Please, the first Pet Shop Boys album, was released in March 1986. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had met in London during August 1981 and began writing songs together soon afterwards, eventually settling into a routine of regularly demoing new songs in a Camden recording studio owned by Ray Roberts. In August 1983 - when Neil was working at the pop magazine Smash Hits and Chris was studying architecture - Neil was sent to New York by Smash Hits to interview The Police and took the opportunity to play some songs to the cult disco producer, Bobby Orlando, whose records Chris and Neil admired. Bobby 'O', as he was known, announced that they would make a record together. The first Pet Shop Boys single, the Bobby 'O'-produced version of 'West End girls', was released in April 1984 and was a modest underground dance hit, at the time satisfying their one stated ambition: to have a twelve-inch single available on import in the trendiest London record shops. A second, 'One more chance', followed. By March 1985 the Pet Shop Boys were extricated from their Bobby 'O' contract and signed to EMI Records' subsidiary, Parlophone. A single, 'Opportunities (Let's make lots of money)', was released that August but, to their disappointment, only reached number 116 in the British charts.
When they began to plan their first album, the Pet Shop Boys decided they wanted to work with the producer Stephen Hague, because of his recent work with The World's Famous Supreme Team ('Hey DJ') and Malcolm McLaren ('Madame Butterfly'). Their manager, Tom Watkins, suggested, amongst others, The System and a newly-successful British production team, Stock Aitken and Waterman, who were working with another of his acts, Spelt Like This. EMI also had doubts about Hague and made other suggestions, but it was agreed they could record a new version of 'West End girls' as a trial track with Stephen Hague, after which they were given the go-ahead for the album.
Please was recorded with Stephen Hague at Advision studios in London between November 1985 and January 1986, working from midday until midnight, breaking mid-evening to visit Efe's Turkish kebab house down the road. "We would drink a bottle of retsina, if not two bottles, and come back half-drunk," says Neil. Occasionally they would take time off to perform 'West End girls' on Top Of The Pops and Wogan, as it slowly rose to number one in the British chart. At one point during the recording, the studio manager said, "So you're the singer, Neil? I thought you were the manager".
They decided the album would include ten songs, already written, and set aside a number of other contenders, including 'It's a sin' (which Hague said they should leave to their next album), 'Rent' (which programmer Blue Weaver thought had too similar a chord change to 'I want a lover'), 'What have I done to deserve this?' (they had yet to persuade their chosen collaborator Dusty Springfield), 'Jealousy', 'One more chance' and 'In the club or in the queue' (which the Pet Shop Boys would revisit in 1999 but which remains unreleased). Please was recorded on a tight deadline. 'West End girls' had already been finished, and they already had recordings of 'I want a lover', 'Opportunities...' and 'Why don't we live together?' which Stephen Hague would do further work on, but they were still under time pressure. The last song they finished, 'Suburbia', was a straightforward remake of their demo version partly because there was no time to do anything else.
Though it was hardly a concept album, as the Pet Shop Boys recorded Please, they realized that the songs they had chosen could be sequenced to form a loose storyline. "We had the idea for the album that it was sort of linked together," says Neil. "They run away in the first song, they arrive in the city ('West End girls'), they want to make money ('Opportunities'), they fall in love ('Love comes quickly'), move to suburbia ('Suburbia'), go out clubbing ('Tonight is forever'), there's violence in the city ('Violence') and casual sex ('I want a lover'), someone tries to pick up a boy ('Later tonight')... It does sort of work."
During the recording, there was much talk of how the first Pet Shop Boys album sleeve should look. "One of the great strengths of our relationship with Tom Watkins is that there was a lot of negative energy in it, and Chris and I would react against Tom," says Neil. "It really worked in a quite a positive way, creatively. Tom spent the whole time we were in Advision saying he was coming up with this amazing packaging idea: paper engineering. Finally one day he comes in and says, 'Right, I've got it, the mock-up of the album cover, it's unbelievable'."
"He'd been describing this in words for ages and you just couldn't imagine what it was," remembers Chris. "Every copy of the album, would be unique. It was these folds of paper that came together. It was basically a latticework."
"We looked at it and thought it was ridiculously complicated," says Neil. "As a result we and Mark Farrow promptly came up with the idea of having a white sleeve with a tiny picture of us. As ever, we didn't have a photo." (Mark Farrow, a designer who at that time worked in Tom Watkins' office, has worked on every Pet Shop Boys sleeve since.) Most of the existing Pet Shop Boys photos had been taken by Eric Watson, a photographer friend Neil had known since his youth. They chose one, which had already been printed in Smash Hits news section, Bitz, in which they were draped with white towels. "Eric's never been very happy with it because if you look at it it's not completely in focus," says Neil. "We whacked it on the front cover simply because the towels were white."
"At the time," says Chris, "it looked completely different from everything else."
Still, in an era where most record sleeves were fussy, garish and cluttered, not everyone appreciated its minimalism: their American record company insisted that the title and their name be printed at the top of the sleeve so that it could be easily identified in the racks, and the French record company, to the Pet Shop Boys' fury, simply redesigned the sleeve using a much larger photo. Later, when it was released on CD, the Pet Shop Boys didn't scale down the photo in the same ratio as on the album sleeve, and they have always felt the CD sleeve doesn't work so well.
On the album's inner sleeve, they used 98 more photos, mostly from the many sessions they had done with Eric Watson, though one - Chris's self-portrait in a mirror - was taken in Neil's New York apartment in 1984 when Neil was launching Smash Hits' American version, Star Hits, and Chris had been flown over by Bobby 'O' so that the Pet Shop Boys could do more recording.
After 'West End girls', three more singles were released from Please. 'Love comes quickly' came out in February, before the album, the updated version of 'Opportunities' was released in May, and an EP centred around a re-recorded version of 'Suburbia' came out in September. (They also released an album of six dance mixes, Disco, in November.)
The Pet Shop Boys had come up with the album's title fairly early on. Though Neil thinks Chris probably suggested it, it derives from the habit at Smash Hits magazine of saying 'pur-leaze! 'at the end of sentences. "I think if you look at my obituary when I left Smash Hits it quotes me as saying 'such and such, pur-leaze'," says Neil. "Meaning, 'for goodness sake'. It seemed to be associated with me. It was just a weak joke, that you could go into a record shop and say, 'have you got the Pet Shop Boys, please?' Not even a joke, really."
Actually, the second Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in September 1987. "We hadn't toured, which we were supposed to do at the end of 1986, and I think it was a strength, because we spent quite a while writing songs," says Neil. "The idea was to make it more musically ambitious. Bigger-sounding. The arrangements slightly more adventurous. My criticism of this album is that I don't think it hangs together as well as some of our other albums. But it definitely marked a high point of our success."
"Very exciting times," echoes Chris, then adds, wryly, "I knew it was never going to last."
The first song recorded for Actually was their collaboration with Dusty Springfield, 'What have I done to deserve this?'. Though it was produced by Stephen Hague, who had produced Please, the Pet Shop Boys had already decided that this time they wanted to work with a variety of producers. Over the next few months they recorded with Hague, but approached a number of other people and worked with Julian Mendelsohn (whom they'd first worked with on the single version of 'Suburbia'), Andy Richards (whom they'd met as Julian Mendelsohn's programmer) and Shep Pettibone (the New York dance producer who had remixed 'West End girls', 'Love comes quickly' and 'Opportunities'.).
The album was preceded by two singles, 'It's a sin' in June and 'What have I done to deserve this?' in August. Subsequently they released a remix of 'Rent' in October and then, after the non-album single 'Always On My Mind' in November, a different version of 'Heart' from the Actually version came out in March 1988. In Britain, 'It's a sin', 'Always On My Mind' and 'Heart' all reached number one; 'What have I done to deserve this?' was only blocked by Rick Astley's immovable 'Never Gonna Give You Up'.
"As soon as Actually came out we planned another tour and promptly cancelled it," Neil remembers. "We did lots of promotion instead. We were still having hits in America, and I felt at this time that we had the secret of contemporary pop music, that we knew what was required. We entered our imperial phase. We did our thing with Dusty, we made a film, It couldn't happen here. It was exciting."
"It was a very busy time," says Chris. "I can't really remember much about it. Just hectic. What was good was, a lot of British people were successful in Europe so we were always at airports with the rock and pop fraternity. It was really great - you'd arrive at Heathrow and everyone would be there: Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Nick Kamen, Paul Weller, Eighth Wonder. And you'd be, 'Oh God, look who's over there'."
"...The Spands...The Human League," continues Neil. "Every time we had a number one Susanne would phone me up. She'd say, 'Well, you're number one - Philip's dead jealous'."
They had thought of the title, Actually, early on, and then, typically, went off it, and decided not to use it. Eventually they came round. "It was so English and kind of arch and it was kind of a joke and it was something we said a lot," says Neil. "And also it could be a sentence - 'Pet Shop Boys, actually' - which echoed Please."
For the sleeve, they had first commissioned a painting of the two of them by a Scottish artist, Alison Watt, who had just won the National Portrait Gallery competition. She wanted them to sit for three weeks; they persuaded her to paint from photos taken of them in her Glasgow flat. But Chris hated himself in the finished portrait, and Neil didn't think it was the right album cover anyway, so they began searching through recent photos of themselves. At the last moment, they realised that the best photo was one which had been taken by Cindy Palmano on the set of the 'What have I done to deserve this?' video. They had initially dismissed it as a sleeve image because they were wearing dinner jackets and bow ties. "Me yawning next to Chris," says Neil.
'She'd done a session backstage, with a metallic background. For the very first photograph we'd just sat down and I'd yawned because I was tired.' Unfortunately, the photograph had already been sent to Smash Hits magazine for their next cover, which went to press the following day. Desperate phone calls were made, and the Pet Shop Boys agreed to do a new photo session that evening for Smash Hits, and in return got back the yawning image. "Then," Neil recalls, "Mark had the idea of making it white and cutting out the background." They knew it was good - "it was very un-whatever everyone else was doing," says Neil - though that still didn't mean Chris liked it. "I hate the photo," he says. "I can't stand the way I look in it. I hate wearing a bloody dickie-bow, I hate wearing a white shirt and I hate the way my hair is. Straight after that video I had my hair cropped."
"It's very much the defining image of the Pet Shop Boys," Neil reflects.
"Ennui," says Chris.
"It was a good and a bad image," Neil considers. "It was one of those things that maybe people wonder whether we were serious or not. In fact that album itself is pretty serious. Even the jokes are serious jokes."
Introspective, the third Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in October 1988. The Pet Shop Boys had a particular concept in mind from the start. At the time, it was usual to record songs which were the length of a pop single, three or four minutes, and then to expand them subsequently, either by yourself or by commissioning someone else, into longer, more elaborate and complex dance versions. (This was in the days when dance remixes typically expanded on the original song, instead of merely using it as the reference point and source material for rhythmic reinterpretations far removed from the original.)
The Pet Shop Boys decided to turn this process back to front. They would map out these new songs as seven or eight minutes long, and then later edit them down to singles. "It was quite exciting to plan the songs as long," says Neil, "because we had been so disciplined at making four-minute pop singles, with the exception of "It's a sin", which is five minutes. The idea also was to have an album where every track was a single. And in fact five out of the six of them were, because 'I'm not scared' was a single for Patsy Kensit, or rather for her group Eighth Wonder. 'I want a dog' is the exception to the rule because it was someone else's remix of a shorter song we had already recorded; we put it on because Frankie Knuckles had done such a fantastic remix. 'Always on my mind' was also an exception to the strict rule, but it hadn't been on an album."
The Pet Shop Boys had begun making the album in their heads at the beginning of 1988, and notionally the first song they thought of for it, and the first they recorded, was a new version of a song they had recorded with Bobby 'O' years earlier, 'I get excited (You get excited too)', but then they needed a b-side for the 'Heart' single in March 1988 and used 'I get excited...' for that. Over the next few months they recorded the songs which would appear on Introspective. Two were produced by Trevor Horn, one with producer Lewis Martinée in Miami, and one by themselves and David Jacob. "I think this is our imperial album," Neil reflects. "The one where we felt, making it, that we understood the essence of pop music and so we felt we could do what we liked. And this was what we wanted to do. It's our best-selling album overall."
The title came quite late in the day. "Originally the album was going to be called Bounce," says Neil, "which was some reference to people saying we had bouncy basslines. We'd also written a song called 'Bounce' that we've never recorded properly. Finally we decided to call it Introspective because we felt all the songs were quite introspective, and also the word 'introspective' sounded a bit ravey."
The sleeve was designer Mark Farrow's idea. "He had some book explaining how colours go together," says Neil. "There were pages and pages of stripes. That was probably the first sleeve we designed thinking of it as a CD rather than as a record sleeve."
"Didn't Tom Watkins think that whenever people saw the testcard they'd think, 'Oh, I must go out and buy that Introspective album?'" remembers Chris. "Our biggest-selling album has not got a picture of us on the cover. That's interesting, don't you think? I think we actually put people off our records."
They were pictured on the inner sleeve and in the CD booklet, photographed in yellow t-shirts dyed to match a yellow background ("no expense spared," Chris notes) and they were shot with Booblies, a friend's Yorkshire terrier. Around this time, Booblies also appeared with them on Going Live, the Saturday morning children's TV show, where he attacked the puppet character, Gordon the Gopher.
This new version of Introspective does correct one error. The original sleeve states that the total length of the album's songs is 50.03; in fact it is 48.03.
"I added the times up wrongly," Neil confesses.
"Neil didn't realise there were sixty seconds in a minute," Chris notes.
Neil nods. "I forgot that," he agrees.
Behaviour, the fourth Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in October 1990. "This was five years from 'West End girls'," notes Neil. "Five years in pop music is a long time." Since their previous album, Introspective, the Pet Shop Boys had produced the album Results for Liza Minnelli, also writing most of its songs, had collaborated with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr on the first Electronic album, and had appeared onstage for the first time in America when Electronic supported Depeche Mode at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles. They had also left Tom Watkins' management operation and set up their own office, run by Jill Carrington.
They began work on Behaviour, which would turn out to be their most moody and contemplative album yet, with a fairly straightforward sense of purpose. "At the time," Neil remembers, "I believe we were thinking of bringing out an album of fab pop songs, like ten Kylie Minogue singles." They decided that they wanted, for the first time since Please, to make an album with one producer. They also had a couple of specific musical guidelines they wanted to follow: "We had the idea before we started that we were going to use analogue synthesisers, and we weren't going to use samples, because even by the beginning of 1990 everything was mega-samples, and we wanted to make something much cleaner. We thought it would sound fuller and more original if all the sounds were programmed for it."
When they considered who might be able to create such analogue sounds, they thought of the German disco records of the seventies made by Giorgio Moroder, a train of thought which led them to Harold Faltermeyer, who had been Moroder's programmer and had since achieved success on his own, most famously with the instrumental 'Axel F'.
"At the end of 1989 Chris and I flew to Munich to meet him," recalls Neil. "He has a positive museum of ancient synthesisers. And he had an engineer from America, Brian Reeves, who worked on a lot of Donna Summer records." They agreed to make the album in Faltermeyer's Munich studio over ten weeks the following spring, in two blocks with a month's break in the middle.
Neil enjoyed being in Germany rather more than Chris did. "We stayed in this little apartment hotel in the centre of Munich," says Neil. "They were very ordinary rooms."
"Very depressing," says Chris.
"I kept wanting to hire a suite in the best hotel in Munich," Neil recalls, "but Chris wanted to save the money."
Chris hated that he was away from the rave culture explosion he'd been enjoying back home. "The Germans then hadn't heard of house music," he says. "There was nowhere to go. Miserable times. I felt like I was missing out on so much that was happening in England - it was possibly the most exciting time in English culture ever including the Sixties, and we were in Munich. But Neil liked it."
"I used to like walking in the English garden," Neil says. "I occasionally went to the opera. I like the beer; I liked the buildings. Every morning we had a hired BMW and we would drive to Munich airport and pick up the English papers - Chris would park the car and I would rush in - and one morning I got back in and there was a strange man sitting there. I'd got in the wrong car."
"Because everyone has a grey BMW," says Chris.
"We were listening to Violator by Depeche Mode," Neil remembers, "which was a very good album and we were deeply jealous of it."
"They had raised the stakes," Chris agrees.
Harold Faltermeyer lived on a kind of private estate just outside Munich. The Pet Shop Boys would arrive a little before midday, have a cup of coffee and begin work. They would usually order in pizza for lunch. Around four o'clock they would adjourn to his beer hut in the garden for some of Faltermeyer's German draught beer. "And," says Chris, "he'd tell us anecdotes about Giorgio Moroder." On the property Faltermeyer had his own abattoir. (He is a keen hunter. "He makes his own sausages," Chris observes.) At one point during the recording process they tried feeding the vocals through the abattoir, re-miking a speaker in there for a reverb effect. "It didn't really work out," Neil says.
In Germany, they kept to the concept of using analogue synthesisers and no samples, but when they returned to London to mix the album at Sarm West, they somewhat relaxed these rules. However, they were still resolved to release an album which sounded consistent, and made the final song selection with that in mind, at the last minute removing 'Miserablism' and replacing it with 'The end of the world'.
"When this album came out people said they were amazed that the whole rave thing seemed to have passed us by," says Neil. "We, of course, thought we had shamelessly jumped on the rave bandwagon."
"The thing is, we were ahead of it, because some of Behaviour is like deep house," reasons Chris, "and the naff old reviewers were still trapped in acid house. Whereas we had moved on."
The sombre images of the Pet Shop Boys, some red roses and an abandoned chair which appeared on the album sleeve were taken by Eric Watson. "We had this idea for the photographs with the roses because we'd been to Liza Minnelli's apartment in New York and she had this fantastic photograph, I think by Richard Avedon, of Judy Garland as a tramp holding a huge bunch of red roses," says Neil. "So we just nicked the idea of the huge bunch of red roses and suggested it to Eric. We got all the roses from about three florists in Fulham because we wanted trillions of them."
"They didn't have the thorns removed either," says Chris. "It was very painful."
"But there was something luscious about it - the beautiful red roses," says Neil. "At the end of the session Eric had the idea of photographing just the chair and the roses. Then we did the solo portraits, and Eric thought they were too brutal, but we really liked them."
"I like that picture of me," Chris reflects. "I think I should always be photographed from behind."
"Mark Farrow had the idea of using the four photographs like that," remembers Neil. He says that one detail has always annoyed him: "I've always thought the full stop after the word Behaviour is over-designed. It looks a bit naff. I probably thought it looked cool at the time but now I think it's irritating, because it's not a sentence."
For the American version of the album, in deference to local spelling custom, it was released as Behavior. Neil remembers the title Behaviour as being Chris's idea. (Chris says he can't remember. "Was it? I've got no idea. I don't see why I should take the blame for it.") "It seemed to sum up the album," says Neil. "I think we felt this was a much more personal-sounding album. I think we were fed up at this point with the whole notion of irony that we particularly got landed with, because of records like 'Opportunities'. Behaviour seemed completely un-ironic and slightly serious. This is basically a sad album, from 'Being boring' through to 'Jealousy', with the exception of 'How can you expect to be taken seriously?' which is a satire. I suppose 'So hard' which is about the end of a relationship, is funny as well. But otherwise they're all rather sad songs."
Very, the fifth Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in September 1993. "Going into this record we were slightly disappointed by the performance of Behaviour," Neil remembers. "Behaviour was slagged off at the time for not being a dance album. We were feeling a little insecure, maybe. Anyway, we decided to do a mega dance-pop album."
"I think you always react against the one you've done previously," says Chris. "We wanted it to be a bit more up."
"'Up' was definitely the big thing," says Neil. "We thought we were going to do that for Behaviour, but we didn't do it. This time we did. We hadn't done anything pop for ages, because we did Introspective, which is all pretty moody, and then we did Liza's album and stuff with Dusty, a lot of which is very moody, and then Behaviour... We wanted to do something very pop, to the extent that there is a song on this album, 'One in a million', that we were going to offer to Take That. It was not trying to be trendy. We were trying to do 'fantastic songs - every one could be a single'. And it kind of worked."
In those days Chris had a studio in an outhouse at his home in Hertfordshire. The Pet Shop Boys recorded the basic tracks for Very there, working with the programmer Pete Gleadall who had previously programmed their tours, then they moved to Sarm West to complete recording, before handing the tracks over to Stephen Hague for additional production and mixing at RAK studios. "It's great at a certain point to give it someone else," says Neil. However, this was the first Pet Shop Boys album they would primarily produce themselves.
"We didn't feel experienced enough before," Neil explains.
"Although we had produced other people," Chris says, "it's easier producing someone other than yourself."
They resolved that the album should sound very 'computery' - "loads of the songs have got all busy little computer game noises," notes Neil - and decided to work on the arrangements in a way they hadn't before; experimenting, for instance, with changing the arrangements for each verse of a song.
"It wasn't ever a struggle," Neil recalls. "We were always laughing in the studio." They would often drive back into town, playing whatever they had just recorded, thoroughly excited by the day's work.
For this phase of their career, the Pet Shop Boys decided that they would almost entirely change the way they presented themselves. They were tired of being naturalistic. Arma Andon, their American manager at the time, had asked them why they staged these elaborate, costumed, theatrical fantasies in concert, but rarely explored the same kind of presentation in videos or for records, and they begun to wonder the same thing themselves. "Also," says Neil, "I think we thought we'd done to death the classic Pet Shop Boys thing, and it was finally completely summed up on the cover of Discography, Chris stony-faced and me with an ironically-arched eyebrow. We kind of thought: right, we've just completely done that now, let's do something not real."
Another influence was the rise of increasingly realistic computer games. "They were a big issue then," says Chris. "The big game was Sonic The Hedgehog and I liked this game where the audience, when a goal was scored, all started dancing. I was playing computer games a lot, thinking, 'This is what the kids are into', and thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great if we became this thing removed from reality and existing in a non-real world?'"
They were also reacting against the other dominant musical current of the era. "Everyone was being grungy," Chris remembers. "Everyone was just dressing in baggy jeans and t-shirt and sweatshirt, that Nirvana thing, looking ordinary." They didn't want to look ordinary. "We didn't want to be fashion either," Chris points out. "We wanted to be unique, outside of it."
They asked David Fielding, who had designed their 1991 tour, to come up with some concepts. The first set of costumes were orange jumpsuits, with large angular white glasses with thin horizontal slits in them, and orange-and-white striped dunce caps. (The dunce caps were suggested by the school imagery in Very's first single, 'Can you forgive her?'.) "That took a lot of nerve," Neil recalls. "I remember when we got the model in for 'Can you forgive her?' Jill, our manager then, didn't like it at all. There was always a worry about looking ludicrous. If you look at the Top Of the Pops performance we did for 'Can you forgive her?' it's just incredible. The sheer nerve. I'm sitting on a pair of step ladders wearing an orange jumpsuit with a stripy pointy hat. Chris meanwhile is behind a giant blue egg with a telescope wearing the same outfit."
"And I do a bit of ballroom dancing in the middle of it," Chris points out.
"It's absolutely incredible, the whole thing," says Neil. 'And then we had EMI make a load of pointy hats and at the end when the presenter is saying what's on the next week's Top Of The Pops all of the crowd and him are wearing pointy hats. We really saw it through.' They adopted a new surreal image for each single. For 'Go West' they wore primarily blue (Neil) or yellow (Chris) jumpsuits with complementary-coloured trimmings, and semi-spherical hats. For 'I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing' they wore pink vests over white (Chris) or black (Neil) outfits with floppy blond (Chris) or dark (Neil) Sixties wigs. "We kept changing it," says Neil. "Our idea was always to get to the point where we didn't have to be in the video, which we did for 'Liberation' - which was entirely computer-generated - and for 'Yesterday, when I was mad' Chris was computer-generated."
The packaging was also innovative. The Pet Shop Boys had worked with the design group Pentagram on the releases of their Spaghetti record label, and were invited to lunch to meet Pentagram's new partner, Daniel Weil. On the way to lunch, Neil and Chris realised they didn't know what they were going to talk about, so they decided to discuss a bugbear of theirs - the unoriginality and inflexibility of CD packaging. "We'd got fed up with the fact that CD packaging all boiled down to the booklet," says Chris, "so the obvious way around it was to make the actual box the cover." At lunch it was agreed that a new kind of CD packaging should be tactile. The orange box with raised dots in which initial copies of Very were released was the first idea Pentagram proposed, though originally the dots were larger, and the box was pink. The Pet Shop Boys also adopted Pentagram's other idea, a softer bubble-plastic sleeve, for the limited edition double CD package Very Relentless, which included the bonus dance CD Relentless.
"While writing Very we'd written lots of four-minute pop songs but we also had done several instrumental tracks which for the most part I couldn't think of any words for, and couldn't see the point of writing words for, because they sounded great," says Neil. "So then we thought we would put them on a separate album."
Neil and Chris had thought of the album title, Very, early on. Neither can recall who said it first. "It was another funny sentence - people were supposed to think that the album would be 'very Pet Shop Boys', but a different Pet Shop Boys," says Neil.
"What's quite different about this album," Neil adds, "is that a lot of it is stories. It's not just love songs or anything like that. It's stories. It makes it completely different from any other album we've made, I think. We didn't do it consciously, but you get 'Can you forgive her?', 'Dreaming of the Queen', 'Yesterday, when I was mad', 'The theatre', 'One and one make five', and they're all stories." It was also the first Pet Shop Boys album to reach number one in Britain. "It's a good album," says Neil. "It's better than you think."
Bilingual, the sixth Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in September 1996. The Pet Shop Boys had started working on it more than two years earlier, in August 1994, when they went to New York and worked on some songs at Unique studios where they had recorded the original version of 'West End girls' in 1983. The Latin influence that would infuse much, but not all, of Bilingual, was already apparent in the first song they recorded, 'Discoteca'. Chris had just been on holiday in Brazil, and Neil had been listening to a lot of Spanish music. "I was in a relationship with a Spaniard," says Neil, "and he used to come round to my house or I used to go to his house and listen to his Spanish CDs." While in New York Neil and Chris went to the Sound Factory bar. "They had go-go boys dancing almost naked on the podiums with flags wrapped around them, and there was live Latin percussion," Chris recalls. These visits to the Sound Factory bar inspired, and set the tone, for their Discovery tour at the end of that year, which ended with concerts in Mexico, Columbia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil where they were further exposed to Latin dance music (Discovery - the tour and subsequent video - took its name from a combination of the words 'very' and 'disco', six years before Daft Punk did likewise.)
They had decided that, instead of making an album in one stretch, they would make this record in bits and pieces, as it suited them. They didn't begin working again until April 1995 when they started recording on and off at Sarm West and at a tiny demo studio they had hired in the Strongroom studio complex. In the Strongroom they demoed a large number of new songs. Aside from ones which would end up on Bilingual this was the period in which they first recorded 'Hit and miss' (the b-side of 'Before'), 'You only tell me you love me when you're drunk' (which would be on their 1999 album Nightlife), 'For all of us' (which would end up in their 2001 musical Closer To Heaven) and 'Love your enemy' (still unfinished). In June they went back to New York to record with Danny Tenaglia and then in August they rented a large house called Rocky Lane in the English countryside near Henley and moved their studio into its garage, so that they could work at their own pace and in a more relaxing environment.
Early on, they also started recording with producer Chris Porter, who was best known for his work with George Michael but whom they were keen to work with because he had produced Take That's 'Back For Good'.
"I was getting into harmonies," says Neil. "'Se a vida é' has got a lot of tracked harmonies. Bob Kraushaar likes doing them and kind of encourages you, because I get bored doing them very quickly. On our first two albums there are almost no harmonies at all. It just didn't occur to me in those days.'
They had decided to call the album Bilingual from the very beginning, partly because of the Latin flourishes, and partly because they thought it was funny. "It was sort of a joke on 'bisexual'," says Neil. By the summer of 1996, just as the album was nearing release, they typically went off the title, and early reference CDs bore the alternative title Pet Shop Boys: That's the way life is. Then they thought again and changed their minds.
The original Bilingual sleeve - "a frosted concept," says Chris - was inspired by a piece of frosted PVC in designer Mark Farrow's office. "After Very we couldn't really have a normal CD sleeve," says Neil, "and also we didn't want to." They wanted the whole CD case to be sandblasted and opaque, but it wasn't possible, and even with the compromise version there were manufacturing problems and difficulties getting the frosted square centred on the CD case.
"There was a feeling in EMI," Neil remembers, "that it was too cool, too upmarket."
"I particularly like the yellow of the sleeve," notes Chris. "It pre-dates the St Martin's Lane hotel."
They decided that, after Very's elaborate fantasy images, they shouldn't even pose for photos this time, and all the photographs in the original Bilingual booklet are snaps. Neil's are from holidays in Jamaica and Gran Canaria; Chris's are from the Discovery tour. (The photograph of him with soldiers behind him was taken in the stadium in Bogota, Columbia, where the Pet Shop Boys were to play later that day. The photograph of him, arms outstretched and mouth open, was taken as he danced on a raised platform in a nightclub outside Buenos Aires in Argentina.)
By the Pet Shop Boys' previous standards, Bilingual was only a modest commercial success on its release. "I think sometimes a vague cloud hangs over this album," says Neil. "If you listen to it, without prejudice, I think it's a really really strong album. I think overall it contains some of our best-ever songs and productions. Everyone forgets that when this album was released it received unanimously rave reviews right across the board and was released after two top ten singles. Though I remember saying to Jill Carrington, our manager then, that it was the first time we had released an album without a top five single in Britain."
In retrospect, they do have some reservations. "I think we probably chose the wrong singles, as usual," says Chris. They both agree that the album is too long; at one point Neil suggested re-editing it, removing 'Metamorphosis' and 'Electricity', and re-sequencing it for these reissues. "I think the running order is wrong," he says. "You don't really get strong melody until track five: 'Discoteca' has a very interesting melody but it's not a catchy pop melody, "Single" is a chant, "Metamorphosis" is a rap, though it has a catchy chorus, and "Electricity" is sort of a rap. It's a positively experimental start." He says that they originally considered a more commercial running order, before its release, beginning with 'Se a vida é' and 'Before'.
"I have a further criticism of it," says Neil. "I think the concept isn't clear. We didn't stick with the Latin concept. Also, the fact that it was called Bilingual, I wonder if people thought it was a bilingual album like Gloria Estefan doing her Spanish album."
The Pet Shop Boys were also puzzled by another aspect of Bilingual's reception: the notion, perhaps suggested by the Latin rhythms and phrases, that this was an uplifting and happy record. By and large it is not. Even 'Se a vida é', the sunniest song, is about someone who is depressed.
"They all got it wrong," Chris says.
"If this album has a theme, right the way through," says Neil, "it is: you have to struggle to survive."
"We'd written a song called 'Nightlife', a real disco song, which has not ended up on the album, but we thought the title was good, and in writing and sequencing the songs we've chosen ones that fit into the concept of an album called Nightlife," Neil explains. "So in the first song, 'For Your Own Good", someone is hoping their boyfriend or girlfriend is going to 'for your own good, call me tonight' - that they are going to come home instead of going out and getting wrecked. And at he end of the album is a song called "Footsteps" where the narrator is still waiting for their lover to return home, because he obviously has gone clubbing. and that kind of links the album together. All the songs take place at night. People's perceptions of life are different at night, people's needs are different, people's fears are greater, people's need for love or sex is greater, people are maybe off their head on drink or drugs, people want to dance. The night is also scary. It's dark. Vampires come out at night. People exploit each other. And nowadays the night, in clubbing terms, extends into day - you can find people in clubs still dancing at midday, so, although it's light outside, for them it's still the night. All of these themes come into the album. It represents the good and bad sides of nightclubbing, and maybe the good and bad sides of human nature."
The album sleeve was photographed by Alexei Hay. They had met him months before and seen a photograph in his portfolio of a girl on the New York subway, and he suggested photographing the Pet Shop Boys in the same location. "We spent spent three and half hours being photographed on the New York subway," says Neil, "which is illegal, with lights taped to the hanging rail. We were meant to be going to Coney Island..."
"...but we got the wrong train..." says Chris.
"...as, needless to say, the jolly know-all English all said," Neil laughs.
Their head were subsequently blurred in the photographs at the instigation of designer Mark Farrow "to give movement to the shots, like you're on the subway at night," Neil says. "The photo relates to the idea of nightlife because you're going out..."
"The most exciting time for going out is when you actually do live slightly out of town," says Chris. "When I was living in South Ealing, the exciting thing about going out was getting the underground train into town - you're all a bit drunk already anyway so you're acting a bit badly, and you get that real sense of adventure that you're going to do something great. Whereas if you actually live in the centre of town you don't have that feeling. And in those days you never paid for the ticket, because you'd be really naughty. Happy days..."
(Literally 21, 1999)
The album title was suggested by photographer and Turner prize-winning artist Wolfgang Tillmans: "He said, 'you should call it something like Release' and we said, 'Oh... that's quite good'." Even so, they didn't make up their mind until the last possible moment. "I think it works, because there is a sense of emotional release about the way the album works," says Neil. "And it is the Pet Shop Boys new release. And what really convinced me is when our keyboard technician Paul Beckett saw the artwork and said, "Oh, I get Release - it's because the flowers are releasing pollen...". I guess some people think it sounds slightly sexual too." Amongst the other titles considered were Whatever, From outer space, Lovely, Tragic, Transition, Subtext ("that's a comment on the theatre, that one," comments Chris), You can't have one without the other, Girlfriend, Lovelife, Sometimes, Depth through surface, Touché, Distortions, Position ("Not a bad title, that," notes Neil), Whenever, The death of disco, Narrative, Hinterland, Alias, Mainstream, Decision, London, Approximately, The exception, Only, A walk across a field, Never anyone but you and Home. The final two were seriously considered and the album sleeve was actually designed when the title was Home.
"We liked it because it was the opposite of Nightlife," Chris explains. "It was an album to listen to at home. It wasn't a disco album."
The title Home was finally scuppered when their previous manager Jill Carrington noted in an e-mail that it sounded like a Garth Brooks album title.
The Release sleeve is designed by the New York designers Visionaire, who last year designed the Wotapalava logo. "We really liked that," says Chris, "because it was something completely different from anything we'd done before."
This is the first Pet Shop Boys sleeve not designed by Mark Farrow since their first Parlophone release. "We were keen to experiment with all the details on this album," says Neil, "and we'd worked with Mark Farrow and his company for every album, so I found it quite difficult break to make, but I think we'll probably work with Farrow again."
Visionaire came up with the idea of having four different sleeves showing four different flowers, each in a different colour. "We thought it would look very beautiful to have this row of four flowers in different colours in record shops," says Neil. These sleeves are external slipcases. "They're embossed, or something like that," Neil explains, "so that they're slightly 3-D." The CD case inside the slipcase says 'Pet Shop Boys Release' on white opaque plastic.
"They said they chose flowers because they thought the album was beautiful and they wanted the sleeve to look beautiful as well," explains Chris.
(Literally 25, 2002)
"We had the title before we started making the album. It obviously came from 'fundamentalism' which is now the title of the dance album. We hear so much these days about people being fundamentalists - Christina fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists - and we though Fundamental would make a slightly provocative album title. Aslo, it's got the words 'fun' and 'mental' It's a bit like calling an album Very Pet Shop Boys. We thought while we were making it that we were probably doing something that was a fundamental Pet Shop Boys statement. But I don't think that much thought went into it at all - we just thought it was a good title." (Because they thought of the title so early on this time around, there is no long list of abandoned titles, as traditionally printed by Literally at this juncture. The only notes on Neil's computer of earlier titles are Fundamentally Pet Shop Boys and Pet Shop Boys Fundamentally. "So originally it was Fundamentally rather than Fundamental.")
Early in its creation, the Pet Shop Boys came up with a manifesto for what they intended to do which Neil typed out and sent to their manager, Dave Dorrell. This is what he wrote:
"The next album could be our firs purely electronic album. That said, one track already has an orchestra on it. But the lyrics will be funnier and cynical. I'm in the mood to write frivolous pop songs. I want people to say 'that is SO Pet Shop Boys' - they haven't done that in ages."
Catchy pop songs
...that sound very now
i. e. very electro-pop
and are about the world now
Don't be afraid of being moronic
More innudendo and humour
No human feel
Glitch and click
Dirty fat synths not clean
Glitch and click (Literally 30, 2006)
A special edition of Fundamental was also released with a companion dance album Fundamentalism.
"Right from the start we thought it would be great to have more electronic sound dance mixes," says Neil. "And for ages we had though about putting 'Flamboyant' on the album because it was written at the same time as 'Luna Park' and 'Casanova in Hell', and at the same time as 'Numb' was recorded, and we felt it belongs to this group of songs. So we decided to comission electronic remixes and to put 'Flamboyant' on it."
"We asked all the remixers to keeps the song for a change," says Chris. "And they all did, which is quite an achievement."
There is one brand new song on Fundamentalism, "Fugitive", which they recorded with the producer Richard X, the British electronic pop producer whose career began by releasin seven-inch single mash-up combinations of other people's songs.
"It's about the personal cost of political convictions," says Neil.
"It's a modern day love story," says Chris.
"It's quite a sad song, I think," says Neil. "It's got a genuine sense of pathos and longing about it."
The version of Fundamentalism is an extended mix; there is also a shorter seven-inch version of "Fugitive" which is yet to be released.
Aside from "Flamboyant", represented here in a mix by Michael Mayer from the Kompakt label in Germany, Fundamentalism also includes one other song which has no equivalent on Fundamental, a version of "In private" (which the Pet Shop Boys originally wrote and produced for Dusty Springfield) with Elton John sharing the vocals with Neil. It was recorded when the Pet Shop Boys and Elton John did some recording in late 2003. "I really like the combination of voices," says Neil, "and I likve the production as well. It's from what I call our Nag Nag Nag phase." This version was co-produced and remixed by Stuart Crichton.
The other tracks on Fundamentalism are "Sodom", a version of "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" by Trentemoller, a Swedish DJ and producer recommended by Pete Gleadall; an Alter Ego remix of "Psychological" ("It sounds fantastic in the chorus."); a Melnyk remix of "I'm with Stupid"; a remix of "Minimal" by Lobe, who previously appeared on Neil's Back To Mine disc ("Fascinatingly, he works in a psychiatric ward of a hospital and he did this mix in a psychiatric ward on his computer."); and "Gomorrah", a version of "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show" by the Cologne-based ambient electronic producer Dettinger. ("He changed the chords brilliantly.")
(Literally 30, 2006)