This month marks the 35th anniversary of Pet Shop Boys' full-length debut album Please. I first came across this album in the used material section of a library I visited in 2000 with a friend of mine. As my 80s fandom was in full flower at this point, I was looking for all the material I could from the decade. I read about Pet Shop Boys' music in the book Totally Awesome 80s by Matthew Rettenmund, a seminal tome for my burgeoning 80s fandom, and was intrigued by what I read. I came across a used cassette of Please, and it was love at first listen.
To celebrate Please's 35th anniversary, I'll be doing another Track-By-Track article, so get ready for a new trip to 1986 as I talk about Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, the duo behind Pet Shop Boys, and how their debut album impacted my life.
We start off with the first track on the album, Two Divided By Zero.
This song tells the story, at least to my ears, of a criminal trying to convince one of his accomplices to escape with him and leave their other collaborators on the hook. There's a sense of passion to the lyrics as the protagonist describes where and how they'll escape and start over. At the same time, there's also a sense of desperation to the lyrics as the protagonist wonders who in his circle might have dropped a dime on him.
When I first heard this song in 2000, I found myself thinking of the situations I was in. I was coming up on adulthood as I would turn 18 in December of that year, but I was still a child in many ways, yet an adult in other ways. My pop-cultural tastes were that of someone twice my age in 2000, but an effect of my autism spectrum disorder showed in the way that I was still watching kids' shows. I felt trapped by the converted storage space our classrooms were in and repressed by a mother who didn't understand life on the spectrum. I was as desperate for escape as the protagonist of the song.
The escape I found ended up being happier, though. After my mom's passing a decade later, I was able to utilize my disorder to help me instead of hinder me. I applied the passion I had for 80s pop culture into improving my writing about the decade, and I ended up creating a whole new family of choice for myself. I didn't have to divide by zero, as that would've left me with nothing. I've been able to multiply by hundreds and gain a new outlook on life. I still love revisiting Two Divided By Zero, though. It's an amazingly cinematic song.
We now come to Please's second track, West End Girls.
One of the album's biggest hits, West End Girls tells a story of class conflict as a poor person aspires to be among the rich. The idea that the world you're living in is not as good as another person's is a common idea, but the reality is that everybody is fighting their own battles. A boy on the East End may think a girl on the West End is living a wonderful life, but that West End Girl could be battling any of a dozen problems the East End Boy doesn't know about. In its' own way, West End Girls is a very empathetic song.
It's also a song that's been recorded in two versions. The Please version, which everyone is familiar with, had a mid-to-up-tempo beat to it as the protagonist tells his tales. I actually came across an earlier version, though, on a three-disc set of extended dance mixes of 80s music (plus one 90s song that was classified as 80s), and I would come to prefer that version. It was produced by Bobby Orlando, and the driving beat plus its' accompanying samples brought out the intensity of the lyrics in a way that the Please version, great as it is, just doesn't quite do.
In the end, though, whether you're listening to the 1984 original or the 1986 revision, you'll be hearing one of the best songs 80s pop has to offer. It may even get you thinking about your own life and how you think of others' lives.
Moving along to Please's third track, we now arrive at Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money).
Upon relistening to this recently, I found myself thinking it sounds a little like a follow-up to Two Divided By Zero. It's the same villain protagonist, only he was never able to escape to New York like he thought, and now he's desperate for help as opposed to trying to sound influential. He's trying to convince someone with a great visual appeal to be his accomplice on his next scheme, but he's having a hard time closing the deal.
I'd like to think my take on the song is a valid one. Opportunities is often thought of as a song of inspiration and celebration. It's actually more about desperation and humiliation. It's about a man who thinks he has something important to offer another person, but he's overestimating his own abilities. It's basically about how pride comes before a fall. Pet Shop Boys' music has a very intelligent way about it. The music, although empathetic, can also be challenging about its' subjects. I like lyrics that make me think.
Speaking of lyrics that make you think, Please's fourth track definitely does that. The song is called Love Comes Quickly.
Put briefly, the song is about how love can happen unexpectedly to anyone. The part that makes me think, though, is this: What kind of love are we talking? Just as love comes quickly, love also comes in many forms. There's romantic love, platonic love, familial love and self-love just for starters. The applicability of the lyrics is very interesting.
As I've mentioned before, the love I feel is familial love for all the people I have in my life. It's not just my blood family, but my friends as well. For me, though, the love took a long time to arrive in many cases. For example, there was familial love between my mom and I, but as people, we didn't like each other, and after my mom's passing, my anger had driven family members away for a few years. I was able to renew most of those bonds, but at least one I have no interest in rebuilding, to the point that this relative, actually an in-law, will be forbidden from attending my Celebration Of Life if I die before they do.
Anger takes a long time to get out, and that leads us to the fifth track on Please, and my personal favorite track of the entire album, Suburbia.
If you're reading this, you probably live in a small town, and you're probably okay with that. I'm sure, though, that in your younger years, you had a feeling of disdain and hopelessness about your town, and you wanted to get out. Escape wasn't possible yet, though, so you lashed out at parents and authority figures with your words and your actions. Those feelings aren't good ones, but when you're younger, you don't know as much about the world as you do when you're older. Suburbia is a song that speaks to those angry and sad feelings. It certainly did to me in my younger years. However, the version that really spoke to me was the extended version known as Suburbia (The Full Horror).
The instrumentation and sampling are different, and they help bring the anger and anguish of the lyrics out even more. Pet Shop Boys are masters of extended mixes. Their extended mixes paint aural landscapes, allowing you to really take in the details of the words. Suburbia (The Full Horror) is a perfect example of that. The second half of The Full Horror is the sound of violence, and it's up to you to figure out how the violence is directed. It's another thought experiment, and a very intriguing one.
Speaking of which, the sixth track is also a sound collage. It's Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money) (Reprise).
There's not much to say about it, except that perhaps my own interpretation of the song was wrong. If you listen to the sounds in the reprise, you'll hear the sound of the villain protagonist achieving the success he dreamed of. The question raised by this song is: What happened to the person with the looks that he was trying to convince to join him? Are they there with him? Did he use them and leave them behind? I'm going with the latter idea. It just seems like something the villain protagonist would do.
Moving to the seventh track, we come to Tonight Is Forever.
This song is also about love, but again, desperation comes into play. The protagonist is desperate for romance, even though money is tight and he doesn't appear to have any prospects for a bright future to share with someone. In stituations like that, you don't want to drag another person into it, but the protagonist isn't thinking straight. Desperation can mess with your head and drive you to dark places.
The cover linked to above came from Liza Minnelli's 1989 album Results, which was produced by Pet Shop Boys. Liza's grand theatricality, and the slowed-down instrumentation of the song, help make the desperation of the lyrics more pronounced. This turns the music into a synth-pop torch song, and it works. Liza is a vocalist whose gifts sometimes get short shrift, but on Results, she and Pet Shop Boys put together something amazing. I'll go more in-depth about Results in 2024.
In the meantime, we come to Please's eighth track, Violence.
This song, to me, sounds like someone trying to rationalize their violent behavior, saying it's being done in "self-defense". We hear this all the time as we deal with violence at home, violence in our relationships, violence at work...It can really make you wonder why people act in such reprehensible ways. It's never easy to deal with.
To offer an example from my personal life, although my mom and I had many verbal arguments, I would never get physical with her, even at my angriest. However, there were times when my mom would get violent with me, and they were usually when I was abusing myself. I had such a streak of self-loathing that perhaps my mom thought I would turn the violence on her next, but I wouldn't. I directed the hatred inward.
A few months before her death, I was in such a self-loathing spot that my mom pulled a knife on me and screamed for me to kill myself. That unnerved me, to put it mildly. My violence was directed at myself. I wouldn't dream of hitting my mom. Was she scared that I would? The worst part is that my brother has tried justifying my mom pulling a knife on me and screaming for me to kill myself by saying things like "You had to be brought back down to Earth somehow" or "You didn't kill yourself, did you?'. He defends the indefensible, and although I do love my brother, he's wrong. That's not parenting. That's abuse.
Getting back to Please, we come to the album's ninth track, I Want A Lover.
This song is about one night stands. As the late Robin Williams might say, it's about searching for the right one, or at least the right now. The protagonist is so desperate to get laid that he doesn't care about anything else, including possibly the person he wants to lay. He doesn't want anything except to get nasty. It's a great song about the one feeling most everybody has at one point or another: Horniness.
I've noticed that a lot of people who express displeasure with the sexual lyrics of recent music will express a yearning to go back to the music of the 80s. These critics are obviously listening to the beat, and not to the words. Songs about sex have been around for ages, and before there were songs, there were poems. It's been said that most of Shakespeare's work, when translated to modern English, is d*ck jokes. Music didn't suddenly get raunchy in the last few years. It's ALWAYS been that way.
The tenth track on Please is Later Tonight, and it's a slower track.
The song is about seeing a handsome man, and letting your imagination go wild. I don't know the general makeup of this site's readers sexuality, but I would wager that, whether it was intentional or not, you've had at least one thought about someone of the same sex as you. There's nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody has had thoughts like that.
While a lot of Pet Shop Boys' songs are applicable to multiple orientations and spectrums, this is an explicitly LGBTQ-themed song. Although I love the pop culture of the 80s, I know it was not a good time for the LGBTQ community. The popularity that bands like Pet Shop Boys still have is that they speak to a community that was marginalized and misrepresented for years, and in all honesty, still have a lot of rough times to deal with. The music of Pet Shop Boys let members of the LGBTQ community know they weren't alone.
The eleventh and final track on Please is Why Don't We Live Together?.