Pet Shop Boys, Beyond The Hits

tQ contributors and friends of the site pick a multitude of Pet Shop Boys bangers that were never hit singles, from their finest B-sides to their top album tracks and more

When a pop group has a career quite as imperious as the Pet Shop Boys it’s frequently the case that many a pearl will get lost amidst all the chart hits and era-defining songwriting – how many montages about 80s capitalism have you seen accompanied by their tracks ‘Shopping’ or ‘Opportunities’, for instance? Now the success of TV series It’s A Sin not only boosted recognition of that superlative exploration of religious shame, but has given their back catalogue a rare old boost, with sales and listening up hugely across the streaming platforms. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant have always been alert to the possibilities of pop as an art form that constantly mutates and evolve, and so their back catalogue is littered with different versions, dancefloor remixes, collaborations, cover-versions that are over-shadowed by the eloquent trajectory of their first series of albums, Please, Actually, Introspective and Behaviour. Many of the tracks from those albums, as well as the classic singles, are available in full live glory in PSB’s first DVD reissue of their 1994 Discovery tour, out this week. We took a hugely pleasurable trip through their bulging discography to write about some of the lesser-known moments from one of British pop’s finest groups.

‘Always On My Mind / In My House’ from Introspective (1989)

“Hang on, didn’t this go to number one?” Nope, that was the earlier, brash electro-pop take of their Elvis cover, which had its charm. But this nine-minute album version, interpolated with a mesmeric house jam, is in another league, another universe. Among Introspective’s many triumphs, that LP somehow turned diffidence into euphoria, pushed introversion front and centre onto the dancefloor. This track soars rapturously, repeatedly, on a rising synth line, yet beneath the pleading affirmations the group’s trademark ambiguity is never far away. “Maybe I didn’t love you…” it ends – and transported, you are no more certain than before.
David Bennun

‘Disco Potential’, B-side to ‘Somewhere’ (1997)

The Pet Shop Boys make glorious pop in many ways – intellectually, emotionally, politically – but we often overlook their playfulness. This was a B-side to their 1997 cover version of ‘Somewhere’ from West Side Story (itself an insane, overstuffed confection complete with a slavering orchestra that sounded turbo-powered by poppers). Chris said Disco Potential was inspired by The Prodigy; Neil said it was meant to “sound a bit like Bono really doing disco”; the lyrics are about late ’90s It Girl Tamara Beckwith.

And yes, you do sense the ominous shadows of stomach-churning coke-driven lad culture here, but as Disco Potential is that era reinterpreted by the Pet Shop Boys, it’s brilliant, of course. Turn it up loud and feel the squelchy, bassy riff, Neil going full whispery diva, and distant mists of West End Girls-middle-eight synth strings making this fin-de-siecle dancefloor moment fantastic.
Jude Rogers

‘Discoteca’ from Bilingual (1996)

‘Discoteca’ would be worthy enough of attention even if all it had going for it was the one line, a quintessential Pet Shop Boys moment: Neil singing “I’m going out and carrying on as normal” over a tragic minor chord progression. Buttoned-up Englishness, and the turmoil underneath, all encapsulated in one heart-breaking phrase. The story is of a young man who has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS but it could apply to any situation where events conspire to knock you sideways, leaving you unable to express your feelings to others or even yourself, caught between the past and a future that is now uncertain. In this scenario, the ‘discoteca’ – the track is sort of pinnacle of disco melancholia – is a refuge, a place to forget your cares, but perhaps a site of renewal as well. It’s also a terrific album opener (to Bilingual), powered by huge drums from Glasgow’s SheBoom, and forms a fascinating diptych with one of the pair’s most unusual singles, ‘Single’.
David McKenna

‘Do I Have To’, B-side to ‘Always On My Mind’ (1987)

This B-side to ‘Always on My Mind’ uses a burbling rhythm track to take it past its five-minute length; it wants to bask in exhaustion, and in the wrong mood the bask is a poison cloud. Posing as a lover whose eyes are a-roll over the dalliances of a boyfriend, Tennant gives the game away with his usual breathy, full sighs, while Lowe adds thick block chords on synths. “I once went into a pub and this was playing. I was thrilled,” he confessed in 1995. Naturally: this B-side competes with its A-side.
Alfred Soto

‘Dreaming Of The Queen’ from Very (1993)

Very was Pet Shop Boys’ first “out” album, a celebration of English queerness which drew darkness behind it in its sparkling wake. Never more so than on this track, which upon a singularly English experience (having the Queen round for tea in your dreams) built an oblique but unmistakable requiem for the gay men claimed by AIDS. “There are no lovers left alive,” mourns a hypnagogic Lady Di, and adds with inadvertent, eerie prophecy, “Look, it’s happened to me and you.” Everything that makes Pet Shop Boys uniquely themselves – the anthemic swells, the deep melancholic undertones, the haunted Englishness, layers upon layers of meaning and feeling – is here in spades.
David Bennun

‘Euroboy’, B-side to ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’ (1994)

If you believe the band themselves — at least, at the time — this B-side to ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ did not take its title from a gay softcore mag. Perhaps. I tend more to hear it, as the liner notes to Alternative suggested, as a contrast between a focused, all-conquering and utterly self-regarding figure, who nothing can impact and nobody can hurt, and the despair of someone else left behind. It’s a dialogue between robots well before Daft Punk. Camp and terrifying, electronic exultation achieved at the expense of everyone and everything else — perhaps that’s the real European canon in the end.
Ned Raggett

‘Flourescent’ from Electric (2013)

An Electric album track unless you count its special Record Store Day-only somewhat more pointed rerecording in 2014, ‘Fluorescent’ captures something of the overall mood of that stellar album, a suggestion of returning to and then extending and refining the original run of disco’s transition days into electronics, cool and focused like the light invoked by the title, openly nodding to Visage’s early efforts in particular. But lyrically sentiments aren’t necessarily so calm, with Tennant saying in various places it’s partially inspired by Kate Moss, with suggestions of business and sell-by dates and putting in unspecified work.
Ned Raggett

‘The Ghost of Myself’, B-side to ‘New York City Boy’ (1999)

What Neil Tennant remembered of the 1979 general election was camera crews near his home – he had just moved to a small flat on the Kings Road, Chelsea, whilst Mrs Thatcher lived on the adjacent Flood Street. “This lyric is a short memoir of living there” writes Tennant in his 2018 Faber & Faber lyrics collection, “and sharing it sporadically with a girlfriend.”

If songs like ‘Being Boring’ and ‘Your Funny Uncle’ suggest that a life fully realised can be a compensation of sorts for personal pain and loss, then 1999 b-side ‘The Ghost Of Myself’ is notable for its gaze on a life unrealised. “What I’m haunted by in this lyric” continued Tennant, “is my former straight incarnation and its implications.” The lyric isn’t confessional, nor is it particularly concerned with the emotional life of its narrator. Better than that, it forces the listener to consider the difference as Tennant flatly catalogues the details of his life at that point – a rented room, a single bed, going swimming, the café Picasso. Musically, the track is a fairly close lift from the big global hit of that previous summer, Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’.
Fergal Kinney

‘Girls Don’t Cry’, B-side to ‘I’m With Stupid’ (2006)

One of the many things people miss about the Pet Shop Boys is the subtle poignancy of their lyrics. In amidst the pure pop genius of their music making, are lyrics that paint a picture so simply, but yet so evocative that one must listen again and again. This is one of those tracks. The melody may hark back to their much earlier days of the eighties, which are a pure delight of course, but the lyrics set a much darker tone. Pet Shop Boys have always dealt with the flip side of the human experience beautifully, and this track makes no exception.
Lisa Jenkins

‘In The Club Or In The Queue’, unfinished demo (1983)

If your love of the Pet Shop Boys stems from their ability to recount heartbreak with life-affirming bombast, the utter deflation of this early demo is a shock. Recorded in 1983, it captures that state post-break-up where your world is still so orientated around your ex that every step outside the front door tingles with the possibility of bumping into them – every gig or kebab shop a chance to “finally change [their] mind”. It’s a demo of course, but the track’s power is in this rawness. Sparse piano chords and a laboured drumbeat add to the feeling of oppressive stagnation, while Tennant sounds tired and broken. According to the PSB forum (hi lads!), the track was re-recorded in the late 90s during the Nightlife sessions and even considered for the 2001 musical Closer To Heaven, but never quite made the cut. Personally I hope it never gets the glitz of the full Pet Shop Boys treatment. For when you do finally bump into your ex, it’s never at your best but looking gaunt and greasy in bad supermarket lighting.
Laura Snoad

‘In The Night’, B-side to ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’ (1985)

‘In The Night’ is, for me, one of the most perfect of Pet Shop Boys songs, scandalously hidden away as the b-side for the ‘Opportunities’ single. It was probably the first Pet Shop Boys music I ever heard, when it was used as the theme music to Sunday night telly staple The Clothes Show, which was no doubt on while I was waiting for Last Of The Summer Wine to start. It’s rare that a mass market TV theme translates into a killer pop song, but that multi-functionality is only part of the song’s brilliance as an absolute banger, with “Zazou, comment allez-vous? A knock on the door / In the night!” one of my most undislodgable earworms. Yet even more than this is the subject matter – ‘Les Zazous’ were a little-known group of French beatniks who carried on flouncing around in Parisian cafés during the Nazi occupation. Only the Pet Shop Boys would have been able to make a discussion as to the morality of non-resistance becoming a form of collaboration into such a wonderful pop song. I never thought I’d get to see them do it live, the moment when the opening pulse started ringing out in the Royal Opera House when I saw Pet Shop Boys play live the other year will always be a cherished moment.
Luke Turner

‘It Always Comes As A Surprise’ from Bilingual (1996)

Love is a catastrophe, love is a bourgeoise construct, love comes quickly, and, here, love always comes as a surprise. Neil Tennant never quite gets a handle on how he feels about love, and these sometimes contradictory expressions accurately surmise the adult experience of relationships. One of the stronger cuts from their Latin influenced Bilingual album – can I be the only Pet Shop Boys fan who can’t stomach the schmaltzy ‘Se A Vida E’? – this gorgeously smoky bossa nova matches musical form and function perfectly. It remains unresolved – its outro exactly as unsure as Tennant’s narrator professes to be.
Fergal Kinney

‘I Want A Dog’ from Introspective (1989)

It’s fair to say that those of us who count themselves as ‘cat sceptics’ are a fairly outcast bunch, culturally-speaking. Such is the fervent love for the furry, bird-murdering, cynically-manipulative emissaries of Beelzebub that dissing them on social media is likely to lose you followers, and indeed perhaps the preceding sentences will put some of you off from continuing this assessment of the Pet Shop Boys lesser-known oeuvre. Yet ‘I Want A Dog’, is a rare entry in the anti-cat repertoire, as Neil Tennant sings “Don’t want a cat / Scratching its claws all over my habitat / Giving no love and getting fat”. Quite right. Originally released in a more minimal form as the b-side to ‘Rent’, the beefed up, housier take reworked by Frankie Knuckles that featured on Introspective works beautifully after ‘Left To My Own Devices’, a song celebrating solitary pleasures in a rather fabulous existence. This song is the sadder pitfalls of such a life – however wry a dissection of mammalian choice in the pet shop it might be, ‘I Want A Dog’ is essentially an eloquent song about loneliness, and the need for comfort in the small flats and intimate spaces of the unforgiving city.
Luke Turner

‘Jealousy (Extended Version)’, CD/12” Release (1990)

The sound of the extended mix of ‘Jealousy’ is the Pet Shop Boys draped in jewels and furs, poised on the top of a grand staircase, exquisitely but nervously, itching to take flight.

Famously the first song put together by the band in 1982, Jealousy began life as a piano piece composed by Chris Lowe in his parents’ house in Blackpool. (He’s said previously it was inspired by Peter Skellern’s soupy 1973 ballad, ‘You’re A Lady’, probably with his tongue in his cheek; you hear the drowsy melancholy of his chords linger in Skellern’s chorus nevertheless.) Tennant’s lyrics reflect a real-life situation, of a friend of his, also called Chris, being jealous of the arrival of this headgear-and-synthesiser-loving new man. They also conjure up the mood of cinematic, Chandler-esque noir that Tennant would develop over the years, hanging with a particular power in the world of ‘West End Girls’. But here, at dead of night, where strangers roam, Tennant’s character’s longing emerges differently, sweetly, almost naively.

It took eight years for ‘Jealousy’ to be released as the final single from 1990’s Behaviour. Naturally, this required its CD release to include a 7 minute 54 version of the origin story, although its grandeur also contains intimacy. Tennant sprinkles in a speech from Shakespeare’s Othello, that masterwork of literary envy, but delivers it with softness rather than venom (those South Shields vowels help). Fairlight synthesiser flutes flutter as seductively in the song as the passionate horns and crashing drums. It’s important to note that Tennant and Lowe had wanted Ennio Morricone to orchestrate ‘Jealousy’ for years, but he refused; another collaborator picked up the reins after working with the band on It Couldn’t Happen Here, whose peculiar, misty gentleness fit the Pet Shop Boys better.

The week of Behaviour‘s release was a big one for Angelo Badalamenti anyway. The day after it came out, Twin Peaks premiered on British TV.
Jude Rogers

‘King’s Cross’ from Actually (1987)

This song evokes the abject lostness of King’s Cross so perfectly, this site of historic battles where people arrive in London from The North and Scotland and where they return to, to leave. At the time this song was written, and until recently, the area was quite empty but for remaining sections of bombed out streets, warehouses – some of which were clubs – and a nature reserve.

It was like an embodiment of the dark side of London’s anonymity with small oases in it. Now King’s Cross is home to the Eurostar, Amazon, Google and St. Martins its nowhere-ness seems amplified. No matter how many fancy buildings go up you can still sense Boudica’s ghost and faintly hear the strains of a sad song like this one as you get your overpriced oat latte.
Amah Rose-Abrams

‘The Last To Die’ from Electric (2013)

Here’s a personal confession: I…am not a Springsteen fan. No longer quite a loather but at heart just indifferent, not feeling it. I’m glad others like it, great if you get something out of it. Reworking a fairly recent effort from Magic for the Electric album, Tennant and Lowe took Springsteen’s late George W. Bush tale of a family road trip crossing a violent psychic landscape into another striking argument that they’re the best reinterpreters of big arena rockers out there, at once finding the earnestness and then making it lighter and less earthbound, a sweep through the sky rather than a grind on the stage.
Ned Raggett

‘Later Tonight’ from Please (1986)

Mood-wise, this melancholy and reflective piano ballad provides the perfect counterpoint to the ebullient electronic dance fare that dominates Please. On ‘Later Tonight’, Tennant downplays his usual sense of irony and wit for something uncharacteristically tender and vulnerable, while Lowe gives an understated yet outstanding performance on the keys. Tennant explained in the liner notes of the album reissue that ‘Later Tonight’ was about carrying a romantic torch for someone who seems unattainable: “The song is saying that the boy is so out of your reach you will never meet him…but then, you wait till later. Maybe it’s destiny, or fate, because tonight always comes.”
David Chiu

‘Leaving’ from Elysium (2012)

The music could sit on a volume of the Kompakt Pop Ambient compilation series, hazy

and woozy electronics with a steady propulsive pace. The lyrics deal with some kind of relationship come to an end, perhaps coinciding with the allusion to deceased others. The narrator seems to both accept the end of the affair, whilst also keeping the door open for a possible reunion. The juxtaposition of death, decay and sun could make for a great Coil song, but is handled here with a lightness of touch that makes it another pop gem in the Tennant/Lowe cannon.
Dale Cornish

‘Miserablism’, B-side to ‘Was It Worth It?’ (1991)

As a teen, I was a serious Morrissey fan – is there any other way to be a fan of that artist? Like so many who come out the other side of this habit, I’ve come to realise that all that seriousness served not so much as a comfort blanket but as a defensive self-sabotage, a blocking off of experiences enjoyed by classmates and friends who had accidentally, instinctively understood what it took me years to learn. On this 1990 b-side from the Behaviour sessions, Neil Tennant gently but devastatingly points the figure at what he terms the ‘new philosophy’ of miserablism. “Deny that happiness is open as an option” he sings, “and disappointment disappears overnight.” The satire’s target is never named as Morrissey – one wonders what conversations Tennant had been having with Johnny Marr, with whom he would collaborate on 1991’s ‘Getting Away With It’, since confirmed as a Morrissey parody.

In another world, this could have been one of Pet Shop Boys’ signature tracks. Its analogue synth arrangement, witty vocoder part and earworm chorus is one of the most fruitful collaborations between the pair and producer Harold Faltermeyer, who lobbied for its inclusion on Behaviour. No matter, it’s a terrific b-side, and Tennant is keen to underline an approach to living that I hope I’ve been able to live better in my twenties. “You can’t be sure” Tennant winks, “that you might find ecstasy.”

Fergal Kinney

‘Nightlife’, B-side to ‘Home And Dry’ (2002)

A great guitar-led Pet Shop Boys song, with its multiple interlocking parts that call and respond to each other as well as the vocal. Simple yet sumptuous, down to its breezy disco beat and major key chorus. Originally intended for the Pet Shop Boys musical, ‘Nightlife’ does that cool thing where it isn’t found on the album of the same name. The song would surface with their next outing, on the US bonus disc for Release and UK DVD single for its ‘Home And Dry’. The track’s light feel can’t help but bring a smile and shake of the hips, and while it seems to celebrate the lifestyle it sings of, the ambiguity of “Nightlife, babe, it’s always the same, Looking for light every night” adds a shade of criticism into the mix.
Aug Stone

‘Only The Wind’ from Behaviour (1990)

Orchestral synth stabs are a key feature of Pet Shop Boy’s musical identity, almost a trademark, for better and for worse; it’s hard to imagine a classic like ‘It’s A Sin’ having the same power without them but on weaker tracks they heighten the sense of a group going through the motions, making you want to yell “come on guys, there are more interesting sounds out there!” And then you have tracks like ‘Only The Wind’, with its account of domestic violence (told, perhaps, from multiple perspectives, including that of the abuser). Here, as in the verses of ‘So Hard’ from the same album, those stabs are like brief, sharp manifestations of the intense pain barely suppressed by the narrator(s) and the otherwise cool, measured tone of the music.
David McKenna

‘On Social Media’ from Agenda EP (2019)

Pet Shop Boys have consistently been chroniclers of the times, and their 2019 Agenda EP felt like them having a say on the shitshow of modern life, so it’s no surprise that the digital narcissism of social media falls into their radar. The trolls, the instant takes and need for opinion, the exacerbation of hate-fuelled narratives and general despair that comes with sharing and liking and doom-scrolling in order to ‘feel part of the conversation’ feeds on the need for users to be seen to be aware, or angered or just documenting every single aspect of their lives. In some respects, it looks askance at the ‘you can’t say anything these days’ set, who say anything regardless. From people performatively playing the victim through to those who are ‘hashtag blessed’, essentially, and possibly thankfully at this stage in human history, it cheerily details that we’re all doomed as a species. Hurrah!
Ian Wade

‘Paninaro’, B-side to ‘Suburbia’ (1986)

Opening with kettle drums and a whistling synth before building up a brassy head of steam, the B-side to 1986’s ‘Suburbia’ – also included on the same year’s Disco compilation – played to their dancefloor strengths, exploiting a simple bassline to hypnotic ends on a tribute to Milan’s none-more-80s, sandwich-munching, designer clothing-obsessed paninari tribe.

It’s particularly notable for Chris Lowe’s extensive vocal contributions, though they hardly stretched him: aside from a sample from an Entertainment Tonight interview of a self-consciously nihilist list of things he doesn’t rate – country & western not surprisingly among them – he spends the song invoking some of life’s more memorable features, from “passion and love” to “New York”. Tennant meanwhile chirps the title like an angelic but mechanical budgie, adding Woah-oh-ohs” inspired by ‘Tarzan Boy’, a UK number 3 hit the previous year. Novelty songs don’t seem like obvious source material for our dynamic duo, but the people behind it, Baltimora, were based in Milan, and anyway, as Lowe insists, “what I do like, I love passionately.”
Wyndham Wallace

‘A Red Letter Day’ from Bilingual (1996)

Like so many Tennant/Lowe songs this concerns yearning, but on this occasion the affection between yearner and yearnee is mutual. My fan theory: this is ‘Being Boring’’s reverse, the narrator no longer having to miss the person he’d been kissing and they’d made a go of it and all was wonderful. I might be wrong, of course, but optimism is easy to arrive at with a song so unashamedly uplifting, and the standout line “like Christmas morning when you were a kid, admit you love me and you always did” is definitely one of their sweetest.
Dale Cornish

‘Sexy Northener’, B-side to ‘Home And Dry’ (2002)

Written with a firm tongue in their cheek, this track is apace with plenty of wonderful mid nineties beats. If one does remember the nineties, and not many of us can, this will take you back to sweaty, heaving, beer-soaked nights, in venues that have all but gone now. With lines like “It’s not all football and fags” you can’t help but smile at the suggested double entendre. Pet Shop Boys have always been very clever wordsmiths, this is a light hearted track, but no less one that represents their songwriting skills in all of their satirical glory.
Lisa Jenkins

‘Some Speculation’, B-side to ‘Yesterday When I Was Mad’ (1994)

In ways, much of the duo’s career can be seen as how to reinterpret and reconsider a lost moment or series of them. Another ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’ B-side, the notes in Alternative spoke about trying to recapture a sense of the early 80s, a return to the Bobby O sound that had started them all off to start with. ‘Sleaze’ was the other term used and there’s just enough of that about, a track that slinks and echoes in corners and shadows, Tennant’s high-pitched singing turning the ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ and ‘So Hard’ scenarios of infidelity into a prowl of action, confrontation and slow burn/fast pace energy.
Ned Raggett

‘This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave’ from Behaviour (1990)

The song starts with warehouse snare drum and shifting synth, quickly going widescreen with guitar twangs and Badalamenti strings. The filmic ambition was intentional: the song derives from a possible theme for ‘The Living Daylights’. MI6’s loss is the public’s gain, however, with the song capturing the horrible experience of a British boy’s school. Like ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ the distinction between dream, memory and reality is blurred, aided by overlapping lines and clever yet subtle wordplay. I’m not sure anyone other than Tennant could ever deliver the singular line “kneeling on the parquet, whatever has gone wrong?” so perfectly.
Dale Cornish

‘The Theatre’ from Very (1993)

The flash and draw and excitement of the big city turns sour: the streets aren’t paved with gold, but a place for the young homeless trying to survive. In addition, they’re an inconvenience for the patrons of the arts, who must “step over [them] as you leave the theatre”. Sadly not a fiction (the line is a quote from a Conservative MP around the time), and sadly a theme as relevant in 2021 as in 1992. However, despite the misery, and casual brutality, the music is ecstatic, optimistic, even jubilant, showing that perhaps all hope isn’t lost.
Dale Cornish

‘Tonight Is Forever’ from Please (1986)

Listening to this uplifting, energetic cut from Please during these pandemic times seems particularly cruel now, as it expresses the simple yet joyful act of going out for a night on the town, whether it’s on the dance floor or being with someone at the bar. Both the music and the lyrics from this song perfectly convey the experience of having fun and forgetting about your troubles (“Don’t even think about those bills/Don’t pay the price, we never will”). Tennant recalled that ‘Tonight Is Forever’ is about kids going to the nightclub Heaven, with Lowe adding: “In the early Eighties everyone I knew sort of didn’t work. Just got dressed up, lived on the dole, and got into clubs cheap—a life of living at night.” Hedonism never sounded this eloquent and inspiring as the boys demonstrate on this track.
David Chiu

‘The Truck Driver & His Mate’, B-side to ‘Before’ (1996)

While much is made of Pet Shop Boys’ dialogue with dance, electronic and compositional music, less is said about how they relate to rock, aside from their frequent lyrics disparaging the form. However, at the height of British guitar music in the mid-1990s, there was quite the dalliance, with the band performing a superlative cover of Blur’s ‘Girls & Boys’ on tour (watch that via tQ here), and Neil Tennant duetting with Suede at the London Roundhouse in 1996. In the same year, Pet Shop Boys released ‘The Truck Driver & His Mate’, a cheeky, arse-slapping song of double-entendre and “oh oh ohs” that are an absolute shoe in for the sort of song Suede were doing around Coming Up and its follow-up Head Music. Interestingly, Tennant said ‘Truck Driver’ was PSB’s attempt to write a track that sounded a bit like Oasis. I don’t think it sounds anything like Oasis, but given the music press ad that found Bernard Butler and formed Suede cited Pet Shop Boys and Gallagher heroes The Smiths as touchstones, there’s a nice connection to be made here.
Luke Turner

‘Try It (I’m In Love With A Married Man)’ from Disco 3 (2003)

Originally written and produced by Bobby O for one of his groups, the multi-membered Oh Romeo who first released it in 1983, ‘Try It’ was initially considered by the duo to record with Tina Turner. Unfortunately, that idea came to nothing, so they opted to do it themselves and popped it on Disco 3 in 2003. Sung from Neil’s perspective, the idea of being the other person in a love triangle, sees the ambisexual married man cast as an object of obsession, with the frustration and need, but also a sexual frisson of the set-up – ‘the world won’t understand me’ adding to the allure of the illicit encounters and moments. Of course, the married man nowadays could feasibly be in a gay coupling himself, which just makes him seem like a bit of a tramp now.
Ian Wade

‘Two Divided By Zero’ from Please (1986)

An ongoing theme that runs through several of the songs on Pet Shop Boys’ brilliant debut Please is a yearning need to escape or be somewhere else. Examples of that can be heard on ‘Opportunities’, ‘Suburbia’, ‘Tonight Is Forever’, and this dramatic track that opens the record. On ‘Two Divided By Zero’, the young protagonist suggests to their partner in crime that they should run away and take a plane to New York City while there is still time left in their lives (“Tomorrow morning/We’ll be miles away/On another continent/And another day”).

According to Neil Tennant in the liner notes of the expanded Please reissue: “This girl Maureen and I often had this romantic notion of running away to London, and we sometimes used to go to Newcastle Central Station at night to see the trains going to London. And, in the song, maybe there’s trouble at home, so the two people are going to run away.” Both haunting and cinematic, this underrated track kicks off the album (and the boys’ recording career) in grand fashion.
David Chiu

‘Violence’ from Please (1986)

‘Violence’ joins ‘Later Tonight’ as one of the only two slow-tempo tracks off of Please. This somber, quasi-funk protest song keeps the electronics and beats at a minimum in line with the anti-war sentiment of the lyrics (“Violence breeds violence”); Helena Springs’ soulful backing vocals perfectly conjures the sense of pain and grief. The song was written in reference to Northern Island and the bombings in London at the time, Tennant once said—but its lyrics 35 years on could sadly apply to today’s forms of senseless violence both on the battlefield and at home.
David Chiu

‘We All Feel Better In The Dark’, B-side to ‘Being Boring’ (1990)

One of Chris’ forays into singing, this B-side to ‘Being Boring’ features words, inspired by a tape called The Secrets of Sexual Attraction, that he found in a health food shop, that Lowe himself considered ‘terrible, awful and embarrassing’. Basically, it’s him discussing how he feels in a nightclub when he’s got the horn, ‘These feelings that I’m feeling must be satisfied somehow’, is a base-level need for a bit of knob-touch or discreet bumming in a dark or dimly lit anonymous environment. It couldn’t be more ‘of its time’, with house piano and the sampling of Loleatta Holloway’s ‘Love Sensation’, which was required by pop law in 1989/90. Neil has also claimed it was ‘the most lustful song the Pet Shop Boys have ever recorded’, although he might be taking the piss. The song had its moment as part of a dance routine featuring Chris removing his trousers and dancing around in his pants (phwoar etc) during their Performance tour, and is best experienced in the Brothers in Rhythm ‘After Dark’ reswizzle off Disco 2.
Ian Wade

‘Will O’the Wisp’ from Hotspot (2020)

An unusually belligerent but energetically celebratory curtain raiser to their last album, 2020’s Hotspot, ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’ finds Tennant and Lowe taking the U-Bahn from the west of Berlin – the city where they’ve both kept an apartment for the last decade – towards Warschauer Strasse station in the east, most likely for its proximity to Berghain. Decorated by sampled travel announcements and a synth riff whose Ohrwurm rating is exceptionally high, the song encapsulates a quality critic Pete Paphides once called ‘melanphoria’, its dizzy delirium counteracted by Tennant’s nostalgic recollections – provoked by a man now opposite him on the train – of time spent with “a free spirit… in your battered leather cap”. There’s an additional poignancy to these reveries, too, as he wonders, “Maybe you’ve gone respectable / With a wife and job and all that,” but it’s pretty clear that, even now he’s in his mid 60s, Tennant’s own hedonistic penchants are unlikely to cease quite yet.”
Wyndham Wallace

‘Why Don’t We Live Together’ from Please (1986)

Yet another in the line of early Pet Shop Boys tunes indebted to the inexhaustible ‘Into the Groove’, the last song on Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s first and best album adds a question mark and changes a crucial auxiliary verb to and in Timmy Thomas’ ruminative title. For once, Tennant is delighted his lover wants an experience as shallow as his. The rhythm guitar chirps agreement, Tennant ooh-oohs with himself as harmonist, and Lowe writes a helluva bridge: “You may not always love me/I may not care.” Few straight love songs in 1986 were this cold-eyed; few wanted to be. By the timet the last third comes around, the track is competing with itself to learn who will pose more giddily about its cynicism — another name for sentimentality, of course.
Alfred Soto

‘You Choose’ from Release (2002)

Not known for putting their trust in guitars, Pet Shop Boys cede emotional control to Johnny Marr’s grasping, loping line. This allows Neil Tennant to sing-whisper a koan devoted to the folly of falling in love with the wrong boy, for which he blames himself: it’s another of the Boys’ self-castigatory numbers. “Buy your booze/You won’t get drunk by accident/You’ll choose,” Tennant whispers, almost convincing himself.
Alfred Soto

‘Your Funny Uncle’, B-side to ‘It’s Alright’ (1989)

All through Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase, Neil Tennant was visiting his best friend from Newcastle, Christopher Dowell, who was dying in a London hospital of AIDS. It Couldn’t Happen Here would be inspired by Dowell, as would the group’s opus ‘Being Boring’, but it’s ‘Your Funny Uncle’ that deals most explicitly with the aftermath of Dowell’s passing and the questions in Tennant’s mind at the time about gay life.

With a lovely, stark arrangement reminiscent of The Beatles’ ‘For No One’, Tennant paints a funeral scene – the slow formation of cars, the father wondering where he went wrong. It’s the uncle, however, that Tennant zeroes in on. Lots of families had funny uncles, lots of men were funny uncles, it’s a now politically incorrect euphemism for the lives ruined by internal and, most importantly, external repression of homosexuality. The uncle, representing the previous generation, stands and stares at Tennant’s generation, gay men living despite the horror at their door. Better, Tennant suggests, to have swum against the tide, “to obstinately hope of winning”, than repeat the experience of previous generations. It doesn’t judge, but it observes an intergenerational dynamic and offers the most gentle of hopes for the future. “Those former things have passed away” sings Tennant, quoting the Book of Revelation reading he gave at Dowell’s funeral, “another life begins today.” It’s a sentiment that I’ve always found similar to Tony Kushner’s words at the close of Angels in America. “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you. More life. The great work begins.”
Fergal Kinney

Pet Shop Boys release their 1994 concert ‘Discovery: Live In Rio 1994’ this Friday (April 30) as a DVD and 2xCD. You can pre-order it here

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