“Uncage the colours, unfurl the flag. Luck just kissed you hello when you’re a boy!” — David Bowie, Boys Keep Swinging
It was exactly three decades ago today that the third Pet Shop Boys studio album was released. A thoroughly incongruous beast, Introspective is a spaced-out oddity in so many ways; within the duo’s own catalogue, and within music as a whole. Some great records are like that. They fall together around timing or impulse rather than execution as a entire piece.
I’ve always been in two minds about the Introspective ‘project’. Don’t get me wrong, I cast no aspersions on the quality of the material, which is more than up to the exemplary standards the boys had set with their first long-players Please (1986) and Actually (1987). The trouble is, the declared offical line—that they wanted to have an album of 12” mixes and cut them down for singles—doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.
Let me extrapolate…
As a supposed sequel to those first two long-players, Introspective turned on its head the customary process whereby a band records an album, then releases and expands upon some of the songs as 45s.
Nevertheless, Introspective was a grab-bag, a cash in on the PSB’s fabled “imperial period”; itself a phrase now in common parlance to describe the commercial zenith of an act after being coined by none other than Neil Tennant himself.
This imperial run saw Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe place eight singles in the Top Ten in a 25 month period, one that saw them rescue Dusty Springfield from the depths of oblivion and another written and produced for emerging pop starlet Patsy Kensit and Eighth Wonder.
Not only that, but half of those eight singles had reached the very pinnacle of the UK charts, landing an impressive succession of No.1 hits during 1986 (West End Girls), 1987 (It’s a Sin and Always On My Mind) and 1988 (Heart).
Ver Boys’ initial idea was to issue another mid-priced remix album running along similar lines as Disco (a six-track set of previously released 12″ versions, two of them B-sides) that acted as a stopgap between Please and Actually.
The duo weren’t intending on writing any new material for Introspective at all, with Bounce and I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too), a couple of leftovers from the Bobby O’ days, earmarked for the project. That is, until they decided to record with Trevor Horn and Lewis A. Martinée, the Miami-based producer of nascent freestyle hits such as Exposé’s Point of No Return, which clearly had a bit of an influence on the lead single.
But with their record company Parlophone pushing for new product to capitalise on the Boys’ remarkable steak of success, a dastardly plan was put in place by Team PSB, one which involved subverting the remix album concept, so that second time around, the extended versions would all come from brand new revamps or re-recordings.
And if that sounds like smoke and mirrors then that’s because it’s exactly that. The Boys packed their then manager, the tough-talking hip-slinging Tom Watkins, off to convince the label that the record should be considered as a fully fledged studio album, and so the one that started life as the sequel to Disco ended up being the sequel to Actually, actually.
The Boys got to work, abandoning Bounce, relegating I Get Excited as the flip side to Heart. They also beefed up and lengthened Phil Harding’s 12’ remix of Always On My Mind, the non-album festive No.1 of Christmas 1987, which already included a rap-style middle section called In My House, a minor-key detour featuring additional lyrics that relate to the original in slightly exasperated fashion: “I worked so hard, I thought you knew / my love I did it all for you / I never really had the time / I guess you couldn’t read my mind.”
I Want A Dog (Rent’s B-side) had already been recorded and released during the Actually era and was rejigged by Frankie Knuckles for Introspective. I’m Not Scared had been written for and released by Eighth Wonder earlier in the year, and It’s Alright was a cover of a Sterling Void house track. Which meant that the only new songwriting they put in was two new songs. Mind you, when those two songs are as good as Domino Dancing and Left To My Own Devices you could forgive them almost anything.
Nothing illustrates the literacy and poignancy of Tennant/Lowe better than the seminal Left To My Own Devices. Its epic, glorious swirl of strings strikes up an immaculate contrast between Tennant’s typically underplayed vocal – here largely confined to a spoken near-monotone – and Richard Niles’ surging, romantic orchestral arrangement, packing a formidable sensory and emotional wallop.
It’s a stormer by anyone’s standards, and a brilliantly batty anthem Marc Almond would have hocked his last bottle of man milk to have recorded. Admit it, you can hear him breathe that immortal line now, “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” indeed.
Mind you, it’s easy to forget just how radical a departure Introspective seemed at the time. Gone was the “cold, tinny synth pop.” that their detractors liked to dismiss, and its in place a deeper, denser, druggier and clubbier sounding Pet Shop Boys, layered with beats, bass and real orchestras… and the occasional smattering of ecstasy. They had well and truly pumped up the volume.
Not everyone was impressed though. That second Monday in October, my sister heard me giving the CD its first spin and remarked blithely, “It’s different, isn’t it? I don’t like that version of I’m Not Scared, or Always On My Mind.”
At the end of the day/night, Introspective is a set of club tracks with a pop sensibility, averaging over eight minutes apiece, which either reworked earlier material or would themselves be edited and remixed down for a more radio-palatable single release. Put the 7-inch versions together (and every track on it appeared on 45, albeit one by another act), and you’d have a very nifty synthpop mini-LP.
The format which best suited Introspective was a set of three 45-rpm 12-inches, with one track to each side of vinyl. Put the 12-inch versions together – which is what Neil and Chris did – and you have an album of breathtaking depth and scope. It’s fair to wonder if PSB were inspired by Soft Cell’s Non Stop Ecstatic Dancing, while Introspective’s version of Always On My Mind seems to loosely borrow its structure from Almond and Ball’s melding of their Tainted Love cover and its B-side, Where Did Our Love Go.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZYkF_9WWoc&t=14s
The other nod I noticed, which may be little more than a coincidence, is that Introspective resonates with me in a similar way to Bowie’s Station to Station, which also has six tracks: four singles (one belatedly), an American standard, and released the same year both acts made their movie debuts.
I don’t know if time constraints due to the film projects (1976’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and 1988’s it Couldn’t Happen Here, respectively) had an effect on the concision of the records, but I’m certain that the Thin White Dame would have been influenced by Donna Summer’s seven-track Love To Love You Baby, released two months before he started recording Station To Station) and figured out that you can get by with long grooves as long as they are bloody good grooves.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AqjbPz5Kf4
An amazing incongruous juxtaposition. It’s that pan-continental model he chose for the R&B/Krautrock hybrid of Station To Station. And Introspective’s mix of Chicago house, Latin and freestyle grooves coupled with the European synth pop they were known for echoes that juxtaposition considerably, however unintentional.
In 2018, there is no lonelier a spectacle than a train car-full of people hurtling from non-place to non-place, from station to station, all staring down in silence, engrossed in their own devices. But 1988 was a high note, culturally speaking, for a pervasive belief, in the west at least, that technology and mass media could genuinely improve people’s lives, and that those improvements were inevitable. Introspective is a document of that confidence, a testament to music technology’s timeless wavelengths, and a clear-eyed articulation of the sincere hope that things were going to be alright.
Lastly, that sleeve artwork. Designed by their longtime art director Mark Farrow, its weird, stylised, minimal, and almost electronic looking in its visual coincidence of gold, complimentary red and green, and an array of shocking pinks.
It also represents the album’s monolithic structure — six long-form, extended dance tracks — and manages to be a cheeky vertical appropriation of the then little known rainbow flag* to boot, instantly making Introspective one of the most striking and subversively gay album covers ever.
As Tom Watkins once said, not bad for a couple of queens that done good.
* Because Farrow flipped the stripes to vertical it makes it less obviously inspired by the flag… unless you bought that limited edition 45 RPM 12-inch set I mentioned earlier. It’s a thing of beauty.