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



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).


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.


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.


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.


“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.


“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.


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.


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 Albums – Number 26 – Bell’s A Poppin’- Madeline Bell (1967/2004)


Something a little more obscure here and a CD I discovered relatively recently. Madeline Bell is best known in the UK as lead singer of Blue Mink who scored four Top 10 chart singles in the early 70’s. She was regularly used for advertising jingles and forged a career as a top session singer. She had strong associations with Dusty Springfield. She began recording over here in the mid 60’s when she relocated to London from New Jersey. Periodically there were solo releases and she scored her only Top 40 US chart position when her 1968 version of “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” got to number 26 in 1968. This track is included on this CD. The album “Bells A Poppin” was originally released on Philips (same label as Dusty) in 1967 and this RPM 2004 CD release has the tracks from the album together with tracks from singles from around the same period. It is an excellent mix of tracks which should have seen Bell become a household name.   Produced by Johnny Franz, who had huge success with his work with Dusty and The Walker Brothers and had big hits for Shirley Bassey, Frankie Vaughan and many other British acts under his belt by the time he saw star potential in Bell. The late 60’s was an excellent time for songwriting and the song selection on this is first class. As on many UK albums of this era, it is mainly cover versions, but here most of the songs would be not very well known which gave Madeline the chance to really make them her own.

Kicking things of is “Picture Me Gone”. This is a track which cemented Madeline’s reputation on the UK Northern Soul scene. Kev Roberts’ 2000 tome “Northern Soul Top 500” has this listed as number 467 of all time. The backing singers are there from the get-go with the taunting refrain – “picture me in someone else’s arms, picture me making love to him”, then Madeline eases into what is a very good song. It manages to be both very smooth and very jangly, creating an air of tension which works so well. It is inexplicable that this did not make the charts when released as a single. You can’t help feeling that a version by Sandie Shaw, Cilla, Lulu or Dusty would have scored big. That feeling does not go away throughout this CD. It really is a showcase of Madeline’s talents, you do get more in the way of Northern Soul Stompers (her version of Shirley Ellis’ numbers driven “Soul Time” and “Don’t Come Running To Me”). There’s songs written by equally under-rated talents, a couple of early Ashford and Simpson compositions and one written by Doris Troy, who like Bell and other American girls like PP Arnold were regular visitors to the UK where they had higher visibility than in their homeland. There’s a couple of Bacharach/David songs which can’t help but make comparisons to Dionne Warwick and Bell’s American hit was originally recorded by Dionne’s sister, Dee Dee, another greatly under-rated sixties singer. “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” is best known as a Top 3 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1969 by the pairing of supergroups Supremes and The Temptations. Madeline’s version is more subtle and less sugary than this and works very nicely. There’s a Lennon/McCartney track “You Won’t See Me” given a delicious girl-group feel; a rewritten Italian song (this was big business for girl singers in the sixties, there was considerable trawling for songs which would work well translated, think Dusty’s “You Don’t Have To See You Love Me” and Cilla’s “You’re My World”). Big productions, emotive lyrics, Madeline’s take on “It Makes No Difference Now” fits the bill exactly. Of the songs that would be familiar to the record-buyers of the time “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” is given a delightful Spanish Mariachi feel and “Climb Every Mountain” was put out as a single in 1967 probably to capitalise on the continuing success of the film version of “Sound Of Music”. There’s a real warmth to this version (I’ve always thought it to be a rather cold song). An effortless vocal performance over soaring violins make this a cover of a “Sound Of Music” song which has perhaps not been bettered since Mary J Blige recently tackled “My Favourite Things”. In “Mercy Mercy Mercy” there’s a Southern Soul feel with a gospel edge to Madeline’s voice which is surprisingly effective for an orchestral recording session in London in the mid 60’s. And of course there is the Dusty connection. Sleeve notes do not tell us whether Dusty was vocally present on these tracks (although it is highly likely she appears uncredited in background) but “I’m Gonna Leave You” was co-written by the two girls and they both recorded it and Dusty and Johnny Franz redid Jerry Butler’s “Mr Dream Merchant” for her 1968 “Definitely..Dusty” album. I prefer the arrangement of this haunting, plaintive melody on Bell’s earlier version.

All in all this is a top class British production by a top class Black American singer. Maybe the mid 60’s was not ready for such a combination but it’s a sheer delight that these recordings have survived to show what should have been.

At time of writing this CD can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk for £12.86 new, from £10.73 used or American listeners can buy new for $15.23, used for $14.98. It is not currently available as a download in the UK or on Spotify.