Even more than their remarkably fresh and in-touch new music, which flirts with EDM and high BPMs while never being too “How do you do, fellow kids?”, the Pet Shop Boys’ most interesting activity across the last half-decade is the deep dive they’ve done into their own archives. From last year’s 4K remaster of their 1987 feature film It Couldn’t Happen Here, to a wealth of late-night television performances uploaded in high-quality to the band’s official YouTube page, their mammoth body of carefully curated multimedia is a testament to Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s endless invention and creative energy across nearly four decades. Originally released as a concert film in the 1990s but now reissued as a live album, Discovery: Live in Rio - 1994 captures the Boys’ first trip to Brazil, a stop on a global tour of Singapore, Australia, and Latin America—parts of the world the Boys had never played before—on the back of 1993’s Very.
The Pet Shop Boys had first set out internationally in 1991, with an elaborate and operatic piece of theater captured by the concert film Performance. Their most recent album at that time, 1990’s Behaviour, was in part an elegant elegy to friends, comrades, and collaborators lost to AIDS, and though it’s often been critically regarded as the duo’s finest record, audiences failed to warm to its chillier sensibility. With Very, the Boys underwent a significant makeover, adapting to the more up-tempo DJ culture of the new decade—it was designed as a bid for renewed commercial success and would become their best-selling release in their home country, but also feels driven by a desire for outright expression and queer emancipation following a period of deep mourning. As their music itself pivoted to more explicit dance music, Discovery shows the high-art opera house of the Pet Shop Boys’ earlier live performances transforming into a come-as-you-are club night that radiates understanding and acceptance like only popular music can.
Performance drew a line between performer and audience, with Tennant and Lowe feeling more like actors in a drama than musicians in a band. But with Discovery, the Boys came into their own as showmen. Thriving off the energy of rave culture, the mood is jovial, but their trademark theatricality is still omnipresent: the Discovery concert film is stuffed with dancers, local soccer players, chiseled models strutting the stage in loincloths and boxer briefs, Tennant decked out in full papal garb, and literal nipple play. The Pet Shop Boys’ sense of humor might be dry, but their shows are downright wet. The group’s first performances were directed by queer cinema pioneer Derek Jarman, whose Renaissance decadence was a perfect match for the Boys’ frequently baroque sensibilities. Discovery was one of their last collaborations, featuring background video projections directed by Jarman, along with Bruce Weber and Howard Greenlagh.
Opening with a brief, wistful rendition of “Tonight Is Forever” before launching into the exuberance of “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” the Discovery setlist is mostly a blend of staples—“Domino Dancing,” “Kings Cross”—with tracks from Very like the bombastic break-up anthem “Can You Forgive Her?” and the more subdued “To Speak Is a Sin.” Halfway through the show, Neil sits down in a solo spotlight and cracks that they’ve never been invited to do an MTV Unplugged, before leading intimate acoustic singalongs of “Rent” and “Suburbia.” The eternal pop kids have long been anti-rock, but are not always anti-guitar—the ease with which their songs lend themselves to stylistic reinterpretation speaks to their strength as pieces of songwriting, regardless of recorded interpretation. The party gets delightfully silly with “Absolutely Fabulous,” a charity single produced from chopped-up samples of the BBC comedy, and “Girls & Boys,” a queerer take on the Blur song which Pet Shop Boys had also remixed into a minor club hit.
Discovery has long been a cult favorite among Pet Shop fans because of how it reimagines the Pet Shop Boys’ own canon and other well-known pop hits. The duo’s original songs are among the most indelible in history, but they’re also somewhat unique as a major music act who have made covers a constant and crucial part of their repertoire. Almost as well-known as “West End Girls” or “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” are their takes on Elvis Presley, the Village People, and U2: not just famous songs, but songs that have almost become a kind of prefabricated folk culture, tunes we hear in the grocery store and all seem to know through pure exposure and osmosis. “One in a Million” and “Left to My Own Devices” are seamlessly mashed up with contemporary club cuts like Culture Beat’s “Mr. Vain” and Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night”—Lowe’s synthesizers already flirt with Eurodance, but these remixes elevate one-hit wonders to high-art pieces while transforming the Boys’ own songs into unabashed dance tracks. Pet Shop Boys’ almost prolific propensity for covers of songs by other artists feels as much like critical reconsideration as it does a creative act.
Just as their music reflected upon the fall of the Soviet Union in songs like “My October Symphony,” it also mirrored the increasingly globalized dance party of the ’90s. The enthusiastic reception of the Discovery tour in Latin America influenced the style and structure of 1996’s Bilingual, an album with lyrics in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Through Discovery, it’s as if the band realized that their desired audience was not necessarily in the imperial core represented by American pop charts, but in the Global South, where anthems of liberation had more resonance.
Maybe the Boys’ sense of humor was too intellectual or refined or just plain British for American audiences; maybe it was their sincere engagement with club culture that was often considered novelty or kitsch by critics and consumers; maybe it was the open embrace of queerness, especially during an era of AIDS and legal oppression. Probably some cocktail of all three—Pet Shop Boys present a challenge to heteronormativity and masculine hegemony, to established industry views about what it means to be a band that makes pop music, and to a culture always moving on to the next idea, as they establish critical links between new trends in music with older, once-populist forms like vaudeville and opera.
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have spent decades not just defending pop music from its detractors, but celebrating it—before there was poptimism, there was Pet Shop Boys. In their covers of other artists and reinterpretations of their own work, the Boys suggest pop’s potential as a living medium beyond recorded product, a songbook of standards that express universal sentiments but are open to individual reinterpretation. Though they have often been accused of a certain stiffness or ironic detachment—criticisms encouraged by Tennant’s wordy wit and Lowe’s Kraftwerk-like stoneface—the Pet Shop Boys’ live work from the 1990s on is where they thrive. In their hands, the setlist becomes a collage, curating a century of pop music history in one jukebox.
Buy: Rough Trade
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