The politics of the Pet Shop Boys
How the electronic dance duo made more than a minimal contribution to music
Amidst the coverage of Roger Scruton’s death earlier in January, one detail was not given enough attention. In his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton inadvertently showed his ignorance of contemporary pop music by writing “Sometimes, as with the Spice Girls or the Pet Shop Boys, serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trade mark to subsequent sound engineering, designed precisely to make it unrepeatable.” In the case of the Spice Girls, this was fair enough, but Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, the Pet Shop Boys themselves, were deeply offended and sued Scruton and his publisher for libel, citing “considerable upset and distress”. Unsurprisingly, they won.
It is an enormous pity that Scruton never reconciled himself to Tennant and Lowe, because they shared a great deal more in common than the libel suit suggested.
Neither Scruton nor the Pet Shop Boys ever talked about the court case publicly again, although Scruton made oblique allusion to it in his 2009 book Understanding Music, in which he rails against pop music in his concluding chapter as “music aimed at adolescents, and designed to be swallowed”, as opposed to more sophisticated music, “designed to be sung”. It is an enormous pity that Scruton never reconciled himself to Tennant and Lowe, because they shared a great deal more in common than the libel suit suggested. All of them are erudite, thoughtful men who have nonetheless worn (or been labelled with) the label of provocateur, and although the Pet Shop Boys are somewhat of the Left and Scruton was of the Right, all of them have been sceptical about big government and thought control, and retained a humanism that has only been dimmed, in Scruton’s case, by death.
His former nemeses, however, are still very active. They have released a new album — their fourteenth — called Hotspot, and will be embarking on a comprehensive world tour later in the year. Additionally, they have composed music for a one-woman show with Frances Barber, Musik, provided songs for a stage adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette and even put out a satirical EP, Agenda, which made their opposition to Brexit and contemporary leaders explicit.
Its first song, “Give Stupidity A Chance”, explicitly referenced Michael Gove’s notorious comment that “people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms”, as Tennant sings “Why face the facts/When you can just feel the feelings?” It also lambasted Trump (“We need a leader who knows that money means class/With an eye for a peach-perfect piece of ass”) and offered an ironic perspective on the anti-woke movement, as Tennant declared “Forget political correctness, I mean WTF?/I don’t wanna think about the world, I wanna talk about myself!”
The jokes were, it must be said, not his finest, any more than the music was. When the Pet Shop Boys attempt to do out-and-out goofy humour rather than ironic satire, the results are often embarrassing. One thinks, regretfully, of their attack on Blair and Bush, “I’m With Stupid”, from their 2006 Fundamental album, in which the central joke is that the song is sung from the perspective of someone chasing after an idiotic lover, as Tennant wonders “Is stupid really stupid, or a different kind of smart?” The joke is too obvious and broad to be funny, and one can imagine that if Roger Scruton had ever had the misfortune to hear it, he would have sighed, sipped a glass of fine wine and believed that all of his earlier remarks were justified, in spirit if not in fact.
This would be unfair. Those who have admired the Pet Shop Boys for many years — the so-called “Petheads”, as their greatest aficionados style themselves — tolerate the odd lapse, because the highlights are spectacular. With a career now lasting for three and a half decades, they have replaced their earlier “imperial phase”, as Tennant once described their most successful period, with a mixture of nostalgia and ceaseless energy. Sometimes, this is directed more successfully than at other times; their 2014 Alan Turing oratorio, A Man From The Future, was terrific, but their last three albums, all produced by Madonna and The Killers collaborator Stuart Price, have been surprisingly bland and unmemorable.
Yet their energy, questioning intelligence and wit remain a constant, and a source of inspiration amidst the homogenised dross of contemporary pop music. One can never forget their mission statement, declared most memorably on their 1988 single “Left To My Own Devices”, that “I was faced with a choice at a difficult age/ Would I write a book? Or should I take to the stage?/But in the back of my head I heard distant feet/ Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat.”
It is hard to think of many contemporary acts whose first big hit single, “West End Girls”, was explicitly influenced by The Waste Land, just as the first song they ever wrote together, “Jealousy”, contained Tennant reciting Iago’s ironically honeyed words from Othello: “Not poppy, nor mandragora/ Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world/Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep/Which thou owedst yesterday.” This combination of erudition and allusion has remained throughout their career, with a lyrical and musical richness that few of their peers have ever attempted.
Politics have always been a central preoccupation of their music. When the Pet Shop Boys first came to prominence in the Eighties, the vogue was either for songs that attacked Thatcher (The Smiths’ “Margaret On The Guillotine”, for instance) or, in rarer instances, pro-capitalism anthems, such as Mick Jagger’s regrettable “Let’s Work” (“let’s work, kill poverty”). Tennant and Lowe offered something different and cleverer.
One of their signature hits “Opportunities”, superficially appeared to be a celebration of loadsamoney excess, down to its chorus “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks/Let’s make lots of money.” In fact, despite its instant rapport with City traders who drunkenly sang along to it, it was an icy satire on dehumanisation and greed, and ended with the startling lyrics “All the love that we had, and the love that we hide/Who will bury us when we die?”
Their energy, questioning intelligence and wit remain a constant, and a source of inspiration amidst the homogenised dross of contemporary pop music.
This melding of the universal and the personal found irreverent expression in their underrated 2002 song “I Get Along”, from their album Release. Although the duo were initially associated with the Blair revolution and New Labour, it did not take long for the shine to fade. This song, set to stirringly anthemic music that should be chanted from football terraces, dealt with the apparent betrayal of Peter Mandelson by Blair, as he had to resign from the Cabinet after allegations he had illegally influenced the Hinduja brothers’ passport applications. Taking the perspective of a scorned lover (“I’ve been trying not to cry/When I’m in the public eye”), Tennant-as-Mandelson skewers the doublespeak and spin of the era, as well as its sycophancy, with beautiful economy. “Now I know you’d much rather be/ With rock royalty instead of someone like me/ The big boys are back and we need them, you said/Think it was something you’d read.”
Many of the Pet Shop Boys’ songs have dealt explicitly with political issues, whether it’s the totalitarian nature of ID cards (“Integral”), the first Iraq war (“DJ Culture”) or Corbynista outrage (“What are we going to do about the rich?”) Yet their richest and most interesting music has come from turning the personal into the universal. In 2018 Tennant published his first book, One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, offering personal commentary on a hundred of his favourite lyrics. Read, rather than listened to, they offer an elegiac quality that, at its best, is worthy of comparison with Auden and Larkin.
In particular, a trilogy of songs that Tennant wrote about a friend from Newcastle who died of AIDS, “Being Boring”, “It Couldn’t Happen Here” and “Your Funny Uncle”, offer a devastating first-hand account of loss. The last, which was relegated to a B-side, is an especially affecting depiction of guilt and sorrow at a funeral, sung over simple piano backing, where uncomprehending parents wonder where they went wrong, and “your funny uncle, staring at all your friends with military bearing” offers some unexpected but welcome compassion.
In 2020, as the closing song on Hotspot, “Wedding in Berlin”, shows, social expectations are very different. Tennant can sing “We’re getting married, a lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay”, and even the most dyed-in-the-wool conservative would be hard-pressed to object. Yet the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys, and the possible reason why their latter-day music has been less interesting than their “imperial phase”, lies in their romantic conjuring of an underworld of polari, opaque warnings and hidden speakeasies, where, as their 1993 song puts in, “to speak is a sin/You’d better beware/But once in a while/A smile, if you dare.”
Yet this secrecy is also counterpointed with ecstatic joy. If Tennant declares, as he did on their famous single “It’s A Sin”, that “At school they taught me how to be/So pure in thought, and word, and deed”, it is followed with the joyous codicil that “they didn’t quite succeed”. This mischievousness and impishness has always made Tennant and Lowe the most enjoyable and witty of pop pioneers. It’s just a pity, both for them and Roger Scruton, that, two decades ago, both sides could not have shown more a sense of humour. Who knows, they might have become the greatest of friends.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe