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Band formed in 1985; founding members include Neil (Francis) Tennant, born in 1954, and Chris (Sean) Lowe, born in 1959. Addresses: Record company-- EMI, 810 7th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
The Pet Shop Boys became world-recognized pop stars in 1986 with the huge success of their debut album Please, which featured the chart-topping dance hits "West End Girls" and "(Opportunities) Let's Make Lots of Money." Since then vocalist Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe have maintained a steady stream of danceable hits, "crafting some splendidly catchy, intelligent pure pop records," wrote Kris Kirk in Melody Maker. The British duo has forged a unique brand of Euro-beat dance music, combining infectious synthesized melodies with intelligent lyrics that have been described as cynical and melancholic. Stephen Holden in the New York Times remarked on the "sophistication" of the Pet Shop Boys, "whose angular melodies and thoughtful lyrics transcend ordinary dance pop." Harold DeMuir in Creem called their sound "a curious blend of sincerity and archness ... [which] manages to sound simultaneously effervescent and morose."
The Pet Shop Boys' popular music videos are styled appropriately to their world-weary musical tone; DeMuir explained that they "generally contain as little actual physical movement as possible," which promotes a "dour, minimalist image." The reasoning behind the video concept, according to lead singer Tennant, is to avoid the "false enthusiasm" of other pop performances. "We're suspicious of all that rock tradition, and we don't want to fall into all the usual cliches," he told DeMuir. "We don't do that kind of recording you could mime a guitar solo to, or do a [now-defunct British pop duo] Wham! dance routine to. We're also a bit self-conscious, which is probably more important." Some critics have called the Pet Shop Boys the "perfect" pop group. "If we're talking elements, the Pet Shop Boys've got 'em," wrote Sylvie Simmons in Creem. "A group that manages to be naive and sophisticated, sincere and insincere, cheery and miserable all at the same time."
The Pet Shop Boys followed a somewhat unlikely path to pop music stardom. When Tennant and Lowe met in a Chelsea stereo shop in 1981, both were synthesizer hobbyists pursuing non-music careers. Tennant had been a book editor in London and was about to join the music magazine Smash Hits; Lowe was training at Liverpool University to become a professional architect. After discovering that they shared similar tastes in dance music, the two began writing songs together. Lowe says there was never a conscious effort to form a group. "I always used to spend a lot of time messing around on the piano at home, and Neil did the same on his guitar," he told DeMuir. "We were just interested in music, and it seemed to develop and take off by itself." Tennant, on the other hand, had always wanted to be a pop star or actor. As a youth he was involved in local theater and played in a band. Tennant grew up in a suburb of Newcastle, England, where, according to Michael Goldberg in Rolling Stone, he "saw both pop music and the theater as a way to escape the boredom of his life in suburbia--a theme that dominates Please."
Tennant was in New York City in 1983 to interview pop singer Sting for Smash Hits when he met Bobby Orlando, a well-known disco music producer whom Tennant and Lowe admired. Orlando liked what he heard of the Pet Shop Boys--their name was coined by a pet shop employee friend--and soon both Tennant and Lowe were in New York recording a version of "West End Girls" for Orlando; the single would initially achieve only minor success in Europe. After a contract dispute with Orlando, the Boys signed with EMI in 1985 and began recording songs for Please. Their first release, "(Opportunities) Let's Make Lots of Money" flopped in England, thought it would later become a hit there. Undaunted, the duo decided to release "West End Girls" in the U.S. The recording took off this time; the Pet Shop Boys soon found they had a Number-One single on their hands and were famous on both sides of the Atlantic. "(Opportunities)" also reached Number One upon its re-release and the Pet Shop Boys have since produced a number of chart-topping dance records. Included among them are "What Have I Done to Deserve This," featuring British vocalist Dusty Springfield, and a neo-disco version of the Elvis Presley recording later made popular by country singer Willie Nelson, "You Were Always on My Mind."
Despite their success, and in fact, because of it, the Pet Shop Boys have had to contend with being called "calculated," a description owing to their respective career backgrounds. Tennant, sometimes referred to as another "pop-journalist-want-to-be-musician," has commented on this enduring misconception. He told Simmons: "There was some reviewer that described us as 'clever pop strategists,' whatever that means. People think that, because I was a journalist and all the rest of it--and because Chris was an architect--that we're very clever. Everything's very, very well thought out and planned down to the last detail, and we're quite cynical about it and have a clever mix of different kinds of music.... The truth of the matter is that we write songs that we like the sound of." Tennant also discounted the influence of his work as a music editor. "A lot of rock journalists--and I was exactly the same--often have a complete misunderstanding of what it's like for a group in the music business," he told Goldberg. "I didn't really learn anything on that score from being a rock journalist."
The Pet Shop Boys are very controlled about their image, however, and take pains to distinguish themselves from other music groups. Their first live tour--in 1989--came after years of planning and was a stage extravaganza that featured an emotionless Tennant and Lowe, in addition to a cast of dancers--some dressed as babies and pigs--elaborate costumes, and props including massive dolls. "We're doing it like this because it's what we want," Tennant was quoted in Melody Maker at the time of the show's premiere. "It's how we want Pet Shop Boys to be presented. We always try to present ourselves as being separate from everyone else." This measure of calculation seems to be essential Pet Shop Boys. A Melody Maker reviewer, commenting on their stage show, wrote: "Tennant's lexicon of taste is conspicuously critical; that's to say he's objective, distant, dry, he believes he knows what ought to be. Consequently nothing about the Pet Shop Boys live happens by accident, there's no spontaneity." The reviewer added, however: "Tennant ... looked amazing, looked distant, looked liked he'd never met anyone. He wore a long, white fur coat, diamante broaches and a smile like Robert Morely in 'Theatre of Blood,' the very picture of privilege and depravity. He was the Pet Shop Boys."
by Michael E. Mueller
Pet Shop Boys's Career
Prior to the formation of the Pet Shop Boys, Tennant worked in the London office of Marvel Comics, as a book editor at MacDonald Educational Publishing, and as a music editor at Smash Hits. Lowe studied architecture at Liverpool University. A collection of Pet Shop Boys videos titled Television was released in 1986. Coproducers of singer-actress Liza Minnelli's album Results, Epic, 1989.
- Selective Works
- "West End Girl" (single), Bobcat Records, 1984.
- Please (includes "West End Girls," "(Opportunities) Let's Make Lots of Money," and "Love Comes Quickly"), EMI, 1986.
- Actually (includes "It's a Sin" and "What Have I Done to Deserve This"), EMI, 1987.
- Introspective (includes "Domino Dancing" and "You Were Always on My Mind"), EMI, 1988.
- Behavior EMI, 1990.
- Creem, September 1986; January 1988.
- Melody Maker, February 2, 1986; January 3, 1987; July 11, 1987; October 3, 1987; May 13, 1989; July 15, 1989; July 22, 1989.
- New York Times, November 7, 1990.
- Rolling Stone, October 23, 1986; December 18, 1986/January 1, 1987.
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