Pet Shop Boys – Integral
Picture the scene: it’s the 25th of April 2006 and I’m attending a Virgin Megastores conference in a fancy mountainside hotel near Spain’s glitzy playground of the wealthy and tasteless, Puerto Banus. Fun and sunshine and corporate presentations – there was enough for everyone. I was there because at that point I was the manager of the tiny branch in Ayr, and due to the fact that I’d tidied up a bit and done some dusting I was up for Store Manager of the Year, a title which came with kudos from one’s peers, and more importantly, a generous cash prize to be split among the team. As there were only half a dozen of us in our branch, we all stood to make a couple of grand. Long story short, I came second, which came with a prize of a bottle of champagne, which I immediately opened and began swigging from. And that is how I met the person who is still my other half to this day, while glugging from a bottle and spinning around in a revolving door to the sound of Love Shack by the B52s.
A bittersweet night then, and one I thought I remembered perfectly until I listened to the Fundamental album by Pet Shop Boys the other day. And it was then that the flashback happened: me, quite inexcusably drunk, cornering the lovely man from EMI on the same night, berating his company for mishandling the PSB’s career and making him swear that Integral would be a single. “It’s their Two Tribes,” I slurred (probably), quite forgetting in the moment that 2006 was most definitely not 1984.
Integral was a return to the apocalyptic pop of my youth, and I loved it. It was relentless, angry, menacing and perfectly overblown, with stabbing strings, massive orchestra hits and those calamitous drums that only Trevor Horn can do. It felt a bit like being slapped for all of its three minutes and fifty one seconds, and if a public service announcement had come on at the end saying “and that concludes pop music, thank you for your attention”, I’d have thought it was fair enough.
I was very bullish about the prospects for the Fundamental album. Having managed to get a hold of a promo copy a few weeks early, I possessed the smug, rosy glow of someone who knew something other people didn’t. I also had the knowledge that their reunion with Trevor Horn (for the first time since the single version of It’s Alright in 1989) had produced a largely amazing record which, had it come out directly after Introspective, might have extended their imperial phase that bit further. As it was, first single I’m With Stupid gave them their last – to date – (see? still deluded) top 10 hit in the UK. The follow-up, Minimal (which was meant to be the first single but got swapped around) may only have scraped the top 20, but for me it’s absolutely the best song out of all their 21st century stuff. And then there was Numb, which was written by Diane Warren and to be honest I don’t quite know what to say about that so let’s scroll on, shall we?
That man from EMI, however, was as good as his word – Integral eventually was released, though it was really more to promote 2007’s Disco 4 and it was kind of a statement/protest/art installation rather than a single. The video was billed as the first interactive one, where QR codes could be scanned by the viewer to link to related content, and gosh it was clever and won several awards and got quite a lengthy piece in The Guardian, but because pop is a young person’s game I think most people (if they were even aware of it) just thought “oh look, Neil and Chris are having a rant again.” It was the first Pet Shop Boys release that you couldn’t buy in the shops – to paraphrase the lyrics, it existed only as information. This was quite appropriate given that the song was an absolutely scathing takedown of the proposed ID card scheme that was terrifying many of us (and delighting Daily Mail readers) at the time. But that was just one of the things that scuppered its chances – PSB people do like their physical formats and without something to purchase and put in a pile with all the rest we’re a bit lost. The other? A completely neutered remix – or, if you will, de-mix, which stripped out all that lovely calamity in favour a more insidious, creeping production. I quite like it now, especially the choral bits, but back then I was faintly appalled.
When you’re a huge fan of a group it’s terribly easy to ignore all the rules of pop, because somehow you can convince yourself that they don’t apply in this case and that another giant hit is still possible. Usually the only people more deluded than you are the pop stars themselves, but that was never the case with Pet Shop Boys – they were always aware that the dumper claimed everyone eventually. Neil Tennant even had a plan worked out – what we’ll call the Menudo Strategy, telling his former employer Smash Hits sometime in the late 80s that “The Pet Shop Boys will carry on, but we’ll stop being the front men. Instead we’ll change the line-up every year or so. Suddenly there’ll be four 16-year-old boys as the Pet Shop Boys and the next thing you know they’ll be replaced by two 35-year-old Elaine Paige types. We’ll be fed up with it all by then so we’ll just write the music. We’ll be able to spend our time doing the nice things like going to bed early.” It was a joke of course, but the Results album (and half of Reputation) did give us a tantalising glimpse of what that version might have been like (amazing, obviously).
Listening in 2016, Integral feels more relevant – and more terrifying – than ever. It may not have been the hit it deserved to be, but nor am I in possession of a compulsory ID card – so on balance I’m calling it a success.
That concludes the 300th (300th!) Into the Popvoid entry. Thank you for your attention.
Entered chart: did not chart (although Wikipedia says no.197)
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Oh my god, Beyoncé *goes for a lie down immediately*