In advance of our poll for best records of the year, we present Mark Reeder’s review of the Pet Shop Boys album from our Fall, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Born in Manchester, Mark Reeder was an early associate of the Factory Records crew before being drawn to Berlin’s political fault line in the early eighties. After producing various post-punk acts on both sides of the Iron Curtain, he founded the trance label Masterminded For Success and released some of the most important electronic music of the early nineties by acts such as Cosmic Baby and Paul van Dyk. Here he assesses the new Pet Shop Boys album and and recalls his role smuggling their music over the Wall.
The last time I can remember hearing the Pet Shop Boys played in a club was in late September of 1988. I had the pleasure of debuting their then new album Introspective in a former school dinner hall that had been converted into a clandestine gay disco deep in East Berlin. I was there with my mate Dave Rimmer, who is a former Smash Hits colleague of Neil Tennant’s. Neil had sent him a cassette tape of the album, and after a brief listen we decided to smuggle it over the Wall and debut it in the venue known as Busche, or in English “Bushes”. Aside from its being a perfect playground to present the new album, we also considered it a symbolic gesture and thought it would mean something to the gay crowd. So we took off for the border with the tape hidden safe and secure.
As was usual for all East Berlin discos, it took us ages to get in. Indeed, it was very much like trying to get into Berghain when you aren’t on the guestlist. But in the end, our patience paid off, and almost frozen to the bone we entered into the cosy, dark, ultra-violet-lit world of East Berlin’s most secretive sub-cultural club. Before leaving, I had carefully wound the cassette to the exact point where the forthcoming single “Domino Dancing” would play, and, confident the DJ would play it, I marched through the crowded dance floor, dodging the surreal sight of brilliantly white teeth, blonde hair and white clothing bobbing about in the blackness. I proudly handed the cassette to the DJ and above the din of “Cheri Cheri Lady” explained it was the new Pet Shop Boys album. He just looked at me suspiciously and then refused to play it. He turned to his tape decks and ignored me. I knew what he was thinking. Not put off, I was determined to do this guy a favor and make him come to his senses. Patiently, I explained again that it was the new Pet Shop Boys album. He still didn’t want it. I thought, “You’re not going to get away that easily, you imbecile.” Slowly, I told him again what it was and that it wasn’t released yet and it was just for him and that it was for free. Finally, the pfennig dropped as he took a moment to actually read the cover of the cassette. Then he just looked at me, gobsmacked. I knew I had him.
All of the sudden, Dave and I were the guests of honor. We were given a table at the edge of the dance floor and a bottle of sickly sweet prosecco. We sat back to watch the people dancing. The DJ picked up his microphone and mumbled that this was the fantastic, new Pet Shop Boys single. Unbeknownst to him, it was in fact the world premiere of this record. We could hardly contain our excitement. The DJ pressed the play button, and as the first percussive strains of “Domino Dancing” pulsated from the loudspeakers everyone dancing suddenly turned and walked off. Within moments the dance floor was all but empty. They didn’t know that tune, and it obviously wasn’t Modern Talking. We couldn’t help but laugh. Yet, regardless of such a dramatic fail, that single eventually went on to become a worldwide dancefloor hit for the Pet Shop Boys.
Indeed, many fans have been yearning for them to make a new dance album for ages. Neil said they’d already had a collection of ideas for club tracks and also wanted to work with the very talented producer Stuart Price. But his work ethic was very different from the boys and while collaborating with them on Electric, he eventually got Neil and Chris addicted to daytime television: “Gradually over a few weeks it started to settle in with Neil and Chris, and I went from watching disgusted faces trying to concentrate on the music to washed-out faces staring like a pair of crack addicts at Bargain Hunt.”
And despite their temporary TV addiction the album has exceeded everyone’s expectations. It’s rough and tough and the total opposite of their previous album Elysium, which was a relaxed, reflective, smooth adult affair—more like a dinner party soundtrack than one for a night out. Neil Tennant told me that after Elysium, he and Chris Lowe went into the studio almost immediately to record Electric, which is the first release on their new x2 label. As an utterly unobjective observer, I can thankfully say that the boys have given us something that we are all familiar with. They have remained forever young, and that shows from the very beginning with “Axis”, which sets the synth and syncopation-heavy atmosphere. The overall contemporary electronic feel combines well with Neil’s highly amusing lyrics. He really is the only person who could ever get away with writing a song called “Bolshy” or “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”, which has a very clever Louis XVI-sounding riff to it. Price’s intricate production mixes dance genres, unique instrumentation and all kinds of familiar sounds from the eighties and nineties to make this thing, in my opinion, a retro-modern twenty-first-century slammer. The cover art is also pretty striking, even though you can hardly read the band name stuck in small print and hidden in the spine. But it’s instantly recognizable, like a stylized or minimalized version of Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures design turned on its side. Of course, turning things around, sometimes on their head, is something we have almost come to expect from the boys, with the chillingly recontextualized Bruce Springsteen cover, “The Last To Die” perhaps another perfect example. How? Listen and learn from the masters themselves. ~
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Published December 10, 2013. Words by markreeder.