Finn in discussion with Philip Marshall about the album “Introspective” by the Pet Shop Boys (1988).
There is plenty to choose from in the history of the Pet Shop Boys, why did you pick this album?
It’s all about time, and my personal trajectory. In late 88 I was 16, going on 17… And life was unfurling before me. No longer trapped in suburbia, I was spending increasing times in London Town, growing up, and learning all about myself – clubbing and all that entails included. I dug deep into London’s rich vein of “equity culture”, and quickly discovered my late teenage was perfectly in sync with the most exciting of explosions in music culture since post-punk. At this time, lines were blurred. I made a commitment to myself, and sold off hundreds of indie vinyl down the Notting Hill record & tape exchange in order to fund my new-found love of nightlife and the music coupled to it. No mop-headed moaning guitar drivel would ever sully my collection again (or, so I thought back then…). An end to teenage angst, sold by the crate-load. Out with the gloom. In with 808 State, Electribe 101 and never ending weekends… But, the electronic pop I had loved when young stayed with me…
I think it is safe to say that they wanted to do something different from their first two albums. How do you place this in the output of the Pet Shop Boys?
It’s all about timing – “Introspective” was released that November, when my introspection first ended. A thread – from a pop past, to a future life. For them, it was a definite embrace of the then fresh house culture that Europe had plunged into – a relatively brave move for an established pop act and before others, such as ABC, jumped that train… As far as placing in their personal timeline, well one of the things I love about this album is its single-minded stance. Although the songwriting and lyricism is as strong as what went before and what was to come, its formatting, arrangement and structure was wilfully, almost arrogantly, other. Here was a group having number one hits in Europe and the USA, coming off the back of two consecutive number ones, and returning with a release that 1.) was six tracks long, 2.) comprised of extended mixes, 3.) didn’t have their image on the cover, 4.) was oblique, lyrically, in parts… The confidence and, presumably, freedom from EMI’s meddling that their earlier success lent them, afforded them the space to make an other statement. A few weeks ago, I was tearing through the English countryside with Jon Wozencroft , on our way to a Suffolk performance. His car had a cassette player, and we were rifling through his old tape collection. “Introspective” was played. We agreed; it is the “Sgt. Pepper” of house – the sound of a band at the peak of its popularity stretching and flexing its remit without fear of a crash.
There is a strong influence of the emerging House sound of that time, most notably resulting in a cover version of Sterling Void’s “It’s Alright” and the production of “Left To Own Devices”, but there are also sounds clinging to their earlier career, like “I Want A Dog” and “I’m Not Scared”, and then there is “Domino Dancing”. Are there songs you prefer or do you cherish the album as a whole?
See, to a degree I disagree – “I Want A Dog” mixed by Frankie Knuckles, as is on “Introspective”, was very much of its time. Of all the tracks, I find myself listening to “I’m Not Scared” the least, but as an album, I feel it works thoroughly well. It sounds (and more-or-less ended up being) and album wholly comprising of singles, albeit in their dancefloor form. These are, of course, the original mixes too – plotted and arranged to be the lengths they are. As such, the arrangements are perfectly formed. For me, if there’s an elephant in the room, it is the towering, splendid remix of “Always On My Mind” – a fantastic revisit, one of my favourite tracks on the record, but the biggest throwback to a previous PSB. I understand that the Boys always felt that “It’s Alright” was the odd-one-out; underproduced and out of place. For me, it has more of the spirit of its time than the Elvis cover…
Trevor Horn is a producer of many merits and many stories of creative indulgence, like the time he spent on the remixes for the single versions of this album. You know some of those stories?
Ah, so many stories to tell…“Left To My Own Devices” was originally planned to be recorded live, in one day. Pet Shop Boys wanted big. Trevor Horn, a man with a reputation for taking his time, had a big idea; to program the electronics quickly, and then hire an orchestra to play along to the sequencers, live. This big idea would mean that the big sound could be recorded in only a few days. Of course, the track took six months to complete. How big should the string section be?, queried Horn. Oh, 20 strings should suffice for this orchestra, came the reply. Horn retorted; doesn’t 40 strings sound better? No, answered Niles, 20 is good for this size of orchestra. But, insisted Horn, doesn’t it sound better to say “I have 40 strings in the studio”, than only 20 strings? Horn rented arranger Richard Niles to orchestrate the track. Niles knew all about big. “Left To My Own Devices” includes the memorable line: “Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat”. Horn had a big desire; to record Claude Debussy to a disco beat (something he eventually achieved with the Art Of Noises 1999 album). So, the Pet Shop Boys decided to play along and record an acid house interlude for the track, based around Debussy-esque chords. A 40 minute jam was recorded live, with Neil, Chris and Trevor on keyboards and Lipson playing the mix desk. This experiment was not used on the a-side but, after editing and vocalizing, became “The Sound Of The Atom Splitting” instead. One of the oddest in the PSB catalogue, the track is very divisive. Niles’ flamboyant arrangement is heavily evident in both mixes on the “Left To My Own Devices” 12”. The seven inch mix is edited from the eight minute “Introspective” version. Although shorter, the sound is bigger than the album version, with bonus Bruce Woolley backing vocals and guitar by Stephen Lipson. Horns twelve incher stretches the whole out over 11 and a half minutes, and is an object lesson in how to make a hell of a lot go a hell of a lot further. The three minute intro is quite sublime; ricocheting beats, looping strings, swooping sequencers, with horns heralding the bassline. Somewhere around seven and a half minutes in, there’s a 40 second breakdown that seemingly encompasses a jet, a tractor engine, an army of snare drums and a racing car. Genius.
It seems that Horn like the Pet Shop Boys used this production to try out new sounds. How would you place this work in his back catalogue?
Story goes, Horn had not heard of “It’s Alright” until the Pets played him the original Sterling Void production. They suggested he covered it with a girl vocal group he was then producing, The Mint Juleps. They declined, but the Pets loved his work in progress, so… There are a few Horn productions prior, such as Act’s “12/1 Chance”, that flirt with housestylings. But, it sounds as if – like all good producers – Horn here is enacting the Boys’ wishes, albeit in his own spectacularly widescreen ways.
How do you rate the album “Fundamental”, which also was produced by Horn?
After years in a Hollywood murk, with only the occasional t.A.t.U to make you believe he still cared about music, “Fundamental” was a fantastic return to pop form for Horn. Likewise for the Pet Shop Boys too, who, in spite of some stellar singles (such as “Flamboyant”) had sounded their age for just a bit… It’s an adult album, a very black album in tone and themes, but one with a wink, a humour and a confidence. Certainly the production is detailed and beautiful. Who could not love an electro-pop song titled “Minimal” which features three guitars, a harp and an orchestra?
I thought that the movie “It Couldn’t Happen Here” from 1988 kind of finished the first stage of their career, and “Introspective” then made way for the next steps. Would you agree?
In a sense I felt it to be more a statement of bloody-minded intent – by this stage, they had little to prove and could afford to follow their whims. “It Couldn’t Happen Here” was one whim – ‘we will not tour, so let’s do a film’. “Introspective” another – ‘let’s pay homage to the music we love’. Certainly they are both break-points from the early energy of the first two albums, and the film was a summation of that period, but it seems to me that ever since, their records have been a reaction to their previous album (“Very” was pure uplifting pop, where “Behaviour” was not…)
There seems to be a critical consensus that “Behaviour” is their masterpiece they creatively failed to repeat ever after. Is this point of view agreeable in any way?
Certainly, it is a beautiful work – and the first to be produced by one team, so it is the least patchworked of their early recordings. However, it’s their serious album, their most obviously heartfelt one. Even at its most pop, it’s caustic and regret-riddled. I guess this frown makes it easier for a rock press to view as a canonical album.
When the Pet Shop Boys first started out the classic era of Synthpop was almost over. Still, the Pet Shop Boys not only managed to be successful, they managed to stay successful to this day. What do you think is the reason for that? After all, other bands from those years are also still successful, but most aren’t.
I believe that it simply stems from good song writing, good humour and an aesthetic.
Philip Marshall is a freelance print and digital media designer. He is a member of the Touch audio visual arts project, founded in 1982, and its sibling label Ash International,working closely with founders Jon Wozencroft and Mike Harding. Hand-on exploration of sound design was the natural extension of his work with Touch. He is also the Elgaland-Vargaland Minister of Nothing.