Monday, September 21, 2009

Opportunities (Let's Hear Lots of Covers)

On Saturday night, I went to see the Pet Shop Boys perform at The Centre. Back when tickets went on sale, I was hemming and hawing whether I should even go or not. I mean, I pretty much began and stopped listening to the Pet Shop Boys with their 1991 release Discography, essentially a greatest hits up-to-that-point collection, but I remember this being one of my family's earliest CDs (no doubt bought by my mom) and I consider it a seminal album in my music listening experiences. I was probably 8 when we got that album and who knows how many times I popped it in the CD and just sat there reading the liner notes. In fact, up until that point I didn't even know what a "discography" was. Sadly, I don't even digest new music that way anymore, but the Pet Shop Boys' Discography has always stuck with me. I felt like I would punch myself later if I didn't take the opportunity to see them live since I know they still perform the songs I love, plus I heard they put on quite a show.... and they did.

I didn't really have a clue what to expect going in, seeing how at their core it's just Neil Tennant on vocals with Chris Lowe playing keyboards/synthesizers and manipulating the music from his control box podium thingy. What they may lack in band members is countered by pure visual spectacle and, of course, awesome songs. The best way I can describe the show is that it was like watching a music video come to life. The theme of this tour appears to be blocks and cubes... as in Rubik's cube imagery, blocky cityscapes, dancers in cubist outfits, blown up pixels, and an awesome set design made up of movable blocks. The show started with two screens of 5x5 blocks with video projected on it, before doorways materialized in the middle of each screen and the Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe stepped out... at least you'd assume so by the grand entrance and roaring reception. You see, they both wore cubes on their head, but as one made his way to his control booth stage left and one started belting out Heart, it was clear who was who. While this set-up lasted for a few songs, the show ascended to the next level during Building the Wall, in which a digital wall was being built on the video projections before the screens toppled over into their block components revealing a much deeper and cube-filled stage. Throughout the rest of the show, roadies in white lab coats and white hard hats would rejig all the giant cubes for each song. It was a remarkably versatile set design and I was shocked to read after that most of the cubes were simply cardboard boxes-- so much for hi-tech! This interview with designer Es Devlin provides some interesting background on the stage concept, though it's probably meaningless if you didn't see the show (as is my entire description of it, I suppose!).

The songs were probably a 50/50 split of hits and material from their most recent release Yes. But even on the new stuff, elements or phrases from familiar songs would creep in, most noticeably on a sort of mash-up of Can You Forgive Her? with the new Pandemonium. This could have been a fashion show there were so many costume changes, but one of my favourite moments was when Tennant was backed up by four dancing Manhattan skyscrapers (starting at 4:12 of this video). Maybe dancing mascots just make me laugh, but I loved it. It was definitely a show unlike any I've seen before and most of my all-time favourites were played. My one complaint is that I wasn't completely immersed in the show from up on the balcony especially when people couldn't decide if they were going to sit or stand, so they ended up standing only for songs they knew then sitting down... kinda awkward. Also, I was surprised to hear Tennant announce "Yes, Vancouver, we finally made it." It was the Pet Shop Boys first tour stop in Vancouver in their nearly 30 years as a group!

From a covers standpoint, the Pet Shop Boys are pretty much kings of making a song their own, scoring hits with distinct renditions of Always on My Mind, Where the Streets Have No Name (Can't Take My Eyes Off You), and Go West. I still remember being in a movie theatre and hearing U2's original Where the Streets Have No Name for the first time and mistakenly thinking they were covering the Pet Shop Boys. Oh, how my cover knowledge has grown since then! Even years after that, I was watching The Deer Hunter and the rest of that childhood cover riddle was unintentionally solved as I watched Christopher Walken animatedly singing along to Franki Valli's original Can't Take My Eyes Off You.

So here's big batch of some of my favourite covers of the Pet Shop Boys, naturally almost all taken from Discography:

Frankmusik - It's a Sin (live on BBC2) [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This was the last song the Pet Shop Boys performed before the encore break, but with all of the elaborate choreography for each number and the fact that a good chunk of the backing music is prerecorded, was an encore ever in doubt? This recent cover was recorded earlier this year for the Dermot O'Leary show. Frankmusik actually opened for Pet Shop Boys at a couple UK dates in June.

To/Die/For - It's a Sin [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
A cover by a Finnish gothic metal band... because the world can always use more of these.

Merril Bainbridge - Being Boring [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
I was absolutely thrilled when this was the first song in the encore (the night ended with West End Girls). This cover is from Aussie pop singer Merril Bainbridge's debut album The Garden, which spawned a mid-90's hit with Mouth. I knew about this acoustic cover for a long time though hadn't heard it before randomly stumbling across a copy of the CD at a used bookstore(??) right here in Vancouver. I could have saved myself some trouble if I had known about 10 Years of Being Boring, the most absurdly comprehensive website I've ever seen dedicated to a single song, though I can't really argue since it is my most played PSB tune. Check out the "renditions" sections of that site for even more Being Boring covers!

Skin of Tears - Suburbia [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This is the inevitable German punk cover and yeah, it's pretty awesome. I used to think this song was about dogs running in the streets at night... funny how childhood misconceptions stick with you longer they they should. Interestingly, the song itself was inspired by the 1984 film Suburbia about suburban punks, which featured the acting debut of Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and cover-friendly punk band The Vandals as themselves. Saturday's performance of Suburbia featured video projections of an army of cube-headed businessmen moving boxes on an infinitude of moving escalators while two dancers in the same cubehead business suits mimicked the actions on stage. These two dancers who spent probably 75% of the show with cubes on their head then stripped off their suits (and cubes) to reveal that they were both actually twin clones of Gwen Stefani. And you think I'm joking.

Frank Bennett - Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money) [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
Before Paul Anka was swinging modern hits, before Richard Cheese was lounging against the machine, and even before Pat Boone was in a metal mood, Australian singer Frank Bennett (as in, Frank Sinatra + Tony Bennett) was bringing big band arrangements to contemporary songs from Pearl Jam's Better Man to kd Lang's Constant Craving with his 1996 album Five O'Clock Shadow. Unfortunately this was not on Saturday night's setlist, but I dig this unlikely cover from Bennett's 1998 follow-up Cash Landing.

The Del Rubio Triplets - What Have I Done to Deserve This? [originally by Pet Shop Boys feat. Dusty Springfield]
This was the only song I was slightly disappointed they didn't perform, but at the same time why would you even bother trying to replace Dusty Springfield? The Del Rubio Triplets were actual 60-something year old triplets performing novelty acoustic guitar covers during the late 80's and making appearances on episodes of Full House, Golden Girls, and even Married with Children. They were "discovered" by songwriter Allee Willis who has co-written I'll Be There For You (i.e. the Theme from Friends) and September with Earth, Wind & Fire. As it turns out, Willis also co-wrote this very song with the Pet Shop Boys, which probably explains this odd duck of a cover.

Sky High - Can You Forgive Her? [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
Sky High is a Swedish blues band that has been around for over 30 years. This fantastic brassy rock cover came from their 2003 double CD release On the Cover: 25 Years of Madness, which features a few other covers too.

Dubstar - Jealousy [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This is from the 1998 covers compilation Essential Interpretations, which is surprisingly more essential than you'd expect with its generic title and oddball album cover of an ostrich. At the show, two dancers performed an interpretive dance of a tumultuous, violent relationship. During the big orchestral finale, they started tearing down bits of the set and throwing cubes at each other. Fun stuff.

Hungry Lucy - Jealousy [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
This is a beautiful cover from the Pet Shop Boys tribute album Very Introspective Actually, which actually features some other pretty decent covers from the likes of Momus and David J (of Bauhaus).

Motormark - Left to My Own Devices [originally by Pet Shop Boys]
My other favourite cover from that same Very Introspective Actually album, this is probably the most drastically reinvented Pet Shop Boys song going from a lushly orchestrated disco number to some sort of electro art punk thing. I love it.

Pet Shop Boys - Girls & Boys (Live in Rio) [originally by Blur]
The Pet Shop Boys were given Girls & Boys to remix and they later started covering it in concert on their 1994 tour.


Rene said...

Great covers of the Pet Shop Boys!!! I like the fact that they're music can trascend so many genres of music.

If you like the To Die For cover of "It's A Sin", you might also enjoy this other heavy metal version by German band Gamma Ray:

"It's A Sin":

And here's another cover of the song by gothic synthpop group The Cruxshadows:

By the way, have you ever heard of a Swedish duo called West End Girls (not to be confused with a Canadian girl group from the 1990s)? They're basically a Pet Shop Boys tribute act and they released a 2006 album called Goes Petshopping, which features many covers of the tracks you posted in your entry.

Here's their music video for "Domino Dancing":

And one for "West End Girls":

If you need any of these tracks, I can definitely provide them for you.

Fongolia said...

Thanks, some of those definitely cropped up in my cover hunting for this post. Ha, even before you commented, I swear I was going to work on that ABBA cover post for you today. Sorry for the long, long delay! Look out for that soon.

Rene said...

Hey, no worries about the ABBA covers. Take your time with it, as I enjoy reading your posts here. :)

Kimberley said...

As always, your post is fantastic and a valuable resource for me and my wee radio show! Of course, I'm all "What? Where are the covers of West End Girls?".

And I can't tell you how excited I am about an Abba cover post!


Fongolia said...

Alas, I couldn't find any covers of West End Girls that I particularly liked. Before that ABBA post, I've got yet another short Pet Shop Boys post with a couple really bizarre covers...