Were I given the task of arriving at a suitable label to affix to the Pet Shop Boys canon, it would probably be something along the lines of those Grandes Dames of the European Camp Pop oeuvre. Which isn’t designed to be an insult – more a recognition that whilst the Tennant/Lowe axis has never reclined directly across the sharp end of the sonic landscape (or, for that matter, has been responsible for records that generally appeal to any alt-music sentiment), both their longevity and a certain resistance to the back-cat karaoke position has seen the duo firmly entrenched within the vaulted splendour of popular culture. Not exactly the most prolific in terms of new material, but a viable, ongoing concern, all the same.
Not that ‘viable’ and ‘ongoing’ are words to describe my own musical understanding around the time that ‘West End Girls’ first hit the charts; with indie disco receptors not yet fully developed, the thrust of my own fandom could still have pivoted in few different directions – camp electronic pop included. Yet even in the mid-eighties, I sussed that there was something unlikely about the Pet Shop Boys. The illusion that one day they suddenly appeared, fully formed – the geeky ex-Smash Hits deputy editor and his silhouetted accomplice. A singles band that did albums and ambition. Lyrics loaded with drama and social commentary – the idea that amidst the off-the-peg synth-pop melodies, something was slinking around in the shadows.
Actually is PSB album #2, released in 1987. Status: purchased in ’87 (I think), on cassette; current whereabouts – long unknown. In that beyond the four big singles that buzzed around the summit of the Top 40 like a careless mountaineer high with altitude sickness, I’m not really sure what I’m letting myself in for with this revisit. I’m cynical – a musical understanding ossified; at a certain stage, I’m half-expecting this album to turn into either ‘You Think You’re A Man’ by Divine, or something ugly-buggly by (shock-goth synth duo) Sheep On Drugs.
And so I drink wine and press play and after at least a couple of seconds, feel utterly taken aback at just how flimsy and insubstantial this proposition is. Certain albums sound rooted within the specific era they emerged from, and operate solely within that frame of relevance – even synth-pop that clings to allure (say, Yazoo’s Upstairs At Eric’s LP, or The Human League at their sharpest) arrives on the stereo date-stamped. Actually however – it sounds less left out in the wind and rain for twenty-six years than blown away during the very first approach of inclement weather. Musicality so thin and jaded that I found myself browsing bell-ringing websites – totally forgetting that headphones were on and noise was coming out.
Because what this album lacks is the very sense of drama mentioned above. Neil Tennant may have a nifty turn of phrase to his lyric writing, but the somnambulist timbre of his voice is simply consumed by the generic swash of eighties synth cadences – cadences subsequently undermined by a paucity of composition. The non-singles here have the ring of filler about them; ‘Hit Music’ in particular sounds like a sanitised rehash of ‘Venus’ (and the Stock, Aitken & Waterman-produced Bananarama version at that), whilst for an act that later celebrated sexuality, even the items that appeared in the hit parade have a flat, asinine quality – the cod-pantomime of ‘It’s A Sin’; the hackneyed climbs of ‘Heart’; haunting refrains of Dusty Springfield (‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’) that are of the gnarled hand up the nightshirt variety, rather than the goose-pimple effect of her ’60’s songs.
In summary – it’s not that Actually hasn’t aged well – it wasn’t looking good at the time, either. A record that exemplifies the disconnect between observation and the vague nudge of memory; that time when I listened to this album on repeat, and didn’t pick up on the blah. From time to time I try to escape the confines of blogging exclusively on indie pop / post-rock aesthetic – something new, something different; the Pet Shop Boys display the folly in that course of action. I’m gonna stick to writing about Sheep On Drugs for the duration.
Pet Shop Boys / One More Chance