It was only meant as a joke in the first place. The Pet Shop Boys gave their first few releases cute titles, so people would go into record shops and say, “I’d like the Pet Shop Boys album, Please”, or “I’d like their new album, Actually.” They clearly still find the joke funny, having titled their last release, er, Release.
But Messrs. Tennant a Lowe surely bruised cheek with tongue when, in 1986, they made their first remix album, and prompted fans to say, “Give me the Pet Shop Boys Disco album!” Horrors. In the States, nothing was more uncool than disco at that time. But the Brits acted as if the Comiskey Park Disco Demolition never happened. Let’s call a spade a spade here: ABC’s The Lexicon of Love is a glorious, lush, fantastic disco record, and by 1986, there was a whole new wave of UK disco bands (Dead or Alive, Scritti Politti, even New Order) ready to take the trail blazed for them by Heaven 17 and the Human League and start tearing down the Stateside clubs again. Each had their moment in the sun, but none of them could hold a candle to the Pet Shop Boys. Thinking man’s disco had been born.
Seventeen years later, Tennant and Lowe are not the chart darlings they used to be, but they’re a much better band. Behavior and Very, released in 1990 and 1993, respectively, may not have dented the US charts, but were easily the best albums they had ever made. Which made it a perfect time to release Disco 2 in 1994. Yet disaster struck. The album may have contained some of their best songs, but it also had their worst remixes.
Nine years later, the Boys give us Disco 3, and it comes at a curious time for both the Pet Shop Boys and dance music in general. Their 2002 album Release was their most human sounding album yet, with Smiths guitar legend Johnny Marr heavily featured on seven of the album’s 10 tracks. Leadoff single “Home and Dry” sounded more like Fleetwood Mac than typical PSB. Acoustic guitars? Oasis-like sing-alongs? Hardcore fans and clubgoers recoiled in disgust though, while it lacks a killer single like “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”, it was in reality their most consistent album since Very, and the boldest step sonically that they’ve ever taken.
Dance music, on the other hand, has never sounded more sterile. The same drum machines, the same keyboards, the same effects racks, and even the same quarter notes-eighth notes-sixteenth notes-boom crescendos have been utterly beaten into the ground. Dare I say it, but dance music is even more homogenized than your local Mix station playlist. So much for dance music being the new rock ‘n’ roll.
It is therefore very telling that for Disco 3, the Pet Shop Boys chose to put more emphasis on new material than to remix the new standards. Five of the 10 tracks are songs recorded during the Release sessions that didn’t make the final cut. The previous two Disco albums had four non-album cuts combined. It would imply that even Tennant and Lowe knew not to bog down Disco 3 with a slew of useless remixes. And that would be true, for the most part.
Leadoff track “Time on My Hands” is one of the friskiest songs the Boys have done in ages, an icy slice of robotic synth pop the likes of which Gary Numan can only dream of making anymore. Chris Lowe’s disconnected counting in the background recalls a darker update of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers”. Follow-up track “Positive Role Model” couldn’t be more opposite; a sunny raver in the model of Bilingual‘s “Saturday Night Forever”, this is a gay anthem in the making, though it may get overshadowed in that department by their cover of Bobby O’s “Try It (I’m in Love with a Married Man)”. Sure, it was originally written for a woman, but Tennant owns it from this day forward. The simple changing of the sex of the singer raises the complexity of the subject matter considerably.
And then there are those pesky remixes. The beauty of remixes in the mid-‘80s was that it was still a new phenomenon, and because of that, there was no set formula to making one. Some mixers (Jellybean Benitez, Francois Kevorkian, John Potoker) would keep the original track relatively intact and merely add a few extra effects and a couple extended instrumental breaks that the DJ could use to mix in and out of the song. Others (Arthur Baker, John Robie, Omar Santana, the Latin Rascals) were like mad scientists—they’d run kick drums through samplers until they came out sounding like machine gun fire. Not only were their mixes fun to dance to, they were equally fascinating to simply listen to. PSB dabbled in both camps. Shep Pettibone worked with them so much he was practically the third member of the band.
One wonders, then, what exactly led to remixes like Felix Da Housecat’s deconstruction of “London”. As a dance cut, it’s actually quite good, with a nice beat and good chord progression. There is just one small problem with it: it has absolutely nothing to do with the original song. All that is left of the original song are a few words from Tennant, awash in reverb and processing. No verse, no chorus, and not a single instrument from the original track can be found here. In truth, this is less a remix than a brand new song from Felix that just happens to sample a near-indiscernible snippet of “London”. It begs the question does Felix even like the Pet Shop Boys? If so, why would he thumb his nose at them like this by stripping the song of every distinguishable trait? This trend of rendering songs unrecognizable needs to go, now.
The remix of “Home and Dry” fares better, but mainly by comparison to “London”. It contains all of the hoary keyboard fills and snare drum crescendos remixes seem required by law to contain these days, but it also, saints be praised, contains the actual song. They were wise to include a remix of B-side and fan favorite “Sexy Northerner”, but why on earth would anyone strip out its anthemic “It’s not all football and fags” chorus and turn it into an (eight-and-a-half-minute, egads) instrumental instead? The best remix on Disco 3 is the band’s own version of “Here”, which is so respectful of the original track that it’s borderline remix heresy by today’s standards. The piano version of “London” that closes the album is lovely, but ultimately serves less as a shining moment and more as a painful reminder of what could have been throughout.
The true secret to the success of the Pet Shop Boys (chartwise or not, the Boys have one of the most dedicated followings in music) is that they are at the core a pop band, and a very smart one at that. The unwritten rule for pop bands is simple: it’s the song, stupid, and that principle can make the Disco entries rough going. Disco 3 is certainly an upgrade from its predecessor, but some advice for Tennant and Lowe on the next installment, should there be one: do all of the remixes yourselves. That would be a Disco worth checking out.