release date: 2 September 1996
chart: UK #4, US #39
Bilingual, the sixth Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in September 1996. The Pet Shop Boys had started working on it more than two years earlier, in August 1994, when they went to New York and worked on some songs at Unique studios where they had recorded the original version of 'West End girls' in 1983. The Latin influence that would infuse much, but not all, of Bilingual, was already apparent in the first song they recorded, 'Discoteca'. Chris had just been on holiday in Brazil, and Neil had been listening to a lot of Spanish music. "I was in a relationship with a Spaniard," says Neil, "and he used to come round to my house or I used to go to his house and listen to his Spanish CDs." While in New York Neil and Chris went to the Sound Factory bar. "They had go-go boys dancing almost naked on the podiums with flags wrapped around them, and there was live Latin percussion," Chris recalls. These visits to the Sound Factory bar inspired, and set the tone, for their Discovery tour at the end of that year, which ended with concerts in Mexico, Columbia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil where they were further exposed to Latin dance music (Discovery - the tour and subsequent video - took its name from a combination of the words 'very' and 'disco', six years before Daft Punk did likewise.)
They had decided that, instead of making an album in one stretch, they would make this record in bits and pieces, as it suited them. They didn't begin working again until April 1995 when they started recording on and off at Sarm West and at a tiny demo studio they had hired in the Strongroom studio complex. In the Strongroom they demoed a large number of new songs. Aside from ones which would end up on Bilingual this was the period in which they first recorded 'Hit and miss' (the b-side of 'Before'), 'You only tell me you love me when you're drunk' (which would be on their 1999 album Nightlife), 'For all of us' (which would end up in their 2001 musical Closer To Heaven) and 'Love your enemy' (still unfinished). In June they went back to New York to record with Danny Tenaglia and then in August they rented a large house called Rocky Lane in the English countryside near Henley and moved their studio into its garage, so that they could work at their own pace and in a more relaxing environment.
Early on, they also started recording with producer Chris Porter, who was best known for his work with George Michael but whom they were keen to work with because he had produced Take That's 'Back For Good'.
"I was getting into harmonies," says Neil. "'Se a vida Ú' has got a lot of tracked harmonies. Bob Kraushaar likes doing them and kind of encourages you, because I get bored doing them very quickly. On our first two albums there are almost no harmonies at all. It just didn't occur to me in those days.'
They had decided to call the album Bilingual from the very beginning, partly because of the Latin flourishes, and partly because they thought it was funny. "It was sort of a joke on 'bisexual'," says Neil. By the summer of 1996, just as the album was nearing release, they typically went off the title, and early reference CDs bore the alternative title Pet Shop Boys: That's the way life is. Then they thought again and changed their minds.
The original Bilingual sleeve - "a frosted concept," says Chris - was inspired by a piece of frosted PVC in designer Mark Farrow's office. "After Very we couldn't really have a normal CD sleeve," says Neil, "and also we didn't want to." They wanted the whole CD case to be sandblasted and opaque, but it wasn't possible, and even with the compromise version there were manufacturing problems and difficulties getting the frosted square centred on the CD case.
"There was a feeling in EMI," Neil remembers, "that it was too cool, too upmarket."
"I particularly like the yellow of the sleeve," notes Chris. "It pre-dates the St Martin's Lane hotel."
They decided that, after Very's elaborate fantasy images, they shouldn't even pose for photos this time, and all the photographs in the original Bilingual booklet are snaps. Neil's are from holidays in Jamaica and Gran Canaria; Chris's are from the Discovery tour. (The photograph of him with soldiers behind him was taken in the stadium in Bogota, Columbia, where the Pet Shop Boys were to play later that day. The photograph of him, arms outstretched and mouth open, was taken as he danced on a raised platform in a nightclub outside Buenos Aires in Argentina.)
By the Pet Shop Boys' previous standards, Bilingual was only a modest commercial success on its release. "I think sometimes a vague cloud hangs over this album," says Neil. "If you listen to it, without prejudice, I think it's a really really strong album. I think overall it contains some of our best-ever songs and productions. Everyone forgets that when this album was released it received unanimously rave reviews right across the board and was released after two top ten singles. Though I remember saying to Jill Carrington, our manager then, that it was the first time we had released an album without a top five single in Britain."
In retrospect, they do have some reservations. "I think we probably chose the wrong singles, as usual," says Chris. They both agree that the album is too long; at one point Neil suggested re-editing it, removing 'Metamorphosis' and 'Electricity', and re-sequencing it for these reissues. "I think the running order is wrong," he says. "You don't really get strong melody until track five: 'Discoteca' has a very interesting melody but it's not a catchy pop melody, "Single" is a chant, "Metamorphosis" is a rap, though it has a catchy chorus, and "Electricity" is sort of a rap. It's a positively experimental start." He says that they originally considered a more commercial running order, before its release, beginning with 'Se a vida Ú' and 'Before'.
"I have a further criticism of it," says Neil. "I think the concept isn't clear. We didn't stick with the Latin concept. Also, the fact that it was called Bilingual, I wonder if people thought it was a bilingual album like Gloria Estefan doing her Spanish album."
The Pet Shop Boys were also puzzled by another aspect of Bilingual's reception: the notion, perhaps suggested by the Latin rhythms and phrases, that this was an uplifting and happy record. By and large it is not. Even 'Se a vida Ú', the sunniest song, is about someone who is depressed.
"They all got it wrong," Chris says.
"If this album has a theme, right the way through," says Neil, "it is: you have to struggle to survive."