The Pet Shop Boys have achieved a kind of chemistry that only music can

Ohen “it’s a sin” came out in 1987, same-sex marriage was hardly a dream. Margaret Thatcher’s government would soon pass a law banning the “promotion of homosexuality” in classrooms. Neil Tennant, lead singer and lyricist of the Pet Shop Boys, drew on his time at a Catholic school in Newcastle, typically using language that was both limpid and flexible, so that “sin” seemed to cover all sorts of impulses. In a video directed by Derek Jarman, Mr Tennant was tormented by inquisitors as he made his heart-pounding confession:

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When I look back on my life
It’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame

The times have changed. Mr. Tennant (pictured) came out in 1994; recently his song lent its title to a TV drama on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. He and Chris Lowe, the keyboard player and the other half of the Pet Shop Boys, are in their 60s. Yet on June 26, they will headline the Glastonbury Festival, halfway through a greatest hits tour that will travel from Europe to North America in the fall. Their staying power is due to more than stamina or fan nostalgia: their best music always exudes an emotional chemistry that few bands – and no other art form – can match.

The duo met in a synthesizer shop on King’s Road in 1981, both northerners in London (Mr Lowe is originally from Blackpool) and passionate about electronic music. Some of their songs are hymns to the city, its promises and its loneliness, its intoxication and its vertigo. From the black overture – “Sometimes You’re Better Off Dead” – “West End Girls”, a transatlantic number one in 1986, mixes anomie with the thrill of cross-class desire, the glitz and the grind of “a town in the West End in a world without exit”.

This song was influenced by the chattering vocals of “The Waste Land”. Russian history is a recurring motif in Mr. Tennant’s lyrics; some are sly critics of Thatcherism. Since their “imperial phase” in the late 1980s, the duo have confirmed their reputation as “intellectronica” with a pop oratorio on gay decryptor Alan Turing and a soundtrack to Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”.

For all the bookishness, however, part of the band’s appeal lies in a kind of sublime simplicity: expressing sadness and longing in simple yet flexible words that are poignant even when they seem so ironic. “What did I do to deserve this” mourns a failed relationship, “Praise” the feeling of being trapped (“Look at my hopes, look at my dreams…”). “Suburbia” laments the claustrophobia of the suburbs, “Being Boring” the way friends’ lives diverge, and some end prematurely: “All the people I used to kiss/Some are here and some are missing.” This track commemorated a deceased friend of AIDS; on the current tour, Mr. Tennant dedicates it to the victims of covid-19.

The other part of the Pet Shop Boys’ genius is putting those feelings of heartache to tunes that make you wave your arms, stomp your feet, and sing the chorus. Their sound brought together the tempo of “hi-nrg” dance music that had developed in America with influences from David Bowie and Kraftwerk to film scores and rap, combining them into a dramatic brand of electropop. It counterpoints the melancholy of the lyrics with infectious rhythms, startling key changes, fading refrains and operatic climaxes.

So when Mr. Tennant sings about running with the dogs in the suburbs, you want to run with them. In “Left to My Own Devices,” a catchy riff about isolation, you wouldn’t mind being in the head of the “lonely boy, no strength, no joy” hearing “Che Guevara and Debussy on a disco beat”.

In the new show, the act’s trademark lighting and effects light up an otherwise limited spectacle – Mr. Lowe still standing as impassive before his keyboard as Mr. Tennant potter on the stage. For “It’s a Sin”, flames and bursts of purple swirl behind them. Haunting chords and breathless crescendos transform shame into challenge, repression into joy.

For all that I wanna do
No matter when, where or who
Also has one thing in common:
It’s a… It’s a… It’s a… It’s a sin.

Classic songs are a time machine. These hits teleport older Pet Shop Boys listeners back to their youth, a thrill even though those were tough years. They capture the bygone vibe of a gritty age. More than that, they allow you to smile at grief, both echoing your woes and making you feel better. To do either is an artistic achievement; doing the two together is a feat that only words and music can achieve, and rarely. He will never grow old.

Learn more about Back Story, our column on culture:
Visiting Story Stages is an Act of the Imagination (June 9)
“Top Gun: Maverick” feels the need to speed up the past (May 26)
“Navalny”, “Tango with Putin” and the publisher in the Kremlin (May 13)


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