‘Two’ is the second album from DUBSTAR since Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie reunited as a duo.
After several false starts, 2018’s six string slanted long player ‘One’ co-produced by Youth was a welcome return for DUBSTAR, but the impression was that Blackwood and Wilkie were just warming up.
Working with Stephen Hague acting as producer and an unofficial third member, DUBSTAR have returned to the electronic driven sound of their debut long player ‘Disgraceful’ and as a result, have recorded some of the best work of their career on ‘Two’.
Hague had co-produced ‘Disgraceful’ which spawned the hits ‘Not So Manic Now’, ‘Stars’, ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Elevator Song’, providing a musical bridge between Britpop and Synth Britannia. Largely recorded in the face of adversity during lockdown in a “pass the parcel” manner, Wilkie confirmed “Dilemmas and experiments which would normally consume an afternoon can take a week, when you’re recording remotely”. The necessary social distancing dictated the instrumentation as he added “We found ourselves naturally gravitating to our electronic side over the pandemic, because it lends itself more practically to remote production. We couldn’t sit around jamming with guitars or experimenting together in real time”.
Opener ‘Token’ immediately points to Hague’s productions for PET SHOP BOYS and ERASURE, a song about leaving behind abusive relationships and minor gestures, a topic that many can relate to. Full of resilience, it is possibly Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie’s most overt synthpop statement yet. The anxious electronic disco of ‘I Can See You Outside’ evokes an unlikely liaison between Christine McVie and Giorgio Moroder in an exhilarating ride “beyond the fault lines”; it all hits the zeitgeist in a brave new world of unease, confusion, conspiracy and sadness.
Continuing with the seismologic analogies, ‘Tectonic Plates’ focusses on friction over a neo-baggy beat, with Wilkie bursting with rhythm guitar reminiscent of DUBSTAR’s former Food labelmates BLUR on their first hit ‘There’s No Other Way’, although the array of catchy synth riffs alongside are irresistible.
Going more downtempo, the moody ‘Lighthouse’ harks back to the days of Britpop with guitar inflections and a rousing chorus while the charming piano focussed ballad ‘Tears’ is supplemented by a virtual string section before a simultaneously sparkling and rugged combination of COCTEAU TWINS and SIMPLE MINDS comes in the middle eight.
Inspired by socially-distanced queuing at the height of the lockdown, ‘Hygiene Strip’ is wonderfully classic DUBSTAR characterised by Blackwood’s forlorn vocal presence but there is also the subtle lifting air of PET SHOP BOYS looming to offer hope a haze of melancholy.
Pacing up to an offbeat, ‘Blood’ again echoes BLUR and a snatch of XTC but is shaped by a more student indie aesthetic, while ‘Social Proof’ strums along as a stern Blackwood announces “I’ll tell you something…”
With Sarah Blackwood hitting some lovely high notes, the bittersweet ‘Kissing To Be Unkind’ reflects on former friends who turn unnecessary nasty while presenting a misleading friendly persona, and all because “Losing the hand has made you hard to please”. Ending with a haunting cover of REM’s ‘Perfect Circle’ and its absorbing piano from Stephen Hague, it goes full circle with the Portland-born producer’s past as he had worked with Michael Stipe & Co on the demo version of ‘Catapult’ in 1982, a song which sat later next to ‘Perfect Circle’ on the Athens GA quartet’s debut album ‘Murmur’.
Satisfying both their Synth Britannia and Britpop rooted fanbase, thanks to the return of Stephen Hague in the producer’s chair and displaying a common musical affinity, DUBSTAR have provided their spiritual follow-up to ‘Disgraceful’ in ‘Two’. The kitchen sink dramas continue with the usual cups of tea, so know these songs and sing them.
“Someone sneers at all you love… this is how I learnt to hate rock-and-roll!”
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe first met in an electronics shop on London’s Kings Road in August 1981; a shared love of dance music led them to form PET SHOP BOYS, named after friends who worked in an Ealing pet retailer while also sounding like an English rap group.
Bridging the gap between Synth Britannia and acid house via HI-NRG and Italo disco, PET SHOP BOYS first found international success with ‘West End Girls’, a UK and US No1 single in 1986.
At the time of their meeting, the trombone playing Lowe had been studying to become an architect at Liverpool University while Tennant was deputy editor of ‘Smash Hits’. Known for his witty if sometimes cutting reviews as well as coining entertaining phrases such as “imperial phase”, “down the dumper”, “like punk never happened”, “pur-LEASE!”, “pass the sickbag, Alice”, “uncle disgusting” and “back, back, BACK!!!!!”, Tennant’s observations on the music business were more often right than wrong.
Tired of writing about things he could probably do better, Tennant became music’s ultimate poacher-turned-gamekeeper. The North London Polytechnic history graduate utilised his experiences as a journalist to plot PET SHOP BOYS’ ethos, a dialectic of “east / west. Posh / rough. Irony / sincerity. Pop / anti-pop”. Taking inspiration from SPARKS and SOFT CELL, that dialectic also became the image.
With a voice that sounded like a cross between Al Stewart and Marc Almond, Tennant was the talkative one while the moody Lowe stood behind him, scowling like Ron Mael and seemingly doing nothing apart from occasionally staring at a TV screen. Interestingly, while it was often assumed that the North Shields-born Tennant was the posh one, it was actually Lowe who was educated at the selective Arnold School in Blackpool which had also been attended by Dave Ball; its direct-grant status meant was just shy of being a public school with fee payers and boarders while a small number of local children were selected via the 11+ grammar school system.
It was while at ‘Smash Hits’, when he was despatched to New York to interview THE POLICE, that Tennant knocked on the door of Bobby Orlando, producer of electronic disco records by DIVINE, THE FLIRTS and BOYTRONIC as well an artist in his own right. This led to the original recording of ‘West End Girls’ released in April 1984 by Epic Records in the UK and while it wasn’t a huge commercial success, it was an American club favourite while being a minor hit in Belgium and France.
‘West End Girls’ proved to be the perfect show reel and a deal was signed with EMI via Parlophone Records after their bullish manager Tom Watkins brought them to the attention of Dave Ambrose, a founder member of FLEETWOOD MAC who had become a renowned A&R man, notably signing SEX PISTOLS, DURAN DURAN and TALK TALK.
Tennant departed ‘Smash Hits’ and at his leaving party, his colleagues presented him with a mocked-up front cover which read: “HOW I LEFT BRITAIN’S BRIGHTEST MAGAZINE TO FORM MY TRAGIC POP GROUP, WENT DOWN THE DUMPER AND ASKED FOR MY JOB BACK” – little did they know that Tennant would grace their front cover within 9 months!
Tennant and Lowe presented themselves with an enigmatic Northern English contrariness that was the antithesis of WHAM! and more Gilbert & George. Tom Watkins was dismayed by his charges’ first ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance with the re-recorded version of ‘West End Girls’ in late 1985, recalling “They don’t do anything. How are people going to go for this?” – but go for it they did and in large numbers! It started an imperial phase for PET SHOP BOYS when it reached No1.
But following the success of ‘West End Girls’ which later netted a BRIT award for ‘British Single of the Year’, Tennant’s own journalistic words came to haunt him as the dumper beckoned when the wonderful follow-up ‘Love Comes Quickly’ only reached No19 in the UK singles chart. But the B-side indicated PET SHOP BOYS were going to be around for a while and not just a flash in the pan; ‘That’s My Impression’ was menacing as opposed to melancholic, combining SOFT CELL with DIVINE, establishing their reputation for quality non-album bonuses.
The debut album ‘Please’ primarily produced by Stephen Hague was impressive although not perfect and hit the UK Top3. Songs such as ‘Tonight Is Forever’ and ‘Later Tonight’ highlighted the range and quality of the Tennant / Lowe songwriting partnership from elegiac if euphoric dance anthems to melancholic but hopeful ballads, often sung from a character rather than a personal viewpoint.
Meanwhile on ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’, PET SHOP BOYS showcased irony and humour. Like with HEAVEN 17 before them, the joke passed over the heads of the yuppies who had adopted the song as a mission statement but failed to realise it was sending up their own greed, delusion and lack of ethics.
PET SHOP BOYS ended 1986 with another Top10 hit single in ‘Suburbia’, a good if slightly underwhelming album track from ‘Please’ that got transformed into a more fully realised epic in a re-recording produced by Sarm West graduate Julian Mendelson. It underlined Tennant’s clever social commentary as working class communities became marginalised under the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher.
Fully embracing the creative experimentation and development allowed for by more under-the-radar B-sides, ‘Suburbia’ featured not one but two non-album extras. ‘Jack The Lad’ exuded the influence of Erik Satie and Ennio Morricone, but ‘Paninaro’ was an absorbing dance number that displayed an affinity with Italy and one of its fashionable youth movements.
Additionally, ‘Paninaro’ summed up PET SHOP BOYS’ attitude with a middle eight breakdown that featured a nonchalant Chris Lowe on the US talk show ‘Entertainment Tonight’ declaring “I don’t like country & western, I don’t like rock music… I don’t like rockabilly! I don’t like much really do I? But what I do like, I love passionately!!” – PET SHOP BOYS’ B-sides and bonus tracks would later be collected on ‘Alternative’ and ‘Format’, two double compilation sets that were equally as valid as their best albums.
To open their 1987 account, PET SHOP BOYS issued their most striking single yet in the mighty gothic disco of ‘It’s A Sin’; reflecting on Tennant’s catholic school education, the backdrop threw in the kitchen sink with Fairlight orchestral hits, Apollo 10 launch messages and an extraordinary chord change from Cm to E♭ m7 into the middle eight. A happy accident with the bassline and drums restarting provided the cavalry charge towards the lightning climax for a second No1.
But PET SHOP BOYS weren’t done yet; the follow-up ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ sounded like three songs morphed into one, because that was what it actually was. Lowe and Tennant did their respective pop art sections while Allie Willis who co-wrote ‘Boogie Wonderland’ came up with the rather blissful chorus. The song went into another sphere once Dusty Springfield was brought out of semi-retirement to add her voice and ad-libs. The smoothness of Stephen Hague’s production provided the perfect backing.
The success of ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ showed PET SHOP BOYS willingness to collaborate and there would be productions on new solo Dusty hits with ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ and ‘In Private’. Tennant and Lowe’s later involvement in ELECTRONIC with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr illustrated that work outside of the nest was not out of bounds either.
The second album ‘Actually’ opened with a new more percussive version of ‘One More Chance’, a song dating back to the Bobby Orlando sessions while ‘Shopping’ dealt with Thatcherism’s obsession with privatising publically owned utilities, hence the line “We’re buying and selling your history!”. Continuing Tennant’s social commentary on the undermining of the working class, ‘Kings Cross’ presented the railway station as a metaphor for morally questionable capitalism, although the line “Dead and wounded on either side, you know it’s only a matter of time” chillingly resonated later in the year when an underground fire claimed the lives of 31 people.
A solemn song written about a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS, the mournfully brilliant ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ adapted the Ennio Morricone composition ‘Forecast’ from the 1983 Jean-Paul Belmondo movie ‘Le Marginal’. ‘Blue Velvet’ composer Angelo Badalamenti provided an orchestral arrangement but due to scheduling issues in completing the recording before the album’s deadline, the instrumentation was eventually created on a Fairlight CMI out of necessity.
With its provocative title, ‘Rent’ presented a narrative on the kept woman and reached the UK Top10. But two successive No1s were added to PET SHOP BOYS portfolio in the frenetic cowbell dominated cover of ‘Always On My Mind’ which upset music purists when it denied a Christmas chart topper for THE POGUES and a remixed syndrum heavy version of ‘Heart’ which Tennant and Lowe had written with Madonna in mind. On a roll, PET SHOP BOYS deservedly won the 1988 BRIT Award for ‘Best British Group’.
Despite their seemingly unstoppable success and forward momentum, PET SHOP BOYS took a slight misstep with the release of their art film ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ directed by Jack Bond; an exercise in seaside surrealism and featuring Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor, Neil Dickson and Gareth Hunt, the bizarre scenes set to the music of Tennant and Lowe baffled audiences. It would be decades before it would be reissued in DVD formats.
Cracks were also beginning to show in their relationship with Tom Watkins whose view was that the next single ‘Domino Dancing’ with its AIDS narrative and sexually ambiguous promo video would stall momentum in the US. While the brass laden Latin tinged song did not hit the commercial heights of previous singles, it remained a favourite among fans. PET SHOP BOYS parted ways with Watkins when Tennant and Lowe opted not to renew his contract.
The third album ‘Introspective’ in 1988 featured a different approach with six extended length songs in the same manner as their 1986 remix collection ‘Disco’. At the time of its release, four of the six tracks had already been available including ‘I’m Not Scared’ which had been written and produced for Patsy Kensit’s EIGHTH WONDER. But of the two previously unheard numbers, the most striking was ‘Left To My Own Devices’.
Taking in acid house influences, ‘Left To My Own Devices’ was co-produced by Trevor Horn who coined the phrase “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” as a way of conceptualising what PET SHOP BOYS were all about. Incorporating a dramatic string arrangement by Richard Niles and the opera stylings of soprano Sally Bradshaw, it had been intended to programme the synthesizers and record the orchestra in one day… six months later the track was finished!
Despite their initial refusal to play gigs, PET SHOP BOYS embarked on their first tour in the summer of 1989, opening in Hong Kong. Although the show featured striking visuals directed by Derek Jarman, choreography by Geron ‘Casper’ Canidate and tightly sequenced electronic backing rather using a conventional live band, Tennant and Lowe felt they could take theatrical anti-rock live presentations further.
Decamping to Munich to work with Harold Faltermeyer, a former Giorgio Moroder apprentice who had his own soundtrack hits with ‘Axel F’ and ‘Top Gun Anthem’, their fourth album ‘Behaviour’ in 1990 presented a more reflective demeanour, despite the throbbing lead single ‘So Hard’ about an unfaithful couple catching each other out.
With the fall of The Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the beautiful soulful groove of ‘My October Symphony’ looked at the viewpoint of a Soviet composer questioning whether to opt for revolution or revelation in their upcoming work. Meanwhile, inspired musically by Bobby Brown but inspired lyrically by BROS, ‘How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously’ took a dig at the pomposity and arrogance of pop stars in their mission for validitation.
Inspired by a quotation on a Zelda Fitzgerald party invitation, ‘Being Boring’ remains one of PET SHOP BOYS most complete songs ever, reflecting on the aspirations of youth, the inevitable passage of time and the mourning of dear departed friends. Although it wasn’t a huge hit as a single, Chris Lowe later remarked “It just shows that chart positions aren’t the be all and end all”.
Rumoured to have been written as a James Bond theme, ‘This Must Be The Place I’ve Waited Years To Leave’ expressed Tennant’s dislike of school while written in 1982, the impassioned orchestrated closer ‘Jealousy’ recalled a friend of Tennant who had been unhappy about his developing friendship with Chris Lowe.
With 1991’s ‘Performance’ world tour, PET SHOP BOYS took theatrical to the next level and changed the whole concept of concert presentation by effectively removing from the stage, that one consistent element in the history of rock ‘n’ roll… the live musician! Chris Lowe kept his keyboard playing to a minimum, preferring to be part of the dance troupe and even busted his own disco moves while in a pair of boxers shorts during ‘We All Feel Better In The Dark’.
In support of the tour and continuing their penchant for eyebrow raising cover versions, PET SHOP BOYS’ HI-NRG reinvention of ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ was a cheeky send-up of U2 in an attack on rock pomposity. The cause was aided by an amusing segway into ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’, a Frankie Valli song made famous by Andy Williams but also covered by acts as diverse as BOYS TOWN GANG and MUSE.
Originally to be named after the ‘Actually’ track ‘Hit Music’ until artwork concepts showed that the typography could be misread as “PET SHOP BOYS Shit Music”, the duo’s career to date was documented on 1991’s ‘Discography’. Gathering all of their singles in their correct versions, the faultless collection earned the right to be called one of the best greatest hits records ever.
Preferring to “dance to disco” because they “don’t like rock”, 1993’s ‘Very’ was the antithesis of the downbeat demeanour of ‘Behaviour’ as their most up pop statement to date, something that had been signalled on the defiantly optimistic ‘Was It Worth It?’, the closing track from ‘Discography’.
With ‘Very’ came a range of looks projecting a post-modern artifice detached from the real world. Tired of their classic naturalistic personas, the geometric digitised imagery was also a reaction to the unkempt authenticity of baggy and grunge that was rife at the time. A cyberspatial computer-generated video accompanying ‘Liberation’ shown in IMAX theatres took things to another out-of-this-world dimension.
In this freer mood, Tennant also sang of being naked in ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’ and ‘Dreaming Of The Queen’, but weightier social commentary loomed on ‘The Theatre’ which discussed the plight of the homeless as a legacy of massed council house sales under Thatcherism.
Then there was the speedy techno madness of ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ with its collection of tour anecdotes and back-handed aftershow comments such as “You have a certain quality, which really is unique – expressionless, such irony, although your voice is weak – it doesn’t really matter ‘cos the music is so loud – of course it’s all on tape, but no one will find out!”
Included as its closer, the utopian ‘Go West’ had been due to be released in Christmas 1992 as a single, but PET SHOP BOYS bottled it when it was pointed out a VILLAGE PEOPLE cover would look like the duo were aping ERASURE’s ‘Abba-esque’.
‘Go West’ was based on Pachebel’s ‘Canon’ and its elegiac quality was particularly poignant with AIDS still very much in the news at the time. The ‘South Pacific’ male choir styled key change and a middle eight added by Tennant gave the song a resonance that was never apparent in the original. Only Will Smith as ‘The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’ prevented them from netting a fifth No1.
It would be fair to say that ‘Very’ is often seen as the end of PET SHOP BOYS’ imperial phase. While 1996’s ‘Bilingual’ presented an interesting diversion on ‘Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is)’ and ‘Single’ with the women’s drumming ensemble SHEBOOM providing the propulsion, ‘A Red Letter Day’ was a not entirely successful attempt to recreate ‘Go West’ while two tracks with the Brooklyn-born club DJ Danny Tenaglia fell short of expectations.
Already getting signs that ‘Bilingual’ was not selling as well as previous albums, Tennant and Lowe wrote the B-side ‘The Calm Before The Storm’ in anticipation of their first week chart position as “round the bend” was “a rocky lane”; ‘Bilingual’ entered at No4 which was a comparative disappointment after ‘Very’ had gone straight into the top spot.
1999’s ‘Nightlife’ featured collaborations with Rollo from FAITHLESS, noted orchestrator Craig Armstrong and Kylie Minogue on the duet ‘In Denial’ but it included their least convincing single to date in the David Morales produced ‘New York City Boy’ which continued the VILLAGE PEOPLE obsession and was by now was wearing thin.
With pun totally intended, 2001’s ‘Release’ was marred by the input of THE SMITHS’ famed guitarist Johnny Marr as PET SHOP BOYS attempted a collection of strummed understated songs such as the camp OASIS of ‘I Get Along’. Although ‘The Night I Fell In Love’ with an amusing story about EMINEM having a gay fling with a fan and the uptempo ‘The Samurai In Autumn’ were listenable highlights, the album’s mostly plodding six-string led numbers were devoid of the mastery that made PET SHOP BOYS great; Tennant and Lowe were wearing someone else’s clothes and they didn’t fit.
On paper, the 2006 Trevor Horn helmed ‘Fundamental’ should have ensured that PET SHOP BOYS were “back-back-BACK!” with a vengeance but other than the political satire ‘I’m With Stupid’ and the opening electro brilliance of ‘Psychological’, overall the album was below par with the Diane Warren-composed ‘Numb’ being a particular low point.
A renaissance did not come to fruition until 2009 with the XENOMANIA produced long player ‘Yes’ being a return to form of sorts as a spiritual follow-up to ‘Very’. ‘All Over The World’ lifted from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’ for some stately pomp and circumstance while ‘Pandemonium’ was a rousing interpretation of the ‘Dr Who Theme’. ‘More Than A Dream’ presented a big pop chorus that was very now and Xen, but the highlights were again the more melancholy moments.
‘The Way It Used To Be’ offered continental wistfulness à la ‘Voyage Voyage’ with its simple rhythmic pulse, but the best moment came with the ‘Yes Etc’ bonus track ‘This Used To Be The Future’, a dream trioet featuring Tennant, Lowe and Phil Oakey of THE HUMAN LEAGUE grunting in his distinctive disappointed tone that things didn’t quite turn out how Raymond Baxter predicted on ‘Tomorrow’s World’!
The rejuvenated profile netted PET SHOP BOYS an ‘Outstanding Contribution to Music Award’ at the BRIT Awards, although they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with their least satisfying album to date in ‘Elysium’. While the amusing irony of ‘Your Early Stuff’ and ‘Ego Music’ provoked a laugh, there was laughter for perhaps the wrong reasons on ‘Hold On’ which sounded like it was written for Disney! However, with LOVE UNLIMITED ORCHESTRA styled backing and bouncy Latin percussion, ‘Requiem in Denim & Leopardskin’ was the album’s standout and showed PET SHOP BOYS still had the ability to knock out a good tune.
With an appearance at the 2012 London Olympics Closing Ceremony alongside Ray Davies to affirm that PET SHOP BOYS were now a quintessentially English part of popular culture as much as THE KINKS, the elder statesmen of danceable synthpop had a rethink and presented their Stuart Price trilogy. After an album about being old, it was time again for PET SHOP BOYS electronically. With echoes of ‘Introspective’ and the ‘Very’ bonus album ‘Relentless’, ‘Electric’ was in Tennant’s words “pretty banging” with some lengthier song constituents. ‘Axis’ took a risk by being virtually instrumental while ‘Bolshy’ exhibited the dog’s Balearics.
Best of all was ‘Fluorescent’, a powerful dancefloor makeover of VISAGE’s ‘Fade To Grey’ attacked by synth sirens like a Martian invasion. There were songs too as ‘Thursday’ captured the vibrant excitement of the new Friday aided by Fulham rapper Example while the exhilarating club friendly ‘Vocal’ noted “I like the singer, he’s lonely and strange – every track has a vocal… and that makes a change”.
A natural progression of ‘Electric’, 2016’s ‘Super’ album was more song-based and despite their age, PET SHOP BOYS still wanted to be ‘The Pop Kids’ and ‘Twenty-something’ ones at that. However, ‘The Dictator Decides’ returned to the subject of world politics with an amusing surreal narrative of a tyrannical politician bored of his outright power and seeking a normal life.
2020 saw PET SHOP BOYS enter Hansa Studios in Berlin to record their fourteenth album ‘Hotspot’ for the final volume of the Stuart Price trilogy. The immediately appealing ‘Dreamland’ featuring YEARS & YEARS crossed generations and still plugged into the classic PSB sound while ‘Monkey Business’ got the glitterball funk while encompassing the sparkle of TOM TOM CLUB. Best of all, the astute intelligence of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe saw Medieval folk mythology referenced for ‘Will-O-The-Wisp’, a fabulous electro-disco tune with catchy hooks and a dry monologue.
Having carried on the mantle of SOFT CELL to prove that there indeed was mileage in the concept that Marc Almond and Dave Ball had pioneered, 2022 saw it all came full circle for Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe in the ‘Purple Zone’; Tennant had said to ‘Smash Hits’ in 1986: “I see the PET SHOP BOYS as one of the last surviving synth duos like SOFT CELL”.
PET SHOP BOYS’ collaborations and remixes are another story entirely but they have been very much part of the duo’s remit, including artists as diverse as Liza Minelli, Boy George, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Yoko Ono, Pete Burns, Robbie Williams, Lady Gaga and Jean-Michel Jarre over the years. Their versatility has also seen projects such as running their own Spaghetti Records which boasted a hit single ‘Love is Everywhere’ for their protégé David Cicero to composing scores for the silent film ‘Battleship Potemkin’, ‘The Most Incredible Thing’ ballet and most notably, a West End musical entitled ‘Closer To Heaven’.
PET SHOP BOYS set themselves apart and never bothered themselves with fitting in or belonging. They persisted with synthesizers when everyone else thought they were passé, they embraced the divas of the past when the industry told them they were mad to do so and said they were “pop” while the establishment considered it a dirty word.
But PET SHOP BOYS have jumped on bandwagons too; “When we started off we really did think we were going to create our own world that might reference other things” said Neil Tennant to The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis in 2020 while also joking that “the acoustic guitar should be banned, actually”. As a result, their back catalogue has featured diversions into rock, indie, folk, theatre, drum ‘n’ bass, jazz and breakbeat with varying degrees of success although thankfully, PET SHOP BOYS have avoided the dreaded dubstep!
As the most successful British synthpop duo of all time, from ‘Please’ to ‘Hotspot’, Messrs Tennant and Lowe have maintained their position as exemplary English songsmiths; as MY ROBOT FRIEND once articulated by way of a musical tribute, “I feel you touch me and it’s 1984, I know what you will say before you start in my heart, we’re the PET SHOP BOYS…”
PET SHOP BOYS 2022 ‘Dreamworld – The Greatest Hits Live’ UK tour includes:
It is not long before the new DUBSTAR album is released. Entitled ‘Two’, it will be out on 6th May 2022. But until then, a fabulous new song ‘Token’ has been premiered as an enticing trailer.
Co-produced by Stephen Hague, ‘Token’ sounds like DUBSTAR doing ERASURE, while others have remarked that it sounds like PET SHOP BOYS. Whatever, it is possibly Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie’s most overt synthpop statement yet.
Chris Wilkie said “Most often it’s the song itself which informs the style and sound of a track, but sometimes, once an album is underway, it becomes clearer what is working or what is lacking”. And it was the necessary social distancing due to lockdown that played a part in dictating the instrumentation: “We found ourselves naturally gravitating to our electronic side over the pandemic, because it lends itself more practically to remote production. We couldn’t sit around jamming with guitars or experimenting together in real time, for instance”.
Working from home remotely, “I can program MIDI parts in Tyneside, and if not 100% happy with the way it’s sounding, the program is easily pinged over to Haguey down in Sussex who can use the same program to trigger different gear. It’s a protracted way of working but more versatile than you’d think. After ‘Hygiene’ and ‘Outside’, we were already some of the way down a particular road. Having Hague involved certainly got us thinking about those kind of artists, but there wasn’t a conscious decision to channel them. Some artists just become part of your DNA when you grow up with them.”
Very much a collaborative effort with the Portland-born producer, Wilkie remembered: “Stephen played me a very symphonic piano riff, and I was challenged to write a song which might incorporate it in some way. I wrote the chorus straight away to fit chords which would hopefully accommodate the piano intro at some point, and then the bridge. I only had placeholder lyrics which I wasn’t confident about for the verses, so I asked Sarah and Hague to muck in with those. It felt like writing in reverse. I usually start at the start and keep going”.
But is the ‘Token’ referring to a prize or representation or a minor gesture? “It’s both!!!!” revealed Sarah Blackwood, “I’m singing about how the tormentor can help themselves to the things we shared together; inviting them to take a “tender token”. ‘Tender’ is simultaneously sentimental and weak. And ‘token’ is both a material trophy and a minor gesture. It was only after the whole song was finished that it seemed that the word ‘token’ seemed to be the centre of gravity, hence the title.
“Chris got the idea from Haguey after talking about NEW ORDER” the DUBSTAR singer added, “The word ‘regret’ is incidental and floats-by unnoticed in that song, you would never spend long contemplating it, but the word ‘Regret’ is monolithic and meaningful when isolated as a title. In our song, the word ‘Token’ almost raises psychological alarms as a title, but it’s appearance in the song defuses it, which hopefully encourages people to consider what the word really means to them”.
The video was filmed in Manchester and it was also the first time Blackwood and Wilkie had actually seen each other in person since 2019 – “We couldn’t even hug but we still managed to be over-emotional.” she remembered, “Mancunians are too cool to stare but I did clock bewildered glances as some wondered who the hell we were and why we were filming, especially in the middle of a storm (Barra). The irony was, we had prayed for rain as it can look very cinematic. Classic case of beware of what you wish for…… Dom F, our resident George Lucas, was having to negotiate Market Street backwards to film, Chris and Paul B our helper clearing the way forward for him, whilst loudly and helpfully pointing out people for me to avoid with the very large brolly……”
The weather conditions naturally presented a number of dramas; “I was trying to look serene whilst wrestling the wind vs brolly and avoid a Mary Poppins moment, sing to the camera at double speed (aloud with headphones in, no wonder they were staring ?) and try to not to look cold…” said Blackwood, “All whilst avoiding puddles, uneven paving slabs, frantic Christmas shoppers and the driving blooming rain……marketing man Matt D kept the seats warm in Night and Day where we thawed our toes between takes, looked through the rushes and realised the umbrella was undoubtedly the star of the show. We dried out in my friend Claire’s jazz bar Matt & Phred’s and shared a pizza with Adrian Dunbar from ‘Line of Duty’…… Chris’s mum was so terribly impressed……”
Released in 1991, ‘Ripe’ was the only album by BANDERAS.
The pairing of Caroline Buckley and Sally Herbert met in 1987 when they were in the live band of THE COMMUNARDS, the duo comprising of Jimmy Somerville, formally of BRONSKI BEAT and Richard Coles, now a BBC TV vicar and more recently, a ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ contestant.
THE COMMUNARDS had HI-NRG hits with covers of the disco classics ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ and ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’, so were in demand on the concert circuit.
Buckley filled the big shoes of Sarah-Jane Morris who had moved on to pursue a solo career while Herbert was in the string section which also included Audrey Riley, Jocelyn Pook and Anne Stephenson. After THE COMMUNARDS disbanded and Jimmy Somerville loaned the pair a Yamaha DX7 and a sampler, Buckley and Herbert became BANDERAS, the Spanish word for “flag”. Adopting a striking shaven headed image, they began writing songs and gigging, eventually coming to the attention of producer Stephen Hague’s manager.
THE COMMUNARDS’s second and final album ‘Red’ featured contributions from Buckley and Herbert, so having worked with Stephen Hague in his capacity as its producer, the American was an obvious and natural choice to helm BANDERAS’ debut long player. And to keep things in THE COMMUNARDS’ family, they also signed to their label London Records.
Things looked promising for BANDERAS and this was outlined by the cast of players on the album; special guests included Bernard Sumner, Johnny Marr and old pal Jimmy Somerville while there were noted sessioners on board such as Luís Jardim, Guy Pratt and Stevie Lange as well former band mates Audrey Riley and Jocelyn Pook.
The album’s ace was the magnificent ‘This Is Your Life’, one of the last songs written and recorded for ‘Ripe’. Using a sample from Grace Jones’ ‘Crack Attack’, it had a distinct Pet Shop Girls behavioural vibe to it. Meanwhile there was also the added bonus of Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner on rhythm guitars plus a terrific middle eight section featuring Sumner’s vocals before an emotive synth solo. “There is no rehearsal, no second chance” sang Buckley and Sumner together but rather prophetically, despite ‘This Is Your Life’ reaching No16 in the UK singles charts, there were no more hits for BANDERAS.
With a banging drum mantra and a catchy riff, the more uptempo second single ‘She Sells’ was a shopping list song that just missed out on a Top40 chart entry. But despite lyrics attacking the advertising industry’s use of sexist stereotypes, the message proved to be less appealing than the melancholic but uplifting YOLO stance of ‘This Is Your Life’.
The third BANDERAS single ‘May This Be Your Last Sorrow’ fared even worse, but despite being inspired by a scene from a film in Arabic where the mourners were reciting to a bereaved family, the funereal trip-hop with its dub-laden backdrop foresaw the likes of ONE DOVE, THE ALOOF and PORTISHEAD.
Alongside the singles, ‘Ripe’ had other highlights. It was not difficult to imagine either Neil Tennant or Jimmy Somerville singing on ‘The Comfort Of Faith’, a song questioning unconditional religious devotion that came with a typically classic Stephen Hague production while with an orchestral arrangement that undoubtedly seeded Herbert’s future career as a film score composer, ‘Why Aren’t You In Love With Me?’ was BANDERAS’ take on Philly soul with Buckley’s emotive resignation in harmony with a comparatively understated falsetto from Jimmy Sommerville.
Most striking was ‘It’s Written All Over My Face’, a bare self-produced song which despite its countrified acoustic guitar recalled the pulsing electronic arrangement of Marianne Faithfull’s version of ‘The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan’. Also quite stripped down was ‘Too Good’ featuring a stark percussive groove augmented by fretless bass runs while the album’s closer ‘Never Too Late’ saw the duo offer their take on Patsy Cline.
Interestingly in the booklet notes, neither Buckley nor Herbert express any great enthusiasm for ‘First Hand’ or ‘Don’t Let That Man’ but while these do not hit the heights of the album’s highlights, they are not bad but sound very much of their time.
A second album was in the works to be produced by Alan Moulder but London Records lost interest and BANDERAS quietly disbanded. In the past 5 years, both Caroline Buckley and Sally Herbert have worked independently with Jimmy Somerville on various projects, so it is apt that the wee Scotsman conducts the short interview with them for the reissue of ‘Ripe’.
Anthologised by Cherry Red on their 90/9 imprint, ‘Ripe’ has been remastered as a double CD edition with the album plus B-sides coupled with a collection of remixes, many of which actually seem to feature the structures of the various songs, documenting a period just before the club DJ remix madness went into overdrive.
‘This Is Your Life’ may be considered something of a one hit wonder but to have written such a timeless song that resonates with the public, even if it is for a limited moment in time, is a gift to any composer. Regardless of that, based on the evidence of ‘Ripe’, BANDERAS delivered an album that was worthy of the supporting cast that helped embellish it.
If you missed ‘Ripe’ first time round, now is a good time to catch up 30 years on…
With ‘Hygiene Strip’ and ‘I Can See You Outside’, Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie have been re-exploring the electronic direction of their earlier sound, having celebrated the 25th Anniversary of their debut single ‘Stars’ in 2020.
Both co-produced by Stephen Hague who helmed the first two DUBSTAR albums ‘Disgraceful’ and ‘Goodbye’, ‘Hygiene Strip’ was an apocalyptic heartbreak song reflecting love, loss, anger and ideology while the more uptempo ‘I Can See You Outside’ evoked Christine McVie and Giorgio Moroder liaising unexpectedly in a condemned nightclub.
Taking its title from the slowly but constantly moving pieces of Earth’s crust and uppermost mantle which cause earthquakes when stuck together, ‘Tectonic Plates’ focusses on friction over a neo-baggy beat, but paradoxically sparkles on entry in a seismic shift.
Imagining the paintings of modern surrealist Marc Chagall, Blackwood observes this girl who “Drifted far beyond this world To places unreachably high, sky is just another thing that passed her by”. Wilkie then bursts in with some rhythm guitar reminiscent of DUBSTAR’s former Food labelmates BLUR and their first hit ‘There’s No Other Way’, although an array of catchy synth riffs prove to be irresistible.
Working again with Stephen Hague, a new DUBSTAR album is now close to completion. The necessity to record it remotely has led to the realisation of ideas which would normally consume an afternoon actually take a week.
The creative tension has led to a compulsion to create, with plenty to write about in the face of adversity in that sardonic Northern English way. So it’s all Back To Blackwood as Wilkie brings in his love of XTC and CHIC for the bittersweet kitchen sink poetry of DUBSTAR to remain firmly intact as a kind of pop regression therapy.