Pet Shop Boys

****Please (EMI America, 1986)
***Disco (EMI America, 1986)
****1/2Actually (EMI America, 1987)
****1/2Introspective (EMI America, 1988)
*****Behavior (EMI America, 1990)
*****Discography: The Complete Singles Collection (EMI America, 1991)
*****Very (Capitol, 1993)
**1/2Disco 2 (EMI America, 1994)
***1/2Alternative (EMI America, 1995)
****Bilingual (Atlantic, 1996)
***1/2Night Life (Parlophone/Sire, 1999)
****Please/Further Listening 1984-1986 (Parlophone, 2001)
****Actually/Further Listening 1987-1988 (Parlophone, 2001)
****Introspective/Further Listening 1988-1989 (Parlophone, 2001)
****Behavior/Further Listening 1990-1991 (Parlophone, 2001)
****Very/Further Listening 1992-1994 (Parlophopne, 2001)
***1/2Release (Sanctuary, 2002)
****Disco 3 (Sanctuary, 2003)

Neil Tennant sung, "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." Which is roughly what the Pet Shop Boys have done. Tennant was a journalist with a history degree when he met Chris Lowe, an architect, and found common interests in synthesizers and disco. They started their collaboration in 1981, but didn't produce a hit until "West End Girls" went #1 on both sides of the Atlantic in 1985. Over the next six years they followed up with 11 more top-10 singles (in the UK that is -- the only one that charted higher in the US was the one that went "let's make lots of money").

The first album, Please, is the only one that sounds like hits plus filler, where the latter mostly lack finishing touches like the dogs that haunt "Suburbia," or the innuendos of "Love Comes Quickly" and especially "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" -- the latter pointedly anti-Thatcher yet reducible to a pro-Reagan sound bite. Actually is a more completely realized album, with singles -- four more, including the Dusty Springfield vehicle "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" and "It's a Sin," with its thunderclaps and triumphal horns -- but also fully formed songs, ranging from the dance kick of "One More Chance" to the undanceable elegy, "It Couldn't Happen Here." On the other hand, Introspective aimed straight at the disco audience, with six cuts averaging eight minutes, including the latin-tinged "Domino Dancing" and the Elvis deconstruction "Always on My Mind."

Behavior was a change of pace: its subdued mid-tempo rhythms didn't burn up the dance floor, nor did its singles scale the charts like before, but its songs were elegant and complex and often downright beautiful. "Being Boring" opens up a letter from the '20s about never feeling bored, then draws a line to unimagined loss in the present. "(It Hurts So Much) To Face the Truth" is a poignant break-up song. "My October Symphony" ponders what will happen to the music celebrating Russia's October Revolution, closing with a bit of Shostakovich. "Nervously" wraps its shy young boy in shimmering sound. And "Jealousy" closes with a towering burst of orchestra. Discography capped the period, garnering 18 singles to date, including three not on any album: their version of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" which morphs into Frankie Valli's "I Can't Take My Eyes Off You," the anti-Gulf War "DJ Culture," and the affirmative "Was It Worth It?" ("I reserve/the right to live/my life this way/and I don't give/a damn when I/hear people say/I'll pay the price/that others pay" -- Tennant's most direct lyric yet on AIDS and being gay).

Some critics couldn't get past the word "boring" with Behavior, but few were unconvinced by Very. For one thing, songs like "Can You Forgive Her?" and "Yesterday, When I Was Mad" and "One in a Million" and especially the cover of the Village People's "Go West" jump out of the grooves. For another, the love songs were unusually direct, with most making more sense gay than not. "Dreaming of the Queen" was also their most direct AIDS song ("and [Lady] Di replied that/'There are no more lovers left alive . . . and that's why love has died'").

Bilingual is more out ("Metamorphosis"), more latin ("Discoteca," "Se a vida "), and not above a rare bit of stupid fun ("Single"). Nightlife had US hit in "New York City Boy," with its Village People reprise, but mostly entailed a return to simpler dance beats ("I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More") and more elaborate productions, like the choral effects on "Footsteps." Release seems to break apart more cleanly into separated songs, including the single "Home and Dry" and "The Night I Fell in Love," a one-night stand haunted by Eminem's Stan ("next morning we woke/he couldn't have been a nicer bloke/over breakfast made jokes/about Dre and his homies and folks").

Beyond the main studio albums, the Pet Shop Boys have released a bewildering array of remixes, alternate versions, experiments, and trivia. From outside this looks like product padding, not to mention profiteering, but the other view is that dance music is a very promiscuous culture, where everything is subject to remix. So, sure, these collections are mostly of interest to fans and pros, and they are inevitably mixed bags because most of the currency is in singles. Disco and Disco 2 were mostly third party remixes -- Arthur Baker, Shep Pettibone, Jam & Spoon, Farley & Heller -- they rarely add much. Alternative was more interesting -- 2-CD of things that didn't make the albums, such as their souped up version of Weill/Brecht's "What Keeps Mankind Alive." Disco 3 has a couple of remixes from Release, but it has some good new songs as well -- "Positive Role Model" and the recontextualized cover of "Try It (I'm in Love With a Married Man)" -- and the relatively stripped down beats redeem some of what seemed excessive in Release. The studio albums from Very on have initially appeared with bonus discs, and now the albums from Please through Very have been re-released in sets with a second Further Listening disc: the extras tend to be well programmed, spiked with further variations on their hits, and the sets come with exemplary booklets.


Other records:

***1/2Essential Pet Shop Boys (EMI, 1998)