Why the Pet Shop Boys are the greatest band in the world

Pet Shop Boys' music has captured love, life and the pursuit of happiness for a generation unmoved by rock music


For a whole generation of us, the Pet Shop Boys could well be the greatest band that ever lived.

Forget Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and The Rolling Stones. They belong to a time when there was such a rigid perception of what was good music. To us, wailing rock guitars, misogynistic lyrics, long hair and tight pants were not just overrated, they were also, quite simply, over.

Not to mention how boring and uncreative the actual music was, without the help of the shiny new synthesizers and computers that ruled the 1980s and 1990s.

I was reminded of this as I listened to the British electronic duo's new single The Pop Kids, off their excellent new album Super.

The song tells of two friends who grew up with a common love of pop music and went to university in London in the early 1990s, not just to study, but also to follow their obsession with the music scene.


"Wherever we went, whatever we did, we knew the songs," sings the protagonist. "They called us the Pop Kids, cause we loved the pop hits. And quoted the best bits, so we were the Pop Kids. I loved you."

The song sent a shiver down my spine the first time I heard it.

It is almost the exact story of me and my best friend at the time - two Singaporean kids who were somehow lucky enough to get scholarships to study in Britain in 1991.

Of course, the arrangement is absolutely drenched in early 1990s house music euphoria, bringing me back to the sweaty nights we spent in various London clubs and in Zouk in Singapore - soaking up (and literally soaking in) the pumping, computer-driven beats of K-Klass, Brothers In Rhythm and Sure Is Pure.

Those who have followed the 35-year career of the Pet Shop Boys will tell you The Pop Kids is emblematic of the band's power.

For not only have the band aged gracefully with their listeners, but they have also often tracked our life cycle with heartbreaking accuracy.

As teenagers in the late 1980s, we dealt with the religious guilt brought on by our sexual awakenings (It's A Sin, 1987) and the first stirrings of the heart (Heart, 1988).

In the early 1990s, we were young graduates with new jobs - travelling the world on business (Single-Bilingual, 1996), partying with friends (Being Boring, 1990), finding love (Se A Vida E, 1996) and losing it (I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Any More, 1999).

Post 9/11, we worried for the safety of our life partners (Home And Dry, 2002), yet bristled at the loss of privacy brought on by fears of terrorism (Integral, 2006).

And as we entered middle age, we lamented the gradual loss of our virility (Casanova In Hell, 2006) and, ultimately, our popularity ("After being for so many years the life and soul of the party, it's weird - I'm invisible." - Invisible, 2012).

Along the way, the duo have laced their social commentary with plenty of irony and wit. On their new album, The Dictator Decides tells of a despot who inherits power from his father, but hates meeting the army and secret police, secretly wishing someone would kill him and set his people free.

As a result, the music of the Pet Shop Boys has always struck me as not just smart, but also literary.

After all, lead singer Neil Tennant started life as a journalist. And in the semi-autobiographical Left To My Own Devices (1990), he hints at what he hoped to achieve: "I was faced with a choice at a difficult age. Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage? But in the back of my head I heard distant feet - Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat."

The funny thing is, for all of the British duo's skill and longevity, they have never been universally regarded to be among the music greats.

I know it seems ludicrous to many people to compare the Pet Shop Boys with a band like Led Zeppelin, who are recognised as one of the greatest bands in the world. But a "tale of the tape" comparison does raise some questions.

According to Wikipedia, Led Zeppelin formally existed for 12 years (from 1968 to 1980), though there have been a few ad hoc reunions since. In that time, they released nine studio albums, most of which were chart toppers in the United States and Britain. They weren't much of a singles band, managing just one clear hit single - Whole Lotta Love - in 1969.

The Pet Shop Boys have released 13 albums in a 30-year career, all of which were Top 10 in Britain. They've had 42 Top 30 singles and 22 Top 10 hits, including four No. 1s in Britain alone, to say nothing of the huge chart success they have enjoyed in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the US.

In terms of album sales, Led Zeppelin, at more than 300 million worldwide, have outsold the Pet Shop Boys at least six to one. But remember that Led Zeppelin released music during the heyday of vinyl and other physical music formats, whereas the Pet Shop Boys have had to deal with the digitisation of music, music piracy and the advent of streaming for a large part of their career.

For someone like me, who discovered popular music in the early 1980s, it beggars belief that no synthesiser or electronic band is a true Hall of Famer in the music industry. Google "greatest bands in history" and the search engine infuriatingly returns only lists of the greatest rock bands in history.

This is despite us living in 2016, a good four decades after pioneer bands such as Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra emerged with their startlingly different craft and electronic music found mass appeal as part of the disco and New Wave movements that swept across the globe.

I guess there are many people who still feel that electronic music can never be regarded as good music requiring real skill.

After all, where's the difficulty in programming a keyboard or a computer to play complicated bass sequences or acoustic guitar solos? Even as early as the 1980s, Fairlight synthesisers were already capable of replicating the sound of entire orchestras.

As a result, many of the Pet Shop Boys' contemporaries in the 1980s, including Depeche Mode, Human League, Erasure and OMD, often struggled to find legitimacy with music critics - even as they were shifting records by the truck load.

I hold no such prejudices and, I suspect, so do many music fans in my generation.

The birth of electronic music heralded a new era of modernity, a democratisation of music-making that shattered old perceptions of good musicianship and skilful songwriting. Music became pan-sexual, abstract and space age, promising a future that would also shatter long-held social and moral conventions.

That is why the Pet Shop Boys deserve a place among the greats in musical history, alongside The Beatles, The Beach Boys and ABBA. Especially when so many of their peers have fallen by the wayside or diluted their electro-pop origins with stadium rock.

If anything, they have so expertly captured love, life and the pursuit of happiness for a generation unmoved by rock music, for whom the best memories will be dancing to the very last remix in a club full of smiling friends.

As usual, the duo find the perfect words in their 2012 hit Vocal.

"It's in the music, it's in the song. Everyone I hoped would be around has come along.

"Everything about tonight feels right and so young, and anything I'd want to say out loud will be sung."

Which leaves only me to declare that rock is dead. Long live the Pet Shop Boys.

•Follow Ignatius Low on Twitter @STIgnatiusLow

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Electronic music rocks'. Print Edition | Subscribe