Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Behaviour’ 25 Years Later

Behaviour is an important album with incisive songwriting and mature, sophisticated arrangements. The gamut of human emotion running through the fabric of 10 songs that are highly polished and real. It’s due for a serious reassessment.
Pet Shop Boys

By the end of the 1980s, the British duo Pet Shop Boys had firmly established themselves as one of pop music’s most important creative forces. Their breakthrough “West End Girls” (1985) was an international chart-topper, and they followed with three more singles from their debut album Please: “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)”, “Love Comes Quickly” and “Suburbia”. Armed with Neil Tennant’s barbed wit and Chris Lowe’s electronic wizardry, the duo’s acclaimed second album Actually (1987) yielded the hits “It’s a Sin”, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”, “Rent” and “Heart”. Their high energy cover of “Always on My Mind” became a global smash, leading to their dance-oriented third album Introspective (1988) and another trio of major international hits: “Domino Dancing”, “Left to My Own Devices” and a cover of Sterling Void’s early house classic “It’s Alright”.

As the decades turned and the ’80s were left in the rearview, on 22 October 1990 the Pet Shop Boys delivered their strongest collection yet with their fourth album Behaviour. Although it failed to match the commercial success of their first three releases, it’s an overlooked classic that distills the essence of 1990 into ten engaging pop songs. Behaviour is a triumph that stands as a landmark album a quarter century since its release.

At a time when samples had become all the rage and rave culture was overtaking Britain, Pet Shop Boys decided they wanted to avoid that bandwagon and instead record the album with old-school synths. With that goal in mind, they collaborated with producer Harold Faltermeyer at his studio in Munich, Germany. Faltermeyer is best known for his work with the legendary Giorgio Moroder (particularly on Donna Summer‘s 1979 album Bad Girls) and for his quirky instrumental smash “Axel F” from the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop. The album was mixed by Julian Mendelsohn, one of the best in the business.

Behaviour was created at a time when the world was besieged by turmoil over the burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis. By 1990 millions had been impacted by the disease, and the gay community was roiled by fear, loss, outrage, and the fierce determination of growing activism. In April of that year the death of Ryan White, a young boy with hemophilia who acquired the disease through a blood transfusion, brought a wider awareness and sensitivity to the crisis. As the death toll mounted, the group ACT UP staged highly publicized protests at the National Institutes of Health demanding expansion of HIV/AIDS treatments and clinical trials. By the end of the year, AIDS had become the second leading cause of death among American men aged 25 to 44 years.

It seems strange now given the enormity of the situation, but at the time it wasn’t easy for artists to directly address the crisis in their music, and even in the ’80s coming out as gay could rightly be considered career suicide. Neil Tennant has been open with his sexuality for over two decades now, but in the ’80s he was understandably a bit coy. In retrospect the truth is writ large for all to see in his lyrics. Tennant affirmed this when he told Attitude magazine in a 1994 interview, “I could spend several pages discussing ‘gay culture’, but for the sake of argument we have contributed a lot. And the simple reason for this is that I have written songs from that point of view. What I’m saying is that I’m gay, and I have written songs from that point of view. So, I mean, I’m being completely honest with you here, but those are the facts of the matter.” From the very beginning, Tennant’s lyrics have indeed touched on various aspects of gay life. “Later Tonight”, for example, explores a furtive, secret encounter between two young men. “One More Chance” deals with a man being caught (again) by his partner engaging in anonymous sexual encounters. “Rent” captures the dynamic of a relationship between a “kept boy” and his sugar daddy. “It’s a Sin” is a sardonic look at the seething guilt that some religions drill into people’s heads.

Given that Pet Shop Boys’ rise to prominence coincided with the some of the direst days of the AIDS epidemic, and given Neil Tennant’s bravery and talent as a lyricist, it is perhaps not surprising that he was one of the first major artists to write about the disease. The emotional centerpiece of Actually is the stunning ballad “It Couldn’t Happen Here”, featuring a dramatic string arrangement co-written by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. “It Couldn’t Happen Here” is a shocked and somber reaction to the widespread devastating impact of HIV/AIDS. That same anxiety and melancholy permeates much of Behaviour. Listening to it 25 years later brings rushing back the sharp apprehension of trying to navigate a world that was often unforgiving to someone for simply being gay without the added dread of coping with the harsh fear of a raging epidemic that took so many lives far too soon. The other historical thread that is part of the album’s make-up is the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unraveling of the Soviet Union. Behaviour is a series of snapshots from a time when staggering loss and hopeful optimism were unfolding intertwined on a global stage.

As good as it is, Behaviour marks an unfortunate turning point in the duo’s commercial fortunes in America. Top 40 radio programmers and MTV had never really gone all-in with Pet Shop Boys. Even on Please and Actually the initial singles were supported, but third and fourth singles either weren’t released or failed to match the duo’s success in Europe and elsewhere. “So Hard” became the band’s first lead single from an album to miss the Top 40 in America, peaking at a paltry #62 (in the UK it rocketed to #4). Behaviour reached #2 in the UK, but in America it stalled at #45. It was their worst showing at that point in the U.S., and didn’t even sell enough copies to reach Gold status. Perhaps it’s not surprising given the album’s largely downbeat nature, but it had to be disappointing for the duo. It was the start of a trend — by 1990 the Pet Shop Boys were finished as a Top 40 entity in America, with “Domino Dancing” their final appearance (it reached #18 in 1988 as the lead single from Introspective).

“Being Boring” sets a bittersweet tone for the album. “All the people I was kissing / some are here and some are missing,” Tennant sings, wistfully paying tribute to those lost. “Being Boring” is nostalgic with memories of whimsy and pain. Musically the song is a dreamlike swirl of strings and keyboards over a relentless groove, with guitar by the late J. J. Belle. “Being Boring” traces a young man’s journey out of the closet and into a world of possibility and pitfalls. It’s about a sense of community, and of reverence. At the beginning of the beautiful and provocative video directed by famed photographer Bruce Weber, handwritten words scrawl across the screen, “The song is about growing up — the ideals that you have when you’re young and how they turn out.” As we know, reality can often veer far from the path of the idealistic dreams of youth. Tennant sings in a half-whisper that is often double-tracked and echoed by a line of keyboard. With each verse the swell of keyboards grows until it becomes a glorious wall of sound. It’s a masterful opening, musically and thematically. “Being Boring” is an elegant artifact of its era. It encapsulates feelings that many young people coming out today might not be able to fully grasp, as a quarter century has passed and we exist in a wholly different reality with its own unique challenges. Although it’s widely revered now, “Being Boring” was received tepidly when it was released as the album’s second single (except in the U.S. where the band’s label EMI bypassed it). It reached only #20 in the UK, their lowest showing since “West End Girls” launched them to stardom.

Anybody who has escaped something terrible in their lives — a dreary small town, an unhappy home, an awful school experience — and then imagines being thrust back in its midst should understand the sentiment in “This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave”. Tennant equates his nightmare of being back in a school he hated with the dreadful notion of someone having escaped from communism finding himself again under its shackles. There are subtle musical cues connecting these themes. At the climax of the bridge, at the 3:24 point, a chorus of voices swells into a shouted “Lenin”, a sample from Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second Symphony. The voice shouting as the song fades to black is a recording from the Moscow trials of 1936. Recorded less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia and communism was very much on Tennant’s mind. It’s another bookmark that allows Behaviour to capture so well the zeitgeist of its time. The Wall crumbled, old barriers fell, and suddenly the world opened to new possibilities. Interestingly, the music for the song originated from the Pet Shop Boys’ attempt to record a James Bond theme. They were evidently in line to possibly record a track for The Living Daylights, but the slot was handed to a-ha instead. It’s easy to hear the echoes of James Bond themes past in the song’s hard electronic vibe and edgy reverbed guitar played by Johnny Marr, with whom Tennant had worked in Electronic. Film composer Angelo Badalamenti adds strings, and the end result is a very un-Pet Shop Boys-like song in its harsh and nightmarish beauty.

“To Face the Truth” is a ballad that cuts close to the heart, capturing the stark and painful realization that the person you love deeply not only does not love you in return, but lies and treats you disrespectfully. Sometimes it’s easier to suffer in silence and hope that things will change than face hard truths. Facing truth means action, like ending a relationship and all the complications that entails. That takes a certain kind of bravery, but also an acknowledgement that you might not be prepared to make — that it’s truly over. Tennant sings beautifully in his upper register, his voice laden with hurt. Musically the song is stripped down, mostly just a deft electronic rhythm, pulses of keyboard, and a spritely synth that emerges during the chorus. After two epics to open the album, Pet Shop Boys smartly withdraw inward for a piece of melancholy contemplation.

They don’t stay quiet for long. Neil Tennant has always been known for his acerbic wit, and it’s amped to 11 on “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?”, a vicious takedown of self-righteous pop/rock aristocracy. He mocks the rock and roll hall of fame, and skewers pop stars who take up pet causes and trivialize them. “You’re an intellectual giant / an authority to preach and teach the whole world about ecology,” Tennant sings at one point, dripping with sarcasm. “Tell me baby how you really hate publicity”, he sneers at another. Musically the song picks up on the “new jack swing” style which was popularized at the time by hits such as Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step” and Keith Sweat’s “I Want Her”. The aggressive electronic strut vibes perfectly with the song’s caustic nature. “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” was the second U.S. single from Behaviour, but like “So Hard” is barely made a dent in the pop chart, reaching #93. In the UK, after the relatively poor chart showing of “Being Boring”, the duo felt they needed a hit to maintain commercial momentum. Unconvinced that “Seriously” could fill that role, they followed a template established with “Always on My Mind” and hastily recorded a mashup of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the Four Seasons’ ’60s classic “I Can’t Take Eyes Off You” (as it had been reimagined in a 1981 disco recording by Boystown Gang). “Where The Streets Have No Name/I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was issued as a double A-Side along with “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?” in the UK. The strategy worked, and the single reached #4 (the cover was later released as a follow-up to “Seriously” in America, where it struggled to #72). Bono, who no doubt probably (with some justification) saw himself as one of the targets of Tennant’s derision in “Seriously”, quipped in response to Pet Shop Boys’ cover of his song: “What have I done to deserve this?”

“Only the Wind” is a ballad from the point of view of an abusive spouse. The wind is his anger and it can be swift, like the sudden bursts of keyboard that punctuate the song. The lyrics are rife with lies and denials, and Tennant is genius at projecting aloof insincerity in his vocal. It’s hard to imagine the precise, bookish Neil Tennant in that role, but he pulls it off with perfection. The song ends with the narrator muttering “I’m sorry”, and perhaps he really is for a moment before storms rise again. Angelo Badalamenti provides a lush string arrangement that rises above the simple electronic rhythm and Chris Lowe’s beautiful piano.

“My October Symphony” is one of the duo’s most elegant recordings, a gem of electronic beats and glistening strings arranged by Romanian violinist Alexander Bălănescu and performed by his Balanescu Quartet. It’s another of Tennant’s many songs inspired by Russia. It reflects on the artists who had to operate within the confines of the Soviet reality only to find that now their work is relegated to the same dustbin of history as the empire. They are coming to grips with a new reality along with everyone else. “My October Symphony” is a smoothly flowing song with an almost house vibe piano and trip-hop rhythm. Tennant again multi-tracks his vocals, and a luminous falsetto sample sung by Jay Henry glides along with the strings. Johnny Marr once again guests and adds shimmery lines of guitar to what is truly a remarkable recording.

It’s easy to understand why the hyperkinetic “So Hard” was chosen as the album’s first single. “So Hard” most closely resembles the traditional Pet Shop Boys sound of hits like “Always on My Mind” and “It’s a Sin”. It’s familiar sonic territory for the duo and less challenging than the rest of the album. The couple in “So Hard” continuously sabotages their relationship with rampant infidelities. The verses are delivered in a dry half-whisper, but then he ratchets up the intensity during the bridge and the dramatic ending. He plays up the song’s obvious double-entendre, singing with increasing urgency, “we make it so hard… so hard!” (which, of course, could explain why the couple remains together). “So Hard” captures the fluctuating dynamics of a couple wanting a relationship but also wanting the ability to explore wild sexuality on demand. It’s especially relevant 25 years later when sex is a mere click of a smartphone app away.

The duo veers from a physical relationship seeded with deceit to a sweet romance just beginning to emerge between two young men. Much has changed in the 25 years since “Nervously” was written, but some universal things have not. Tennant captures the breathless anxiety of discovery and young love. “I never thought I could tremble as much as this / your flashing eyes and sudden smiles are never quite at ease / and neither am I.” It’s a private moment that has been repeated countless times throughout the eons as young people begin to understand their sexuality and the possibilities of love. It’s worth remembering that this song was recorded years before gay marriage was even a fond dream. “Nervously” exists in spite of the pitfalls; the discrimination, the fear of AIDS, the very real threat of being shunned by friends, family, even the possibility of violence. All of that is hovering somewhere unseen in the distance, blotted out by the innate human instinct to love.

“The End of the World” was rescued from b-side status when the duo decided at the last minute that the wry and pointed “Miserabilism” didn’t fit on the album (they held it out as a possible future single, but it was finally released as the b-side to “Was it Worth It?”, one of two new recordings released from their 1991 hits collection Discography). “The End of the World” does arguably fit the album better — it’s a smooth and melodic electro-pop gem that fits nicely near the end of Behaviour. It’s possibly the least consequential song on the album, which says more about the rest of the album that about any weakness of “The End of the World”. It doesn’t have the same emotional heft of pieces like “Being Boring” or “Nervously”, but it’s undeniably catchy. “The End of the World” is a hopeful song, someone speaking from experience promising that life does go on even after love is lost.

The album’s solemn finalé “is Jealousy”, a stately ballad that is one of the earliest songs the Pet Shop Boys wrote. It had been considered for inclusion on both Please and Actually but ended up getting held out until they finally got around to it for Behaviour. Tennant’s obsessive narrator stews in jealousy, unable to sleep, waiting for a call from the object of his longing. It rings true with lines that will be familiar to couples the world over, “Where’ve you been? / Who’ve you seen? / You didn’t phone when you said you would”. The orchestral grandeur of the ending, with lyrical plumes of harp and strident peals of electronic brass, is fitting for the ending of such an momentous album. As the fourth and final single taken from Behaviour (except in America, where EMI essentially abandoned the album after the commercial failure of “Seriously”), “Jealousy” was a substantial international hit and reached #12 in the UK.

Fans who collected the album’s singles will be familiar with the stellar b-sides that emerged from the Behaviour era. “Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend” is a sly broadside at an unnamed pop star (ehem, George Michael) who was widely assumed in music industry circles to be gay but was always being photographed and filmed with gorgeous women. “It Must Be Obvious”, about unrequited love, is a sharp piece of atmospheric pop that is good enough to have made the album. “Miserablism” is Tennant’s biting response to the miserable shoegazers that were in vogue at the time — and of course it’s hard not to think of Morrissey, who made a career out of misery. “We All Feel Better in the Dark” is a surreal piece sung by Chris Lowe about losing oneself on the dance floor to the darkness, the flashing lights, the sea of writhing bodies and the loud thumping of the music.

Behaviour should be thought of in the same sphere as another great electronic pop album released in 1990, Depeche Mode’s Violator, but that’s sadly not the case. Somehow Behaviour is currently out of print in the U.S., the only one of the Pet Shop Boys’ studio albums to suffer that indignity. A search on iTunes or Spotify turns up nothing, and on Amazon it’s only available as an import. It’s a shame because Behaviour is an important album with incisive songwriting and mature, sophisticated arrangements. The gamut of human emotion, from love to jealousy, bitter cynicism to sanguinity, fear and hopelessness, joy and hope — it’s all there, running through the fabric of 10 songs that are highly polished and real. It’s due for a serious reassessment. Behaviour stands up 25 years since its release as a masterpiece of pop music that encapsulates a very specific time in our recent history with dignity and grace. For its 25th anniversary, in this age of lavish reissues that chase after the disposable income of older music fans who like tangible product and extensive explorations of their favorite albums, it seems Behaviour‘s milestone is being passed without even a hint of recognition. That should change.