The Pet Shop Boys, Videos and Age

(Originally submitted for FT a while back, and now posted here with Tom’s encouragement given FT’s change in emphasis)

One of my indulgences — I call them that these days, whatever music or DVD purchases I might happen to make, though they feel less like I’m getting out of some sort of purgatory as they are giving me the keys to a kingdom of sound and space and visuals and so forth — in recent weeks was the Pet Shop Boys’ PopArt DVD. It had what I might particularly enjoy on a DVD — a separate commentary track — but it also had all the videos to prompt a commentary track in the first place, always a good thing.

Though I sorta partially in a way grew up with music videos in their first mass-awareness blush — I didn’t actually have MTV until 1985 but I had seen various efforts here and there — the Pet Shop Boys were actually a group that I rarely saw anything by. I remember the “West End Girls” video a couple of times and that’s really about it. I had seen the earlier video collection for Discography many years ago thanks to a friend — one who had also written a detailed study of the video imagery for a college class and who specifically brought up the idea that the two members were gay, something I honestly never once thought of at the time. It was not an unpleasant surprise but it was a bemusing idea nonetheless, something that I puzzled over specifically because I never heard or said anything from the band on that point — and in ways that could be how I first got to grips with the idea of hiding things in plain sight, as well as the idea that one might not have to say something at all to just be what one is or wants to be. That past instance and viewing aside, thanks to the DVD essentially this was the first time I could finally all of these videos in a heap up through the ones from the Release album, and I was interested in at last seeing some of these things that I had heard so much about, or seeing if my one-time-only memories held up.

But I heard them all the time during the time of their mid- to late-eighties American radio domination, of course — and that was the point. In ways they were my last particular ‘discovered through the radio’ group in terms of active pop radio listening — after that was a year’s abeyance in favor of reading and movies and the occasional record buy, my ye olde classic rock phase punctured with occasional top 40 realizations and then when I got to UCLA in 1988 the music press, college radio and further bursts of MTV took care of the rest. My memories of my particular fascinations at the time of the Pet Shop Boys’ breakthrough are very mainstream in musical terms — Robert Palmer was huge, Falco was all over the place, I?m sure there were other things that escape my brain from early 1986. And I don’t know if the band were alien or strange or some sort of new gateway to something that I had never appreciated before — Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe might have been, but I think to me the idea of synths and beats and all that was already so well ingrained that I sensed continuum rather than opposition, something which I’m sure the two of them would have approved of greatly. What I was able to further pick up on then — I think, my memories and dreams are so lost in fog now that I probably just read back into things — was that there was a sense of shimmering drama at their best, really wound up tight and let loose. “It’s a Sin” was all over the radio at the same time Def Leppard were equally everywhere thanks to the monstrously beautiful sculpture that is Hysteria, and the two were really related, glam-influenced away-from-the-beautiful-people-and/or-London UK music obsessives who drew on their inspirations specifically to conquer them. Slam up “It’s a Sin” or “One More Chance” or “I Want to Wake Up” from Actually next to “Gods of War” or “Rocket” or “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and the effect is transcendence in an echo chamber light years across, hotwired energyflash in ways often now displaced or hovering on fringes. And “Kings Cross” and “Hysteria”? There?s your power ballads right there, or should I say “It Couldn’t Happen Here” and “Love Bites” or something.

Still have never seen the band live — when they played LA in 1991 for the Behaviour tour I had the unfortunate luck to be out of town that week, and reading something like Pet Shop Boys Versus America and the report that it was one of their best shows, well, I have regrets. And that was in ways the last time they were a major event I knew about beyond my own sphere here, because they never really got close to the pop charts much again, their followup tours were for the faithful and while well attended weren?t talked about, their albums did get released over here but there we are, even while they were still scoring an impressive string of hits in the UK and elsewhere, which is well deserved. I followed the music as a fan still but everything had retreated from me, to the point where it was one of many other appreciations and completions, the familiar state for the music fanatic who has to choose his or her battles carefully.

So what did I see and hear from the DVD once owned? Well, I did love it, both the awkward attempts to try and do something early on and the slowly but surely more assured way that both became used to the camera and had fun doing it. Lowe, of course, knew exactly what he was doing from the start, and though he jokes about his performances — the relentless piss-taking in interviews and conversation clearly the counterbalance to the great stone faces — it’s precisely those stone faces that served him well. His obsession with gear and fashion balanced with an equal obsession of not doing anything if he can help it, or else playing the roles of someone removed from whatever is being depicted — the DJ in “Domino Dancing,” the security guard in “Single — Bilingual,” the random football fan in “DJ Culture” — when not simply being the non-singing non-speaking counterpart to Tennant gives him a space to be there without having to be the center of everything. That he loves, though it’s apparent from the commentary that he loves it even more when he doesn?t have to show up at all, thus his computer-generated appearances in “Liberation” and “Yesterday When I Was Mad” or his total absence from “Red Letter Day.”

And Tennant is Tennant throughout, his comments sometimes bemusing, sometimes hilariously wry, just fun to listen to really — his high voice is something that I actually didn?t really expect, it almost sounded too high and dry, strangely enough. And even though he has to be the center of the action by default, often he’s not — cut in for a clip or two maybe, then back to other things. His sense of humor works very well when he lets it out — the “How You Can Expect To Be Taken Seriously?” performance is a howler, wrapping up just about everything in the two year gap between the start of the nineties and the ‘start of the Nineties’ via Nirvana and Dr. Dre, precisely by letting the setting upstage him perfectly and at other times because he?s acting to fill up the blank white spaces there. Ultimately, though, both seem to work best as guests in their own movies, the brief glimpse in the “Home and Dry” video, the video game characters beating each other up in “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” the popping up here and there in “New York City Boy” or the lost-in-the-black-and-white crowd collapse of “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk.”

But what actually ended up getting most of my attention by the end of the compilation was perhaps fairly obvious — age. The advantage of being away so long from their public images and regular coverage and more over here where the duo were mostly an oldies features for eighties flashback blocks for me was that every new thing I could hear from them, even mediated by an album photo or two, was one where they still somehow looked as they were, at one point — maybe not Tennant’s curls, perhaps, I knew they were receding and pretty much gone. But it was still a shock to see them in those last videos — no goofy Nightlife frightwigs or the like — to realize that, well, yes, they were in their fifties now, that the videos had captured almost two decades of their lives, and that time doesn’t stand still. This may come as no surprise or revelation, and really, it isn’t. But it’s still a bit of a sucker punch in ways — part of me likes to joke (sometimes bitterly when I think I haven’t learned an emotional lesson well enough) that I haven’t changed much since I was 19, but part of me is also aware I’m 33.

And yet age suits them. Friend Stripey once sagely observed to me that one reason she adored Roxy Music is that Bryan Ferry in particular projected age so well into his compositions, and that as the years continued that he and his sidemen (whether in or out of Roxy Music) were able to find that particular streak and make it work, recontextualized — what might have been ennui was now regret, what might have been delirious romanticism was now elegant classicism. Tennant knows his Roxy and has picked up on that element in his own way, and Lowe isn’t too far removed — though the performances aren’t any different in the videos from what they were beforehand, and though the same colossus-bestriding-the-world arc of their arrangements at full blast remains potent, one can see how the present feeds back into the past beyond simple feelings of nostalgia, how the cabaret turn and understated pulse of “Rent” mutates now into desperate sadness, how the center spotlight turn of “Always On My Mind” now becomes a lost wish. That recent songs like “Home and Dry” and “London” — for all that the latter, videowise at least, is about Russian youth on the loose in the titular city — put forth those feelings to the fore, everything feeling more like a dream not so much deferred as glimpsed through a darker glass than expected.

Age, then, perhaps suits me too. After all, the presumed target market of this DVD wasn’t going to be whatever the current bleeding edge is. However, one could take it as a sign to give up and disconnect and stop exploring, or one could simply take it as a reminder and an acknowledgment, the voice whispering, gently, “Remember thou art mortal” while making a triumphant turn through all the facets and fascinations of 21st century everything and anything. But the advantage is that the voice does so with beats and with humor and with more besides to offset the sorrows, and does so on a handy 3 1/2″ wide disc. Most convenient.