The Ballad Of Chris And Neil: Pet Shop Boys’ Release Turns 20

On the 20th anniversary of Release, Ed Power salutes Pet Shop Boys as among the greatest ballad writers we have

A few years ago, Cardi B started typing into her phone. " i love pet shop boys music,” she tweeted. "My favorite song from them is RENT but i really don’t understand what are they trying to say ?what does the song mean?”

There are many possible answers, as she soon discovered. ‘Rent’, a slow-pulsed high-point from 1987’s Actually, could be about power dynamics, forbidden love or how men in positions of authority often abuse their wealth and influence. Another lesson it teaches is that the Pet Shop Boys are among the great pop balladeers of the past 40 years.

‘Rent’, with its Derek Jarman-directed video, was an early high point in this secret history of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, but the true zenith of this parallel PSB narrative was arguably achieved 20 years ago, with the arrival of their wistful, under-appreciated and slyly anthemic Release album.

Best remembered today for the hot-mug-of-cocoa single ‘Home And Dry’, with its plaintive Johnny Marr guitar, the LP was a catalysing moment for Pet Shop Boys. Release was, in some ways, their most experimental record, their traditional "sad disco" downplayed in favour of wintry fretwork (at one point they sound like a more sensitive Oasis). It also represented a period of healing for the wry synth lords who, a few years earlier, had considered chucking in the towel.

The breaking point for Tenant and Lowe had arrived in 1999 as a tour that had been billed as their triumphant return to live music turned sour when their promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, went bankrupt halfway through.

"We were playing to half-empty arenas, losing a fortune," Tennant would tell the Guardian in 2018. "It came to a head one night at Sheffield Arena. I said to Chris, ‘Why don’t we just pack it in?’"

The future of Pet Shop Boys may well have hinged on how Lowe responded to that question. Instead of replying the famously taciturn musician did the most Chris Lowe thing imaginable. He did nothing. "Chris didn’t answer," recalled Tennant. "So we started talking about something else."

That was merely one of the set-backs which paved the way to Release. Coming off the disastrous Nightlife run of dates, Pet Shop Boys next chased their dream of becoming West End impresarios.

Alas, their 2001 musical, Closer To Heaven, was an even bigger flop than the Goldsmith tour. Reviews were vicious and then, four months in, September 11 happened. All of a sudden, audiences were not in the mood for two hours of disco-themed musical theatre. It closed that October, another blow to a duo who, at that point, appeared to be hastening towards an unbecoming decline.

The real sadness, though, was in Tennant’s personal life. And that ennui infuses Release. He has never spoken publicly about what he went through but has said that one of the project’s chilliest interludes, ‘Love Is A Catastrophe’, draws directly on his experiences.

"Love is a catastrophe/ Look what it’s done to me," he croons. "Brought me down here so low/ Stranded, nowhere to go".

Promoting Release, Tennant described the track as "the bleakest song" he had ever written. "There are more personal lyrics on this album than on the previous album," he said in an interview released by Pet Shop Boys’s label, Parlophone. "It reflects how I was feeling about a particular situation in my own life. You can hear that quite clearly."

Pet Shop Boys, from the moment they topped the charts with ‘West End Girls’ in 1986, were always forward-looking and rarely stumbled in the dark. But Release was an accidental triumph, to a degree. The original intention and been to write two new numbers for a greatest hits compilation their label was keen to put out.

But as they drove north to Tennant’s new studio in his home town of North Shields, something of the landscape seeped into their creative process. It came out in the low-winter-sun majesty of ‘Home And Dry’ and in ‘Birthday Boy’, which traces a parallel between Stephen Lawrence, killed in a vicious racial attack in 1993, and Jesus – innocents who, in death, changed the world.

"It was written and recorded at Neil’s place in the North East of England. It’s very bleak where Neil lives," says Lowe, in the same record label interview. "Very bleak and miserable and depressing up there. On the edge of the moors, windswept, blustery and cold – a lot of that comes across in the music."

That cold, blustery sensibility is a defining qualify of an LP comprised almost entirely of a ballads. The only exception is ‘I Get Along’, which, with its politely chugging guitars, sounds like ‘Wonderwall’ with a bucket of mid-life melancholia stirred in (Tennant was 48, Lowe, 42). And which was inspired by Tony Blair’s sacking from the British cabinet of his spiritual crutch Peter Mandelson – Tennant narrates from Blair’s perspective as he imagines life post-Mandelson.

Monochrome and monotone, Release is today often considered an aberration: even the PSB’s other great "downer" album, 1990’s Behaviour, contained flashes of urgency (in ‘So Hard’ and ‘How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?’)

Release was also a record the Pet Shop Boys were fated to make. Though best known for post-modern bangers such as ‘It’s A Sin’ and ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, running through their catalogue is, as pointed out above, a thread of piano-charged melancholy.

An entire playlist of heart-rending Pet Shop Boys ballads could be compiled: indeed a popular streaming service has done just that. And those tracks, it can be contended, explore a ruminative and sincere underbelly of Tennant and Lowe often overlooked amid their glistening disco beats and drolly-phrased lyrics.

The first great Pet Shop Boys ballad was also one of the first songs they wrote. ‘Jealousy’ was not set free into the world until Behaviour in 1990. But Chris Lowe set down the piano melody in the dining room of his parents’ home in Blackpool around 1982 and it featured on their first demo tape.

Even in rudimentary form, it was a magisterial lament. And when Tennant came to pen the lyrics he touched on a subject close to his heart – the fraying of the relationship with his dear friend Christopher Dowell, with whom he had grown up in North Shields (and who played in his first band, the folk group Dust). Powell is a ghost who haunts many Pet Shop Boys lyrics. In ‘Jealousy’, Neil Tennant puts himself in Dowell’s shoes as he (Tennant) grows closer to his new musical foil, Chris Lowe.

Dowell would pass away in 1989 in the Aids ward of St Mary’s Hospital London, with Tennant at his side. By which time he had inspired keening Actually dirge ‘It Could’t Happen Here’, built around an unfinished Ennio Morricone recording (passed on by Morricone’s manager) and with orchestration by David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. The title and subject of ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ had flowed from a conversation Tennant and Dowell had as rumours reached the UK gay scene of a deadly disease circulating in the US. As chronicled in Russell Davis’ PSB-inspired 1980s drama, It’s A Sin, there were fears at the time of Aids of coming to Britain. Tennant and Dowell, though, felt their community was panicking in vain.

But it did happen and it would take Dowell away from him. And, forged in the heat of his grief, Tennant wrote ‘Being Boring’ for his late soul-mate. It was another ballad which cut through the force-field of artifice that so often hummed around the Pet Shop Boys and revealed their deeper truth. Here were vulnerable artists whose songs, even though they twinkle with withering humour, often leave blood on the carpet.

‘Being Boring’ was a gut-punch high-point of Behaviour, which is where the majestic ‘Jealousy’ also found its home. As did perhaps their most devastating ballad of all, the Johnny Marr-fuelled ‘This Must Be The Place I’ve Waited Years To Leave’. A spiritual sequel to their number-one single ‘It’s A Sin’, the baroque requiem frames life at a religious boarding school as a Pasolini film – or Hammer Horror flick.

"To our voices nobody’s listening/ We shiver in the rain by the touchline," intones Tennant, drawing on the spiritual agonies he remembered attending St Cuthbert’s Grammar School, an all-boy Catholic academy in Newcastle. It was telling that when Pet Shop Boys went on tour for the first time 1991, this was the track with which they opened. They did so accompanied by dancers who formed a human chain, as if connected by a shared trauma of of an education forged in guilt and brimstone.

Piled high with gothic horror, it is perhaps Pet Shop Boy’s strangest ballad. But also, arguably, the most impactful – though a case can likewise be made for ‘Kings Cross’, from Actually, which portrayed a generation of young men newly arrived in London from the north and which appeared to foreshadow the November 1987 fire at the station in which 31 died ("dead and wounded on either side/ You know it’s only a matter of time").

That the Pet Shop Boys were more than arch-ironists will already have been plain to anyone whose knowledge went deeper than the duo’s singles. As far back as their 1986 debut, Please, they had showed a contemplative interiority with ballad ‘Later Tonight’. A homoerotic torch song released nearly a decade before Tennant came out to Arena magazine, it finds the narrator admiring, "the head boy of a school of thought that plays in your intentions, night and day", against a piano line that would not have felt out of place on a Sinatra LP.

Pet Shop Boys are beloved today as pop’s supreme intellectuals – all head, not so much heart. It’s a sensibility they have consciously pursued, with sardonic anthems such as ‘Left To My Own Devices’ and ‘Can You Forgive Her?’. And yet Neil Tennant has expressed his occasional frustration that people don’t look deeper and recognise there is another side to them and their catalogue. And no record better demonstrates that side than Release which, 20 years on, deserves to be celebrated as one of the purest expressions of what the Pet Shop Boys are about, as artists and people.

"People perceive ”You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” as ironic," Tennant once said. He was referring to a woozy favourite from Nightlife but could have been talking about his entire career. "In fact, it’s a painful, heartbreaking song to me. Because it’s so true."

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