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Monday, February 27, 2012

Pet Shop Divas

A little over 30 years ago Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met in an electronics store on the Kings Road and struck up a friendship that led to them becoming the most successful pop duo in UK music history: Pet Shop Boys. Although they had their peak success in the 80s and 90s, they continue to write and record remarkable songs and are popular live performers.

Pet Shop Boys have always been generous collaborators, as writers, producers and guest artists, but naturally I want to focus on their work with female artists. Over the years they have linked-up with an eclectic range of female talent, from the legendary to, well, Patsy Kensit. I have selected ten of these collaborations, which demonstrate the versatility of Pet Shop Boys, covering everything from show tunes to trance. Join me, if you will, on a journey through the history of the Pet Shop Divas.

Tonight Is Forever & So Sorry, I Said (1989) - Liza Minnelli

While not an overnight success, Pet Shop Boys first album, Please, was a major hit. It was quickly evident through the quality and sophistication of the songwriting that this was not throwaway pop. The album also raised eyebrows for its androgynous lyrics, including one track, I Want A Lover, that Neil said he was singing from a woman's point of view. As a self-proclaimed diva fan, Neil was no doubt imagining how these songs might sound if sung by one of his heroines, and he got his wish when he and Chris got to work with the one and only Liza Minnelli.

Liza's music career had flatlined through the 1980s and she was looking for a way to make a comeback as a major recording artist. Liza was aware of Pet Shop Boys and enjoyed their "pop poetry". She was also impressed that the Boys had resurrected the career of Dusty Springfield (of which more soon), so she reached out to see if they would be interested in working with her. To say she was knocking at an open door was an understatement.

Neil and Chris produced a whole album for Liza, Results. For me, this is really a Pet Shop Boys album, with Liza as guest vocalist. The album is a mix of old and new PSB tracks and carefully selected covers. A hi-energy version of the Sondheim classic Losing My Mind gave Liza a top 10 hit in the UK, but for me the standout track is a new version of a track from Please.

The PSB version of Tonight Is Forever is an insistent thrill ride, sung with a frenetic urgency; Liza's version is a sumptuous, sultry seduction, almost unrecognisable from the original. The solid orchestration is perfectly pitched; at first restrained, it finally cascades into lushness, just as Liza's lover must succumb to her pleas to make the night unforgettable.

The other clear highlight on the album is the original PSB song, So Sorry, I Said. The perfect three-minute pop ballad, Liza explains why she has stood by her very undeserving man in the way that only a true diva can. It is sparsely produced, allowing Liza's heartfelt vocal to shine through. Although Liza "acts" the song, she is not theatrical in her delivery, but instead allows it to quiver on her lips, making it almost heartbreaking to hear. It struggled to chart when released as a single, but remains one of the PSB's finest love songs.

Results is simply a pop masterpiece, the Pet Shop Boys were at the peak of their powers when it was produced and they found in Liza the perfect muse and a worthy instrument for their craft. It is one of my favourite albums and still regularly played, if you've never heard it, I urge you to rectify that at your earliest convenience.

Nothing Has Been Proved (1989) & Daydreaming (1990) - Dusty Springfield

Before Liza, there was Dusty. While recording their first album, Neil and Chris wrote a song with renowned songwriter Allee Willis. What Have I Done To Deserve This, was a duet and Neil set his heart on singing it with his diva icon, Dusty Springfield, but her management rebuffed their approach. Dusty had just had a failed attempt at a comeback, releasing a poorly received single on Peter Stringfellow's label; she was not about to take a risk on this unknown act. The Boys put the song aside until their second album when, now bona fide popstars, they approached Dusty again. She wanted to know, "will it be number one?" - Neil assured her it had a good chance, so she agreed. If it wasn't for Rick Astley, Dusty would have had her wish.

Flushed with chart success and the warmth with which her re-emergence was greeted, Dusty agreed to record another song with PSB. Nothing Has Been Proved was written to accompany a new British movie, Scandal, based on the Profumo affair in the 60s. The song arguably did a better job than the film of telling the story of Stephen Ward, the man who bore the brunt of the scandal and subsequently committed suicide.

Dusty delivers the intricate, detailed lyrics in a breathy whisper, as if she's pulled you into an alcove to bring you up to speed with the developing scandal. The whole performance is restrained until the last moment, when Dusty finally unleashes an emotional riposte to those who abandoned Stephen in his hour of need. It's one of the few 80s records where the ubiquitous saxophone solo does not sound dated, but fits perfectly into the clubby ambience of the track. The single made the top twenty, which encouraged Dusty to go on and finish a whole new album.

Reputation consisted of ten tracks, half of which were produced by PSB. They had wanted to produce the whole album, but Dusty was keen to explore other sounds and work with different producers as well. The album therefore does feel like a game of two halves, with the first an MOR pop album, with some nice moments, but generally not as polished as the second, PSB produced half. Of their five tracks, the standout for me and many fans is Daydreaming, on which Dusty raps (I kid you not). In the rap section a frustrated Dusty berates her lover for watching TV while a parade passes by, before she melds into another gorgeous, breathily sung chorus, the daydream of the title. It is adult pop at its very best. It should have been a single.

I'm Not Scared (1988) - Eighth Wonder

Nothing breeds success like success, and in the late 1980s Pet Shop Boys were on fire artistically and commercially. They had so many great songs they could afford to give them away and one lucky recipient was a young actress/singer called Patsy Kensit. She and her band, Eighth Wonder, had struggled to set the charts alight for a few years when Neil and Chris took pity on poor Patsy and offered her a classic PSB pop anthem, I'm Not Scared. It gave Eighth Wonder their only top 10 hit, but it is in reality a Patsy Kensit guest vocal on a PSB track.

Let's be clear, I include this on the following basis: Patsy is female and the song is fantastic. Patsy Kensit is not, has never been and never will be a diva. Her vocal on this track is passable but it's a hair's breadth from nails-on-a-chalkboard awfulness. She is completely saved by the perfect construction of the song, a great lyric and top class production. I'm not being a hater, I'm just keeping it real. Enjoy the song, it's great.

Falling (1994) - Kylie Minogue

From one pop princess wannabe to the real deal. There is a great deal of mutual admiration between Kylie and Pet Shop Boys, only slightly tarnished when she rudely snubbed a track they wrote for her last album. However, Kylie wasn't always so picky and when she was busy reinventing herself as a club diva, post Stock Aitken Waterman, she gratefully took Falling off their hands.

Written, but not produced by the Boys, this is a pre-trance club track, with only a slightly discernible melody and a rather repetitive song structure. Kylie herself shows only a passing interest in taking part, but I'm sure she thought she was being really cool when she sang it. Pet Shop Boys have produced some incredible dance music over the years, including some great club tracks, most notably on their Disco series of albums. Sadly this is not one of the best, but hey, it's Kylie.

Friendly Fire (2001) - Frances Barber

One of my favourite things produced by Pet Shop Boys is their only attempt (so far) at a fully-fledged musical, Closer To Heaven, written with Jonathan Harvey. It is set in a club and tells the tale of "Straight Dave", who, as it turns out, may not be so straight after all. It's great, silly fun and I'm sorry I only got to see it the once. However, original cast recording albums are forever, and my next pick is the showstopper, Friendly Fire. In the musical it is sung by Billie Trix, a fading diva who hasn't quite moved on from her glory days.

The song is a brilliantly observed "inspirational tirade" on the slings and arrows that beset a fallen star. Billie was originated by the excellent Frances Barber and she milks every line for meaning in a wry performance of the song. The lyrics are a real treat, with Neil's theatricality allowed fully off the leash. It feels like a fitting anthem for many a great diva, in fact I'd pay a lot of money to hear Liza's take on it. Time for Results 2?

Confidential (1996) - Tina Turner

While working on their album Very, the Boys were asked to write a track for their fellow EMI artist, Tina Turner. The track offered was called Confidential and told the tale of an undercover affair, territory previously covered on the track In Private they'd written for Dusty. Tina recorded Confidential for her album Wildest Dreams, with the Boys on production duty. It's fair to say this is not the most melodically challenging track, Tina's vocal is pretty subdued throughout most of the track, with only one real opportunity for her to unleash her trademark growl. The production is also surprisingly safe for the Pet Shop Boys, very polished, very Adult Contemporary, as if they had half a mind on Radio 2 playlists. Unfortunately the end result is pretty forgettable and well below the standards they had set themselves. It feels like a missed opportunity and we can only wonder what Tina's version of In Private might have sounded like, which would have given her vocals much more opportunity to soar.

The Loving Kind (2008) - Girls Aloud

Pet Shop Boys teamed up with Xenomania, the UK's hottest pop producers for their tenth studio album, Yes, released in 2009. The album was successful in updating PSB's unique sound and is one of their strongest sets. One of the songs written for the album was The Loving Kind, but Chris was iffy about it, so it went to Girls Aloud, Xenomania's key act, for their album Out Of Control. Released as a single, it was a top 10 hit for the girls and is a gorgeous slice of mid-tempo pop. The production by Xenomania is top notch and the girls' vocals are beautifully pitched, particularly when they combine on the chorus. I'm not sure what Chris' problem with the track was, it would have fitted well into the sophisticated pop sounds on Yes, but it was a lucky accident that this track ended up being a Girls Aloud single. It benefits from being delivered so ably by this great girl group who lend their on-trend coolness to another classic PSB song.

The Performance Of My Life (2009) - Dame Shirley Bassey

One of the many things to love about Shirley Bassey is that she rightly demands that she is now called by her full honorific title. Dame Shirley was lured out of retirement by producer David Arnold when he was able to put together a stunning range of songwriters who were keen to write for her. The resulting album, The Performance, is a great achievement and remarkable for an artist in her eighth decade. Among those contributing songs were Pet Shop Boys who crafted perhaps their best song yet for another artist.

The Performance Of My Life tells the tale of a diva who has lived her life in the spotlight and is perhaps facing her final challenge. Neil says the song is not about Bassey, but it is not hard to map her life story onto the lyrics. Dame Shirley was moved to tears when recording it and it is likely to have the same effect on many listeners. It is beautifully moving, Dame Shirley's vocals are intense and taut, she takes you out on to the ledge with her and as you teeter on the edge you see her life flash before your eyes. It is a triumphant success and the latest in a long line of collaborations with great divas: I certainly hope it is not the last.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Pet Shop Divas.

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