So Much Confusion

‘…When October comes around’ said the Pet Shop Boys in My October Symphony. Later on Neil Tennant asks about whether we should ‘remember December instead or worry about February?’ I guess February just rhymed. I haven’t got any songs on the computer named after February and can’t think of many with lyrics referring to the second month other than this one.

My October Symphony is from Behaviour, 1990’s PSB tour de force. Produced by Harold Faltermeyer using analogue synths it mixes full on pop, rave influenced pop, ballads and what got called adult pop- musical, reflective, lyrically grown up, classy instead of teenage (which could sound a bit dull but Behaviour is an album that could never be called dull. Inventive, subtle, wry, expansive but not dull). My October Symphony chucks many things into the pot besides Neil’s lyrics- a blast of a male voice choir, house inspired backing vox, sweeping strings and a funky guitar part played by Johnny Marr. I always felt it’s a song about autumn really (and wanting to move on and change) but according to a PSB fan site- ‘Neil adopts the role of a Russian composer who has dedicated his life and work to the ideals of the revolution but now feels confused and betrayed in the wake of the collapse of Communism’. So there you go. On the same site Janet Street Porter claims it is about a lingerie model. Which one Janet?

My October Symphony

In 1991 they released a stand alone single, DJ Culture, partly to promote their singles compilation Discography, partly as a comment on the Gulf War and how George Bush borrowed from Churchill’s wartime speeches just as artists sample each other (with a reference to Oscar Wilde’s trial thrown in too), and partly because they’d recorded what was a very good pop song. As a single it kind of went missing, despite reaching number 13 in the chart.


Life Is Much More Simple When You’re Young

I spent Wednesday evening watching the Pet Shop Boys playing in the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool. The Empress Ballroom, known to fans of The Stone Roses as being the gig that sealed their ascent in the summer of 1989, is a beautiful late 19th century venue holding 3000 people, pretty intimate for an act who often play arenas. The show had everything you’d want and expect from a Pet Shop Boys performance- lights, projections, images, lasers, daft headgear, costume changes and more great tunes than you can shake a stick at. It opened with Neil and Chris appearing by rotating into view on two giant white circles. They stepped down, daft headgear intact, and got right on it in front of a crowd who were very much up for it. As a pair they’ve made songs that are informed by forty years of club culture and fifty years of pop culture and for a while were very near the centre of UK music. The projections for second song Opportunities have smiley faces swapping with dollar signs, a nice visual ironic nod to Thatcher’s enterprise culture. From there on in it’s recent songs like The Pop Kids and Love Is A Bourgeois Construct spliced with highlights from their back catalogue. A few songs in the giant white discs are dismantled, the screen falls down and a trio of musicians join Neil and Chris, two percussionist and a keyboardist/violinist, the extra drums beefing up the rack of synths and laptops local lad Chris Lowe is playing. Somewhere around halfway in, the temperature in the room rising and some of the crowd now shirtless, they drop in a beautifully chilled Love Comes Quickly, a pop song as good as any written in the 1980s.
Neil Tennant is a superb lyricist, a writer who frequently finds the sweet spot between the uniquely personal and brilliantly universal, and his distinctive voice has survived the years. In the second half of the set they show their strengths to full effect with a run of West End Girls, Home And Dry and It’s A Sin, lasers beaming, hats and jackets changed, building up to the finale, now with giant coloured balls suspended above the stage- a reworked, upgraded version of Left To My Own Devices and then a singalong Go West, a song of community and brotherhood. The encore has a perfectly pitched and played Domino Dancing, the moment house music explicitly influenced their sound, followed by Always On My Mind. It’s the hits. Pile ’em high, give ’em what they want. I could gripe that there’s no Being Boring, no So Hard, no Rent but it’d be churlish. It’s quite a show they put on, songs that last with choruses that stick (for decades), performed with knowing theatrics, with a nod and a wink but with feeling too. A class act.

When You’re Young You Find Inspiration In Anyone Who’s Ever Gone

Pet Shop Boys’ 1990 single Being Boring is one of the songs that summarises life, one of those songs that hits hard and resonates emotionally, that seem to be somehow ‘about’ you (even though the autobiographical details are all specific to Neil Tennant and not me). The tune is lovely beyond words with swelling keyboards and a memorable melody line but it’s Neil’s words about growing up that really strike home- along with the reference to Zelda Fitzgerald’s quote about not being boring because she was never bored- and the details of the verses that show how people change as they get older.

It’s stuck with me also I guess because as I’ve got older I’ve moved through the verses (as they chronicle Neil Tennant getting older). It’s a proper bittersweet and happy/sad song too, the pain and joy caused by sifting through the ‘cache of old photos and invitations to teenage parties’. Neil Tennant would have been in his mid-to-late thirties when he wrote it and that seems to be telling- this isn’t a song that a twenty something would write. Maybe that’s why it keeps giving- when I first heard it in 1990 I was twenty so roughly the age the narrator is singing about in the second verse. Then as you get older you become the narrator of the third verse. A friend said recently this is ‘the finest pop’ which it is but it has a depth that much pop music doesn’t- that’s not to criticise pop music but its often at its most effective when it is ephemeral and surface rather than depth. Being Boring is pop and much more than pop.

Being Boring

The extended mix is over ten minutes long but doesn’t feel forced or anything like ten minutes long.

Being Boring (Extended Mix)

The video, shot by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, is like a Vogue shoot come to life and has the young and the beautiful enjoying themselves immensely.

Cities In The Park

Just over twenty five years ago Factory Records put on a two day festival in Heaton Park, Manchester, in memory of Martin Hannett who had died earlier that year. Day One, Saturday August 3rd, included Buzzcocks, Paris Angels, Ruthless Rap Assassins, The Railway Children, OMD and The Wonderstuff. Day Two, Sunday, was almost entirely Factory acts- Happy Mondays, Electronic, ACR, Revenge, Durutti Column, The Wendys and Cath Carroll plus De La Soul, 808 State and New fast Automatic Daffodils. There were two day camping tickets- but who would want to camp in Heaton Park?

We went on the Sunday. It was hot. I met my brother there, who came in when some of the crowd outside pushed the fence down. He had a ticket but just fancied coming in through the fence. From memory Durutti were good but a bit lost in a giant field, Revenge were a bit iffy (Hooky playing bass, singing and whacking the syndrums repeatedly, probably trying to overcompensate for the bad blood between him and Bernard Sumner, New Order’s split and their relative positions on the bill). ACR were good, 808 State really moved the crowd, De La Soul were shouty. Electronic were imperious, especially when the Pet Shop Boys turned up on stage and you scanned left to right and saw key members of New Order, The Smiths and PSBs all together for one song. It’s shame they played live so rarely.

The whole event was filmed and a video released which I bought but no longer have. Here’s a scene setter…

And here an enthusiastic Tony Wilson interviews Johnny Marr, Rowetta, Shaun Ryder and Bez…

This Youtube uploader has labelled this as Electronic live in London ┬ábut it’s definitely Heaton Park.

Happy Mondays were by 1991 a stunningly effective if very unlikely stadium band. Kinky Afro rocks. No, it doesn’t, it grooves.

The Sound Of The Atom Splitting

The Sound Of The Atom Spitting was the B-side to the 1988 single Left To My Own Devices, a stone cold Pet Shop Boys killer single. For the B-side, a song much loved by both Julian Cope’s head Heritage website and Jon Savage to name but two, Neil and Chris plus producer Trevor Horn wanted to take acid house, as inspired by the sounds they were hearing and their own line about ‘Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat’, and make actually psychedelic acid house. This involved the drum beat from Left To My Own Devices, some 303 bassline madness, Neil playing Debussy inspired chords on the keyboard, stereo panning and the full range of studio tricks. Neil’s lyric imagines a conversation between a fascist and a liberal and the end of the world. Just another day in the studio for the Pet Shop Boys.

The Sound Of The Atom Splitting

My Life’s An Open Book

I had this Eighth Wonder song in my head all day the other day- no idea why, I just woke up with it there. Back in ’87-’88 I rather liked Miss Kensit and this Top Of The Pops performance is a reminder to my seventeen year old self of why. The song, written by the Pet Shop Boys as surely everyone knows, is a belter- full of those Neil Tennant lines that only he can write- and while Patsy’s voice isn’t exactly deep and rich it works nicely with the song.

I Follow Rivers

Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys reckons this is ‘that fantastic combination of beautiful chords with really great moving lyrics’. He’s not wrong. Summer bottled, compressed and stuck up on the internet (from back in 2011).

And in only a few hours time (12.05 precisely) I break up for the summer holidays. Fan-fucking-tastic.