Monday, 8 November 2010

Retrospective: Pet Shop Boys' 10 best b-sides

Celebrating 25 years of Pet Shop Boys and the pop duo's new singles compilation, Ultimate.

1. After the event (b-side to Did you see me coming?, 2009)
One of Pet Shop Boys' best songs, I have no idea how this ended up as a b-side, it's utterly beautiful. It's built on a circular background of synth chimes that means that you can put it on repeat - I have done, often - and it segues into itself; it grows towards the end with a backing chorus of 'come on, come on'. Lyrically, it appears to be concerned with the pressures of urban life ('Drilling, always someone drilling'; 'The school run has begun/ Mothers all arrive, each in a four-wheel drive') and being oversensitive ('Sometimes someone gets upset/ Doesn't hear the laughter'), followed by Princess Diana's funeral: 'Suddenly someone dies/ Everyone's overreacting, with clichés and bad acting/ Misty in the rain, flowers in their cellophane… ' Lovely, just lovely.

2. The resurrectionist (I'm with stupid, 2004)
I don't like the a-sides of either of the top two songs here; the b-sides are far superior. This song is about nineteenth-century bodysnatchers and I hope I'm right in saying it was inspired by Sarah Wise's book The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London. They would dig up corpses and sell them to hospitals for medical research; the song namechecks a couple of pubs where the bodysnatchers used to hang out: the King of Denmark and the Fortune of War. I love the topographical content; it's rare you can trace the outline of a city (in this case London) from a song: 'Crossing Blackfriar's Bridge to Guy's/ Then back to Bart's for a better price… I met a man down Thieving Lane… On Newgate Street we saw a hanging'. Considering its subject matter this is a remarkably upbeat song - Pet Shop Boys' b-sides tend to be cheerier than their album material - and this is guaranteed to put a spring in your step.

3. Don Juan (Domino dancing, 1988)
This was written by Neil Tennant before he met Chris Lowe and is famously about the crisis in the Balkans in the 1930s: 'King Zog's back from holiday, Marie Lupescu's grey/ And King Alexander is dead in Marseilles.' It's quite cryptic and, from a minimalist start worthy of Miserablism (b-side to Was it worth it?, 1991), goes all cinematic, led by the lyrics: 'The man who will cover for Don Juan's old soothsayer/ Films for a Warner brother or Mr Goldwyn-Mayer/ Think of his starlet, how much will he pay her?' The climax of a string of great b-sides, stretching back to I want a dog (reworked for the Introspective album, 1988) and Do I have to? (revived for the Pandemonium tour).

4. We all feel better in the dark (Being boring, 1990)
According to Tennant in the sleevenotes for Behaviour: Further listening 1990-91, this is 'the most lustful song the Pet Shop Boys have ever recorded'. Lowe stars as a sort of e-ed up Rex Harrison: 'My body surges with energy/ Shivers down my spine/ I look deep into your eyes/ And I know that you'll be mine' with the title softly repeated by Tennant. There is a laid-back, piano-laden remix by Brothers in Rhythm that features the sound of a woman climaxing instead of Lowe's vocals, which is available on the Disco 2 compilation. What times those were.

5. Blue on Blue (Minimal, 2006)
This is tremendous but wasn't easy to listen to initially (it was released on DVD!). I hesitate to say it's got some of Tennant's least inspired lyrics - 'Look over there/ Sky meets the sea/ Blue on blue' - as they work so well, lifting a track that could be backing for an item on Tomorrow's World. Even more contrarily, it is almost like an instrumental, comparable to other PSB-sides Music for boys (DJ Culture, 1991) and Euroboy (Yesterday, when I was mad, 1994), the latter memorable for its brilliant, mad, Afro-Cossack samples.

6. Delusions of grandeur (A red letter day, 1997)
Another hugely upbeat number, based around a chord change from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. 'The idea came from the book Hadrian VII by Baron Corvo, who was an embittered English writer living in Venice at the turn of the century,' according to Tennant. 'His book is about an Englishman with megalomaniac fantasies who becomes pope.' Again it has a sort of chiming base, piano stabs, backing choirs possibly borrowed from the album with which it coincided (Bilingual) and a sample that sounds as if it comes from the start of My October Symphony on the Behaviour album
. A cheery insight into the world of Kim Jong-il, perhaps: 'They said, "We don't understand you"/ And I want revenge'

7. I get excited (you get excited too) (Heart, 1988)
A great song for going out (coming out?) based on the Oscar Wilde quote, 'We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars'. Tennant claims, 'It's never entered my head it had any sexual connotations at all.' Originally recorded with Bobby 'O' in New York, it's about the lure of the Big Apple. It's one of PSB's 'party' b-sides, exemplified elsewhere by the great pair of songs that accompanied Numb in 2006: Party song ('We want a party song with a good-time lyric') and Bright young things ('Lucy's wearing vintage/ Boy's in a rented tux').

8. It must obvious (So hard, 1990) & Bet she's not your girlfriend (How can you expect to be taken seriously?/ Where the streets have no name, 1990)
These two tracks were recorded at the same time, between sessions for the Harold Faltermeyer-produced Behaviour; It must be obvious would fit very well into the analogue sound of that album. These songs share the theme of hidden sexuality - approached very humorously in Bet…, which was inspired by George Michael, apparently, as well as Tennant's experience of going out with a beautiful woman at school in Newcastle. Pet Shop Boys' best songs about being gay, they work as tales of unrequited straight romance: 'Everyone knows when they look at us/ Of course they do, it must be obvious/ I've never asked you now I suppose/ That you're the only one who doesn't know'.

9. Your funny uncle (It's alright, 1989)
A terrifically poignant track, inspired by the funeral of the friend whose party features in Being boring. It's a tone the group strikes again in the untitled closing track on Very (1993) and another lovely b-side, Hey, Headmaster (Can you forgive her?, 1993). Your funny uncle was paired with One of the crowd, one of Pet Shop Boys' very English, funny songs, sung by a Vocoder-ed Lowe ('When I go fishing with my rod/ I often get that urge'), much as Jack the Lad accompanied Paninaro on the back of Suburbia (1986).

10. The ghost of myself (New York city boy, 1999)
In which the Boys wig out, and another song with (this time autobiographical) mentions of London locales: Café Picasso on King's Road, nearby Flood Street and the V&A. It's tempting to imagine the vocalist wandering back further, geographically and temporally, to the earliest track I'll mention here, That's my impression (Love comes quickly, 1985): 'I went looking for someone I couldn't find/ Staring at faces by the Serpentine'. Other b-sides where PSB rock include Disco potential (Somewhere, 1997) and The truck driver and his mate (Before, 1996) which, says Tennant in the sleevenotes to Bilingual: Further listening 1995-1997, is 'a song about male bonding'.

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