The Pet Shop Boys, the British synth duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, have become the greatest dance act in pop history if you measure by longevity and consistency. The Boys have been recording and performing since the mid-1980s, which is all the more remarkable considering that Tennant, a former music journalist, was already thirty when the group released its first record, "West End Girls" in 1984.
The following year the group re-recorded the song, and the new version, with its richer, almost noir-like production that added an ominous edge to the lyrical theme of alienation and pent-up frustration, caught on with American radio listeners and reached Number One in the States.
On subsequent hits like "Opportunities" and "Rent," Tennant sang with a cynical deadpan that matched his and Lowe's unsmiling publicity photos. At the same time there's a melancholy in his voice that distinguishes the melodies and often makes a listener wonder if his detached persona is just a front.
The Pet Shop Boys can't help commenting on other artists, whether recasting Elvis Presley and U2 anthems as dancefloor stompers, or writing songs taking aim at preachy rock stars ("How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously," Eminem ("The Night I Fell In Love") or even themselves ("Your Early Stuff").
When it comes to their sound, the group has played with dance styles from Latin freestyle to deep house, and they don't skimp on the drama. Just about every Pet Shop Boys album includes several cuts with sweeping orchestral arrangements and/or male or female choirs, not to mention sirens, thunder, fireworks, and whatever other sound effects struck their fancy.
Their greatest triumph was 1993's Very, which explodes out of the gate with the brash "Can You Forgive Her" and closes with their most extravagant production since 1987's "It's a Sin" - a remake of the Village People's "Go West" that cranks up the intensity of the original by piling on a mass choir of Village People stand-ins, soul divas and seagulls. It is to the 1979 original what the Diamonds' 1957 hit "Little Darlin'" was to the Gladiolas' doowop original.
The 1996 followup Bilingual wasn't as lavishly praised as Very but it deserved to be. Martial drumming makes the openers "Discoteca" and "Single" a powerful 1-2 punch, "Before" sounds like an update of an overlooked classic from disco's late-Seventies heyday, and it includes two of their loveliest ballads, "It Always Comes As a Surprise" and "The Survivors."
The Pet Shop Boys have continued making new music into the 21st century, with their most recent album Electric released in 2013. They have now accumulated four decades' worth of great songs to perform in concert. Not bad in a genre where careers are fleeting more often that not.