If you’re just joining us, check out the About This Project link for details. Basically, I make playlists of all the singles by certain musical artists and then try to order them using the guiding principle “do I like each song more than the last song.” I define “single” in a broad enough way to include any song that was released as a purchasable single in any format in any country; as a promotional single in any country; as a video; or generally any song that I know charted anywhere. My main sources are Wikipedia (mostly reliable) and Discogs (reasonably reliable). I welcome editing feedback since sometimes I favor speed over spelling.
Between last entry and this one, I discovered Dr. Wayne Studer’s Commentary, a site where Dr. Studer attempts to analyze all of the Pet Shop Boys’ songs. He’s been at this, it appears, since 2000 at least and his work is well researched, well written and engaging. I encourage you to make it a regular source for information about the Pet Shop Boys. I wish I’d found it before I was half way into this list!
But we must carry on…
40. To Step Aside
Double A-Side Single in U.S. from Bilingual (1996), released in the U.S. as a single in 1997
Bilingual fares pretty well in my top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles. “To Step Aside” was released as a double A-Side with “Se a vida é (That’s the Way Life Is),” perhaps for fear that some pop stations would refuse to play a song with a Spanish title. “Se a vida é” was a top ten hit in the UK but neither side of this single was a hit here. Indeed, the Pet Shop Boys had already had their final U.S. Top 100 single in 1991 with “Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes off You).” I wouldn’t normally dedicate this much time to this particular topic, but I’ve been reading a lot about how, in the U.S.A. in 2018 (one of the countries where “Descpacito” was recently a ludicrously huge hit) that some people seem to believe only English language should be played on the fourth of July because English is ipso facto patriotic. Presumably, a rock block of English punk would be more “patriotic” to many people than a song in Spanish composed in Los Angeles. Maybe this has nothing to do with the choice to release this song as a double A-Side. Maybe it does. It’s on my mind (indeed, it’s always on my mind), so you get to read about it.
Meanwhile, back to the song, “To Step Aside” has the greatest “little voice” backing vocal hook (actually a sample of Spanish Romany singing) this side of “No More I Love You’s” by The Lover Speaks. I especially enjoy the guitar work but the whole song is an enjoyable pop delight.
39. Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) (original mix)
Non-album single released in 1985
OK, so, before the Pet Shop Boys had their first huge hit with “West End Girls,” followed by a big hit with (the remixed version of) “Opportunities,” both songs were released in other forms. The first version of this song that hit the airwaves of WXCI in Connecticut (where I first head it) was produced by J. J. Jeczalik of the Art of Noise. This version of “Opportunities” (which is not the original-original, which was produced by Bobby Orlando in 1984 and not released at the time) has a bit more sense of drama to it. In fact, the final spoken line in this version ( which begins with “All the love that we had…”) has always felt theatrical to me. The Pet Shop Boys have had pretty good instincts about how to improve upon and tighten their songs and I think the work they did on this one between this release and its second release is evidence of that (indeed, you shan’t see the hit version of this song for at least another segment of this list).
38. I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing
Third single from Very (1993), released as a single in 1993
While I was growing up, we used to go to Colorado every winter to ski. Part of this tradition would involve us renting a condo or apartment or something and staying there, often with another family. Sometimes, we younger sorts were able to get out own room and sometimes we had to sleep in the living room on the couch and floor. Often, these condos would have cable TV – something we did not have back home in Newtown. Thanks to this, I was able to watch MTV. I specifically remember seeing “Hyperactive” by Thomas Dolby (#7), “I Do Anything” by Dead or Alive and many others for the first time at some condo or other near Vail. They also had A&E back when that network actually showed Arts and Entertainment events exclusively. What interested 15-year-old me in A&E was sometimes the art events would include nudity, and thus it came to pass that I became a fan of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” I am not proud of this, but I’m glad that a racy ballet broadcast on A&E during the early days of cable turned me on (sic) to some classical music.
This is all a very long way of explaining how I resonated immediately with this song because of its lyrical reference to Stravinsky’s great work. Of course, “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing” is much more than just a song about getting naked and dancing about (though it is about that, too). It is also a fetching Beatles tribute reminiscent of their “Penny Lane” era. I’m really starting to split hairs in this ranking and I confess that if the hairs had split differently (and they may well tomorrow), this song could easily have been ranked higher.
Second single from Super (2016), released as a single in 2016
I am indebted to Dr. Studer’s analysis of the music and lyrics of “Twenty-Something” and encourage you to visit that link for an intelligent analysis of the song. I confess, I ranked it up here solely based on the fact that the song is catchy as all get out. The Pet Shop Boys might not have huge hits like they used to, but they still create infectiously catchy tunes. Once it’s lodged in my head, the keyboard line in this song echoes around in my skull for hours. Thank goodness I like it!
36. How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?
Third single from Behavior (1990), released as a single in 1991
While Dr. Studer makes a solid case that this song isn’t necessarily about an actual rock singer, the Wikipedia article suggests that the song’s subject is Wendy James, frontwoman of Transvision Vamp. However, I’m not finding any convincing evidence that supports this theory and, as Dr. Studer points out, Tennant has said it’s not about anyone in specific. This is a shame because Wendy James is a fascinating artist and I’d love to have an excuse to write about her. Maybe when I get around to ranking Elvis Costello singles. In the meantime, I’m going to definitively say this is not about Wendy James until Neil Tennant or Chris Lowe says otherwise.
The lyrics of this song focus on puncturing the pretensions of a rock star who dares to support causes like ecology. Ok? I think the subtext is that the Pet Shop Boys question this performer’s genuine commitment to the causes they purport to support with an added suggestion that they’re primarily supporting these causes for the publicity. Assuming I’m reading the lyrics right, I confess I despise this sentiment. If a public figure wants to make a stand for some cause or other, fantastic. Indeed, the Pet Shop Boys now support at least one cause with great enthusiasm at their official site. One’s mind changes as one get’s older. Or I’m misreading the lyrics completely, which can’t be ruled out.
UK only fourth single from Actually (1987), released as a single in 1988
“Heart” was originally written for Madonna (but they lost the nerve to offer it to her) and was originally named “Heartbeat” (but Culture Club’s John Moss had just started a band named Heartbeat UK). This song was a #1 hit in the UK but was not released in the U.S.A. for reasons, I suppose. In my Pet Shop Boys Headcanon, all of their 80’s songs featured wry and ironic lyrics to so-cold-they’re-cool synthesizers. Back in reality, “Heart” is a warm, inviting dance song with straightforward (even simple) lyrics. The “bom BOM bombombom” keyboard hook is particularly catchy. I wonder if I’d like this song as much as I do if it had been a huge US hit or if its lack of success on this side of the Atlantic allowed me to feel like this was a song I discovered myself?
34. So Hard
First single from Behavior (1990), released as a single in 1990
The title of this track is a double entendre. Indeed, at one point, there is a sample from an adult film of a voice saying the titular phrase. The lyrics tell a story about a couple who are apparently incapable of staying faithful to each other. Because of this, I always assumed that “so hard” meant “so difficult.” Well, it does mean that. It just means something else, too. This is a family site, so I invite the reader to figure this one out on their own. “So Hard” hit big in the UK (it reached #4) but it didn’t make the U.S. top 40 (all six of their top 40 U.S. hits happened in the 80’s). Dr. Studer proposes ten reasons why The Pet Shop Boys faltered in the U.S. market before and during the release of “So Hard” and it’s parent album, Behavior. Short version: the American record buying public generally doesn’t get irony and were even more culturally homophobic in that period than now.
Fourth single from Behavior (1990), released as a single in 1991
I didn’t set out to place three songs from Behavior in this section, it just sort of happened that way.
The extended version of “Jealousy” includes a quote from Othello regarding how the titular emotion can make it impossible to get decent sleep. Since the lyrics focus on a lover who is lying awake at night seething with (yes) jealousy, this makes perfect post-modern sense. Like the other singles from Behavior, “Jealousy” was a big hit in the UK but didn’t scratch the market on the other side of the Atlantic. I love the orchestra at the end of the song (on the album, it’s a synthesized orchestra, but it’s a real one on the single). I didn’t have much of a relationship with this song back in 1990 but I was pleased to learn it was a single and have enjoyed getting to know it better while making this list. There’s other songs I like better, but I don’t think “Jealousy” will mind.
UK and Greece Promo Single from Fundamental (2006), released as a single in 2005
Neil Tennant says that this song is about “aimless, generalized fear that is used to sort of fuel a political agenda sometimes.” I didn’t know that for sure before reading Dr. Studer’s site, but I have been listening very closely to the lyrics while I’ve been hiking around in the last couple of months and, here in 2018, the song really resonates with me. We saw the government using fear to motivate public opinion all the time in the Bush years and we’re really seeing it happen again under the current U.S. regime. Tennant is reminding us that many of the fears we experience are quite literally all in our head and not supported by any fact. As FDR said, the only thing to fear is fear itself. Indeed, watching some of my fellow citizens descend into hate-induced madness these last few years has led me to have a whole new understanding of what FDR meant. Being afraid prevents us from doing what’s right and leads us to doing things that are pretty dreadful. In addition to having an especially impactful lyric, Lowe’s cold synthesizer work hearkens back to the golden age of synthesizer pop. I hear Gary Numan and Kraftwerk in his hooks but your mileage may vary.
31. West End Girls (original recording)
Stand-alone single released in 1984
This was my first exposure to the Pet Shop Boys. WXCI played this original Bobby O mix of “West End Girls” endlessly in 1984 and (if my memory serves) my whole group of friends loved it. I believe that the version that was released in 1985 is even better, but wow is this a fine song. This song includes a full additional verse (two lines from one verse and two lines from another were dropped and a new verse was created from the lines that remained) and has all of these great Neil Tennant grunts and vocalizations. I find the “final” version of the song to be considerably more enjoyable (and you’ll hear both it and the original version of “Opportunities” further up the list), but I got to say the original has a lot going for it too. If you’ve never hears it, do yourself a favor and listen the whole way through.
Coming Soon: One of the Pet Shop Boys most obviously political songs.