Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pet Shop Boys - "West End Girls"

A couple of weeks ago I gave the Pet Shop Boys' Discography a spin, and I was reminded just what an excellent collection that is. I like to think that every generation in the UK has had its own wave of smart, catchy pop. Except for the current generation. I start to feel bad for English kids circa 1986 because they didn't have The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, XTC, Squeeze, etc. (1979) or David Bowie, Elton John, T. Rex, Roxy Music, etc. (1972), or Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Suede, etc. (1994), but then I realize that they had The Smiths, The Cure, New Order, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and The Pet Shop Boys, and I don't feel too bad for them.

Like their contemporaries, I think the Pet Shop Boys managed to perfectly capture their time and place, without even seeming to try too hard. I hear "Opportunities," "It's A Sin," or "Always On My Mind" and I am instantly transported to a late 80s urban clubscape. Although the Pet Shop Boys are very British, I am proud of my fellows Americans (for once) because unlike The Smiths or The Jam or Roxy Music, for some reason the Pet Shop Boys were extremely popular in the United States right from the start. "West End Girls" was a #1 hit here. "What Have I Done To Deserve This" peaked at #2, "It's A Sin" at #9, "Always On My Mind" at #4. Americans displayed some taste for once. All the Pet Shop Boys' biggest American hits were early on, though, and I think that's appropriate, because if you ask me the Discography collection loses steam near the end. While the Pet Shop Boys were always known for their irony and supposed "insincerity," they started laying it on pretty thick after a while. Their later material feels more like a formal writing exercise than a genuine expression of emotion. They started suffering from what you might call "Elvis Costello Syndrome." To me the last truly great single on Discography is "So Hard," which contains this lyrical gem: "I'm always hoping/You'd be faithful/But you're not I suppose/We've both given up smoking/Cause it's fatal/So whose matches are those?" Fey Eurodisco covers of "Where The Streets Have No Name," while enjoyable, can only take me so far. Their earlier singles still had some real menace and melancholy, before their style dived headlong into "nod and a wink" territory. I've never heard any Pet Shop Boys material not on Discography; perhaps someone could make the case that I should.

What I do know is that debut singles rarely come more perfect than "West End Girls" (for a better quality video that also runs the proper length, click here). If it sounds too good to be a debut hit single, that's because it is. Or rather, "West End Girls" was their first single, but not the version that we know and love. Here, for your listening pleasure, is the original version of "West End Girls," released a year earlier and sounding for all the world as though it was performed on a Casio keyboard:

Not bad, but I'm glad they gave it another go-round (Tennant doesn't really seem to maximize the chorus at this point, and what's with the James Brown samples?).

How do I love thee, "West End Girls"? Let me count the ways. The song reminds me of Ezra Pound's "In A Station Of The Metro": "The apparition of these faces in a crowd/Petals on a wet, black bough." Appropriately enough, according to Wikipedia, "The lyrics were inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, particularly in the use of different narrative voices and arcane references." I like it!

A song that creates such singular visions in my head would not seem to be a likely candidate for a memorable music video. But I have been proven wrong. Here's what I always pictured in my head when I heard the song's beguiling introduction: random strangers walking down cold London streets. Here's what the video actually shows: random strangers walking down cold London streets! Train stations. Neon signs. Rapid cutting. Shots of the Thames. Give it to me. I don't think the Pet Shop Boys themselves necessarily needed to appear in the video, but they do, and they do so in style. One must admit that Neil Tennant is quite photogenic (Chris Lowe, on the other hand, is somehow translucent.). Tennant also does a terrific job of looking at the camera while singing the chorus and then turning his head away longingly for the final "West End Guuhhls..."

1985. London. Can you taste it?

1 comment:

Herr Zrbo said...

Has LE finally discovered music video?? Welcome to 1981 LE!

Pet Shop Boys do seem to have a strange popularity in the U.S. I remember a friend of mine who was a complete jock/football player type, but he very much liked driving around and listening to Pet Shop Boys. I decided not to ruin his musical taste by telling him that Neil Tennant was gay (which might have resulted in the CD flying out the car window).