At last!

Oooh, look, an enigmatic title.

It could be a comment on the US election, and referring to the fact that, after 8 years of waiting, the world is rid of George ‘you thought my dad was bad?  Wait till you get a load of me‘ Bush.  Or, alternatively, referring to the fact that, after several centuries of waiting, the presidency has (finally, thankfully) gone to someone who isn’t from an exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon background.

Obviously, I’m thrilled Obama has won, and it’s great that the Democrats also have a majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate, as it’ll give him more of a chance to actually enact some of his promised changes (something Bill Clinton was pretty much unable to do).  But, for me, the sense of celebration is more than a little marred by the fact that, in California (one of the most socially liberal states in the Union), Proposition 8, which seeks to ban gay marriage, seems very likely to have passed.  Obviously that’s very sad for people in the future who won’t get the chance to marry, but it’s even sadder for people like George Takei (Sulu in the original Star Trek series), who will now, it seems very likely, have his recent marriage to his partner of 21 years annulled.

‘At Last!’ could also be a comment on the fact that I’ve finally got round to putting a new post up – 6 days is a long time, given I’m supposed to be updating ‘more frequently’ at the moment.  Anyway, thanks for your patience in waiting for me to get off my arse and actually post something, it’s appreciated.  Thank you as well to all of you who’ve commented during my absence.  (A special mention here for Zoe, who has showered almost literally dozens of my posts with comments – but I’m equally grateful to all of you who comment, of course!)  I have started several posts, but I’ve run out of energy and enthusiasm long before they’ve been finished.  I figure, if I’m bored writing it, you’re going to be even more bored reading it, so there didn’t seem much point in persisting with them.  Although, that said, they might turn up in a revised form at some point – inspiration for topics is coming hard at the moment.

Thank you, as well, for continuing to read my blog – October was, by quite some margin, my most popular month so far, and nicely reversed the downward trend that had been in progress from July onwards.  I think quite a lot of that is to do with the fact that I posted more frequently last month, and so my usual faithful readers were popping in to see me more often.  I’ve also noted a big spike in people finding my post on the personal capability assessment for Incapacity Benefit via search engines, and in fact it’s now the most read thing on this blog, overtaking even my blogroll and links page.  (Things have been quite active in the comments section of that post too.)  I’m rather pleased about that, as I wrote it in the hopes that it would be useful to people, and it looks as though that might actually be happening.

Anyway, enough of my pointless rambling, let’s move on to the main focus of this post, and what I’m actually saying ‘At last!’ about.  On the downside, this is noticeably less important in the grander scheme of things than the US election, and it’s also kind of ‘off topic’ for this blog.  On the upside, though, I am, against all the odds, actually feeling slightly motivated to write about it.  On that basis, then, I give you today’s topic of conversation: it’s been announced that the Pet Shop Boys are to receive the outstanding contribution to music award at next year’s Brit awards.

Partly I say ‘At last!’ because they are (slightly surprisingly) one of my favourite bands, and I think they’ve deserved the recognition for a long time.  But it’s also hard to shake the impression that the organisers of the Brit awards have often struggled to think of someone to give the award to, which makes their exclusion look even odder.  John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Sting and Freddie Mercury have all been given the award twice, once as members of their respective bands, and once in their own right.  Even more bizarrely, Elton John, who’s always been a solo artist, has been awarded it twice – once in 1986, and again in 1995.

The list contains a lot of undeniable greats – not many people would argue with the idea that The Who, Eric Clapton, David Bowie (and even the insufferably tedious Paul Weller, unfortunately) have contributed greatly to British music.  There are some notably less stellar recipients, though.  Wham!, Oasis, the Bee Gees, and, of course, the Spice Girls are all pretty lucky to find themselves on the list.*  In terms of artists who first came to prominence in the 1980s, the Pet Shop Boys are the fourth act to get the award.  The aforementioned Wham!, the Eurythmics, and Duran Duran all made it first.  The Eurythmics, obviously, are fantastic, but are also notable for having had a career lasting (originally) for only a few years.  Wham! were (mercifully) a flash in the pan, and Duran Duran, though unquestionably (and inexplicably) popular, have gone through several line-up changes, and seem to have had more comebacks than Cher.

The Pet Shop Boys, on the other hand, have never had a comeback, because they’ve never gone away in the first place.  Since their first (self-released) song 24 years ago, there have only been 2 years (1992 and 1998) in which they haven’t released at least one single, and in most years they’ve released a lot more than that.  This makes them pretty much unique amongst bands from their own generation, and, to be honest, amongst bands from pretty much any other generation too.  Off the top of my head, I can only think of one band that have consistently exceeded this level of productivity, and that’s The Fall.

I’m not really one of those people who confuses popularity with quality, but it’s always seemed to me that the Pet Shop Boys don’t get the credit they deserve for the extraordinary level of success they’ve had over their career.  Most people seem to think of them as a band that had a couple of hits in the 80s, and that was about it.  This is my summary of some of the highlights of their success.

  • They have sold 50 million albums worldwide.
  • Four of those albums (Please, Actually, Introspective, and Very) went triple platinum in the UK.
  • All 9 of their studio albums have charted in the top ten; all but two of them have charted in the top 5.
  • Their most recent studio album, Fundamental, went to no. 5 in 2006.
  • 38 Pet Shop Boys singles have charted in the UK top 20.  This excludes collaborations with other artists which have received either a joint artist billing, or on which the PSB have been listed as the ‘featured’ (rather than main) artist.**
  • Of those 38, 22 have charted in the top 10, 9 entered the top 5, and 4 reached number 1.
  • In 1995, a compilation of Pet Shop Boys B-sides reached no. 2 in the UK album charts.  Compilations like this usually only sell in limited numbers to ultra-hardcore fans.  I can’t think of another band or artist who have had similar mainstream success with a B-sides compilation.
  • In 2006-7, the Pet Shop Boys embarked on a world tour, and played gigs in every continent except Africa and Antarctica.  Despite lasting for about 15 months, the tour featured only a couple of isolated dates in the UK.  (Not because of lack of interest – they had decided to prioritise playing elsewhere, as their most recent tours had all been UK and western Europe only.)  Very few other British bands that started in the 80s could expect to have this much live success around the world.  In fact, in recent years a lot of (re-formed) 80s bands have had to club together in super-tours in order to get bookings even within the UK.  The Pet Shop Boys are in a completely different league.

It’s worth bearing in mind, as well, that they’ve had a lot of this success at a relatively advanced age.  Neil Tennant is 54, and must be one of the few 50-plus musicians around who can more-or-less guarantee that, if he releases a new album, and a new single to promote it, he’ll score a top ten hit with both.  The most recent album, Fundamental (decidedly not one of my favourites), had a definite retro feel to it, but up until that point PSB have always been remarkable for continually moving forwards, with each album sounding different to the one before (although, obviously, they all sound like PSB albums).  They’ve frequently been in the forefront of new trends.  For example, it’s not often people think about it like this, but 1985’s ‘West End Girls‘, despite being performed by a white bloke with a posh accent, was one of the first commercially successful rap records, not only in the UK, but also in the US.

Of course, one of the big reasons for their success is that they are, I think, exceptionally talented songwriters.  It’s true that some of their biggest hits (‘Always On My Mind‘, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name‘, ‘Go West‘) have been cover versions, but I think it’s also fair to say that it’s because they’re good songwriters that they haven’t gone out of fashion.***  A lot of pop music depends on having the latest ‘sound’ for its success, then, once it starts to sound dated, it quickly becomes apparent that there wasn’t actually much of a song underneath the production.  With the Pet Shop Boys, even a song like ‘One More Chance‘, which even a fan would have to concede sounds incredibly mid-80s in terms of its production and arrangement, is still obviously a good song.  The quality of their song-writing is also revealed by the fact that when they do a song like ‘Love Is A Catastrophe‘, which, as a kind of indie-ish guitar number, is a long way outside their comfort zone, it’s still brilliant.  Of course, it definitely helps that the indie-ish guitar in question is played by Johnny Marr (although not in the live version I’ve linked to above) …

I always think that one of the ways of spotting good songwriting is in the lyrics.  It’s not always the case, of course, but quite often if a band has the kind of lyrics that could have been written by anyone, it tends to indicate that their songs aren’t actually all that much cop.  Take Coldplay, for example:

Look at the stars,

See how they shine for you

A lyric like that could have come from almost any era of music, and been written by pretty much anyone, whereas this one

When I went, I left from the station

With a haversack, and some trepidation –

could, with its combination of sly humour and unexpected choice of vocabulary, only have been written by Neil Tennant, and can only be talking about the 1970s.

I also think they deserve the outstanding contribution award because they’ve been musically very influential.  There have been quite a few bands that have been directly influenced by the Pet Shop Boys – The Orb, Lightning Seeds, St. Etienne, Dubstar, and Faithless are some that I can think of off the top of my head.  I think the real scope of their influence has tended to be more diffuse, though.  Before the Pet Shop Boys, UK dance music was pretty much relentlessly positive and up-beat.  After PSB had a few big successes with songs that were lyrically (and sometimes musically) pretty bleak, the tone and subject matter of some dance music changed, and it became more wide-ranging.  I think that broadening of the emotional range of dance music had a lot to do with widening its appeal, as dance musicians created music that was listened to by people (like me) who would describe themselves as primarily fans of other kinds of music.

The position the Pet Shop Boys occupied (together with New Order) as successful mainstream artists who were also respected within the dance genre had the effect of making dance music a lot more mainstream.  It’s notable that dance or dance-influenced music tends to be a lot more successful in the UK than it does in the USA, where there hasn’t really been a successful crossover artist in the same kind of way.  (I realise this is a chicken-and-egg argument, in that the crossover success might have come if dance music itself were more popular in the States.)

The Pet Shop Boys have worked with an extraordinary range of people over their career, including Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, Johnny Marr, Madonna, The Killers, Yoko Ono, Suede, Tina Turner, Blur, Rufus Wainwright, Robbie Williams, Liza Minnelli, the Scissor Sisters, and Rammstein.  (Yes, that is Rammstein, the German heavy metal band.  Seriously.  You can see the video here…).  Derek Jarman, the filmmaker, used to say that the Pet Shop Boys saved his career, by commissioning him to make videos, and films to be back-projected at their gigs, when no-one else would employ him.

Throughout their career, the band have projected an air of understated reserve that has always marked them out from other pop acts.  That, together with the fact that Neil Tennant has always resisted all attempts to get him to sing in anything other than his own accent, has also marked them out as being quintessentially British – it’s very hard to imagine an American band, for example, achieving the same level of success with a similarly downbeat approach.  Given that the Outstanding Contribution Brit award is, as I understand it, meant to reward bands that have had great success projecting their Britishness abroad, and not just popularity at home, it strikes me that there could hardly be a better candidate for – finally – being acknowledged with this award.

So, there you go (those few of you who’ve read this far), that’s probably 2,000 words more than you ever wanted or expected to read on the subject of the Pet Shop Boys on this blog.  But, me, I’m just pleased I’ve actually managed to get a post finished and up.  I’ll try to write about something more obviously relevant next time, I promise.


* I’m insisting on Wham!’s exclamation mark, btw, even though hardly anyone else even remembers that they used to have one, because it’s a useful way of remembering how god-awfully naff they always were.  There is nothing lamer than the misplaced use of an exclamation mark…

** I.e., only singles where the artist is credited as ‘Pet Shop Boys’, ‘Pet Shop Boys featuring …’, or ‘Pet Shop Boys with …’ are included.  Songs credited to ‘Pet Shop Boys and …’, ‘… featuring Pet Shop Boys’, or ‘… with Pet Shop Boys’ are excluded.  I know this all seems very technical, but it means quite a few big-selling singles are excluded from the total.

*** You really should check out the ‘Always On My Mind‘ video, if only for the fantastically fruity cameo by Joss Ackland…

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4 Responses to At last!

  1. Cellar_Door says:

    You and Mr Door would get on very well judging by your taste in music! I have to confess to not quite understanding the genius of the Pet Shop Boys though I’m afraid ;0) Can I offer you some Rammstein instead…? hehe…

  2. cb says:

    That Proposition 8 stuff is just staggering. I hadn’t been following the run up but had just assumed it wouldn’t be passed. And I have a fondness for the Pet Shop Boys. I am an unashamed fan of Pop!

  3. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Cellar-Door – well, my ‘main’ musical tastes aren’t really in the whole PSB area, it’s really just them i’m a fan of. But i’m sure i would get on with Mr Door just the same. :o)

    cb – it is fairly surprising, isn’t it? It wasn’t just in California, though. Arizona (not much of a surprise there) and Florida (more of a surprise – there’s a big gay poulation around Miami and Miami Beach) also passed simillar bans.

  4. Cellar_Door says:

    Well Mr Door’s taste’s range from 80’s pop through to rave, thrash metal and obscure foreign bands, so there’s bound to be something in all that that you can relate to :0)

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