Often understated but profoundly influential, the music of Pet Shop Boys offers a strangely brooding and buoyantly melodic dissection of the cultural climate of Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Musically, the duo are distinctive – the sounds of romantic synths bleeding over rhythmic drum machines make for the perfect backdrop to their decidedly British vocals. But it is Pet Shop Boys’ lyrics that set them apart.
In Faber and Faber’s recent release One Hundred Lyrics and A Poem, Pet Shop Boys’ lyricist Neil Tennant navigates the mountainous landscape of the socio-political and cultural happenings of late-century Britain with intellectual scrutiny and eloquently flamboyant articulation.
The flamboyancy, satirisation and poignancy of Pet Shop Boys’ deeply British lyrics are documented in One Hundred Lyrics and A Poem, an anthology of Neil Tennant’s most seminal works.
Neil Tennant met his Pet Shop Boys bandmate, Christopher Lowe, by chance in an electronics shop in London in 1981. The pair, after realising their mutual interest in electronic dance music, began writing songs together soon after. The duo initially called themselves West End, with the name Pet Shop Boys coming later. The pair have since released thirteen studio albums, and have no plans of stopping anytime soon.
Tennant’s words transcend the lyric label and oftentimes double as important pieces of social, cultural and political commentary. Arranged alphabetically, One Hundred Lyrics and A Poem reaffirms Tennant’s position as a chronicler of modern life; his critique of the universality of existence – its trial and its tribulations – is recognisably British. Tennant used his status as an internationally renowned musician to parody modishness in a subtle, stylish and insightful manner.
Every handpicked song included comes with a slice of personal commentary; his footnote for the 1993 single To Speak Is A Sin reads:
“… a furtive gay bar or drinking club in the early eighties: married men snatching a drink on their way home from work, knowing regulars, a smattering of rent boys. Personal negotiations start with a meaningful stare before a word is spoken.”
It’s unexpectedly enlightening being acquainted with more than three decades of Tennant’s inspired experiences. Some lyrics are deeply personal and introspective while others provide an offering of theories and explanations. This is, perhaps, Tennant’s way of coming to terms with the fluidity and maturation of the world around him.
Tennant’s earlier works of lyricism often satirised the imperiality of ’80s Thatcherism. In Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), the musician footnotes how the rise of individualistic capitalism and consumerism in Britain in the ’80s paved the way for perhaps one of Pet Shop Boys’ most punk hits, but also exposed how subtly parodic their lyrics sometimes seemed.
“We saw this as a punk song, crude and satirical, but by the time it became a hit single in 1986 it was in danger of seeming like a celebration.”
Tennant’s lyrics are understated and euphoric, but, as the musician points out in the book’s introduction, “Any songwriter collecting his or her lyrics in a book will defensively point out that these were written to be sung with music, not read as poetry. Every lyric-writer also has a guilty secret: the sounds of the words is sometimes more important than the sense of them.”
Neil Tennant’s Pet Shop Boys lyrics – whilst being powerfully influential in defining the cultural and political climates of the decades spanning the ’70s through to the ’90s in Britain – are incredible and engaging as casual pop hits, too.