on 7 February 2012
From 1996's "Bilingual" to 2009's "Yes", the PSBs have continued to release a plethora of bonus and non-album tracks with every release and FORMAT does an excellent job of chronologically documenting these. Here, you will find the PSBs at their experimental best, ranging from jungle, latino and electronica to rabid pop and all-out rock. There are too many to review individually, but highlights on the album for me include the guitar-driven "I didn't get where I am today" which could easily have been a successful single and is remininiscent of Beautiful People from "Yes". Johnny Marr's trademark plucking of a Beatles-esque riff under an uplifting melody make it a crime that this song was consigned to B-side status. The Nirvana-inspired "Party Song" is another that would make many of today's young upstarts green with envy that 2 men in their 50s can produce such relevant, vibrant, colourful yet challenging pop after approaching 30 years in the business. Tennant sings with a sneer only Shaun Ryder could rival over an electronic riff which owes more than a nod to "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Sheer brilliance. One other than merits a mention is the strangely disturbing "Gin and Jag" which explores the dark side of the internet. The threatening lyrics match perfectly with the danger-tinged harmonies employed by Tennant.
Overall, a wonderous piece of work, which flows, on the whole, with a surprising underlying consistency, despite the changing styles throughout the 38 songs and 13 years spanned. Ideal for a long car journey, at least until the promised 2012 album of brand new material is released.
If we're being totally honest about the music business there are few bands who could ever truly release an "essential" greatest hits package. There's even less who could rattle up a two cd set of b-sides. Rarer still is the band who could rattle up a two-disc greatest hits packed with 35 UK top 20 hits and TWO great compilations of completely different b-sides/extra tracks.
The times have changed since Alternative, Pet Shop Boys' first collection of b-sides. B-Sides were in their latter years back in 1995 when we got Alternative and yet the onslaught of "digital" singles means that "extra" tracks are now more in vogue than they've ever been. Such is the work ethic and quality of Messrs Tennant & Lowe it never seems to be a chore for them to come up with quality "extra" tracks that have always seemed to be a cut above the "throwaway" ditties that can make up a lot of band's extra efforts (even if the days of PSB tailoring b-sides to particular singles are also long gone).
If there's less "experimentation" on Format than there was on Alternative it's perhaps understandable yet the chronological nature of the release means you can trace a number of "pop phases" through these tracks (as the Boys themselves have acknowledged) as they've never been shy to express their influences nor have a crack at what the sound of the times is.
When Format is good, it's so good you wonder why certain songs didn't at least make it onto albums. Indeed there are some, such as the Johnny Marr featuring I Didn't Get Where I Am Today, that simply scream out "hit-single". There are also a number of what I would term "essential" PSB tracks that might not have had the "hit potential" but remain up there with their best works. I'm thinking of the likes of The Truck Driver & His Mate (a wonderfully witty and sly take on the nighttime adventures of said truck driver, which was their attempt at an "Oasis sound"), Sexy Northener (a pulsating dance driven rhythm allied with some of Tennant's brilliant eye - or eye - for observation) and Blue on Blue (a sort of electro-clash song that would no doubt have been praised to the hilt if some young, "bedroom genius" came up with it). Then there's the likes of Party Song which, quite amazingly, started life off as an attempted cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit (you'll think not at first, but listen...you'll pick it up).
Comparing it to Alternative there's probably a few more tracks on here that don't hit the mark and there's probably a bit less that makes you sit up and think "how on earth wasn't this a single?". However in general it shows you that whilst their critical reception may have ebbed and flowed over the thirteen years of this compilation (1996-2009) they've rarely stopped producing quality pop tunes.
on 14 February 2012
Just think: how many bands do you know who can afford a quadruple album of essential B-sides?
"Format" arrives in a Mark Farrow-tastic box with thirty-eight tracks and a booklet where Jon Savage interviews Neil and Chris about the dark side of the single. Needless to say, they once again turn out to be The Wittiest Couple In Pop, no contest.
As for the music: this compilation holds together very well. even if it spans nearly two decades and various genres. We get disco, ballads, techno stomps, rocky bops and a wondrous cover in the form of "We're The Pet Shop Boys", the ultimate meta-pop song that was written by My Robot Friend and later sadly mauled by one R. Williams.
It does not end here: these songs also sparkle lyrically, brimming with a variety of themes that are presented with heartfelt, surgical precision. One simply cannot listen to the PSB without thinking of literature; E. M.Forster and Alan Hollinghurst, for instance, keep coming to mind. Mr Tennant's tone and narrative slant are up there, dispensing acute social commentary and poignant stories at every turn.
"Format" is therefore a further, pristine addition to the already glorious PSB canon.
These northeners really have a way with words and music. How do they do it?
The sequel, of sorts, to 1995's "Alternative", "Format" is best seen as perhaps part of a very much a dying breed : The B-sides album. Over their quarter century (is it that long? It doesn't seem so, but it obviously is), the Pet Shop Boys have seen the dominance of the format, the plushing of the vinyl single, the rise, and hasty death of cassette, and the entire lifespan of the CD single : "Always On My Mind" was the first Number One Christmas single available on CD in the UK. 38 songs at a very affordable price in a double set : near enough every Pet Shop Boys song that hasn't been on an album. Near enough.
Now, the b-side is an anarchronism : there are no b-sides anymore. Physical singles are practically extinct : HMV in Oxford Street - the biggest record shop in Europe - contains a two feet of rack space for the CD single. Everything is available on your virtual storefront.
Taking perhaps a strange role then, this record, or box set, of something like 40 songs is a lavish, exhaustive two and a half journey through Pet Shop Boys back pages. Running from 1996 to 2009, from the bands out-of-time "Bilingual" to the largely successful commercial reappraisal of "Yes", , "Format" is, by definition incomplete - missing the b-sides to the last three singles - and doing what most b-side albums do, which is sound exactly like a collection of songs that don't quite fit well together recorded many years apart.
To their credit, the Pet Shop Boys still bother with b-sides. For many bands, the b-side is now nothing more than a digital bundle of extra leftovers pared off and thrown randomly across the internet through several retailer-only exclusives, or perhaps, even worse, akin to the Depeche Mode remix record from the summer, where 25 extra remixes were only available from 7 seperate digital sellers.
For this band - Britains best songwriting duo - there is no such as a b-side, just a song that doesn't make it onto the album. And here they are. Keen listeners will know first few songs from the 2001 remaster set of "Bilingual", with others from the various limited double-disc formats of the albums at the time of their release. Others - such as "The former enfant terrible" have only ever been seen as downloads. Not that this necessarily matters, for "Format" collects almost every non-album song from the second fifteen years of their lives, and places them in chronological order . Until such time as an exhaustive set of remasters and reissues slip out for their last few records, "Format" is the place to be.
It starts with "The Truck Driver And His Mate", which is somewhat more sexual than you might expect. Beyond this, the rest of this are some of the finest songs you've never heard - 12 songs alone from the "Bilingual" record, including the under-rated remix/amped up re-recording of "Discoteca" which takes a mid-paced ballad and becomes a andrenalised stomper. "Disco potential" and the somewhat lyrically slight "The View From My Balcony" (which is exactly that), are not the greatest Pet Shop Boys ever.
1999's "Nightlife" was, at the time, seemingly shorn of, and out of step with the world.A brash disco album with tinges of regret, the b-sides were oft overlooked : the band were at this stage, touring to half-empty arenas with a bankrupt Harvey Goldsmith taking the proceeds, and whilst their commercial stock was challenged, the record gifted some of the finest songs they ever wrote - whilst "Je T'Aime" with Sam Taylor Wood is missing, we do get the under-appreciated tussle that is the Chris-Lowe led "Lies". Sticking with the chronological aim of the record, CD1 ends with "Sexy Northerner", which is amongst the greatest b-sides of all time : unforgettable, daft and funny in equal measure. The key to happy living is not taking yourself too seriously, after all.
The second CD opens with 8 or 9 songs from the 2002-3 period around the "Release" album, where the bands commercial stock was as low as it has ever been, the material was presented with a somewhat realistic, organic approach and - whilst the relative "back to basics" approach of touring with a regular band of guitars, drums, and so forth and minimalist staging had a certain effect, the overall result was one of a drift from the world of big hits. As was expected, a consolidating greatest hits record was issued : the b-sides from period are both good, average, and somewhat unexceptional. You can see why songs such as "Always" - a midpaced, unexceptional, fogettable song - never made the parent album. And, despite being covered by Robbie Williams, the song "We're The Pet Shop Boys" (itself a cover) is perhaps one of the finest, funniest, and most enjoyable hagiographies ever committed to tape. Later, songs such as "The Resurrectionist", and a retooled with-Elton-John version of 1989's "In private" are welcome additions and proof, were any needed that after twenty years, the band still had and maintained a certain, unique personality. The kind that if it didn't exist, you would miss it, and wonder where such artists wwhere in the world. By the end of the album, and the prolific "Yes" period, the b-sides of the first two singles are present : but many songs - the b-sides to the German "Beautiful people" single, the Christmas EP, "Together" are all absent without leave, and - time restrictions of the format aside - missing.
"Format" is what it is, both a dying breed of the compilation of the now sadly endangered extra track and b-side, and a compendium of extra songs that supplement and expand the previous five studio records with several additional songs each. Some of them are the finest songs the band have recorded : some of them not so. Some of them are songs that you will hold in your ears with a wonder as to where they have been all your life. Others not so. And, unless you bought a digital download from one specific website, others will be songs you probably didn't know existed. Designed for the casual, this weighty, popstuffed package is a value for money delivery mechanism for 38 songs that have, over the past 15 years, been a well-kept secret from pop music's back pages. We're the Pet Shop Boys, indeed.
on 13 March 2014
What's not to absolutely love? If this collection shows one thing, it is that the PSB's shelve (but thank God don't throw away...) better tracks than most people put on their albums. And there is so MUCH here to appreciate and come back to. If you buy this album for one reason (and, oh, you SHOULD!), it is the amazing "We're All Criminals Now" which rips into our current Big Brother CCTV culture and the John-Paul Menezes case with Stanley-blade sharpness. But there are 37 other wonderful and diverse reasons; the post-"It's A Sin" epic "Delusions of Grandeur", the Prodigy-esque "Disco Potential", the unrequited gay lust of "Sexy Northerner", (likewise the latin-beat "The Boy Who Couldn't Keep His Clothes On"), the Tina Turner demoe'd "Confidential", the Ferry-esque "Always", the storming "We're The Pet Shop Boys" (with the most ludicrous syn-drum track EVER!), the Monkee-inspired "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today", the anthemic "In Private" with Dame Elton, the sweetly elegaic "Bright Young Things", the downright creepy "Gin and Jag"... have I said enough? Suffice that, outside their normal expected parameters, the PSB's are capable of astonishing variety and virtuosity. Oh, I forgot the triumphant "Friendly Fire"... damn, but I could praise this album forever. Look, just BUY IT, will you? (You know, I might even get to like "Electric" in time.... hmmmmm, maybe...