Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Best Of Pet Shop Boys - part 1: the singles/the b-sides

The last time I counted down my favourite 25 songs by an artist it was Kylie Minogue - to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the release of "Locomotion" - and now seemed like as good a time as any to do the same thing for Pet Shop Boys.

Neil Tenant and Chris Lowe... they're the Pet Shop Boys

For one thing, it's been 25 years since "It's A Sin" was on the Australian chart and - spolier alert! - that song ranks quite highly on my list. For another, they're my favourite group of all time (currently fending off Depeche Mode for the "honour").

And finally, they have a brand spanking new album out. I'll actually be ranking their studio albums as well in the next few days - since, as any PSB fan could tell you, their album tracks are often as strong as their singles.

When it comes to their singles, though, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have released an incredibly varied body of work over the past few decades - and although their songs don't trouble the upper reaches of the charts too often these days, some of their recent releases are among my favourites. In general, I tend to favour the upbeat stuff over the more sombre ballads, but not always, as you'll see as we begin our trip through 25 classic Pet Shop Boys singles...

The A-Sides

25. Miracles

Released: 2003
Album: Pop Art
Charts: #76 (Australia), #10 (UK)
The first of two new tracks taken from their 2003 retrospective hits collection came at a time when even the turn of the millennium pop acts were starting to feel stale and reality TV winners were taking over the charts, so Pet Shop Boys had little hope of finding much favour beyond their loyal - but large - fanbase. This track was a collaboration with drum and bass producers Adam F and DJ Fresh, whose recent mainstream success shows (yet again) how ahead of their time PSB were.

24. It's Alright

Released: 1989
Album: Introspective
Charts: #70 (Australia), #5 (UK)
For their only 1989 single, PSB chose this Sterling Void cover, which had appeared on their Introspective album at the end of '88 and featured lyrics newly penned by Neil Tennant about world issues of the day. The song wouldn't make the Australian top 100 but it was another in a string of top 5 hits back home in the UK, bringing to a close an incredibly successful few years there. I always liked the clip, which featured Neil and Chris with a variety of small children - if only because Chris looked liked he was genuinely enjoying himself... for once.

23. Integral

Released: 2007
Album: Fundamental, Disco 4
Charts: N/A (Australia), #197 (UK)

Another issue-based song, this time about the introduction of identity cards in the UK, and its rather lacklustre chart performance is down to the fact that it was only released as a download (something which would quite soon become the norm) and was released to coincide with the duo's latest remix project, Disco 4, rather than a full studio album. Of course, "Integral" had first appeared on Fundamental, and I actually prefer that album version to the single remix, but each to their own.

22. Minimal

Released: 2006
Album: Fundamental
Charts: N/A (Australia), #19 (UK)

Speaking of tracks from Fundamental, this second single from the 2006 album is my favourite of those released as singles and is another song that didn't make a chart appearance in Australia. The group did, however, make an appearance in Australia as part of their Fundamental tour (reaching Sydney in April 2007), which featured this song seguing into "Shopping", their other song with the title spelt out in the lyrics.

21. Did You See Me Coming?

Released: 2009
Album: Yes
Charts: N/A (Australia), #21 (UK)

Here's another song that was the second single from a recent album, and again it's my favourite one released. "Did You See Me Coming" is also another in a long line of double entendre titles and lyrics from the Boys. On a more respectable note, 2009 was the year Pet Shop Boys received the BRIT Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music, and their greatest hits medley (with Lady Gaga and Brandon Flowers) popped up as a B-side on this release.

20. Somewhere

Released: 1997
Single release, eventually on Pop Art
Charts: #56 (Australia), #9 (UK)

Released to promote a couple of different endeavours (a residence at London's Savoy Theatre, a repackage of Bilingual featuring an extended version of this track), this recording of the West Side Story tune has always been to my mind the natural successor to "Go West", since the only thing as camp as a Village People cover version is a high energy reworking of one of musical theatre's best known songs. By 1997, PSB were still achieving top 10 hits in the UK, but they were very much in-and-out chart appearances as fans dashed out to buy the CD singles (of which there were generally two released).

19. A Red Letter Day

Released: 1997
Album: Bilingual
Charts: #57 (Australia), #9 (UK)
Spending only three weeks on the UK chart (despite its top 10 status) and proving the fleeting success of PSB singles I mentioned above, "A Red Letter Day" was the fourth and final release from Bilingual. The single version featured remixes by Motiv8, who applied their trademark galloping beat to the song - something I was a huge fan of at the time and a sound heard on remixes of songs by artists as diverse as Gina G, Saint Etienne, Diana Ross and Pulp.

18. Being Boring

Released: 1990
Album: Behaviour
Charts: #82 (Australia), #20 (UK)

A favourite of the group's and now generally considered to be one of their best singles despite its disappointing performance at the time, "Being Boring" didn't always resonate strongly with me - but over time it's grown on me. The gorgeous Bruce Weber video is also one of PSB's best and adds another dimension to the song, which often features as an encore during live shows. 

17. Left To My Own Devices

Released: 1988
Album: Introspective
Charts: #48 (Australia), #4 (UK)

Featuring some of Pet Shop Boys' best known and oft-quoted lyrics, "Left To My Own Devices" was a return to the half-sung, half-spoken style of earlier singles "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" and "West End Girls". The difference this time was the presence of a full orchestra which, together with Trevor Horn's distinctive production style, gave this song a rich texture, which still sounds brilliant today.  

16. West End Girls

Released: 1984
Album: Please
Charts: #5 (Australia), #1 (UK)

The song that started it all... eventually. "West End Girls" was originally released in 1984, but it wasn't until a subsequent re-recording of the song was issued in 1985 that it took off, topping charts around the world (although not quite in Australia). Such was the success of "West End Girls" that it overshadowed the next couple of releases, which would be moderately successful - but it would be almost two years before they'd have another single as big.

15. Suburbia

Released: 1986
Album: Please
Charts: N/A (Australia), #8 (UK)

The final single from debut album Please gave Pet Shop Boys what "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)" and "Love Comes Quickly" could not: another top 10 hit in the UK. And it's also my favourite single from that album, having the catchiest melody of them all - which, as is often the case, is at odds with the darker subject matter of the lyrics.

14. Can You Forgive Her?

Released: 1993
Album: Very
Charts: #17 (Australia), #7 (UK)

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a good pop tune, and Very provided them in spades. I love a lot of Pet Shop Boys more subtle work, too, but an out-and-out pop song will always get my attention. As the lead track from the group's fifth album, "Can You Forgive Her?" was a sign of things to come - especially the video, with its silly hats and bright computer-generated graphics. It was also a return to regular chart success for PSB in Australia, with Neil and Chris landing some of their biggest hits here (including "Absolutely Fabulous") over the following couple of years.

13. Jealousy

Released: 1991
Album: Behaviour
Charts: #147 (Australia), #12 (UK)

And here's an example of one of PSB's more understated songs ranking qute highly among my favourites. "Jealousy" was the last single released from Behaviour and I remember learning to play it on the piano at the time, always looking forward to bashing out the big finale.

12. Liberation

Released: 1994
Album: Very
Charts: #63 (Australia), #14 (UK)

Another single from Very (the fourth) and another more laidback tune of theirs, "Liberation" always puts me in a good mood and is one of PSB's most feel-good songs. I was never a huge fan of the CGI video, though, and feel like this could have had a more classic clip to go with its timeless feel.

11. Se A Vida E (That's The Way Life Is)

Released: 1996
Album: Bilingual
Charts: #11 (Australia), #8 (UK)

I really enjoy Bilingual as an album, but I wasn't a fan of all its singles. Thankfully, this album highlight was released as the second single (between two of my least favourite PSB singles of all, "Before" and "Single-Bilingual") and it came complete with a fun-in-the-sun, hot boys a gogo video (again directed by Bruce Weber) - what more could you ask for?

10. Domino Dancing

Released: 1988
Album: Introspective
Charts: #36 (Australia), #7 (UK)

These segues really are writing themselves... From one clip featuring shirtless hotties frolicking in the water to another, "Domino Dancing" would have to be one of the most homoerotic music videos of all time, but it came at a time when Neil and Chris didn't discuss their sexuality - although it was no doubt an open secret among media and music industry types. The song itself was unique for featuring the Latin freestyle sound of artists like Stevie B, Sweet Sensation and Exposé (thanks to producer Lewis A Martinée), although until the Further Listening release of Introspective (and its useful liner notes), I never was quite sure what Domino Dancing was.

9. I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing

Released: 1993
Album: Very
Charts: #34 (Australia), #13 (UK)

I listened to Very so much at the time (to the point where the album got banned in the department store where I worked during uni, because the sections next to the music department complained) that now, whenever I hear the end of "Can You Forgive Her?", I always pre-empt the start of "I Wouldn't Normally..." since one track follows the other on the CD. This is another up sort of song by a group which, let's face it, isn't always identified with happy sentiments and I think that's why it's so high on my list. There was a Beatmasters remix for the single, but I must admit I prefer the album version (which is odd, since I loved all the mixes Beatmasters had done for The Shamen's singles around the same time).

8. What Have I Done To Deserve This?

Released: 1987
Album: Actually
Charts: #22 (Australia), #2 (UK)

A collaboration that, by all accounts, took some convincing to make happen but, in turn, led to a fruitful working relationship between the duo and the singing icon over the next few years. In fact, pretty much everything Pet Shop Boys touched turned to gold at that stage, including side projects with Liza Minnelli, Eighth Wonder and Electronic. The back and forth between Neil and Dusty in "What Have I..." is a classic he said, she said lyric, but the real highlight of this song is when Dusty gets to let loose in the chorus.

7. Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)

Released: 1991
Single release, eventually on Discography
Charts: #9 (Australia), #4 (UK)

Bono said at the time, "What have we done to deserve this?" and U2 fans were horrified by this synthpop reworking of one of the biggest hits by the Irish supergroup. Especially when it was teamed with a remake of Boys Town Gang's disco version of Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You". I loved the daring move by PSB and came to like a song I'd always despised, which just goes to show that sometimes it's all in the presentation. This song was a double A-side release with "How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?" from Behaviour, which was given a remix for the occasion and also risked ire by satirizing worthier than thou musicians.

6. Heart

Released: 1988
Album: Actually
Charts: #18 (Australia), #1 (UK)

Featuring Ian McKellen as a vampire in the memorable music video, "Heart" was the last of Pet Shop Boys' run of number 1 singles in the UK and features one of their more straightforward lyrics. Given my taste in pop music, I don't always spend a lot of time analysing the lyrics of songs I like, but I have always enjoyed breaking that rule with Pet Shop Boys' music, being constantly fascinated by what Neil would find to write about. Of course, sometimes, the simplest topics are just as effective.

5. So Hard

Released: 1990
Album: Behaviour
Charts: #27 (Australia), #4 (UK)

Kicking off their first full-length (in terms of number of tracks) album in three years, "So Hard" also became my favourite PSB song since their 1987 peak. The upbeat sound of the song is at odds with much of Behaviour, which meant that album took quite a while for me to get into - but it was an effective lead single since it put the group back on the pop radar after well over a year away. I also enjoyed the story of infidelity told by the song, with the usual attention to lyrical detail.

4. Go West

Released: 1993
Album: Very
Charts: #10 (Australia), #2 (UK)

I'm sure there are plenty of serious Pet Shop Boys fans who would banish this single to the very bottom of their list of favourites, for it is, after all, pretty kitsch. But it worked. An over-the-top cover of a song originally recorded by Village People featuring a booming male choir, it really doesn't get much more camp than this, and for many Australians, it's now one of the songs most associated with the group, it being their last top 10 single (under their own name) in this country.

3. Paninaro '95

Released: 1995
Single only release, eventually on Pop Art
Charts: #30 (Australia), #15 (UK)

I was introduced to the original "Paninaro" (and, actually, the fact that Pet Shop Boys' B-sides were worthy of attention) quite late in the day - in the early '90s. As soon as I heard the version on Disco (complete with Chris's "I don't like much, do I?" quote), I was hooked and so, when a few years later, the track was given a makeover to coincide with the release of their first collection of B-sides, it quickly became one of my favourite releases by the group.

2. Always On My Mind

Released: 1987
Single release, remixed version on Introspective, eventually on Discography 
Charts: #10 (Australia), #1 (UK)

1987 really was the year of the opportune cover version. Kylie's charity performance of "Locomotion" led to a single release and music career that's still going strong, and PSB's tribute performance of this Elvis Presley classic (originally recorded by Brenda Lee) on British TV also led to a single release and the coveted UK Christmas number 1. I remember when it hit the Australian chart in 1988 (we were always a few months behind back then), being annoyed at all the talking in the music video, since I used to record songs from music video show Rage onto casette. That dialogue came from the group's film project, It Couldn't Happen Here, which I never did get around to watching. There's not much else to say about this song other than it's a brilliant remake, lifting the song to new heights and missing out on being my favourite Pet Shop Boys song of all time by the narrowest of margins.

1. It's A Sin

Released: 1987
Album: Actually
Charts: #10 (Australia), #1(UK)

I said at the start that "It's A Sin" ranked highly on my list - and it doesn't get any higher than my favourite PSB single of all time. In 1987, having just started at a religiously-inclined private all-boys high school, I found a lot to relate to in "It's A Sin", and aside from its lyrical content, I loved the dramatic production and music video, featuring the human embodiment of the seven deadly sins. Over the years, I've enjoyed seeing it performed in concert by the group, particularly their "I Will Survive" mash-up version.  

The B-sides

As I mentioned back at number 3 above, Pet Shop Boys have released a phenomenal amount of fantastic B-Sides over the years - on occasion even bettering the A-side. So here's my alternative top 25:

1. "Paninaro" (B-side to "Suburbia")
2. "Too Many People" (B-side to "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing")
3. "I Get Excited" (You Get Excited Too) (B-side to "Heart")
4. "Delusions Of Grandeur" (B-side to "A Red Letter Day")
5. "Losing My Mind (B-side to "Jealousy")
6. "Shameless" (B-side to "Go West")
7. "I Didn't Get Where I Am Today (B-side to "Flamboyant")
8. "A Certain 'Je Ne Sais Quoi'" (B-side to "Winner")
9. "Hit And Miss" (B-side to "Before")
10. "Bet She's Not Your Girlfriend" (B-side to "Where The Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)")
11. "In The Night" (B-side to "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)")
12. "The Resurrectionist" (B-side to "I'm With Stupid")
13. "Do I Have To? "(B-side to "Always On My Mind")
14. "Miserablism" (B-side to "Was It Worth It?")
15. "It Must Be Obvious" (B-side to "So Hard")
16. "The Boy Who Couldn't Keep His Clothes On" (B-side to "A Red Letter Day")
17. "In Private" (B-side to "Minimal")
18. "Screaming" (B-side to "I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give It Anymore")
19. "Was That What It Was?" (B-side to "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)")
20. "Euroboy" (B-side to "Yesterday, When I Was Mad")
21. "Violence (Hacienda Version)" (B-side to "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing")
22. "Don Juan" (B-side to "Don Juan")
23. "We're The Pet Shop Boys" (B-side to "Miracles")
24. "I Want A Dog "(B-side to "Rent")
25. "We All Feel Better In The Dark" (B-side to "Being Boring")

In part 2, I'll count down to my favourite Pet Shop Boys album of all time. What will it be? Well, I can tell you it has a one-word title...


  1. I'm also a fan of their "In Denial" duet with Kylie Minogue. Merril Bainbridge did a nice cover of "Being Boring" for her 1995 single "Mouth". Have you heard it?

    I'm not the biggest PSB fan. Can only say that they have 13 singles that I particularly like, if you don't include "Absolutely Fabulous" which is my #2 single of 1994.

    A Red Letter Day
    Always on My Mind
    Being Boring
    Can You Forgive Her?
    Domino Dancing
    Go West
    I Don't Know What You Want But I Can't Give it Anymore
    I'm With Stupid
    New York City Boy
    Paninaro '95
    Se A Vida E (That's the Way Life Is)
    West End Girls
    Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)

    1. Yeah, I remember Merril changed the words/got the words wrong to "Being Boring". Oops!

      I used to keep Ab Fab quite separate but it seems to be counted under PSB by chart books so I may as well - it would've been in my top 30.