Eighteen months or so before it hit the number one spot pretty much everywhere in the known universe, Pet Shop Boys released their debut single West End Girls. Having travelled to New York a few months earlier and blagged some studio time with Bobby Orlando, they recorded their debut single with him, and released it through Epic in the UK.
It opens with the drum pattern from Michael Jackson‘s Billie Jean, released a year or so earlier, gradually building in Bobby O style, adding an element every bar or so until it’s become totally enormous. This is particularly noticeable on the 12″ version, which takes a couple of minutes to get to the vocal, having worked your way through the choir sound, the handclaps, the cowbells, and the vocal samples, all of which pepper all of Bobby O’s singles (and why not? It’s not a bad trademark to have!)
Neil Tennant‘s vocals are less confident, and a lot less polished than on the final release, and in 1984 you might have been forgiven for thinking he wasn’t the greatest vocalist in the world. You still might not in 2014, but you can at least hear his vocal style, albeit with a slightly affected American accent at times.
The two half extra verses (such as the section about Joe Stalin) make for a fun novelty inclusion if you’ve not heard them for a while, and while it lacks the haunting darkness of Stephen Hague‘s 1985 reworking, it’s still an entirely enjoyable track. Not number 1 material – not even Top 40 material – but if this had been all Pet Shop Boys ever recorded, it wouldn’t have been a bad legacy at all.
The b-side, the eponymous Pet Shop Boys is, according to Tennant, the track that he chose to play his colleagues at Smash Hits when he returned to the UK, being too embarrassed by his vocal performance on the a-side. Which is understandable really – but then, so is the fact that Pet Shop Boys has never been released anywhere since. The “hip hop instrumental,” as it’s described, isn’t really very good – in fact the Theme for the Pet Shop Boys which appeared on some later releases (with absolutely nothing to do with the act we’re talking about here) is rather better.
History from this point on is unequivocal. Pet Shop Boys decided to re-record West End Girls, transforming it into one of the best tracks that ever hit the charts, and leaving Bobby O diluting his own reputation by re-releasing the original version in 1986, 1992, 1995, 2001, and 2003, plus various awful medleys and megamixes. And when I say awful, I mean appalling – you could get a juggernaut through some of those edits.
But ignoring the checkered history that would follow, the original 1984 release of West End Girls is a pretty special track, and is well worth owning in some form.
There are countless different releases containing tracks from this original single, and it’s difficult to advise exactly which one to go for, but this 2003 release may be a good one to start with.