Switched-on rock: subversive activities of the Pet Shop Boys | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Switched-on rock: subversive activities of the Pet Shop Boys 

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The "multimedia spectacular of lavish sets and exotic costumes" promised by the Pet Shop Boys turned out to be that and more. Some might argue that the almost two hours' worth of elaborate production numbers was more theater than rock concert, and a case in point for the creeping decadence implicit in the band's languid, computer-based music. But that would only be half-right. The show did have little to do with your average rock concert, but that's because the Pet Shop Boys designed it that way--to be a frontal attack on the degeneracy and excess they see in most rock concerts in particular and most rock 'n' roll and popular music generally. The result was a rock show with an almost complete absence of "musicians," one devoid of vacuous stage patter, grimaces, false emotion, thrusting hips, and wailing screams; but one whose underlying conceits, daring staging, and cataclysmic presentation made it penetrating, exciting, exhilarating.

The band is Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe; when they met Tennant was a fairly well-known British rock writer--he became an editor of Smash Hits--and Lowe was studying architecture. Their metier is state-of-the-art, all-digital pop-song production, based musically on synthesizers, sequencers, and computers and thematically on an assertively plainspoken commentary on modernity and its attendant pathologies. Their first single, "West End Girls," though now a bit dated with its rather contrived white rap, was driven by a sultry beat and edgy recitations from a class-edged hipster social whirl, and it became an authentic worldwide hit. Spacious and intriguing, and skillful in its appropriation of some of the genre-bending pastiches of Malcolm McLaren, "West End Girls" remains one of the signal pop singles of the 80s. The pair's first album, Please, contained that song and the amusing "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," a blunt satire nicely underlined by an uncharacteristically histrionic vocal from Tennant. Their second record, Actually (1987), cemented the pair's reputation, boasting both the stunning "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," with a revivified Dusty Springfield on vocals, and the unaccountably beautiful "Rent," with its now infamous refrain, "I love you / You pay my rent." Since then they've recorded an oversized EP, Introspective, and a brilliant and riveting new album, Behavior; the pair's oeuvre has included nearly a score of singles, each with at least one non-LP cut, major collaborations with Liza Minnelli and Springfield, and other minor production work.

The Pet Shop Boys have avoided touring, mostly because, it seems, they couldn't come up with an appropriate way to present the music. Their subversive take on music would require an innovative form, but the problem is their work is languid in a lot of ways: Tennant, particularly, seems to have a thing for the torch singers of yesteryear; part of the makeup of his Everywimp character is a genuine sympathy for lounge-act emotionalizing, despite his hip distance. The programming and keyboards notwithstanding, the Pet Shop Boys' work isn't just robotic dance music; it's disco with a human face. I think the pair realized that the music's soft center would be difficult to stage: it wouldn't do to just have the two standing behind keyboards like some genteel version of Depeche Mode.

The show in Chicago--it was moved from the Riviera to the Chicago Theatre because the Riv's stage, which is hardly cramped, couldn't handle the band's production requirements--showed off what the pair came up with. Fifteen people--ten dancers, three backup singers, Tennant, and Lowe--were almost always onstage, all variously attired in dozens of costumes over the course of the evening. The direction and design were done by David Alden and David Fielding, known for their avant-garde work in British opera; their production numbers were an awesome series of dance-based set pieces that played off both the Pet Shop Boys' songs and the staging. The pair paid homage to Magritte and Dali even as they thumbed their noses at every hoary cliche of theater, pop, and modern dance. A back wall, broken only by a black cross, opened for certain numbers to reveal a space painted in Magrittian sky blue. Hanging above the stage was a six-foot clock ringed in neon; it spun wildly through most of the show and was ultimately dispatched with a machine gun. At stage right was a ten-foot fragment of brick wall illuminated by an exit sign.

The show began with an absurdly bombastic medley of Pet Shop Boys songs blasted over the PA system. What followed was 17 production numbers, all fractured and bizarre and disturbing. In the first a troupe of schoolboys raced across the stage; wandering after them came a mincing transvestite. Then a hooded figure with giant moth wings portentously carrying an oversized book of runes marched out, as another schoolboy bouncing a giant globe scampered around him. Meanwhile, a black hepcat dressed to the nines was pursued by a woman in a red dress; finally, a figure mummified in red cloth was slowly uncovered to reveal a deadpan Tennant, also in schoolboy costume. Though his pictures don't really reflect it, Tennant has an almost portly, vaguely Germanic mien in person (he must be close to 40); with his closely cropped hair and humorless grin, he sometimes looks like a malignant factory owner. Lowe seems a lot younger; a Teller-like presence onstage and off, he hardly opened his mouth and only infrequently played an instrument. When he did, it tended to be one of those keyboards you sling over your shoulder like a guitar; with textbook PSB irony, he played not flashy solos but mundane bass lines.

During all the dancing weirdness of the first song, Tennant sat in a chair at the side of the stage and enunciated the words to "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave," a typically grandiose Pet Shops number (it's from Behavior) about romantic anomie. Lowe sat on the floor in front of him, silent. The second song was a thoroughly exciting run at "It's a Sin," from Actually, a spectacularly arranged all-out savaging of religioso guilt-tripping down through the ages, complete with a half dozen hospital beds and figures representing Sex and Death doing in various of the dancers and ultimately Tennant and Lowe.

In making their records, the Pet Shop Boys don't really "play" their instruments: they program them and then turn them on. Since there's no need for musicians onstage, they've largely dispensed with them for the live shows. During certain songs, a guitarist, J.J. Belle, stood in the wings; otherwise, an offstage programmer, Scott Davidson, set up the computers for each song and contributed some incidental keyboards. The band is proud of its machines, stressing that the show's music is not taped: it's "generated" for each show. In a luscious, detailed program (a deal at $12), there's even a full-page diagram that details the components of the band's computer and synth console. It's all very subversive.

The costumes became more and more bizarre; during "Losing My Mind," a centerpiece of Results, the album the pair did with Liza Minnelli, a team of female dancers with calico dresses and surreal pumpkin heads danced with a team of guys with baseball bats, black suits, and strange monkey faces on stocking caps. One of the neatest things about the costuming was the way the textures and themes clashed so extravagantly: it was typical to have someone in a cartoonish red-plastic wig dance next to a guy in a black suit and angel wings. It's all by-the-book postmodernism: a seemingly indiscriminate crazy quilt of design pointing up the superficiality and evanescence of all the styles that have come before. "Genre," the costumes seemed to say. "How quaint." The dancing was a pastiche of everything from square dancing to break dancing to modern dance; from the start the stage was such a dizzying mess that at first I thought the joke was that there was no choreography; but after a few numbers the genuine intricacy of the movements became apparent. Choreographer Jacob Marley was another agent provocateur; the chaos of each number was ultimately resolved, overshadowed by the dancers' virtuosic skill.

Tennant and Lowe changed costumes about a dozen times each, wearing fluorescent red mustaches, suits, and bowlers at one point, Tennant bringing down the house resplendent in a gray satin tux at another. Tennant was a fabulous presence all the way around; he traffics in distance: even in a relatively straightforward song like "How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?"--a morality tale about a pretentious rock star ("You're another major artist / On a higher plane / Do you think they'll put you in / The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame?")--there's a sardonic drip in his voice, as if the Pet Shop Boys don't think much of moralizing, either. But he takes the emotional needs of pop-song-meistering seriously and can be a wonderfully affecting singer; on "Rent," what might have been a gigolo plaint turns into an elegy for something greater and grander--perhaps the End of Love, period.

Vague themes united certain parts of the show: "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave" segued into "It's a Sin"; later there were a pair of meditations on the music business. "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" featured Tennant as a frazzled promoter spread out behind a surreal, almost cubist table, wailing at a lackadaisical Lowe, who lazed about the stage in a lame suit. "I've got the brains / You've got the looks / Let's make lots of money," sang Tennant, as a bunch of dancers scampered around in pig masks. Soon the song slipped into the new "Taken Seriously," with the pigs turning into a pack of porcine paparazzi.

The show included an unassailable selection of hits and key album tracks, a few obscurities (the terrific "So Sorry, I Said," from Results, and a weird rap song: "We All Feel Better in the Dark," the flipside of a recent single done with a certain lack of inflection by Lowe), and a truly transforming medley of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" and Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." The show ended with the pair's goofy, rhapsodic cover of Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind." It was a beautiful close to a terrific show. The synth-pop-loving youth attending loved every minute, but not everyone got it; over at the Sun-Times, Jae-Ha Kim compared the Pet Shop Boys to Bananarama, complained that Tennant and Lowe didn't smile enough, and told her readers that Magritte was "famous for defying common sensibilities" without quite getting the point that that's what the Pet Shop Boys were doing as well. A rock critic comparing the Pet Shop Boys to Bananarama is roughly equivalent to a film critic's not knowing the difference between direction and acting. And as for Tennant and Lowe's not smiling, well, how could they? They were serious.


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