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Taken Seriously 

In the '90s, the Pet Shop Boys have made a case for being more than just a retro act. America still won't listen.

Wednesday, Nov 3 1999
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In 1994, after they had finished a tour of South America, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys came upon a relatively novel idea: Surely, they figured, listeners in America and their native England would be ready for a pop record that drew heavily from Latin influences. The pop diaspora was quickly burning out on grunge, dance-pop was becoming ascendant for the first time since disco's golden age of the late '70s, and the music world could've used an upper. But the result, 1996's brilliantly polyrhythmic Bilingual, came out about three years too early. Even though a pair of Brits had created a record that hewed more closely to rumba, salsa, and Caribbean rhythms than the Dianne-Warren-takes-a-Berlitz-course pop of Ricky Martin, Christina Aguilera, and Jennifer Lopez, Bilingual sold poorly -- particularly in comparison with the Pet Shop Boys' previous albums, which simultaneously shot the duo to stardom with "West End Girls" and "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" while shoving them into an '80s retro box from which they'll probably never escape.

Lowe isn't bitter. He keeps these things in perspective, speaking as the Pet Shop Boy who works mainly as the observer, quietly writing the melodies in the background to which Tennant provides the lyrics and most of the vocals. (Lowe also rarely does interviews; asked why he's doing this one, he simply lets out a genial laugh that seems to say, "Yeah, look what I got roped into doing.") "We've always been influenced by Latin music," says Lowe, speaking from Florida. "When we first started, we used to put Latin cowbells on tracks, like dit dit dit, dit dit dit-dit, on an electronic background, which went well, I thought. Madonna's always made the odd Latin song, hasn't she? At the moment, there is quite a lot of it, but I don't think I could take credit for that." He lets out a loud guffaw, imagining a headline: "Pet Shop Boys Take Credit for Huge Latin Explosion."

Launched originally as a not-too-serious duo comprised of Lowe and Tennant, who was then working as a music journalist for England's Smash Hits, the Pet Shop Boys were a synth act that matured quickly. They drew heavily on the musical culture of gay dance clubs -- house, disco, and, yes, Latin music -- but never gave in to its more faddish aspects. When one listens to Discography, the 1991 greatest-hits compilation that tracks the band's growth in the '80s, the hallmarks of a great songwriting duo are clearly there. It's Lowe and Tennant's melodic knack that keeps their peculiar brand of synth pop from sounding stale a decade later, and their songs, like good Cole Porter or Gershwin tunes, also show their gift for the caustic and layered lyric, whether they're composing an elegy for the AIDS-ravaged club scenes ("Domino Dancing"), taking shots at the money culture ("Suburbia," "Opportunities," "Rent"), or simply asking the hard questions ("Why Don't We Live Together?," "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," "Was It Worth It?").

If the Pet Shop Boys got famous in the '80s, in the '90s, they got smart. 1991's Behavior was a somber cycle of minor-key dance elegies ("Being Boring") and even harder questions ("How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?") that helped ensure 1994's relatively upbeat Very and 1996's Bilingual were lost in the shuffle. The fact that Tennant and Lowe haven't toured America in eight years -- and that MTV has all but forgotten they exist -- also hasn't helped. "Our level of success dropped after the '80s," Lowe admits. "So we'll always be remembered as an '80s phenomena, as you say in America, as opposed to phenomenon, as we would say in England. [But] we started towards the end of the '80s and we really see ourselves as the beginning of the '90s. We were against the '80s. We were the opposite of big hair, awful clothes, horrible synth lines, things like that. We were the start of the new thing, which ultimately ended up as the '90s."

The time since the release of Bilingual has been a relatively quiet one. They play the occasional gay pride event in England, wrote a track ("Screaming") for the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake last year, and in March of this year attended the funeral for Dusty Springfield, whose career they revived with her vocal on 1987's "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" "It was very, very sad," Lowe recalls. "We'd known that she'd been ill for quite a while, and we hadn't really seen her since we'd done that album with her [Springfield's 1991 Reputation, which Lowe and Tennant helped produce]. She'd moved to the country and had a small circle of friends around her. By all accounts she was very strong and not saying, 'Oh, why me?' ... It was very emotional because she was the greatest voice that England produced, really."

In its own way, Nightlife, the Pet Shop Boys' new album, might be taken as a sort of eulogy. Not for Springfield specifically, though there are touches of the Brit-inflected R&B that attracted Tennant and Lowe to her in the first place. More generally, the album's 12 songs are a return to the atmospheric introspectives of Behavior: the whispered cautions of "Happiness Is an Option," the he said-she said duet with Kylie Minogue "In Denial," the somber piano lament of "The Only One," or the heartbreak of "You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk" ("Something everyone can relate to," says Lowe). Even at its most upbeat, it's cutting: On the opening "For Your Own Good" a jilted Tennant asks, "Why don't you stay/ With the lover you need/ And not the devil you pay?" as the synths drown out his demand. The closing tracks, "New York City Boy" and "Footsteps," look wistfully at the music of more jovial times, creating spot-on homages to the Village People and the Isley Brothers, respectively.

But Lowe is from the glass-half-full school, and he sees Nightlife as an upbeat record, particularly "New York City Boy," a tribute not just to the Village People but to the bustle and youth of Manhattan clubs. "A lot of the music being made these days is not the sort of joyous, happy, let your hair down, party kind of music. There's a lot of serious stuff going on, and even in pop music, it all tends to take itself a bit too seriously. This is probably a reaction against that."

At the very least, the duo's stage show features all the gestures of grand dance-pop. For their first American tour in nearly a decade, the Pet Shop Boys have enlisted set designs from Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born architect living in England who's noted for her use of oblique angles and futurist-styled designs -- "More of an art installation than anything," as Lowe says. The group is also finishing work on a musical about the relationship between a nightclub manager and his prodigal daughter, slated to come to America next year; two of Nightlife's songs, "In Denial" and "Vampires," are drawn from that project. And Lowe is supervising the remixes for the Nightlife singles, pulling in remixers to take the duo's relatively straightforward dance-pop and give it trance and Latin flavors. And, as is usually the case with in-demand dance mixes, they're limited edition releases that are hard to find. "For 'New York City Boy' there's a fantastic package of four vinyl 12-inches, which is really desirable. I've stashed a few away for myself," Lowe says, laughing.

The Pet Shop Boys perform Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m. at the Warfield, 982 Market (at Fifth Street), S.F. Tickets are $27.50-32.50; call 775-7722.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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