Other Than the Pet Shop Boys
Of course, I listen to a lot of music other than the Pet Shop Boys. Excepting them, this page lists my favorites, in alphabetical order, with brief explanations of why I like each as well as my favorite album and songs. (A star symbol before one of my favorite songs for an artist—which are listed in chronological order—indicates the one that, if I had to choose just one, would be my absolute favorite by that artist. When you see the symbol , you can click on it for "footnotes": popup elaborations and digressions. But if you have a popup blocker it may prevent these notes from appearing.)
I also note any interesting "PSB connections" that I'm aware of with each artist. But in an attempt to keep the burgeoning length of those connections under control, I've adopted several "rules." So I no longer count:
- mutual releases (albums or singles) that have identical or similar titles
- record companies in common
- The Mail on Sunday promos in common
- special "Record Store Day" releases in common
- charities favored by both artists
- instances where PSB and one of the artists listed here have mutually covered different songs written by the same third party—although I would note it if they had both covered the exact same song
For some artists my lists of PSB connections are still awfully long, so I reserve the right to impose additional rules as the mood hits or the need arises. That is, if I already have a large number of PSB connections for any given artist, it raises the bar for any further additions; a connection I might add if I currently have only two or three might not be added if I already have nine or ten.
Incidentally, just because I don't list an artist here doesn't mean that I don't like them. I sometimes get emails from site visitors who, after viewing this page, ask me, "How come you don't like ?" (New Order and the Smiths are frequent objects of this question.) The fact is that I do "like" many artists not listed here. It's just that they're not among my "favorites"those whom I like especially. But I have to limit the number that I list here; otherwise the designation "favorite" would be meaningless.
= Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee (yes, my tastes are terribly mainstream)
The purest pop of the seventies, although they did some of their finest work in the early eighties. Benny and Björn wrote better songs in their second language than most songsmiths can compose in their native tongues. And as a group they reportedly turned down an offer of a billion dollarsthat's a thousand-million to our British friendsfor a one-off reunion tour back in the 1990s. How cool is that?
First album I owned: Greatest Hits (1976)
Favorite album: Super Trouper (1980)
Their next-to-last studio album, but the one that convinced me that Abba was far more than a "singles band." Actually, I think the best is a virtual toss-up between this and their final album, The Visitors, but in a pinch I'll go with Super Trouper. The tie-breaker probably boils down to "The Winner Takes It All." While it's not one of my three personal Abba favorites (see below), it is, from a more objective standpoint, a leading candidate for their finest recording. What's more, the title track contains my single favorite line from any Abba song: "The sight of you will prove to me I'm still alive." Now, if that isn't a damn fine line in a pop song, I don't know what is.
- "Dancing Queen" (1976, from the album Arrival)
I know it's a terribly obvious choice. But, tell me, how can anyone not love this song? Besides, it was the first Abba hit that made me appreciate them as more than a quaint Scandanavian novelty with bubblegum appeal. I stood corrected.
- "Lay All Your Love on Me" (1980, from Super Trouper)
Like a Lutheran chorale set to a dance beat, and I do mean that as a compliment. Besides, I have a wonderful memory of being in a predominantly lesbian dance-club in St. Paul, Minnesota, when the DJ put this record on. The crowd went nuts.
- "One of Us" (1982, from The Visitors)
One of the most beautiful choruses in pop music history, and so sad it makes you want to bawl out loud. When, at the very beginning, that choral melody fades in—a lone, wordless female voice singing to mandolin and accordion accompaniment—it sounds as though it's coming from another dimension, where self-destructed dreams are memorialized for eternity: forever longing, forever in regret.
Recommended DVD: The Definitive Collection (2002)
- Although he and Chris are professed admirers of Abba's music, Neil once said of Erasure's Abba-esque EP, "We would never have done that."
- Several reviewers have pointed out the thematic, structural, and even stylistic similarities between PSB's "The Way It Used to Be" and Abba's late "post-marital" songs like "The Winner Takes It All" and "When All Is Said and Done."
- In late May 2009, in response to a Popjustice Twitter listing his three favorite Abba songs, Chris twittered back a message that suggested his own two faves were "The Winner Takes It All" and "The Name of the Game."
- The music of quite a few artists—including several cited on this page—has become integrated into "jukebox musicals." (The Beach Boys, the Beatles, Billy Joel, Queen, and the Four Seasons come to mind.) But the Pet Shop Boys share with Abba (and with Elton John) the distinction of having composed completely new scores for stage musicals: Closer to Heaven for PSB and Chess for Abba.
- It's a rather tenuous connection, for sure, but I like it: one of Abba's more bizarre songs, "Two for the Price of One" from The Visitors, shares with the "Possibly More Mix" of the Pet Shop Boys' "Did You See Me Coming?" a concern with personal ads.
Beach Boys/Brian Wilson
Despite the fact that he very nearly destroyed himself and never completely fulfilled his promise, who but Brian Wilson has left such a remarkable legacyso much fantastic musicwithout having fulfilled his promise? His influence as a songwriter and producer is all over the place in music of the last fifty years. And if there were any educated doubts of his genius, Brian's 2004 re-creation of his legendary aborted Smile album as well as his superb 2008 album of brand-new music, That Lucky Old Sun, offer definitive proof. Oh, yeah, he and his brothers, cousin, and friends could really sing, too. In fact, when in "Add Some Music to Your Day" they harmonize "Music is in my soul!" you can damn well believe them.
First album I owned: Endless Summer (1974)
Favorite album (BB): Sunflower (1970)
I fully and readily acknowledge that Pet Sounds (1966) is a far better album—in fact, one of the greatest rock/pop albums of all time. And I enjoy it immensely. But, for some reason, I enjoy Sunflower even more. Maybe it's because I feel that Pet Sounds is almost like a Brian Wilson solo album with Beach Boys vocals, whereas Sunflower is indisputably a Beach Boys album, with nearly equal contributions from every member. It showed Dennis Wilson at his peak as a singer and songwriter (the man was a lot more than just "the Beach Boys' drummer"), and baby brother Carl did some of his all-time greatest singing while coming into his own as the inheritor of Brian's mantle as a studio-savvy producer. And it's also where the Beach Boys wrote the book on the art of background vocals.
Favorite album (BW): Smile (2004)
What a tragic loss it would have been if Brian had never completed his magnum opus. The music may no longer convey the sense of awe and wonder that surely would have greeted it if he had completed it in 1967, as originally planned, but in its place we can marvel that he managed to complete it at all after everything he's been through. And even now it contains passages that rank among the most imaginative things ever conceived in the rock era.
- "God Only Knows" (1966, from the album Pet Sounds)
Brian's melody and arrangement + Carl's lead vocal = perfection. Paul McCartney may have been exaggerating when he called this the greatest song ever written, but maybe not by much.
- "Heroes and Villains" (1967, from Smiley Smile)
Jimi Hendrix once referred to the Beach Boys as "a psychedelic barbershop quartet." Actually, "quintet"—or even "sextet" by this time—would have been more accurate. But I don't think Jimi was being literal. Regardless, he was surely thinking of this masterpiece, with its ridiculously complex harmonic vocal interplay, when he said that. The fact that it wasn't nearly as big a hit as the preceding single, "Good Vibrations"—itself one of the most innovative #1 hits in pop music history—apparently proved one of the great disappointments of Brian's life and helped seal the doom of Smile.
- "This Whole World" (1970, from Sunflower)
Brian's sense of tonality can be shocking. It's challenging enough trying to figure out the key(s) of the aforementioned "God Only Knows." But this one takes the cake. Here he and his Boys adopt and discard keys, one line after the other, with greater ease than a cold sufferer going through Kleenex. Yet it all sounds perfectly natural.
And since Brian the solo artist (if you can truly call anyone with such a large and highly proficient backing band a "solo artist") is enjoying a late-stage career quite distinct from that of the Beach Boys, I'm going to grant him, uniquely among all the artists listed here, a fourth "favorite"—
- "Midnight's Another Day" (2008, from That Lucky Old Sun)
The best song Brian has written—or, as is usually the case, co-written, since he has almost always worked best with collaborators—in more than 30 years: beautiful, emotionally naked, sorrowful yet positive at the same time, and blessed with a stunning arrangement.
Recommended DVD (BB): Endless Harmony (2000)
Recommended DVD (BW): Smile (2004)
- They're both "Boys" bands, after all.
- Neil has cited the BB classic Pet Sounds as one of his favorite albums. (Hmmm Pet SoundsPet Shop Boys.) And he once told an interviewer that his all-time favorite pop song is "God Only Knows" from that same album.
- Mid-song in "Why Don't We Live Together?" the Pet Shop Boys echo (intentionally or otherwise) the unforgettably anti-romantic opening words of "God Only Knows": "I may not always love you." But whereas the earlier song immediately romanticized it with the very next lines ("But as long as there are stars above you/You never need to doubt it/I'll make you so sure about it"), Neil and Chris follow up with the equally anti-romantic "You may not care."
- Both groups have repurposed music they had originally intended for a James Bond film. In the case of the Beach Boys, it was the title track from Pet Sounds, an instrumental initially titled "Run, James, Run," whereas for the Pet Shop Boys it was an early version of the basic instrumental track of "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave."
- In April 2009 Neil said to CNN interviewer Elizabeth Landau, "In the '80s I never sang any harmonies on records. Now I do loads of harmonies. I'm turning into Brian Wilson!"
- In an interview with Rob Fitzpatrick in the April 2009 issue of The Word, Neil said of one of the Beach Boys' classics, "'Good Vibrations' is surrounded by genius, it sounds like it just arrived like that."
- The Fauré Quartett's 2009 album Popsongs features "classical" renditions of both the Beach Boys' "Our Prayer" and the Pet Shop Boys' "Dreaming of the Queen." (As you will soon see, two other artists among my favorites have the same "PSB connection.")
- An unreleased demo version of the Pet Shop Boys' "Forever in Love" contains a brief sample borrowed from the Beach Boys' and the Fat Boys' collaborative 1987 hit cover of the rock and roll classic "Wipeout!" It's someone shouting "Wipeout!" in a very silly voice, appearing near the beginning of the BB/FB track and about halfway through the PSB demo. And, according to Chris, another unreleased track, "Fat Northern Bastards," samples the "ba-ba-ba" vocal segment from the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann."
- On March 1, 2012, Neil and Chris took part in recording sessions for string and brass parts for their next studio album at Capitol Studios housed in the Capitol Tower in Hollywood, California. These studios have served as a favored recording venue for many legendary artists, not the least among them the Beach Boys. Brian's live 2008 performance of That Lucky Old Sun for DVD was also filmed there.
If for no other reason (but there are many), Lennon-McCartney were the greatest songwriting team in rock music history, and among the three or four greatest of pop music history overall. What's more, during their "middle period" (1966-67), they reshaped the musical landscaperedefined the very language of popular musicin a way that few artists before and none since have matched.
First album I owned: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Favorite album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
It's long been fashionable to demote Sgt. Pepper from its even-longer-held status as all-time greatest album. Its predecessor Revolver often turns up in its place at the top rank of Beatles recordings—and not without good reason. I succumbed to the temptation myself for a while. But I've never been a slave to fashion, at least for very long. Sgt. Pepper still does it for me. Yes, it's a truly astounding collection of songs, but you can say that about many (if not most) Beatles albums. Yes, the term "studio wizardry" was probably coined to describe it, but George Martin was Old Faithful in that regard. For me, it's simply the sheer impact it had on the world (if you weren't there at the time, you might have trouble understanding) as well as on me personally. I liked popular music well enough before it. But after Sgt. Pepper, I loved popular music. For that I'll always be grateful.
- "Strawberry Fields Forever" (1967, from the album Magical Mystery Tour)
A revolution in popular music unfolding before our eyes—or, in this case, our ears.
- "Penny Lane" (1967, from Magical Mystery Tour)
The flipside of that revolution, both literally and figuratively. As another writer has put it (and I paraphrase), one song tears down a world, while the other builds it up again.
- "A Day in the Life" (1967, from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)
The final shot in that revolution—the sound of our world changing.
Recommended DVD: Anthology (1995)
- Several PSB tracks include overt references to Beatles songs or other strong connections to the Beatles.
- The Beatles (aka "the White Album") was the first album Neil ever bought, and he taught himself to play guitar studying Beatles songbooks.
- Chris has said that the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night was the first film that he ever saw and that he was a big fan in his pre-teen years.
- Neil worked with Paul McCartney on the Twentieth-Century Blues project.
- Neil has credited John Lennon ("Strawberry Fields Forever," in particular) as a major influence on his style as a lyricist.
- The Boys remixed "Walking on Thin Ice" for Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono (and performed it live on stage with her in June 2005).
- Neil and Chris had once seriously considered performing a cover version of the Beatles' "The Fool on the Hill" but, after rehearsals, decided against it.
- The Beatles' "She Loves You" was selected by Neil as one of his Desert Island Discs when he appeared on that famous BBC radio show in February 2007.
- Chris has noted that the Boys' 2002 "University Tour" was inspired by the fact that the first Paul McCartney and Wings tour was of U.K. universities.
- The album title Yes was partly inspired by an artwork that Yoko had created in the 1960s, in which one had to climb a ladder to read the tiny inscription "Yes!" on the ceiling. (The "pre-Yoko" John was rather impressed by this piece, which thereby played a role in bringing John and Yoko together.)
- In an interview with the Boys in the German edition of Rolling Stone in March 2009, Neil speculates rather facetiously whether, if they were to break up, they would end up writing bitter songs about each other, just as Lennon and McCartney did. Neil refers to Lennon's especially nasty song about McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" (specifically the blatantly false but nevertheless brilliant double-entendre "The only thing you done was yesterday") in words that the article translates as "richtige Scheiße." I believe that would best translate back, at least idiomatically, as "righteous shit."
- The working title of the Pet Shop Boys' 1987 feature film It Couldn't Happen Here was reportedly A Hard Day's Shopping—clearly an ironic and perhaps even self-deprecating nod to the Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night (1964).
- Stella McCartney, mentioned in the lyrics of the PSB/Robbie Williams collaboration "She's Madonna," is of course the daughter of Sir Paul McCartney.
- Neil once told an interviewer how "very exciting" he felt it was to be able to record at Abbey Road, partly because the Beatles used to record there as well. Abbey Road is of course the title of the final studio album recorded by the Beatles, and Abbey Road Demos is the title given to one of the earliest and most famous PSB bootlegs.
- Chris has said that the "sound" of the PSB track "Luna Park" was somewhat inspired by that of the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
- The Boys were among the artists who in late 1999 "personalized" copies of the sleeve of the re-issued John Lennon single "Imagine" to raise money for charity. Neil and Chris added a speech bubble to a photo of Lennon, saying "Cliff is over if you want it"—a parody of his famous "War is over if you want it" slogan that refers to Cliff Richard's "The Millennium Prayer" having recently been the #1 single on the UK charts. The personalized sleeves were then auctioned off to the highest bidder. (No word on who bid highest for the PSB contribution.)
- On Christmas Eve 2009, Neil shared with Bernadette McNulty of the Telegraph his personal choice of a "Christmas playlist." Three of the ten songs were Beatles-related in one way or another: "Christmas Time (Is Here Again)," a rarity released by the Beatles in 1967 exclusively to their official fan club members; "All I Want for Christmas Is a Beatle" by Dora Bryan, a novelty song released during early U.K. Beatlemania in 1963; and John and Yoko's latter-day holiday classic "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."
- Apparently some copies (no one's sure how many, but very few) of Disc 2 of the 1986-87 CD reissue of John Lennon/Yoko Ono 1972 album Some Time in New York City were mistakenly pressed with the PSB album Please rather than the "Live Jam" it's supposed to have. The Lennon release was on Capitol/Parlophone, a subsidiary of the Boys' label, EMI. So the two CDs were probably pressed at the same facility, thereby enabling the blunder. An anomalous, rare, quite collectible—and quite valuable—error.
- Paul McCartney shares with the Pet Shop Boys the distinction of having composed a ballet. The Tennant/Lowe work is, of course, The Most Incredible Thing. Sir Paul's is titled Ocean's Kingdom, and it premiered in September 2011 at the New York City Ballet.
- Speaking of The Most Incredible Thing, the Beatles were included among 300 artists whose names quickly flashed on an overhead screen during live performances of the 12 o'clock segment "The Clock 10-11-12." (Yoko Ono was listed as well.)
Talk about great songwriters! How deep was their well of inspiration? And while I'm no huge fan of Barry's singing (he's a little too "breathy" for my taste, and I think he overuses his falsetto), Robin was one of the most distinctive vocalists in rock/pop music history. I'm also impressed by the way that they were repeatedly able to re-emerge, phoenix-like, from setbacks and changes in fashion that would have hurled lesser talents into permanent "Whatever became of ?" status. Though they were underrated (when not outright derided) by rock critics for much of their career, I'm gratified that by the dawn of the
21stcentury they came to be generally recognized as the giants they truly were.
First album I owned: Best of Bee Gees (1969)
Favorite album: Main Course (1975)
The album that saved the Gibb brothers' career. And it's darn easy to see why. After a string of near-disastrous flops, they were searching for new directions. This album betrays some of the creative dabbling they were engaged in at the time, with healthy doses of pre-disco R&B (its three big hits are not "disco," despite what anyone else might think) and C&W (such as the excellent "Come On Over," later covered in a hit version by Olivia Newton-John). But out of relative desperation came great pop art. There's not a lame song in the batch, and I can't think of another Bee Gees album I can honestly say that about (though they came close with the much later ESP and One).
- "Nights on Broadway" (1975, from the album Main Course)
If the previous single "Jive Talking" had shown the world that there was more to the Gibbs than lush (if soulful) Edwardian romanticism, this one proved it was no fluke. And it did so with a musical muscularity lacking in its predecessor.
- "Fanny (Be Tender with My Love)" (1975, from Main Course)
A gorgeous statement of the fear that comes with realizing that, in opening yourself up to love, you also open yourself up to a world of hurt.
- "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1993, from Size Isn't Everything)
And here, nearly two decades later, is that very hurt given even more gorgeous expression. You can't help but be moved when Robin delivers his astonishing lead vocal in the chorus.
Recommended DVD: One Night Only (1997)
- Most obviously, in 2012 PSB covered the Bee Gee's classic 1968 hit "I Started a Joke" in tribute to Robin Gibb, who had passed away earlier in the year. They had previously used the original Bees Gees recording—a personal favorite of theirs—as the "audience leaving" music for one of their tours (possibly the 2002 Release tour).
- Chris has said that the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album, dominated by the Bee Gees, was a major influence on him, inspiring his love of dance music. He reiterated this fact (specifically citing the song "Night Fever") during the week of April 13, 2009, on BBC Radio 2's Tracks of My Years, a weekly feature that asks artists to choose songs that "changed their life." And when asked by Johnny Marr in an interview, "What band would you like to have been in for a day?" Chris replied, "…the Bee Gees when they were doing Saturday Night Fever in Miami."
- Blue Weaver, a keyboardist who spent much of the seventies working with the Bee Gees, also worked with the Boys on their first album, Please, as well as some of their earliest live performances.
- The PSB song "Nightlife" is something of an homage to the Brothers Gibb and is heavily influenced by them. In fact, Chris and Neil submitted a request for them to provide backing vocals for the track, but received no reply.
- Influences can go both ways: the Bees Gees publicly acknowledged that their 1993 track "Fallen Angel" was heavily influenced by PSB.
- Neil affirmed that his own longstanding fondness for the Bee Gees ("I've always loved the Bee Gees' music . they've always been songwriters that we really admired") had inspired him in his graphic-arts contribution to the 1997 WarChild charity exhibition at London's Saatchi Gallery: he designed a "Flashing Light-Box Model of Dance Floor from Saturday Night Fever." He has conceded, however, that it was originally Chris's idea—"a brilliant idea," as Neil put it—though it was Mr. Tennant who carried it out.
- During an interview with Neil and Chris that aired on The BRITs Hit 30 in January 2010, they revealed that the Bee Gees had asked them at one point to produce one of their albums—despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the Brothers Gibb had lost out to PSB as "Best Group" at the 1988 BRITs Awards. But the Boys turned the Gibbs down on account of being, as Neil put it, "overawed" at the prospect—"too scared."
Personally, I'm not very fond of his early "glam phase," though I'll admit that it was revolutionary and produced some true classics. But it's "middle-period" Bowie that I enjoy the mosthis recordings from Young Americans through Scary Monsters, especially the brilliant Station to Station.
First album I owned: Changesonebowie (1976)
Favorite album: Station to Station (1976)
Only six songs, but just one, the marvelously cryptic hit "Golden Years" (wop wop wop), is less than six minutes in length. Bowie stretches out musically and stretches inward psychologically as he searches his soul. Speaking of which, this is the transitional album where the "plastic soul" he had been developing on his previous two albums began to take on the scary techno-experimental gloss that would come to fruition on his next two. But it's in that transition that I find Bowie at his most powerful.
- "TVC 15" (1976, from the album Station to Station)
Apparently inspired by his friend Iggy Pop's dream about his girlfriend being eaten by a TV set. Well, that makes more sense than anything else I've read or thought of. But what it's about is beside the point. I just love the propulsive chorus.
- "'Heroes'" (1977, from 'Heroes')
Love endures even in the face of technology-driven totalitarian repression.
- "Ashes to Ashes" (1980, from Scary Monsters)
Bowie confronts his demons and emerges with one of his most imaginative tracks in a career characterized by imagination.
Recommended DVD: Best of Bowie (2002)
- Longtime avowed Bowie fans, the Boys remixed and performed on the single version (and appear in the video) of his song "Hallo Spaceboy."
- Turnabout is fair play, so the Boys asked Bowie to remix "I Get Along," but he declined on account of his hectic schedule at the time.
- The Thin White Duke served as the inspiration for the PSB song "Friendly Fire."
- In February 2007, Neil chose Bowie's "Changes" as one of his Desert Island Discs.
- A lengthy interview with Neil specifically on the subject of Bowie's music and careerincluding his influence on the Pet Shop Boysappears in the January 2007 issue of Record Collector. Neil notes, "David Bowie transformed the way I felt about music," and reveals that whenever he and Chris perform their song "Sexy Northerner" live he has to restrain himself from impersonating Bowie vocally.
- Neil has also said that he was "channelling David Bowie" for part of the song "All Over the World"—specifically the line "It's something… that look in your eyes tonight," which has, in Neil's words, a "Bowie-like verse melody."
- Bowie was involved in the same Threepenny Opera anniversary project that led to Neil and Chris recording "What Keeps Mankind Alive?"
- Neil invited Bowie to take part in his Twentieth-Century Blues Noël Coward tribute project, but he declined.
- Bowie's unforgettable (and, at the time, almost unbelievable) 1977 duet with Bing Crosby, the medley "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," was one of the tracks chosen by Neil for his "Christmas playlist," as told to Bernanette McNulty of the Telegraph on Christmas Eve 2009.
- Johnny Marr has described himself as "the Carlos Alomar of the Pet Shop Boys"—a metaphor that means absolutely nothing to anyone who doesn't recognize the name of David Bowie's perennial guitarist. Alomar has appeared in a supporting role on Bowie's albums more often than any other single musician.
- The Pet Shop Boys wrote but decided against releasing a tribute to the cartoon/action figure Action Man, tentatively titled "If Anyone Can, the Action Man Can." (They ended up repurposing part of its music for "I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More.") David Bowie, however, had no such qualms about his own Action Man reference in "Ashes to Ashes," namely "Got a message from the Action Man: 'I'm happy, hope you're happy, too.'" (Maybe it's just the difference between a mere reference to him as opposed to an entire song.)
If I had to declare anyone to be the most original talent on this list, it would have to be Kate Bush. Hounds of Love is quite possibly the best art-rock album ever made. And though it's from a somewhat weaker album, "The Sensual World" never fails to send shivers up and down my spine. Besides, any woman who has the audacity to write a song about her desire to know what a male orgasm feels like ("Running Up That Hill") and to sing a duet with a birdbased on the bird's song, not hers ("Aerial Tal")is pretty darn impressive in my book.
First album I owned: Hounds of Love (1985)
Favorite album: Hounds of Love (1985)
I reiterate, quite possibly the best art-rock album ever made. The first time I heard it (at the urging of a friend), I simply didn't know what to make of it. I set it aside for a few weeks and didn't listen to it again. But something about it drew me. I knew there was something there that I had to get to know better. So I pulled it out and listened again. And again. And again. By the fourth time around, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. I find most of Kate's other albums considerably weaker (only the next one, The Sensual World, is even in the same league, and I'm afraid critical/fan fave The Dreaming weirds me out), but Hounds of Love is where she tapped into something that I can't help but call "mystical," and that's coming from a man who doesn't much truck with the mystic. The sheer beauty of the record, even amidst its bouts of borderline cacophonous percussion, never fails to amaze me, each and every time.
- "Running Up That Hill" (1985, from the album Hounds of Love)
A woman wants to know what it feels like to be a man—in every way. And that involves a man knowing what it feels like to be a woman.
- "Cloudbusting" (1985, from Hounds of Love)
A boy whose scientist father was spirited away by the government, never to be seen again, becomes the man who leads the revolt against that government. Yes, the title's a double-entendre, though with far more serious implications than most. An epic in just over five minutes.
- "The Sensual World" (1989, from The Sensual World)
Inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses but refused permission to quote it verbatim, Kate sets her adaptation of Molly Bloom's soliloquy to music. Ummmm—yes.
Recommended DVD: NoneI'm still waiting for a DVD video collection! (OK, I know there are bootlegs, but I'm not counting them here.)
- Neil met Kate at the Grosvenor House hotel at the 1987 BPI Awards. "She wasn't particularly friendly, I'm afraid," says Neil, "but she wasn't unfriendly. Shy, I think." Both Boys ran into her again at an EMI conference in 1993.
- Both Kate and the Pet Shop Boys have employed the services of the Balanescu String Quartet: the Boys on "My October Symphony" and Kate the preceding year on "Reaching Out" from her album The Sensual World.
- In May 2007 DJ Magnet did an ingenious mashup of PSB's "Love Comes Quickly" with Placebo's cover of "Running Up That Hill" (in the process incorporating a snippet of Kate's original) titled "Love Comes Running Up That Hill Quickly."
- Both PSB and Kate have recorded duets with Elton John. The Boys have done so on "In Private" and "Alone Again, Naturally" (not to mention Neil and Elton both guesting on the Killers' "Joseph, Better You Than Me"), and Kate did so on "Snowed in at Wheeler Street" on her 2011 album 50 Words for Snow.
- It's reaching a bit, but no more so than various other "connections" for some of the artists on this page: the Pet Shop Boys have written and recorded a song called "Invisible," while Kate composed her own "invisibility song," titled "How to Be Invisible," for her 2005 album Aerial.
Between Karen's exquisite voice (one of "effortless depth and… fathomless despair," as another writer has incisively described it) and Richard's equally exquisite arrangements (along with, in some cases, his excellent songwriting), they were able to transform some of the most doleful songs ever composed into timeless pop classics. With their masterpiece, "Goodbye to Love," they virtually invented the power ballad. Please don't hold that against them. In their prime they were unfairly and sometimes cruelly maligned by the rock mainstream, but it wasn't until after Karen's premature death in 1983 that it was generally acknowledged what an absolute gem we had in her.
First album I owned: The Singles 1969-1973 (1973)
Favorite album: A Song for You (1972)
A lovely record from beginning to end, and practically a greatest-hits collection: no fewer than six of its tracks became hit singles, and a couple others garnered non-single radio airplay. Maybe it wasn't Karen and Richard at their creative peak—that honor goes, in my opinion, to my second-favorite Carpenters album, Horizon—but it certainly marked their own imperial phase (to use the Tennant-coined term): their commercial pinnacle, when they could seem to do no wrong.
- "Goodbye to Love" (1972, from the album A Song for You)
Yes, a masterpiece: an almost suicidal lyric ("No one ever cared if I should live or die") set to a sumptuous melody and arrangement, the latter of which was, in its own humble way, revolutionary. In light of what followed, it's downright chilling.
- "Only Yesterday" (1975, from Horizon)
How's this for a prophetic line? – "In my own time nobody knew the pain I was going through." Prophecy aside, this is quite possibly Richard's greatest songwriting achievement, and another astounding musical arrangement. For her part, Karen's lead vocal is so deep and rich you could almost drown in it.
- "I Need to Be in Love" (1976, from There's a Kind of Hush)
An absolutely dazzling track on what is otherwise one of their weakest albums. This was, by her own admission, Karen's personal favorite of their recordings—an aching ode to loneliness. There are those chills again.
Recommended DVD: Close to You Remembering the Carpenters (1997)
- In the same year, 1987, the Pet Shop Boys and Richard Carpenter both released collaborations with Dusty Springfieldthe Boys, of course, on "What Have I Done to Deserve This?," and Richard on the song "Something in Your Eyes" from his solo album Time.
No one has made utter despair sound so appealing. And even when they're not despairing, as in the magnificent "Enjoy the Silence," they sound as though they are, which is tougher than you might think. I don't much like watching them performsomething about Dave Gahan's stage presence rubs me the wrong waybut I do love listening to them.
First album I owned: Violator (1990)
Favorite album: Violator (1990)
The only DM album I enjoy in its entirety. Besides, any album that could boast "Enjoy the Silence" right there has potential for classic status. "Personal Jesus," with its grungy take on techno—or was it a techie take on grunge?—is nothing to sneeze at, either. The album's overall excellence is underscored by its other two hit singles. The Mode had truly hit their stride. Besides, Neil has said of Violator that he and Chris found themselves "deeply jealous" of it. Who am I to argue with that?
- "Never Let Me Down Again" (1987, from the album Music for the Masses)
This is what happens when you open the factory doors to young men with synths, samplers, and quasi-gothic, quasi-homoerotic sensibilities. Fun fact: the song makes the most sense when you interpret it as one astronaut speaking to another ("We're flying high—we're watching the world pass us by"), even if that does turn the title into a slightly creepy multi-level pun.
- "Enjoy the Silence" (1990, from Violator)
As I said, magnificent. "All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, is here in my arms." I've never heard being in love described more succinctly.
- "World in My Eyes" (1990, from Violator)
It would be completely solipsistic if they weren't trying to share their vision. Those backwards effects summarize it perfectly: the sound of the universe being sucked into the black hole of one's mind.
Recommended DVD: Videos 86>98+ (2002)
- In the November 8, 1984 issue of Smash Hits, journalist Neil Tennant reviewed the DM single "Blasphemous Rumours," describing it as "a routine slab of gloom in which God is given a severe ticking off."
- Years later, after having himself become a famous musician, Neil noted that "Enjoy the Silence" was an influence on PSB during the recording of Behaviour, particularly on the song "The End of the World." In fact, the entire album Violator proved a spur to our heroes. Neil has been quoted as saying, "We were listening to Violator by Depeche Mode, which was a very good album, and we were deeply jealous of it," to which Chris reportedly added, "They had raised the stakes."
- As with the Bee Gees, influences go both waysand in this case in the same song. Reportedly it was the Pet Shop Boys' influence that inspired DM to give "Enjoy the Silence" a strong dance beat. (It seems they originally considered it more of a ballad.)
- Neil and Chris, performing with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr as Electronic, served as the Mode's opening act for a pair of concert dates in Los Angeles in August 1990.
- Both Neil and DM's Martin Gore appeared in the 2009 TV documentary Synth Britannia.
- PSB and DM both headlined the mid-October 2009 Personal Festival in Argentina.
- When, on the Pandemonium Tour's performance of "Viva la Vida," Neil came out in his crown and kingly robes, I bet I wasn't the only one who immediately thought of Depeche Mode's video for "Enjoy the Silence."
- A rare 1986 vinyl EP released as a promo by Record Mirror magazine features the Pet Shop Boys' "In the Night" along with Depeche Mode's "Dressed in Black" (prior to its subsequent release on Black Celebration) and two other tracks by the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J.
The Divine Comedy
Neil Hannonwho is The Divine Comedyhas established a place for himself in the post-1990 pop music world as perhaps its single foremost practitioner of the art song. His work is breathtakingly imaginative, and while this native of Northern Ireland sometimes flirts daringly with the rococo and the twee, the fact that he nearly always manages to avoid such pitfalls renders his heavily orchestrated achievements all the more impressive. As he walks his musical tightrope between the comic and the tragic, he has become an Irish/U.K. national treasure. Thank goodness the rest of the world can enjoy the treasure as well.
First album I owned: Victory for the Comic Muse (2006)
Favorite album: Casanova (1996)
An artistic and commercial triumph both for The Divine Comedy and for 'nineties pop in general. You can't listen to this album without marveling at both Hannon's songwriting talent and his skill as an arranger. It's not without a good deal of humor, too—a common (though not ubiquitous) thread in Hannon's work—yet it always has a sad edge to it. That tension proves especially effective on Casanova.
- "The Frog Princess" (1996, from the album Casanova)
In which Mr. Hannon uses a fairy tale as a metaphor for a relationship with a young woman who would've been far better off left alone. The guillotine is an especially nice touch.
- "Becoming More Like Alfie" (1996, from Casanova)
You might think that adopting a retro-swinging-sixties Bacharach-ish style (it was, after all, Burt Bacharach who co-wrote the 1966 hit "Alfie") for this delightful sketch of a frustrated idealist on the verge of giving himself over to hedonism is just too obvious. But you'd be wrong. It only seems too obvious because Neil Hannon thought of it for you. The unstated corollary is that Alfie ultimately became disenchanted with his hedonism, lending a delicious irony to this song's deceptively flippant attitude. What's it all about, indeed.
- "Our Mutual Friend" (2004, from Absent Friends)
A one-night love triangle set to chamber music with a relentless, driving beat. I'm there with you, buddy.
Recommended DVD: So far the only full-length DVD is Live at the London Palladium (2004), available from the U.K. in PAL format. I haven't seen it yet, but hope to soon.
- The Pet Shop Boys and Neil Hannon are professed admirers of each other's music. Neil Tennant reportedly once referred to Hannon as "unbelievably talented but, unfortunately, an unrecognized genius."
- In August 2009 Neil Hannon talked to The Guardian about music that inspires him. "If you want it intellectual and soulful," he said, "you can look to the Pet Shop Boys."
- The Divine Comedy (Hannon plus support musicians) performed "West End Girls" during their 2002 tour. They've played it on assorted other occasions as well. And in July 2011 he did a lovely "solo at the piano" rendition of "Being Boring" at the Greenwich Summer Sessions.
- Hannon contributed "I've Been to a Marvelous Party" to Tennant's Twentieth-Century Blues Noël Coward tribute project.
- The two NeilsHannon and Tennantsang backup together on Robbie Williams's "No Regrets."
- The Divine Comedy is the second of three artists in this list—see the Beach Boys, above, for the first—who share with the Pet Shop Boys the distinction of having been covered ("Our Mutual Friend") by the Fauré Quartett on their 2009 album Popsongs.
- As reported in Issue 17 of Literally, both the Boys and Neil Hannon appeared on the November 1, 1996 episode of the U.K. TV show TFI Friday. PSB performed "Single" and "Se A Vida É," while Hannon performed "The Frog Princess." At one point backstage, Neil and Chris spoke to each other about Hannon:
Chris: "He's the new you. He's the new, updated, better-looking version of you."
Neil: "Is he not the new Jarvis [Cocker]? He used to write me letters, Neil Hannon [before he became famous]. He's the son of a bishop.
- The 1996 Divine Comedy single "Generation Sex" features narration by TV personality and columnist Katie Puckrik—who also happens to be a dancer who toured with the Pet Shop Boys' as part of their onstage ensemble on their 1991 Performance tour.
- As noted above, my favorite DC album is 1996's Casanova. Ten years later the Boys would release their own song "Casanova in Hell."
- The Divine Comedy song "At the Indie Disco" explicitly mentions the old hit "Tainted Love," as does the PSB track "I Want to Wake Up."
- The PSB song "Love Is a Bourgeois Construct" is partially based on the Michael Nyman composition "Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds," a cover of which by The Divine Comedy appears a b-side to their 1998 single "Generation Sex."
As a former nerdat least I hope it's "former"I have to admire anyone who made über-geekiness look and sound so cool. Yes, even more than Devo. No, not as much as Elvis Costello, but, then again, I personally don't much care for most of Costello's music. Besides, anyone who can pull off the techno-Cajun hybrid of "I Love You, Goodbye" has my undying respect.
First album I owned: Astronauts and Heretics (1992)
Favorite album: Astronauts and Heretics (1992)
The album that turned me into a Dolby fan. I thought its predecessors (which I bought in its wake) were pretty good, but this one was great. Oddly enough, it turned out to be his virtual swan-song as a mainstream pop artist.
- "She Blinded Me with Science" (1983, from the album The Golden Age of Wireless [second edition])
It's just plain fun, and don't you deny it.
- "Hyperactive!" (1984, from The Flat Earth)
Play that funky music, white boy.
- "I Love You, Goodbye" (1992, from Astronauts and Heretics)
A synth maven ventures down to the Louisiana bayou and falls in love with the local music. This is the song that taught me there was much more to Dolby than his one big U.S. hit.
Recommended DVD: The only one I'm aware of is The Sole Inhabitant (2007), but I have yet to see it myself.
- An "eighties star" who continued to make terrific music into the nineties but was by that time essentially ignored by U.S. radio, where he couldn't buy airplay time except for the occasional "oldie"almost invariably his first and biggest hit ("She Blinded Me with Science"). Sound familiar?
- Dolby can claim an assortment of relatively tenuous, "second-hand PSB links" that, collectively, are probably worth noting. For instance, he produced three albums for Prefab Sprout, one of whose members, Wendy Smith, reportedly used to be a frequent visitor backstage at PSB concerts and whose voice is also apparently sampled in "Heart." Dolby has also on occasion worked or appeared with both Trevor Horn and David Bowie, whose own PSB connections are well-documented, as well as with Bruce Woolley, who provided support vocals on "Integral." And Dolby has written several songs with Allee Willis, who also co-wrote "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" with Neil and Chris. As I said, tenuous—but interesting nonetheless.
- Another bit of a stretch, but on the afternoon of July 15, 2012, excerpts from the Pet Shop Boys' ballet The Most Incredible Thing were performed at the Latitude festival in Suffolk, U.K. That same afternoon, Dolby also performed at the festival, though on a different stage.
Because Andy Bell is so "out" (not to mention a great singer) and because Vince Clarke is the most inventive synth player ever. He's certainly not the instrument's greatest virtuoso—you'd have to look along the lines of Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, or even Wendy Carlos for that—but no other synthesist is as imaginative and emotionally evocative.
First album I owned: Pop! - The First 20 Hits (1992)
Favorite album: I Say I Say I Say (1994)
I think I'm out of step with the bulk of Erasure fandom, for whom I Say I Say I Say rarely tops the list. But I personally like this album so much that I have to admit something you might find shocking: if Vince and Andy could have sustained their work at this level, they might seriously have rivaled my devotion to PSB.
- "A Little Respect" (1988, from the album The Innocents)
I just love the sheer energy of this one. You know, I used to be able to hit that high note myself. Used to. Honest.
- "Blue Savannah" (1989, from Wild!)
A soaring melody and one of Vince's loveliest arrangements. Programmed or not, those are wondrous keyboard runs.
- "Rock Me Gently" (1995, from Erasure)
A perfectly lovely song that's nice enough in its abbreviated single edit. But it's the full-length album version that earns it a spot here. It was Erasure's stated ambition with their 1995 eponymous album to express their synthpop stylings in a Pink Floyd-ish format, and nowhere did they do it better than in this track: a ten-minute magnum opus that comes across as a beautiful nightmare.
Recommended DVD: Hits! The Videos (2003)
- They're contemporaneous synthpop-songwriting duos with openly gay lead singers.
- There's a widespread perception of an intense rivalry between the two groups, but this seems largely a product of fandom's collective imaginationor, at most, a holdover, no longer applicable, from their earliest days. Clarke has described himself as a PSB fan and has referred to Chris and Neil as "great composers," while Andy has said, "I've always been a fan of PSB's music and would love to sing on one of their disco tracks." Andy has also described Erasure as "the poor man's Pet Shop Boys," which he clarified by adding that Erasure's roots were more "working class."
- On a more concrete level, Stephen Hague, who has often worked with the Boys, produced Please, and provided additional production for Very, also produced Erasure's album The Innocents. In fact, Erasure and PSB have shared numerous other producers, engineers, and remixers, among them David Jacob, Phil Harding, Mark Stent, Shep Pettibone, and Bob Kraushaar.
- In the documentary Pet Shop Boys: A Life in Pop, comedian Matt Lucas jokes that PSB are "almost as good as Erasure."
- Like Martin Gore (noted above under Depeche Mode), Vince appeared in the 2009 TV documentary Synth Britannia, in which Neil also appeared.
- Vincent Frank—better known as Frankmusik—remixed the Pet Shop Boys' "Love etc." and produced Erasure's 2011 album Tomorrow's World.
Fleetwood Mac (the Buckingham-Nicks edition)
With this much songwriting, vocal, and production talent, plus more inner turmoil than Mount Etna, this band might be described as a Beach Boys for the seventiesonly the Beach Boys were still around then, if past their prime. Lindsay worshiped at the altar of Brian, and small wonder Christine hooked up with Dennis for a while: they were naturals. Meanwhile, Stevie's witch fixation, once somewhat annoying, has grown quainter with time. I mean, you gotta love such charming oddballism. Besides, anyone who can write a song as deeply anguished as "Silver Springs" can be forgiven almost anything.
First album I owned: Fleetwood Mac (1975)
Favorite album: Tusk (1979)
How do you follow up on one of the biggest-selling albums of all time? Not by doing "Rumours, Part 2," which is pretty much what everyone expected. Rather, you address the burgeoning New Wave head-on by giving full vent to the quirky, sometimes downright bizarre inventiveness that had always been lurking just beneath the surface. Some people at the time actually found it a little shocking. OK, more than a little. Can't help but admire the sprawling thing, even though I suspect judicious editing may have transformed a great double-album into an even greater single disc. But, then again, I'd be awfully hard-pressed to settle on what to cut.
- "Go Your Own Way" (1977, from Rumours)
Great pop born of heartache. The power behind this, Lindsay's side of the story of his breakup with Stevie, is awe-inspiring.
- "Silver Springs" (1977, a b-side eventually released on 25 Years - The Chain)
And here it is from Stevie's vantage point. They're both angry, but Stevie's anger has a more mournful edge. A literal and figurative flipside, this is one of rock's greatest double-sided singles.
- "Hold Me" (1982, from Mirage)
I love the blend of Christine's and Lindsay's voices, but better yet is the delightfully strange arrangement, which tips several hats to the Beach Boys—appropriate enough given that the lyrics were apparently inspired by Christine's tumultuous relationship with Dennis Wilson.
Recommended DVD: The Dance (1997)
- Chris has said that when they recorded "Home and Dry," they initially thought that "it sounded a bit too much like Fleetwood Mac or something," but they decided to stick with it because it was like nothing they had ever done before.
- Another "negative connection": in discussing their rationale for recording Elysium in Los Angeles with co-producer Andrew Dawson, Neil told an interviewer for The Sun, "We wanted that LA sound that's not Fleetwood Mac."
- On at least six separate occasions (including a November 2006 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle; on May 25, 2009, when the Boys hosted the BBC Radio 2 show Wired; and during their June 1, 2009 appearance on the BBC Breakfast TV show), Neil and/or Chris have said that they would like to work with Stevie Nicks. As Neil put it in the Chronicle interview, "I recently heard her song 'Has Anyone Ever Written Anything for You?' and her husky vocals really impressed me. So if you're reading this, Stevie, give us a call." Unfortunately, she probably won't read that here or anywhere else online: Stevie is reportedly something of a technophobe who doesn't even own a computer or other device for accessing the Internet.
- In a December 2009 TV interview with Alan Titchmarsh, Neil said that he "used to hate Fleetwood Mac" back in the 1970s, but he seemed to suggest that his feelings about them are now much more positive. In the same interview he also restated (agan) his and Chris's desire to work with Stevie Nicks.
- Like the Beatles, Stevie Nicks was listed among 300 artists whose names quickly flashed on an overhead screen during "The Clock 10-11-12" in live performances of The Most Incredible Thing. (The Boys must like her a lot more than the rest of "the Mac.")
I debated with myself for a long time about adding the former lead singer of Genesis to my list. I must confess that I actually like only about half of his solo work. But I also have to confess that the songs I like, I really like! When he hits it, he hits it dead on, creating some of the greatest art-rock tracks ever recorded. He's endlessly fascinating, extremely influential, a remarkable showman, and the possessor of a delightfully disturbing sense of humorOK, he makes the cut.
First album I owned: Peter Gabriel (1977)
Favorite album: So (1986)
This is how you transform yourself from a critically acclaimed cult artist to an even more critically acclaimed big-time mainstream pop star: ratchet the artiness down a half-notch (no more), come up with a killer lead single (which, in my opinion, is one of the weaker tracks on the album), promote it with a terribly innovative music video (not to mention a funny one), back it up with a diverse set of really well-written songs, and actually show your comparatively handsome mug on the cover without the distractions of raining, grimmacing, or melting. Giving it a distinct (if enigmatic) title helps, too. Rarely has the thoroughly arty and thoroughly commercial been so deftly intertwined.
- "Solsbury Hill" (1977, from the first Peter Gabriel album)
Gabriel tells us why he left Genesis, effectively employing a musical style that would have been entirely out of place on Genesis albums of the period.
- "Shock the Monkey" (1982, from the fourth Peter Gabriel album, aka Security)
PETA has nothing to worry about in this wonderful blend of quasi-African stylings with western pop: the monkey's a metaphor for human beings in general, and Peter himself in particular.
- "Red Rain" (1986, from So)
You can almost feel the terror in this apocalyptic nightmare set to music.
Recommended DVD: Secret World Live (1994)
- Both Peter and the Boys were recipients of 1987 Brits Awards: Gabriel as Best Male Solo Artist and PSB as performers of the Single of the Year, "West End Girls."
- Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood" is covered by the Fauré Quartett on their 2009 album Popsongs, making him the third artist in this list (along with the Beach Boys and The Divine Comedy) who shares that honor with the Pet Shop Boys.
- Gabriel's 2010 album of covers, Scratch My Back, includes Neil Young's "Philadelphia," which has also been covered—though not yet officially released—by the Pet Shop Boys.
- As noted above under Erasure, Stephen Hague has worked with the Boys on various occasions. Hague has worked with Gabriel as well, such as by co-producing his album Up.
- The 2012 Morten Harket track "Listening," written by Neil and Chris, was partly recorded at Real World Studios, located just outside Bristol, U.K. As it so happens, Real World Studios are owned by Peter Gabriel.
Speak of the devil. Great music, great lyrics, great instrumental prowessin short, they're great. Unlike many, I like both the "Gabriel era" and the "Collins era" primarily because the chief common denominator, at least as far as I'm concerned, is Tony Banks, the finest songwriter and the most tasteful keyboardist of prog rock.
First album I owned: Foxtrot (1972)
Favorite album: Duke (1980)
Very much a transitional album for the band as they settled more comfortably into being a three-piece and straddled the lines between progressive rock and pop. They originally conceived the awesome "Duke's Suite" (aka "The Story of Albert")—a extended prog work with pop elements—as taking up one full side of the album. But then they decided to split it up and intersperse it with shorter tracks that were, in effect, pop songs with progressive elements. In so doing they achieved the best of both worlds, creating something that might be described as complex thinking man's muso pop. Yes, sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, too.
- "Firth of Fifth" (1973, from the album Selling England by the Pound)
Tony's hands are all over this one, from his best piano solo to his T.S. Eliot-esque lyrics. But the real star is Steve Hackett's incredibly melodic extended guitar solo. Breathtaking. (I shouldn't overlook their post-Hackett live ringer Daryl Steurmer, who does an incredible job with it, too.)
- "Squonk" (1976, from A Trick of the Tail)
In a song about a creature native to obscure rural Pennsylvania folk tales, Genesis pretends to be Led Zeppelin and does them all proud. It also just so happens to be the track that convinced them that Collins really could step in full-time as lead vocalist to replace the recently departed Gabriel. I realize that this would effectively damn it some people's eyes, but I'm not one of them.
- "Heathaze" (1980, from Duke)
A college friend once told me that Genesis wrote "hymns," and here's a prime example. Banks uses Fisher King mythology to express deep spiritual despair. Now, I don't grasp the precise cause of that despair, but I don't have to in order to feel it. And Collins nails that chorus!
Recommended DVD: When in Rome 2007 (2008) - Yes, they still have what it takes. If nothing else, their awe-inspiring medley of "In the Cage," "The Cinema Show," "Duke's Travels," and "Afterglow" makes this essential viewing.
- The two bands have connectionsalbeit very different oneswith British songwriter/producer Jonathan King, who discovered, named, and gave Genesis their professional start back in the late 1960s. Two decades later the Pet Shop Boys would successfully sue King for his allegations that they had cribbed "It's a Sin" from Cat Stevens's "Wild World."
- During his stint with Smash Hits, Neil conducted an interview in Philadelphia with the members of Genesis. Afterward Genesis bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford drove Neil for his first-ever visit to New York City.
- Tony Banks (who would sometimes sing backup with Genesis but only rarely would sing lead even on his own solo material) has described his singing voice as "a cross between Al Stewart and Neil Tennant" (Genesis: Chapter & Verse, 2007)—which, at least from this observer's perspective, doesn't leave a lot of room for maneuvering. But that's a moot point since, for what it's worth, I really don't agree anyway.
- In the Boys' 1989 publication Annually, in discussing some of his favorite records, Chris noted in passing, "I still think The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis has some amazing musical stuff on it" (p. 29). In this case, I agree wholeheartedly.
- Both bands have the distinction of writing and recording songs with lyrics partly derived from the last book of the Bible, Revelation: "Supper's Ready" (Genesis) and "Your Funny Uncle" (PSB). Of course, what they do with those lyrics couldn't be much more different.
A grossly underrated guya terrific songwriter. Some of his best songs (such as "The Other Me") are among his least well known, and while nearly all of his albums are excellent, his ambitious song cycle Blaze of Glory particularly stands out. It's a crime that this sensational album is out of print, at least in the United States.
First album I owned: Night and Day (1982)
Favorite album: Blaze of Glory (1989)
It doesn't include any of his half-dozen or so best songs. Yet, taken as a whole, it's Joe's most consistently satisfying album. Aside from its excellent track lineup, much of its strength comes from its underlying concept: a song-cycle about the lives, attitudes, and expectations of his fellow Baby Boomers from their childhood to the vague transition between young adulthood and middle age in the late 1980s.
- "Breaking Us in Two" (1982, from the album Night and Day)
The finest melody Joe ever wrote and is likely ever to write, and that's in a career full of great melodies. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd been listening to a lot of early Steely Dan when he composed and/or arranged this. In fact, it's downright likely: Joe counts the Dan among his early musical influences and has covered some of their songs live.
- "Real Men" (1982, from Night and Day)
A superb examination of what it means to be a man in an age where the very fact that you need to ask such a question speaks volumes.
- "The Other Me" (1991, from Laughter and Lust)
As I wrote years ago in Rock on the Wild Side, "one of the most profoundly sad songs I know." It's the agony of being torn between two people, both of whom you love and neither of whom you want to hurt. And you can dismiss this if you like, but I'm of the mind that Joe's narrative personna here is bisexual, singing about the woman he loves to the man he also loves—which makes it all the more gut-wrenching as far as I'm concerned.
Recommended DVD: Live in Tokyo (1989)
- The Seven Deadly Sins (Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Anger, Envy, and Pride) have been a mutual concern. The Boys featured them (via fleeting personifications) in their video for "It's a Sin," and they again play a role in the track "The Clock 7/8/9" from their ballet The Most Incredible Thing. Meanwhile, Jackson made them the focus of his 1997 album Heaven and Hell, with a separate song devoted to each of the seven.
- Jackson makes passing reference to PSB in his autobiography A Cure for Gravity: "Up close, there might appear to be a million worlds of difference between, say, Aerosmith and the Pet Shop Boys. Zoom out, and they're both pop groups. Zoom out further, and it's all just music." Not exactly a profound observation, Joe, but I still love ya.
Are you now beginning to grasp how important songwriting skills are to me? Long Island's finest is indeed a great songwriter (with a penchant for unexpected harmonic progressions that rivals Brian Wilson) as well as a damn good singer. He's also something of a musical chameleon, readily able to mimic the songwriting and vocal mannerisms of other artists. Take, for instance, "Uptown Girl," an uncanny channeling of the sound and spirit some other favorites of mine, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
First album I owned: The Stranger (1977)
Favorite album: The Nylon Curtain (1982)
Billy's most cynical, angry record—and, for him, that's saying a lot. He covers ample ground, from the plight of unemployed Rust Belt workers ("Allentown") to Vietnam vets ("Goodnight Saigon") to the stresses he and countless others experience in day-to-day life ("Pressure"). And for a guy who had previously done his share of Paul McCartney knockoffs, he semi-mimics John Lennon superbly in the remarkably bitter "Laura." Good stuff all around.
- "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" (1976, from the album Turnstiles)
Billy does Phil Spector in one of his greatest melodies. His vocal performance here is fantastic.
- "She's Right on Time" (1982, from The Nylon Curtain)
A rare thing: a "Christmas song" that's not really about Christmas. Instead, the holiday is a more or less incidental setting for this profession of romantic devotion coming from a man who can't quite believe how lucky he is to have found the woman who loves him. But this track is among my favorites because it just sounds so good.
- "All About Soul" (1993, from River of Dreams)
He doesn't just love the woman: he admires her. The old fighter shows he still has what it takes in one of his final bouts before hanging up his gloves.
Recommended DVD: Live at Shea Stadium (2011) - I don't care if Billy is showing his age. So am I. This is still a terrific concert.
- Billy was born in the Bronxsome sources report his birthplace as the nearby NYC suburb of Hicksville, but he says it was the Bronx, and I'll go with what he saysso that makes him an authentic "New York City Boy." (OK, it's a rather facetious "connection," but it's the best I've got without violating the rules.)
OK, so his work since around 1990 has largely been schmaltz. But it's been really good schmaltz. And back in the seventies, when he was in his prime, Elton was a nonstop hit machineand a composer of terrific songswho made rock fun again. Though the unlikeliest of pop stars, he fully deserves to be precisely what he is: the fourth most successful artist in rock history (at least based on hit singles in the U.S.), behind only Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Madonna.
First album I owned: Honky Château (1972)
Favorite album: Honky Château (1972)
The double-disc Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (admittedly a great album) would have been the easy pick. I prefer, however, this earlier tour de force from Elton's pre-superstardom days—though, in retrospect, you can feel that superstardom comin' 'round the bend. One terrific song after another, each ably demonstrating the Rocket Man's versatility as a composer, vocalist, and likeable chap. Yeah, likeable. It's honestly one of the few albums that I can listen to and say to myself, you know, I bet he'd be a lot of fun to hang out with. And not just because he's filthy rich, either. Besides, he made this album—and I bought it—before he was filthy rich. By the way, honorable mention goes to his criminally underrated 1975 album Rock of the Westies, which I consider his both rockingest and most fun-filled LP.
- "Where to Now, St. Peter?" (1971, from the album Tumbleweed Connection)
One of early Elton's finest moments, milking a typically vague but just as typically effective Taupin lyric for all of its emotional worth.
- "Philadelphia Freedom" (1975, from Greatest Hits Volume II)
In one of his biggest and best hits, Captain Fantastic kills three birds with one stone, paying simultaneous tribute to Thom Bell/Gamble & Huff Philadelphia soul, the U.S. bicentennial, and Billie Jean King's tennis team. Covers a lot of territory, doesn't it?
- "I Feel Like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford" (1975, from Rock of the Westies)
The most outrageous extended metaphor in pop music history. Bernie casts Elton in the role of an Old West farm boy breaking up with his girl. Or is that just part of the extended metaphor? Whatever the case, Elton charges it with one of his best vocals.
Recommended DVD: Elton 60 - Live at Madison Square Garden (2007)
- Elton and the Boys are personal friends.
- Neil co-wrote and "co-sang" with Elton and Brandon Flowers the Killers' 2008 Christmas song "Joseph, Better You Than Me."
- The Pet Shop Boys and Elton also collaborated on a 2005 cover of "Alone Again, Naturally."
- They performed "Believe/Song for Guy" together on the 1997 U.K. TV special An Audience with Elton John.
- Elton participated in Neil's Twentieth-Century Blues project.
- Elton introduced PSB as his "favorite English band" on the episode of TFI Friday where they performed "It Doesn't Often Snow at Christmas."
- That same song was included on Elton's 2005 holiday compilation Elton John's Christmas Party. In the CD's liner notes, Elton writes of Neil and Chris, "Not only are they two of my best friends, but they constantly write some of the best albums to come out of the United Kingdom and I love them dearly."
- Neil attended Elton's 50th-birthday costume party in 1997, resplendently uniformed as a dragoon.
- The Boys performed at the big "pre-nuptial" bash for Elton and his partner David Furnish in late 2005.
- Elton, when presenting PSB with the 2000 Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music, stated that their song "A Red Letter Day" had inspired him to continue making music at a time when he had felt like giving up on it.
- They remade "In Private" (originally written and produced by PSB for Dusty Springfield) as a duet between PSB and Elton.
- Although it's not a "duet" like "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" Elton's 1974 hit "The Bitch Is Back" features Dusty Springfield on background vocals. (I take it Dusty didn't think the title was referring to her.)
- Neil interviewed Elton in a 1998 issue of Interview magazine.
- Neil unsuccessfully auditioned for Elton's Rocket Records label way back in the early 1970s, years before there even were "Pet Shop Boys."
- The Boys have an Elton John pinball machine in their studio office.
- On behalf of PSB, their "house graphic artist" Mark Farrow designed a special full-page message reading "Love, Neil and Chris"—rendered in a style echoing their "Yes era" graphics—for the official program for the 11th annual Elton John Aids Foundation White Tie and Tiara Ball, held in late June 2009 at the Windsor home of EJ and his hubby David Furnish.
- As noted above under Abba, the Pet Shop Boys share with Elton John the distinction of having composed totally original scores for stage musicals.
- Finally, an especially unfortunate connection: Elton generated a good deal of controversy in 1999 when he performed a live version of "It's a Sin" (using the original PSB backing track, with their permission) at a Royal Albert Hall benefit for a gay rights organization accompanied by a group of dancers wearing boy scout uniforms—who then proceeded to strip them off to very skimpy shorts. Elton had apparently wanted to perform the song with Neil and Chris themselves, but they had another commitment that evening and had to bow out. One can only imagine, however, what they felt about the ensuing furor in the press—aside perhaps from being grateful that they weren't actually there in person to witness and perhaps even actively participate in the performance that caused the furor in the first place.
Rickie Lee Jones
Quirky, jazzy, wildly inventive music from a woman who gives every impression of having lived the lowdown she writes and sings about. I think her first four albumsRickie Lee Jones, Pirates, Girl at Her Volcano (actually an EP), and The Magazineare her best. She seems, however, to have at least partially burned out after that. The enduring curse of the "Best New Artist" Grammy, I suppose. But, oh, what wonderful albums those first ones are!
First album I owned: Pirates (1981)
Favorite album: Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
A fantastic debut album that any other artist would have been proud to claim at any phase of his or her career. The songwriting is so varied and accomplished that I can't help but think she must've been sitting on a lot of those tunes for a very long time. Some of her best tracks were yet to come on subsequent albums (especially the very next one, Pirates), yet arty pretensions would creep in, too. But here, on her debut, there's nothing but gold.
- "Last Chance Texaco" (1979, from the album Rickie Lee Jones)
Another extended metaphor, cleverly using a remote gas station to symbolize a desperate final bid at love.
- "Living It Up" (1981, from Pirates)
Rickie's best lyric, best melody, and best arrangement all in one package. And her half-ecstatic/half-tortured scat-singing near the end sums it all up without employing a single intelligible word. Recordings don't come much better than this.
- "Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking" (1981, from Pirates)
You don't often hear musicians having this much fun in the studio—at least not while also crafting such superb music. More great scat-singing in the middle eight (actually, a "middle sixteen" since she doubles it).
Recommended DVD: Live at the Wiltern Theatre (1992) is about all that's out there.
- Rickie Lee, a fan of the musical West Side Story since childhood, covered its "One Hand, One Heart" on her 2000 album It's Like This. Not only did the Pet Shop Boys cover West Side Story's most famous song, "Somewhere" (which concludes with a segment of another of its numbers, "I Feel Pretty"), but they also incorporated a bit of "One Hand, One Heart," recited by Chris, into their "Somewhere" Extended Mix.
- Jon Pollak, who was the lighting designer for the Boys' Somewhere shows at the Savoy Theatre in 1997, also designed the lighting for a Rickie Lee Jones tour in the late 1980s.
- Famed Polish filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczyński directed both PSB's second "Opportunities" music video and, two years earlier, Rickie Lee's vid for "The Real End."
- Rickie Lee Jones and the Pet Shop Boys shared the bill at the 2007 Montreux Jazz Festival.
What can you say about her that hasn't already been said? The woman's as smart as they come: she knows her strengths and, even more importantly, she knows her weaknesses and how to work around them. As amazing as it is that Elton is the fourth most successful artist in rock history, it's even more remarkable that she's #3. But just get a load of the singles catalog on that girl! And anyone who doubts her artistic chops should, if nothing else, remember "Live to Tell," one of the most poignant, emotionally devastating ballads of the 1980s.
First album I owned: Madonna (1983)
Favorite album: Ray of Light (1998)
Anyone who still thought after this one that she was just a "Material Girl" simply wasn't paying attention. Even I, who already liked Madonna (and had since her very first album), was forced to sit back and re-evaluate her. There was indeed a lot more to her than I had previously given her credit for. I learned the error of my ways. As for the music itself, its evocative guitar-meets-techno sound, though hardly original with her, had never before been rendered quite so effectively.
- "Vogue" (1990, from the album I'm Breathless)
It was originally intended as a throwaway, but it turned into one of Madonna's signature tunes: a classic house vibe made palatable for the masses, and pop art of the highest order. One of the all-time great music videos, too. Absolutely iconic.
- "Deeper and Deeper" (1992, from Erotica)
A near rewrite of "Vogue," except now in a minor key. But what a sublime, scary difference that minor key makes! A marvelous expression of the mixed emotions that can grip you when you realize just how much in love you can be, how vulnerable that makes you, and how extremely insecure it can leave you about everything, including the verities taught by your parents. All that as well as its decidedly gay undercurrent makes it irresistible to me. If improvement upon perfection is possible, this just might be it.
- "Music" (2000, from Music)
One of those tracks that are even better on your car radio than on your home stereo. Managing simultaneously to sound both retro and futuristic, Madonna asks a DJ for a leg up on getting down. But I really don't think she needs his or anyone else's permission to boogie-woogie.
Recommended DVD: The Confessions Tour - Live from London (2007)
- Madonna was among the artists interviewed by Neil back in his days with Smash Hits. (His interview actually appeared in its U.S. sister publication Star Hits.) In fact, Neil conducted Madonna's first U.K. interview, before she became really famous.
- In 1986, after the Boys hit it big, they attended her birthday party at London's Groucho Club, where she asked them to be the opening act on her next tour. They politely declined.
- Still later, Neil and Chris considered offering their song "Heart" to Maddie but, by their own admission, they chickened out.
- They allude to her in "DJ Culture" (she's the "she" in "she after Sean") and mention her by name in their unreleased track "Tall Thin Men."
- Interestingly, although Neil has confirmed that he is indeed a Madonna fan, he once said that the only album of hers that he actually likes is her first. Then again, in the December 1992 issue of the PSB Fan Club publication Literally, he stated that he was enjoying her album Erotica at the time.
- Stuart Price, the producer of Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor, noted that at one point while they were working on the song "Jump"which is built around the classic "West End Girls" chord progressionshe cried out, "Pet Shop Boys! I fucking love them!"
- Speaking of Stuart Price, it was surely his production work on Madonna's Confessions album as well as his service as musical director for her subsequent Confessions Tour—replete with his trademark mashups—that led to the Boys tapping him to produce their 2009 Brits hits medley and then their own mashup-laden Pandemonium Tour.
- Of course, our heroes did a remix of "Sorry," the second single from Confessions on a Dance Floor. Madonna was so fond of their mix that she used it—including Neil's recorded vocals—in her performance of the song during her Confessions Tour.
- When Neil presented Madonna with a Brits Award in February 2006, she thanked various British artists, including the Pet Shop Boys, for their influence on her music. Before the show, Neil and Madonna even did a radio interview together, during which they performed a brief a cappella duet of "Sorry" (lasting only a few seconds), with Neil reprising his "Please forgive me" part.
- Chris and Neil collaborated with Robbie Williams on the song "She's Madonna" for Robbie's album Rudebox.
- Angie Becker, the Pet Shop Boy's manager starting in 2009, had co-managed Madonna for several years beginning in 2004.
- Representatives for Madonna contacted Neil and Chris in 2007 asking whether they might have something "lying around" that would be good for her to record. But before the Boys could actually offer anything, Madonna's people phoned back to politely withdraw the request since Madge had decided to "go R&B" for her next album—which turned out to be 2008's Hard Candy.
- The May 2008 issue of Q Magazine contained an article in which various artists (including Elvis Costello, Michael Stipe, Shirley Bassey, Johnny Marr, and Debbie Harry, among others) were asked to pose questions to Madonna, which she then answered. Neil was among those others. He even got away with two questions: "When was the last time you used public transport?" and "When was your last hangover?" Her responses: "On the [London] subway … shooting my 'Hung Up' video [in 2006]" and "Probably after my birthday.… I had a Gypsy-inspired theme party at my house in the countryside. What was I drinking? What wasn't I drinking!"
- In the audio commentary track of the Pandemonium live DVD, the Boys and set designer Es Devlin compare the part where Chris briefly dances onstage with the support singers/dancers during the song "Why Don't We Live Together?" to apparently similar moves made by Madonna in her performance of her 1985 hit "Dress You Up" on Madonna Live - The Virgin Tour. Remarkably, Chris had said more than 20 years earlier—as revealed in Robin Mackintosh's 1988 book Pet Shop Boys Special (page 58)—that among his ambitions was to do a dance routine onstage similar to that performed by Madonna for "Dress You Up." How's that for a long-term vision?
Snicker if you want, but we're all allowed at least one guilty pleasure. Not only were they at their peak the tightest harmony vocal ensemble in the biz, but they could swing their asses off when they wanted to. And while they're all excellent singers, the prize goes to the incredible Janis Siegel, a virtuoso in both the pop and jazz idiomsand there's only a handful of vocalists you can truthfully say that about.
First album I owned: Extensions (1979)
Favorite album: Extensions (1979)
In which the Transfer, with a new member in tow, dropped the most obviously campy aspects of their early nostalgia schtick and moved into uncharted territory, adopting the then-brazen (and still semi-campy) notion that the future is an amazingly lot like the past, only more ostentatiously technological. Nearly every song fiddles with this concept in one way or another, but the archetype is "Birdland"—originally a jazz-fusion instrumental from which the brilliant vocalese pioneer-lyricist Jon Hendricks wove a tale of music past having been so far ahead of its time that it was like living in the space-age future centuries in advance. And in the future, "five thousand light years" distant from the source, humans (and aliens) would still be boppin' to that same music. That, in fact, became the central conceit of the entire album. And dammit if it doesn't work.
- "Birdland" (1979, from the album Extensions)
The Transfer enlisted jazz legend Jon Hendricks to help them turn this Weather Report fusion instrumental into a vocalese classic. So unexpected, and so, so fine.
- "Until I Met You (Corner Pocket)" (1981, from Mecca for Moderns)
Vocalese again, but this time they dig deeper into jazz history, to Count Basie. And the result is every bit as thrilling as "Birdland."
- "Sassy" (1991, from The Offbeat of Avenues)
Just to show they don't have to do vocalese to hit their stride, Janis and the gang came up with this contemporary jazz-pop original that pays tribute to the divine Sarah Vaughan. They do her justice.
Recommended DVD: Vocalese Live (1986)
- This is a stretch, but since there are so few connections PSB/MT connections to begin with, I won't resist. The PSB track "Happiness Is an Option" is based partly on the 1912 classical composition Vocalise by Sergei Rachmaninoff. And the Transfer are renowned as the greatest contemporary exponents of the "vocalese" singing technique. In 1985 they even made Vocalese the title of what turned out to be their most acclaimed album. I told you it was a stretch.
- The Transfer's 1979 recording of "Shaker Song"—a vocalese rendition of an instrumental originally composed by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein and performed by his jazz fusion band Spyro Gyra—boasts lyrics written by Allee Willis and David Lasley. Allee Willis provides a "PSB connection" via her also having co-written "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" with Neil and Chris.
He's an acquired taste, but I've definitely acquired it. The terms "alternative" and "indie" were made for artists like Stephin Merritt, whose hangdog baritone, stark arrangements, and deceptively simple musical structures can make for a challenging aural experience. But once you tap into his aesthetic, you're rewarded with some of the greatest songs of modern pop. A master of mixed emotions, he's by turns forlornly romantic, charmingly lewd, poignantly seductive, jadedly frustrated, and comically caustic. Recording both solo and with collaborators under a bewildering array of identitiesthe Magnetic Fields, Future Bible Heroes, the 6ths, and the Gothic Archies, not to mention his own nameit all boils down to a highly accomplished songwriter carving a unique niche for himself in contemporary music.
First album I owned: 69 Love Songs (1999)
Favorite album: 69 Love Songs (1999)
Working with his best-known, most popular outfit, the Magnetic Fields, Merritt presented a three-CD set that consisted of, yes, 69 songs that examine love from nearly every conceivable angle. (Actually, he's said that it's not an album about love, but rather "about love songs, which are very far away from anything to do with love.") With so many tracks, it's inevitable that some are considerably weaker than others; I can frankly do without more than a few. Merritt must have found that title too salaciously cute to resist. Regardless, there's well over a single-disc's worth of near-genius here. Not only are my three favorite Merritt songs (listed below) in this one collection, but I'd have to say my fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh favorites as well.
- "Busby Berkeley Dreams" (1999, from the album 69 Love Songs)
"Do you think it's dangerous to have Busby Berkeley dreams?" Yes, I do. But when danger is this lovely and evocative, it just might be worth it.
- "Papa Was a Rodeo" (1999, from 69 Love Songs)
Before Brokeback Mountain, Merritt and company told this delightful tale of a couple of cowboys who can't settle down but also can't help falling in love—and staying in love for more than a half-century.
- "The Night You Can't Remember" (1999, from 69 Love Songs)
Ingenious wordplay reminiscent of greats like Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. Yet I doubt even they would ever have written a song quite like this: "The night you can't remember—the night I can't forget." It's almost enough to make you want to laugh and cry at the same time.
Recommended DVD: None that I'm aware of.
- In a 1998 interview, Gail O'Hara (cofounder of Chickfactor magazine) asked Merritt, "Who is the best lyricist in an electropop group?" He cited three: "Me. Neil Tennant. Gary Numan's lyrics are underrated."
- In 2000 Merritt provided Time Out New York with a list of what he considered to be the single best recordings for each year of the twentieth century. For 1993 he singled out the Pet Shop Boys' "Dreaming of the Queen" as the finest that year had to offer.
- Merritt's most prolific band, the Magnetic Fields, was slated to take part in the Pet Shop Boys' ill-fated 2001 touring "gay music" summer festival "Wotapalava."
- On a somewhat more esoteric note, both Stephin and the Boys have shown a recurring concern with vampiresmetaphorical if not literal. Merritt's songs "I Have the Moon," "Crowd of Drifters," and (obviously) "I Am a Vampire," among others, are about the undead, while a Future Bible Heroes album title, Eternal Youth, refers to that particular vampiric trait. As for PSB, there's of course "Vampires," a passing reference in their demo of "A Little Black Dress," and the "Heart" video starring Ian McKellen as a bloodsucker clearly based on Count Dracula. Curiously, however, Neil professed that he's "not remotely interested in Dracula" during a 2007 visit to Romania.
- A connection via Hans Christian Andersen: Chris and Neil's 2011 ballet The Most Incredible Thing is of course based on an Andersen story, while Merritt composed music and lyrics for the show My Life as a Fairy Tale (first staged in 2005), which is based on Andersen's life and works.
Are there any artists whom you really don't want to like, but you do? I have several, but George Michael is the biggest and best of the bunchthe one I like the most, despite myself. It's difficult to say why I don't want to like him. Maybe I just can't get those horrible "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and "I Want Your Sex" videos out of my head. Or perhaps because the title "I Want Your Sex" itself sounds like a line from a bad paperback sexploitation potboiler of the 1950s. Or maybe even because, in my opinion, Wham!'s "Last Christmas" just might be the second-worst Christmas song ever. But I know precisely why I do like Mr. Michael: he's a truly great singer and has flashes of undeniable brilliance as a songwriter.
First album I owned: Faith (1987)
Favorite album: Faith (1987)
Who'd have thought a year earlier that he'd have a Grammy "Album of the Year" in him? With his solo debut? After having been half of Wham!? But the greatness of the record couldn't be denied, producing one fantastic single after another. Well, OK, I could do without "I Want Your Sex." You've got to admit, however, it was tough to beat as an attention-grabber. And once he had our attention, he had us.
- "Freedom" (aka "Freedom '90") (1990, from the album Listen Without Prejudice)
The foot-tappin' biography of a pop star in 6½ minutes flat—that and the opening salvo in his coming-out process. You want more? It's got an unforgettable piano hook and one of the best descriptions of fame in the canon of popular music: "It looks like the road to heaven, but it feels like the road to hell." You tell 'em, George.
- "You Have Been Loved" (1996, from Older)
I can't think of another song that so effectively expresses the almost unbearable anguish and guilt over surviving the death of a lover. I just wish I knew how he can sing it without bursting into tears.
- "Amazing" (2004, from Patience)
Yet, even after that, one can find happiness again. And this is one of George's happiest songs. I can't help but be happy myself whenever I hear it.
Recommended DVD: Live in London (2009) - The concert's terrific—despite the fact that George is clearly uncomfortable enough with his songs' highest notes these days that he almost invariably cedes them to his backup singers and/or the audience—and the stage setup is absolutely fantastic. (It must have cost a fortune!) But I'm especially fond of the accompanying "backstage" documentary, where George comes across as a very ordinary and very likeable guy. In fact, he seems so downright familiar that I found myself thinking, "Gee, I know guys just like that"—except of course none of them is a surpassingly talented multi-millionaire with a British accent.
- Social acquaintances (who once enjoyed, as Neil put it, a "riotous" time together on an airplane), George Michael visited the Boys in the studio while they were recording Bilingual, and he was especially intrigued by the song "It Always Comes as a Surprise." It's likely that it proved an influence on him during his recording around the same time of his album Older, which included a number of tracks with a similarly "bossa nova-ish" feel.
- George has listed PSB among his own favorite artists and "Hit Music" as one of his favorite songs of theirs, although in 2007 he instead chose "Being Boring" as one of his Desert Island Discs.
- Chris and Neil were sufficiently impressed by Chris Porter's and, more significantly, Pete Gleadall's previous work with George Michael to work with them as well.
- George invited the Boys to be his opening act at his 2007 Wembly Arena concert, but they politely declined.
- The PSB song "Bet She's Not Your Girlfriend"or at least its titlewas inspired in part by a photo in a tabloid paper of George on the arm of an attractive young woman.
- During his tenure at Smash Hits, Neil interviewed George Michael and Andrew Ridgely back when they were collectively known as Wham!
- Chris and Neil were among the celebrity guests who attended George's lavish 1970s-themed party celebrating his
30thbirthday on June 26, 1993.
- George, like PSB, performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Hands down, the greatest standalone (words and music) female songwriter in rock/pop music history. And sometimes I'm tempted not even to use the qualifier "female" there. Her songs have more layers than the earth's crust, and are about as deep.
First album I owned: Court and Spark (1974)
Favorite album: Court and Spark (1974)
Not as starkly confessional or as effortlessly tuneful as critical fave Blue, nor as evocative and innovative as my own
second-favoriteHejira. And it lacks either of those records' unifying "sounds." But therein lies one of Court and Spark's chief strengths: its diversity. Expanding on the occasional jazz-poppy inflections of her previous album, For the Roses, Joni lets loose with an amazing set that transformed her from a cultish singer-songwriter into a major star. No longer would she be pegged a "folk singer," a label that was never accurate to begin with. She also began to reveal a deeper, richer alto voice that supplanted her once mildy grating soprano. All together, it made me a fan, and I've never looked back.
- "A Case of You" (1971, from the album Blue)
A double metaphor (a case of liquor and a case of disease) that brilliantly expresses both the positive and negative aspects of love. That's a dulcimer she's playing, by the way, and I have a thing for dulcimers.
- "Shades of Scarlett Conquering" (1975, from The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
There aren't many other women who can turn such a scathingly critical eye toward fellow members of their sex and get away with it. Joni uses the heroine of Gone with the Wind as an archetype for a woman who may gain the world but lose her soul.
- "Amelia" (1976, from Hejira)
An astounding song in which the repeated refrain "It was just a false alarm" becomes a cry of simultaneous anguish and relief over the realization of having narrowly escaped becoming as lostspiritually and emotionally, if not physicallyas the doomed aviatrix of the title, the martyred patron saint of pioneering women.
Recommended DVD: Woman of Heart and Mind - A Life Story (2003)
- Neil has listed Mitchell's Hejira (on which one of my faves, "Amelia," appears) as among his own favorite albums, describing its "Coyote" as "the song I like most from that period."
- In the June 2005 issue of the U.K. magazine Word, Neil said of Joni, "We met her once, in a hotel in L.A. when the Oscars were on. She was very sexy! I told her I loved her records and her reply was, 'I love your videos.' I'm sure she meant to be nice but I thought, 'Agh! You bitch .'"
- Joni was also among the 300 artists whose names quickly flashed on an overhead screen during "The Clock 10-11-12" in live performances of The Most Incredible Thing.
The absolute favorites of my teenage years, just the thing for a sensitive, somewhat brainy little nerd like me. Yeah, the "mystical" stuff sounds like drivel to me now, but much of the rest has stood the test of timeand, regardless, they'll always claim a warm spot in my heart. Whatever else you might say, when Justin Hayward was good, he was very good: such songs as "The Actor," "Lovely to See You," "Question," "It's Up to You," and "The Story in Your Eyes" are superb by any reasonable standards. And it wasn't all Hayward's show, either; the other guys were pretty decent songwriters, too. My pet peeve: they deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it's simply rockist snobbery that they aren'tthe same rockist snobbery, not so incidentally, that will probably keep PSB out as well. Then again, I suspect the Pet Shop Boys (who have repeatedly expressed their utter contempt for the very concept of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) have a better chance of making it than the Moody Blues; rock critics tend actually to like the Pet Shop Boys.
First album I owned: A Question of Balance (1970)
Favorite album: A Question of Balance (1970)
It was the Christmas shopping season of 1970. My parents knew that I loved rock/pop music and wanted to buy me a record album, but they didn't know enough about my specific tastes to know what to get. They went to the music section of our favorite department store and asked a clerk for recommendations. He asked them to describe my personality. They did (undoubtedly it would have been the equivalent, as expressed by loving parents, of "a sensitive, somewhat brainy little nerd") and, based on their description, the clerk recommended the Moody Blues' recently released A Question of Balance. They bought it and gave it to me for Christmas, and I loved it—my very first and still my favorite Moody Blues album. It proved to be their leanest and toughest LP, as well as their most—ahem—balanced. Of course, "lean" and "tough" are relative terms, especially considering the Moodies. "Lean" and "tough" for them would be "sumptuous" and "tender" for a great many other artists. But that's why it works so well. I'll never forget when one record reviewer, at the time the album was released, predicted that its opening track, the hit single "Question," would be "the best song the Moody Blues will ever write." I don't agree one whit with that assessment, but I understand exactly what he was saying and why.
- "Are You Sitting Comfortably?" (1969, from the album On the Threshold of a Dream)
Let Merlin cast his spell. This is the best of Hayward's several songwriting collaborations with bandmate Ray Thomas, and about as pretty as pop music gets. It may in part explain why, after the flute-playing Thomas decided to retire from the group, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson stated publicly—and perhaps only half-jokingly—that he wished the remaining Moodies had invited him to take his place.
- "It's Up to You" (1970, from A Question of Balance)
The Moodies do something akin to country-rock—a rarity, to say the least—and doggone if they don't do it so well that you'd think it their stock in trade. (Hayward subtly but confidently shows his hand with just one little measure of pedal steel guitar near the beginning.) For that matter, if more country-rock were as appealing as this, I'd be fonder of the genre.
- "New Horizons" (1972, from Seventh Sojourn)
Following the death of his father, and with a child on the way, Hayward wrote this musical eulogy to express his own determination to forge ahead. His beautifully melodic electric guitar solo—or, more accurately, a double-tracked guitar duet—is nothing less than a cry of grief.
Recommended DVD: A Night at Red Rocks with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (1992)
- According to Michael Cowton's 1991 book Pet Shop Boys: Introspective (p. 5), Neil in his pre-fame days enjoyed doing parodies of various popular artists, including the Moody Blues.
- While I admit that it's not exactly the passing of the torch, the Moodies had their last U.S. Top 10 hit, "Your Wildest Dreams," in the same year (1986) that the Pet Shop Boys had their first, "West End Girls."
Quite possibly the most curmudgeonly of all songwriters, with an incredible ear for melody and arrangements as well as a nasty satiric streak that somehow, sometimes manages to be too subtle for his own good. And when he's not being particularly satirical, as in "Marie" and "Louisiana 1927," he can be as deeply moving as songwriters get. All in all, a man after my own heart.
First album I owned: Sail Away (1972)
Favorite album: Good Old Boys (1974)
To put it in an admittedly oversimplified manner, it's a concept album about Southerners, with whom Randy clearly has a love-hate relationship. If its characterizations sometimes border on the monstrous, he never lets you forget the humanity of his monsters, virtually forcing you to sympathize with thoroughly unsympathetic people. His most melodic set, too.
- "Sail Away" (1972, from the album Sail Away)
A slave-trader lures unsuspecting Africans aboard his ship with half-truth tales of America sung to a luscious melody and arrangement. Sick, brilliant stuff.
- "Marie" (1974, from Good Old Boys)
A portrait of a redneck who treats his wife like crap yet still loves her deeply, only he can't bring himself to tell her that while he's sober. And this one's even more gorgeous.
- "I Love L.A." (1983, from Trouble in Paradise)
Newman simultaneously satirizes and celebrates Los Angeles, turning the joke back on himself because he in fact does love L.A. (his hometown) despite his tacit acknowledgment ("Look at that bum over thereman, he's down on his knees!") that he really shouldn't.
Recommended DVD: Live at the Odeon (1993)
- Neil once described the song "I Don't Want to Hear It Any More," written by Randy Newman (and as performed by Dusty Springfield) as a particular favorite: "It just breaks my heart to listen to it. Ah! It's a great record." (Not surprisingly, he selected Dusty's rendition of that song as another of his Desert Island Discs.)
- Interestingly, one of my own favorite Newman songs, the lovely "Marie," is sung from the perspective of a man who can tell his wife that he loves her only when he's drunkwritten nearly thirty years before Chris and Neil covered similar territory from the other angle.
There's a reason why The Dark Side of the Moon is one of the best-selling albums of all time: it's that damn good. But, as great as it is, there's so much more to Pink Floyd than that one album. Everything from Meddle through The Wall is terrific. Some of the most thoughtful, melodic, haunting, andespecially in the later material before Roger Waters leftdownright angry rock ever made. And, no, you don't have to be stoned to enjoy it.
First album I owned: The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
Favorite album: The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
I really don't need to explain it, do I? I'm pleased to say, however, that it was I who turned several of my druggie dorm-mates on to this remarkable album back during our freshman year in college. Yes, I was into it even before they were. But I stopped loaning my albums out when I discovered one of those addled dudes using my copy as an ashtray. I mean, they loved the album, and they still put out their doobies on it. That, perhaps as much as anything else, convinced me that mind-altering chemicals aren't for me. I'm much too fond of records like this.
- "Time" (1973, from the album The Dark Side of the Moon)
This made me think—really think—about the prospect of growing old when I was still a teenager. No mean feat.
- "Have a Cigar" (1975, from Wish You Were Here)
As jaundiced a view of the music industry as you're ever likely to find, made all the more bitter because it's based on the band's real-life experiences.
- "Comfortably Numb" (1979, from The Wall)
There can be beauty in anger, and here's the proof. Not only is the music sumptuous, but it has one of the most sublime stanzas, lyrically speaking, in all of popular music:I can't put my finger on it, either, but deep down I know exactly what they mean.
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look, but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, the dream is gone
Recommended DVD: Pulse (1994)
- As Chris noted in an interview on Japanese television very early in their career (back in 1986), he shares with several members of Pink Floyd a background in architecture. No fewer than three members of Floyd—Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason—studied architecture at London's University of Westminster. Chris, on the other hand, studied architecture at Liverpool University and worked briefly for an architectural firm in London.
- For their Nightlife tour, Chris and Neil used a lighting engineer who had formerly worked with Pink Floydimpressive credentials when you consider Pink Floyd's longstanding reputation for state-of-the-art stage lighting.
- It was the Scissor Sisters' outrageous Bee Gees-on-ecstasy remake of the Floyd classic "Comfortably Numb" that helped persuade the Boys to tap them (the Sisters, that is) for remixing "Flamboyant."
- During the Fundamental sessions, producer Trevor Horn thought that "Luna Park" sounded like Pink Floyd.
- More than one concert reviewer has compared the Pet Shop Boys' 2009 "Pandemonium Tour" staging with the Floyd's classic 1980-81 The Wall tour in that both made use of an onstage wall, though in very different ways. One reviewer suggested that the PSB wall was inspired by their song "Building a Wall," which is distinctly possible considering that it was part of the tour setlist.
- An "anti-connection": Neil has noted on more than one occasion that he has no fondness for Pink Floyd's music.
- By contrast (perhaps somewhat facetiously), Chris said in an interview for Mixmag in 2012 that he tends to want Pet Shop Boys music to be "downbeat"—or, as he put it more specifically, "I would rather it was all like Pink Floyd."
- Both Katie Kissoon and Sylvia Mason-James, who have provided backup vocals for PSB—very famously and frequently in the latter case—have also served in that capacity for former Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters in his solo career.
- Pink Floyd's most famous (and, arguably, their greatest) album The Dark Side of the Moon was recorded at Abbey Road Studios, where the Pet Shop Boys have often recorded as well.
The biggest case of career suicide ever which I, perverse being that I am, find strangely compelling. Then again, his 2006 single "Black Sweat" mightily affirms the potential for full-fledged resurrection. But none of it would mean a thing if it weren't for the fact that, back in the eighties, before he changed his name to a glyph and morphed into a punchline, he unleashed a string of jaw-droppingly innovative singles (most notably "Little Red Corvette," "Kiss," "U Got the Look," and the greatest jaw-dropper of them all, "When Doves Cry") that forever cemented his place in the pantheon of popular music.
First album I owned: Controversy (1981)
Favorite album: Purple Rain (1984)
The soundtrack to the movie that transformed Prince from a critic's darling into one of the two or three biggest stars of the 1980s. As far as I'm concerned, you didn't even need the movie. I'd been trying for several years—without success—to get an old college buddy to appreciate Prince. But after this album, I didn't even have to try: he was sold. Prince had always been one to blur genres (was he funk? New Wave? disco? pop? soul? rock?), but with Purple Rain he did it with such groundbreaking aplomb that even people who still didn't know what to make of him nevertheless climbed aboard for the ride. We weren't at all sure where he was taking us, but we sure as hell wanted to come along.
- "Do It All Night" (1980, from the album Dirty Mind)
It was the summer of 1981. I was living in Minneapolis at the time, and I hung out quite a bit with a gay softball team. We had just completed our annual "Gays vs. Cops" all-star game. Unlike a year or two before, the police team had won, so they were feeling good. Everybodythe gay players, the cops, and their wives and girlfriendsheaded down to a local gay bar to celebrate. When the DJ put on local pre-superstardom wunderkind Prince's "Do It All Night," the place erupted into a frenzied communal dance boasting every conceivable combination of partners, including cops dancing with gay guys and gay guys dancing with the cops' wives. That memory alone guarantees this song a place among my favorites.
- "Kiss" (1986, from Parade)
My brain had long assigned the startlingly innovative "When Doves Cry" to this spot. But my heart had just as long lobbied instead for the not-quite-as-newfangled but three-times-as-much-fun "Kiss," in which His Royal Badness nimbly navigates a sparse staccato groove with a falsetto that makes him sound like a horny castrato, if such a thing were possible. And this track suggests it is. Yes, my heart finally won out.
- "U Got the Look" (1987, from Sign 'o' the Times)
Audacity personified. With Sheena Easton's invaluable assistance, Prince assumes the mantle of James Brown—and lives to tell the tale. Hardly anyone but a humorless prude could resist such an outlandish chorus:
U got the look, U got the hook
U sho' nuff do be cookin' in my book
Your face is jammin'
Your body's heck-a-slammin'
If love is good, let's get 2 rammin'
U got the look, U got the look
Recommended DVD: Sign 'o' the Times (1987) - Apparently out of print, but well worth finding.
- Neil and Chris attended a party thrown by Prince in August 1986 to celebrate his first U.K. shows in five years.
- At various times Neil has cited specific Prince albums or songs as favorites, including Music from Graffiti Bridge, "Money Don't Matter 2 Night," and "If I Was Your Girlfriend." Of the latter, he told New Musical Express, "I think it's very brave for such a heterosexual man as Prince to imagine he's a woman."
- Prince was one of the 300 artists whose names quickly flashed on an overhead screen during "The Clock 10-11-12" in live performances of The Most Incredible Thing.
Kinda like the Moody Blues, but without the mellotron and with much, much stranger lyrics. In fact, resident wordsmith Keith Reid is responsible for some of the most weirdly poetic stanzas in pop music history (such as the one from the bizarrely erotic "Luskus Delph" that concludes, "Make me split like chicken fat"). Singer-pianist Gary Brooker took his tales of drunkenness, suicide, venereal disease, undead sailors, gluttonous infants, pathologically jealous siblings, and homicidal cowboy hat-wearing felinesall couched in metaphors so thick that nearly every line seems to carry multiple meaningsand set them to stately and/or melodramatic music that makes it easy to forget just how warped some of this stuff really is. And when guitarist and eventual Hendrix emulator Robin Trower occasionally got his hands on those lyrics, all hell could break loose. Frankly, I'm surprised that "Poor Mohammed" hasn't earned them a fatwa.
First album I owned: Grand Hotel (1973)
Favorite album: Broken Barricades (1971)
In my opinion, every Procol album but this has some clunkers. But most Broken Barricades tracks are great, and even the ones that aren't are still pretty good. To be honest, I don't know what half the songs are about, so cryptic are the lyrics. But trying to figure them out is half the fun.
- "A Salty Dog" (1969, from the album A Salty Dog)
The tale of a lost ship and abandonment on an uncharted island—which, by the way, is the afterlife. That, plus a beautiful melody and lewd non sequitur sexual wordplay at the end. What more do you want?
- "Long Gone Geek" (1969, a b-side subsequently released on The Best of Procol Harum)
This rocker's got just about everything going for it, including fantastic Trower guitar work and an equally great Matthew Fisher organ solo. But, best of all, it has one of Reid's most outré lyrics, about prisoners taking over a county jailhouse. It concludes with a tongue-twisting couplet that he might have written just to see if Brooker could actually sing it without fumbling—and, yes, he could:
When onto Geek's back jumps a Stetson-hatted cat
Which breaks Geek's neck like he was a rat
- "Simple Sister" (1971, from Broken Barricades)
A thunderous ode to dysfunctional familial relationships that evolves into a full-scale melodrama complete with Hollywood strings. I kid you not.
- Friends and pets play a role in both bands' names. The Pet Shop Boys, after all, were named for petshop-owning friends. And Procol Harum borrowed their name from a friend's Burmese cat.
This one snuck up on me. If anyone had asked me, "Are you a fan of Queen?" I would have said, "Not especially." And yet, as I look at my music collection, I have to admit that Queen is well represented. As with George Michael, I think I like them in spite of myself. In addition to their democratic approach to songwriting (all four were highly capable songwriters), I think what finally won me over was their relentlessly tongue-in-cheek style coupled with an equally relentless devotion to quality. I don't think they ever took themselves seriouslyalthough I'm sure they were very serious about their music.
First album I owned: Greatest Hits (1981)
Favorite album: Greatest Hits I & II (1995)
Here's where I commit heresy. I don't actually like any of Queen's studio albums overall. But they were a killer singles band. So I'm breaking my own prohibition against picking "best of" or "greatest hits" albums. Hey, it's my website, so if anyone can break the rules here, I can. Whatever the case, one can't listen to these two discs without conceding these guys were damn good. At least not without losing one's credibility.
- "Somebody to Love" (1977, from the album A Day at the Races)
All the press goes to "Bohemian Rhapsody," but I've always preferred this follow-up. It's prettier, just as meticulously arranged, and doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: a song about being downright lonesome.
- "Radio Ga-Ga" (1984, from The Works)
Roger Taylor's nostalgic love song to the medium that made him a multi-millionaire (and I'm not being cynical when I say that), expressing his disappointment that it no longer matches up to his childhood memories. Queen used to boast "No synthesizers" on their early albums, but by this time they had dropped that misguided rockist attitude. As this track demonstrates, they did so to terrific effect.
- "A Kind of Magic" (1986, from A Kind of Magic)
Latter-day Queen at their best, with a great Brian May guitar hook and nary a pretension in earshot. Love the video, too.
Recommended DVD: Greatest Video Hits 2 (2003)
- Both released collaborations with another musician in this list, David Bowie: Queen with "Under Pressure" and PSB of course with "Hallo Spaceboy."
- Like a number of other artists listed here (the Beatles, David Bowie, Kate Bush, Genesis, and Pink Floyd), Queen shares with the Pet Shop Boys the honor of receiving the Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music.
- While Neil has said on more than one occasion that he has never been a fan, Chris chose Queen's "The Show Must Go On" as one of his selections on their 2005 Back to Mine various artists compilation.
- Queen's Freddie Mercury and PSB share opposite sides of a rarity released in 1987 by EMI in Hong Kong: a clear vinyl single titled Dance and Romance, in which Freddie's solo outing "The Great Pretender" appears on the "Romance" side and the Boys' "It's a Sin" occupies the "Dance" side.
- I've seen a television documentary about Queen that asserted that U.S. radio programmers stopped playing their new music after Freddie Mercury adopted his "clone look" (short hair, moustache, etc.). At that point they figured he wasn't the "pretend queer" of his early "glam look" but rather a "real queer." To be sure, Queen had one of their biggest U.S. hits, "Another One Bites the Dust," shortly after Freddie adopted his new look, but it took a while for the true meaning of the change to set in. If this perception of gayness does truly account for the decline of Queen's fortunes on American radio, then it strongly parallels what later happened to the Pet Shop Boys after the "Domino Dancing" video and U.S. radio programmers began to perceive them as gay, too.
- Both PSB and Queen have collaborated with Liza Minnelli: the Boys, of course, on her album Results, and the surviving members of Queen in April 1992 at the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in London, where she sang "We Are the Champions."
- Neil alluded to one of Queen's most famous songs in a 2012 interview for Mixmag. In describing the PSB song "Winner," he said that "superficially it's a sort of ‘We Are the Champions’ song, but actually it's not." In fact, he and Chris later told another viewer that "We Are the Champions" had been a sort of "inverse influence" on "Winner"—that they wanted to write a similar "mid-tempo anthem," but took a more inclusive approach to the idea of winning since Neil had never liked the Queen song's line "No time for losers."
- Like PSB, Brian May and Roger Taylor performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London.
So he's a notorious multi-culti dilettante. I can excuse it when the results have been so consistently satisfying. And he's one of the three or four greatest songwriters of his generation, which is saying quite a bit. A lot of musicians would give their left armwell, maybe at least one or two of their fingersto write something as good as "Something So Right."
First album I owned: Paul Simon (1972)
Favorite album: There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973)
Bad album title, bad album cover, but a great album. This, Simon's second solo set, convinced me and a great many others that maybe his breakup with Art Garfunkel wasn't such a terrible thing after all.
- "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" (1972, from the album Paul Simon)
People don't often think of Paul Simon as a humorous songwriter, but this one's pretty darn funny. ("When the radical priest come to get me released, we is all on the cover of Newsweek.") Yet it's also cryptic enough to make you wonder: just what were they doing down by the schoolyard?
- "Something So Right" (1973, from There Goes Rhymin' Simon)
Quite possibly the best song Simon ever wrote, at least during his solo career. Instantly recognized as such, Barbra Streisand couldn't wait to get her hands on it—although, to be honest, I don't think it was something so right for her.
- "Graceland" (1986, from Graceland)
I'd love this song even if it didn't have one of my all-time favorite opening lines: "The Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar."
Recommended DVD: Graceland - The African Concert (1991)
- Simon and PSB are connected via the Brazilian band Olodum, whose 1994 track "Estrada Da Paixão" provided inspiration for both the title line and music of "Se A Vida É." Olodum also performed on Simon's 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints and at his famous August 15, 1991 concert in New York's Central Park.
- Paul Simon, Neil Tennant, and Chris Lowe also have an interesting characteristic in common: they all share their names with other prominent figures. Paul Simon was also the name of the late former U.S. senator from Illinois (serving 19851997); Neil Tennant is the name of a contemporary scholar/philosopher; and there are a remarkable number of other Chris Lowes of varying degrees of fame, including a jazz musician (who, coincidentally, plays trombone, which "our" Chris can also play), a rap artist, the bass player for the band Dexter Freebish, a soccer player, a basketball player, a financier, a film art director, an actor, a BBC news anchor, a professional photographer, and several academicians, among others.
Simon and Garfunkel
Garfunkel's solo voice and/or the blend of the two of them together were the perfect vehicles for Simon's wonderful songs. Their actual recorded output was surprisingly small considering the impact and influence they've hadwhich serves to underscore the overall quality of their work.
First album I owned: Greatest Hits (1972)
Favorite album: Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
A breathtaking set that demonstrated, as never before, the sheer depth and breadth of Paul Simon's songwriting ability. Beautifully composed, beautifully produced, beautifully sung. Just plain beautiful. The title track and "The Boxer" are particular standouts, but they're simply the cream of a very, very fine crop. And yet it's not without some sharp edges. Paul and Artie never rocked harder than on "Keep the Customer Satisfied," a song allegedly sung from the perspective of a musician but more likely from that of a drug dealer or male hustler (or both). The album's undercurrent of breakup (it being the last studio album they did together) only adds to its aura, with "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" and "The Only Living Boy in New York" assuming almost tragic proportions. To be perfectly honest, I would have to rank this album among my five or six favorites of all time.
- "America" (1968, from the album Bookends)
A brilliant evocation of the aimlessness of pampered American baby-boomers who felt the need to "look for America" because so much had been handed to them on a silver platter that they were left with little or nothing to obtain for themselves, leaving them hollow and guilt-ridden. Not that I imagine Simon and Garfunkel would put it quite like that. They put it like this instead.
- "The Boxer" (1969, from Bridge Over Troubled Water)
A portrait of determined resistance, dogged survival, and crushed idealism in an uncaring world. Simon claims that it was essentially an accident that the nonsense syllables sung in the refrain are "lie-la-lie" and they have no special significance—that they were mere placeholders for lyrics that he never came up with—but if that's the case (and, remember, you can't always take artists at their word when they're talking about their work), it's one of the most fortunate and significant accidents in pop music history. As the song itself says, "All lies and jest. Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."
- "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1970, from Bridge Over Troubled Water)
Simon is justifiably proud of this song as one of his greatest composing achievements. And Garfunkel is justifiably proud of this, his finest vocal performance.
Recommended DVD: Old Friends, Live on Stage (2004)
- Simon and Garfunkel were, like the Moody Blues, among the recording artists Neil used to enjoy parodying back in the 1970s.
- Both duos include a member with architecture in his pre-fame background. Chris Lowe was studying to become an architect when he met Neil Tennant, while Art Garfunkel earned his undergraduate degree in art history focusing on architecture, with a view toward possibly also becoming an architect. (The latter fact is alluded to in one of S&G's "breakup" songs, "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.")
- More than one writer have described Simon and Garfunkel as "arguably the most successful duo in pop music history" (perhaps in terms of total units sold worldwide), although the Pet Shop Boys by common reckoning—at least judged by chart performance—hold that title in the U.K. (For another extremely successful duo, just scroll down a bit.)
- Andrew Dawson, whom the Boys tapped as producer and mixer of their 2012 studio album, had served as audio engineer for Simon and Garfunkel's 2004 live reunion album Old Friends Live on Stage.
Before the perfectionist lethargy set in (you can hear it looming in Aja, but the songs were just too good to be denied) they were the greatestas well as most intelligent and comically cynicalrock band of the seventies. In my humble opinion, Becker-Fagen are in a three-way race with Tennant-Lowe and John-Taupin for the title of best songwriting duo since Lennon-McCartney. All cynicism aside, anyone who could come up with the line "The spore is on the wind tonight" (from "Rose Darling") as a metaphor for sexual desire is, dare I say, a poet. But you can pretty much forget anything they've recorded after reuniting in the 1990s; it pales by comparison. (Yes, I know that 2000's Two Against Nature won a Grammy for "Album of the Year." It still isn't half as good as any of their albums from the 1970s.)
First album I owned: Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
Favorite album: Katy Lied (1975)
A very difficult choice, this one. You see, all seven Dan albums from their "classic era" are, almost without reservation, brilliant. Only the last, Gaucho, started showing cracks in the shell. But mid-point album Katy Lied (three albums before, three after) is something of an underdog, and I've always liked underdogs. After the breakup of the "Mark 1" band, including the loss of their superb guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, some fans looked askance at what was left over and thought the end was at hand. Not a chance. A transitional album in more ways than one, it blends the masterful rock of the early records with the jazzy vibe of the work yet to come. That blend makes it for me. Besides, any album that features such incredible songs as "Black Friday," "Bad Sneakers," "Rose Darling," "Doctor Wu," "Chain Lightning," and "Any World (That I'm Welcome To)"—OK, that's more than half the tracks—is a true contender.
- "My Old School" (1973, from the album Countdown to Ecstasy)
I was attending William & Mary when this song came out, where its "Oh, no, William & Mary won't do" line made it an instant classic with that college's students. Terrific guitar solos, too.
- "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" (1974, from Pretzel Logic)
But this one is on another plane altogether. Baxter performs one of the most graceful, lyrical electric guitar solos ever. And its crypto-gay lyric (even if it isn't, it sounds as though it is) provides the stuff of endless speculation.
- "Peg" (1977, from Aja)
If the Andrews Sisters had peaked some 35 years later than they did, during the reign of disco rather than of big bands, and if they had lived in a backwards, upside-down, parallel universe where they had the voices of Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald, and Paul Griffin—and if they had been willing to sing songs that arguably allude to pornography—they might have sounded something like this. And they would've sounded mighty fine, too.
Recommended DVD: There are a few DVDs, but so far none that I can recommend.
- Both are songwriting teams known (fairly or unfairly) for irony. Yes, I know the Boys don't like to be called "ironic"in the immortal words of Neil Tennant, "Irony is shit"but there's no denying they've written their share of ironic songs.
- In a 1988 television interview, Neil compared the Pet Shop Boys to Steely Dan as songwriters who seldom toured as performing musicians. Of course, that was a few years before both bands began to perform live much more often in the 1990s.
- Neil offered another such comparison in a September 2012 conversation with a Los Angeles interviewer while promoting their album Elysium: "Part of us is Eurodisco, but part of us is Steely Dan. And you can hear both of those things in this album."
Here's the formula: I love late seventies disco music in general (I was there, baby!), and Donna Summer, usually in collaboration with producer-composer Giorgio Moroder, consistently made some of the greatest disco music of the late seventies. You do the math. But if you want real evidence, look no further than "I Feel Love," one of the most innovative singles in popular music history.
First album I owned: On the Radio - Greatest Hits (1979)
Favorite album: Bad Girls (1979)
If, at the time, you were an openly gay guy in his twenties (as I was), this was the soundtrack to your summer of '79. I mean, it was playing almost constantly. I'm tempted to call it "the Sgt. Pepper of Disco," but that would be overstated. But it's still perhaps the foremost among albums that put the lie to the widespread belief that disco was merely vacuous, disposable, unmusical fluff. The fact that much of this album ventured into relatively new disco territory with its more-than-flirting acquaintance with good old-fashioned rock turned some heads. Recognized instantly as a classic of its genre, it still holds up today as the single finest album-length example of a much (and most unfairly) maligned style of music for which I personally will always carry a smoldering torch.
- "I Feel Love" (1977, from the album I Remember Yesterday)
As I said, one of the most innovative singles in popular music history—the mother of all technopop. It may not sound like such a big deal nowadays but, lemme tell ya, in 1977 it was radical.
- "Macarthur Park Suite" (1978, from Live and More)
Jimmy Webb's "Macarthur Park" is one of the most misunderstood, unfairly besmirched songs of all time. Some people just can't appreciate a good extended metaphor. But Summer and Moroder weren't misled. They transformed it into the bookends of one of their peak musical statements, a full-blown disco suite. One of its component songs, the fabulous "Heaven Knows," became a separate hit in its own right.
- "Hot Stuff" (1979, from Bad Girls)
Donna and her collaborators were once again forging new ground with this disco-rock hybrid. To be honest, they really weren't the first to crossbreed disco and rock. But they were the first to do it so extremely well. (You mean Rod Stewart's "Da' Ya' Think I'm Sexy?" from the previous year? Oh, please.) To drive the point home, Summer enlisted Steely Dan alum Jeff Baxter, who delivers a riveting guitar solo that's ebullient even by his standards.
Recommended DVD: VH1 Presents - Live & More Encore! (1999)
- German synthesist-composer-producer Harold Faltermeyer, who cut his professional teeth working extensively with Summer and Moroder during their disco heyday, co-produced the Pet Shop Boys' album Behaviour.
- When asked which pop record he would like played at his funeral, Chris (appropriately but perhaps facetiously) chose Summer's "Last Dance." Also, during his appearance on BBC Radio 2's Tracks of My Years, Chris picked this same song as having particular personal significance for him.
- The Boys paid direct tribute to the "queen of disco" with their collaborative cover with Sam Taylor-Wood (in the guise of Kiki Kokova) of Summer's first big hit, "Love to Love You, Baby."
- Donna beat the Boys and Taylor-Wood by two decades in covering Serge Gainsbourg's "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus."
- A more tenuous connection is the fact that the PSB song "New York City Boy," though a Village People tribute, contains a bridge with an instrumental arrangement highly reminiscent of Summer's hit version of "Macarthur Park."
Who'd have thought that a quartet of such preppy white kids could have created music that was simultaneously so arty and funky? If you don't get it, listen to their albums Remain in Light, Speaking in Tongues, and Little Creatures. If you don't get it after that, see their amazing concert film Stop Making Sense. If you still don't get it, I can't possibly help you.
First album I owned: More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
Favorite album: Little Creatures (1985)
My choice of favorite may be a shock to most Heads-heads. The vast majority would surely rank either Remain in Light or Speaking in Tongues at the top of the heap. But, as great as those albums are, I find Little Creatures more consistently enjoyable. For one thing—and it's a big thing—it relies much more heavily on just plain good songwriting than its predecessors, which owed their strength more to adventuresomeness and danceability. Little Creatures wasn't nearly as adventuresome or danceable, but each song was a winner that could lend itself readily to alternate styles and cover versions. Think about it: how much of Remain in Light could be remade in a drastically different style and still be half as good? With its solid musicianship, strong melodies, and quirky-as-hell lyrics (my favorite being the one about the woman who astral-projects herself into oblivion, though the one about being entertained by Chris and Tina's new baby comes a close second), Little Creatures fully deserves my devotion to it.
- "Found a Job" (1978, from the album More Songs About Buildings and Food)
The best of the early Heads in their "punk-lite" New Wave mode, helmed by none other than Brian Eno. A bizarre tale of a couple who save their marriage while resolving their frustrations with the lack of quality television programming by going into business together as TV producers. Or do they really? It's all somewhat ambiguous—and delightfully strange stuff.
- "Girlfriend Is Better" (1983, from Speaking in Tongues)
David Byrne has always had a bit of the absurdist artist in him—OK, more than a bit—and this song is one of his most absurdly arty. And it's so tough to sit still while listening to it. The moment in Stop Making Sense when he emerges onto the stage to the initial strains of this song in his "big suit" ("Because it makes my head look small") is among the most unforgettable in rock-concert history.
- "Television Man" (1985, from Little Creatures)
Byrne also has a penchant for reveling in the mundane wonders of life: overly familiar things that, if they weren't so overly familiar, would seem absolutely miraculous. Take television, for instance, a thing for which he seems to have a near-fetish. Built around a killer keyboard-guitar-bass riff, this track makes mundanity seem extraordinary.
Recommended DVD: Stop Making Sense (1984)
- David Byrne, the Talking Heads' erstwhile leaderI want to call him the "head Head" so badly I could just bursthas, like the Pet Shop Boys ("My October Symphony") and Kate Bush (see above), drawn upon the services of the Balanescu String Quartet. In 1988, the Quartet joined Byrne for a series of live concert performances.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
If the Moodies were the faves of my teen years, these guysthe greatest and most enduring of the Italian-American doo-wop groupswere the faves of my pre-teen years. Like their contemporaries the Beach Boys, they quickly transcended their initial genre and produced some of the most vivacious music of the sixties. Frankie's astonishing voice, boasting the most phenomenal falsetto in the history of recorded music, struck a chord in me even then. Bandmate Bob Gaudio wrote some terrific tunes, too. In fact, let's hope the Pet Shop Boys can match the legendary longevity of the Valli-Gaudio musical partnership, which has now lasted more than a half-century. And on a handshake, no less.
First album I owned: Gold Vault of Hits (1965)
In fact, if I remember correctly, this was the first album by anybody that I ever owned, which I bought the same year that it came out. (There I go again, showing my age.)
Favorite album: 25th Anniversary Collection (1987)
Definitely a singles band. Yes, I know that their 1969 album The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette is a cult classic. But that's not the Four Seasons I know and love. Well, actually they are the Seasons I know, but I don't love them being so self-consciously experimental. Nothing but a hit singles collection does them a modicum of justice, and this one is definitive.
- "Dawn (Go Away)" (1964, from the album Dawn (Go Away) and 11 Other Great Songs)
Italian-Americans have always been highly conscious of class distinctions, and this is one of several Seasons songs that hinge on that very subject. The sheer drive and energy of this thing is astounding. And I love the way Frankie punches the word "Girl" near the beginning of the second verse ("Girl, we can't change the places where we were born").
- "Rag Doll" (1964, from Rag Doll)
More class-consciousness (rich boys apparently can't go out with poor girls, much less marry them) in the apotheosis of doo-wop. But what makes it great is the coupling of such lovely harmonies and such touching lyrics: "Such a pretty face should be dressed in lace."
- "Girl Come Running" (1965, from Gold Vault of Hits)
You should take a few minutes to really listen to Frankie's incredibly intense performance in this minor hit: a masterful triumph of vocal technique spanning nearly three octaves. It only got up to #30 on the Billboard singles chart, but it's one of the great pop vocals of all time.
Recommended DVD: The DVD that accompanies the 2007 boxed set Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons
- Well, the Pet Shop Boys did turn "I Can't Take My Eyes Off You"which was co-written by Gaudio and originally performed solo by Valliinto an unlikely hit medley with "Where the Streets Have No Name."
- Speaking of which, lest you think that Chris and Neil were completely original in that irreverent deconstruction of rock mythos, consider what the Four Seasons did (in the guise of "The Wonder Who?") more than a quarter-century earlier to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice": an utterly surreal 1965 hit rendition that Frankie sang in a meta-falsetto, sounding like little Shirley Temple on uppers.
- In the February 2009 issue of the PSB Fan Club magazine Literally, Chris listed the Four Seasons' "The Night"—recorded in 1971, making it nearly 40 years old—as one of his favorites at the time. He also named it as one of his selections on the aforementioned BBC Radio 2's Tracks of My Years. (See the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, above.)
I hadn't felt so enthusiastic over "discovering" an artist for myself in more than a decadein fact, not since I "discovered" the Pet Shop Boys. Rufus Wainwright is one of the most original, moving, and imaginative singer-songwriters I've ever heard, the creator of unexpected melodies, intelligent lyrics, and eclectic arrangements that owe equal debts to classical, Broadway, ragtime, rock, pop, and folk. The breathtaking Want One is an instant classic if there ever was one. And its follow-ups, the even more ambitious Want Two and the deceptively "poppier" but still wonderful Release the Stars, are also spectacular.
First album I owned: Want One (2003)
Favorite album: Release the Stars (2007)
As with the Beach Boys' Sunflower vs. Pet Sounds, this is a case where I have to concede that my favorite album by a certain artist probably isn't actually the best. From a purely objective standpoint, Want One is a better album than Release the Stars. It's certainly more impressive in terms of its ambition and willingness to take chances—and succeed. You might say the same about his next album, Want Two. But I enjoy Release the Stars even more. What it lacks in ambition it makes up for with sheer tunefulness. And I think it's a little less "work" to listen to. Dammit, I don't always want to have to think quite so much.
- "I Don't Know What It Is" (2003, from the album Want One)
I'm not sure what it is, either, though I think it's a contemplation of destiny. But what matters most to me is the music, a genre-defying tour de force that bounces among ages of pop from the 1940s to the 2000s. It helps if you're familiar with old MGM movie musicals like The Harvey Girls, but that's hardly a prerequisite.
- "Dinner at Eight" (2003, from Want One)
The most moving father-son song I've ever heard. It didn't hit me the first time I heard it, but the second or third time it made me cry, and I mean that quite literally. The fact that my father had passed away only the previous year probably had something to do with it. It still gets my eyes to watering if the mood is right.
- "The Art Teacher" (2004, from Want Two)
Accompanying himself with a Philip Glass-like figure on the piano, Rufus adopts the role of a wealthy middle-aged married woman who realizes that the one true love of her life was a schoolgirl crush. A dazzling and, in some ways, startling expression of profound romantic remorse.
Recommended DVD: Milwaukee at Last!!! (2009)
- Rufus interviewed Neil in the January 2000 issue of Interview magazine.
- Neil is a professed Rufus fan, having praised his work highly in print on more than one occasion, and even going so far as to cite Want One as his favorite album of 2003.
- Neil appears in several brief interview segments on Wainwright's DVD All I Want, commenting on the younger artist's work.
- In the Want One liner notes, Rufus includes both Neil and Chris in his "thank you" list. (Apparently our heroes provided some helpful advice and encouragement.)
- Neil and Rufus were interviewed together in 2004talking about songwriting and the state of contemporary pop musicfor the London Daily Telegraph.
- Rufus appeared as a guest vocalist at the Boys' special May 2006 BBC Radio concert with orchestra, singing their "Casanova in Hell." (This show, including Rufus's performance, was recorded for the live album Concrete.)
- Neil served a consulting "executive producer" role (and sang backup and/or played instruments on several tracks) on Rufus's 2007 album Release the Stars.
- It should be no surprise that Neil can be spotted taking his seat in the star-studded audience near the start of the 2007 DVD Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live from the London Palladium, during which Rufus performs "If Love Were All." (Chris was apparently in attendance as well, but he doesn't appear on the DVD.)
- Rufus's live Milwaukee at Last!!! CD and DVD include his own rendition of Noël Coward's "If Love Were All," which had previously been covered by PSB.
- As with the aforementioned Stephin Merritt's Magnetic Fields, Rufus was among the artists lined up for the Boys' erstwhile 2001 touring "gay music" summer festival "Wotapalava."
- Like PSB, Rufus contributed a new song to Shirley Bassey's 2009 album The Performance. His contribution is titled "Apartment"; Chris and Neil's, of course, is "The Performance of My Life."
- Marius de Vries, who co-produced two tracks on the Boys' December 2009 Christmas EP, has worked often with Rufus Wainwright, including producing his albums Want One and Want Two.
- Rufus has set a number of Shakespeare's sonnets to music, three of which he includes on his 2010 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. (The first half of the title comes from Sonnet 43.) For their part, the Boys incorporated Sonnet 94 into "If There Was Love"—spoken, not sung, by Liza Minnelli. Incidentally, Neil notes in the audio commentary of the Pandemonium live DVD that his somewhat "Elizabethan" costume worn for a portion of the show was partly inspired by Rufus's live performance of many of those Shakespearean sonnets.
- Neil took part in a June 2010 tribute concert in honor of Rufus's mother, singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who had passed away the preceding January after a long bout with cancer. He performed Kate's song "I Cried for Us," which the Pet Shop Boys subsequently recorded and released as one of the "b-sides" for their single "Together."
- A quasi- or even non-connection: as noted above, PSB has, like Abba and Elton John, composed totally new original musical scores for stage musicals. Rufus, by contrast, has composed an original opera. Is an opera a "musical"? Yes—and no. In one sense an opera is indeed a "musical," but it's also sufficiently different to be considered a distinct art form.
- Like the Pet Shop Boys and the aforementioned Rickie Lee Jones, Rufus appeared at the 2007 Montreux Jazz Festival.
- Rufus has stated that his song "Perfect Man" on his 2012 album Out of the Game was written for Neil, with a view toward him performing it. (There are suggestions it may possibly have been inspired by him as well.) Neil thought, however, that "it had too many chords in it," which Rufus admitted, "maybe is right." The song's chorus, which includes the line, "Trying to make all the roses bloom in unison" (among other references to blooming roses), may even be an intentional echo of the words "Roses bloom more to adore you" from the PSB track "Miracles."
- As with the aforementioned Thomas Dolby, Rufus performed at the Latitude festival in Suffolk on July 15, 2012, the same day that featured excerpts there from the Boys' ballet The Most Incredible Thing.
Maybe it's because Who's Next is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the greatest rock album of all timethat and my (admittedly arguable) beliefs that Keith Moon was rock's greatest drummer and John Entwistle its greatest bassist. And while Pete Townshend is hardly rock's greatest guitarist and songwriter, he's certainly no slouch in either department. As much as I love the Pet Shop Boys, I have to say that the best concert by far that I've ever attended was by the Who back in the mid-seventies on their final North American tour before Moon died. I consider myself blessed.
First album I owned: Tommy (1969)
Favorite album: Who's Next (1971)
As I said, a contender for the title "Greatest Rock Album of All Time." Every song is an absolute classic, and some are absolutely iconic. You can see what I have to say about the opening and closing tracks, "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again," just below. Meanwhile, "Bargain" is a stunning profession of devotion—to God, by the way, by Townshend's own admission; "Behind Blue Eyes" is the Who's finest ballad, even if it does morph into a rocker; "Going Mobile" is one of the most joyful things they ever recorded; and "The Song Is Over" is simply beautiful. Even John Entwistle's "My Wife" is a semi-comic standout, perhaps his best Who song as well; it's certainly the one that earned the most album-rock airplay. Put 'em all together and you've got one of the ultimate expressions of rock by one of rock's ultimate bands.
- "Baba O'Riley" (1971, from the album Who's Next)
As revolutionary as anything the Beatles did, and that's no lie. If Summer's "I Feel Love" is the mother of technopop, this is its grandmother—except technorock is more like it.
- "Won't Get Fooled Again" (1971, from Who's Next)
A virtual definition of rock music without the dictionary, an unforgettable statement both musically and lyrically.
- "However Much I Booze" (1975, from The Who By Numbers)
Townshend bares his soul, and it ain't pretty. Emotional, moving, even touching, but definitely not pretty.
Recommended DVD: The Kids Are Alright (1979)
- Tina Turner and Elton John, who have both collaborated with PSB, also both appeared in the 1975 film version of the Who's classic rock opera Tommy.
- The surviving members of The Who, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry, share with the Pet Shop Boys and the aforementioned George Michael as well as Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen the fact that they performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics in London.
I know I sound like a broken record (remember them?), but he's a remarkable songwriter, in spite of his predilection for contorted syntax. His early embrace of and experimentation with synthesizers pushed the envelope for electronic keyboards. And he could do some unbelievable things with a clavinet, such as when he plays it with a wah-wah pedal on "Higher Ground." He is, quite simply, an incalculable influence on half of everything from the seventies on.
First album I owned: Innervisions (1973)
Favorite album: Innervisions (1973)
Its two immediate predecessors, Music of My Mind and Talking Book, were great and greater, respectively, but Innervisions is the greatest of all. Yes, even greater than Songs in the Key of Life, which—I'm sorry—could have benefited from careful trimming. Many if not most of his fellow musicians had already recognized Stevie's genius beforehand, but Innervisions made it palpably obvious to the rest of the world. Like the aforementioned Who's Next, every song is a classic—so much so that when Motown put out his At the Close of a Century box set in 2000, only one Innervisions song, "Jesus Children of America," failed to make the cut. And I really like that song, too.
- "Superstition" (1972, from the album Talking Book)
Fierce, fearful funk and the meanest clavinet riff ever committed to vinyl. Stand me up and I'm dancin'. Sit me down and I'm still dancin'.
- "Maybe Your Baby" (1972, from Talking Book)
The deepest, downright creepiest funk groove I've ever heard in my life. Stevie takes lessons learned from Sly Stone's drugged-out, paranoiac There's a Riot Goin' On phase of the year before and does it one—no, four or five—better, making it sound as though he's on the verge of self-destruction without actually heading down that terrible path. And what the hell is happening when he interjects "I'm a little boy" in a helium-inflected voice during the extended coda? Somebody could write a master's thesis about this thing—if they haven't already.
- "Isn't She Lovely" (1976, from Songs in the Key of Life)
Inspired by the birth of his daughter, Stevie writes and sings the single happiest song in the known universe. I'm sorry, but if you don't feel good listening to this, there's something seriously wrong with you.
Recommended DVD: Live at Last: A Wonder Summer's Night (2009)
- Neil has cited Innervisions as one of his favorite albums, too.
- Both Stevie and the Boys were among the headliners at Glastonbury 2010.
- A "connection" by mistake – An May 2013 interview in a Spanish newspaper erroneously stated that Stevie Wonder at some point suggested Bruce Springsteen's "Last to Die" to Neil and Chris as a song they might consider covering. There must have been some kind of misunderstanding in communication and/or translation since it was actually Chris's sister Victoria—as noted in a subsequent interview with a different Spanish newspaper, El País—who brought the song to the Boys' attention, after which they decided to cover it. Stevie had nothing to do with it.
Another guilty pleasure. Yes, there was excess. (Tales from Topographic Oceans, anyone?) Yes, Jon Anderson's lyrics often bordered on nonsense. Yes, those asteroids did look a lot like giant floating mushrooms. But these guys were virtuosos who transcended the dross through the sheer weight of their talent. And they can take credit for some of the most transcendently beautiful passages in all of prog rock.
First album I owned: Fragile (1971)
Favorite album: Close to the Edge (1972)
One of the definitive works of "progressive rock." In fact, if I had to pick just one album to exemplify prog at its very best, it would be this. It offers only three tracks (one, the title track, taking up an entire LP side), but each ranks among the band's greatest. Close to the Edge proved such a downright imposing album that Yes apparently felt they could follow it up only with a four-song conceptual double-album, with each side devoted to one song (if you can call such grandiose things "songs"). But the resulting Tales from Topographic Oceans suffers terribly in comparison. Yes has spent the rest of their career trying to rescale the heights they achieved with this album, and though they've often hit high, they've never again come so close—to the edge, of course.
- "Roundabout" (1972, from the album Fragile)
This is the hit single that turned millions of kids into progressive rock fans. Generally they didn't have much use for hit singles after that. Chris Squire's exceptional bass guitar work made me really appreciate the possibilities of that instrument for the first time in my young life.
- "Siberian Khatru" (1972, from Close to the Edge)
If I'm not mistaken, there's no such thing as a "khatru," Siberian or otherwise. They made it up. With music as powerful as this, lyrical substance is largely irrelevant, anyway.
- "Going for the One" (1977, from Going for the One)
Musos demonstrate that they enjoy a good ball game as much as the next guy. And what Steve Howe does with a pedal steel guitar would make a Nashville session player recoil in horror if he weren't so damn impressed.
Recommended DVD: Keys to Ascension (2001) As with the Pet Shop Boys' Montage, the video inserts can be annoying, but it's still a superb performance.
- Trevor Horn, who has worked quite a bit with the Pet Shop Boys (he co-produced "Left to My Own Devices," remixed the single version of "It's Alright," co-wrote and
-performed"The Sound of the Atom Splitting," and, last but certainly not least, produced their albums Fundamental and Concrete, on which he also performs as a supporting musician), was briefly a member of Yesthe lead singer, in factaround 1980, during the recording of their album Drama. After he left the band, he continued for a while to serve as their producer and was largely responsible for Yes's biggest radio hit, "Owner of a Lonely Heart."
- Of course, the Boys titled their 2009 album Yes, but surely that's just a coincidence. (After the title was announced but even before the album itself was released, fans were cracking jokes online about how the band Yes should respond in kind, titling their next album Pet Shop Boys.)
- I can't resist noting that Neil had his photo taken with Yes's best-known keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, and posted it on the Boys' now-defunct Twitter page on March 10, 2009.
The "Top Ten"
Somebody asked me, "Out of all your favorites, who would be in your 'Top Ten'?" I tried to choose subjectively, but found it extremely difficult. So I decided to use a far more objective method: I would base my Top Ten choices on the number of CDs (including singles andgasp!bootlegs) and DVDs that I own by each artist. Therefore, using that "purely scientific" criterion, here are my Top Ten favorite artists in descending order:
- Pet Shop Boys
- Beach Boys/Brian Wilson
- Manhattan Transfer
- Elton John
- Moody Blues
- Steely Dan
Incidentally, if I didn't count CD singles, the Beach Boys/Brian Wilson would easily replace PSB in first place.
"Near Misses" (aka "The Second Tier")
Here are some other artists that I'm quite fond of, although in each case there's something that prevents them from ranking up there among my "favorites."
Art-popsters with a spotty record: a good (not great, but good) debut album, a so-so second, terrific third and fourth albums (Life Beyond L.A. and One Eighty, which account for their inclusion here), and an abysmal fifth and final album—so awful that I wonder whether it was the cause or the effect of their disbanding shortly after its release. Favorite songs: "Holding on to Yesterday," "Life Beyond L.A." "How Much I Feel."
Sort of like an American variation on Kate Bush, but missing a certain je ne sais quoi (is that too horribly pretentious of me?) that keeps her from among my faves. I think she's excellent in small doses, though too much at a time makes me gaze longingly at the medicine cabinet. Favorite songs: "Caught a Lite Sneeze," "Bliss," "Sleeps with Butterflies."
The Steely Dan of New Wave, at least from a lyrical perspective. If nothing else, they deserve respect for putting out one of the greatest debut albums in rock/pop history. Yeah, sometimes they were a little too slick—the simile "like leather tuxedos" comes to mind—but I forgive them. Favorite songs: "Let's Go," "Dangerous Type," "Touch and Go."
Donna Summer's only real competition as the greatest artist of the Disco Era. For one thing, their brilliant and almost neurotically stylized "Good Times" is one of my all-time favorite singles. "Le Freak," "I Want Your Love," and their writing and production of "We Are Family" for Sister Sledge as well as "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" for Diana Ross are all nearly its equal in terms of sheer fabulosity. But Chic doesn't make my full-fledged favorite artists list because the number of their songs that I like is relatively small compared to the artists listed above. Favorite songs: "Le Freak," "Good Times," "We Are Family" (the latter sung by Sister Sledge but written and produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, which makes it count for me).
Six of their first seven albums, recorded from 1969-1974 (who cranks out albums that quickly anymore?) are stone-cold classics, filled to the brim with great songs. (Why not all seven? Because that interminable fourth counts among the deadest live albums ever made.) Unfortunately, after the seventh I don't have much use for them. Favorite songs: "25 or 6 to 4," "Now That You've Gone," "Wishing You Were Here" (the latter highlighted by great backup vocals by three-fifths of the Beach Boys).
A woman with a magical voice who made country music for people who don't like country music. Her "best of" and "greatest hits" collections boast one unforgettable performance after another. Too bad she also recorded more than her share of disposable filler. Favorite songs: "Crazy," "She's Got You," "Sweet Dreams."
About 50% of their stuff is great—especially their more uptempo tracks, where Chris Martin's sometimes cloying wounded-puppydog vocal mannerisms aren't nearly as noticeable as on their slower numbers. Favorite songs: "Trouble," "Clocks," "Viva la Vida."
Fearsome prog rock—sometimes downright scary. I absolutely love their "middle period" trio of albums: Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red. Their first album is quite nice, too. The rest, however, I can pretty much do without. Favorite songs: "The Great Deceiver," "Lament," "Fracture."
Little Miss Dynamite. What I said about Pasty Cline goes for Brenda as well—only there are even more classics and even more crap. By the way, it's no accident that she and Patsy had the same producer, the brilliant Owen Bradley: a man so important to the history of country music that they erected a bronze statue of him in Nashville. How many producers can you think of who've had statues erected in their honor? Favorite songs: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Break It to Me Gently," "Johnny One Time."
Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor is a man with a vision, even if that vision is enough to make some people want to shove knitting needles into their eye sockets. But underlying the industrial façade, hiding behind the angst-ridden lyrics, are some superb melodies. He's also a lot funnier than most of his fans realize, so busy they are taking him totally at face value. Favorite songs: "Head Like a Hole," "Down in It," "Closer."
It's a cliché to point out that Chrissie Hynde comes across as tougher, musically and otherwise, than most men. Maybe I just like strong women who write really good songs. More like their best and they would've been shoo-ins for the top tier. Favorite songs: "Brass in Pocket," "Back on the Chain Gang," "Don't Get Me Wrong."
I can't help it—I am gay, you know. Besides, in terms of sheer vocal technique, one can make a solid argument for her as the finest female vocalist of the second half of the twentieth century. There's a caveat, however: give me her excellent discography from 1970 to 1985, but forget anything before (too Broadway) and after (flaccid attempts to recreate past glories). Favorite songs: "Stoney End," "Evergreen," "Memory."
I'm serious. I actually like only a few of their songs, but those I love intensely. Too dumb to be smart, but too smart to be merely stupid, these guys formed the nexus where bubblegum, glam, punk, and art rock converged and waged a love-hate war. With better songwriting talent, they might have been real contenders. With much better songwriting talent, they might have been Queen. Favorite songs: "Little Willy," "The Ballroom Blitz," "Love Is Like Oxygen."
If everything they've done were as fantastic as their "best of," they'd easily make my list of unreserved favorites. OK, I could say that about a lot of artists. But—I'm not sure why—I regret that it's not true for these guys more than for anyone else. Not so incidentally, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" is another one of my all-time favorite singles. Curiously, hearing it always make me nostalgic for my college years, despite the fact that it came out nearly a decade after I graduated. Figure that one out! Favorite songs: "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," "Laid So Low (Tears Roll Down)," "Break It Down Again."
Favorite Albums by Artists
Who Are Not Among My Favorites
In addition, I count a number of other albums among my favorites despite the fact that I wouldn't place those who created them among my favorite artists. (I do like them all—just not enough to count them as "favorites.") Please note that I don't include any "best of" or "greatest hits" albums here; otherwise this list would be damn near interminable. These albums are listed in chronological order, with those released in the same year sorted alphabetically by artist.
- Are You Experienced? (1967) - The Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Chicago II (1970) - Chicago
- All Things Must Pass (1970) - George Harrison
- Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970) - Spirit
- John Barleycorn Must Die (1970) - Traffic
- Tapestry (1971) - Carole King
- (aka untitled, IV, Runes, and Zoso) (1971) - Led Zeppelin
- No Secrets (1972) - Carly Simon
- Tubular Bells (1973) - Mike Oldfield
- A Wizard, A True Star (1973) - Todd Rundgren
- Starless and Bible Black (1974) - King Crimson
- Silk Degrees (1976) - Boz Scaggs
- The Cars (1978) - The Cars
- City to City (1978) - Gerry Rafferty
- One Eighty (1980) - Ambrosia
- The Nightfly (1982) - Donald Fagen
- She's So Unusual (1983) - Cyndi Lauper
- High Crime (1984) - Al Jarreau
- Learning to Crawl (1984) - The Pretenders
- Brothers in Arms (1985) - Dire Straits
- Nothing Like the Sun (1987) - Sting
- Everything's Different Now (1988) - 'Til Tuesday
- Achtung Baby (1991) - U2
- Diva (1992) - Annie Lennox
- Automatic for the People (1992) - R.E.M.
- Martinis and Bikinis (1994) - Sam Phillips
- Surfacing (1998) - Sarah McLachlan
- Hopes and Fears (2004) - Keane
Concerts I've Attended
I've never been a big concert attendee. In general, the "live experience" doesn't do a lot for me. That being said, I have immensely enjoyed most of the shows I've attended. Here's a short list of the artists whose concerts I've gone to—at least those that I can recall at this time.
This list doesn't include the fairly large number of classical and choral music performances I've attended. Artists whose shows I've attended more than once are followed by a red plus sign
- Beach Boys +
I attended quite a few of their shows (at least five) from 1974 to 1980. They ranged from absolutely superb early on—when they were one of the best live bands ever—to a near-disastrous final show after drugs and mental illness had exacted obvious tolls on the Wilson brothers. I decided I just couldn't take any more concerts like that. Witnessing the steep decline of Dennis, in particular, through that seven-year period was tragic.
A very good, solid show in late 1973 or (more likely) early 1974, in the midst of their commercial heyday.
- Michael Feinstein
A walking, talking, singing, piano-playing encyclopedia of the Great American Songbook—particularly that chapter titled "Gershwin." We went to see him perform once in the late eighties largely out of a sense that we really ought to. It was the sort of thing I can thoroughly enjoy for at least three or four songs, but a whole evening of it really ain't my cup o' latte. Or, if I may use another gastronomic metaphor, it's like liver pâté; a small amount is absolutely marvelous, but too much leaves me a bit queasy.
- The Flirtations
A four-man openly gay a cappella group circa 1990 that counted among its members the wonderful (and now, regrettably, late) Michael Callen, a solo artist in his own right. We attended as much for sociopolitical reasons as for aesthetic ones, but that does nothing to detract from the fact that we had a real good time. There's a place for that sort of thing, you know. It makes me wonder, though—to what degree are sociopolitical factors always intertwined with our aesthetic preferences? If, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz once suggested, "Culture is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves," then our individual aesthetic choices must be part of that. There's little doubt that by attending a show by an admittedly rather obscure openly gay singing group we were proudly identifying ourselves as gay (or, if we had been heterosexual, as highly gay-supportive). So have you ever considered what you're telling yourself about yourself by your own musical favorites—such as, say, the Pet Shop Boys?
But I digress—
In 1992 during their "We Can't Dance" tour—an excellent concert.
- Jefferson Starship
In the mid-1970s. I attended only because I was reviewing it for my college newspaper. I didn't particularly enjoy it. But, then again, I've never really been a fan.
- Elton John
During his remarkable 1979 tour when he was playing relatively small venues in shows that featured just him and the fabulous percussionist Ray Cooper.
Before they hit it big, when they were still putting a peculiarly American spin on prog rock. This was another show that I attended in the mid-seventies solely because I was assigned to review it. But it really wasn't half bad.
- Manhattan Transfer +
Several shows—three, I believe—during the 1980s. All very good.
- Barry Manilow
We attended one of Barry's shows in the early 1980s on a last-minute whim—almost literally. We didn't know we were going to go until about an hour or two beforehand when we heard that tickets were still available and we didn't have anything better to do that evening. (This was back before most concert tickets were a major investment.) In retrospect, I really can't explain why we went. But I distinctly remember enjoying it much more than I thought we would.
- Don McLean
An interesting story – Back in 1981, a friend of a friend—who happened to be the chef at an outdoor venue in the exurbs of Chicago, where one paid big bucks for a gourmet meal followed by a show, and who made the best spaghetti sauce I've ever tasted (the secret I suspect was in the mashed bananas he blended in)—gave us complimentary tickets to one such evening, for which the music was provided by Don McLean. And, yes, both the meal and the music were superb, even if he didn't (if I remember correctly) do "American Pie." But that really didn't bother me since he did perform a number of his songs that I like far more, including "Castles in the Air," "And I Love You So," and one of my absolute, all-time favorite compositions, "Vincent."
- Joni Mitchell
In early 1976, shortly after the release of her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. I would have attended even if I hadn't been tasked with reviewing it. Simply marvelous.
- Pet Shop Boys +
Four times so far—1999, 2006, 2009, and 2013—each one unreservedly superb. I don't think I need to add anything else.
- Romanovky & Phillips +
I attended two shows in the early 1980s by this talented openly gay folk-pop-comedy duo. Stylistically not exactly my thing, but that was back when openly gay artists were still so rare that they nearly all deserved one's active support (re The Flirtations a few paragraphs above).
An aspiring prog-lite band from Chicago in early 1976, touring to promote their debut album. Another reviewing assignment, but this time I got to interview the group at their hotel several hours before the show. I learned two important lessons: (1) I don't like interviewing musicians, and (2) I'm not very good at interviewing musicians. Do I not like it because I'm not very good at it, or am I not very good at it because I don't like it? Perhaps an unresolvable philosophical question. But I can say with certainty that the concert was all but totally forgettable in that I've all but totally forgotten it.
- The Who
Also in the mid-seventies, but this time it was no assignment. As I note above, this was the single best concert I've ever attended. So loud I feared my ears would bleed. So good I didn't care.
- Brian Wilson
A very good show by Brian in 2001 with one of the best backing bands in popular music. It was thoroughly enjoyable despite the fact that watching him perform live can be a somewhat disconcerting experience (pun intended). You can't help but feel that he's profoundly uncomfortable on stage. Then again, that's part of the sheer fascination of watching him perform live. A clever reviewer once described Brian as "the Judy Garland of white heterosexual male baby-boomers," and although one of the adjectives in that phrase doesn't apply to me personally, there's a lot of truth there.
In 1979 on their tour in support of one of their lesser albums, Tormato. I honestly can't remember very much of this show. No, I didn't and don't do drugs—well, aside from alcohol, caffeine, and a few presecription medicines that help keep me healthy. But there were so many people smoking around me that night that I suspect I suffered a "contact high," resulting in partial amnesia. Still, I vaguely remember enjoying the performance, even if we did sit so far away that I could block out the entire stage with my hand stretched out before me. That I remember clearly!
There were also several "aborted" concerts for which I had tickets but didn't attend for one reason or another:
- another Yes show, missed in 1977 because of an automobile accident earlier that day (I wasn't hurt but my car was put out of commission—and, by the way, it wasn't my fault!);
- Paul Simon, skipped in 2001 because I wasn't feeling well;
- Pet Shop Boys, missed in 2002 because of the death of my father;
- Rufus Wainwright, skipped in 2007 because of a sudden unavoidable conflict in my partner George's schedule and I simply didn't feel like going by myself; and
- Depeche Mode, missed in 2013 on account of illness (which really ticked me off).
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