For the second our of retrospective features, we look at an album which was released this week 31 years ago, on October 10th 1988. And it’s not Rattle & Hum….
PET SHOP BOYS “Introspective” (Parlophone, 1988)
- Left To My Own Devices
- I Want A Dog
- Domino Dancing
- I’m Not Scared
- Always On My Mind / Always In My House
- It’s Alright
1988 was a bit of a rum year for the Pet Shop Boys. It began with them still on top of the UK charts with Always On My Mind, a non-album single released in the middle of the Actually campaign, continued with another #1 hit (a remix of Heart that was in fact the original version before they remixed it for the album) and there was time for a Top 10 single with Eighth Wonder/Patsy Kensit (the absolutely bloody perfect I’m Not Scared), all before Spring was done. They were managing, it seemed, to effortlessly survive the arrival of Kylie and Bros upon the pop scene.
What would they do next? Would they fall victim to self-parody, to creative inertia? Would they just piss off for a while and enjoy the royalties, thankyouverymuch?
Or would they use the opportunities created by such success to branch out in new directions, to indulge in a little Fantasy Producer League wish-fulfillment, to risk bringing an early end to their Imperial Phase, to challenge the notions of what the Pet Shop Boys were?
The answer, of course was the latter and Introspective was quite appropriately a bit of a rum do. It wasn’t exactly a new album, as there were B-sides, reworkings of hits, and a cover version in addition to a pair of spanking unreleased tunes. It wasn’t exactly a proper album at all, with only 6 tracks. But then it wasn’t a mini album either, like 1986’s Disco, because it lasted precisely 2 seconds over the 50-minute mark. Disco was a collection of extended and 12″ mixes, with all their singles up to that point augmented by iconic flipsides In The Night and Paninaro. In long form. It served as a perfect stepping stone from Please to Actually. Introspective, by contrast, wasn’t so easy to pigeonhole.
(It’s a….it’s a…..it’s a…..tape)
We have the 6-tracks format again. And the “colourful” sleeve to signify it isn’t one of the normal PSB albums that would be graced by white covers (until 1991, at least). Every track is in an extended version (any single edits were only on the singles and then on Discography three years later); so…so far very Disco. But there the similarities cease, as a veritable riot of imagination and self-indulgence takes hold of our Boys and they cast all inhibitions to the wind.
Left To My Own Devices is a typical, brilliant Pet Shop Boys title. The swooping, sweepingly symphonic 8-minute autobiographical epic produced by Trevor Horn that opens the album is anything but typical Pet Shop Boys, although it is of course brilliant. Lyrics that alternate from ambivalently deadpan (“maybe if you’re with me we’ll do some shopping”) to tragi-confessional (“I was a lonely boy, no strength no joy, in a world of my own at the back of the garden”); Neil Tennant holds the two parallel narratives in the song together with artful elan (the bored urbanite in his flat musing over mundanities, broken up with vivid childhood memories and decisions made “at a difficult age”) while the music does its best to bring “Debussy to a disco beat” into being. They might have thought their Imperial Phase was over when the first single from Introspective only debuted at #9 (more of which in a moment), but then you consider a single mix of Left To My Own Devices was in the UK Top 5 just before Christmas 1988, along with Especially For You, Miseltoe & Wine, a Bros double-A side and Erasure’s most popular hit at the time.
It’s followed by the Rent B-side, I Want A Dog, perhaps due to the thematic link with Devices (“when I get back to my small flat I want to hear somebody bark”, “don’t want a cat….scratching its claws all over my habitat” etc), or perhaps just because they wanted to revisit and expand upon its melancholy groove for a dance album entitled Introspective. This was the era when sublime PSB B-sides were being tossed off at will (A New Life, Do I Have To, You Know Where You Went Wrong, Jack The Lad), so there’s no dip in quality control and it definitely feels at home here.
Despite its relatively underwhelming chart performance, Domino Dancing is far from a failure; the Boys head to Miami and make their own freestyle record with none other than Lewis A. Martinee, based on a concept drawn from the same cultural observation skills that gave us Paninaro. Late Summer 1988 was an odd time for the established order of pop; some let the heat get to them and went all “acid” on us (Spandau Ballet with Raw, Duran Duran with Big Thing), others let their status get the better of them (U2’s self-aggrandisement with the Rattle & Hum folly, Prince beginning the ascent up his own firmament with Lovesexy), while others just stayed the hell out of it (Madonna, canny as ever, decided to give the entire year a wide berth). In amongst this, Domino Dancing fitted the mood of the moment, if not necessarily pleasing the majority of fans who’d come on board during the Actually campaign. Was it worth it? Sometimes you wonder…
By far the best thing about Pet Shop Boys in 1988 was the single they did with/for Patsy Kensit, the sublime I’m Not Scared. In a way it’s a pity they didn’t credit it to Pet Shop Boys featuring/with Patsy Kensit instead of passing it off as an Eighth Wonder release (I know they were a really try-hard pop band who desperately wanted, and needed a hit of any kind, but still). To then cover their own hit for someone else just a few months later was unusual but this is one of the greatest songs of the Eighties we’re talking about.
Given the Introspective project’s format of elongated, expansive and sometimes experimental versions of everything, the familiar core of the track was fleshed out with a lengthy intro that bore more than a passing resemblance to The Smith’s Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me. Were the duo already comparing notes with Johnny Marr, ahead of their collaboration on Electronic a year later, or just displaying similar taste? Neil is no Patsy in the sexy, breathless, vulnerable diva stakes but the menacing coda changes things up nicely and allows the Boys to claim a creditable score-draw.
So much of what the Pet Shop Boys did in the first 5 years of their recorded existence was flawless, yet 1988 threw up not one but two things which were questionable at best. The first, their cinematic extravaganza It Couldn’t Happen Here, we shall skip over very quickly, while the second was Introspective‘s penultimate track; an ugly mash-up of Always On My Mind. Obviously a huge-selling #1 that hadn’t previously been on an album presented itself as a likely inclusion, but need it be in such a ghastly incarnation?
Yes, House music was gaining tremendous traction on the UK charts by the middle of 1988, and many of PSB’s peers would embrace it themselves in 1989 (The Blow Monkeys, ABC, and The Style Council to name just three). Yes, the idea of mixing Always On My Mind into Always In My House, which then segues into the album’s grand finale – a cover of Sterling Void’s It’s Alright – has some logical merit. But the results do not. The original extended mix of Always On My Mind was a fabulous slice of kitchen-sink disco pop, joyous and infectious. Now they’d made it sound naff and desperately wanting to be contemporary.
Matters are redeemed slightly by the respectful take on It’s Alright, which in true House style takes a long time to get going and an equally long time to conclude; the single remix was tighter but sacrificed much of the album version’s vibe (as well as adding some unnecessary extra lyrics).
Introspective sold well, given it was arguably little more than an E.P. or a generous maxi-single. U2’s Rattle & Hum, released the same day, trounced it on the charts but Introspective has aged better; a vivid snapshot of a band in the midst of an Imperial Phase, using that status and momentum to turn their hand to new and unlikely things.
I didn’t like this album at the time, but love it now – I play it a lot on my way to work (well, at least I used to, before lockdown…)
[…] compositions. A song they would go on and “cover” themselves later in 1988, on their Introspective album. Pet Shop Boys were in the middle of their Imperial Phase, with a pair of recent UK […]
[…] aftermath of Actually’s massive success – which I covered in a detailed look at Introspective a few years back on the blog, proved trickier to navigate than might have been expected but Left To […]