Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Pet Shop Boys — A Flawless Vision

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.

Comments [21]


Joe Moran

Brilliant. Glad to see PSB getting some long-deserved recognition for their presentation -- those CD covers definitely influenced me as a young designer and I've been following the evolution of the PSB identity for 15+ years. I just might have to make a special trip to London to check out the exhibition. Great post!

No disrespect for the Pet Shop Boys, and I applaud the design + consistent style behind their public face, however...

Why PSB? Outside a certain niche, they don't even exist. I can list any number of bands who've consistently presented a more interesting and in many cases more relevant and influential image. Skinny Puppy comes to mind immediately, but there's also old school Kiss (music sux - but those shoes!), The Ramones, The Gorillaz, GWAR, etc..
Gary R Boodhoo

I would hazard that "outside of a certain niche," Skinny Puppy exist even less than the PSB.

Why the PSB? Because w/r/t design, as Adrian says, they been both prolific and consistently brilliant, for over 20 years.

The cover of the most recent album, Fundamental, features the album and band name spelled out in the form of a neon sign. The singles and videos then riff on this idea in various ways. For example, the artwork for the "Minimal" single also features neon signage, but photographed against a brilliant white background... suggesting the aesthetic described by the song (an homage to classic modernist style: "White on white, light sublime, subliminal; / The void is clean, a cell, but not for a criminal").

I would submit that a significant reason Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been elevated by Mr. Shaughnessy is that they have had a unswerving public personae for well over twenty years now; a great feat indeed. Having been an avid fan and collector since the early eighties, I agree that their overall aesthetic, both musically and in the way they present themselves, has been carefully crafted and guided by the duo.

In addition to their work in print and video, their onstage presentation is an amplification of the carefully crafted legend that is the Pet Shop Boys. On one hand the set, much like their music and design, is stripped down to the bare essentials: A white, rounded box sits in the middle of the stage and, as the performance progresses, it modifies and grows, becoming both an interactive vessel for the performers as well as a grand setting on which neon-esque typography bounces off of each cell, corresponding to the thumping music. It is a high-design visual presentation indeed.

On the other hand, their high-camp sense of humor flows freely with dancers dressed as cowboys in sparkling gold regalia enticing the crowd to join in the chorus for Go West; the entire venue swinging left to right. The Village People would have been jealous.

At first I too wanted to argue with Mr. Shaughnessy by citing the consistent design-centric work of David Bowie and Duran Duran, but I'm afraid he's correct when he describes the Boys as "daring impresarios of the notion that pop at its best can be the equal of the so-called higher art forms." After twenty-plus years they continue to craft brilliant music and have maintained a consistent-yet-fresh brand longer than most corporations. Both should be applauded.
James D. Nesbitt

yeah, that's certainly true; however in terms of influence, and I'm choosing to consider only the visual aspects of video, live performance and "tribal" aesthetic, the SP influence is vast, perhaps more so than is generally realized, showing up in film, advertising, music, games, etc... quite regularly

Nothing exists in isolation and of course the roots of projects like PSB, SP, etc... go far back into the past. The statement "It would have been unconscionable, in 1983, to create a pop group and not have an image that could mediate your message" seems absurd and self-serving. Punk rock? Motown? The Beatles? Elvis? The visual aesthetic of these performers is hardly accidental!
Gary R Boodhoo

I agree with Gary. Many bands over the years have had a strong sense of the importance of "image" and many of them have been more commercially successful. Bands from the 60's & 70's like Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Yes and several others had very consistant and visually stunning album packaging, live shows, concert posters and personas that would give 99% of the acts from the past two decades a run for thier money. I do agree that PSB were outstanding in this area as well, however they aren't the first band that would come to mind when thinking about this topic.
Rick Herrera

>> The Grateful Dead and several others had very consistant and visually stunning album packaging...

The Dead's stuff was all over the place. Different illustrators/styles/wordmarks/motifs...

Interesting looking? Yes.

Consistent from a brand identity standpoint? Not even close.

Doug B

Step outside of the American-central world of music and the PSB are most influential -- high concept groups like The Gorillaz or those style-mavens of Britpop Blur or of Japan Pizzicato 5 are deeply influenced by the consistently strong visual identity from album to stage.

Sure, all music is managed and styled, what makes the PSB important on top of that, is that they pushed the line up and that it was self directed.

There was an important confluence of sexual freedom and mixing of fashion and design in the British club scene (what with pubs shutting down at before 10 -- this is where you went "afterhours") of the 80s that created an environment of diverse influences out of which the PSB were able to strike an identity. New York in the 80s was similar, although AIDS had such a ravishing affect on that scene. And so many of the art and design leaders that may have emerged (and were emerging) were lost. Perhaps Talking Heads is the only thing out of that scene that lasted and is comparable in America to the PSB.

Franki Goes to Hollywood, Erasure, New Order, and Pet Shop Boys all blurred together for me during the 80s. Since then, I've recognized the uniqueness of each band---as well as the one-hit-wonderness of Franki Goes to Hollywood. Seeing Pet Shop Boys make it this far, and into a gallery, further demonstrates the mastery beneath their pop music. Like Beck, PBS transcends media, the two have something in common insomuch as they see the bigger picture---and take control of their image.

Gary, I believe the quote about it being "unconscionable, in 1983, to create a pop group and not have an image that could mediate your message" meant the opposite of what you interpreted: that it was necessary to have such an image, and that other groups necessarily did, but that the PSB did it better.

I find it fascinating just how much the non-Farrow releases stand out in this catalog. Although there are thematic shifts through the different campaigns, everything 'fits', until a different designer is thrown in the mix. I wouldn't have thought one could pick out a designer's hand when dealing with this sort of mostly minimalistic art.

Sam, that's exactly what I was reacting to. I simply don't feel the Pet Shop Boys do brand identity BETTER than anyone else, and quite frankly, not so differently than anyone else. Not in the 80's and not today in an era where its standard practice to construct pop icons based on focus testing. Nice integration of packaging, performance & content - but that's sort of the status quo in my eyes at least.

Could be my own assumptions speaking, but I feel the subtext here is that musicians aren't generally aware of the image they project, and I disagree with that notion on every level.

Opera? Vaudeville? Shamanic beating of a drum? American Idol? Each of these forms are at least as much visual as they are auditory. Each presents a consistent face to an audience on several fronts: promotion, performance, reputation and distribution. Some musicians/performers may focus on one of these aspects to the exclusion of others, however by definition the music industry implies them all (manufacturing desire and all that)
Gary R Boodhoo

Actually, the Pet Shop Boys do execute their branding better than most. They have total dominion over every aspect of it and have consistently exercised that control for over twenty years. They also execute design correctly (i.e., if its minimalist design, everything is designed under that aesthetic). While it is absolutely true that there are numerous bands who also understand the power of branding, consistency and/or the correct execution of it are not always their strong suits.

Even the swag sold at PSB concerts falls in line with the brand's visual language. As an example, I purchased a simple, white t-shirt with the word "minimalist" printed across the chest in a light grey ink. You can only see the word under the right lighting conditions. It is indeed minimalist design.

The magic of these individuals is that they not only understand their brand and how to execute it, but recognize that others who appreciate the sometimes difficult and fastidious effort will evangelize the brand and therefore the band. This strength is due to the consistent implementation of their aesthetic in every public-facing aspect. This is why they deserve to be lauded.
James D. Nesbitt

They're just damn good. Period.
Ron Solesby

PSB/Farrow get some well-deserved praise. Their live performances, often theatrical and well-connected to the album art and overall fashion direction also deserve mention.
Ward Andrews

Is there a place online with much of a sample of their work? Did I miss a link?

Like millions of others, I associate the Pet Shop Boys with West End Girls, a pleasant bouncy song that I have no intention of buying. I went to iTunes and found I didn't know any other songs by them, although I've certainly seen and heard more over the years.

In the small sample of graphic work I saw online, they look slick, professional and consistent, but what I saw didn't seem to rise above their slick, professional and consistent music. What am I missing?

"What am I missing?"

Off the top of my head... Irony, humour, subversion. Putting the title of an Edmund Wilson book (To the Finland Station) into a hit single (West End Girls). Bringing more intelligence to the pop world. Revitalising Dusty Springfield's career before her untimely death. Videos and stage design by Derek Jarman. Writing the line "Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat". And so on.
John C

to john(December 26th) You wrote:Like millions of others, I associate the Pet Shop Boys with West End Girls"
What about "It"s a sin"? That was a masterpiece!

I admit to being a fan of PSB for 20+ years, and I need to suggest that it's going to be difficult, at best, for newcomers to appreciate their brand within context.

For example, when you walked into a record store (yes a record store) in the early 80's and saw Please or (for me esp. the Disco remix album) - no other band was even close to an image like they pulled off. It was unique from other britsynth but within context of their music.

W/regards to other designers not named Corbjin I've always also thought that Peter Saville


never received enough credit.
Nigel Mellish

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