Andy Warhol once wrote, "A person is entitled to the lighting they need." It's a philosophy the Pet Shop Boys seem to have taken to heart throughout the two-decade span of their careers as dance-music innovators. The Boys peaked during the synth-pop happy Eighties, thus ensuring that their songs would become requisite inclusions on every Eighties music compilation ever made and find eternal life on the dance floors of nostalgia-happy American discos. Yet while the Bananaramas and the Bangles of the world have long since walked off into the sunset wearing fishnet stockings and neon-pink jellies, the Pet Shop Boys have evolved, today creating glamorous, unquestionably modern dance music. That the Boys have managed to stay relevant is perhaps due to their uncanny knack for divining the necessary light for each moment: They are serious arbiters of their established oeuvre, but count on them to don a fabulous array of outfits along the way.
"Oh, yes. There will be elaborate costumes," says vocalist Neil Tennant of the band's current North American tour. "But we will only change them two or three times during the show. I'm obsessed with not being real. The costumes are a part of becoming larger than life. You don't just have to look like you -- one hasn't got to look like oneself all the time. It makes me feel stronger as a performer when I wear costumes."
The tour comes on the cusp of the release of Nightlife, the Boys' eighth full-length and the first PSB release since 1996's Bilingual. It's a lush, gossamer blend of strings, synths and Tennant's dreamy vocals, with a tone that varies from danceable melancholia to outright exuberance. If Nightlife doesn't make you get up and move, it's probably because you are physically unable to. The album continues on a musical trajectory that began in 1981, when Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe met at an electronics shop in London. The two discovered a mutual passion for dance music and synthesizers and at once decided to form a band. In 1983, Tennant met producer Bobby "O" Orlando while on a writing assignment for the British music magazine Smash Hits. (Tennant began his career as a music journalist, a profession he admits he was never comfortable with: "I am always afraid that I will run out of things to say," he confesses.) Orlando produced the Pet Shop Boys' first single, "West End Girls," in 1984, but the song did not catch on until it was re-recorded with Stephen Hague in 1986. "Girls" became a radio and dance hit in both America and Europe, and the Pet Shop Boys became darlings of the pop world. They reissued the ironic anthem "Opportunities," in which Tennant echoes a common sentiment of the Greed decade: "I've got the brains/You've got the looks/Let's make lots of money."
The Boys became bona fide disco luminaries with the 1987 release of their second album, Actually, which featured such top ten hits as "It's a Sin," a curious cover of Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind" and "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" a duet between Tennant and his favorite singer, Dusty Springfield. But as mainstream tastes began to change toward the end of the Eighties, with radio and MTV began moving away from pure pop in favor of early alternative, rap and more aggressive sounds at the dawn of grunge and post-punk, the Pet Shop Boys found their audience more limited to the dance and electronic faithful -- an audience that remained solid in Europe but diminished in the States.
Today the Boys struggle somewhat to connect with American audiences' newly found enthusiasm for dance music, something Tennant regards with ironic ambivalence. While Nightlife clearly features what many would term electronica, he hesitates to do so. "In England we don't speak of electronica, because that suggests that it's a new form of music. It's been around since Kraftwerk released Autobahn in 1974. But when Madonna released 'Ray of Light' in 1998, some people in America thought that suddenly there was a new form of music." The Pet Shop Boys considered themselves pop musicians long before that term evoked young Miss Spears or an infinite number of artists whose American musical life is limited to one or two forgettable hits. He's understandably disappointed by the current pop landscape, believing it bereft of musical intelligence. "I don't believe in intellectualized pop so much as pop that has integrity, that is the result of the creative process and is designed to express something. That doesn't seem to exist in pop music these days. Now it's an industrialized process. These bands like the Backstreet Boys only have a certain shelf life, and their managers are concerned with their marketability. I think the Backstreet Boys are more talented than, for example, the New Kids on the Block. They're much better singers, but nevertheless, what they do doesn't mean anything.
"Pop music used to be about something," he adds, "back when the Human League and the Culture Club were popular. I see the audience for dance music these days as being the same sort of audience that the Human League had fifteen years previously. The fans of the Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim are the sort of people who were fans of pop music in the Eighties."
Nightlife, though largely electronically based, finds Tennant and Lowe moving beyond formulaic dance and pop approaches to incorporate a wider array of instrumentation and sound. They worked with three different producers on the record, including "Ray of Light" producer Craig Armstrong. "The goal was to mix electronic music with strings -- not in a bombastic way, but in a sonic way, to achieve denser sound," Tennant says. The album features such songs as "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" and "Vampires," and Tennant says that "basically, all of the themes have to do with the nightlife. 'Vampires' is about drugs and how they destroy people's relationships and lives and cause them to stay up all night." It's a provocative platter, at times full of lyrical imagery that makes precious few judgments about the subjects broached. Other times it is simple, narrative fun, as is the case with "New York City Boy," the first single released from the album. The video for the song is a tableau chronicling the last half-century of getting one's groove on in the Big Apple. It follows a surreal day in the life of a Nineties teen who has a turntable and electric guitar in his bedroom. The chap undergoes a musical jaunt through the city, passing Eighties-era breakdancers and grooving Seventies hipsters sporting Afros like characters straight out of Shaft. The images are backed by Tennant singing, "The street is amazing/The hoochies are real/Look how they holler out the latest deal." The bedazzled boy then journeys into the glitzy underground of Studio 54, where he and a Warhol look-alike observe various androgynous hipsters busting their respective moves to the chorus, an emphatic, Village People-esque declaration: "You're a New York City boy/You'll never have a bored day." All of this is depicted for the viewer through crotch-centric camera angles and, for the listener, through music that is a specimen of unabashed camp.
According to Tennant, Nightlife is a representative sample of the band's steady progression that still retains those elements that have endeared it to longtime fans. "Our sound gradually developed," he says, "and did so, I think, with integrity. We didn't just suddenly release a reggae album or a German beat album or something like that. I think it's something like the way the Beatles gradually developed, whereas the Rolling Stones suddenly made a psychedelic album because everyone else was making psychedelic albums." The band's playful performance ethic has also grown exponentially over the years and has roots in what Tennant describes simply as a prolonged artistic adolescence. "We believe in ignoring the fact that we are growing old," Tennant said. "We've always been immature. I think we stay young because we have a desire to keep making records and shows, and there are always so many new things you can do."
And, oh, the things they can do. The Pet Shop Boys and a production team spent more than a year designing sets and general atmospherics for the current tour, enlisting the help of world-renown architect Zaha Hadid to design an elaborate set for the show. Among other honors, Hadid has held visiting professorships at Harvard and Columbia Universities and won the competition for the design of the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales in 1994. ("She won the competition," Tennant says, "but they didn't build it, because they thought it was too weird. That was a mistake, really, because I think it would have put Cardiff on the map.") "We had the idea for the set to be adapted to fit different sizes of venues, because we were going to be playing both clubs and arenas. We liked the way Zaha Hadid's buildings looked -- one unusual aspect of them is that they have few right angles.
"We also have the lighting man from Pink Floyd working for us, as well as five other singers, a percussionist and another keyboardist. We wanted to achieve a show that was not theatrical but very visual."
And, of course, full of many fabulous outfits.
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