release date: 27 September 1993
chart: UK #1, US #20
Very, the fifth Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in September 1993. "Going into this record we were slightly disappointed by the performance of Behaviour," Neil remembers. "Behaviour was slagged off at the time for not being a dance album. We were feeling a little insecure, maybe. Anyway, we decided to do a mega dance-pop album."
"I think you always react against the one you've done previously," says Chris. "We wanted it to be a bit more up."
"'Up' was definitely the big thing," says Neil. "We thought we were going to do that for Behaviour, but we didn't do it. This time we did. We hadn't done anything pop for ages, because we did Introspective, which is all pretty moody, and then we did Liza's album and stuff with Dusty, a lot of which is very moody, and then Behaviour... We wanted to do something very pop, to the extent that there is a song on this album, 'One in a million', that we were going to offer to Take That. It was not trying to be trendy. We were trying to do 'fantastic songs - every one could be a single'. And it kind of worked."
In those days Chris had a studio in an outhouse at his home in Hertfordshire. The Pet Shop Boys recorded the basic tracks for Very there, working with the programmer Pete Gleadall who had previously programmed their tours, then they moved to Sarm West to complete recording, before handing the tracks over to Stephen Hague for additional production and mixing at RAK studios. "It's great at a certain point to give it someone else," says Neil. However, this was the first Pet Shop Boys album they would primarily produce themselves.
"We didn't feel experienced enough before," Neil explains.
"Although we had produced other people," Chris says, "it's easier producing someone other than yourself."
They resolved that the album should sound very 'computery' - "loads of the songs have got all busy little computer game noises," notes Neil - and decided to work on the arrangements in a way they hadn't before; experimenting, for instance, with changing the arrangements for each verse of a song.
"It wasn't ever a struggle," Neil recalls. "We were always laughing in the studio." They would often drive back into town, playing whatever they had just recorded, thoroughly excited by the day's work.
For this phase of their career, the Pet Shop Boys decided that they would almost entirely change the way they presented themselves. They were tired of being naturalistic. Arma Andon, their American manager at the time, had asked them why they staged these elaborate, costumed, theatrical fantasies in concert, but rarely explored the same kind of presentation in videos or for records, and they begun to wonder the same thing themselves.
"Also," says Neil, "I think we thought we'd done to death the classic Pet Shop Boys thing, and it was finally completely summed up on the cover of Discography, Chris stony-faced and me with an ironically-arched eyebrow. We kind of thought: right, we've just completely done that now, let's do something not real."
Another influence was the rise of increasingly realistic computer games. "They were a big issue then," says Chris. "The big game was Sonic The Hedgehog and I liked this game where the audience, when a goal was scored, all started dancing. I was playing computer games a lot, thinking, 'This is what the kids are into', and thinking, 'Wouldn't it be great if we became this thing removed from reality and existing in a non-real world?'"
They were also reacting against the other dominant musical current of the era. "Everyone was being grungy," Chris remembers. "Everyone was just dressing in baggy jeans and t-shirt and sweatshirt, that Nirvana thing, looking ordinary." They didn't want to look ordinary. "We didn't want to be fashion either," Chris points out. "We wanted to be unique, outside of it."
They asked David Fielding, who had designed their 1991 tour, to come up with some concepts. The first set of costumes were orange jumpsuits, with large angular white glasses with thin horizontal slits in them, and orange-and-white striped dunce caps. (The dunce caps were suggested by the school imagery in Very's first single, 'Can you forgive her?'.) "That took a lot of nerve," Neil recalls. "I remember when we got the model in for 'Can you forgive her?' Jill, our manager then, didn't like it at all. There was always a worry about looking ludicrous. If you look at the Top Of the Pops performance we did for 'Can you forgive her?' it's just incredible. The sheer nerve. I'm sitting on a pair of step ladders wearing an orange jumpsuit with a stripy pointy hat. Chris meanwhile is behind a giant blue egg with a telescope wearing the same outfit."
"And I do a bit of ballroom dancing in the middle of it," Chris points out.
"It's absolutely incredible, the whole thing," says Neil. 'And then we had EMI make a load of pointy hats and at the end when the presenter is saying what's on the next week's Top Of The Pops all of the crowd and him are wearing pointy hats. We really saw it through.' They adopted a new surreal image for each single. For 'Go West' they wore primarily blue (Neil) or yellow (Chris) jumpsuits with complementary-coloured trimmings, and semi-spherical hats. For 'I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing' they wore pink vests over white (Chris) or black (Neil) outfits with floppy blond (Chris) or dark (Neil) Sixties wigs. "We kept changing it," says Neil. "Our idea was always to get to the point where we didn't have to be in the video, which we did for 'Liberation' - which was entirely computer-generated - and for 'Yesterday, when I was mad' Chris was computer-generated."
The packaging was also innovative. The Pet Shop Boys had worked with the design group Pentagram on the releases of their Spaghetti record label, and were invited to lunch to meet Pentagram's new partner, Daniel Weil. On the way to lunch, Neil and Chris realised they didn't know what they were going to talk about, so they decided to discuss a bugbear of theirs - the unoriginality and inflexibility of CD packaging. "We'd got fed up with the fact that CD packaging all boiled down to the booklet," says Chris, "so the obvious way around it was to make the actual box the cover." At lunch it was agreed that a new kind of CD packaging should be tactile. The orange box with raised dots in which initial copies of Very were released was the first idea Pentagram proposed, though originally the dots were larger, and the box was pink. The Pet Shop Boys also adopted Pentagram's other idea, a softer bubble-plastic sleeve, for the limited edition double CD package Very Relentless, which included the bonus dance CD Relentless.
"While writing Very we'd written lots of four-minute pop songs but we also had done several instrumental tracks which for the most part I couldn't think of any words for, and couldn't see the point of writing words for, because they sounded great," says Neil. "So then we thought we would put them on a separate album."
Neil and Chris had thought of the album title, Very, early on. Neither can recall who said it first. "It was another funny sentence - people were supposed to think that the album would be 'very Pet Shop Boys', but a different Pet Shop Boys," says Neil.
"What's quite different about this album," Neil adds, "is that a lot of it is stories. It's not just love songs or anything like that. It's stories. It makes it completely different from any other album we've made, I think. We didn't do it consciously, but you get 'Can you forgive her?', 'Dreaming of the Queen', 'Yesterday, when I was mad', 'The theatre', 'One and one make five', and they're all stories." It was also the first Pet Shop Boys album to reach number one in Britain. "It's a good album," says Neil. "It's better than you think."
The original release of Very was packaged in a unique orange jewel case with raised bumps (sometimes unofficially described as the Lego case), designed by Daniel Weil of Pentagram in London. Very Relentless was similarly unique, with the two CDs housed in card sleeves (Very in orange and Relentless in pink) with both of these housed in a translucent rubber case with raised bumps.