On how the Pet Shop Boys have always been there for me – life as a listener.

I stated listening to music when I was about ten years old. I think it was about this time that my parents gave me a radio, and I was ten years old. Previous to this I’d had a small battery powered radio which I could only tune to Radio Four. Amusingly, I thought that the orchestras playing were always live, coming from a studio somewhere in London. My Uncle Charles had been a classical music buff and he would play us his favourite records whenever we visited him in London. The whole family would go out for a walk and he would put on his favourite record and play it to me and my mother while everyone else was out walking.

So, with the new radio I quickly got into pop music and within a year I’d built up a list of the sorts of bands and singers that I liked. Shakin Stevens, for example, Toyah, Madness. And then along came the Pet Shop Boys.

1. WEST END GIRLS (1985)

This was played on the radio a lot. And because I’d only just got in to music, and I was only eleven, it was kind of the base by which all other music would be measured. It always seemed timeless with the very pronounced English accent and the backing music which seemed functional rather than exuberant or showy. I went into school and told someone that I liked this song and they said that I was very trendy indeed for liking something so bang up to date.

2. LEFT TO MY OWN DEVICES (1988)

I got a Sony Walkman for Christmas in 1988. It was bright yellow and it had a radio attached, too. Amazingly, I’ve still got it and it still works. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard this song. I was sitting at the table in the dining room of our house listening to, I think for some reason, Andi Peters standing in for one of the regular DJs on Radio One, and he said, this is brand new from the Pet Shop Boys, and it’s a bit over the top. And wow, it completely blew me away, so much so that I would try and listen to the radio more just to hear it. It sounded as if the opera singer at the start was saying ‘Arse’, and they probably were, because it’s been removed from subsequent versions. And parts of the lyrics resonated with me: not wanting to drive a car or be interested in talking about cars, (like all of my school friends), being a lonely child who liked playing on his own, and of course the verse, ‘i was faced with a choice at a difficult age, would I write a book, or should I take to the stage’. So I became a performance poet and did both. And also, because of my uncle, I knew who Debussey was.

3. SO HARD (1990)

I also remember exactly where I was when I heard this. I was in my bedroom. The song sounded amazing and I decided to go to Woolworths the next day and buy the cassette single. Now at the time I’d just discovered formula one racing, and my favourite driver was Alessandro Nannini. I thought he was just about the best driver and that he would have a very long career. I rushed home from Woolworths with the cassette single and turned on Teletext to see the latest motor racing news, and the headline was that Nannini had been in a helicopter crash and was very badly injured. Listening to the song on my cassette player minutes later, the song seemed to be about Nannini and his injury rather than suspicion and the end of a relationship. It still reminds me of Nannini even now.

4. CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? (1993)

I went on holiday on my own. It was the first time I’d been away. I wanted to go somewhere and just write, so, living in Surrey, I caught the train to Looe in Cornwall, a place I felt I’d be able to disappear, and just write. It poured with rain. I brought my Walkman with me and bought the new Pet Shop Boys album, Very. I was worried that it would be downcast and moody like their previous one, the masterpiece Behaviour. I remember laying on my bed in the hotel room and listening to this, the first song, and being incredibly happy because it was poppy and upbeat. Even though it was raining, I was on my own, and I was in a strange place, I still felt happy because of this song.

5. BEFORE (1996)

I was disappointed in this song. It sounded like they’d phoned it in, deliberately made a song just to sound like them. I remember thinking the same about REM’s Imitation of Life. But the thing was, I was living in Surrey but I knew that I’d be moving to Devon within weeks. I was working in a small village shop at the time and it was very hot, and I’d cycle home and collapse on my bed, put on the radio and listen to the pop songs on Capital FM, and invariably this song would come on. And I’d say to myself, cmon lads, you can do better than this. Weeks later we moved to Devon. It felt like the start of a new life and a million miles from Surrey and London. I felt like a new person. The new Pets album Bilingual came out so I went to the supermarket and bought it. And this song was on it, and I’d completely forgotten that it existed even though it was the first single from the album, it just took me back to Surrey and the weird thought that it’s strange to move between the first single of an album and then the album itself. Life was moving, but the Pet Shop Boys were still there.

6. SOMEWHERE (1997)

By now I’d got a job in Devon. We had a radio at the shop in the stock room. This song came on and it completely blew me away, but at the same time I was sad that I should be listening to it for the first time at work rather than in the comfort of my room. And wow, it was completely over the top. They were out and proud and I was neither.

7. HOME AND DRY (2002)

I was on holiday again, alone again, this time in Italy. By now I had a portable Walkman cd player which ate up batteries like nobody’s business. The uncluttered music of this track and the simple lyrics about a life which I hoped one day to have too – waiting for a loved one to come home – seemed to speak about so much other than the domestic. Yet I always associate this song with being in Italy and being on my own. Except I wasn’t on my own, not really. I had the Pets.

8. THE LAST TO DIE (2013)

Ok, so by now I’m a spoken word artist and pretty much, as the song goes, the kind of man that I’d always meant to be. When the Electric album came out, I was completely crazy for it. All the songs were pumping and amazing and seemed the perfect accompaniment to my life and how hectic it had now become. I’d go through phases of loving and being obsessed with each song on the album, and the week that I was obsessed with this song was the week I was in London, doing open mics and exploring what the spoken word scene was like. I’d listened to this song about twenty times on one particular day, just before heading from the hotel to Bang Said the Gun. I got there and the atmosphere was amazing, and I entered the mini slam. However as the evening had worn on I’d felt ill and, not knowing it at the time, I had a virus which just sapped all my energy. I did the slam and then went immediately back to the hotel, trying to revive myself with this song. I then got a message to say that I’d won the slam but they couldn’t find me to tell me.

So they may not be the trendiest band in the world, and a work colleague may call them ‘those whining bastards’, but the whole ethos and spirit of the Pet Shop Boys has always helped me through life at strange moments, and I’m sure that there is more to come from them and, hopefully, from me.

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Author: Robert Garnham

Performance and spoken word artist.

2 thoughts on “On how the Pet Shop Boys have always been there for me – life as a listener.”

  1. Fabulous writing, as always, Robert.

    The PSBs were a big part of my life, too (although I was considerably older than you in their heyday and I stopped actively following their output after Behaviour). Songs which have particular significance to me:

    1. In The Night, which, somewhat inappropriately, was used as the theme to The Clothes Show, which I watched avidly, just as I read ID and The Face, back then, in an entirely unsuccessful attempt to become one of the Beautiful People. I had no idea who or what a Zazou was at the time (in my head, I assumed [wrongly] after mishearing part of the lyrics that it was a gay black South African), but I got the vibe of stylish defiance in the face of mortal danger.

    2. Heart. I loved the pointedly simple video where they were both riding in the back of a cab (to a wedding???), but even more I loved the album version, where there was no electric guitar and it just had a fuzzier, more soft-focus, romantic feel to it. This song so perfectly sums up what it is to be wildly in love that even today I end up listening to it on repeat when I have a passionate crush on someone.

    3. King’s Cross. I remember listening to this in my kitchen in King’s Cross on the evening of 7/7/2005, as I watched thousands of commuters walk home up the Caledonian Road, as all public transport was still down after the bombings. Earlier that day, I had seen the station surrounded by ambulances and dazed survivors, their clothes ripped and stained by the explosives, clinging to each other in the back streets of Bloomsbury. The lyrics seemed prescient.

    The Actually album, as a whole, reminds me of my flat in Brixton my second year of university.

    4. All Right. My favourite from Introspective, which I listened to on repeat while revising for my finals at university (Neil Tennant helped me get a First).

    Like

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