Continuing the theme of synthesized groups from earlier last month, I continue to attempt to review the albums which showcased the synthesizer in different genres of music. After Fleetwood Mac's 80s rock, time for Pet Shop Boys' dancey synthpop to take centre stage.

PET SHOP BOYS

NIGHTLIFE (1999, Parlophone)

GENRE: Pop/Dance.

Hedonistic, cultured and perhaps appealing to a camp market depending upon subtle house grooves blended with thought-provoking pop, Pet Shop Boys' music legacy continues to gain momentum.

Almost 10 years after one of their danciest pop albums to date in 1999's album Nightlife, lead vocalist and keyboardist Neil Tennant and co-vocalist, keyboardist Chris Lowe, are set to release a new album in 2009. However, if it is anywhere near as accomplished as their golden age in pop music, then critics and fans alike will be stunned.

The synth duo are set to work with dance production group, Xenomania, on their new album which is a follow-up to 2006's Fundamental. If Xenomania's recent pedigree for dancey-pop is anything to go by - Kylie Minogue, Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Saint Etienne et al - then the Pet Shop Boys are in safe hands.

But whilst the duo, who have secured four UK #1 hits and 22 top 10 singles in their 27 year pop music history, are poised to maintain their fruitful endeavour to the music industry, the peak sound which elevated them to club music gods with an aurora of thoughtful decorum may just have slightly eluded them.

For it is not Neil Tennant - of whom Doctor Who actor David Tennant gained inspiration and changed his surname from McDonald to Tennant - and Chris Lowe's fault that the current market has moved to pulsating bass beats and repetitive "wannabe" gangster string-obsessed pretty-boys and nasal indie tedium.

It is neither the fault of the mostly talented opposition which face the London-based duo. In truth, Tennant and Lowe don't provoke the same commercial and aesthetic success they once gained. But, their latest album may serve us a reminder of the lusciously layered textures of Roland induced synthetic pop and equally exquisitely realistic and intelligent lyrics.

To view an album which encompasses both, look no further than 99's Nightlife.

The album provides scores of sizeable dancefloor delicacies in Closer To Heaven, I Don't Know What You Want (But I Can't Give It Anymore), In Denial and Radiophonic, which deliver remnants of their earlier monstrously reputable 80s and 90s albums following their iconic #1 debut single, West End Girls.

But what Nightlife adds is the ghosts of their most famous predecessing albums of Please, Actually and Behaviour et al. Its irresistible melding of moralisitic reality on the tracks, You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk and New York City Boy, shimmer in their uptempo synth melodies and bass synthesizer and kick drum rhythms, whilst harnessing the incessant ability to remain down to earth despite their pop-stardom.

Pet Shop Boys have a tendency to simply reel in the listener with an easy title and the lyrics duly follow. But by 1999, their staple pop sound had gradually grown from where 1993's Very had offered superb potential for 90s pop groups wanting a dancey appeal, to become awash with their rapturous clap caressed and hi-hat hissing House music the 90s had become famous for.

Whilst 93's Very remains their only UK #1 album, despite their other eight studio albums all becoming top 10 hits, Nightlife takes Very's raunchy orchestral synth strings and adds even greater swirling synth for an ultimate club experience. Although, to pinpoint Nightlife as Pet Shop Boys' pinnacle album is very much down to opinion. Perhaps purchase of the duo's greatest hits, PopArt which includes the great divide between thoughtful pop and desirable dance is also a necessity to take a nostalgic trip on what made the duo such a successful act in the first place.

This, however, is not to say they are everyone's cup of tea. Tennant's deadpan and unrefined vocals (which sometimes resemble a half-hearted choir boy) have left regular Top of The Pops audiences of the 90s cold and reluctant to listen and instead turn to Coronation Street. Whilst the almost camp pop hooks and synth licks would not endear rock fans either (despite 1990's Behaviour and 2002's Release featuring Smiths' guitarist, Johnny Marr on their rockiest albums yet) and would alienate those used to soft slow ballads, their appeal nonetheless is mesmeric.

After selling 50 million albums worldwide, Nightlife continued the legacy. Although the group aren't quite of Depeche Mode stature and would never resemble their rock and pop melding (regardless of 90's Behaviour being heavily influenced by Depeche Mode's 1990 album, Violator), they managed to fuse sensible lyrics with gorgeous euphoric strings, electronic dums and piano - something which contemporaries New Order, never quite achieved despite their excellent efforts.

A far cry from their early material in some respects, Nightlife does contain reminders of West End Girls, Opportunities, Suburbia, Shopping and Rent's tongue-in-cheek and intellectual lyricism; but simply enhances the production techniques. Those of you used to Pet Shop Boys' unfashionable and homosexual tag which occasionally ensures reluctance of a listen, who also love 80s, 90s and today's clubbing sounds, intertwined with catchy pop chants, look no further than Pet Shop Boys and Nightlife.

Despite never being the finished article, it is worth remembering their status as one of the Godfathers of UK dance music and that on the whole you won't be disappointed. But at least if you're disappointed by their music, you certainly won't by their artily bizarre pop videos and fashions.

DOWNLOAD: New York City Boy, Radiophonic, I Don't Know What You Want (But I Can't Give It Anymore), You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk, Closer To Heaven (please also visit the club mix on ITunes), In Denial. (Please also visit the Aries club mix of In Denial).

 

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NEW ORDER

TECHNIQUE (1989, Factory)

A Manchester band known for their rise to fame like a phoenix through the dirty smogs of Salford, New Order became a pioneer in melding their parent act Joy Division's cold and melancholy rock with inventive and sprightly synthpop. The two collide here in New Order's finest hour on what was their first UK #1 album, Technique in 1989, before Bernard Sumner and co. followed that up with another #1 album, Republic, in 1993. Technique displays the "Acid House" era sublimely with tracks including Fine Time, Round & Round, Vanishing Point and Mr Disco exhibiting sexy keyboard swathes and bounding Roland TR-303 and 808 beats. Orbital, 808 State and M People certainly took note of their example. But despite this remaining a dancey album, Technique doesn't fail to provide traditional New Order strum along guitar pop in All The Way, Love Less and Run. A must for those who enjoy the melding of rock and dance.

 

DEPECHE MODE

VIOLATOR (1990, Mute)

Essex had to produce something worthwhile hadn't it? Well, throw spotty teens with laughable hairstyles and leather jackets together and you result in Depeche Mode. The group are notorious for their troubled personal lives, in which lead singer Dave Gahan almost took his own life in Los Angeles in 1995, but are also remembered for their fusing of bleeping, zipping melodies with dark metallic rhythmic textures. Violator, a UK #2 album is a mixture of catchy synthpop tunes in the uptempo dance track, Enjoy The Silence - which returned Depeche Mode to fame - Personal Jesus and World In My Eyes, all UK top 20 hits; and clattering guitar numbers, including Sweetest Perfection, Halo and Policy of Truth, reminiscent of their 80s albums. This album provided Depeche Mode with their peak sound and whilst the overall collection on Violator could have been improved, no album since has provided such likeable choruses, lyrics and melodies.

 

ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK (OMD)

SUGAR TAX (1991, Virgin)

From singing about Enola Gay - the first plane to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima just before the end of the Second World War in 1945 - to producing a track based on French heroine Joan of Arc, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD) would not have envisaged a path in to dancey synthpop by the 1990s. Although, once lead vocalist Andy McCluskey's bandmate, Paul Humphreys, left in 1989, Liverpool born McCluskey - who is famous for founding the girl group, Atomic Kitten - decided to continue solo with a handful of producers by his side; creating the UK #3 album, Sugar Tax. Its elegantly sustained orchestral keyboard and vox settings provide some subtle but catchy pop tunes, nonetheless on Sailing On The Seven Seas and Pandora's Box, through to Call My Name and Then You Turn Away. Sugar Tax is remarkable for emphasising OMD's transformation. No one would ever have imagined the intellectual figure of McCluskey becoming a minor pop star sacrificing innovation for commercialisation. However, the pop did the trick here and with contrasting synth hooks and beautiful piano compositions laid on precise bassy electronic rhythms, Sugar Tax remains a great success and one of OMD's best albums for mixing synthpop and dance. Even McCluskey's trademark nasal voice is sacrificed with a softer, huskier tone - something of which he should have adopted years beforehand.

ERASURE

POP - THE FIRST 20 HITS (1992, Mute)

Camp, uptempo and successful, Erasure's Andy Bell and Vince Clarke are one of the most successful synthpop groups in the UK. With 25 million albums sold worldwide and 5 UK #1 albums, this Basildon duo put fun in to pop through their repetitive choruses and mighty melodies. Bordering on dance at times, Clarke (formerly of Depeche Mode and Yazoo) engineered some of the best pop tunes in the 80s in the singles, Sometimes, A Little Respect and Chains of Love, whilst gaining acclaim with husky vocalist Bell for their UK #1 extended play (EP) single collection, Abba Esque. This greatest hits collection allows fans of 80s and 90s dancey pop to indulge in a more refined version of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman franchise, whilst at the same time remaining lyrically intuitive. Erasure, like Depeche Mode, continue to produce albums today, but their peak came in the late 80s and early 90s, which are nostalgically grouped here on their first 20 hits. Just don't confuse Bell with Alison Moyet - even if it does sound like a female providing the vocals. But seriously, those who desire pure pop with an upbeat drive, Erasure usually deliver.

 

 

 

Comments

I have since added more to this article at the bottom of the page.

A very nice, detailed article. Not many people listen to 'synth-music' anymore these days - including me. But it was rather interesting to dig up Pet Shop and others again.

My compliments on the article :D

I'm being a naughty git and re-releasing (or plugging) my article for people to read...i.e. Lindsay, who I know likes Synthpop but hasn't commented yet haha. I'm being like a wayward band who needs to re-release their single/album about fifty times before they get to number one, because by then people cave in and get tired of seeing/hearing the song again. The same applies with this article haha.

But, just wondered if Lindsay would comment :) haha.

You could be a music journalist now... why get yourself in debt? lol

Not a bad idea Rob :). I wouldn't mind certainly, though Q magazine would be the only one I would want to work for. NME wouldn't interest me. But, I need to keep working at my writing and my reporting before any of that could happen...

Synthesis and its history - Album review: Pet Shop Boys