Pet Shop Boys – Best of the Rest

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.

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606. ‘Heart’, by Pet Shop Boys

Neil and Chris are back again. And when acts score #1s in such quick succession – it’s been barely three months since ‘Always on My Mind’ – you know they’re at the peak of their fame.

Heart, by Pet Shop Boys (their 4th and final #1)

3 weeks, from 3rd – 24th April 1988

But are they at the peak of their game? Or is this Pet Shop Boys-by-numbers? It’s undeniably them, identifiable after about two point five seconds of the soaring synth intro and the dead-panned Beat…! Heartbeat…! The main riff is a fun one: a vocal riff, a collage of different ‘oh’s and ‘ah’s (one of which is apparently Pavarotti!), and it’s a great hook. Despite their songs rarely featuring guitars, Pet Shop Boys had some great riffs (their previous two #1s, ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘Always on My Mind’ being two prime examples).

Actually, I just wrote that last paragraph before realising that I was listening to the album version of ‘Heart’. The single remix is slightly less PSB; a little more Euro-disco, and a little more instant. That intro sounds like a cross between Damian’s ‘The Time Warp’ and Kelly Marie’s early-eighties banger ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’, with the heartbeat pew-pew effects. It was the 4th single from the ‘Actually’ album, and they clearly felt they needed to do something different with it.

The Pet Shop Boys themselves are a little down on this record, claiming it inferior to some of their other big hits. And lyrically, yes, it doesn’t have the edge or the wit of ‘West End Girls’, or ‘Rent’. It’s a simple enough love song: I hear your heart beat next to me, I’m in love with you, I mean what I say… Nor is it as well remembered as their other chart-toppers. I wonder how many people at the time thought that this would be the duo’s final UK number one…?

It may not be as well remembered, but I’d argue it deserves to be. It’s incredibly catchy, and danceable, and yet sweet. Not every song has to be clever and caustic. Plus, the Boys kept it and released it themselves, despite writing it with Madonna in mind (they never sent it to her, fearing rejection). So they must have liked it at the time. Plus I’d like to shout out to the brilliantly unexpected false ending, which I’m guessing represents a heart that keeps missing a beat… In the video it matches the moment a vampire, played by none other than Sir Ian McKellen, plunges his teeth into Neil Tennant’s newlywed bride…

I mean, that’s reason enough to love this forgotten mini-classic before you even hear the song. Like I said, this would be Pet Shop Boys’ final #1, though they’d have two further decades of Top 10 hits to come, as well as producing songs for the likes of Madonna (they got in there eventually), Robbie Williams and Girls Aloud. They’re icons, bizarre at times and very British, and with a mystique and a presence that makes them genuine pop legends. We bid them adieu here…

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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Recap: #571 – #600

To recap, then, for the twentieth time…

As we’ve just passed the 600th number one, having covered thirty-five years of British chart-topping singles, it might be worth looking back at every other hundredth #1. See if they show us anything worth noting about popular music tastes. The first #1 was famously ‘Here in My Heart’, a pre-rock power-ballad by Al Martino. And as #1 singles hung around for ages in the fifties, by the time we got to the 100th it was already 1960: Anthony Newley’s fey and clipped ‘Do You Mind?’. The 200th was The Beatle’s ‘Help!’, so that’s definitely a marker, but the 300th was Tony Orlando and Dawn’s ‘Knock Three Times’, which marks nothing but the British public’s undying love for a cheesy, easily-digestible jingle. 400th was Julie Covington’s ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’, a complete outlier, though one that could be used to argue the evergreen popularity of showtunes, and the 500th was Nicole’s ‘A Little Peace’, one of many Eurovision-winning number ones.

It would have been cool if those six singles had tracked a direct course through rock ‘n’ roll, Merseybeat, psychedelia, glam, disco and new wave but alas, the charts never do what you want them to. There’s always a German teenager just around the corner, ready to sing about love and peace. The 600th chart-topper was probably the most ‘of its time’, along with the 1st and the 200th: T’Pau’s storming new-age power-ballad ‘China in Your Hand’.

Which is interesting because, for me, the 1980s has been the decade that, in chart terms, has had the least clear trajectory. Since rock ‘n’ roll wiped out the traditional, pre-rock dinosaurs, everything that’s followed has made way for something else. Certain genres borrowed from the past (glam, for example) but in ways that felt very new. But since new-wave wiped the slate clean, in a way, in 1979, things have gotten more jumbled up.

The New-Romantics were a glossier new-wave, and then the drowsy MOR middle years of the decade went glossier still (just with more saxophones). Everything’s been getting smoother, and better-produced, but doesn’t seem quite as new. Maybe that’s it from now on: there won’t be a musical movement with the heft of rock ‘n’ roll, or disco. It’ll just be smaller reinventions of older ideas… With one big exception, which we’ve already seen flashes of at the top of the charts: hip-hop.

Anyway, that was an unscripted diversion. What have we seen over the past thirty chart-toppers, before we dish out some awards? In no particular order: the end of Wham!, the first soap-star-slash-pop-star, the first and only hair metal #1 from Europe, and the first and only ‘80s-indie #1 from The Housemartins. There’s been this frightfully modern-sounding thing called ‘house music’ from Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley and M/A/R/R/S, the now obligatory charity record in Ferry Aid, and a couple of classic re-issues from Jackie Wilson and Ben E. King. Boy George launched a solo career, and George Michael went and duetted with the Aretha Franklin. Michael Jackson kicked off the ‘Bad’ era with an underwhelming lead single. Oh, and there was the third coming of The Bee Gees. While soundtracks have provided plenty of chart-toppers from the likes of Berlin, Starship, Los Lobos and Madonna.

Speaking of Madonna… She has been the dominating force over this last thirty, claiming four chart-toppers along the way: ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, ‘True Blue’, ‘La Isla Bonita’ and ‘Who’s That Girl’. That’s a truly noteworthy level of domination that few artists achieve. And few artists split opinion like Madonna either, for reasons I won’t go into here (that’s a can of worms and a half…) But I’m team Madge. Even when she’s terrible – and she can certainly be terrible – she’s never boring.

One other noteworthy movement, before we get onto the awards, is that we have entered the age of SAW. Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman have produced three of the past thirty chart-toppers – the fun ‘Respectable’, the bland but worthy ‘Let It Be’, and the timeless classic/crock of crap (delete as appropriate) that is ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ – and there are plenty more where they came from over the next few years. Love or hate them, SAW are the tinny, brassy sound of the late-eighties, and that’s where we have our sights firmly set…

To the awards, then. The ‘Meh’ Award for all-round dullness and forgettability is up first. I found Boris Gardner’s reggae smoothy ‘I Wanna Wake Up With You’ pleasant but snoozy, while Nick Berry’s ‘Every Loser Wins’ was bland verging on terrible. Boy George did nothing particularly innovative on his ‘Everything I Own’ cover, while sounding like he’d been awake for two weeks straight. But I tend to always give this one to dull ballads. Therefore I’m changing it up and awarding it to Madonna herself, for ‘Who’s That Girl’. Had it been her only chart-topper then I’d probably have let it off the hook. Except it came hot on the heels of ‘La Isla Bonita’ and sounded near-identical – the lazy sound of a pop idol being spread too thin.

There are some middling candidates for The WTAF Award: it was weird (but fun) to suddenly have ‘Reet Petite’ popping up as a Xmas #1, swiftly followed by ‘Stand by Me’. ‘La Bamba’ too was a chart-topping single that few could have predicted. But I’m going to go with a song that sounded genuinely weird, especially on the flip-side. M/A/R/R/S’s house crossed with alt-rock double-‘A’ ‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (First Time I See She Dance)’ was a truly exciting, unnerving, eyebrow-raising moment on top of the charts.

And now the biggies. The 20th Very Worst Chart-Topper. I’m not going to beat around the bush. There were two real stinkers, one of which was Chris de Burgh’s ridiculously simpering ‘Lady in Red’. But that is no competition for the truly heinous ‘Star Trekkin’’, by The Firm. I didn’t get the joke. I didn’t get the song. I’ve never seen ‘Star Trek’. I never want to think about that song again. It wins.

The Very Best Chart-Topper, then. I’d like to give a shout-out to The Communards (and Sarah Jane Morris) for their Hi-NRG take on ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. It’s a great tune, but it drops out of the running and leaves me with a conundrum. Pet Shop Boy’s ‘It’s a Sin’ is one of the best singles of the decade, with a resonance that goes beyond just being a brilliant pop song. In normal circumstances it would easily win. But then a bloody Levi’s advert went and threw a huge spanner in the works, sending ‘Stand by Me’ to #1 twenty-five years later than it should have done.

Do I stick with rewarding current trends and styles? Can I ignore the re-released elephant in the room? I did name Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as a ‘Very Best’, but that was re-released a mere six years after its original run. Do I cheat, and make it a tie…? Or do I invent a one-off category of ‘Honorary Best Chart-Topper’, for those that would probably have won it in their own space in time? This is my baby and I make the rules, so… Yes! Pet Shop Boys are the winners, Ben E King is not ignored!

To recap the recaps, then:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability

  1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
  2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
  3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
  4. ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
  5. ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
  6. ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
  7. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
  8. ‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
  9. ‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
  10. ‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
  11. ‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
  12. ‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
  13. ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
  14. ‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
  15. ‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
  16. ‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan.
  17. ‘A Little Peace’, by Nicole.
  18. ‘Every Breath You Take’, by The Police.
  19. ‘I Got You Babe’, by UB40 with Chrissie Hynde.
  20. ‘Who’s That Girl’, by Madonna.

The WTAF Award for being interesting if nothing else

  1. ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
  2. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
  3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
  4. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
  5. ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
  6. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
  7. ‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
  9. ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
  10. ‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
  11. ‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
  12. ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
  13. ‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
  14. ‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush.
  15. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
  16. ‘Shaddap You Face’, by Joe Dolce Music Theatre.
  17. ‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin.
  18. ‘Save Your Love’ by Renée & Renato.
  19. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, by Falco.
  20. ‘Pump Up the Volume’ / ‘Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)’, by M/A/R/R/S

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers

  1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
  2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
  3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
  4. ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
  5. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
  6. ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
  7. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
  8. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
  9. ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
  10. ‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
  11. ‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
  12. ‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
  13. ‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
  14. ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
  15. ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
  16. ‘There’s No One Quite Like Grandma’, by St. Winifred’s School Choir.
  17. ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, by Charlene.
  18. ‘Hello’, by Lionel Richie.
  19. ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’, by Foreigner.
  20. ‘Star Trekkin’’, by The Firm

The Very Best Chart-Toppers

  1. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
  2. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
  3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
  4. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
  5. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
  6. ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
  7. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
  8. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
  9. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
  10. ‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry.
  11. ‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex.
  12. ‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud.
  13. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie.
  14. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer.
  15. ‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie.
  16. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA.
  17. ‘My Camera Never Lies’, by Bucks Fizz.
  18. ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
  19. ‘You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)’, by Dead or Alive
  20. ‘Stand by Me’, by Ben E. King (Honorary Award)
  21. ‘It’s a Sin’, by Pet Shop Boys.

593. ‘It’s a Sin’, by Pet Shop Boys

Ah, yes. Cleansing the palate after the rotten ‘Star Trekkin’, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a… classic. In fact, with Whitney before and Pet Shop Boys after, we have two beauties sandwiching a stinking turd. Such are the pop charts…

It’s a Sin, by Pet Shop Boys (their 2nd of four #1s)

3 weeks, from 28th June – 19th July 1987

It’s an epic, statement intro, juddering in like a train about to overshoot its platform, followed by a dramatic ‘Skoosh!’ It’s a sound effect last heard on ‘Relax’, and that’s a comparison I think could be maintained for the entirety of this post. Not only in the skooshing, but in the fact that ‘It’s a Sin’ is every bit as gay as its more infamous predecessor.

If ‘Relax’ was an unrepentant celebration of all things queer, then ‘It’s a Sin’ is a little more introspective. A lot more. When I look back upon my life… Neil Tennant announces… It’s always with a sense of shame… I’ve always been the one to blame… Tennant had gone to a Catholic school, where he was taught that pretty much every natural urge he had would earn him a one-way ticket to hell. For everything I long to do, No matter when or where… Or who… It’s a sin…

As serious as the lyrics are, though, the PSBs keep things moving, and shaking. You can pay scant attention to the words, if you wish, and just dance. Tennant himself has said he wrote the song more in a camp than an angry frame of mind. That comes through in the ‘do’ and ‘who’ rhyme, and I can’t help but picture a Noël Coward-esque arched eyebrow on the They didn’t quite succeed… line.

While if you listen harder still, you realise that he isn’t quite as ashamed as he first suggests. In the glorious Father forgive me… middle eight, he ends with a chest-beating moment of affirmation: I didn’t care, And I still don’t understand… It’s a brilliant feat, to write a song about something so unpleasant – his experiences could be seen as child abuse, who knows – but make it so catchy, and so funny. ‘Relax’ was in your face; ‘It’s a Sin’ outs itself more slowly, but just as effectively.

‘West End Girls’ is the Pet Shop Boys’ song which is routinely crowned as one of the best songs of the 1980s, if not of all time. But for me, this one beats it all ends up. Tennant and Lowe wanted Stock Aitken Waterman to produce it, but Pete Waterman hated the demo version. The one that got away… (I’d love to hear the SAW take on it.) Tennant has also likened it to a heavy metal song, in its tempo, it’s portentous chords and it’s overblown production. I’d also like to hear a metal version, and the closest I could find was this take by Finnish (of course they are) band The Jade… None of them can touch the original, though. One of the high points of the entire decade.

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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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