Towards the end of 1985 Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (there’s no “the”) stormed to the top of the charts with their first hit single “West End Girls”. They combined a pop media savviness (from Neil’s days on “Smash Hits” magazine) with an ability to avoid saying anything personal about themselves. Five years on they had twelve hit singles (4 number 1’s) and four huge selling albums and agreed for journalist Chris Heath, who they had known from their early days, to shadow them and write up his experiences. Twenty five years on this remains one of the greatest books about British Popular music of all time.
The boys (I have to use the “the” there to get the sense) invited Chris to catalogue their first tour, initially in Japan and then the UK. There was a great deal of interest in this tour as it was believed by many that they would not be able to translate their studio sound into a live performance, but they always have been a great success as a live act. Their Japanese fanzine had devoted many column inches to whether they would be able to tour. There is a quote from Neil in the magazine, which has been obviously translated into Japanese and then back into English which sets the seal for the whole enterprise.
“Please look forward to it! We won’t make it ordinally pop concert. We’re planning gaudily show cause we want to give our impression strongly. At first, we’re thinking to use theatre instead of proper music fall. It gives you different atmosphere. Well, take a look. We’ll make you think our’s not average concert.”
Not knowing quite what he was in for Heath was invited to accompany them. They were clear what they didn’t want. Chris told him;
“Rock shows are really embarrassing. The audience can be embarrassing and the performers I feel cringeworthy. You light your lighter during the ballad……It’s the way it’s meant to have some kind of importance when it evidently hasn’t…That’s what I find embarrassing.”
Over the next few months the boys change the blueprint for live performances, bringing film director and all-round hero Derek Jarman to direct, producing a grandiose stage show using lighting , technology and many performers in a way which was radically different at the time yet now seems commonplace.
This book is a great insight into what makes Pet Shop Boys tick (without any personal revelations at all). It is laugh out loud funny, extremely readable and hasn’t been left behind by the passage of time. To put it in its context, however, the boys seem obsessed with the rise of Bros! It’s a tale of coping with the rigours and frustrations of touring, of comparing themselves with just about everyone else in the music business, of answering fan mail and worrying over chart positions. Neil and Chris’ humour, word-play and occasional sniping is much to the fore and it makes for great reading. It is a book which you can open at random and find much to enjoy and read as a whole it manages to give you uniquely both the whole sense and no sense at all of who the Pet Shop Boys are .
Following this book Chris Heath also joined the first American tour and recounted this separately in “Pet Shop Boys Versus America” (1993). Photographs by Pennie Smith are more to the fore in this book and it is by the author’s admission less of a meticulous moment by moment analysis of the tour, more of an overview. It is not as essential read as “Literally” but it is thoroughly enjoyable and makes for an excellent companion piece.