While writing a mini-review of the Pet Shop Boys’ 1990 album Behaviour for India Uncut’s Rave Out, I came across a very pleasing bit of trivia: Axl Rose, the Guns 'n Roses frontman, was a Pet Shop Boys fan and credited their song “My October Symphony” as an inspiration for “November Rain”.
Now Rose’s opinions and tastes aren’t of personal importance to me (though I admired a lot of his work as singer/lyricist), but what a happy testament this is to the power of great music to break through the walls of insularity. Here’s a case of influences travelling so far that the foul-mouthed frontman of a scabrous hard-rock band could appreciate the work of a genteel British pop duo whose stock in trade was lush synthesizer-dominated melodies. (Could there be a greater contrast between two bands? And not to make too fine a point of it, but Rose is by most accounts homophobic – while much of PSB’s best work hinges on the experience of being gay in the Thatcher era.)
Anyway, Jabberwock khush hua at this minor blow for inclusiveness. I have very wide-ranging tastes in books, films and music and am often surprised by how keen people are to closet themselves off by pre-defining their tastes – this is the kind of stuff I like and this is what I don’t like, and no extending the line please – so that even if there’s a chance that they might grow to appreciate something over time, they’ve already limited their vision. (It frequently happens that someone remarks, “Oh, you like Author A/Director A and Author B/Director B as well? That’s strange! It’s normally one or the other.”)
In the context of music, I know many people who say they can’t stand pop/romantic ballads/what-have-you, thus placing an entire genre outside their ambit; naturally this disallows the examination of an individual work on its own terms without bothering about what category it belongs to. Effectively, you erect a mental barrier for yourself and then your ego puts you in a position where it’s impossible to even peek over the fence. Standing adamantly by your “worldview” becomes more important than opening yourself to a new experience that might just prove to be rewarding.
(And yes, this applies to many other things too, but that’s for another discussion.)
Quick note about my love for the Pet Shop Boys’ music, which I discovered in 1992 when cable TV had just come in and videos from their album Very were being aired on MTV. I bought the album but within a few days my favourite songs weren’t the popular singles (“Can You Forgive Her” and the Village People cover “Go West”) but the ones no one else knew about: “Dreaming of the Queen”, “The Theatre” and “Young Offender”. I loved the gentleness of these tracks, the distinct melodies, the disciplined stillness of Neil Tennant’s voice (which would make his sporadic displays of vulnerability, or his occasional clowning about, so much more effective) …and the lyrics, some of which were very simple in keeping with the requirements of this sort of music, but some that cut deep.
Over the next few weeks I devoured all of PSB’s earlier albums. As a very lonely youngster who felt like an outsider in most groups, I was drawn to their more introspective work, and this is telling, because at the time I knew hardly anything about the subtext of their music – about the more oblique references in some of their lyrics, for instance. For all I knew, there was no difference between the Pet Shop Boys and the regular “boy-bands” of the early 1990s, such as Take That and East 17. But I felt an instinctive kinship with their reflective songs: the languorous “Being Boring”, about misspent youth, and the passing of old friends (having heard this song over 15 years, I think it comes to mean more as the listener gets older); the delicate ballad “Nervously” (a song that resonated strongly with the very shy adolescent I was); and the relatively fast-paced “Left to My Own Devices” with its references to a child who creates his own worlds at the back of his garden (the album, appropriately titled Introspective, featured another song called “I Want a Dog”, the lyrics of which I strongly disagreed with: Don’t want a cat,/Giving no love and getting fat/Oh, (oh oh) you can get lonely/And a cat’s no help with that).
There were many other songs, too many to list here. Incidentally, it was in those glorious MTV-influenced years, 1992-93, that I realised my interest lay more in entire albums than in singles. Singles are useful as an entry point – helping you discover a new band or album in the first place – but once that bit of business has been achieved I relish exploring the whole work and mining the less-known songs on it, the ones that don’t make it to radioplay or get turned into music videos. The Pet Shop Boys did a lot to stoke this interest – there isn’t a song on their 12 albums (not counting the B-side compilations or occasional special remixes) that I can’t hum the tune of at a moment’s notice. (Of course, in the months that followed, I developed similar obsessions for the work of other, very different bands, starting with REM, Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots. More on that some other time.)