Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Pet Shop Boys iconography

On Monday 6 February, Pet Shop Boys release their second collection of non-album tracks, Format, covering 1996-2009. I've written elsewhere about the synth duo's best b-sides so I thought I'd look at some of my favourite PSB sleeves, which are tackled exhaustively in Philip Hoare and Chris Heath's five-year-old Catalogue (Thames & Hudson) - quoted below.

1. Graphic
For many, the covers for the group's first two albums - 1986's Please and the following year's Actually - represent iconic moments, but my favourite is this graphic interpretation for their third, dance-y outing. In the same manner they played with Cindy Palmano's photograph for the Actually sleeve for greatest hits Discography - with Neil Tennant arching his eyebrow instead of yawning - so this could be said to be the starting point for the colourful tick that heralded their last album, Yes (2009). The band's regular designer Mark Farrow found the image looking through a professional book of colour combinations. Tennant says, 'It's our least favourite sleeve.'

2. Portrait
Photographer Eric Watson has shot many Pet Shop Boys' covers and this is one of my favourites, in great part due to my anticipation at the time for what is my favourite PSB single. He also shot the four photos that make up the centrepiece of accompanying album, Behaviour (1990), although second single Being Boring features some great, separate shots of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe by the Douglas Brothers. So Hard's 12" sleeve featured large lettering and numbers, a device developed on...

3. Typographic
The fourth and final single from the Actually album, Heart (1988), was written for Madonna but the Boys' decided to keep it for themselves. As with so many of Watson's pictures of Tennant and Lowe, this featured the duo in some new clothes they were keen to show off. Different formats give an indication of Farrow's predilection for playing with fonts and words: on the 12", he replaced the title with the word 'Remix'. As early as 1986's Suburbia single, the designer had given up on lettering altogether, deciding a picture of Lowe in denim cap, Issey Miyake shades and a stripey T-shirt was enough to represent them. 'It's everything about Pet Shop Boys summed up to me in a photo,' Farrow says. 'That's something I've never backed away from - I've always thought that if the photograph is strong enough to do the work on its own then I don't really need to do anything. In my mind at that time... the way Chris looked was the logo of the Pet Shop Boys.'

4. Arty
I don't know about you, I find the covers for Disco 3, London, I get along... pretty unexciting, so I went for this lo-fi number instead. The first of the band's remix albums, the cover image for Disco (1986) was taken from a video Tennant and Lowe filmed in Milan themselves for song Paninaro. The inner sleeve features Tennant in a cowboy hat from the same shoot, which is pretty cool. The album's title was intended as deliberate provocation at the time - notably in the US - while the image, to me, represents a surprisingly home-made approach, despite the neon colours and pixellation. It's not for nothing their 2003 compilation is called Pop Art.

5. Offbeat
In 1993, Pet Shop Boys reached the peak of their pop sensibility with album Very, and matched it with a revolutionary CD box that went up for all sorts of awards and features in design exhibitions to this day. After that, well, things went a bit odd - I haven't even uploaded 1999's Nightlife to my iPod, and only half of Release (2002). Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for album Bilingual (1996), which featured another attempt to rework the CD box, and further off-guard snaps of the Boys. This image, for single A red letter day, was shot by Pennie Smith in Notting Hill and seems surprisingly informal but perhaps a little unnerving, too; Smith is best known for photographing rock stars like the Rolling Stones. This isn't how we expect to see the band. In typically extravagant manner, the outer sleeves were entirely red - a reversal of Behaviour's inner, red lining.

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