Audio commentary - Neil Tennant, Chris Lowe & Chris Heath
3 Music video - extended versions
Pet Shop Boys - Pop Art
R4 . COLOR . 166 mins .
E . PAL
Back at the start of the 1980s, pop music was becoming as much about fashion as it was about the music itself (indeed, in some cases the fashion was so loud it drowned out the tune). Fighting his way through the melee of makeup and mascara was one Neil Tennant, reviewer of singles for UK teen music mag Smash Hits. By the time he left that job to devote himself full-time to the electronic dance duo he’d been pottering around with since 1981, Tennant would have seen and heard the best and worst of what pop music had to offer. No surprise then that the band he formed with keyboardist and programmer Chris Lowe, Pet Shop Boys, would turn out to be unlike any other outfit in English pop history.
West End Boys, or How To Be Inconspicuous At A Railway Station
Pet Shop Boys debuted in 1985 with a minimum of fuss; first single Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) was a crunchy, dirty, high-tech masterpiece which served as a proud and cynical statement of intent, recorded with gritty electronic adventurousness by JJ Jeczalik from ‘80s sampler pioneers Art of Noise. “I’ve got the brains,” sang Tennant, “you’ve got the looks… let’s make lots of money.” The single got only modest attention from the media and the buying public, and it looked like Pet Shop Boys was going to be off to a very quiet start. And then everything changed; second single West End Girls - a re-recording of a simple street-cred dance track the duo had put out on Bobby Orlando’s tiny label years earlier - clicked big-time with the wider world. One international hit later, Pet Shop Boys had arrived. And while almost all their ‘80s contemporaries have vanished without trace, they’re still around, still making records and still scoring praise from fans and media alike.
Pop Art, released a remarkable 20 years after the original Orlando version of West End Girls, attempts to chronicle the Boys’ career through their music videos. And in the same way that Duran Duran made themselves into a global megaband via their eye-popping clips, Pet Shop Boys created a unique image for themselves through their own mini-movies. The overarching theme throughout much of their career to date has been icy detachment, even disinterest; while events happen around them, Tennant stands coolly in the background and mimes the song, while Lowe tries as hard as possible to pretend he doesn’t give a toss what’s going on. In an interview to promote their debut album Please, Tennant was already saying that he could foresee a day when they wouldn’t appear on TV shows or in music videos any longer, but instead would get others to stand in for them - a children’s choir, perhaps, or a bunch of soapie actors. Of course, this never happened (though before long, Lowe’s musical involvement with the recordings lessened); it was all a part of a deliberate image of aloofness which provided a unique counterpoint to songs which were, more often than not, purely emotional.
Sir Ian "Gandalf" McKellen in one of his great roles...
Unlike many recent clip compilations, everything is here from the first (and subsequent second) version of Opportunities through to the recent London - a remarkable 38 clips in all. The first-album videos, all shot on a very modest budget and looking like it, are perfectly effective, but given access to decent dollars and a sense of adventure the clips started getting exciting by the time second album Actually came around. The late director Derek Jarman did two memorable clips for this album, and Dusty Springfield was drafted in to appear in another. By this stage the Boys were in the process of making a feature film; called It Couldn’t Happen Here, it was a surreal and largely incomprehensible road movie which actually got a cinema run in Australia, such was the band’s popularity here. The Always On My Mind clip is derived from this movie, and Heart is essentially a deleted scene from it (with none other than Ian McKellen in a leading role!)
With Eric Watson still on board as their regular clip director, the band ventured into new territories: Latin-inspired pop (Domino Dancing), bombastic rap (Left to My Own Devices) and a brilliant cover of Sterling Void’s anthem from the heyday of Chicago house music, It’s Alright. And then, after a very inward-looking, restrained album in the acclaimed Behaviour, the reinvention began again. First a U2 cover, then an oblique ode to technology in DJ Culture... and then the pointy hats arrived. With new director Howard Greenhalgh, the band recast themselves as a kind of futuristic, abstract version of their earlier selves, and Can You Forgive Her? still stands not only as one of their best songs, but also one of their best video clips. The out-there policy didn’t last, though; by the time the next album (Bilingual) rolled around, Pet Shop Boys seemed disturbingly… well, normal. Standard issue dance tracks (Before) and ill-advised excursions into cheerful holiday songs (Se A Vida E) didn’t help, even if the album’s title track eventually revealed itself as subversive pop in the classic PSB style - once you got past the wall-to-wall Latin drums!
You'd be grumpy too if you were covered in 3D spikes...
And so after one more radical image change for the actually-pretty-good Nightlife album (which featured possibly the campest song of their career in New York City Boy), Pet Shop Boys did exactly what nobody expected they would do - they hired former Smiths guitarist, bona fide living legend and one-time Tennant collaborator (in the band Electronic) Johnny Marr, and made a guitar record - and that’s where this compilation ends up (videos for the two new tracks on the CD version of Pop Art weren’t completed in time for inclusion on this DVD).
The sheer volume of material here will be welcomed by the band’s many fans - it’s rare these days for a best-of video compilation to include everything, but that’s what you get on Pop Art (yes, even the clips that Tennant and Lowe are now clearly embarrassed about!) If you’ve ever wondered how Pet Shop Boys managed to stay around for over two decades and still be interesting, this disc’s for you.
Obviously, a good amount of the clips on the disc pre-date both digital TV and, in the case of the earliest ones, digital video itself. So there’s some quality variation to be expected here, and it would be churlish to complain too much about it. The first version of Opportunities is probably the low point quality-wise here; it looks like the master tape used was in an advanced state of decay, and there’s a lot of video noise and lack of resolution to deal with. As the clips get more and more recent though, quality improves exponentially, and the majority of the material here easily looks better than it ever has before. Note that while the back cover claims a mix of 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, that’s not actually the case on the disc - needless to say, you can’t mix aspect ratios in a single DVD title, which is how these clips are encoded. Material produced in 16:9 is offered in letterboxed 4:3 on this disc.
The full capacity of a dual-layered disc has been used for Pop Art, with the layer change tucked away imperceptibly between two clips.
If you’re one of those people that runs away from anything that isn’t reworked in 5.1 surround, start running. Because what EMI have on offer in the audio department is a straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track, encoded at a fairly decent bitrate (256kbit/sec). The cover claims the audio is “remastered”, and certainly it sounds punchy enough. But it’s debatable whether master tape sources were used for the audio on a lot of these clips; on many of them, the audio sounds decidedly compressed, hissy and lacking in resolution when directly compared to the original CD version. Most people will be satisfied with the audio quality here, but if you’re looking for “better than CD” you’ll be disappointed.
The excessive compression could possibly be attributed to the way Dolby Digital handles dynamic range, and a linear PCM track would have been greatly preferred (however, space is at a premium on this disc). Also worth noting is the fact that, like EMI’s recent Duran Duran compilation, clips featuring sound effects and dialogue that doesn’t appear on the recorded version have had their audio taken from the videotape master, something very obvious on a couple of occasions.
One of the pop art menus
It’s a bit of a relief, after suffering through the ridiculously hidden extras on EMI’s Duran Duran and Bowie compilation sets, to find all the extra material on Pop Art easily accessible from the very slickly-designed menus. (Incidentally, selecting an individual song from the track list menu takes you to the song via a really, really nicely-done credit screen for that track showing title, director and top UK chart position). There’s not a huge amount of extra material here - to include more would have meant a two-disc set - but what’s offered is very much worthwhile.
Audio Commentary: A full-length running commentary on each and every video clip from Neil Tennant & Chris Lowe, with some participation from journalist Chris Heath, who’s arguably more informed about Pet Shop Boys than the band themselves. While Lowe spends much of the time sending himself up and being horrified at the way he looks in various clips, Tennant offers some more restrained comments, and often has to be egged on by Heath, who tries - and usually fails - to jog the singer’s memory. Ironically, while Tennant can’t remember some of the big details about the clips, he can effortlessly recall the names of various crew, dancers and extras in them. It would have been nice to have had more comment about the songs themselves rather than merely the video side of things, but then, video is what this compilation’s about.
Extended Versions: Three extended clips, for Domino Dancing, So Hard and Go West. All of these make use of the main 12” single versions of the songs, and all were produced back at the time of release rather than being new creations. Musically, the extended So Hard is particularly good, and the long version of Domino Dancing is actually the song the way it was intended to be heard.
Booklet: A big, chunky, heavy book rather than a booklet, this contains a bunch of pictures and absolutely no information. The DVD version of album cover art, if you like.
A must-buy for Pet Shop Boys fans, Pop Art is also highly recommended for those who remember how good pop music could be in the ‘80s. Not every band from that decade has managed to survive with credibility intact, but the longevity and continued popularity of Pet Shop Boys proves conclusively that it can be done.
EMI’s DVD - mastered at their increasingly skilled Abbey Road in-house facility in London - is not without the occasional quality problem, but presents this archival material extremely well as a whole.