The 14 strangest (good and bad) things the Boys have done (at least in public)

1. It Couldn’t Happen Here (the movie, not the song)

I know that some fans love this film, but I'm not one of them. I mean, I've watched it—repeatedly. To call it "surreal" is an understatement. That's fine if you're into surrealism. But I think it was something of a noble mis-step, a failed experiment. In fact, it would've made my "U.S. career suicide" list except that it never achieved much of any U.S. circulation, so it probably did little or nothing to hurt the Boys' U.S. reputation.

2. Their costumes in the "I Don't Know What You Want…" video

A friend and fellow PSB fan describes this as "their lesbian dog-handlers look." When Boy George once asked Neil why they were wearing "dresses" in the video, Neil replied, "They're not dresses. They're culottes." To which Boy George quipped, "That's how we all start, luv." The Pet Shop Boys themselves alluded to the oddness of these costumes in an amusing verbal exchange in front of journalist David Bennun, right around the time of the 1999 release of the associated album, Nightlife:

“You've corrupted me,” Chris Lowe is telling him. “I was a normal, innocent, working-class boy and now you've got me wearing a dress.”

“You were part of a huge showbiz dynasty,” protests Tennant. “Forty years ago your grandad was playing Vegas.”

“Not dressed like that, he wasn't.”

3. "So Hard" on the Performance tour and video

The hair! Synchronized hand-gestures! Giant shadows! Umbrellas with question marks! Chris playing with one hand! This transcends mere strangeness. Quite possibly the funniest thing the Pet Shop Boys have ever done. If I hadn't already been a fan-for-life by the time I saw this, it would've made me one.

4. The Swing Version of "Can You Forgive Her?"

Now, I love this—the Boys doing swing before swing was cool. (Isn't that something of a pattern with them? They also made their "Latin" album, Bilingual, before Latin music was cool, or at least before it experienced a massive revival of mainstream popularity in the late 1990s.) With the help of their conductor/arranger friend Richard Niles (who had also put together the "Overture to 'Performance'" and arranged "If Love Were All"), Neil and Chris transformed their sordid saga of tortured attempted heterosexuality into an audio film noir. Yes, this is wonderful. But if the thought of Neil Tennant fronting a big band doesn't strike you as a bit strange, nothing does. And in case you're wondering where this rare recording can be found, it's "officially" available as a bonus track on certain versions of the "Yesterday, When I Was Mad" single (such as the Australian release) and "unofficially" available on various bootlegs. Why it wasn't included on the 2001 Very re-release bonus disc is a complete mystery to me.

5. "The Sound of the Atom Splitting"

One listen to this track speaks for itself. No further comment needed.

6. The so-called "remixes" of "Liberation"

What were they thinking when they allowed E-Smoove and Murk to do what they did to one of their masterpieces? I detest "remixes" that have essentially nothing in common with the original—even going so far as to eliminate the original lyrics, melody, and/or chord structure altogether. The "Liberation" remixes are by far the worst examples of this in the PSB library, and among the worst I've ever heard in the history of dance music, period. At least E-Smoove's 7" Edit retained part of Neil's vocal—1½ verses and the chorus. That is, at least it's something. I just don't think it's really the Pet Shop Boys anymore.

A 2017 addendum – Nearly a quarter-century later, history repeats itself with the Baba Stiltz alleged "remix" of "Burn." I can't help but feel that such treatment suggests outright contempt for the song itself and/or for the original artist. Although distorted snippets of the original do manage now and then to finagle their way into the mix, it's simply not a song anymore. It's not even a decent dance track. So what the #$&@! is it? An even more salient question, however, is why.

7. Chris’s Issey Miyake "blow-up jacket"

This ranks right up there with David Byrne's "big suit" as an example of pop/rock sartorial iconography. Like the cover of Actually, an unforgettable image, albeit considerably less well known—one more example of the "quiet outrageousness" that has become a PSB hallmark.

8. The "Absolutely Fabulous" video—the costumes in particular

Almost as iconographic, even more outrageous, and much funnier. Film reviewer Bryant Frazer (writing about the Various video collection) describes Neil and Chris here as "dancing about in white robes like the Popes of techno." (I love that!) Those snow-white baker/dervish costumes, not to mention the video itself—in fact, all of the videos from the Very era—put to rest once and for all the false early impression of the Boys as humorless musical technicians.

9. The "Can You Forgive Her?" video

For example— This video is the epitome of calculated PSB silliness. Much more amusing than It Couldn't Happen Here, just as surreal, and hardheadedly divorced from the song playing in the background. A visual non sequitur.

10. A lifesize flaccid penis on the cover of the vinyl promo of "Before"

"Let's see—how can we make absolutely sure that dance-club DJs don't overlook this?"

11. "Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus"

As noted elsewhere, one of the most bizarre duets in the history of popular music—or music period, for that matter. Is there a law against humans getting it on with machines?

12. The video for "Home and Dry"

—in which, in its original version, the Boys didn't appear at all. Instead, the "stars" of the video (created by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans) are mice going about the routine business of life in the tunnels of the London subway. It was later modified to include two brief glimpses of our heroes performing onstage: Neil on guitar, Chris on keyboard—a bone tossed to commercial considerations. Chris defends this video as "art." No doubt it is. But it's still strange.

13. Performing in SecondLife

On July 1, 2007, the Pet Shop Boys—or at least their avatars—performed several songs at SecondFest, a three-day "virtual music festival" that took place in the popular online "virtual world" SecondLife. (The audio actually came from their recent Cubism DVD recording.) Partway through the show "Chris" appeared to "fall asleep" at the keyboard and stood there, drooping lifelessly, as "Neil" continued to perform—singing, strutting back and forth across the stage, and even dancing a bit. Some of the avatars of real-life fans in the virtual crowd wore pointy hats, which, considering what was taking place on stage, was one of the least bizarre things about the whole affair.

14. Chris's onstage "antics" on June 5-6, 2007

At two back-to-back dates on the U.K. leg of their Fundamental tour—on June 5 at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham and the following evening at the Hammersmith Apollo in London—Chris's onstage behavior was unconventional enough to cause fans to talk about it online for weeks thereafter. As one commentator put it, he seemed to be on "happy pills," being considerably more animated than usual. His spotlight performance of "Paninaro" in at least one of those shows was particularly memorable, with him apparently improvising new lines about socks and underwear, pretty much shouting out the lyrics with uncharacteristic gusto. All of this might actually not have been very strange for most other performers. But we're not talking about most other performers; we're talking about the Pet Shop Boys, for whom it was very strange indeed.