Our series continues as we take pleasure in the detail of some of our most beloved artists, and revisit the opening track on each of their albums. When a new album is released these days it’s all ready to go straight out of the box, denying fans the shot of excitement and apprehension felt in listening to the first track on their number one squeeze’s new record for the first time.
It is with great pleasure that I have returned to Pet Shop Boys‘ thirteen original studio albums released in the UK. For a band like PSB, the breadth of material they have put out over the last thirty years is vast: Albums, non-album singles, b-sides, country specific releases, remix albums, expanded re-releases, live albums, compilations… As an avid fan it’s a tuck shop of treats that I never get tired of revisiting and dipping in and out of. The difference being in 2017 I don’t need to save up my pocket money to indulge myself, wait for the album and the trickle of singles; everything is available.
As they now release their next batch of “Further Listening” re released album expansions for Nightlife, Release and Fundamental, I look back at the first track from each of their remarkable thirteen albums:
Two Divided By Zero (Please, 1986)
As the synthesiser and drum beat kicks in you know exactly where you are and what’s in store – this classically typifies the early PSB sound. The epic, grandiose production, a sample (according to Tennant a talking calculator!) and bittersweet, androgynous lyrics – all staples and defining qualities of what has defined their career.
Choice lyric: ‘Let’s not go home, we’ll catch the late train – I’ve got enough money to pay all the way. When the postman calls, he’ll deliver the letter – I’ve explained everything; it’s better that way’
One More Chance (Actually, 1987)
If you’re looking for a return to form of the sounds that made Please such a great debut, the early strains of this track aren’t that… A slow build up, screeching car brakes, bells, drums – in fact over two minutes before things properly get going. When it does we’re in familiar melancholic territory with Tennant waxing lyrical about New York City life. A soft ease in, but not representative of some of the now iconic, heavyweight tracks to come on the rest of the album.
Choice lyric: ‘The city is quiet, too cold to walk alone. Strangers in overcoats hurry on home. Tonight I’ve been walking in the rain. Someone’s been talking and I’ve got the blame’
Left To My Own Devices (Introspective, 1988)
Full disclosure, this is probably my favourite Pet Shop Boys track, ever. An epic start to Introspective, an album title in keeping with this very track. To quote Tennant on the idea behind the song:
“This person goes through life always doing what he wanted to do. I liked the idea of writing a really upbeat pop song about being left alone. This song is a day in the life of someone, so it starts off with getting out of bed and being on the phone and drinking tea and all the rest of it, and it ends up with coming home. By this time I was making the words very exaggerated and camp, though writing a book and going on stage were both things I had wanted to do when I was young.”
I love the use of an orchestra and operatic vocals (the first track for them to do so) and this is thankfully something they have returned to over the years. The combination of this with a fast electronic beat is musical heaven. It’s also the longest opening track to a PSB album, of which I am very thankful for. The boys clearly love this track too; just this year it was given a Super style reworking by Stuart Price – a highlight of their most recent tour.
Choice lyric: ‘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 De’bussy to a disco beat’
Being Boring (Behaviour, 1990)
It doesn’t get more melancholic than the chorus of Being Boring. I have always admired the skill of the Pet Shop Boys in crafting sad, reflective lyrics with upbeat production and an interesting sound – and this is a great example of that at its finest. A tale of longing for different lives… and loss. It was an apt lead in to a more reflective, organic sounding record (with a change of approach to production, and the addition on some tracks of Guitarist Johnny Marr).
Choice lyric: ‘And we were never being boring – we had too much time to find for ourselves. And we were never being boring – we dressed up and fought, then thought: “Make amends”. And we were never being boring’
Can You Forgive Her? (Very, 1993)
The opening chords arrive in full force and don’t relent for the full four minutes. The PSB’s fifth record launches with power and a chorus that deserves to be blasted at full volume. As is often the way this is an emotional story full of details of the minutiae of suburban romance, layered with ambiguous sexuality references: ‘You’re in love, and you’re full a shame’, ‘changing teams’… It also features possibly my favourite ever line in a Pet Shop Boys song, and one which has stayed with me over the almost twenty years since I first heard it (below). A very punchy, raw start to, erm, Very.
Choice lyrics: ‘She’s made you some kind of laughing stock, because you dance to disco, and you don’t like rock’
Discoteca (Bilingual, 1996)
We’re firmly in dance territory as we arrive slap bang in the mid-nineties. An infectious ear worm of a bassline hooks you into this track. It really does set the tone for an album very much away from the five that have gone before with heavy dance, Latin and disco influence. It doesn’t, however, reach the anthemic form a few of the other tracks on this album have now taken, namely Se a vida é (That’s the Way Life Is) and Single Bilingual.
Choice lyrics: ‘Hay una discoteca por acqui?’
For Your Own Good (Nightlife, 1999)
The voyage into dance continues with this, in collaboration with producer Rollo. For Your Own Good opened an album more experimental than ever, which is clear to see from this first track. It’s got the really distinctive sound Rollo was known for at the time; strings, looped beats and soaring anthemic soundscapes, which compliment Neil Tennant’s vocals. I recall around the same time Rollo (with Sister Bliss) produced a remixed version of Donna’s Summer’s I Feel Love which was a massive chart hit, and subsequently his producer skills were in high demand. There is nothing quite like this on the rest of the album, but each track visits different elements of the pop/dance spectrum
Choice lyrics: ‘For your own good, call me tonight. Don’t you think you should call me tonight’
Home and Dry (Release, 2002)
This marks the start of an album more stripped back and “instrumental” in sound. For Home and Dry Johnny Marr returned to add some real guitar. It’s a more muted number but lyrically as smart and sharp as you’d expect. The album as a whole is a nice “pause” in tone and energy between Nightlife, and ahead of Fundamental.
Choice lyrics: ‘There’s a plane at JFK to fly you back from far away. All those dark and frantic transatlantic miles’
Psychological (Fundamental, 2006)
The moody electronic beat of this opener at first seems a bit muted, but it builds, and builds… and eases you in gently for the ride ahead in what is one hell of an album. Producer Trevor Horn makes a welcome return to produce all the tracks including this one, and his master touch is all over it. A little belter.
Choice lyrics: ‘Is it a cry for help or call to arms? Frustration. False alarms. It’s psychological’
Love etc. (Yes, 2009)
The Pet Shop Boys and Xenomania together are a pop fan’s wet dream, and Love Etc. manages to sound Xenomania-esque and PSB-esqe and totally fresh all at the same time. A whimsical first verse launches you in to a call & response stonker of a chorus. You really get a sense of the collaboration between the two artistic groups when you listen to the richness and references in the lyrics. Glory be that this quality does not lose pace through the album – and this was also the time the PSB’s furnished Girls Aloud with The Loving Kind.
Choice lyrics: ‘Don’t have to be a big bucks Hollywood star. Don’t have to drive a super car to get far. Don’t have to wear a smile much colder than ice. Don’t have to be beautiful, but it’s nice’
Leaving (Elysium, 2012)
A step away from dance but still a very smart and catchy pop song, Leaving opens a very different album. This is a mid-tempo love song, for anyone hoping for a banger of a first track, or even any track on this album, you will be disappointed. That’s not to say it isn’t pleasant, enjoyable and well produced (by Andrew Dawson, former Kanye West producer no less).
Choice lyrics: ‘I know enough’s enough and you’re leaving. You’ve had enough time to decide on your freedom, but I can still find some hope to believe in love’
Axis (Electric, 2013)
Turn the smoke machine on, get the poppers out – this one is a banger. So much is the power and drive in Axis you’ll need a sit down, cup of tea and an aspirin after listening to a relentless five minute hard dance opus. Please… don’t be alarmed at the lack of a verse, or a chorus for that matter, just get caught up in something very energetic which says: the boys are back with an explosion. This is the first track from their first Stuart Price produced album, and the whole thing is excellent.
Choice lyrics: ‘Turn it on… Electric… Electric energy’
Happiness (Super, 2016)
We’re right up to just last year now. Happiness was a “buzz single” prior to Super being released, as they call them now. It is not typical of the rest of the album but I love the fun of the lyrics and bouncing beat, which sets you up for a fun ride. Personally, however, I feel The Pop Kids would have been the perfect opener for an album of different but affectionate tributes to styles and sounds of the nineties and noughties.
Choice lyrics: ‘It’s a long way to happiness, a long way to go – but I’m gonna get there, boy, the only way I know’
Photo credit: Sheila Rock