Let no one tell you different, but perception is nine tenths of the game in pop music.
Music and mood are indelibly interrelated yet so too is how we perceive that package as a whole: the song, the artist, how they look, how they sound and, this is often woefully overlooked, but how the performers are perceived by others.
In February 2009, I was making my way back from the UK’s annual music business industry schmooze-a-thon at London’s Earls Court when one of my party got talking with a chap at the back of the 98 bus as it trundled up Edgware Road towards home.
The fella, your typical 20-something thin white hipster type, asked where we’d been and friend Becci replied that we were returning from seeing the Pet Shop Boys play at the Brits, where they had also picked up the Outstanding Contribution To Music gong.
“Pet Shop Boys? Yeah, they’re kinda cool again, aren’t they?”
It was a comment that struck me, because what it symbolised went beyond the confines of achingly London trendies — I doubt very much that he was too bothered about listening to the duo’s forthcoming album, Yes — but the fact that he may have read rumblings that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had been working with Girls Aloud and Sugababes production outfit Xenomania and that a handsome, credible young rock star (Brandon Flowers) and the world’s hottest new pop act (Lady Gaga) were paying tribute to them on stage all filtered through and forced him to revise his perception of what the Pet Shop Boys brand was.
You know, the “If people are talking about them again, they must be OK” syndrome.
Even my sister, who had barely given them the time of day since joining me a Wembley Arena for a PSB pitstop on their first tour in 1989, commented, “Yes, they’ve done very well,” even though she thought if The Brits committee were going to give the lifetime award to an electronic act it should have been Depeche Mode. But then even Tennant and Lowe thought that.
After a fallow period of under-sold tours (1999’s Nightlife), short-lived musicals (2001’s Closer To Heaven) and bewildering indie-lite albums (2002’s Release), the Pet Shop Boys’ late noughties renaissance built on the upward trajectory hinted at with their long-awaited reteaming with Trevor Horn, 2006’s classy Fundamental.
Moreover, the period represented the first flourishes of a revival in PSB’s stock while many of their so-called ’80s contemporaries were struggling to receive the recognition or respect Tennant and Lowe have been reaping in the last decade…beyond one or two signature songs at least. Yes, I’m looking at you Erasure.
The most striking difference is that the Pet Shop Boys were always much more 360 in their approach. As self-confirmed “Bowie’s children” they’ve always recognised that as well as the songwriting and composing, the importance of image and a sense of mystique helps create a fully formed product, and have deigned to control all aspects of their creative package that only a former journalist and architecture student could.
And talking of The Dame (he makes a sort of image cameo in the video to Love Etc.), if PSB dare to leave modern classics like this out of their current show they’re either brilliantly nonchalant or have far too many hits to choose from…
The boys capped off this remarkable resurgence in their fortunes by headlining The Other Stage at the Glastonbury Festival on June 26, 2010 — my birthday in fact. I tuned in on the telly to watch, as opposed to attending in 2000 when the boys supported Saturday night headliners Travis on the Pyramid Stage, but the contrast was striking.
I mean, where are Travis now?
Tennant and Lowe’s Glastonbury debut was fine, but there was a real sense of triumph about the 2010 set — a slightly abridged rendering of their acclaimed Pandemonium tour — so much so that, famously, when word got out via the wonder of SMS that Pet Shop Boys were putting on one hell of a show, a sizeable chunk of those watching Muse on the Pyramid stage defected to PSB so much so that audience numbers for both acts were said to be about even Stevens.
Their surprise guest appearance during The Killers’ headline set in 2019 excepted, a dozen years later the seminal synthmeisters have returned to cap off the festival by closing out the proceedings on The “Other” Stage. No one brings the 20th century and 2022 together quite like the Pet Shop Boys, and with Kendrick Lamar doing his Pyramid performance at the same time it’s a battle of the hyped v the historic, and only a first-time better would rule out Team PSB being the bigger draw, in Somerset and at home via Aunty.
Though it being June 26 once again, I’d gone out for birthday drinks halfway through the broadcast of Diana Ross’ slightly off-key set and when I returned home I found I’d missed the first 15 minutes of the PSB broadcast.
Not only that, but I was late to some kind of drama that was seemingly unfolding… there in the open air, as the song goes. As I tuned into the iPlayer feed from the start — slightly unsure if it was indeed live or another delayed transmission after the BBC controversially showed Paul McCartney’s show-stopping turn an hour after the event — as the thumping drums of Suburbia begin, I witnessed a slightly flustered Neil Tennant stepping over wires and whatnot as he made a slightly less than graceful entry onto the stage.
“That looks a bit busy,” I thought, of the myriad equipment in his path.
Almost immediately I received a WhatsApp message from my sister in London.
“Where’s Chris L.. is he not on stage tonight?”
It was difficult to comprehend what I was seeing. Or rather not seeing. Has Chris had a hissy fit or are darker forces at play here? I found it difficult to enjoy the one Pet Shop Boy playing Glasto until I knew what the score was.
Knowing that was this a time for Petheads with their eyes peeled rather than endless silly speculation on the Twittersphere, I sought out Pet Shop Boys Community, an online fan forum for obsessives that’s become largely redundant since the advent of social media.
By this time, trouper Tennant was inviting the audience to “a world of memory”, one which seemed to suggest Lowe’s own was about as reliable as his legendarily poor timekeeping.
Hot and feverish I feared the worst, and reluctantly faced the facts that for, whatever reason, the Pet Shop Boys had become the Pet Shop Boy, singular. And it felt like pain.
Luckily, some wondrous woofter called Dog had worked out what many people hadn’t.
“The screen failed and didn’t go up at the start. And then Chris never appeared. Neil went round the side.”
Phew! And double phew! When seasoned PSB followers understandably asked themselves ’Is this one of Chris’s famous strops?’ the actual answer was more mundane.
The widescreen video wall that fills the entire width of whatever stage the boys are playing on — and usually evolves to feature a clever mix of archive promos, interview footage and dazzling special effects — just simply failed to lift. If you replay the opening bars of Suburbia you can clearly see their white-clad clodhoppers just under the screen doing an an about turn when they realise there has been tech trouble of the highest magnitude. Or should that be lowest?
Lowe made a split decision to climb up to the DJ booth he uses later in the show and operate his gear from there, behind the screen.
The funniest thing of all, hardly anyone at Worthy Farm noticed anything wrong, and before too long a bright spark stage-hand shone a light on the inscrutable keyboardist and all was well with the world.
It was only the YTS cameramen employed by the BBC that seemed to get a sadistic kick out of showing Neil as much possible with an empty front of house keyboard, giddy with excitement at the amount of Tweets it’d generate. Bastards!
Despite the hiccup of 50% of the group not being properly seen for the first third of the performance, the Pet Shop Boys — both Pet Shop Boys — turned in a life-affirming, era-straddling set and celebratory sing-along.
There was no falling down round these parts. Cue horns.
Two key tracks from the ’80s and ’90s — the biting anti-yuppie satire of Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money) and the Motorik, Morodereque pulsations of So Hard — are welcome inclusions in the Dreamworld show, especially as both seemingly fell out favour with their creators many moons ago; thus it does feel slightly like they’re almost chucked away early like a warming up slot death-wish.
With his ringmaster role expanded to evoke the comforting tones of a bedside doctor, the fuller-figured Neil addresses the audience before their surprisingly durable mash-up of U2’s The Streets Have No Name and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,
“Thank you Glastonbury, good evening! We are the Pet Shop Boys — the other one will reveal himself shortly!”
Well, thank heaven’s for that then. On with the show, though it still takes a while for his famously petulant foil to appear.
I think it’s gonna be alright.
Sounding effortlessly timeless, Rent and Love Comes Quickly are sublime personified.
And for all its high-camp joy, Losing My Mind, which they turned into a surprise hit for Liza Minnelli, is perhaps a personal highlight for the more flamboyant among the crowd.
The memory of the last time the boys played the discofied Stephen Sondheim showtune — 1991’s epochal Performance — is a rather a bittersweet throwback when you recall one of the other Liza songs in the set was sung as a duet with the female vocalist in a wheelchair.
I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore is the only one that feels flat. With its horribly lazy less-is-less chorus (the title repeated four times to browbeat even the most ardent admirer into submission; as if to say “More words? It has more than enough as it is, thank you), its inclusion over bigger hits like Miracles or even I’m Not Scared remains a mystery.
Still, the big-big-bigger tracks get the Other Stage crowd jumping higher than many of the late-night DJs pulsating into the early hours.
Like this one, slight misnaming and all…
After so-so recastings on recent tours, Left To My Own Devices is returned to its pulsating weirdness and finally — hurrah! — Chris Lowe is revealed, as are the trio of backing musicians. The live band are ineffably great and really add vibrancy and movement to what would otherwise be a relatively static performance.
There are costume changes, an appearance from Years and Years’ Olly Alexander (although not during an incendiary It’s A Sin as predicted but the slightly less good Dreamland, which announces the augmentation of several tin-foiled dancers) and nostalgic anecdotes about holidays in the Caribbean.
Heart is warmly received, while Domino Dancing is a revelation. All of a sudden the freestyle single that announced the end of the PSB’s imperial phase in 1988 by only reaching No.7 has taken on the guise of an effervescent crowd-pleaser; its latin groove proving an irresistible call to get funky. Likewise, Vocal, from 2013’s cracking Electric may have been nothing like a hit in chart terms but it has attained a role on stage that screams “live banger”.
Talking of bangers…
Always On My Mind rightly soars, as do It’s Alright and Go West, which is, quips Tennant, “a song of gay liberation which became a football anthem” and your mind suddenly pops not at young muscly men in thin white shorts but that the realisation that a quarter of the setlist are covers.
Go West even goes unexpectedly into 6/8, a genius transformation that made me wonder why the whole track hadn’t been recorded in that spooky time signature… until I remembered what its predecessor as PSB 45 was — Can You Forgive Her? — a rare hit in and in 6/8 time which also made as solid and dependable showing at Glasto tonight.
Penultimate track West End Girls remains as wondrously evocative as ever, and apart from sounding very much like the Gaga and the Flowers have been sampled from the Brits 2009 performance for a flash of backing vocals, also included the new Ukraine-referencing line “From Mariupol to Kyiv station”.
Being Boring is still elegiac and empowering, and its eternal themes of love and loss dedicated to “the victims of the appalling hate crime at Oslo Pride”. The words “You can always rely on a friend” close out the set, a fitting finish to Glasto 2022 and a testament to Pet Shop Boys’ reputation as a brilliant crowd-pleasers.
While the Dreamworld experience generally falls a little short in the innovation department (certainly compared to Lorde’s turn at the festival, for instance), and this Glasto turn was possibly slightly less thrilling than the 2010 appearance, PSB 2022 certainly had its far share of drama and a much more hits-loaded setlist. One of the most uplifting, banger-filled sets this side of ABBA Voyage.
Oh, and I particularly enjoyed Chris’s new invisibility cloak. Perhaps the merchandising stall should sell reproductions at future gigs.
Every track has a vocal (of sorts) — Billie Eilish, Paul McCartney and Diana Ross at Glastonbury 2022 is here