100 Essential CDs – Number 71 – Pet Shop Boys – Actually

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Actually- Pet Shop Boys  (Parlophone 1987) 

UK Chart Position – 2

US Chart Position -25

British National Treasures Pet Shop Boys found them ascending, after a couple of false starts, to the top of both the UK and US singles charts with their debut hit single “West End Girls”.  This was a 1985 re-recording of a track that had been out the previous year which had attracted attention in the clubs.  Their second release “Opportunites (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” also had to wait for a 1986 remix to make number 11 in the UK and 10 in the US.  A debut album aimed to install politeness to the record-buying generation, ensuring that they asked for “Pet Shop Boys Please” reached number 3 in the UK and 7 in the US.  It was a solid release, the best track for me being the third single “Suburbia”- a delightful piece of PSB nonsense which got to number 8 in the UK  (and went Top 3 in, amongst other territories,  Germany, Ireland, Netherlands and Switzerland).

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My real love affair with PSB started with this, their second studio album. I’d bought both “Please” and “Disco” their first collection of remixes which was released in 1986 and reached 15 in the UK album charts but with this album they upped a gear into the Essential Releases category.  It would be their first top class release but by no means their last nor their very best.  I may be going Pet Shop Boys for quite a little while with these reviews so let’s see what makes this particular album so good.

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The CD contains ten tracks, four of these were released as singles with two reaching UK number 1, one reached number 2 and one number 8.  In the US one single reached number 2 another number 9. There were also chart-topping singles for them in amongst other markets, Austria, Germany, Finland, Italy, Ireland, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.  The tracks are all written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, three in collaboration with other writers and they took production credits for three of the ten tracks alongside other producers, here still learning their craft.

The opening track “One More Chance” was written alongside Bobby Orlando, who had already had a part to play with their career.  The Boys hero worshipped this American producer who as Bobby O was a leading light in the Hi NRG dance music scene, which was by the mid 80’s a staple in gay clubs.  He recorded on a number of different dance labels, under a range of names, although quite often the tracks featured just Orlando himself.  He also produced for artists like drag superstar Divine and girl group The Flirts whose 1982 club hit “Passion” was a huge favourite of Chris and Neil’s.  A trip to interview Orlando when Neil was working with “Smash Hits” led to a request for the duo to record with him- the result being the original (non-hit) version of “West End Girls”.  Bobby O is back with the song-writing credits with “One More Chance” which had originally been the group’s second single three years before this album’s release and had appeared without success on a number of labels around the world.  For “Actually” it was re-recorded with additional lyrics by Chris and produced by Julian Mendelsohn.

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Bobby Orlando

A mood-setting introduction of screeching brakes leads into a street-bound paranoid love song.  A tale of one who is “chained/framed” and is begging for a chance to continue what seems like an unhealthy, obsessive relationship, all of this over crashing club beats.  It’s a good opener.

The most talked about track on the album follows next.  By 1987 arguably the greatest British female singer of all time had been in the musical wilderness and not featured on a top 40 hit for 19 years.  However the Dusty Springfield, PSB collaboration came about it was a stroke of genius.  Neil has often spoken of the painstaking way Dusty liked to record- the ultimate perfectionist, often to the detriment of her career and certainly her peace of mind.  “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” reached number 2 in both the UK and US just before the release of the album.  The crowning moment is when Dusty, initially a little lost in the mix with Neil in the verse comes in with her  “Since you went away/I’ve been hanging around” section.  It makes me breathe out and think “Dusty’s back!”.  And she was back as they collaborated again on “Nothing Has Been Proved” a track appropriately from the 60’s set movie “Scandal” as well as tracks on her number 18 1990 album “Reputation”, a recording which saw Dusty’s first Top 20 studio album for 25 years.  It also paved the way for other collaborations including one of my other Essential CD’s “Results” by Liza Minelli.

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“Shopping” is a bit of fun fluff examining the consumerism of the 80’s, “I heard it in the House Of Commons/Everything’s For Sale”.  It’s very much the “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” of this album.  I don’t know how seriously you can take songs with spellings (“D.I.V.O.R.C.E”& “D.I.S.C.O” being further evidence of this.)  Classic track “Rent” is up next and this is one that features on two of my Essential albums (Liza Minelli’s version on “Results” turns it into a Broadway ballad).  Here it’s faster and gentler than Liza’s and may very well be the first hit single to imply male prostitution or sugar daddy-ism,  but whatever it is Neil is quite happy with the arrangement; “We never ever argue/We never calculate the currency we spent/ I love you/ You pay my rent”.  Great lyrics.  The song reached number 8 as the third single from the album.

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“Hit Music” is a dance track, with nothing deeper in the lyrics than to have a good time.  Music as escapism and works well enough as that.  I’ve always had a big soft spot for the ballad which follows next.  “It Couldn’t Happen Here” and is written by the Boys alongside movie score supremo Ennio Morricone.  It comes from another surprising venture for the boys, a now pretty much forgotten feature film of the same name released in 1988.  The film starred Chris and Neil alongside Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor and Gareth Hunt and joined the vast pile of British film starring pop stars which are just plain odd.  The surrealness of the movie didn’t really work.  The resume of it on IMD goes “A young boy’s holiday at a seaside resort includes a crazy blind priest, nuns in suspenders and a whole bunch of fat ladies”.  Enough said.   The song on “Actually” is actually quite lovely, a big sweeping ballad which certainly extended PSB beyond the dance music boundaries.  Another track taken from the soundtrack following the release of the film, the Boys’ version of the Elvis Presley hit “Always On My Mind” eased its way to the top of the UK charts between singles number 2 and 3 from “Actually” and was the 1987 Christmas Number 1.

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It’s to “Actually’s” big hit next, a number 1 single which preceded the release of the album.  “It’s A Sin” is amongst the best of PSB tracks of all time and was their first really great single.  Full of Catholic guilt, the single was helped by a memorable video directed by radical film-making genius Derek Jarman, the first of a number of collaborations with the boys.  The whole theme of the song resonated with the world’s record buying public as it topped the chart in at least 10 countries, ascending to the top in both Catholic and Protestant nations.  In the US it was their third top 10 hit reaching number 9.

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Sandwiched between credible but not totally memorable dance track “I Want To Wake Up” produced by PSB with Shep Pettibone and the under-rated album closer slowie “King’s Cross” with its somewhat obscure, strangely poignant lyrics is “Heart” a track which, when released as single number 4 from the album some seven months after “Actually’s” arrival somewhat surprisingly topped the UK charts – becoming their fourth and to this date final chart-topping UK single.  It was accompanied by a video featuring Ian McKellan as a vampire.  Less showy than their previous number 1’s, it is a great Hi-NRG track, although in interviews the duo have tended to dismiss it on occasions.  The feelings I get from “King’s Cross” may still have something to do with the shocking fire at the tube station just a couple of months after the album was released which killed 31 people- Neil sings of “the dead and wounded on either side”, which can have nothing to do with the fire and yet, because this album was still pretty much on  constant rotation at the time of the tragedy it is still linked in my mind.

“Heart” Record sleeve and on set with Ian McEwan

With sales of over 4 million and appearances in books such as “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” “Actually” cemented the global reputation of Pet Shop Boys.  Its variety, the quality of the songwriting, the big hit singles and Dusty Springfield makes this an essential CD.

Actually  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £5.50 and used from £0.74. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is currently $11.36 new and used from $4.17 and as a download for $9.99.    In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

100 Essential Books- Pet Shop Boys, Literally – Chris Heath (Penguin 1990)

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Towards the end of 1985 Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (there’s no “the”) stormed to the top of the charts with their first hit single “West End Girls”.  They combined a  pop media savviness (from Neil’s days on “Smash Hits” magazine) with an ability to avoid saying anything personal about themselves.  Five years on they had twelve hit singles (4 number 1’s) and four huge selling albums and agreed for journalist Chris Heath, who they had known from their early days, to shadow them and write up his experiences.  Twenty five years on this remains one of the greatest books about British Popular music of all time.

The boys (I have to use the “the” there to get the sense) invited Chris to catalogue their first tour, initially in Japan and then the UK.  There was a great deal of interest in this tour as it was believed by many that they would not be able to translate their studio sound into a live performance, but they always have been a great success as a live act.  Their Japanese fanzine had devoted many column inches to whether they would be able to tour.  There is a quote from Neil in the magazine, which has been obviously translated into Japanese and then back into English which sets the seal for the whole enterprise.

“Please look forward to it!  We won’t make it ordinally pop concert.  We’re planning gaudily show cause we want to give our impression strongly.  At first, we’re thinking to use theatre instead of proper music fall.  It gives you different atmosphere.  Well, take a look.  We’ll make you think our’s not average concert.”

Not knowing quite what he was in for Heath was invited to accompany them.  They were clear what they didn’t want.  Chris told him;

“Rock shows are really embarrassing.  The audience can be embarrassing and the performers I feel cringeworthy.  You light your lighter during the ballad……It’s the way it’s meant to have some kind of importance when it evidently hasn’t…That’s what I find embarrassing.”

Over the next few months the boys change the blueprint for live performances, bringing film director and all-round hero Derek Jarman to direct, producing a grandiose stage show using lighting , technology and many performers in a way which was radically different at the time yet now seems commonplace.

This book is a great insight into what makes Pet Shop Boys tick (without any personal revelations at all).  It is laugh out loud funny, extremely readable and hasn’t been left behind by the passage of time.  To put it in its context, however, the boys seem obsessed with the rise of Bros!  It’s a tale of coping with the rigours and frustrations of touring, of comparing themselves with just about everyone else in the music business, of answering fan mail and worrying over chart positions.  Neil and Chris’ humour, word-play and occasional sniping is much to the fore and it makes for great reading.  It is a book which you can open at random and find much to enjoy and read as a whole it manages to give you uniquely both the whole sense and no sense at all of who the Pet Shop Boys are .

Following this book Chris Heath also joined the first American tour and recounted this separately in “Pet Shop Boys Versus America” (1993).  Photographs by Pennie Smith are more to the fore in this book and it is by the author’s admission less of a meticulous moment by moment analysis of the tour, more of an overview.  It is not as essential read as “Literally” but it is thoroughly enjoyable and makes for an excellent companion piece.

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Both books were published by Penguin paperbacks/Viking hardbacks