The Other Side of Me: Sean Hannam on the power of the Pet Shop Boys

Pet Shop Boys

If it wasn’t for the Pet Shop Boys, I might not be into americana, but, funnily enough, I don’t owe it to their 1987 HI-NRG version of the country song, ‘Always On My Mind‘, which was also a hit for Willie Nelson. You might be asking yourself, “what have I done to deserve this?”, but bear with me…

In 1986, when I was 12, the Pet Shop Boys were the first vaguely alternative band I got into. I grew up with ‘60s music playing in our family home all the time – thanks to my dad and his great record collection, I can remember hearing The Shadows, Duane Eddy, Nancy & Lee, Dusty Springfield, Scott Walker, John Barry and Matt Monro from a young age – and falling in love with all of those wonderful artists – but I wasn’t really into much contemporary stuff. Then I saw the Pet Shop Boys play ‘West End Girls’ on Top of the Pops. I adored the song – it was like nothing I’d heard before –  and was fascinated by the moody and aloof synth-pop duo, who felt like a band for outsiders, even though they’d scored a number one hit single.

My dad bought me their debut album, ‘Please’, on cassette for Christmas in 1986, and I played it to death. I soon became obsessed with the group and got really excited whenever they had a new single or album out. I can remember my dad giving me a copy of ‘Introspective’, from 1988, on tape. He had picked it up from a local record shop on the way home from work and I was delighted.

In 1990, while on a family holiday to Norfolk, I bought the ‘Behaviour’ album in Norwich – it’s still one of my favourite records of all time. I have written about my love of this album before, for the great music website, Eight Albums – and here is what I said: “ ‘Behaviour’ is the Pet Shop Boys’ masterpiece – a beautiful, sad, wistful and autumnal collection of pop songs, featuring former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr on some tracks.

Recorded with producer Harold Faltermeyer, in Munich, it has warm, atmospheric analogue synths, and, in typical Pet Shop Boys style, manages to include an eclectic range of influences, from house music and Stock Aitken Waterman (the reflective, nostalgic and elegiac ‘Being Boring’); the twangy ‘60s guitar instrumentals of The Shadows (the haunting and cinematic ‘This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave’ – which was actually based on a failed attempt to write a James Bond theme song for the film ‘The Living Daylights’); rave music-meets-Shostakovitch (the soulful ‘My October Symphony’) and West End / Broadway show tunes (the epic curtain closer, ‘Jealousy’). ‘Behaviour’ is one of the greatest and saddest pop albums of all time.”

So, how did the Pet Shop Boys get me into americana? Thanks to them, I soon discovered other alternative bands and acts, like Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Morrissey, The Cure, New Order, The The and The Sisters of Mercy.

Some of those artists were influenced by country and folk music – Robert Smith from The Cure was a big fan of Nick Drake and namechecked him in interviews, so I investigated his three albums, which I loved, and, in 1995, The The released a Hank Williams covers album called ‘Hanky Panky’ – another record I enjoyed.

So, ironically, my fondness for the Pet Shop Boys’ synth-pop got me into alternative guitar music, folk, country and then indie-pop/rock, like Suede and Gene, which, ultimately, led me to discover americana – in 2000, I read a great review of Ryan Adams’ ‘Heartbreaker’ in Uncut magazine, bought the album and then entered the world of…

I still listen to the Pet Shop Boys regularly – especially ‘Behaviour’, as now I’m middle-aged, its melancholy and autumnal mood suits me even more than it did in 1990 – and I still buy the Pet Shop Boys’ new albums, although I haven’t been a big fan of the last few.

I’m actually going to see them in concert at Wembley Arena next year. I’ll wear a trucker cap, so I’m part Chris Lowe, part americana fan.

Go West, anyone?

About Sean Hannam 76 Articles
Freelance journalist, editor and presenter. Digs retro specs,The Smiths,Dylan,Cash,Richard Hawley, Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, country / Americana and '50s/'60s pop.
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Andy Lloyd

I just saw them on their last tour (essentially a longer version of their Glastonbury set) and they still sound fantastic. I’d never made the link before, but yes their unusually broad range of influences has rubbed off on my taste! Thanks for writing!

Jonathan Aird

Their collaboration with Jean-Michel Jarre – Brick England – was a highlight of his collaboration album Electronica 2 !

(more Jarre here of course !)