Pet Shop Boys rock!

The Pet Shop Boys aren't often thought of as "rockers," not only on account of their own long-professed devotion to "pop" and aversion to "rock" for most of their career, but also because of their predominantly synth-based, dance-oriented style. (And then of course there's "How I Learned to Hate Rock 'n' Roll.") But, as I've stated elsewhere—as in Pet Shop Boys: A Life in Pop—I personally regard the distinction between "pop" and "rock" to be a false dichotomy. (In truth, I would argue that nearly everything they've recorded is "rock" in the broadest sense, just as all rock is "pop" in the broadest sense.) Still, there's no denying that, false or not, it's a dichotomy widely accepted by a great many people, Neil and Chris among them.

All that being said, they have nevertheless on several occasions embraced rock music quite convincingly. So here, in no particular order, are what I consider to be the most unmistakable instances of the Boys performing "rock." And please note that "what I consider to be" qualifier; this list is highly subjective.

  1. I Didn't Get Where I Am Today

    Inspired by a live performance of The Strokes and built around a sample of electric guitar lifted from the obscure 1967 track "Father's Name Is Dad" by the band Fire, this effervescent rock gem might in another decade have been performed by the Monkees. OK, so the "Pre-Fab Four" are hardly exemplars of rock music. But, with the help of a truckload of ace studio musicians, they did rock out at times. And the way the Pet Shop Boys perform "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today," it sounds as though it could've come from one of those more rock-oriented Monkees sessions—only it actually came about 35 years later.

  2. A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi

    Neil plays fairly mean electric guitar on this one. Although it essentially hails from the same pop-rock universe as "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today," this one has a harder edge, ramping the rock up a notch or two.

  3. Did You See Me Coming?

    A tasty, upbeat track driven—and I do mean driven—by jangly guitars, a staple of classic rock. Call it pop-rock, call it power pop, or call me indulgent: whatever the case, it rocks.

  4. The Sodom and Gomorrah Show
  5. As if to drive the point home, they performed this song live on television several times with a full rock band, including drums, guitar, bass (handled by Pete Gleadall), and a bare-chested drummer. It would've been unthinkable even ten years earlier, but the Boys were clearly in an iconoclastic mood during their Release/Fundamental phase, with their own "stylistic image" being among their chief targets. So it's not only rock in style; it's rock in attitude, too.

  6. Birthday Boy

    A full-on rock ballad of a superior variety. Chris even plays an "electric guitar solo" worthy of a first-rate rock or even metal band. So what if he plays it on a keyboard? It would probably take an expert to know the difference just from listening.

  7. Love Is a Catastrophe

    A full-on rock ballad of a somewhat less-than-superior variety, at least in my opinion. But the fact that I really don't care for this song doesn't change that, yes, it's also rock.

  8. I Get Along

    For all of its downbeat quality, Release is undoubtedly the Pet Shop Boys' most rock-inflected album, even if most of those inflections find their strongest expression in the slower-tempo songs. This track, with its crunching guitar chords, gritty sing-along chorus, and pronounced Beatles influence (and almost certain influence of Oasis as well), is a particularly strong example. Although it was released as a single, Chris and Neil decided—possibly on account of its rock pedigree or even to underscore it—against offering any remixes, making it from that perspective unique in the PSB singles catalog. What an extremely rock thing to do!

  9. The Truck-Driver and His Mate
  10. Again inspired by Oasis, the Boys try their hand at the rockier end of the 'nineties "Britpop" spectrum and do a more than passable job of it. If I had to come up with a single word to describe the sound of this record, it would be jagged, and I mean that as a compliment. I only wonder whether, when Neil cried "Let's rock!" just before performing this song on their Somewhere live concert video, he was half-joking or not joking in the least.

  11. Gin and Jag

    Despite the title, this one's not nearly as jagged, but it's definitely among the darker, harsher tracks in the PSB canon. I would think an enterprising metal band would be clamoring to get their black leather, half-finger, knuckle-studded gloved hands on this one. Probably just a matter of time. But speaking of which—

  12. It's a Sin
  13. If it weren't "rock," I doubt that so many rock bands—particularly of the heavy metal variety, practitioners of what might be called (if I may coin a term) "metarock"—would have covered it. In fact, so many metal renditions of this song exist that it has become an outright cliché. ("'It's a Sin,' at its heart, is a heavy metal record," Neil once told an interviewer for the Financial Times.) So even if the PSB original isn't especially "rock" in a stylistic sense, the song itself seems to be. Again, I think it's the sheer iconoclasm of the thing. But then it does include an authentic NASA rocket launch countdown. That's heavy, man.

  14. Playing in the Streets

    If this near-instrumental isn't rock, I don't know what is. It was composed by Chris simply because he was in the mood to create something "rockier" (his word). I'd say he succeeded admirably.

  15. A Powerful Friend

    Especially in its studio version (as opposed to its John Peel-session rendition), this track rivals the aforementioned "Playing in the Streets" as one of the hardest, most rock-oriented recordings in the entire PSB catalogue. Stylistically, those slashing swaths of guitar are downright heavy-metal.

  16. How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?

    I was long a fence-sitter on this one, despite several of my site visitors having lobbied for its inclusion here. But then I found that the TV Tropes website also cites the original Behaviour rendition of this song, "with its guitar feedback squalls and hard-edged beat," as evidence that the Pet Shop Boys do indeed rock. I'm convinced.

  17. Disco Potential

    Despite its "disco title" (then again, I consider disco a form of rock, regardless what anyone else may think), this number—which isn't even "disco" to begin with—rocks as hard as anything else in the entire PSB canon. I mean, the drums alone do the trick, not even taking the other "rough" aspects of the track into account. That its inspiration stems from U2 only sweetens the rock pot.

  18. The Dead Can Dance

    In Issue 42 of the Boys' former fan club publication Literally, Chris says of this track, "The music's quite rock. Quite rock-y." While I'm not sure I would agree that it's quite rock, it's surely rock-ier than most of their songs, albeit on the softer end of the rock spectrum. Then again, who am I to quibble with anything Chris may say about their music?

A few additional songs have been nominated for inclusion in this list by site visitors. Although I don't feel strongly enough about their "rock credentials" to include them myself, I certainly think they're worth noting here as an addendum: