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 CDs – Number 47 – Liza Minnelli – Results

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Results- Liza Minnelli (Epic 1989) 

UK Chart Position – 6

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By 1989 Pet Shop Boys had been at the top of their game for four years.  During this time they had scored three UK and one US number 1 singles, three big selling studio albums and one remix album.  Significantly, they had also revitalised the career of 60’s singing legend Dusty Springfield with their UK & US number 2 collaboration “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”  In 1989 Dusty was riding high again with their “Nothing Has Been Proved” a song about the very British sex and politics Profumo scandal which was taken from the movie “Scandal”.  The whole Dusty project had been a fascinating one for Neil and Chris, from the painstaking way she liked to record to their bringing to a new generation one of the greatest British voices of all time.  The experience had left them open to consider new collaborations.

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PSB with Dusty Springfield

In 1989 showbiz legend Liza Minnelli was telling her record company that she wanted to move away from the live Broadway -style albums and standards that had been her lifeblood and record something more contemporary.  This came to the attention of  the duo’s manager Tom Watkins.  Minnelli was a big fan of their song “Rent” and so the deal was struck.  Neil Tennant, a huge Minnelli fan, straight away began writing songs that would be suitable for a woman in her 40’s keen to re-enter the youthful pop market and “Results” was the fabulous result.

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Performing with her mother Judy Garland

Liza Minnelli was born a showbusiness legend.  With her parentage it was inevitable.  Superb in her 1972 Oscar winning performance “Cabaret”, she became an unstoppable force, huge Broadway star and a household name somewhat outside of the commercial pop mainstream.  Recording-wise she had never been as successful as one might think.  The soundtrack to the movie had made it to number 25 in her homeland (#13-UK) and a recording of her television special “Liza With A Z” which had also gone a long way to cement her into public consciousness had reached US#19, UK#9).  Her highest placed studio album in the US was 1973’s “The Singer” (which reached #38, #45 in the UK).  With the exception of the last album, chart-wise she had performed better in the UK, so perhaps a collaboration with a top UK band would seem a shrewd move.

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The whole concept seems very British- a pairing of the Queen of Cheese with the Kings Of Cool, the emotional Yank with the detached Brits.  In the UK we got it, Liza did a lot of television to promote the album and received  a gold album and her highest ever chart placing.  It was also a big hit in Spain.  In the US the mixture of showbiz glitz meets electro left them cold and it was considered to be a flop.  The whole project appealed to the British sense of camp and to be honest, still sounds very good over twenty-seven years on.  It is an album which is technically accomplished, superbly produced and can have you up and dancing and can both bring a smile at moments of kitsch as well as be genuinely touching and affecting in places.

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The album produced by Julian Mendelsohn and Pet Shop Boys contains ten tracks- three covers of songs associated with other artists, two tracks which had been previously released by the duo and five originals that Neil and Chris wrote especially for Liza.

Opening track “I Want You Now” is one of the new Tennant and Lowe compositions and from the introduction you can tell we are in Pet Shop Boys territory  with a strong electro feel.  There is, however, an epic orchestral sweep which accompanies Liza’s sterling performance.  The song is bold and dramatic and it sets out what is going to follow superbly.  A great opener.

“Losing My Mind” is the hit single from the album, reaching number 6 in the UK charts.  A Stephen Sondheim song from “Follies” would feel like familiar ground for Liza but Pet Shop Boys magic turns it alongside “Always On My Mind” (of which it has a slight feel) and “Go West” as one of their great covers.  It is also gloriously kitsch, probably one of the kitsch pop lover’s finest moments, probably until KLF got Tammy Wynette to sing “I’m justified and I’m ancient and I drive an ice cream van”.  I remember Liza heavily promoting the single at the time and on (I think) an episode  of “Wogan” she explained how she, the showbiz trouper, had learnt singing tips from Neil and that to get the proper ending to the word “Mind” she should sing it as if it ended with a “t” and it would sound as if it ended with a “d”.  She said she had taken this on board but, listening to the track, there are a few occasions when she sings “Mind-t” ending in a t and it sounds like it ends with a “t”.  There’s something about that whole story and its result that I love.  If that is a singing technique here is evidence that it doesn’t always work, with glorious results.  It was a number 2 hit in Ireland and got to number 7 in Spain and amongst other chart placings made the Top 20 in Austria, Belgium and Germany.  It also saw Liza performing on “Top Of The Pops” and has been a staple for drag acts to mime to for nearly thirty years.

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“If There Is Love” has a dramatic start and yet for me is the weakest track on the album.  It does feature a “Minnelli rap” and what might we expect from her?  Well, I wouldn’t have counted on Shakespeare as she gets here, Sonnet 94 “They that have the power to hurt….”It’ a good track but does not reach the heights of others on the album.  It has a false ending before Minnelli-does-Shakespeare kicks in over programming and Courtney Pine on Sax .  Another Tennant-Lowe original “So Sorry I Said” is probably the closest on the album as to what we might have expected from Liza, a slightly over-blown ballad lyrically yet her performance is subtle and really very strong and probably in a lower register than she is used to.  The whole thing comes across as quality.

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It’s certainly back to the dance floor with “Don’t Drop Bombs”, with a big electronic sound and scratching.  Who knows what is going on here but it has always been one of my favourite tracks on the album with Neil coming in to warn us “Don’t Drop Bombs!”  The off- the- wall feel continues with an inspired cover of Tanita Tikarim’s #22 UK hit from the year before, the very odd “Twist In My Sobriety”.  This kicks off with a rap from Donald Johnson who intones the memorable lines from the song Kander and Ebb wrote for her the name-checking “It’s Liza with A Z, not Lisa with an S, because Lisa with an S goes ss not zz”. The song is fairly bonkers but its given an epic feel which works sublimely.  There’s strong background choral work, whistling, considerable scratching and Liza singing if it’s the most important message she ever wants to get across.  I love this.

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The song that Liza attracted to the project is up next.  “Rent” with its tongue in cheeks lyrics with its definite nod towards male prostitution would not seem likely material for Minnelli but here it is transformed into a song that could have stopped a Broadway show.  There is certainly a dramatic full orchestral sweep, the song is slowed down which suits Liza’s deliberate diction.  The whole song sounds very different from Pet Shop Boys version.  It’s really a precursor to the sort of things that took Paul Anka back into the charts with his 2005 “Rock Swings” album when he famously turned Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into a cheesy swing classic.

“Love Pains” was originally a disco hit for Yvonne Elliman.  Minnelli’s version is good but I actually prefer the version that was also released in 1989 by Hazell Dean.  It’s a song that has underachieved for all artists who have recorded it which also includes Kelly Marie, Obsession and the great Viola Wills,  .  “Tonight Is Forever” is another song associated with PSB as it appeared on their debut album “Please”.  It’s given the “Rent” feel, but doesn’t work quite as well.

A veritable epidemic of Love Pains

The final track on the CD, written for Liza by the Boys is “I Can’t Say Goodnight”, which is as strong a closer as “I Want You Now” is an opener.

Disappointingly “Results”  was Liza’s final dabbling with the contemporary pop market and is the only CD in my collection by her.  She did do a good duet with Donna Summer “Does He Love You?” in 1996.  It does seem fitting though, that someone associated with places like Studio 54 and those big 1970’s discos had her own moment on the dance floors around the world with some of the tracks of this album.  Personally I would have loved the PSB-Minelli collaborations to continue for at least another album but I’m certainly thankful for these ten tracks.

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One of the crowd at Studio 54

You won’t escape the intensity of Liza’s eyes in this Top Of The Pops performance of “Losing My Mind” (here shown on taken from a TOTP2 re-run).

 

 

Results  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £9.97 and used from £0.24. It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is currently $27.24 new and used from $1.14 and downloaded for $8.99.  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