Time for a ‘Best of the Rest’ rundown for one of the most consistent hitmakers of the eighties and nineties. In fact, Pet Shop Boys’ run of Top 10 hits spans exactly twenty years, from their first #1 ‘West End Girls’ in 1986, to 2006’s ‘I’m With Stupid’.
Neil and Chris were a bit short-changed, for my money, in terms of their chart-toppers. Far worse acts have had far more than just four number ones… But, I’ve said it before and may as well say it again, the chart gods are fickle. Here then are PSB’s ten biggest non-number one hits. Unlike similar posts I’ve published in the past, I’m not ranking them – this is all based on cold hard chart-positions. It’s just ‘Highest Charting of the Rest’ as a title doesn’t have quite the same ring to it…
‘Before’ – #7 in 1996
Perhaps not the most instant PSBs track, ‘Before’ was the lead single from their sixth studio album, ‘Bilingual’. There’s a hook there, in the cooing synth line, and a chilled mix of disco and nineties dance. The brief for the video, meanwhile, was clearly to aim for ‘peak 1996’, years before people had though of ‘peak’ anything.
Can You Forgive Her? – #7 in 1993
It’s very Pet Shop Boys to make love sound like a panic attack. You’re short of breath, Is it a heart attack…? It’s both compulsive and threatening, with nice brassy synths. It’s not hard to read a subtext in the lyrics about a woman making fun of a man who prefers disco to rock, and who claims that’s she’s off to find a real man instead… Another striking video, that I imagine looked very impressive at the time.
‘Domino Dancing’ – #7 in 1988
As we’ve seen from our regular rundown, the mid-to-late eighties saw a mini burst of Latin-tinged pop. PSBs got in on the act for the lead single from their third album. I think the guitar and Spanish rhythms mixed with with their regular synths works well, but Neil Tennant sees it as the end of their imperial phase (as well as failing to break the Top 5 in the UK, ‘Domino Dancing’ was their last Top 20 hit in the US). The video features two ridiculously handsome (and permanently topless) twinks competing for the attentions of the same girl, before giving up and wrestling one another on a beach. Rolling Stone described it as ‘probably the most homo-erotic pop video ever made’, and it’s hard to disagree…
‘Absolutely Fabulous’ – #6 in 1994
La-La-Lacroix, darling… A charity single next, for Comic Relief. Lines from the sitcom of the same name are stitched around a thumping techno beat, as Neil Tennant does very little apart from intone Abso-lutely fa-bulous… over it all. It’s an pastiche of the big eighties and nineties dance hits – ‘Pump up the Jam’, ‘Ride on Time’, ‘Rhythm of the Night’ to name a few. Techno, Techno, Bloody techno darling… Few charity singles manage to be this catchy and remain (relatively) funny, so it’s a shame that this has been all but forgotten, even if the duo don’t recognise it as an official single and have never featured it on a Greatest Hits. Strange fact: this was PSB’s highest-charting single in Australia.
‘It’s Alright’ – #5 in 1989
A thirty-five year old song about dictators in Afghanistan, and forest falling at a desperate pace… Glad we’ve made progress since then, huh! To me this sounds like Pet Shop Boys-by-numbers. Nothing wrong with it, but not a patch on their greatest singles.
‘How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?’ / ‘Where the Streets Have No Name (Can’t Take My Eyes of You)’ – reached #4 in 1991
This bitchy number – with lines like: You live within the headlines, so everyone can see, You’re supporting every new cause and meeting royalty – is about the pomposity of pop stars in general. Or is it about someone in particular…? Neil Tennant claimed later that it was about a ‘female pop star from 1989’. Make of that what you will… It features guitars, which is rare for a PSBs single.
It was paired with two covers – U2 and Frankie Valli – melded into one soaring disco anthem. An early form of the mash-up, both songs work well with a churning dance beat and Tennant’s ethereal vocals.
‘So Hard’ – reached #4 in 1990
Another atypical love song, about a toxic relationship in which both parties make it so hard for ourselves… Tennant’s vocals rarely break a sweat, there are some wonderfully dated ‘barking dog’ synths, and a low-key gem of a chorus. ‘So Hard’ was the lead single from their fourth album, and the video is set in the wonderful city of Newcastle. It apparently features Paul Gascoigne’s sister Anna, as well candid clips of Geordies out for a night on the toon.
‘Left to My Own Devices’ – #4 in 1988
Everything great about the PSBs in a just under five-minute edit: a dramatic string intro giving way to a pulsing disco beat, NT’s trademark deadpan delivery, lyrics that are as camp (I could love you, If I tried, I could, And left to my own devices, I propably would) as they are pretentious (Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat). Oh and, of course, you can dance to it.
‘Go West’ – #2 in 1993
The mark of a good cover is that you no longer imagine it being performed by the original artist. The Village People took their version, inspired by an old rallying cry used to spur pioneers to head out into the great unclaimed (apart from by, you know, the natives…) American West. PSBs kept most of the original, including the chord progression based on Pachelbel’s Canon, but added lots of glorious other things: horns, a male voice choir, a big female diva (posing as the Statue of Liberty) taking it home at the end. They originally covered it for an AIDS charity concert, then decided to release it, scoring their biggest hit in five years. We can assume the video was inspired by the breakdown of the Soviet Union, with lots of sturdy Russian-looking men heading towards a ‘promised land’. The CGI is so dated that it now looks like a brilliantly judged attempt to be retro.
‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ (with Dusty Springfield) – #2 in 1987
I’m not ranking these, but it just so happens that the best is saved for last. For not only do we have Pet Shop Boys in their imperial, huge hits without even trying, phase… (Coincidentally, Neil Tennant is credited with first using the phrase ‘imperial phase’ to describe an artist at the peak of their powers.) Anyway, I digress… We also have Ms Dusty Springfield! Almost two decades into a career slump, filled with alcohol and drug abuse, as well as abusive relationships. Despite this, the sixties diva remained a star, initially turning the duet down because she hadn’t heard of the PSBs. A couple of years later, after hearing ‘West End Girls’ on the radio, she agreed. Neil Tennant was a huge fan, and pushed for her inclusion, despite their label wanting someone less ‘washed up’.
Dusty also took twenty or so takes before she was happy with her vocals. But when she was happy, her voice became an integral part of an ’80s classic. When she comes in for the chorus, slightly raspier but still Dusty, after Tennant has dead-panned the first verse, it’s a goosebumps moment. The song itself is perhaps of its time, a comment on society in the Thatcher-Reagan years: You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job… It’s also a very subversive number, every bit as gay as ‘Relax’, just less in-your-face, with the lesbian Springfield and the gay Tennant playing a very odd couple.
This record came agonisingly close to the top, peaking at #2 in both the UK and the US. It also sparked a late-career renaissance for Dusty. Tennant and Lowe would go on to produce her comeback album ‘Reputation’ in 1990. She died from cancer in 1999. Pet Shop Boys continue to record and perform to great acclaim, almost forty years later.