563. ‘West End Girls’, by Pet Shop Boys

I have something to confess. I’ve been putting off writing this next post. It’s been a full week since I put fingers to keyboard and mused on ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’. But why? When up next is one of the most respected and best loved #1s of the eighties, if not of all time…? Because, to be honest, I’ve never really got this one…

West End Girls, by Pet Shop Boys (their 1st of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 5th – 19th January 1986

It’s a statement first chart-topper for 1986. An enigmatic intro: footsteps, traffic, waves crashing (?)… A very slow build. And I will say that the moment the beat drops (that’s not something we’ve talked about often, beats ‘dropping’ – it feels very modern) and the squelchy bass starts slapping is great. Really great. Interestingly, for a song that sounds so new, it was almost three years old when it finally made top-spot, having already been recorded and released in various iterations (to little success).

But the rest of the song? At best it’s enigmatic, as I said in the last paragraph, and very cool. There’s a strangeness to it, a strangeness that draws you in, no matter what you think of the music. It’s got a very unique sound for a chart-topper – a very ‘January’ number one (the time of the year when oddities tend to sneak their way to the summit) – and that’s to be commended. I’m all for variety. Plus it announced the arrival of one of the most influential acts of the past forty years, and I say that as someone who will only have good things to write about Pet Shop Boys’ three remaining #1s.

This one, though. I can admire it; but I’ve never found a way into enjoying it. It’s a frosty, aloof piece of modern art, there to be pondered, and studied from different angles, but not loved. But… I freely admit that I am in the minority here, and know for a fact that some of my regular readers will disagree vehemently with this take on ‘West End Girls’. Here we are. I can only write my truth, as they say.

Is it going too far to wonder if this record might even have appealed to listeners as a novelty at the time? Nowadays British rappers are ten-a-penny. In early 1986, though, it must have been funny to near Neil Tennant drop lines like You got a heart of class, Or a heart of stone, Just you wait ‘til I get you home… like Grandmaster Flash crossed with Noel Coward. I love his arch delivery. I really like the haunting backing vocals before the chorus… How much do you need…? And I love the fact that it’s influenced by T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ – too few chart-topping singles are based on modernist poetry.

Yes, there are elements of this song that I really do like. It just doesn’t click as a whole. For me. Meanwhile, it’s won Brit Awards, and Ivor Novellos. It’s been named Song of the Decade. Two years ago, The Guardian claimed ‘West End Girls’ as the best number one single, ever. It’s influence has been far reaching, into just about every electronic act that’s come since. Maybe it’s because it’s the first #1 of a new year, but it feels like a line in the sand. And it is also a line in the sand for me, personally, but more on that next time…

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18 thoughts on “563. ‘West End Girls’, by Pet Shop Boys

  1. Er…I kinda get The Pet Shop Boys, in that they’re ‘respectable’. Like Prince or Steely Dan, they’re ultra-hip, cool, or clever, intellectual in a way, so much so that you almost feel inferior if you dare say you don’t like them. They’re the clever side of electropop but lacking in warmth, whereas The Human League and Erasure could deliver a decent infectious tune. Tennant and Lowe had that sense of irony, but unlike the other Lowe (the mighty Nick, that is), never exuded fun. For me, they epitomised the excessive earnestness (see also U2, Simple Minds) that made the late 80s seem such a drab musical time – until George Harrison and then the Wilburys brought a much-needed breath of fresh air. I’ve just refreshed my memory on the Guardian list of No. 1’s, thanks for the link. To think they put this at the summit when they could have also included chart-toppers by Wizzard, Mungo Jerry (2 each), Status Quo, Sweet (1 each), but didn’t. That says it all for me,

    • Do you know, if this had been any other PSB’s single, or any of their other number ones, I’d have been much more enthusiastic. I do get the comparison with U2 and Simple Minds, but I don’t think PSBs are that earnest. A lot of their music is very playful, but the deadpan delivery of Neil Tennant maybe comes across as aloof.

      As for the Guardians’ list – Wizzard should have definitely been there. Off the top of my head, I though Block Buster! was in there. And Quo were never going to get in there, but then they’ve been dealing with that sort of snub for 60 odd years…

      • Just checked back to make sure. ‘Blockbuster’ wasn’t in there, though it was among those named in the comments section in the ‘who or what did we leave out?’ category.

      • I think the age of the writers who chose the songs shines through… four of the top five are from 1977-1986. But of course that’s going to happen, how can you objectively choose the best song from 1500 or so released over the course of 70-odd years? I am going to be very sympathetic towards many fairly abject #1s released between 1995-2005, due to those being my formative years, and make no apologies for it in advance!

  2. Yeah – I kinda agree. I think I do like it better than you seem to, but it’s never the best of the ’80s. I had this on the album (cassette) and played it to death … but I preferred some of the other tracks really.
    PSB are a band I feel I really, really want to like, and when I hear one of their tracks in isolation, I do just that. But a whole show / album – even a Greatest Hits, just comes across too ‘samey’ for me.

    • I agree, but some of their tracks – in isolation – ‘It’s a Sin’, ‘Being Boring’, the Dusty duet – are some of the decade’s best. It’s really just ‘West End Girls’ that doesn’t click with me…

  3. Well im going to have to put forward the other case here. Pet Shop Boys are the greatest British act of the last 40 years. There ive said it. They continue to be a national treasure, creative and versatile. They can knock off a showtune a ballet a film revive a british icon soul greats career and a showbiz icons career. So prolific they give great songs away and dont always bother releasing potential singles as singles. Theyve worked with bowie madonna killers gaga ono new order johnny marr dusty liza and their lyrics have an unlimited wealth of subject matters including the most emotional and beautiful the equal of anyone.

    So, West End Girls didnt sound like a novelty, it sounded like a menacing throbbing dance monster with a fey Very British rap underpinning it. And it sounds fresh and vital to younger music fans who werent around then. Its still highly regarded, as are the boys who still sell out shows across the world and have ironically morphed into one of the great live acts guaranteed a good set of old and new and everchanging.

    As for the “not fun” nonsense errr they are often misunderstood but please Always On My Mind and Go West are camp anthems they did Absolutely Fabulous for Jennifer Saunders and anyone that can write songs with titles like I Wouldnt Normally Do That Kind Of Thing, The Truck Driver And His Mate, and turn up in videos with pointy hats and sunglasses on is clearly having a laugh…

    I may be a fan obv but i rate them only inferior to The Beatles and on a par with Abba…..

    • I knew you’d have something to say about this… : )

      To be honest, this is about the record and not the band. After ‘West End Girls’ PSBs went on probably the greatest run of singles of the eighties, at least since ABBA and Blondie in 79-81. I will have nothing but love for their remaining number ones, but ‘West End Girls’ just leaves me a bit cold…

      And yeah, I don’t agree with them being humourless – though a lot of pop music in the mid to late eighties was. I think they come off as aloof to the casual listener, maybe.

      • Hah! Im nothing if not predictable 😁 i was more making a general point to some of the comments than your review. The most-frequent comment in the 80s was “they all sound the same” when what they really meant was ” i dont like his voice” or “they are dull to look at on top of the pops”. I fondly recall a friend who didnt like them getting enthusiastic about the theme to TV show The Clothes Show and passing on the bad news it was Pet Shop Boys without Neil singing. Is West End Girls still regarded? Pretty much is: the music-based website im on is largely young music fans and for fun we hold votes on Best Number Ones of various decades. Or number twos. Pet Shop Boys had 4 of the top 11 of the 80s number ones West End Girls was top 10. This is more than an 80s old fart skewing the votes as most of the voters dont remember the 80s so they are right up there with the very best – according to music fans who have a wide variety of music tastes on one particular website 😀
        Aloof i agree with, at least vocally, and their lyrics often have a detached quality to them. But not always and their film It Cant Happen Here is a British seaside romp, their videos are hilarious often – think ian mckellan as camp vampire, Several of them have comics featuring, and one tour at the toff venue Royal Opera House featured a host of dancers in inflated rubber suits choreographed along to an OTT Go West. Hilarious. But unless you go to a show or watch the videos it may pass one by. But like bowie or bush visuals are all part of the artistic statement.

        I’ll shut up now! 😃

  4. I think your statement about the strangeness of this tune drawing you in hits the nail on the head. It’s the kind of ‘80s tune I really dug at the time but nowadays should be lukewarm about at best. And yet, there’s something about it…

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