Monday, April 28, 2008

The Pet Shop Boys -- "So Hard" (1990)

The Penn and Teller of the English synthpop world had released a number of great singles but hit the jackpot with the Behaviour album in 1990. Where the duo could have picked all kinds of big name collaborators, they chose German musician/producer Harold Faltermeyer, whose biggest claim to fame before that was composing and writing the "Axel F Theme" from Beverly Hills Cop.

The Pet Shop Boys represented a striking confluence of disco and DJ culture, gay subtext, and artsy pretensions. Former Smash Hits magazine editor Neil Tennant sings in a slightly nasal tones, pretty much devoid of emotion, but carrying a melody quite well and full of irony. Their lyrics had sort of a journalistic bite, alluding to gay relationships, dependencies ("Rent") and trysts, but never quite giving it all away. They had an unquestionable devotion to the art and artifice of pop music, and often celebrated it in their songs and shows.

The Pet Shop Boys present an interesting contrast with the just-discussed New Order. Both created dance music and relished their 12" extended remixes, but that's where the comparisons ended: whereas New Order incorporated a lot of live instruments into their music, the Pet Shop Boys were all about the synthesizers, and a lot of them.

Whatever the music skills of the Boys, they always made a point of teaming with the best synthesizer and drum programmers as well as remixers in Europe, notably Julian Mendelsohn and Shep Pettibone early on. However, Behaviour was a real tour de force of analog synth programming, layered, EQ'd and arranged brilliantly.

"So Hard" opens with a short flying percussion pattern, some introductory kicks and spacey pads. The kick then goes straight 4/4, the hi hats move in, a woosh of a keyboard, giving way to the throbbing synth bass line and a minor key Fairlight riff. The instrumentation is definitely house music-based, lots of little hits and bleeps quantized in time with the groove. The narrator is again in a frustrating relationship, and as if often the case with The Pet Shop Boys, playing head games:

I double-cross you and you get mysterious mail
I've tried hard not to shock you
It's hard not to with the things I could say.

Tell me why don't we try
not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?
Why don't we try not to break our hearts
and make it so hard for ourselves?

You lock your letters in a box
and you've hidden the key
I go one better - I'm indebted to a contact magazine.

Tell me why don't we try
not to break our hearts and make it so hard for ourselves?
Why don't we try not to break our hearts
and make it so hard for us?

The Pet Shop Boys put angst to a disco beat. The song's break delivers it in spades:

Everybody's got to live together
just to find a little peace of mind there
If you give up your affairs forever
I will give up mine
But it's hard
so hard.

The group's best album coincided with their first major tour of America, one which I caught with my then-girlfriend (later wife) at Radio City Music Hall. I use the term "concert" loosely here because there was nothing traditional about it -- it was closer to theater and performance art, with numerous costumed dancers and players, a lot of pre-programmed synths and drum machines, and Tennant and Lowe casually moving in and out of the scenery, very much keeping with their low-key composure.

And Harold Faltermeyer? Despite the success of Behaviour, that was his last major commercial harrah.

Below is the official video, a strange black and white number shot around Newcastle in the UK. With various scenes of two couples having found outdoors, playing pool and pinball, the Boys appear like mysterious ghostly figures, Tennant singing with total ennui and Lowe not saying anything and sometimes just staring into space. They are accompanied by what look like bulky black bodyguards everywhere they go. If I put my English majors cap on, I'd say the PSB are the guilty consciences of the foursome, motioning blankly like the cats that ate the rat. By the video's end, it seems that one guy is checking out the other girl, and gets slapped for his trouble.

By the way, if you enjoy the Pet Shop Boys, you owe it to yourself to investigate the Pet Shop Boys Song-By-Song Commentary site, "Interpretations and Analyses of Every Song Written or Performed by Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant" by Wayne Studer, Ph.D.

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