The Pet Shop Boys were a cornerstone of pop music in the 1980s and ’90s. Starting with “West End Girls,” the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have written a blueprint for pop music, including clean vocals and electronic backing that is still very prevalent today. Many think of Pet Shop Boys as a nostalgia act, but like many veteran acts that have been written off as “’80s bands” or (the far more dreaded) “one hit wonders,” Pet Shiop Boys have continued to write that blueprint long after the American public’s short attention span drifted away from them. Indeeed, Lowe and Tennant have sold over 100 million records worldwide, and are listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful duo in UK music history.
For the American fans that have stuck by the duo, they were recently rewarded with a pair of long-bootlegged releases from Pet Shop Boys. The band’s first live show, Concrete, as well as their soundtrack, Battleship Potemkin, have now been made officially available for US audiences, and both records provide another aspect of a band that is one of the bigger victims of being pigeonholed.
Concrete in and of itself is interesting, as it was recorded on May 8, 2006, at London’s Mermaid Theatre with a live orchestra. Because of the orchestra’s presence, the band strayed away from the big hits (with the exception of “West End Girls” and “It’s A Sin”) and stuck to songs that were originally written or later rearranged for orchestral accompaniment. The performance and album were produced by longtime cohort Trevor Horn.
Much of the recording — due in part to Horn’s trademark pristine production and in part to the fact that the Pet Shop Boys sound already lends itself well to that — sounds wonderful. This makes a strong case for one of the best-sounding live albums ever, as every note, instrument and nuance are loud and crystal clear. In terms of clarity, Metallica’s S&M may come close but it still doesn’t quite reach this plateau.
The songs themselves are worked to great effect as well. Whether it’s Tennant (who still sounds remarkable some 30 years on) or other guests (such as Rufus Wainwright singing “Casanova In Hell” or Robbie Williams on “Jealousy”), the vocals are an even match for the added power the orchestra brings to the table. Even songs like “Rent,” which aren’t originally theirs but tracks the band made their name on nonetheless, shine with a different arrangement and understated — or very powerful — tone, depending on what the track calls for. Those work especially well on something like “After All (The Odessa Staircase),” which was written as pieces of a film score.
Battleship Potemkin, meanwhile, has the seeming disadvantage of mostly not featuring Tennant’s voice. Only three of its songs have any vocals, as the album was written as a score for the 1925 silent film, The Battleship Potemkin.
What would seemingly play as a precursor to Daft Punk’s Tron Legacy soundtrack (after all, this film score of electronic music and orchestra predates that by half a decade) actually sounds a little different. Battleship Potemkin is more along the lines of Toto’s score for Dune than anything futuristic sounding. Which is okay, because the movie in question here is now 86 years old.
The Battleship Potemkin is a propaganda film that details the 1905 mutiny of the titular Russian ship. The music reflects the mood of the movie while retaining an edge of musical simplicity so as to enhance a film and not overtake it. Battleship Potemkin combines electronica and orchestra in subtle ways to play along with the movie. At times it threatens to simply blend in to the background, but isn’t that the purpose of a film score?
Concrete and Battleship Potemkin are two different aspects of the same band linked together by the need for an orchestral accompaniment. Both exist for separate reasons and both seem to wear those respective reasons on their sleeves. Both also serve as interesting documents for a period of a band that many aren’t bothered to seek out, but maybe should to appreciate where the state of pop today came from and how it can be done right, even in different settings.