Originally my first post on Critter Jams was going to be about this album, simply because it was a current obsession and writing about those is more fun than writing about albums you really loved more five years prior. But I found it difficult to parse this one, and thus decided to hold off. For me the Pet Shop Boys are like a masterclass in pop music; one that admittedly went over my head at first. To these ears Please and Actually sounded too quacky, Introspective too repetitive, then when I heard Behavior I wondered where the hooks went. But you have to let the music of the Pet Shop Boys come to you. What’ll happen is one of their songs will eventually hit you very hard (for me: “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”), you begin to buy in a little, and soon nearly everything they do will sound brilliant. For the Pet Shop Boys really are the total package – their production, lyrics, and hooks are top notch, and the craftsmanship is so impeccable that it often takes a few listens to really be able to comprehend how much is going on.
For those of us already obsessed with the band, Alternative is something of a godsend. By then the 12″ single started to gain more popularity, especially as it was a format that suited dance music so well. The division between what went on the singles and what went on the albums (same thing that made the Beatles early discography so confusing) started to become a point of contention, especially as bands like New Order kept them in two seperate bins (leading to the creation of the infamous “DOES NOT CONTAIN BLUE MONDAY” sticker). Pet Shop Boys singles were almost always on the album (albeit often in a different form), but they did bring back the idea of the chase B-side. The Pet Shop Boys were one of the few bands for which the flipside of the singles were often as good as the singles themselves, and had a tendency to go off in directions that you wouldn’t hear on their tighly wound studio albums. Lest you find yourself unable to track down all 23 singles that these songs appeared on, Alternative conveniently collects them all in chronological order.
That’s huge for a modern-day PSB fan, one who never got to hear the 12″ singles in their original form, as it plays sort of like an alternate-universe “greatest hits” comp. Perhaps this is being overzealous – let’s not forget that every single song on their first actual “greatest hits” compilation Discography hit the UK top twenty – but I feel like Alternative represents all the facets of the group’s work better than any single album or compilation does. As they put it themselves in the liner notes: “Whereas an a-side will require strict commercial and production standards, and the courage to act them out in front of millions, here you’ll find the real Pet Shop Boys: dropping their guard, finding themselves free to experiment, to explore their obsessions and their own lives”.
Of course, the word “experiment” here is rather relative. The only truly experimental song on here is “The Sound of the Atom Splitting”, which sounds like techno that got disassembled and then incorrectly put back together (with Tennant rambling over the top). But it does allow them to indulge themselves in the sort of things they wouldn’t normally do; hardlined dance grooves (“A Man Could Get Arrested”, “Music For Boys”), non-electronic balladry (“Your Funny Uncle”), songs sung through vocoders (“One of the Crowd”, “Euroboy”), forays into showtune (“If Love Were All”), and other assorted one-offs (the excellent, droning “We All Feel Better in the Dark”, the twisted marching tune “What Keeps Mankind Alive?”). This can be rather exciting (“Music For Boys” is the most relentless, over-the-top floor filler in their catalog), even if much of it mirrors the kind of thing they were doing on their studio albums. Maybe this is the explanation as to why so many of these songs got cut – “Do I Have To?” hits many of the same beats as the superb “King’s Cross”, while “Shameless” surely would’ve given Very one chirpy dance tune too many. Perhaps some of these were being saved for the remix albums (“In the Night” and “Paninaro” first appeared on Disco, the latter of which was eventually released in earnest as a single nearly ten years later).
Whatever the reasons were, the Pet Shop Boys have accomplished a rare feat with this one; a two-hour-plus B-side collection that is not only listenable from cover to cover, but essential. I don’t want to take anything away from their studio albums, by the way. But many of the ones they did at this time had an incredible focus – long-players like Introspective and Very revolve around a specific aesthetic which is every bit as key to those albums as the songs themselves. Alternative on the other hand feels more dynamic, toying around with such a variety of different musical styles and lyrical themes. Therefore it’s my go-to when I just wanna hear some ‘Boys.
Nick’s picks: “A Man Could Get Arrested”, “Paninaro”, “Do I Have To?”, “It Must Be Obvious”, “We All Feel Better in the Dark”, “Music For Boys”, “Miserablism”, “Shameless”, “Too Many People”, “Euroboy”. This isn’t a regular feature, just a brief listening guide to those intimidated by thirty B-sides in a row. Note that a lot of these are on the second disc, covering their output from 1990 to 1994, which also produced the excellent albums Behavior and Very.