Behaviour Review: The Boys Grow Up

Music can be a funny thing, sometimes. Back when I heard Behaviour for the first time, I was very into pop music. I can’t stress this enough. I had a routine where – on Saturday – the Top 40 would come on, and I would find my way to the kitchen – where the radio was – and I would get a cup of tea and a book and I’d read while the music played around me. I have some fond memories of long summer days sitting down in the den with my father, sharing afternoons as we listened to Belinda Carlisle, or early Crowded House or that crazy soundtrack to Dirty Dancing.

For a while, pop music was absolutely where it was at for me.

But something opened up in me in 1989. I’m not really sure what it was, exactly. Restlessness, maybe. Frustration at the status quo of the music industry. I liked pop, but I began to think that just maybe pop music was exactly like it’s detractors suggested: vapid. Empty. Devoid of anything that could redeem it.

One of the bands I’d been following was the Pet Shop Boys. They started off as a band draped in the Italo-disco style that was prevalent in the early 80’s. And then, as times slowly changed, they would evolve with the sound happening on the airwaves, adopting whatever sounded most interesting in terms of electronic production.

In 1989, though, electronic music was slowly morphing and changing. One strand was incredibly high energy – full of fast beats, hard sounds and loops. This strand didn’t really last particularly long and the Pet Shop Boys never really seemed to fall very in love with it. The other strand was brooding, dark, quite menacing. It was a direction the Pet Shop Boys could never really go.

So, they were at a crossroads. There wasn’t much they could hang their usual musical metamorphosis on. Instead, they opted for something else, entirely.

The cover of Behaviour is simple - minimalist, even, a white border showcasing four different - and /weird/ pictures of the Pet Shop Boys. But it works. It absolutely draws your attention immediately.
This cover always produced mild puzzlement in me.

To my mind, what came out was what I think of as the quintessential Pet Shop Boys sound. Thoughtful, a little fast, but mostly carried along by Neil Tennant’s wry observations on aging, human nature and why the world was so wrong.

This album is everything their prior output was not. It’s measured – nuanced – thought-provoking in a way the earlier records couldn’t hope to be.

The sound is incredibly well-produced – if you wear a pair of headphones, you can absolutely hear all the little electronic flourishes that are otherwise impossible to pick out when you’re just sitting in your lounge, soaking up the music.

In fact, there’s a lot going on in just the first two songs. From a melodic, simple coda that starts the record in “Being Boring” all the way to the frenetic electronic drumming that is the backbone of “This Must Be The Place I’ve Waited Years To Leave,” the first two songs carry you along so swiftly that it’s very difficult to actually pin down what’s even going on at first listen. After this, the Boys slow down a little – in fact, the pace from this point onward is incredibly and deliberately managed. Slow song. Fast song. Slow song. Fast song, culminating in the fireworks of Jealousy. A slow burn that had been sitting in the back of their writer’s cupboard for several years before finding it’s way onto this particular album.

For a lot of people, though, the music isn’t exactly the problem. The production is stellar, the melodies are there, but many can’t get past Neil Tennan’t singing. Here, though, he is in fine form, delivering his lines with either the requisite amount of pathos or cutting the object of his affections with his scathing wit. [Go and find the lyrics to “So Hard.” He rattles off those one-liners with the air of a lover who’s clearly given the idea of infidelity a whole lot of thought.]

Sonically, this is nothing like any of their other work before or since. I’ve touched on how good the production is, but the songs, here, have wonderful, touching melodies that – taken without the lyrics – would make for some good, introspective instrumental music that you could easily work or read to. Compared with Very – the album straight after this – and Introspective, the six song extravaganza before it, there’s a pervasive calm that runs through almost every song here.

The back cover is simpler, even, than the front. No pictures to distract you. Just white background and black text with a list of the songs. This sums up the Pet Shop Boys at their finest: let the music speak for itself.
Mild puzzlement gives way to curiosity. A song called “How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?” How would that even work?!

And that, I think, is what made me like the album all those years ago – what made me latch onto it and think, “ah, now this is Pop Music with a mind of it’s own.” The Pet Shop Boys take the idea of pop and wring it into something more thoughtful. More sedate, even. Something, in short, that I didn’t even know I really wanted.

Should you buy this? I think so. If you’re at all interested in the High Road Of Pop, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to listen to this. Especially if you’re tired of the litany of boy bands and divas that regularly make up the pop landscape. Behaviour is – literally – a breath of fresh air.

I’m not sure where to start recommending songs, because they’re all excellent, but if you like faster music, you might appreciate “So Hard.” If you prefer the slow, I’d take a listen to “My October Symphony.” My favourite has always, always been “Only The Wind” – particularly for how it winds down and that plaintive, singular “I’m sorry,” at the end.