The Single File: Pet Shop Boys

By  |  0 Comments

psb

This week, the best pop band of all time, the Pet Shop Boys, release their new album Super. I can’t think of a better way to commemorate such an occasion than by ranking every one of their 59 official single releases from least to most incredible.

59. ‘Beautiful People’

2009, from Yes, released in Germany only, audio

Even the most basic, uninteresting PSB single still has a pleasantly jaunty vibe to recommend it. ‘Beautiful People’ simply isn’t worthy of sitting on this list beside so many classics, and was baffling choice for a single (even in just one country) considering all the songs on Yes that didn’t get the chance.

58. ‘Winner’

2012, from Elysium, UK #86, video

My issue with ‘Winner’ is that it’s too obvious – the lyrics, the chorus, the timing (right around the London Olympics) – and not strong enough to counter that plainness.

57. ‘Integral’

2007, from Fundamental, video

 

A download-only single from back in the day when download-only singles were something out of the ordinary, ‘Integral’ is a minor entry in the PSB canon. Most notable for its unashamedly political subject matter, the song protests the introduction of National Identity Register and turns that anger into a typically catchy dance track.

56. ‘Minimal’

2006, from Fundamental, UK #19, video

‘Minimal’ seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for its instrumental, with the lyrics evoking the title perfectly. This can leave the song feeling a little half-baked – but as we’ll see with ‘Axis’, PSB sans-vocals can be just as exciting as any of their “regular” singles. Perhaps ‘Minimal’ would have worked better if the lyrics were reduced even further? As it is, the song isn’t going to rank among anyone’s favourites, but it remains enjoyable enough.

55. ‘Together’

2010, from Ultimate, UK #58, video

From the awful greatest hits compilation Ultimate (‘Miracles’ and ‘New York City Boy’ included over ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ and ‘Rent’? Get out of here), ‘Together’ doesn’t stack up to the new tracks from previous hits collections Discography and Pop Art, and it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to any of PSB’s classic hits, but it does form a nice little summation of the duo’s career. Another fun but inessential piece of the puzzle.

54. ‘Numb’

2006, from Fundamental, UK #23, video

Much maligned by fans, the Diane Warren-penned ‘Numb’ is, in my opinion, quite underrated. There aren’t many things that connect the Pet Shop Boys and Aerosmith, but the rock band originally rejected this song, and curiously, it’s quite easy to imagine them doing a version. Neil gives a great vocal performance and it’s always interesting to hear him interpreting the work of another writer.

53. ‘Somewhere’

1997, from Bilingual Special Edition, UK #9, video

A hi-NRG version of the beloved standard from West Side Story, ‘Somewhere’ ends up succeeding wonderfully in some areas and failing in others. On the plus side, I’m always here for a dance reworking of a song from another genre, and ‘Somewhere’ lends itself particularly well to evoking classic PSB themes – disillusion, desperation, a feeling of “otherness”. Unfortunately, Neil and Chris already covered these themes and more in a similar style with ‘Go West’ a few years earlier, which leaves ‘Somewhere’, in the context of their discography, feeling like a retread rather than a reinvention.

52. ‘Break 4 Love’

Pet Shop Boys + Peter Rauhofer = The Collaboration, 2001, non-album single, audio

Released as a collaboration – as The Collaboration – with legendary and much-missed DJ Peter Rauhofer, ‘Break 4 Love’ is another cover, this time of house music group Raze’s classic single. Like ‘Somewhere’, the tempo is pumped right up and the listening experience is certainly a lot of fun, but it remains a footnote in both artists’ careers.

51. ‘Miracles’

2003, from Pop Art: The Hits, UK #10, video

I would only say I “dislike” the bottom two tracks from this list, but we’re already out of the woods and into some properly great songs now, such is the strength of the PSB single discography. ‘Miracles’ shoots for joyous and largely succeeds, taking the lighter side of preceding album Release and channeling it into one of their most straightforward and radio-friendly songs.

50. ‘Paninaro’

1986, from Disco, released in Italy only, video

This minimalistic B-side was given its own single release in Italy, and then on a much wider scale when it was remixed in 1995. The ’95 version is undoubtedly my favourite, but the sinister tone of the original and the spoken quote from Chris – not present in the remix – gives the ‘86 ‘Paninaro’ a distinct identity of its own.

49. ‘She’s Madonna’

Robbie Williams with Pet Shop Boys, 2007, from Rudebox by Robbie Williams, UK #16, video

A love song for our greatest living pop star, how could ‘She’s Madonna’ end up as anything but brilliant? From Robbie’s best album – don’t even try to argue – this track is camp, funny, and plays to the strengths of everyone involved.

48. ‘Memory Of The Future’

2012, from Elysium, audio

 

Another one that won’t top anyone’s ranking, but a solid entry from the deeply disappointing Elysium album. A fabulous single mix by Stuart Price elevates this track even further.

 47. ‘London’

2003, from Release, released in Germany only, video

A gorgeous song that really deserved to be given a chance as a “full” single, but at least Germany got it. I’m much more sympathetic towards Release than most fans – wait until you see how high the other singles from the album are – and ‘London’ proves that the standard PSB melancholy and nostalgia can be present no matter what instrument provides the basic of the track.

46. ‘Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)’

1991, non-album single, UK #4, US #72, video

The first UK single from the boys’ imperial era to fall is their famous U2/Frankie Valli mash-up. By no means a bad track, it simply fades into the background for me when I think of their glory years, and god forgive me, I still prefer the U2 original to the PSB version of ‘Streets’*, although the choice of songs and the effortless transitions on this single remain genius.

*Can I redeem myself by confirming that I will always choose Cher’s version of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’?

45. ‘One More Chance’

1984, non-album single, video

If we judge the re-recorded version that eventually ended up on Actually, ‘One More Chance’ would be a bit higher, but the 1984 single version exists now mostly as a curio – their second single release, from the wilderness years before ‘West End Girls’ blew up, produced by Bobby O and sung over what was very obviously an unused track by Divine. It’s hard to get a sense of how dark the track would become upon its 1987 revision, but even the bare bones of this track feel exhilarating.

44. ‘Vocal’

2013, from Electric, video

 

The most widely praised track from Electric is typically my least favourite single because I’m a big Contrary Mary – but there were no bad songs on that album, so ‘Vocal’s low position shouldn’t be seen as a slight. Anyone can recognise ‘Vocal’ as a euphoric rave/electro throwback, and it stands as a testament to the duo’s longevity that they’ve managed to release what is basically a tribute to a sound they helped popularise.

43. ‘Did You See Me Coming?’

2009, from Yes, UK #21, video

‘Did You See Me Coming?’ deserves plaudits not just for the song itself – perhaps the cheeriest PSB track ever – but for giving us possibly the greatest multi-format single release ever, including the incredible “Possibly More” mixes of ‘Coming’ which reinvent the song almost beyond recognition.

42. ‘I’m With Stupid’

2006, from Fundamental, UK #8, video

Another single that divides fans, ‘I’m With Stupid’ screams 2006, and that’s okay. A sister track of sorts to George Michael’s ‘Shoot The Dog’, this slice of Blair/Bush fan fiction skewers the former superpowers with class, intelligence and the all-important catchy chorus.

41. ‘Thursday’

Pet Shop Boys featuring Example, from Electric, UK #61, video

Example turns in a fabulous verse on ‘Thursday’, the catchiest track from the still astoundingly strong Electric. Who knew that he and the PSB would be a match made in heaven?

40. ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’

1994, from Very, UK #13, video

The thing that holds ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’ back a little for me is the slight lack of melody compared to the other Very singles – but again, there are no bad or even middling tracks at this stage of the countdown, only unfortunate casualties. The venomous ‘Yesterday’ even features one of my all-time favourite PSB lines: “you’ve both made such a little go a very long way”.

39. ‘Axis’

2013, from Electric, video

 

Neil takes a back seat and allows ‘Axis’ to become the first almost completely instrumental Pet Shop Boys single, and in doing so he opens up a new world where the only thing driving the music is the music itself. Like all classic instrumental dance anthems, the hooks here are so strong they don’t need much in the way of vocals to push them to ecstasy.

38. ‘The Pop Kids’

2016, from Super, audio

Maybe I’m overrating this single, which literally came out last week, but for me it is already a definitive PSB moment. An amazing pop song about loving amazing pop songs, the boys tap into the lives of their fans and their own history to deliver their most blissful and affecting track in years.

37. ‘New York City Boy’

1999, from Nightlife, UK #14, video

‘New York City Boy’ has its fair share of haters, and even I’ll admit that it feels a little too close to ‘Go West’, but it still succeeds dazzlingly on its own merits. I love when Neil is in “leader of all gays” mode (see also: uh, ‘Go West’), and his instructions for the perfect NYC life fill me with joy.

36. ‘DJ Culture’

1991, from Discography: The Complete Singles Collection, UK #13, video

A spiritual sequel to ‘West End Girls’, ‘DJ Culture’ is the perfect song to sum up and conclude PSB’s initial run of success – unfortunately, their next single would be their first to miss the top twenty. The track works as a kiss-off to this first section of their career and to the eighties in general, but it also calls for a reinvention – not just for the band themselves but also for the gay community, who seem to be directly addressed multiple times (“Liz before Betty, she after Sean”, the Oscar Wilde quotes). This was an invitation to take stock and recharge before beginning a new era.

35. ‘I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’

1999, from Nightlife, UK #15, video

From the thirteen word title to the alarming new look that debuted in the video, there’s a lot to remember this song for. Most of all, it should be remembered for once again successfully marrying a mournful ballad of confusion and heartbreak to a storming house beat.

34. ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’

1986, from Please, UK #11, US #10, video

“My car is parked outside, I’m afraid it doesn’t work” is the first truly funny PSB moment, and ‘Opportunities’ doubles as an anthem for Neil and Chris’ entire career. It has everything – the irony that came to define (and annoy) them, a nearly crippling self-awareness, and the willingness (even at this early stage) to mock the ridiculous world of fame and stardom.

33. ‘Absolutely Fabulous’

Absolutely Fabulous, 1994, non-album single, UK #6, video

I know this wasn’t technically released under the Pet Shop Boys name, but it did appear on the reissue of Very and is listed under their songs on their website, so I’m including it. I also couldn’t leave it out as it is A. the first PSB song I have memories of hearing and B. an absolute stone cold classic that I won’t hear a single comment against. Even the remixes are hilarious and genuinely fantastic. Bip bip bip, bop bop bop.

32. ‘I Get Along’

2002, from Release, UK #18, video

With a lighters-up chorus any stadium rock band would kill for, ‘I Get Along’ exemplifies how this creative expansion of the PSB sound ended up being largely successful.

31. ‘Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is)’

1996, from Bilingual, UK #8, video

Nowhere else in the PSB catalogue do the lyrics and melody tell such diverse stories. On the surface, ‘Se A Vida É’ is a relentlessly happy sing-a-long, but there are hints of melancholy and longing that reveal a different perspective. “Life is much more simple when you’re young”, indeed.

30. ‘It’s Alright’

1989, from Introspective, UK #5, video

Now this cover of a previously obscure house track really is as joyful as it appears. It always surprises me that Neil and Chris didn’t write ‘It’s Alright’ – “music is our life’s foundation, and shall succeed all the nations to come” is the best line they never came up with.

29. ‘Leaving’

2012, from Elysium, UK #44, video

Elysium was, by Pet Shop Boys standards, not good at all, but one song made it all worthwhile: ‘Leaving’. An infectious chorus can’t suppress this gloriously miserable meditation on the death and resurrection of love, and it features some of Neil’s most authoritative and moving lyrics.

28. ‘Single-Bilingual’

1996, from Bilingual, UK #14, video

‘Single-Bilingual’ might be a jokey, throwaway track, and what’s wrong with that? The song, and especially the video, are funny, absurd and double as time capsules (“Information’s easy/Tapping on my PC”). Driving the whole thing along are those wonderfully thrilling drums and the manic repetition of the chorus.

27. ‘How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?’

1991, from Behaviour, UK #4, US #93, video

The shade of it all! A hundred drag queens (or even one Mariah Carey) couldn’t read the house down as viciously and casually as Neil does on this terribly underrated single from Behaviour. Released as a double A-side with – and overshadowed by – ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘How Can You Expect…’ is a brilliant deconstruction of the wannabe Bono’s and Geldof’s of the pop world, set to a spectacularly sinister beat.

26. ‘A Red Letter Day’

1997, from Bilingual, UK #9, video

“This is a prayer for a different way” – a song about growing up, about realising that it doesn’t pay to be cynical all the time. ‘A Red Letter Day’ briefly held the record for the biggest fall from within the UK top 40 – #9 to #42 in one week – and that statistic really betrays the understated hopefulness of the track.

25. ‘Paninaro ‘95’

1995, non-album single, UK #15, video

I might have listened to this track more times than any other PSB single. It’s that infectious, and it lends itself wonderfully to repeat listens. So simple and yet so strange, ‘Paninaro ‘95’ is a pounding microcosm of clubbing, fashion and longing – and it features Chris’ fantastic rap, which deconstructs the fragility of relationships and the desperate need to move on before the song concludes.

24. ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’

2013, from Electric, audio

 

Here we have the best single from Electric, in which the boys serve contempt and cynicism with a wink and a nudge. These “are they kidding or not?” lyrical turns are a PSB trademark and they may have perfected the art here, all while capturing the need to reassess and reinvent yourself after a long term relationship comes to an end.

23. ‘Flamboyant’

2004, from Pop Art: The Hits, UK #12, video

Like the more obscure ‘Shameless’ and ‘Too Many People’, ‘Flamboyant’ is a dissection of a certain kind of privilege and, maybe, delusion – although in this case it seems to be entirely positive, with the narrator of the track praising the subject. Most attractively, however, is the wonderfully camp and glamorous beat that underpins the track, which will make the listener feel as though they’re who Neil is singing about.

22. ‘Home And Dry’

2002, from Release, UK #14, video

This one is so full of genuine longing and melancholy that it actually brings my mood down considerably, but in a totally satisfying way. The lyrics aren’t even that hopeless, but the melody and delivery just do things to me. “We’re going home”. :(

21. ‘Heart’

1988, from Actually, UK #1, video

The boys famously considered offering ‘Heart’ to Madonna, but I’ve honestly never been able to imagine her singing it. Eventually, of course, Neil and Chris would remix ‘Sorry’ and be asked to contribute to Hard Candy, although I don’t believe any of their work was actually considered once it was decided that the record would be “urban”. We’re still yet to hear what it would be like for M to sing a PSB song, and it goes without saying that I’m officially Here For It.

‘Heart’, however, is so quintessentially Pet Shop Boys, and fits so well with the style and direction of Actually, that I’m glad it never went to Madonna (or Hazell Dean, another singer they apparently considered for the track). It doesn’t break any new ground lyrically, but there’s no denying the instrumental hook and that oh-so-eighties stuttering is still marvelous.

20. ‘Love Etc.’

2009, from Yes, UK #14, video

The most recent PSB single you could honestly call a hit (albeit a minor one), it’s easy to see why ‘Love Etc.’ appealed to a mass(ish) audience – the song is unbelievably catchy. Even without taking the call-and-response chorus into account, the ping-pong-game-in-outer-space production already elevates the track into pop ecstasy. Every artist has a shelf life on the singles charts, and I couldn’t think of a stronger way for the boys to bow out as “hitmakers”. Now, in 2016, we just have to be content with them making the best songs of the year regardless of sales (…or streaming points).

19. ‘Domino Dancing’

1988, from Introspective, UK #7, US #18, video

Yes, ‘Domino Dancing’ is fabulously produced, delivered perfectly and melodic as all get-out, but if it consisted solely of this couplet, it would still be worthy of a top 20 placing:

I hear the thunder crashing, the sky is dark

And now a storm is breaking within my heart

Gorgeous.

18. ‘You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’

2000, from Nightlife, UK #8, video

One of those songs you just know is going to be fabulous from the title, ‘Drunk’ could’ve gone two ways based on that alone – jokey or serious, and it chooses the latter, managing to out-melancholy even the likes of ‘Home And Dry’. The real crowning glory of the track has to be the effortlessly satisfying wordiness of the lyrics (“suddenly subtle and solemn and silent as a monk”) and the perfection of the rhyming scheme – “you should be kissing him instead of dissing him like a punk” being a personal standout for me, and not just because I love it when Neil uses “youthful” slang.

17. ‘Before’

1996, from Bilingual, UK #7, video

The star of ‘Before’ is the dominant, EBTG vs. Todd Terry-esque beat, but I can’t discredit the lyrics or Neil’s wonderful vocal performance, which is just the right side of light and fluffy while delivering cautionary tales of a “man who loved too much” (apparently OJ Simpson, though I must admit I initially thought it referred to Michael Jackson). The driving production is also beautifully offset by the sweet, slow-moving melody, making ‘Before’ one of the most delicate and low-key house hits of the nineties.

16. ‘Always On My Mind’

1987, non-album single, UK #1, US #4, video

Now for the opposite of low-key, the still-ridiculous ‘Always On My Mind’, which is routinely voted as one of the best cover versions of all time. Who am I to argue? The boys took a song that had always been treated as a solemn ballad and turned it into one of the all-time classic eighties bangers, without losing any of the emotion inherent in the lyrics. ‘Always On My Mind’ balances the two sides of PSB brilliantly, and the irony this time doesn’t come from the boys themselves – it comes from the fact that one of the songs that defines them and sums up their career was one they didn’t write.

15. ‘Suburbia’

1986, from Please, UK #8, US #70, video

I only wanted something else to do but hang around

Meditations on the unending boredom of the suburbs have become something of a cliché since the eighties, but that has done nothing to diminish the power of ‘Suburbia’. From the distorted dogs barking at the start to the sound of breaking glass that punctuates the track here and there, Neil is in his element as he deconstructs the subject with a mixture of contempt and sadness. By the time we reach the above lyric at the halfway point of the track, ‘Suburbia’ has already cemented itself as one of the boys’ all-time greats.

14. ‘I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing’

1993, from Very, UK #13, video

Let the record show that this ranking is for the Beatmasters single mix of ‘I Wouldn’t Normally…’, one of the strongest reinventions for radio I’ve ever heard. The album version of the song contains most of the elements that make it so wonderful – Neil’s complete vocal abandon, all the requisite lyrical flourishes we’ve come to expect – but the single mix takes the instrumental several steps further and beefs it up to the point of absurdity, perfectly reflecting the ecstasy and madness that provides the basis of the track.

13. ‘Love Comes Quickly’

1986, from Please, UK #19, US #62, video

Neil Tennant has always been a controversial vocalist, something he even sings about in ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’, but I think we need only point to ‘Love Comes Quickly’ to dispel any notion of him being a “weak” singer. Of course his range isn’t huge, but delivery is 90% of the work and being able to convey the message of the music is more important than any technical accomplishments. On ‘Love Comes Quickly’, Neil provides one of my favourite of his vocals, beautifully sliding between his more common, deeper singing voice and a falsetto, almost taking part in a duet with himself. Lyrically simple by the boys’ standards, this performance elevates an already gorgeous track to true classic status.

12. ‘Was It Worth It?’

1991, from Discography: The Complete Singles Collection, UK #24, video

Perhaps the single most obscure PSB single from their first twenty years, which is a shame because it’s a complete banger and an important song for the band (and, I would guess, a lot of their fans, myself very much included). Although it was released several years before Neil “came out” – it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when he was “in” – ‘Was It Worth It?’ is fairly obviously a coming out song, with very little room for any other interpretations.

If the line “yes, it’s worth living for” from the chorus wasn’t defiant and life-affirming enough, see the absolutely incredible middle-eight:

I reserve the right to live my life this way

And I don’t give a damn when I hear people say

I’ll pay the price that others pay

To release a song about being gay that sounds this confident, upbeat and joyous at a time when the community was being decimated by AIDS gives ‘Was It Worth It?’ an underlying determination that only serves to make it even more vital and exhilarating.

11. ‘Rent’

1987, from Actually, UK #8, video

You could read ‘Rent’ as a sad song about a “kept woman/man”, but it has always come across as quite beautiful to me, even if the relationship described is implied to be forbidden or morally wrong. After all, love stories of that kind can end up being the most affecting of all, and ‘Rent’ is no exception. The song was, of course, gorgeously covered by Liza Minnelli on her PSB-produced album Results, in a new arrangement by the legendary Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks and other David Lynch projects fame). The boys themselves pulled that reinvention out of the vault for 2006’s live album Concrete, solidifying ‘Rent’ as one of their greatest songs, in any version.

10. ‘Jealousy’

1991, from Behaviour, UK #12, video

Stated by the boys themselves to be the first full song they composed together, ‘Jealousy’ had to wait until 1990 to be released on an album, but the delay was worth it. Beautifully arranged and sung, ‘Jealousy’ perfectly captures the pain of the titular emotion, especially in the extended version from the 12” single. I’ve always considered it to be very closely related to ‘So Hard’, which you might have noticed hasn’t appeared just yet…

9. ‘Go West’

1993, from Very, UK #2, video

A cover of a Village People song barely anyone remembered sounds like career suicide, but PSB managed to turn what could have been a disaster into one of their signature moments – ‘Go West’ is, in my opinion, their most successful cover version. The strength of ‘Go West’ lies in three things: Neil’s optimistic, hopeful vocal, the surging, energetic production and the context of the song’s release. Originally performed by the duo at an AIDS benefit in 1992, the song is intrinsically connected to the crisis – PSB had sung about the topic many times, and would do so again, and to appropriate a song about hope and community by a famously gay-oriented band from yesteryear was a powerful statement.

8. ‘West End Girls’

1985, from Please, UK #1, US #1, video

‘West End Girls’, the first PSB hit single, will forever be the Pet Shop Boys song, the track they’re most commonly associated with. And they should be proud – how many artists can say that began their hitmaking career with a line as utterly pessimistic as “sometimes you’re better off dead”? ‘West End Girls’ is just as much about Chris’ incredible synth lines as it is about Neil’s rambling rap – a lyrical journey held together by the dread inherent in every word. It is, in many ways, the perfect marriage of PSB’s two halves, and for that it earns its place as the most iconic track in their discography.

7. ‘So Hard’

1990, from Behaviour, UK #4, US #62, video

On the verses of ‘So Hard’, Neil’s vocal is so restrained that it’s almost hushed, which perfectly encapsulates the secrets and lies told within the song. I’ve seen fans refer to ‘So Hard’ as a song with a lot of humour, but I’m afraid I don’t hear much of it – the song just reads sadness to me, aside from the obvious dual meaning of the title. The struggle with monogamy between the two characters in the song is so evocatively captured that ‘So Hard’ is almost (almost) the Pet Shop Boys’ most beautiful and affecting portrayal of melancholy.

If you give up your affairs forever, I will give up mine

But it’s hard…

6. ‘Liberation’

1994, from Very, UK #14, video

Now for something a little more positive, one of Neil and Chris’ undervalued masterpieces. So many of the boys’ singles deal with the end of relationships, but ‘Liberation’ beautifully encapsulates the feeling of falling in love – or more specifically, “now, right now”, a single moment within that honeymoon period. “All the way back home at midnight, you were sleeping on my shoulder” is so simple, yet so relatable, a moment that we all have experienced – or hope to experience.

5. ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’

Pet Shop Boys & Dusty Springfield, 1987, from Actually, UK #2, US #2, video

Bringing Dusty Springfield back to commercial prominence after a painfully long time in the wilderness is just one of many things to appreciate about ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, PSB’s second-biggest transatlantic hit. Having an opposing voice for Neil to bounce off gives ‘Deserve’ an edge over many other PSB relationship dramas – and having that second singer be the always-immaculate Dusty was a genius move.

The essence of the song can be summed up with Neil’s “now I can do what I want to forever… how am I gonna get through?” – the end of an affair can be a freeing experience, and that’s what everyone tells you it should be, but it rarely feels that way. In this duet, we get to hear both sides, but they come to the same conclusion, as Dusty vocalises towards the end: “we could make a deal…”

4. ‘Left To My Own Devices’

1988, from Introspective, UK #4, US #84, video

I was faced with a choice at a difficult age

Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage?

But in the back of my head, I heard distant feet

Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat

Containing possibly the greatest single verse in a Pet Shop Boys song – or maybe in any song, by any artist – ‘Left To My Own Devices’ veers wildly between mundane diary entry-style verses (“I get out of bed at half past ten”) and striking confessionals (“I was a lonely boy, no strength, no joy” – a line I’m sure hits many PSB fans, myself included, painfully close to home), all to an absolutely immense disco-techno beat. Add in some orchestral flourishes and the quintessentially downhearted chorus, and you’ve got a hugely enjoyable, and wonderfully disjointed, epic.

3. ‘It’s A Sin’

1987, from Actually, UK #1, US #9, video

For a supposedly limited singer, Neil certainly sounds forceful on ‘It’s A Sin’ – in fact, I’m not sure he was ever able to sound quite as passionate again as he does here. That’s no discredit to all the amazing songs that followed this single, obviously, but it does make ‘It’s A Sin’ stand out as the highlight of their early years and one of the most whole-heartedly brilliant singles of the eighties.

As a former Catholic school student myself, I can relate heavily to ‘It’s A Sin’s lyrics, most prominently the “father forgive me…” section. But as I’ve listened to the track again and again throughout my life, the thing that still jumps out at me every time is the melody, which is so dramatic, so memorable and so incredibly evocative of the concepts and ideas presented in the song. An undisputed triumph.

2. ‘Can You Forgive Her?’

1993, from Very, UK #7, video

She’s made you some kind of laughing stock

Because you dance to disco and you don’t like rock

Fabulously, defiantly gay in both content and execution, ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ ushered in the most drastic reinvention the boys ever undertook – CGI and pointy hats galore – but the star was always the single itself. The story told within the lyrics, of a man in a hetero relationship who can’t accept his own homosexuality, is a tale as old as time, but not one commonly explored in pop music.

The little scenes that are shown to us from this guy’s life are a collage of straight male nightmares (“she’s gone and made a fool of you in public again”, “youthful follies and changing teams”, “she’s gonna go and get herself a real man instead”) but the most affecting is the third verse, which recounts the character’s first gay sexual experience. I’ve always imagined the narrator of this song to be “that first friend”, which gives ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ more weight as a personal history, rather than simply a slice of random life. Whichever way you choose to interpret the individual aspects of ‘Can You Forgive Her?’, it remains a stunning (and, at times, really funny) meditation on identity and sexuality.

1. ‘Being Boring’

1990, from Behaviour, UK #20, video

When you’re young you find inspiration

In anyone who’s ever gone

And opened up a closing door

I imagine many Pet Shop Boys fans would rank ‘Being Boring’ as their favourite of all their singles. I can’t relate to the timeframes suggested by the lyrics – indeed, ‘Being Boring’ was released the year I was born – or Neil’s deconstruction of his own career and fame, yet the sentiments ring true for anyone, of any age, who’s ever been an outsider or who’s ever had any sort of ambition. It’s for anyone who has ever created their own family, or has dreamed of doing so, and for anyone who tried – successfully or otherwise – to create their own destiny.

I could write a book about the beauty, the genius, and the importance of ‘Being Boring’ to successive generations of fans, but all you really need to do is listen to it. While we do that, let’s thank the pop gods that the last thirty years of the Pet Shop Boys have given us so much greatness.

The new Pet Shop Boys album Super is out now.

Richard Eric can be found on Twitter here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *