Pet Shop Boys fans know better - why bother sharing?

Ben Wener
The Orange County Register

No one I know, nor ever met, shares my deep love of Pet Shop Boys. I hardly ever come across people who know who they are anymore, actually.

It's been 20 years since Neil Tennant's deadpan rap over the austere groove of "West End Girls" leapt out of the subversive shadows that Soft Cell had darkened and, like "Tainted Love" before it, topped the singles charts for a season. Yet that's all most people remember them for.

I'm sure millions who tuned in to "Dancing With the Stars" Wednesday night and saw them performing hadn't a clue who they were -- or just figured they disappeared years ago.

Test yourself: After "West End Girls," Pet Shop Boys scored five more Top 40 hits, three of which squeaked into the Top 10 but one of which nearly hit the top as well. How many can you name?

If you can cough up at least three or four, you're disqualified. You're not fooling anyone: You're clearly a frequent Pet Shop Purchaser who was very likely relishing the fact that the same night that nasally, arch Tennant and stoic, silent Chris Lowe were appearing on the cheesiest show of the decade they were also staging perhaps their most satisfying show yet at the Wiltern LG theater in Los Angeles.

If you're not such a person, then you must be stuck in the `80s, a sociological phenomenon I suspect grows exponentially as each year passes. That era's music is all you listen to, so you recall that PSB had a fairly significant amount of hits, though you're equally aware that their chart activity here came entirely in a two-year span. By the time "Domino Dancing" salsa-ed its way to No. 18 in `88, most of your friends were done with the Boys.

After that time only three types of people have remained ardent. The sorts of fans who have kept up as the duo's output has evolved over nine albums, at least half of which have established Pet Shop Boys as one of the most imaginative, intelligent and enjoyable pop outfits ever.

They're the sort of fans who have come to the group and its troupe time and again for theatrical, thought-provoking entertainment of a sort only Madonna does as well -- disco as supreme art. They come, too, because they know such fascinating performances are rare; their two Wiltern dates were PSB's first in L.A. in four years.

These uber-fans are, from most populous to least:

  • Gay men, because boys love Boys.

  • Dance-music or electronics enthusiasts, which is a fancy of way of saying "disco fans."

  • Critics, who, feeling enamored but often alone among their rock- and rap-loving colleagues, tend to look upon Pet Shop Boys as a prized possession. I'm as passionate and obsessive about their music and artistry, for example, as I am about Steely Dan's -- an entirely different thing, I realize, but the levels of complexity and clever urbanity and incisive intellectualism within the grooves are just as deep.
  • So it could simply be that I don't much hang `round with a crowd that listens to this stuff any more than I hang with Dan fans. I should revise my opening statement, however. I have known two people who love Pet Shop Boys as much as I do.

    One I almost married. The other was a charming gay acquaintance I came to know when I married someone else. The former eventually came to wonder if I were gay. The second and I once had a conversation that went like this:

    He: "You love Pet Shop Boys."

    Me: "Like you wouldn't believe."

    He, after a quizzical pause: "And you're not gay."

    Me: "Not really, no."

    All I remember after that was a lot of silence. Then a lot of laughter.

    But let's fast-forward to this past Wednesday. Stephanie (she falls into the second category of fans) and I find ourselves among a sea of cheering fans -- and the great thing is you really can't tell who is who among us.

    Well, OK, some of us are clearly making it known who we are. Some of us are cross-dressing; others are computer nerds who just left their room for the first time in a month.

    And we all seem to know every song, even those from the unloved, politically PO'd new album "Fundamental," which vividly illustrates Tennant's global disillusionment in songs like "I'm With Stupid" and "The Sodom and Gomorrah Show."

    We delight in hearing the chilly despondency of "Rent" ("I love you/You pay my rent") as much as we thrill to the ebullience of "Opportunities" (there's a No. 2 for you still taking my test) and their wistful yet celebratory remake of "Go West."

    And we picked up on the conceit of the show -- "Art" in the first half, "Pop" after intermission, the best possible representation of the new (over here) retrospective "PopArt." (Note to Goldenvoice: It'd be fantastic in the big tent at Coachella next year.)

    But, beyond telling you that, we don't much feel like sharing the experience. At this point only we seem to care -- why keep trying to let you in on the secret?

    You didn't figure out the answer, did you?

    OK, I'll assume you got "Opportunities," or maybe "It's a Sin." I doubt you got "Domino Dancing" -- or the brilliant "Suburbia." And you probably forgot their cover of "Always on My Mind," right?

    Like I've been saying, Pet Shop Boys are slightly more regarded than a one-hit wonder here. People just don't know what they're missing sometimes.





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