It must be obvious: the Pet Shop Boys’ less than fantastic voyage of Discovery (part two)

In the chronological scheme of things, 1994’s Discovery tour came at a curious time in the Pet Shop Boys’ long and distinguished career. After the muted reception metered out to 1990’s Behaviour, and their first greatest hits collection, 1991’s Discography, performing under-par, many observers assumed it was the end of the most inventive pop duo in Britain’s post-Live Aid landscape. 

This was the Pet Shop Boys’ Inimical Phase, where, through a combination of declining record sales — “they’re waning” Erasure’s Andy Bell observed, cattily — and being utterly bored with themselves, they decided to do what they, as the song forewarned, wouldn’t normally kind of do, and inject a contrariety into their carefully curated idea of what the duo were about.

Thus, what transpired was a radical reinvention worthy of David Bowie at his most perverse. Though it was a tricky transition, hardly helped by a hastily thrown together stage show that’s just been issued on digital formats for the first time. This is the concluding story of Discovery: Live In Rio.

With their radical new image(s) unveiled, Tennant and Lowe resumed their partnership with the brilliantly sequenced blazing megapop of fifth studio set Very catapulting the Pet Shop Boys back into public consciousness, bagging them their only UK No.1 album to date. And in a pop double whammy, its second single Go West was also the duo’s biggest hit for over five years, an almost chart-topper that narrowly missed out on the top spot by little more than a thousand sales. As Smash Hits most probably said, Ver Boys were back, back, back!

Having said that, I know from listening to friends at the time that a combination of the dressing up and covering the Village People lost the Boys some of the street cred and artistic clout of yesteryear: “Pet Shop Prats” was a phrase I heard fairly regularly back then. Perhaps that bothered the duo not a jot though, especially as Neil Tennant was quick to point out that they were picking up new fans elsewhere, proudly telling one interviewer he’d discovered the video to Go West was a huge hit with the under-tens. 

Presumably in the same way that the video to Mr Blobby was a huge hit with the under-tens. 

NT at the BBC’s Live & Kicking: “Gary Barlow said to me ‘I thought you were a really good sport doing that, Neil, a really good sport.”

For what it’s worth, my personal recollection is that my house mate Judi witnessed the full song and video before me by being home during the ITV Chart Show’s Saturday morning premiere when I was, quite literally, ‘up West’. Upon my return she told me she what she thought of Go West:

“It’s really funny!”

And I, in typical Tennant speak, remember thinking ‘I don’t know if I like that reaction.’ 

I can’t speak for others, but I’m not sure I really relished my favourite band turning into a comedy duo. The mysterious, enigmatic twosome who’d given us moody epics like Love Comes Quickly and brutal satire like Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) would never have countenanced singing Village People songs. Would they?

It’s tempting to see Go West as a knee-jerk response to the swingorilliant success of Erasure’s Abba-esque EP. After all, the other synth duo’s tribute to a bygone band from the 1970s achieved two feats PSB never quite achieved: crashing straight into pole position atop of the British singles chart and staying there for five solid weeks.

Yet this came at the cost of alienating some of their following, who viewed them as tacky tin-pot parodies of their former selves, intent on ripping up their image and going for broke.

Go West was, in chart crossover terms, pretty much their last throw of the dice – but even that was a rework of a previous gambit: the OTT mega cover grab for the year’s festive No.1.

The parallels with 1987 are striking, because soon after the Village People track was recorded its vague designation as a B-side-turned-standalone Crimbo single mirrored that of the happy fate of Always On My Mind five years earlier.

Alas, it was not to be.

In their Yuletide 1992 edition, Select magazine’s strapline claimed that the Boys had decided to “bottle it in Xmas single race” to avoid any sense that they were reacting to the success of Abba-esque. Knowing full well that a confirmation or denial would make jolly good copy, the music monthly’s Andrew Harrison would raise the issue in a subsequent interview with the pair. It worked. 

Neil (crisply): “We’d never have done Abba-esque in a million years.”

Chris: “Far too tacky for us, that.”

Neil: “I’m afraid we first did Go West at the Haçienda’s tenth birthday party, which was considerably before Abba-esque came out. One reason we didn’t put it out last Christmas was because someone at EMI said ‘Oh, it’d look a bit like Abba-esque wouldn’t it?’”

Considering that the original version of Go West mixed by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent has an unmistakably Vince Clarke-sounding high synth riff that had been carried over from the initial demo, I’d say there was certainly a whiff of bandwagoning at some stage in the proceedings, yes.

In fact, Erasure’s EP was released just two and half weeks after the Haçienda gig, and had already been ‘serviced’ to radio, as they say in the industry.

Tennant said he hated the idea of covering Go West at first, opining that Chris’s suggestion was “ghastly beyond belief”.

The duo maintain that Parlophone dissuaded them from releasing a one-off single and thought the track had a better disco potential as promo for their yet to be completed next album — at which point, not totally happy with the mix anyway, they tinkered with it into the new year and buried the offending synth line, more’s the pity.

You may just regard this as unnecessary explication, but I feel it’s important to put into context where Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s now conically/comically attired heads were in the run up to Discovery. 

Following Very, the Pet Shop Boys’ subsequent trek of unfamiliar faraway places coincided with a new remix album, the Stars On 45 for the ecstasy generation that is Disco 2, a No.6 album in September of 1994. Indeed, the title of the tour is even a juxtaposition of those titles: DiscoVery, geddit?

“The song itself is about a reserved Englishman falling in love and going bonkers. He decides he couldn’t care less anymore, and throws caution to the wind. It’s a funny song, but it’s sincere.” 

That’s Neil Tennant describing the protagonist in I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing, the third 45 extracted from Very and the song that kicks off Disco 2 proper. But as 1993 mutated into 1994, he could almost have been describing himself. If I can paraphrase Chris Lowe in the booklet that comes with the new Discovery DVD, perhaps that feeling of being “more liberated as people” was an indication that things would never quite be the same again.

Oh, and beware of wigs.

For the record, in the run up to Discovery, the list of things the Pet Shop Boys wouldn’t normally do but for some reason did anyway included:

Neil’s public ‘coming out’: a shocking-no-one-not-even-Stevie-Wonder interview in Attitude magazine, April 1994.

Remixing other acts: a nice little sideline that kicked off with Blur’s Girls & Boys. (And most recently Paul Weller’s Cosmik Fringes.)

Goosing albums by extracting fifth singles: in Very’s case, the manic, bitchy paranoia of Yesterday, When I Was Mad.

And most controversial of all, releasing charity records: the 2 Unlimited-aping Absolutely Fabulous 45 for the BBC’s Comic Relief, a cause célèbre that defined latter period Pet Shop Boys every bit as much as Go West and Neil’s coming out.

Techno, techno, bloody techno, darling.

Perhaps it’s easy to forget that by 1994 they’d done it all in pop terms. Inevitably, when they’d run out of road, the only option was to reverse the principles of their manifesto, and the inevitable charidee single was released and justified for utterly spurious reasons. 

Despite the upswing in commercial fortunes, in personal terms 1994 was a difficult time to be a Pet Shop Boy. It was almost like they went off the rails, and never quite managed to get back on them.

Firstly, Neil’s relationship ended with the DJ Tom Stephan, the twenty-something American purportedly his first significant same sex relationship and the inspiration behind much of Very’s more romantic lyrics, particularly the lush Liberation.

Then in February their filmmaker friend and collaborator Derek Jarman died from an AIDS-related illness. A few weeks later the duo’s close friend and personal assistant Pete Andreas also succumbed to the disease, passing away at the age of 30 at Fabdens Park, a mediaeval mansion that was Chris’s Hertfordshire retreat where much of Very and its bonus dance album Relentless had been demoed.

I suspect the main reason PSB decided not to ‘tread the boards’ to support Very was due to Andreas’s illness, and that the upbeat froth of the tour was a chance to escape to sunnier climes and try and inject a sense of fun and happiness back into their lives. Freud would have had a field day, but nonetheless it must have been a very bittersweet tour to put on.

In effect, the Boys were hors de combat, so I’ll try and be fair but firm, despite my obvious distaste for Discovery. Though I feel like someone threw me a bone when he told me he thought of it as “cheap and cheerful shit entertainment.”

Thanks for that then Neil.

“Pet Shop Boys has always been a struggle between total embarrassment and total shamelessness.” — Neil Tennant

So, the Discovery tour eh (I can understand why you might assume I’d been stalling). This is the show where it looked like Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had nothing but disco balls on their minds. Where subtext has been replaced by context. It’s as if the memo detailing the overarching theme contained just four words, purloined from an old flip side:

It must be obvious.

From the costumes to the Muscle Mary dancers (It’s disco pecs to the power of sex) and even the between-song banter, almost everything about this presentation smacks of obviousness, of phoning it in dial-a-Cliché.

In fact, I don’t know why they just didn’t call it Pet Shop Boys, Obviously and be done with it. 

Discovery is a jolly folly that’s beneath the Pet Shop Boys, a tawdry tackiness that on face value seems more suited to Erasure’s kitschy end of the pier productions than this most seminal of electronic duos. More low art than pop art then. 

Then again, it’s easy to forget — or maybe even comprehend — that the music mad pair who, 40 years ago, bonded over Bowie in a hi-fi store on the King’s Road also have a shared love of Kylie.

It’s that often maddening vacillation that allows them to shapeshift their way four decades of recording.

Typically for a Pet Shop Boys production, it’s a colourful, aesthetic affair, and this time it’s personal: a giddy and gaudy romp with props, gurning gyrating go-go dancers wearing little more than a pout, and a cavalcade of lights. Not to mention a smattering of costume changes. Rather than a totally new aesthetic, Discovery is a lazy, campy farrago through PSB’s “costume greatest hits” — i.e. bits and bobs from the first two tours and the odd promo video but in sunnier climes and new territories: sexed up and fun but somehow less interesting than they used to be.

Is it patchy? Of course. It has to be. But it’s patchy in an escapist, liberated way. Though that they decided to recreate certain looks from their videos comes straight out of the Michael Jackson school of retreads and just smacks of a lack of ideas, or time.

Some of the outfits pay vague lip service to Steve Strange’s New Romantic Blitz they’re that daft; while the let’s-pop-an-‘E”-before-you go-go, boys on the podiums echo the ‘three ring circus’ hedonism of Studio 54, or the sweaty ecstasy of a gay club. It’s all so silly you half expect Bianca Jagger to charge the stage riding bareback on a white horse at any moment. At least I think it was a horse.

Discovery also marks the first time Neil Tennant seemed more concerned about having a good time and whipping the audience into a frenzy, expecting, nay, demanding that they dance, cheer and wave with all the gusto they can muster. It’s the beginnings of that quasi ringmaster role he developed as he’s grown more confident as a live performer. 

Call me old fashioned, but I quite liked the understated and subliminal tone of early PSB appearances, where the most you’d get from Neil in a motion sense was the occasional subtle hand gesture. Perhaps a bereft frown or a glazed glance off into the distance. If I get the slightest hint Neil is relaxed and enjoying himself the game is over.

With Discovery being only loosely choreographed he seems to have over-compensated and pinched too many of Dusty Springfield’s exaggerated diva moves, particularly the outstretched hand movements. I’m sorry, but give me a wooden but meticulously directed performance over endless clapping, thigh slapping sand head bobbing any day of the week.

That they chose to film in the humid craziness of Latin America where audiences are famous for their passionate outpouring of appreciation, greeting every twist and turn with uproarious applause, is ample evidence that the duo were intent on audience validation, to feed off their fans’ effervescent energy rather than making an arty statement.

The staging is a sort of recreation of a nightclub experience, albeit with a prominent row of steps at the back — hardly an original concept when everyone from Madonna to Tina Turner to Peter Gabriel had already done it to death. However, the Pets’ one is their infinity staircase into space, the “oblique tribute to A Matter Of Life And Death” that dominated the Go West video.

So that’s alright then.

Of course, strip away the imagery and the songs are good enough to stand on their own merits. Though with such shockingly poor audio I’m hesitant to suggest listening to the audio shorn of the visuals. I’m not that much of a sadist.

Amid all the rattling sequencers and synthesized polyrhythms, behind that push and pull between mindless pop dance and their artier almost punk mentality lurks a strong intellectual heart and keen melodic ear which has seen the pop overlords treading a tightrope between insouciant, immaculate arbiters of good taste and flamboyant flippant frivolity.

Discovery is heavy on the latter, let’s put it that way. A poppers-induced endorphin rush on steroids.

As soon as Tennant and Lowe strut out on stage in wigs, shades and uncomfortable looking garb (highly impractical, in all honesty), we’re plunged headfirst into the exaggerated pure pop carnival that is a Pet Shop Boys show.

Bring on the girls.

A decent smattering of crowd pleasers are included, though, again, starting a concert with (half) a deep cut (from 1986’s Please) called Tonight Is Forever just smacks of obviousness. Lyrical obviousness this time. You get the impression that had Pink released Get The Party Started seven years earlier than she did, they’d have kicked things off with that, just to sledgehammer the point home a bit more that the concert had commenced.

Always On My Mind, Domino Dancing and I Wouldn’t Do This Kind Of Thing are a tasty triumvirate rapturously received by the Latino crowd, with the costuming in this initial section of the show takes straight from the video for the latter.

Visually, it’s the least impressive of the night, and by the time we get to sixth song One In A Million, the Very album track that was very nearly a single for Take That, the sight of a perspiration-challenged Tennant in what must have been a rather warm (and utterly preposterous) bowl cut wig and black PVC jacket bobbing his head up and down as a sort of face dance is, in the absence of body moves (this is Neil Tennant we’re talking about, remember) pretty unedifying, to say the least.

In this live context, I suppose the most interesting thing about One In A Million here is that the Boys cunningly slipped in a bit of Culture Beat’s Mr Vain, a Eurodance chart-topper that, irony of ironies, prevented Go West from bagging the No.1 spot in Britain. 

Paninaro — the fan favourite to top all fan favourites — is perfunctory, and marks the debut of the rewritten lyrics released as Paninaro ’95 said to be Chris’s tribute to Pete Andreas. The blond bewigged keyboardist attempts a few dance moves in a podium, but even they seem rather lacklustre compared to previous tours. Maybe it’s just the heat.

The one-two acoustic whammy of Rent and Suburbia are a nice reflective moment and see Neil move to guitar (shock, horror), digging his stainless steel chops deep into the acidly houseboy chorus: “I love you /You pay my rent” and making a reference just as pointed as their conical hats that the Pet Shop Boys had never been invited to play MTV Unplugged. Would they have wanted to though?

In post-imperial terms, two of the pair’s more under-rated 45s, the Moroder-esque So Hard and sweetly sincere Liberation are heavenly highlights, which makes their virtual banishment from subsequent setlists all the more disappointing — unlike, ooh, well, Absolutely Fabulous, obviously.

To the surprise of no one, showstopping evergreens Left To My Own Devices, It’s A Sin and a stately West End Girls elicit roars and really push things over the top, particularly the cheesy but great cork-popping moment when the former unexpectedly goes into Corona’s The Rhythm Of The Night. By this time, the party animals are wearing their billowing white floppy robes and plastic fez cum chef’s hat from the AbFab video. 

It’s A Sin sees a commanding Tennant recycling his Papal outfit from the ’89 tour, replete with red ornate robes and a towering crown that looks like it might fall off at any moment. Only this time the PSB’s ode to Catholic repression is yet another victim of medleyitis — expertly done though, I must add — with a snatch of Gloria Gaynor’s LGBT anthem I Will Survive.

It must be obvious? It sure is. 

Also going for gold in the obvious stakes, the brilliantly impertinent Can You Forgive Her? is announced, matter of factly, as a “song about sex”; and somehow Tennant’s headmasterly enunciation makes the entire delivery sound about as sexy as a blancmange. It hardly helps that by this final section of the show Tennant and Lowe are dressed in rather unflattering outfits that make them look like tin foil Teletubbies.

Bringing things to a close, the electro-pop purveyors are in no mood to turn down the energy levels, departing with an anthemic, triumphant Go West, a climatic celebratory ending and a fitting finale. With the sublime, deathless Being Boring as the encore it’s all over.

Were they being boring? Not in the slightest.

Were they being a bit silly? Cause they were, it must be obvious.

Love it or loathe it, Discovery was a complete volte-face from previous PSB productions where they were essentially actors as part of an exuberant ensemble that compensated for Neil and Chris’s own natural self-containment with imaginative and spectacular stage sets and a roll-call of backing singers and dancers dazzlingly choreographed to the nth degree.

This was back when Neil, as frontman, barely even acknowledged the audience. (For Chris no one would expect anything else.) Was anyone bothered? Hardly — the Pet Shop Boys ’89 and ’91 tours were such a high watermark in live presentation that you could have forgiven them almost anything back then.

Performance, abetted by acclaimed opera designers David Alden and David Fielding, is undoubtedly the Boys’ live masterpiece, with an ambitious and coherent narrative and quite possibly the most theatrical concert ever staged.  Wiping the floor with Bowie and Madonna’s contemporaneous efforts, it’s disconcerting to think it’s thirty years to the day I caught the Saturday show at Birmingham NEC Arena.

Although I’m an ongoing admirer of Tennant and Lowe as songwriters, I have mixed feelings about their subsequent stagecraft since that artistic apogee. Of course, they know how to put on a show, and they continue to apply a certain conceptual rigour to their work, occupying a unique place in British pop. They’ve effectively set the pace of gay urban life “to a disco beat”, whilst staying in tune with the shifting moods of the times.

And with a surprisingly heterogeneous audience ranging through many ages and levels of sophistication, that they’ve become such successful live draws on the arena and festival circuit is truly heartening.

Other opinions are available but if I could surmise from personal experience the post-Discovery stage shows it would look something like this:

Somewhere (1997) was minimal and intimate, employing a delicious irony that they’d dare to stage their least theatrical production to date in one of London’s most famous theatres. That the Savoy happens to be on the street I was born just added to the sense of occasion.

Nightlife (1999-2000) was huge and bold, with its futuristic interlocking modular set by noted architect Zaha Hadid and radical reprogrammed reimagining of their catalogue. 

Release (2002) mirrored the album it was supporting: a pared down effort to present PSB and associates as accomplished players. Dark, immaculate but a trifle bland. 

Fundamental (2006-2007) was solid if unmemorable. Less flamboyance and more of a traditional effort. The official emergence of Tennant in ringmaster mode.

Pandemonium (2009-2010) was the one with the boxes. A brilliantly conceived narrative and their most ingenious show post-Performance. 

Electric (2013-2015) was flimsy and poorly realised, with a strobe-lit setlist suffering from truncated tracks and an overdose of medleyitis.

Super (2016-2019) essentially an updated Electric with perfunctory, hardly original laser show augmented with (gasp) a prodigious trio of multitasking musicians on stage.

Thankfully none of the above are as lightweight as Discovery. They wouldn’t dare.

On the video front, various Release and Electric shows were filmed for television or webcast purposes, but questions abound whether they’re of suitable sell-through quality. 

Moreover, the 2021 edition of the Boys’ Annually notes that they have just one more video release to revisit: the one that gives glimpses of what PSB like to call the Derek Jarman Tour, from 1989. That would nicely bring things full circle as it’s their first production — a slick multimedia experience which captures something of the urban cynicism of their ‘80s work, bolstered by an ensemble of very prominent backing vocalists and a slightly muso, slightly overdone Courtney Pine on saxophone. 

For the most part, though, MCMLXXXIX establishes the Pet Shop Boys full-scale live show formula right out of the gates, a template which situates Tennant and Lowe as impartial narrators of the drama enacted by the “proper” performers.

Much of the show has yet to be seen in a wider capacity. History records that stellar filmmaker Jarman wasn’t over-enamoured with the high definition video format he was saddled with (sadly, EMI wouldn’t stump up the cash for film. Boo. Hiss) and the duo weren’t happy with how much of the footage looked, resulting in an abbreviated Highlights VHS in 1990, followed by Projections, a companion piece of Jarman’s backdrops, three years later.

Would the Pet Shop Boys really like to find a way to release the entire production, finally?

Course they do, it must be obvious.

Steve Pafford

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

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