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Bilingual: How Pet Shop Boys Caught The Latin-Pop Wave First
In Depth

Bilingual: How Pet Shop Boys Caught The Latin-Pop Wave First

With ‘Bilingual’, Pet Shop Boys took their time and looked further afield for the most diverse album of their career to date.

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Often lazily labelled a quintessentially British phenomenon, the simplistic Pet Shop Boys stereotype was thrown out the window with Bilingual. The most internationally influenced of the duo’s records, it was released as their sixth album, on 2 September 1996, following the No.1 success of Very. In true Pet Shop Boys fashion, however, the pair delivered a let’s-do-it-differently strategy in everything that followed.

Listen to ‘Bilingual’ here.

Defying market logic

To begin, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were in no hurry. Defying market logic that you had to follow a hit super-fast, sessions started in 1994 and weren’t completed until two years later. Additionally, the undeniable “New World” influences were far ahead of the curve (the Latin-pop explosion was still a few years off) and seemed out of sync with almost everything else in charts that were then dominated by Britpop and anonymous dance music.

Peaking at No.4 and selling almost two million copies worldwide, the Bilingual project launched with Before – one of four singles from the album. David Morales was due to collaborate with the pair, but bailed at the 11th hour, pushing rising superstar DJ Danny Tenaglia into the frame for a song which contained all the classic Pet Shop Boys ingredients needed to take it into the UK Top 10

Second single Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is) is the Bilingual track everyone first returns to. Its Latin-pop confidence fuses well with an almost musical-theatre serving of sunny, youthful optimism, and the Bruce Weber video is a masterpiece. Still holding its own among the best Pet Shop Boys songs, it is based on a track by African-Brazilian band Olodum that Neil came across in San Paolo.

Those Latin top notes are most evident on tracks such as It Always Comes A Surprise, which samples Astrid Gilberto’s Corcovado and features the Brazilian berimbau instrument, and To Step Aside, whose conservative dance-pop melody is embellished by traditional Spanish instrumentation. It’s a thematic concoction that blends nicely, though isn’t consistently applied across Bilingual, with closing track Saturday Night Forever seeming largely at odds with much of everything that precedes it. A big pop-disco number, it could have appeared a decade earlier without anyone being remotely surprised.

Scaling another creative peak

Continuing this mildly contradictory theme, Bilingual’s opening volley is again entirely different. First track Discoteca is a heavy percussive number and was almost a single, but never quite came together in the mixing. Here, it segues into Single, which did make the cut as Single-Bilingual (renamed to avoid confusion with the recent Everything But The Girl single of the same name). The song was paid the ultimate compliment – as far as Neil is concerned – when Noel Gallagher billed it “a bit mad”. It’s certainly one of the most out-there Pet Shop Boys singles – a banging club number that dials up the percussion to the extreme. The third act of the opening trio is Metamorphosis, probably the surprise single that should have been, with an imperial Neil rap steering a very catchy set of dance riffs.

The pace slows on the atmospheric Electricity, which Chris admits solicits comparison with Madonna’s then-recent Erotica work, while the later A Red-Letter Day (almost Go West Part 2, with a contribution from The Choral Academy Of Moscow) and Up Against It are terrific pop cuts, the latter featuring Johnny Marr on guitar.

Bilingual does hold together, in part because seasoned principal producer, Chris Porter, teases out the hookiest moments and blends them with the influences Chris and Neil were keen to experiment with. The Survivors is a powerful ballad and perhaps best captures the album’s narrative – here is a band scaling another creative peak, slightly out of time (traditional synth-pop was in one of its seasonal popularity slumps) and perhaps less keen than before to chase a familiar formula. They were right, of course. Pet Shop Boys’ survival across the turbulent decades ahead would depend on it.

Buy Pet Shop Boys vinyl at the Dig! store.

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