Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop (2006)

The Pet Shop Boys In A Life

I have a weak spot for The Pet Shop Boys. They're probably the only group who will still have me out on a Monday trying to buy up every variant of whatever song/album they've got out at the moment - a habit that someone coming up to their 50th birthday really should have kicked by now.

Not that I'm totally blinkered as to their talent. Too many rave reviews from 'luvvie' friends in the media who would normally trash this sort of 'pop' material is one thing that annoys. As is the lack of ability of most critics to differentiate between truly great Pet Shop Boys material, and the mediocre stuff that they have produced at times. Mindlessly praising every single item a group puts out (which is what the critics have invariably done, presumably because they just don't understand pop music but want to fall in with the pack) is pointless when the material is as variable as it has been over the years. Melody and great lyrics is what makes The Pet Shop Boys great, but unfortunately the former has sometimes been missing, with repetition or a 'clever/ironic' phrase being substituted instead of a decent melodic hook.

Nor do I hold to the opinion, repeated frequently in this DVD release, that the band have lots of originality (does anybody else think going on and about a lego-like plastic CD case as some kind of original, clever art is just kind of pathetic?!). Everything - and I really do mean everything - the band have done has been plagiarised and derivative, albeit done with obvious love, care and attention to detail that one soon forgets the original source material. Their strength, much like that of Oasis (at least when they started out with the first two albums before getting the idea they could actually invent their own material from scratch - big mistake!), is the way they can craft something that feels 'new' out of the stuff that would otherwise fail to reach mainstream ears, and that applies whether we're talking about reworking a Cat Stephens album track for It's a Sin or simply giving an old Elvis Presley song a 'gay flavour-of-the-month from last year' hi-energy slant (Always On My Mind). It's their ability to fine tune material a mainstream audience might otherwise not hear, and their taste - which is usually pretty impeccable - that impresses.

And this applies across the board - whether we're talking euphoric up-beat pop singles, drama-filled melancholic power-ballads, autobiographical movies (It Shouldn't Happen Here - when is THAT coming to DVD?!), 'silent' film soundtracks (Battleship Potemkin), or even musicals (Closer to Heaven - great songs, but with a weak, under-developed and frankly unbelievable story meant it was never going to be anything less than a disappointment as a piece of theatre).

Pet Shop Boys A Life in a Pop, just released on DVD, suffers from the band's recent lack of popularity with those who buy pop records ('thirteen year old girls and gay men', as Pete Waterman so eloquently put it) so that as a two hour twenty minute 'tribute' documentary it feels somewhat lacking. The signs that the band are well past their glory days in terms of pulling power are all too evident. Kudos for getting some screen time from Robbie Williams, but lead singers from bands who've barely been around a year, making minor 'man in the street' points at length shows how much the band's importance in pop culture has fallen over the last decade or two, and ultimately weakens rather than strengthens what should be a celebration of the band's impressive career.

First broadcast (much too late at night) on ITV earlier this year, albeit at about half the running time, the band's fans, of which I am one, will love the revisiting of some of the group's biggest successes, but for the average viewer it's probably an hour in self-indulgence too long. Unfortunately it suffers too from Tenant's plum-voiced dominance, which comes across as pretentious and po-faced, no matter how hard it tries not to. And while Lowe's down-to-earth 'I'm a working class Blackpool lad, me' occasional diversions try to attain some sort of balance, the ridiculous 'designer' fashions and 'enigmatic' (snort!) silence when the couple are interviewed together just ends up becoming annoying - it's a joke that's been repeated for over 20 years now, and extremely tiresome and disrespectful to those who've helped the band achieve their success. One wants to grab Lowe out of his chair and say "You think you're being enigmatic with your silly dark shades and your baseball cap, saying nothing, but you're over 40 now and people watching are just thinking 'What a twat!'". This 'joke' of the enigmatic 'talented but silent' partner was done much better by Soft Cell and Sparks (annoyingly, despite both having had Top 10 hits long before The Pet Shop Boys arrived on the scene, neither group gets any mention in the documentary as having been influences).

There's a certain amount of rewriting of history in the documentary too, which is unnecessary given the band's achievements (at least here in the UK), achievements which should not be under-estimated even though we live in a world where the likes of Kylie (an average actress, and a less than average singer who certainly got 'lucky, lucky, lucky') are revered as some kind of musical institution just because they've stuck around or been struck down by illness. The Managing Director of EMI foolishly complains about the bad reviews the album Behaviour received from music critics, going on to claim that it is now generally acknowledged (by who exactly?!) as their best work. Wrong! It was critically praised to the high heavens at the time of release - I speak as someone who read those reviews and rushed to buy the first day of release as a result and to this day find it my least favourite of all their albums.

Overall, Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop is an interesting documentary for fans, but of limited interest to anybody who isn't a 'Pethead' (is that really what the fans call themselves?!) and falls strictly into the 'view once and then forget' category. It's the extra's that elevate this from the 'worth watching if it's on the telly' release to a possible 'worth a purchase' list, at least for fans of the band's music and videos.

Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop screencap

The Pet Shop Boys have always made interesting videos, although these have got less interesting as the group have got older because of their lack of direct involvement in the process. Their greatest hits DVD package, released a couple of years back, suffered from not including their current hit single of the time, and since then there have been several new videos only available in awkward and 'limited availability' DVD singles. All the releases since that Greatest Hits package are included here, making it pretty much an essential purchase for fans of the band who want to collect all their music video work.

Also included are rare TV appearances (with Dusty Springfield miming badly, all the while looking like some gross overweight drag queen) at The Brits and a performance some years later of Go West with a Welsh choir at the same event, as well as their first ever TV performance.

So fans, who are well served by the group's own web site at, will have already purchased this item.

For those less obsessed, it's an interesting diversion and well worth a rental if you're feeling nostalgic, and a purchase if you've enjoyed the band's recent singles and videos (although I think they're by far the weakest made in the band's career). So, a somewhat reserved recommendation for most, but a 'must buy' for fans like myself who still regard the band as one of their favourites and want their most recent singles in a video format on one convenient disk.

Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop screencap


Anonymous said...

Oh for crying outloud....! I only have one principle when it comes to good music that I just *happen* to like: screw the critics and go BUY IT!

The Pet Shop Boys had never let me down in over 22 years now! In a way I "grew up" with the Boys through their songs, not even knowing what Neil & Chris was like as individuals. I'll go with my motto anytime: Screw the critics!


Ian said...

So why are you wasting time reading (and responding to) another person's opinion if all you care about is "screw the critics"?

I think even the boys themselves would agree they've put out weak material at times. I'm afraid I just don't get blind devotion with no attention to variation in quality.

Anonymous said...

While its true that the Pet Shop Boys have released albums with songs having less than stellar or even memorably melodic underpinnings than what they have released in the past, the fact that they have punched out huge singles & songs with fantastic melody & rhythm that remind us all that life is fun, dynamic, sometimes melodramatic, and that in the end its worth living for is all the reason we need to love the Pet Shop Boys. Because really , in the end, despite what the critics think, I can't think of a pop band more entertaining than the Pet Shop Boys.

Ian said...

I'm sort of with you, although I can think of MANY PSB appearances that were not what I'd call entertaining (most TOTP appearances for example - the whole "stand there in dark glasses doing nothing but tap at the keyboard with one finger occasionally" gets kinda lame after 20 years).

And what about that God-awful video that was just home video like footage of rats scurrying around on the Underground tube? Hardly entertaining.

Too often the immediate reaction is "pretentious twats" although I'd agree when they're on form, such as when the did some of their bigger stage shows, there's very little to touch them.