The critical accolades that Pet Shop Boys continue to reap this far into their career come as no surprise to fans of the band, but the casual listener may not appreciate the expansive and varied nature of their artistic endeavours. We dig deep into their repertoire with Andrew Dineley – a superfan who has followed the duo from the start…
Last year, I travelled to London to see Pet Shop Boys in concert again. This was the 10th time that I’ve seen them live over three decades and it roughly coincided with it being 30 years since the release of their debut album, Please. That spectacular run of shows at London’s Royal Opera House and the acclaimed Super tour that followed showcased their newer material, along with selections from a back catalogue of obscurities and classics – evidence, if it were required, that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are still the pop kids who could never be accused of being boring. I’ll stop with the song titles there.
Since 1985 and their first big hit, the remixed, re-release of West End Girls, they’ve sold more than 50 million records worldwide and are now listed in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the most successful duo in UK music history. I love that they still care – an obsessive attention to detail continues to run through everything they do, and the fact that they still release physical singles and bother with things like beautiful cover art and pop videos is something to be celebrated.
Because of the diverse nature of their prodigious output, it’s impossible to do it credit in one article, but there have been plenty of academic papers written – and their physical body of work, predominantly designed with Mark Farrow, has been catalogued in a weighty tome, appropriately entitled Catalogue.
Their long-term relationship with Farrow has been as important to the Pet Shop package as any producer they’ve chosen to work with on an album, or fellow artists they’ve selected for collaboration. From the start, Farrow has helped ensure visual consistency and an impeccable aesthetic in everything they’ve created together. Together, they’ve always made their output look as good as it sounds.
Pet Shop Boys rarely disappoint, and even when they do produce something that may not quite work, it’s always worth appreciating that they’ve dared to try something different. The fact that they’ve successfully applied their talents to pop, art, theatre, film, design, soundtracks, ballet scores and a multitude of other mainstream and leftfield collaborations is commendable. They aren’t your traditional pop act and never really were, despite the No. 1 singles and front covers of Jackie and Smash Hits.
From early on, their work transcended genres; this may also explain why their fanbase remains so diverse. If we were to measure Pet Shop Boys’ integrity by just looking at some of the musical artists they’ve worked with, few could compare. The illustrious list includes Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, Shirley Bassey, Elton John, Boy George, Yoko Ono, The Killers, Blur, Lady Gaga, Madonna, David Bowie, Liza Minnelli, Dusty Springfield, Jean-Michel Jarre and Robbie Williams. The list is as impressive in other areas of artistic collaboration. From Zaha Hadid for set design, to Es Devlin for staging, Jonathan Harvey for theatre, Bruce Weber for video production, Jack Bond for film and Wolfgang Tillmans for photography. The work of these luminaries is highly regarded in each of their respective fields.
Their recent NME Godlike Genius Award came along just a few years after their Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution To Music in 2009 and there are Ivor Novello Awards and plenty of Grammy nominations to add to the list of accolades. Now into their fourth decade working together, it feels as if enough time has elapsed for Tennant and Lowe to perhaps be recognised as the proverbial ‘national treasures’ – something I’m sure they’d hate. But credit where it’s due, few other artists have achieved what they have.
Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)
12″ Single 1985
Value £10 to £20
I was still a teenager when I first saw Pet Shop Boys on a short-lived ITV show called Poparound. This may have been their first UK TV appearance and was before West End Girls had been a hit, it was their first release on EMI Records and I loved it instantly. I’d been into electronic music since the late 70s with Kraftwerk, Buggles, M and New Musik and stuck with the genre, but this was like a sonic revolution – a brilliant fusion of pop and politics, something that Neil Tennant would later describe as “Che Guevara to a disco beat”. I bought this 12″ single the next day and stayed with the duo from then on. The following year, this track was remixed, repackaged and re-released to become a hit, but this version flopped and is quite a rarity now. I prefer this sleeve design to the re-release; it’s an early example of Pet Shop Boys portraits in a box on a white background – an enduring design template that would serve them well.
Did you know?
In 1989, like many mainstream pop acts of the day, Pet Shop Boys released an annual in time for Christmas. The publication’s name, Annually, and its cover image both referenced their second album Actually, which was in the charts at the time. The title ended up being completely inappropriate, as the book proved to be far from an annual publication – it would be another 28 years before it was followed up in April 2017.
UK Tour Programmes
1989 to 2017
Value £15 to £75 each
In 1989, I saw Pet Shop Boys in concert for the first time on their MCMLXXXIX tour. They had always said they wouldn’t tour, so this felt like something special. The show was directed by Derek Jarman and was a lavish affair in every way – the staging, arrangements, lighting, films and merchandise were peerless. The duo now tour regularly and their tour-programme design is always exceptional and something worth collecting. I am not a completist, but I always buy them at the merch stand. As a designer myself, it’s always interesting to see the unusual format and layout their designer, Farrow, employs. In my opinion, nobody does it this well, each is a work of art in its own right.
PSB51 Live at The Haçienda
Manchester 1992 Ticket stub
Value £10 to £20
On 13 May 1992, Pet Shop Boys performed at Manchester’s Haçienda as part of the legendary nightclub’s 10th Anniversary celebrations, catalogued as FAC51 on the ticket and in the Factory Records archive. The duo were in their ‘imperial phase’ at this time, regularly filling arenas worldwide, so tickets for this intimate gig were hard to come by, despite their high price. This AIDS fundraiser was introduced by Derek Jarman with Pet Shop protégé, Cicero, as the support act. I secured a great position and was able to snap these photographs from close up. It was also at this gig that Go West was performed for the very first time. The track was selected specially for this show, after they abandoned an arrangement of The Beatles’ Fool On The Hill. This Village People track was such a hit on the night that they decided to record and release it as a single the following year – the rest is history…
Did you know?
While Neil Tennant is rightly recognised as the singer in Pet Shop Boys, he doesn’t always take the lead-vocal role. Chris Lowe’s voice can be heard on more than enough tracks to make up an album of its own, including several tracks where he takes the lead. He was also the sole vocalist on a 2011 cover version of New Order’s 1985 single, Sub-Culture, with Stop Modernists (Jori Hulkkonen and Alex Nieminen).
Kiki Kokova, Atomizer and Pete Burns 12″ singles
12″ singles 2003 to 2004
Value £30 to £60 each
Pet Shop Boys are well known for their collaborations with some of pop’s biggest names, but in 2003, they set up a couple of record labels to release more obscure tracks with less mainstream partners. They established two labels – Lucky Kunst and Olde English Vinyl. Under these, they released this 12″ single with artist, Sam Taylor-Wood (using the pseudonym of Kiki Kokova), for a cover version of Donna Summer’s Love To Love You, Baby. There were also releases with Pete Burns and Atomizer that became electro-clash, underground classics. These three 12″ singles were very limited editions and while they may not be the best pieces of music that they’ve released, their obscurity makes them highly collectible.
It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas
Value £100 to £200
Pet Shop Boys established a Fan Club in 1989 which lasted for an impressive 25 years. During this period, many treasures were distributed to club members, including newsletters, posters, T-shirts, DVDs and Christmas cards in dozens of ingenious formats – from advent calendars to cut-out masks.
In 1997, they gifted this festive package exclusively to club members in its own silvery bubble-wrap sleeve. The track was eventually re-recorded and released as a single in 2009 as one track on their ‘Christmas’ EP, but this collectible little gem is a thing of beauty for me and is highly sought after by collectors.
CD 12″ Vinyl Box
Value £1,500 to £3,000
The resurgence of vinyl in the noughties was something I welcomed. I really did miss the large-format sleeve art and detail it allowed. For this limited-edition release of 300 copies, Pet Shop Boys pushed the boat out creatively with Farrow and delivered something very special indeed. Each of the album tracks was given its own piece of heavyweight 200 gram, 12″ vinyl with an instrumental version on each B-side. The coloured sleeves could be arranged to form an eight-foot version of the ‘tick’ that featured on the main cover design. The smoked Perspex case that housed the vinyl and signed art print came complete with a magnetic closure and gold-plated tick affixed. These sold out quickly when they were released and gave the band confidence to do something similar four years later, with their Electric album. This, however, remains the superior release for me.
Did you know?
In 2001, Pet Shop Boys worked with playwright Jonathan Harvey on a musical entitled Closer To Heaven. One of the lead characters – Mile End Lee – was played by Tom Walker. He was new to acting back then, but now he’s more widely known as Jonathan Pie, the bitingly satirical news reporter who now sells out theatre tours and whose YouTube videos went viral during last year’s US presidential election.
The Most Incredible Thing
12″ Vinyl Box 2011
The fact that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are always willing to try something new is a commendable and rare thing in pop. I can’t think of any other bands that would take on the challenge of producing a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s short story The Most Incredible Thing. This beautiful limited-edition vinyl box came in a silk cloth-bound slipcase with a hardback book. It’s as nice to touch as it is to listen to. Six of the sleeves/pages contain the orchestral soundtrack, along with demo versions exclusive to this release. The seventh sleeve contains a foldout music print, signed by Tennant and Lowe. The ballet’s synopsis is printed onto the record sleeves, so that it reads like a giant storybook. For some reason, this release isn’t as collectible as their other limited-edition vinyl boxsets, but I love it.
A Red Letter Day
12″ Single 1997
Value £20 to £30
There’s something about coloured vinyl that I still enjoy; it takes me back to my youth and those pink and purple early singles by Squeeze in the 70s. This single wasn’t a big hit for Pet Shop Boys and isn’t popular with a lot of the fans, but I really like it. What the sleeve may lack in design is compensated for in the finishing and production detail. The vinyl is an amazing shade of red and all the titling is embossed into an ultra-glossy surface that, with the exception of a one-centimetre frame, has a double-hit of red to make it really pop. This is the sort of thing that really appeals to me as a designer and is a perfect example of less being more. The other main colour used with the inside sleeve design is a kind of Manila brown, another nice postal-design reference.
Interview CD 2006
Value £50 to £100
I love trawling through the racks of music in my local charity shops and was over the moon when I discovered this. As I was buying it, the shop assistant felt obliged to point out that I was buying a CD with no music on it. This is a rare interview CD that was released only to radio stations to promote the band’s ninth album, Fundamental, produced by Trevor Horn. It provides a really interesting insight into the narrative of the album, which remains their most political to date. A pretty tune and thumping dance beat can provide cover for some serious social critique, and Fundamental was Pet Shop Boys at their darkest. I paid £1 for this and I’ve since seen them on eBay for 100 times that price.
Value £20 to £30
Last year, The University Of Edinburgh’s College Of Art held a two-day academic Pet Shop Boys symposium. I can’t think of another band more worthy of such in-depth analysis and it was really interesting to hear speakers from all over the world intellectually dissect their body of work – from film to theatre and pop to politics. As one would expect, the design of the conference material was impeccable and these badges were a particular highlight. I collected badges as a kid, so it was lovely to see their career represented iconically in hats and headgear. I’m sure Neil and Chris would have approved – I certainly did. These have become collectible and will never be reprinted. I now have them on display in my own design studio.
Discovery Tour Programme – 1994
I was never the kind of fan that needed everything in every format, but it does bother me that there is one tour programme missing from my collection. In 1994, Pet Shop Boys toured Singapore, Australia and Central and South America with their Discovery extravaganza. This was when they were at their most experimental visually – with the pointy hats, dancers and outlandish otherworldly costumery. The design of this 32-page programme reflected this period and is something I’d love to own, but so far it’s eluded me. If someone has one spare, you know the charitable thing to do.