgio Moroder’s right-hand man, Harold ‘Axel F’ Faltemeyer in Munich for the fourth PSB album, Behaviour, released the month before.

The track in question has also been feted on Desert Island Discs by the disparate likes of George Michael and broadcaster Andrew Neill, who held the pop partnership in such high regard that on the BBC Radio 4 show he proclaimed “the Pet Shop Boys were to the ’80s what The Beatles were to the 60s.”

But if John and Paul had a synthesizer they still wouldn’t have conjured up such a poignant piece of pop majesty as Being Boring. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Tennant/Lowe are going to go down as one of the great songwriting teams in pop history, along with Lennon/McCartney, Bacharach/David, Stewart/Lennox and the like.

Record Mirror review, 17 Nov 1990

Apart from a dip around the turn of the millennium they’ve continued to pump out Grade-A pop music for over 35 years, which has to be some kind of a record, and I can’t think of another act who even comes close to putting out dance music with lyrics as consistently erudite. Neil Tennant has sometimes been described as the Joni Mitchell of the dancefloor, and in a way he has the harder task as a lyricist due to the constraints of their chosen genre.

The main reason I take a deep interest in the work of Neil and Chris is their ability to fuse life-affirming music with prescient melancholic lyrics. Whether bleak or resurgent, Lowe’s accompaniment always seems to complement Tennant’s wordplay. Sometimes, there’s a dichotomy between the two, with upbeat sonic dreamscapes providing the backdrop to downbeat vocal delivery. Sometimes, they match seamlessly going hand in glove with each intention and emotion.

Behaviour, the album from which Being Boring was extracted, 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.

Lowe/Tennant, Tennant/Lowe

Unfortunately, a recent and profound personal loss has me reading perhaps a little too much into the lyrics of certain songs. Yet, comfort is found in familiar friends, and Pet Shop Boys songs have often been the closest of companions. Being Boring is as good a song as any to start with. It’s also the song that will soundtrack my own funeral.

I recently stumbled across an article on the superb website.

“She covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it, and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do.”—Zelda Fitzgerald.

The quote attributed to the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald adorns Being boring by Pet Shop Boys. More importantly, it infuses the song with its meaning. It places the reader and listener at the centre of the song. It places the song in a time, or more specifically, in times. And those times change. And change brings emotional turmoil.

The woman in Zelda Fitzgerald’s mind obviously believed that she was resourceful enough to entertain herself. But it is her self-awareness that shows why. She was living out her dreams. And she knew it. She may have been an actress of some sort. She may have been a star.

Either way, she knew she was centre-stage. And she was because she was living her life. Like we all do. Like we are the centre of our own universes. Because we are. We are the actors. And we sure as hell can hold our own attentions. Because we have presence. And we are conscious of our own star status in our own minds. Because in our own minds we are the only stars. It’s our universe. Our movie. Our life. And we don’t know where it is ending.

The woman in Zelda’s mind was aware of the here and now. The present, in the things she did, and the past, in the things she had always wanted to do, are one. The future never arrives. It becomes the present and then the past. And she lives it as we do, because we can. And we know that once it is gone there is little for us to do than to look back and wonder why we did what we did and reminisce.

All movies end. Just like lives. But the only video playback for us is our memory. Neil Tennant:

“When we finished the album, we asked Bruce Weber to direct our “Being Boring” video. When we met with Bruce, Chris and I had some complicated idea about Latin gangs in New York filmed in black and white. To his credit, Bruce listened patiently. Then he came up with the idea of renting an empty house in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island and filming fashion models preparing for a party and the party itself. It sounded about right to us.”

For the record, EMI, the boys’ record company, didn’t like the video one iota. I don’t think they were too chuffed with the naked guy in the beginning or flashes of the couple having sex at the end. Not to mention PSB’s fleeting appearances that make a cameo look like a starring role. But the video was utterly beautiful and evoked the perfect atmosphere for the song.

Any song that utilises nostalgia as a main theme is likely to be crass, sentimental, and rose-tinted. Nostalgia is a booming trade these days. Nothing is sacred. Not even memories. They inevitably become sepia-toned and improve with time. Rarely are they genuine. Or heart-felt.

Being boring manages to avoid the excesses of nostalgia by remembering the pain of the past as well as the pleasure. Times change. People change. Emotions change. Time brings death and loss. And loss is never rose-tinted.

True loss becomes only more manageable, because there is nothing else for us to do except manage it. It can never be dressed-up, just addressed. And in life, change brings only two things: enrichment and loss. We gain new friendships and experiences only by shedding previous ones. And sometimes, the old ones were deeper.

I can’t think of any other song by this English pop duo that could have me writing like I am right now. That’s not to say that I believe this to be their peak. I believe this to be their most emotionally prescient song. It’s the reason that this song is considered their best by many. It reflects the experiences of us all in some way or other. Some feel the meaning more acutely than others. But everybody old enough to regret feels its tug.

It’s the story of life and lives. Of love and loss. Of hope and expectation. Of youth and experience. Of bitter reality and the passage of time. It’s a monument to the writing talents of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. It is also the most gloriously hyped song that this duo will ever construct. Because it is about us. And nobody is more important than us. Not to us. And who else matters? Certainly not a Swedish telly presenter that struggles to pronounce their name.

To my mind, Being boring is a magical adventure. It’s life after all. Its brilliance lies in the manner in which Tennant and Lowe have distilled life into a seven minute pop song. Seven minutes sum up life. And the single reduces it further. Proof that commercial reality taints everything.

Its UK chart debut of number 36 can be viewed as the day Tennant and Lowe lost their public. It can also be viewed as the day they gained immortality. The shedding of the teenage brigade for the intellectual high-brow guaranteed a longevity that the fads of the day could never hope to match. The fads of 1990 were New Kids On The Block and MC Hammer. Hammer time was up.

That’s not to claim that number 36 was part of the plan. Not at all. But it showed a band that seemed intent on releasing what it regarded as its best work. While the eventual climb to number 20 precipitated a major re-think of commercial values, it also signified a determination to think independently and retain individuality.

A stomping U2 cover (Where The Streets Have No Name, below) brought the success back fleetingly, but subsequent releases like Jealousy, DJ Culture, Liberation, Before, and You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk showed that the charts were never again intended to be dominated as the imperial year of 1987. Success would be welcomed, even encouraged in leaner times, but never bought by the sale of values.

Detractors of Being boring are few. Detractors of the myth of Being boring are more easily found. And they are correct to identify a myth. The myth in question hacks at the true beauty of the song. It revolves around the selfish notion that Being boring is the PSB peak because “I’ve lost someone.”

Being boring is considered by many to be an elegy. The narrator, Tennant, is not an old man. But he seems to have lost. And lost many. The lines “All the people I was kissing / Some are here and some are missing” suggest that some kind of plague or war has vanquished his loved ones. Tennant’s personal history and his pre-occupation with the consequences of AIDS, as evinced in songs like Domino dancing and Dreaming of the Queen, suggest that it is AIDS that has caused him such loss.

To my mind, and I know that I’m being controversial here, some fans of the band have jumped on this as some form of personal collective vindication or expression of special poignancy. This is perfectly understandable in itself. But some then take this to extremes and will not hear of another song gaining more acclaim among the overall fan-base.

AIDS has possibly touched more fans of this duo than some other bands, but let’s not obscure a simple fact: loss affects everyone. We all feel it. Maybe some have not lost as much as others. But the revisionist thinking that stops the PSB clock at November 1990 fails to address the simple fact that if this song was so touching to the fan-base, which was a lot larger then, why did it flop so badly?

Flop: BB put PSB in the dumper

Too many people now think this song is the greatest PSB track for anyone to believe that they all rushed out and bought it in 1990. The myth grew over the years. It became a Stalinist point of fact. It became the song of snobbery. “Oh yes, Being boring was their best.” Yes, it might well be the greatest. But it might well not be either.

Love this gorgeous record for itself, not for what others tell you to. It’s far too beautiful to become a cliché, the thing to say. The song to be seen with. Being boring is not a fashion accessory or a statement of superior taste or an expression of self-pity. It is a dignified distillation of life and loss. It’s a celebration of who we are and of what we do. Those things we had always wanted to do. And did.

Steve Pafford

An earlier version of this feature was published here

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