Suburbia, 12" sleeve, 1986. Photography by Eric Watson,
design by Mark Farrow at 3 and PSB.
You might balk at the prospect of listening to twenty years worth of Pet Shop Boys music although their brittle, Anglicized, melancholic pop is not without charm. Yet examining their visual productivity over the same period is an unqualified delight. During the past two decades the Pet Shop Boys have developed a "brand image" that is wholly beguiling. Other bands have moments of brilliance the occasional great album cover or music video but PSB pull it off repeatedly.
It's a remarkable attainment: the sustained production of a "look" suffused with style, wit, art-world sensibility and pop-culture savvy. It's an achievement that is currently celebrated by an exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery in London, and the publication of a sumptuously illustrated book, Pet Shop Boys Catalogue.
The book is aptly named; it catalogues Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant's firm grasp of image and style, and their brainy understanding of pop myth-making. Their career can be seen as a multimedia art installation permanently on show at the heart of the merciless music industry machine; or it can be viewed as a high-camp exercise in mask-making as the duo flirt boldly with styles and shifting personas. But after scrutinizing their collected record covers, videos, stage shows and printed ephemera (even their Christmas cards are good!), it's clear that they have a gift for presentation and self-awareness that is the equal of just about anyone in the contemporary art world. It is no accident that references to Gilbert and George appear in the text of Catalogue.
As co-author Philip Hoare notes in his introduction to Catalogue, "It would have been unconscionable, in 1983, to create a pop group and not have an image that could mediate your message if you had a message, that is; and clearly the Pet Shop Boys did. Taking elements of English post-punk and i-D street fashion and melding them with the New York style that the pair had picked up during their initial work with producer Bobby 'O', the look of the Pet Shop Boys evolved in a manner quite as determined as the groups whom they would soon be regarding as their peers. Yet, crucially, the group was purposefully conceived as a 'self-conscious' reaction to those groups ..." It's this intelligent authoring and fastidious management of the PSB identity that marks them out from their less sure-footed pop rivals. The PSB are true pop auteurs.
Lowe studied architecture and Tennant was a music journalist on Smash Hits, the British pop mag that became the house journal for the celebrity-driven pop boom of the 80s and 90s. Smash Hits was the first pop journal to simultaneously adopt a tone of knowingness with an uninhibited love of pop's sugar rush of transience. Between them, Lowe and Tennant had the intellectual heft to act as co-authors of their visual appearance. And like all smart people, they knew how to spot a good collaborator.
PSB photography is mainly the work of long-time associate Eric Watson. Their videos are made by a small group of filmmakers who include Pedro Romhanyi and Howard Greenhalgh. They have worked with a starry array of talent that includes Bruce Weber, Sam Taylor-Wood, Wolfgang Tillmans, Zaha Hadid, Derek Jarman, Martin Parr and product designer Daniel Weil of Pentagram, who was responsible for the striking orange jewel case with Lego-like embossing for the album Very. But perhaps their smartest move was to get Mark Farrow to create their record covers.
Farrow took on the role in 1985. Prior to his arrival, PSB sleeves had been designed by XL Design, best remembered for their work with Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the ZTT label. Looking at the XL sleeves you can see that the PSB curatorial eye is not yet focused. Lowe and Tennant look like members of preppy, early-80s English groups like Haircut 100, and the sleeves resemble bad Neville Brody knock-offs.
When Farrow arrived everything changed. He produced a series of sleeves that oozed style with understated pop knowingness. Significantly, Farrow was also the first record sleeve designer to master the art of designing for CD. With the appearance of Please in 1986, he nimbly proved that the reduced surface area of the CD needn't impose a restriction on creative expression. Until Farrow and PSB demonstrated otherwise, designers regarded the shrunken canvas of the CD as an affront.
Despite occasional dalliances with other designers (artist/designer Scott King brought a rugged heft to PSB sleeves in 2002), Farrow has remained the principal architect of the duo's graphic appearance. Nevertheless, you suspect that Lowe and Tennant's involvement is crucial (they take a co-design credit on all their covers), and like all good clients they add to the final production rather than detract or inhibit. As Tennant says: "I see us in the tradition of Joe Orton and Noël Coward in that we are serious, comic, light-hearted, sentimental and brittle, all at the same time . . ." qualities that vividly animate PSB record covers, videos and stage shows, and which reveal the pair as daring impresarios of the notion that pop at its best can be the equal of the so-called higher art forms.