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“Cheap and cheerful shit entertainment”: the Pet Shop Boys’ less than fantastic voyage of Discovery

How do they manage it? Few acts have thrived and survived doing the pop thing for anywhere near as long as the Pet Shop Boys, let alone with a line-up resolutely intact. But then good will out, because this pair of seminal synthmeisters seem totally exempt from the gravitation laws that govern such matters. Never anybody’s idea of hip young things from the outset, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have always been an unquestionable paradox, starting by calling themselves Boys when Tennant was already pushing thirty, and Lowe not far behind.  Yet they have deftly survived four decades of a cutthroat industry to become the most successful, most consistent recording duo of all time. 

With an unbroken string of 14 top ten studio albums, the duo’s creative success in the field of British music is unassailable; their live shows often brilliantly theatrical eye-popping spectacles that can still pack out cavernous arenas and festival fields from Germany to Glastonbury, all of which perfectly showcases the cool irony and dramatic Euro-plonk that have defined the Boys’ corner. Yet the crowd-pleasing contemporary concert ‘act’ that has traipsed the world’s stages with, in normal times, increasing regularity is a very different electronic entity from the remote insouciance they affected on the PSB’s first two tours. And it all changed with the instantaneous hi-energy rush of Discovery, a messy, hastily cobbled together 1994 production which didn’t make it to Europe or the US. 

Thank heavens for small mercies. 

As one of the most celebrated pairings in popular music, the Pet Shop Boys have had a pretty superlative career whichever way you look at it. Coming up for forty years since Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met in a Chelsea electronics store, enforced lockdown has afforded the duo the time to have, according to Neil, “written tons of songs” and a “sort of theatre piece”, in isolation in their respective homes in Kent and London (and occasionally at Chez Lowe in Blackpool).

This year’s newly published edition of the boys’ own Annually book includes a CD containing two new recordings: a stripped back Lockdown version of the perennial West End Girls and an “epic new song” entitled Cricket Wife, a marvellous if challenging ten minute poem set to something “in the style of classical music.”

The fan publication goes on to confirm that around 15 of other new tracks have also been recorded and mixed, fuelling expectations that a release of sorts may be on the way before the year is out, though Tennant seems to be digging in his helium heels:

“I don’t know whether I would call it a new album — we only brought out an album at the beginning of 2020, even though it seems like forever ago… There’s a lot of different styles. One song is about Rudolf Nureyev. They don’t really have any relation to this year.”

Hotspot was issued 16 months ago, and yes, in the world of digital pop that does indeed seem like forever ago. This is where I helpfully point out there was only thirteen months between 1987’s Actually and 1988’s Introspective and even less than a year between 2012’s Elysium and 2013’s Electric. The latter opus heralded the arrival of x2, the duo’s own record label set-up, which obviously allows them the creative freedom to release product as and when they please.

Furthermore, if a pop tart like Taylor Swift — who’s signed to Universal, the biggest major label of the lot — can release three albums in the last ten months alone, Tennant’s disclaimer is all the more baffling. Swift’s fetching Folklore arrived just eleven months after 2019’s Lover, while its sister record, the excellent Evermore — possibly my favourite album of 2020 — dropped a little under six months later. Not only that, but the first of Swift’s spoiler projects, a re-recorded rendition of her Fearless sophomore set from 2008, dropped less than four months after that. 

If there’s one thing that’s become abundantly clear in the digital age, it’s that the old business model that the majors tried to impose on their artists of a studio album only every three years and not before is effectively redundant. 

Now that’s what I call nineties.

In the instantaneous age of the stream juggernaut, there’s next to no need for the type of lavish marketing campaigns of old. Now, if you tried to announce an album many months before it was released the public would be bored of it before it’s even available. Curiously, you get the impression that despite their admirable efforts to stay up to date with new music and trends — and, thus, helping to freshen, modernise and revitalise their own sound — perhaps PSB would prefer to doggedly hang on to that tradition come what may, however quaint and anachronistic that now appears. 

On a slightly anal note, a Pet Shop Boys album in 2021 would keep nicely to their unwritten convention of releasing some sort of long-playing project with new songs every five years since their debut, 1986’s Please.* And that’s the kind of factoid I know would occupy Neil’s thoughts, however fleetingly.

Thankfully, Tennant & Lowe have also taken the opportunity to delve into their archive and revisit some interesting episodes from their visual catalogue. These have included a wealth of BBC television performances uploaded in high-quality to the band’s YouTube account, and the repackaging (poor quality printing and all) of their pair of tour books with the author Chris Heath — who through the years has become something of the Boswell to the PSB’s Johnson. 1990’s Literally and 1993’s Pet Shop Boys Versus America are exemplary, epochal chronicles that document the behind-the-scenes access to the PSB’s first experiences of touring.

Their considerable body of carefully curated multimedia is a testament to the Pet Shop Boys’ endless creation and aesthetic vision since they met in a Chelsea electronics store almost forty years ago. Furthermore, the duo have been overseeing the digitisation of the video films we saw originally issued on dodgy VHS tapes in the first decade of their recording career with Parlophone EMI. 

That PSB are an act reflecting a solid fanbase still loyal to niche market physical formats is commendable and can only be applauded. The BFI’s nicely spruced remaster of the 1987 feature film It Couldn’t Happen Here is the Boys’ only Blu-Ray vault release to date, and was also issued on regular DVD. The upgrade looks fantastic, even if the content is an acquired taste and Tennant & Lowe’s own long promised commentary track never materialised. 

Less than a year later and we have — ta-dah! — Discovery: Live in Rio 1994. 

Originally released as a concert film in 1995 but now reissued as a DVD-CD combo, Discovery captures the Boys’ first trip to Brazil, a penultimate stop on a limited 25-gig engagement of Southern Hemisphere and Equator-nudging parts of the world they hadn’t played before, namely Singapore, Australia, and Latin America. The whole shebang was, amusingly, timed in part so the Boys could enjoy, if I can paraphrase one of their least-performed singles, a semi-permanent holiday in endless sun. While the concert showcases the Pet Shop Boys’ musical prowess with effortless ease, the aesthetic and technical presentation lacks the iron rod quality control PSB have exerted from day one. I don’t necessarily mean the shiny and new digital remaster, it was simply never very good in the first place.

Even Neil Tennant seemed a trifle embarrassed about it in an interview with this author years later.

Let me explain.

Flashing forward to the spring of 2002 and I had just conducted my third in depth journalist to pop star conversation with Neil, and my first with Chris Lowe, though the Lancastrian turned up unapologetically late to our hastily arranged meeting at a favoured PSB haunt: London’s swank drinking establishment to the media super-elite that is the Groucho Club in Soho.

So the section of the interview I’m about to recount — slightly edited for appearance’s sake — was early in the proceedings. It was literally just the regally poised singer talking at his quick-fire 100 words per minute, plus me and a couple of drinks on a wet March morning — a meeting in not quite matching Prada footwear ostensibly to promote the duo’s eighth studio album, the pseudo-indie rocker Release.

After various chit-chat I commenced proceedings proper with something borrowed, a query that came via Pet Shop Boys Community, an online fan forum that’s become largely redundant since the advent of social media.

After I got this interview confirmed yesterday, I thought I’d put a message up on one of the Pet Shop Boys message boards just to ask if anyone had any burning questions, email me. Unfortunately, I only got one by this morning. Maybe it was a bit short notice, but I might as well ask you anyway — it’s a typical fan question, I suppose: ‘Will you be reissuing [the first three Pet Shop Boys concert videos] Highlights, Performance and Discovery on DVD?’

On DVD… Yes, particularly Performance, because it was filmed so beautifully and it actually looks better than the concert actually looked. 

[Watching the stage] you couldn’t take it all in. It’s funny, but that’s why we’ve never done a show as complicated since, because we wondered sometimes whether we actually had too much going on. But it’s one of our proudest achievements, the Performance show. I thought it was completely amazing. But once we’d done that, and also having done the [MCMLXXXIX] Derek Jarman show before that, we sort of felt we’d made that statement and we wanted to do something simpler but still theatrical.

That’s why the next proper thing we did — leaving aside Discovery, which was cheap and cheerful shit entertainment (laughs) … was the Somewhere thing, which was very very focused, a very strong single idea. I really liked that structure of the Somewhere show with all the people getting drunk on the film and us walking in and out of it, and it was designed specifically for the Savoy Theatre [by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood]. But certainly Performance is something we’re looking at, and maybe the other two as well. And we’re also, on the DVD front, going to bring out a video next year of every single video we’ve ever made.

Presumably to tie in with the Greatest Hits.

Presumably to tie in with the Greatest Hits, if indeed we do, presumably, bring out a Greatest Hits next year. Which we might do then.

Lo and behold, in 2003 the double-disc retrospective PopArt: The Hits was indeed issued with its corresponding DVD collection The Videos featuring every Pet Shop Boys promotional clip through to 2002 with the exception of the Comic Relief single Absolutely Fabulous.

True to his word, Performance then followed in 2004.

If you’ve listened to the audio of the exchange I uploaded to Soundcloud a while back, you’ll notice there was also one bonus little aside Neil came up with, almost as an afterthought so as to not write off the Discovery show completely.

Actually, the video’s quite good.

No, Neil, actually the video’s not quite good. It’s quite bad, in many ways, and displays an astonishing lack of judgment.

Don’t get me wrong, I can totally understand why Team PSB didn’t go down the HD upsampling route, though really their claim that they had decided on “keeping the integrity of the original” footage is pure spin. It was clearly a cost-saving measure. But then when that footage is a poorly captured, badly lit and rather amateurish document — cobbled together with a local Brazillian television crew at a couple of days’ notice, and shot on video rather than film — who in their right minds would want to invest time and money in upscaling that to Blu-Ray, a high definition format designed for film stock, not “cheap and cheerful” video.

What’s more disappointing is that the audio quality of both the Discovery DVD and CDs sounds almost indistinguishable from the VHS release over 25 years ago. To say I’ve heard better sounding bootlegs would be an understatement.

In other words, the sound recordings don’t appear to emanate from a multi-track channel source, more like an inferior one-board feed. Have the tapes been lost? It’s baffling, especially as BBC Radio 1 previewed highlights from the concert in a one-hour Spring Bank Holiday evening slot a few weeks before the original release. The sound quality was superb, and compared to the VHS it was like comparing stereo to mono, or diamonds to diarrhoea.

Anyway, as Freddie Mercury would say, on with the show.

Steve Pafford

Part two of this review feature is here, obviously 

*Yes, 1991’s Discography is indeed subtitled The Complete Singles Collection, which finished with two 45s recorded specially for the compilation, the slightly underwhelming DJ Culture and Was It Worth It?

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