The more I listen to the Pet Shop Boys, the more I find their electro-pop brand truly unique. It’s a tough act to marry explosive, danceable production with witty, biting lyrics. Thanks to keen awareness of the evolution of club music and sly songwriting, this British act was always one step ahead of the Stock Aitken Waterman assembly line mentality that permeated the broadcast. European at its peak. There is also a question: what do we mean by “Pet Shop Boys songs”? Most people probably reduce this dilemma to tracks that sound like “It’s a Sin” and their version of “Always On My Mind”. I admit that it is more difficult to trace the influence of “West End Girls” or the ballads of the duo on the work of others… This does not mean that one should not try.
This article highlights a few songs that rival the melodramatic and lyrical qualities of PSB’s greatest hits. It is not surprising that some of them were written by Tennant and Lowe. Several artists considered these two to be experts in sonic grandeur and were eager to borrow that splendor for at least one track. I agree that sometimes the similarities don’t equal Pet Shop Boys blind monkey. They could arise from shared inspirations: hi-NRG, Italo disco, early house. For this reason, I decided to avoid the title “Ten Songs That Sound Like Pet Shop Boys Who Are Not Pet Shop Boys”, even though it would probably be more catchy.
Nevertheless, I hope your dancing shoes are comfortable. It will be a gentle but long intercontinental journey…
Erasure – “I Love to Hate You”
This one is actually a request. Martin, if you’re reading this (you probably are), kudos to you! As a late ’80s synth pop duo with a gay singer, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell invited comparisons to Pet Shop Boys by their mere existence. You can compare them in a number of ways, for example PSB had more UK number one singles, but Erasure had a lot more number one albums. I think Martin singled out this 1991 hit because its rather unusual lyrics explore the concept of jealousy. My only complaint about the track is that the video doesn’t have enough time for its spectacular background dancers/singers.
Sandra – “Secret Land”
This is already my second article on this site mentioning the German singer. Who would have thought? Originally, this song was called “Trenchcoat Man” and was sung by a male vocalist. The trio’s effort Fabrique stalled on the charts in 1987. Perhaps German audiences were confused by the multilingual lyrics (also in French). The intro was co-composed by our other postapocalyptic jukebox friend, Hubert Kemmler from Hubert Kah. If I get the chance, I’d like to ask songwriters if the juxtaposition of “nobody knows who I am” and “everyone knows what I am” hides a deeper meaning. I hope that is the case. Sandra’s version climbed to number 7 in Germany in late 1988. There’s also plenty of Pet Shop Boys-meet-Kylie attitude in one of her biggest hits, the cover of “Everlasting Love.”
Petr Kotvald – “Gejzir”
Yet another request. I know Michal is reading this, cheers! Pop fans from countries other than the United States and Great Britain seem to be mostly loyal to their idols. The long careers of Nena, Laura Pausini or Alla Pugachova hammer home this point. The Czech Republic is no exception. Mr. Kotvald has been going strong since his stage debut in 1977. This contagious love song is an amalgamation of all the major electronic pop trends I mentioned in the first paragraph. And aren’t those “dance moves” and his beret something we should all aspire to? Another sign of the Pet Shop Boys’ popularity in Czechoslovakia is this cover of “Always On My Mind” by Kotvald’s pal Stanislav Hložek.
Prefab Sprout – “If You Don’t Love Me”
Prefab Sprout is best known for his pop and folk songs. When it was time to release the greatest hits collection A lifetime of surprises in 1992 they tried to dabble in electronics. “If You Don’t Love Me” reached number 33 on the UK charts. The video is definitely sexy but also I think quite feminist. The Pet Shop Boys would probably enjoy the retro homage parts of this one.
Momus – “The Devil’s Hairstyle”
I know this piece because it was number one on the private chart of a Spanish correspondent. Momus apart from the Greek god of mockery is a disguise of Scottish musician and elder Nick Currie Wired journalist. As the duo I talk about below, they are known for their outrageous sense of humor. As far as I know this song from 1989 LP Don’t stop the night was her only UK Top 100 entry. One of the more understated entries in this article, it emotionally recalls drier Pet Shop Boys songs like “Rent.”
Sparks – “When Can I Sing ‘My Way'”
If you want to know more about the crazy history of this Californian family duo, go to Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers. Long story short, Ron and Russel Mael excel at lightly lyrical singer-songwriter confessionals, but they never shied away from synthesizers. They produced Giorgio-Moroder’s album number one in heaven in their resume. Free sax and insane violins LP was their comeback in 1994 after a few years of extreme commercial drought. you should watch The Sparks Brothers just to watch the moving account of that time by the lady in the video, the drummer (and star trek actress) Christi Haydon. In my opinion, referencing two famous versions of “My Way” is a great concept. The album was a hit in Germany, probably because it not only shows the influence of the Pet Shop Boys, but also flavors of Eurodance.
The Other Two – “Tasty Fish”
Speaking of The Sparks Brothers, it was a pleasure to see Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris of New Order on screen. The duo also in private, they release an album The other two & you during their main band’s hiatus in 1993. The ballad “Selfish” is probably The Other Two’s calling card, but this danceable single is also high quality. Only one more LP followed but it’s still an interesting footnote in synth-pop history.
Liza Minnelli – “Losing Your Mind”
In the late 80s, the Pet Shop Boys were in high demand as songwriters and producers. The Eighth Wonder brilliantly embodied Introspective track “I’m Not Scared” in their cover version. It was their biggest hit (#7 UK, #1 Italy). Dusty Springfield owes the boys return to the spotlight. For me, the highlight of this revival was his haunting ballad from the movie Scandal“Nothing has been proven.” Tennant and Lowe (and Julian Mendelsohn) also helmed Liza Minnelli’s 1989 album release Results. It was promoted by this impassioned lament, written in 1971 by another man in the PSB universe, Steven Sondheim, for the musical Follies. As befits a top actress, you can believe every syllable she says, which certainly helped the song reach number 6 on the UK charts. The album included more renditions of the older songs, for example “Love Pains”.
Electronics – “Disappointed”
You can rent The Traveling Wilburys for as long as you want, Electronic is for me THE ultimate pop supergroup. Bernard Sumner (New Order) teamed up with Johnny Marr (Once Upon a Time The Smiths) and got some support from the Pet Shop Boys (later also from Karl Bartos of Kraftwerk). One of the, ahem, results was this heartbreaking floor filler from the 1992 film’s soundtrack cool world. The headline pretty much sums up the reaction of the ticket-buying public to this Who Framed Roger Rabbit retread. The album featured an impressive who’s who of electronic music, including David Bowie.
Cicero – “This Feeling of Love”
In the 90s, the Pet Shop Boys had their own Spaghetti Records label. Their first published artist was American-born Scottish singer David Cicero. Her biggest hit was “Love Is Everywhere”, the UK Top 20 track with Tennant backing vocals. It’s not bad but I prefer this single which barely made it out of the Top 50. Unfortunately, traditional synth-pop was not in vogue in 90s Britain. The crying game the soundtrack didn’t help much. Due to copyright issues, the official video is not available at this time. It featured Cicero as a football goalkeeper. It felt more like a hockey game because it seemed like the team didn’t understand the concept of offside.
Girls Aloud – “The Loving Kind”
Pet Shop Boys wrote this song with the Xenomania production team with their own album Yes in mind, but they decided it suited girls better. I don’t consider myself a huge fan of this beloved institution of 21st century British pop, as many of their songs feel new to me. This UK No. 10 hit is simply “beautiful but still danceable,” as Tennant describes it.
Flight of the Conchords – “Inner City Pressure”
Flight of the Conchords are a New Zealand comic duo, best known for the television series depicting their struggles as expat folk musicians in New York City. And as you can guess from this “West End Girls” tribute from the show’s second season in 2008, that struggle has been tough at times. The lyrics are outrageous but still relatable and the Zapp-like vocoder is a fun touch (baiting Daft Punk fans?) Of course, Jemaine Clement went on to even bigger things later, sometimes with Taika Waititi, sometimes not.
The list could probably be extended with some bands that don’t share the full sonic palette with Pet Shop Boys but operate in a similar mindset. A good example would be Saint Etienne, another pop group that is relentlessly interested in making sophisticated tunes and is decidedly British. Still, twelve songs and a few honorable mentions are no small feat for followers who have never garnered as much attention in the synth-pop world as so-called Depeche clones.