601. ‘Always on My Mind’, by Pet Shop Boys

The Christmas #1 record for 1987 wasn’t a novelty, a charity record, or a song about snow and sleighbells. (Thank God.) It was simply the biggest pop act in the country, the freshly-crowned winners of my most recent ‘Very Best Chart Topper’, at the height of their powers, covering a classic.

Always on My Mind, by Pet Shop Boys (their 3rd of four #1s)

4 weeks, from 13th December 1987 – 10th January 1988

Not just ‘covering’ a classic. More grabbing a classic by the scruff of the neck, dressing it up in glitter and lycra, and shoving it onto the dancefloor. Cover versions work best when they take a song away from its usual environs, and this take on what was originally a hit for Elvis Presley certainly does that. From soaring balladry, to pounding Hi-NRG disco…

Great cover versions are also almost always of great originals. The shift in tones, in styles and in genres brings out different shades of meaning, different ways of appreciating the song, but at heart they remain very good in whatever dressing a band hangs on them. Elvis’s version is slick seventies bombast, made for belting out at his Vegas residencies; and the Pet Shop Boys’ take keeps the song’s humungous presence, swapping lush orchestration for thumping synths, while Neil Tennant’s detached performance of the heartfelt vocals adds an almost comic element.

Do they also change the words? The Elvis version is quite clearly: Maybe I didn’t love you, Quite as often as I could have… Whereas PSBs seem to be singing Quite as often, As I couldn’t… I just be mishearing it, but if they are changed they add a different meaning to the song, and it’s not quite as apologetic.

‘Always on My Mind’ has also been covered by Willie Nelson, as a country ballad, having first been recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. Elvis’s version, though, was the first to become a hit and so feels like the original. Pet Shop Boys first performed their take for an ITV special on the tenth anniversary of Presley’s death, and it was so well received that they released it as a single a few months later. And as Pet Shop Boys singles go, it’s pretty straightforward. There’s nothing particularly clever, or knowing: it’s just an all-out dancefloor banger – one of those songs that pretty much commands you to get up and start making shapes.

What is the name of that pre-set, synthesised chord – the one that sounds like a dog barking, but compressed? It’s a sound that’s synonymous with the late-eighties and early-nineties, to me, and the Boys use it liberally here. It works, but also completely dates the song. Never mind, though. It was the perfect Christmas hit: both a fun pop tune from two huge chart stars, and a song that mums and grans up and down the land knew too. A smash for all the family! And that’s that as far as 1987’s concerned. Never fear, though. The pop classics keep on coming. Stay tuned…

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12 thoughts on “601. ‘Always on My Mind’, by Pet Shop Boys

  1. I remember this. They did a nice version but, I have never liked the song, itself. I don’t recall hearing Lee’s version…or even Elvis’s but, I was tortured with Nelson’s version…overplayed throughout my life. I can’t stand Willie. His singing voice sounds just like Felix Unger clearing his sinuses (The Odd Couple’s Tony Randall). Willie’s voice makes my hair hurt & teeth itch. 😬😵‍💫😖😫

  2. Total banger. In concert this is always a massive moment. I liked Elvis’ version, and the brenda lee original is sweet, but the willie nelson cover put me right off it. It took the PSBs to rehabilitate it. That said its not quite in the same league as the singles off Actually, in 1987/88. But its still great fun and they used the same sound recently for the Soft Cell hook up single Purple Zone. I think waiting 35 years to repeat yourself is fair enough…!

    • I think of the ballad-versions, Brenda Lee’s might be my pick (having literally just heard it for the first time 2 minutes ago…) Overall, PSBs win the battle of the ‘Always on My Minds’, though.

  3. I quite enjoyed this one at the time, rather more than their own songs. There was always something too schmaltzy about the Elvis and Willie versions for me. In the hands (or lungs) of someone with a more tender voice, say, Clifford T. Ward – sadly too late for him – or Bonnie Raitt, as a ballad I think it would be vastly improved.

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  5. I like Willie’s version the best…no matter what Vic says! This is a little too 80s for me… it’s good for what it is…

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