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.
Here we are, the last of nine entries on the Pet Shop Boys singles. These are ten of just about the best pop singles you’re ever going to hear in your life. In my opinion of course. Let’s do this.
10. It’s a Sin
First single from Actually (1987), released as a single in 1987
It took Neil Tennant 15 minutes to write this song (according to Dr. Wayne Studer at his excellent Pet Shop Boys Commentary website). Furthermore, though it wasn’t released in its final form until 1987, it was written and originally recorded with Bobby O back in 1984. That version lacks the irresistible epic bombast of the 1987 release but much of what makes the song great existed even then. There’s not a whole lot of ambiguity in the lyrics – the song is about how everything young Neil Tennant wanted to do was deemed a sin while he was in Catholic school. Lapsed Catholics can make some pretty great songs (e.g. #2).
What I Love: The song is just so tremendously huge. I know it’s strange to talk about song in terms of sheer size, but this might be the largest, most expansive pop song of the 80’s.
9. Love etc.
First single from Yes (2009), released as a single in 2009
An enormous dance club hit in 2009, “Love Etc.” was produced and co-written by the song writing team Xenomania and Brian Higgins. Dr. Studer largely credits their input to this song’s unique sound in the Pet Shop Boys’ catalog. The beat is relentless and hypnotic, the choral chants (both the “you need more” and the “don’t have to be…” variations) are ludicrously infectious and the lyrics are gloriously hippy – or at least satisfyingly anti-materialism. I missed this song completely when it was initially released and only really started listening to it in the last three months. The first time I heard it, I thought “well, I wasted 8 years of my life not listening to this song.” I have played it over and over more than once since I downloaded it. It’s fantastic.
What I Love: “Too much of everything is never enough” sounds like a reference to the original MTV ad slogan. I like to think that was a little shout out to all of the old fan.
8. Go West
Second single from Very (1993), released as a single in 1993
Originally performed by The Village People (1979)
I recall being strongly drawn to the Village People when they were first releasing singles back in the late 70’s. I thought they were a band that (like Kiss) enjoyed dressing up in costumes but I didn’t think anything more about what those costumes might mean. Their version of “Go West” came at the tail end of their hit-making days but I must have somehow been familiar with it because I knew the Pet Shop Boys version was a cover. Not just a cover, but a beautiful, sad re-imagining of the song. Tennant and Lowe took a bit from Pachelbel’s Canon, added a new verse, altered some lyrics, brought in a Broadway show chorus and completely changed the tone of the piece. Instead of sounding like a celebration of moving west, it sounded like an elegy for the lives lost to AIDS in the 80’s. It turned a low-charting Village People dance tune into a moving classic – that you could still dance to. This is not only the Pet Shop Boys’ finest cover song in my opinion, but one of the cover songs by which I measure all other cover songs.
What I Love: I would argue that this is Neil Tennant’s finest vocal performance. I hear deep emotion behind his normally detached vocals. Maybe it’s just me, but I hear it.
First single from PopArt (2003), released as a single in 2003
“Miracles” is the other fantastic single from the PopArt greatest hits collection – “Flamboyent” being the first (#16). This song shouldn’t be confused with the Starship song of the same name. Or the Coldplay song. And definitely not the ICP song. Anne Dudley – who was orchestrated both of ABC’s Lexicon of Love albums (see esp. #1 and #2) – conducted the orchestration on this song as well. Turns out I like pretty much everything Ms. Dudley is involved in. As Dr. Studer points out, the song is “virtually a definition of ‘limerence’: the sense of tremendous exhilaration that one feels in the early stages of love.” What makes it so powerful (Dr. Studer also points this out) is the contrast between the exhilaration that he narrator is feeling around his love interest and the minor chords of the song. It sounds as if we’re at the end of the relationship even though lyrically the relationship is just getting under way. Odds are pretty good, if you’re American, that you’ve not heard this song. I encourage you to change that.
What I Love: The chorus is enchanting – just this side of genuine magic.
6. Being Boring
Second single from Behavior (1990), released as a single in 1990
The AIDS crisis in the 1980’s decimated a generation of gay men. I think it is difficult for those of us who weren’t directly effected by the crisis to understand how devastating this tragedy was for an entire international community. The art created in response to the ongoing catastrophe in the 80’s and 90’s often focused on how joyful life was right before the nightmare started. Upon reflection, I feel like “Deadbeat Club” by The B-52’s (#8) is perhaps an example of how one group of artists responded to losing loved ones to AIDS. “Being Boring” – a song with lyrics that start out celebrating the joys of being young and alive – is a sad, beautiful elegy for all the friends that were lost in the 80’s. Tennant specifically wrote the song in response to the death of a close friend but his lyrics could easily apply to any of the survivors of the epidemic. I did not realize what the song was about in 1990 and seem to recall that it was ironic that the Pet Shop Boys had released a song called “Being Boring” that was, in fact, boring. More than any of their other tracks, this one has grown on me over the years. It breaks my heart to hear it and feels a little more sad to me with each passing year.
What I Love: “All the people I was kissing/Some are here and some are missing.”
5. Can You Forgive Her?
First single from Very (1993), released as a single in 1993
I admit I didn’t buy Very 1993 so much as I copied my neighbor’s CD on to a cassette tape. I hope the fact that I’ve since purchased it via download balances out this ancient act of music piracy. While “Can You Forgive Her?” was a #1 dance chart single, it didn’t break on to the Billboard Hot 100 at all, a thing that is absolutely shocking to me. Yes, we were all listening to grunge back then, but this song is just so good. I remember my co-DJ and good friend Nathan and I playing the heck out of this song on KTUH back in ’93. Perhaps it was the song’s subject matter (Dr. Studer explains it better than I could, but the lyrics are pretty straightforward). I have spent many fine hours driving around singing this song as loud as one should sing it. Chris Lowe’s huge (but not as huge as “It’s A Sin”) keyboard lines and that stabbing chorus make this song absolutely unforgettable.
What I Love: “But that’s childish… so childish…”
4. Love Comes Quickly
Second single from Please (1985), released as a single in 1986
Though not an especially big hit on either side of the Atlantic, this song is one of the highlights of Please. Something about the “ah-ah-ah-ah” keyboard sequence (I assume it’s a sampled voice played back on a synthesizer) and the directness of this song in contrast to “West End Girls” and “Opportunities” hooks me in every time I play this song.
I have a hard time explaining this: there’s something about loving a song that isn’t getting a lot of airplay that gives you a sense of ownership. Like I know theoretically that there are probably millions of other people out there who know this song and probably thousands and thousands who love it. Since I’ve never listened to this track with another person who immediately said “I love this song,” I’ve always felt like this was my personal Pet Shop Boys tune. Intellectually, I know that is absurd.
The possible double entendre of this song’s title was entirely lost on me in 1985. “Sooner or later this happens to everyone” indeed.
What I Love: Chris Lowe’s cold music in contrast to Tennant’s genuine, warm vocal.
3. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (with Dusty Springfield)
Second single from Actually (1987), released as a single in 1987
While Dusty Springfield had quite a few major U.S. hits (I’m going to link “Son of a Preacher Man” because I love it so much), she was absolutely iconic in the UK. By the mid-80’s, her career had faded a little bit, but the Pet Shop Boys were huge fans. In fact, they lobbied hard to get Ms. Springfield to perform “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” The song was an enormous smash and is credited with revitalizing her career. The Pet Shop Boys were involved in creating her next album (“In Private” – #65 – was originally a hit single from that record) which was also a success. I loved this song from the moment I heard it and happily confess that I can sing all of Ms. Springfield’s parts, albeit with varying degrees of success. Like when she sings “It should make me feel better” in the second chorus? I can hit those notes but neither I nor my listeners have an especially pleasant time of it when I do. Lady Gaga got to sing this with them at the Brit Awards in 2009. Jealousy!
What I Love: There’s so much to love – the “What have I… What have I…” refrain, the back and forth between Tennant and Springfield, the great “we don’t have to go to hell and back every night” outro… If I have to pick just one thing, it will be Ms. Springfield on the chorus. Just the best.
2. Thursday (featuring Example)
Fourth single from Electric (2013), released as a single in 2013
I downloaded Electric in 2013 and had no idea which songs had been released as singles. I just listened to and enjoyed the album in toto because that’s how I generally enjoy music these days. I fell in love with “Thursday” pretty much from the first listen. Perhaps it’s because (as I’ve just now discovered) the song was written in a way that might appeal to fans of “West End Girls.” I love Chris Lowe’s vocal contribution (the Speak n Spell-like “Thursday… Friday… Saturday… Sunday” countdown), I dig the rap from Example, and the chorus is effortless pop perfection. The lyrics are relatively straightforward – a man tries to persuade his lover to stay for the weekend. But haven’t we all been there with somebody we loved? There’s nothing wrong with singing about a universal experience – indeed, that’s the whole history of pop music. Not every song needs a reference to Che Guevara. For a time, I felt that this was another Pet Shop Boys song that I could consider to be my song (like “Love Comes Quickly”) but then I saw that the video has been viewed over a million times so clearly a number of other people truly love this one too.
What I Love: This song has a certain flow to it – like once it starts, it can’t be interrupted. I’ll stay in the car longer listening to it and be a little late rather than stop it.
1. West End Girls (re-recording)
First single from Please (1985), released as a single in 1985
The Pet Shop Boys remixed this song for their début album. While the original single is excellent (#31), I far prefer the second version. They combined two verses (cutting a pair of weaker couplets from each), got rid of the cool but flow breaking “ah-ah uhn uhn” vocals, pumped up the bass and overall made the song tighter and catchier. Tennant’s vocal is more confident and I still don’t entirely understand the lyrics, I’ve had a great deal of fun trying to make sense of them (Dr. Studer and his readers offer some compelling interpretations). I thought for many years that this was a science fiction song (because I was young and assumed any song that referred to a “dead end world” must be connected to science fiction). I may have danced to this song more than any other in the 80’s (which means there’s only one song which I danced to more in any decade – Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend,” which I used to dance to with my cat, Mordecai, whether he wanted to or not). I believe this is the quintessential Pet Shop Boys song and if they never recorded another song just like it, well, why should they? They got it perfect the second time.
What I Love: The bass line is fantastic, the vocal delivery set the Pet Shop Boys apart from every other synth pop act in 1985, and the song transports me to another world, science fiction or no.
Coming Soon: Nirvana.