Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Very’ Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
By 1993, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had finally established themselves as a touring act, experienced commercial highs (four chart-topping singles in their home country of the UK, including the US #1 “West End Girls”), worked with music legends like Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli and offered up a tidy, then-career-spanning greatest hits collection called Discography. What was left for the Pet Shop Boys to do?
With 1990’s critically-lauded Behaviour, the pair proved that they were more than just another ’80s synth-pop act hanging on for dear life in the dawn of a new decade. Still, three years trudged on — the full life cycle of some flash-in-the-pan pop acts — before the Boys brought out a follow-up studio LP. And by this point, the sound of commercial music had shifted dramatically. Britpop was gearing up in England, while grunge and alt rock was surging on the airwaves in America. Bands from Pearl Jam to Nirvana to Blur were carving out solid careers by dressing down in ripped jeans and sweaters and coming off as the completely “ordinary,” down-to-earth gents of raw, organic rock.
Naturally, Neil and Chris opted to slip into orange body suits and pointy dunce caps and record an all-out dance-pop album full of blips and bleeps and video game noises — one that sounded so very, very Pet Shop Boys.
YOU DANCE TO DISCO AND YOU DON’T LIKE ROCK
Very arrived on September 27, 1993, but the “up” tone of this point in their duo’s career had been set months prior, with lead single “Can You Forgive Her?” Atop a musical bed of sweeping keyboards, pronounced orchestra hits and a synthetic-sounding horn arrangement, Neil Tennant comically details the life of a man who, sexually, has found that the jig is up: his girlfriend has “made fun of [him], and even in bed, said she was gonna go and get herself a real man instead.” Frank talk, not to mention some of Tennant’s most open lyrics about sexuality at the time.
Pet Shop Boys — “Can You Forgive Her?”
For the surreal, computer graphics-filled music video, the Pet Shop Boys turned to Howard Greenhalgh, who’d previously lensed Snap!‘s visual for ’90s classic “Rhythm Is A Dancer.” In the liner notes for the 2001 Further Listening reissue of Very, Chris Lowe explained how video games influenced the way he and Tennant presented themselves in 1993: “The big game was Sonic The Hedgehog and I liked this game where the audience, when a goal was scored, all started dancing. I was playing computer games a lot, thinking, ‘This is what the kids are into,’ and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we became this thing removed from reality and existing in a non-real world?'”
Equally as entertaining as the music video was the pair’s eye-popping showing on Top Of The Pops with “Can You Forgive Her?” It’s worth a watch, if only for the bit where Chris cuts a rug with the spacy back-up dancers.
Pet Shop Boys — “Can You Forgive Her?” on Top Of The Pops
WHAT WE’RE GONNA DO IS GO WEST
For Very’s second single, a jubilant cover of Village People’s 1979 trifle “Go West” was released. “Could there be a more perfect marriage of pop sensibilities than the Pet Shop Boys covering a Village People hit?” pondered Rolling Stone in their review of the album.
An initially-resistant Neil and insistent Chris recorded their version a year prior, and originally intended for it to be a one-off single. “Go West,” co-produced by Tennant, Lowe and Brothers In Rhythm, eventually found its way onto Very as the album’s final moment (though, technically, it precedes a short, hidden track called “Postscript”) — and it would go on to become a Pet Shop Boys staple, not to mention their biggest hit of the 1990s. (The song peaked at #2 in the UK, and placed in the Top 10 across much of the world.)
Lyrically, “Go West” describes a gay utopia, though lifting it out of the ’70s and re-setting it as an AIDS-era anthem enabled the Pet Shop Boys to add new shades of both irony and sorrow to the song.
For the music video, Neil and Chris once again employed Howard Greenhalgh, but the context of the title was changed dramatically by filling the visual with Soviet symbolism.
Pet Shop Boys — “Go West”
HOW CAN I EVEN TRY TO EXPLAIN?
Part Of Very’s charm lies in the fact that it succeeds in playing like a seamless pop album — thanks to detailed production, from the opening note to the LP’s final moment — all while telling one varying tale after another. One clear-cut highlight is “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing.” Here Tennant and Lowe curb their penchant for moody ambiance and lyrics that underscore the darker side of relationships and instead deliver a bouncy, straightforward gem that almost dares you not to smile while listening to it.
“Going into this record we were slightly disappointed by the performance of [previous album] Behaviour,” Tennant explained in Very’s Further Listening liner notes. “Behaviour was slagged off at the time for not being a dance album. We were feeling a little insecure, maybe. Anyway, we decided to do a mega dance-pop album.”
One gripe: “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing” was ultimately given a grand overhaul by Beatmasters for its single release — an unnecessary move, as (I’ve always felt) the album version is rather flaws-free, even 20 years later. (Give it a listen in the Spotify playlist above.)
Pet Shop Boys — “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing”
Other epic moments on Very include the romantic “Liberation” — an eventual single where Tennant warmly croons, “All the way back home at midnight, you were sleeping on my shoulder” — the utterly cheery lament “A Different Point Of View” and “Young Offender,” which, like other tracks here, Lowe purposely composed to sound as if it was pulled right out of a Nintendo game soundtrack.
Pet Shop Boys — “Liberation”
“Young Offender” lyrically finds the Pet Shop Boys back on the less-than-ideal side of romance, as the song is from the perspective of someone contemplating a much younger gentleman. Neither seem particularly interested in the other; “I’ll put down my book and start falling in love,” Tennant, never short on wit, offers, before eventually dropping this tongue-in-cheek line about his video-game playing paramour: “When I get in your way or open your eyes, who will give whom the bigger surprise?”
“Yesterday, When I Was Mad,” a techno-infused banger that manages to be both self-deprecating (“You’ve both made such a little go a very long way!”) and a massive diss track aimed at the pair’s critics (“You hated me, too, but not as much as I hated you”), was the final single during the Very era off the actual album.
Pet Shop Boys — “Yesterday, When I Was Mad”
Just before that, however, the Pet Shop Boys partnered up with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley of hit BBC series Absolutely Fabulous (or rather, their boozy-broad alter egos “Eddie” and “Patsy”) for 1994’s Comic Relief single of the same title. If you thought the marriage of the PSBs and Village People was camp gold, then grab onto your wig before checking out this one’s “Lights! Models! Guest list! Just do your best, darling!” intro.
“Absolutely Fabulous” was later included on the duo’s Further Listening reissue of Very, but despite its Top 10 placing on the UK chart, the track never made the cut on any of their subsequent singles collections.
Pet Shop Boys — “Absolutely Fabulous”
A limited edition six-track mini album titled Relentless was paired up with Very during the album’s initial release in 1993. Now physically out of print, the experimental, largely instrumental Relentless remains absent even from digital retailers like iTunes (thought it’s certainly worth tracking down, particularly for the housey “Forever In Love” and bombastic hip hop number “One Thing Leads To Another”).
Earlier this year, I asked Neil and Chris about the possibility of Relentless getting a re-release at some point, possibly with bonus material attached. Tennant responded, “Well, there aren’t really any extra tracks to release it with. I agree it’s a shame that it’s not out there. We haven’t [any plans] at the moment, but one day maybe it will [be re-released]. I quite like the fact that you had to buy it at the time. I think there’s something quite exciting about that.”
Also out of print: the original orange, Lego-like case Very arrived in, which was designed by Daniel Weil. It still stands out as one of the most memorable CD packages of the 1990s. “I remember Neil saying, ‘This is the poppiest we’ve ever done and it’s all about pop and it’s got to be bright and it’s got to be mad,” designer and longtime Pet Shop Boys collaborator Mark Farrow said of the orange case in the book Pet Shop Boys Catalogue.
Above all else, Very remains a benchmark achievement for the Pet Shop Boys within their own career, and for pop in general. From the irresistible sound of the music itself to the futuristic videos to the artistic care put into the “tactile for the Nineties” packaging, Neil and Chris made the album something special.
Commercially, Very went on to top the UK album chart — a first for the Pet Shop Boys — and it also placed within the Top 20 in America. Other artists such as Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner and Blur employed the duo during this period for songwriting and remixes. And with the consecutive releases of Behaviour, Very and, eventually, 1996’s Latin-flavored Bilingual, Tennant and Lowe cemented their status as dance music’s most thoughtful, sophisticated gentlemen in a decade that saw many of their contemporaries either fall by the wayside or reposition themselves as mere nostalgia acts.
So do yourself a favor: pull out Very, especially if you haven’t listened to it in years — or even if you’ve never heard the album. Chances are, you’re going to find it’s one of those that’s more than stood the test of time.
Or, we made it simple for you — give the record a spin via the playlist up above. I’ll say I think it’s good for you.