Pet Shop Boys – Actually

By 1987, thirty years ago this week, Pet Shop Boys were comfortably at the top of their game. Actually may have only peaked at number two on the charts, but it yielded two number one singles, plus another number one that wasn’t actually on the album (Always on My Mind), a number two, and another top ten hit. That’s quite impressive, by anybody’s standards.

It opens with One more chance, one of the many songs that they originally recorded with Bobby O in 1984, and that had already been released as a single in some territories. They completely re-recorded it for their second album, and then remixed it as a 12″ version, removing an entire verse in the process, and that’s the version that opens the album. Putting 12″ mixes on your album was still considered pretty revolutionary at this point, and so this is an unusual but undeniably catchy opener.

Then Dusty Springfield turns up out of nowhere – literally, as she had barely recorded anything for about a decade – to duet on the brilliant What have I done to deserve this? The shift of dynamic is ingenious – neither of the first two tracks really have much in common with anything on the debut album Please, and yet they still sound familiar.

Shopping is next, a social commentary on Thatcherite 1980s Britain. This is the single that never was – it’s catchy and you’ve almost certainly heard it before, but it was never released anywhere apart from on Actually. In a way it has some similarities to Opportunities (Let’s make lots of money) from the first album, and you have to wonder whether they intentionally wrote it as a “catchy” song. Pretty good though.

The singles alternate on each side of the album, so next comes the album’s one flop – the autumn single Rent only peaked at number 8. It’s a beautiful track though, one of the gentlest of Pet Shop Boys‘ early career, supplemented on the single by a couple of brilliant François Kevorkian remixes. The album version is a bit more plodding than the single mix, but still a brilliant track.

The pressure to write hit singles was clearly on at this stage, and so Hit Music pastiches a number of other people’s songs. It’s my least favourite track on here, but you can still easily appreciate the songwriting talent behind it – there’s a wonderful melancholy in the middle section that seems to appear from nowhere. This is also the second of three consecutive songs to talk about paying bills and rent (It Couldn’t Happen Here contains the line “Who pays your bills?”) which does make you wonder slightly what was going through Neil Tennant‘s mind at the time.

Side B opens with the slowest track on here, the exceptional It Couldn’t Happen Here. Famously co-written with Ennio Morricone and scored by Angelo Badalementi, it’s a beautifully melancholic piece about a friend of Neil Tennant‘s who had been diagnosed with AIDS. It also gave its name to the 1988 film which Pet Shop Boys famously released when they were unable to fund the tour they wanted to stage.

This leads to the enormous opening single It’s a Sin. If you don’t like this, you have no soul. Appearing on pretty much every top 100 list in the last thirty years, it hit number one across most of Western Europe and made the top ten pretty much everywhere else. With an appropriately overblown video to accompany it, it is a truly era-defining track.

I Want to Wake Up is the only track on here other than Hit Music that realistically never would have been a single, but it’s a strong album track. Strangely, Johnny Marr chose to rework it for his 1993 Remix, which took it to a very different place. Then the album version of Heart is, of course, not quite as good as the version that topped the charts six months or so later, but it’s still an excellent song, particularly when you reach the trick ending.

Nothing can really prepare you for the haunting quality of Kings Cross, another song about Margaret Thatcher, the then-British Prime Minister who was at the time busy selling off the nation’s public services. But even a conservative would appreciate this song on some level – it’s an exceptionally beautiful, if poignant, closing track.

So Actually sees Pet Shop Boys at their chart-topping, era-defining best, and anything that followed could never be this good. Or could it? If nothing else, the thirty years that have followed have been full of surprises.

At the time of writing, your best bet is to wait a little before purchasing Actually. It will be available again soon with the accompanying disc Further Listening 1987-1988.

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Pet Shop Boys – Concrete

By 2006, Pet Shop Boys were already twenty-five years into their music career, and they still hadn’t released a live album. But that would change with Concrete, released a decade ago this week.

Of course, the problem with live albums is that they often aren’t actually very good. You normally just get a few marginally different versions of tracks, which are clearly being played with a lot of energy, but unless you were actually there in person, it’s hard to get a feeling for what was actually going on at the time.

Trust Pet Shop Boys to do something different. Concrete starts with the enormous orchestral swell of Left to my own devices, and as on the original, that orchestra is actually real. This time it’s the BBC Concert Orchestra, in a concert recorded for BBC Radio, and as you might expect from that fact alone, it truly stands out as an exceptional live album.

There’s an unusual mix of tracks on here – of the seventeen, there are six from the latest album Fundamental, but the bulk were selected for their suitability to play with an orchestra, so after the introductions we get Angelo Badalamenti‘s rather awful rearranged version of Rent, and then an adorable version of You only tell me you love me when you’re drunk.

After a pretty awful sleazy introduction, Frances Barber of all people turns up to introduce the first new track, The Sodom and Gomorrah show, marking the first of the surprise appearances on this release. There’s another on the next song, as Rufus Wainwright appears to sing the bulk of Casanova in Hell, which suits the music well.

Concrete is characterised by a few things, then – the orchestral accompaniment, the guests, and the unusual selection of tracks. Continuing on the latter theme, we now get an excellent version of After all, from the Battleship Potemkin soundtrack, followed by another guest appearance from Frances Barber, now in character as the flamboyant Billie Trix on Friendly fire. The latter just about works, although it does require a bit of an explanation from Neil Tennant beforehand.

Disc one closes with a triumphant version of Integral, and then the pairing of new singles continues on the second disc with the lovely (but largely hated by the fans) Numb. In an environment such as this, you might think that a 1980s acid house classic might not fit too well, but somehow It’s Alright sounds amazing alongside these neighbours.

After Luna Park comes a major surprise: Nothing has been proved, written for Dusty Springfield back in the 1980s but rarely performed by Pet Shop Boys, and sounding completely fantastic here. Then comes Jealousy, in its wonderful extended form, but which maybe could have done with a little more rehearsal, as Neil has to rush a bit when he announces the surprise singer, Robbie Williams.

More surprising, though, is the inclusion of the adorably silly Dreaming of the Queen, from Very. It’s great to see the duo taking their art with a pinch of salt, even here. There’s grandiosity – It’s a sin closes the main set – but there’s also definitely a sense of humour.

Of the encores, Indefinite leave to remain falls a bit flat now – it’s a nice song, but that’s about all you can say for it. But right at the end, it mixes into the orchestral version of West End girls, which, of course, sounds amazing.

Concrete definitely has its ups and downs, but you can’t question its inventiveness as a live set, and for the most part it’s quite excellent. It’s not often I would say this, but this is a live album which is definitely worth tracking down.

Which you can do by clicking here or looking in any major retailer of your choosing.

Artist of the Week – Moby

The scheduling must have shifted a bit at some point, as this one is listed as the first artist of the week, but was definitely broadcast first, around 4.20am (!) on the third week of the radio show Music for the Masses, back in late 2004.

As before, apologies in advance for any inaccuracies, errors, hyperbole, or plagiarism in this piece – it was written twelve years ago and intended to be read out loud…

I want to kick off by explaining a little bit about [Moby‘s] musical career. He first picked up the name Moby as a child, being the great great grand-nephew (or something) of the Moby Dick author Herman Melville. During his relatively troubled childhood, he became passionate about music, particularly punk and John Lydon‘s Public Image Limited, among others.

Whilst at college, he formed several punk bands, none of which saw any great success, but in the late 1980s he moved to New York, and started DJing and making music for small underground record labels. In particular, he came up with a number of pseudonyms to become the driving force behind Instinct Records, who would go on to release several compilations of his early material.

After several underground successes, he first became known in the UK with his phenomenal hit Go, which drew heavily on Angelo Badalamenti‘s score for the David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks. After a few false starts, the single reached number 6 in the UK, and was a huge hit across the world.

During the early 1990s he would remix countless major acts, including Michael JacksonPet Shop BoysBrian EnoDepeche  ModeErasureThe B-52s, and Orbital, and in 1993 he was signed to the London-based label Mute Records.

His first proper album Everything is Wrong would explore and thoroughly question the different aspects of dance music, and would yield single after single in the UK, all of which were substantial hits. The follow-up though, 1996’s Animal Rights would throw dance out of the window, and turn to hard rock instead.

In 1997, following his fantastic reworking of the James Bond theme, he released a compilation of film tracks, entitled I Like to Score, and following this, he would see his greatest success ever, even if it took rather a long time to grip the world’s consciousness.

The first single from Play was Honey, and was released in mid-1998. At this time the album was already completed, but was delayed as he didn’t have a US record company. On its original release in the UK, it peaked at number 33 and in the US it only scraped the top 100. However, after prostituting every single album track, b-side, and remix onto films and adverts, he finally had his first US hit, and climbed his way up to the top of the UK charts. The album would eventually become so successful that no fewer than eight singles were released in the UK.

The follow-up, 2001’s 18 was seen by many as a disappointment, perhaps simply because it wasn’t adventurous enough. It’s a beautiful album though, and still yielded several hit singles and topped the charts again in the UK. After seeing underground success with his Voodoo Child side-project, his next proper album is due in the spring.

Music for the Masses 21 – 10 October 2004

After a four year break, Music for the Masses made its triumphant return, switching now from Aberystwyth to Leeds, and finally making the break into the world of FM broadcasting. The first show started a few minutes late, as the producer had fallen asleep so deeply that he couldn’t hear the telephone ringing, as I frantically tried to get somebody’s attention inside the building so I could come in and do my show. After a lot of waving my arms around, I finally got the attention of the DJs, who politely waved back. Eventually, somebody let me in, and the show began.

Show 21: Sun 10 Oct 2004, from 4:05am-6:05am

Broadcast on LSR FM, on FM and online. Artist of the week: Depeche Mode.

  • Télépopmusik – Breathe
  • Air – Cherry Blossom Girl
  • Enigma – Boum Boum (Chicane Mix)
  • Delerium feat. Zoë Johnston – You & I
  • Depeche Mode – Behind the Wheel (Beatmasters Mix)
  • Alpinestars – NuSEX City
  • Front Line Assembly – Transmitter
  • Client – The Chill of October
  • Yello – Time Palace
  • Depeche Mode – Only When I Lose Myself
  • S.I. Futures – Eurostar
  • Echoboy – Turning On
  • Dirty Vegas – Days Go By (Acoustic)
  • New Order – Touched by the Hand of God (Biff & Memphis Remix)
  • Apollo 440 – Vanishing Point
  • Depeche Mode – Enjoy the Silence
  • Asana – Re-embodiment
  • Goldfrapp – Hairy Trees
  • Orbital & Angelo Badalamenti – Beached

This show was recorded, and for the most part still exists. It will be posted as a Playlist for stowaways soon.

Various Artists – The Beach

Another soundtrack which I own to a film that I’ve never seen is The Beach, which picks a mixture of electronic and dark beats to accompany the Leonardo di Caprio film of the same name.

It opens with Snakeblood, an exclusive track from Leftfield, which like all of their work is good, and is definitely interesting, but it’s not really their best. If I’m not mistaken, it samples Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark for an interesting soundclash, but not an entirely inspiring one.

Less inspirational, but also enjoyable, is All SaintsPure Shores, another of William Orbit‘s many productions from the turn of the millennium. Far from being just yet another pop act, they turn out to be pretty good vocalists, and Orbit’s backing does bring out the best of them.

Moby‘s brilliantly relaxing Porcelain is next, slowing the pace in time for Dario G‘s Voices, which I never entirely got the hang of when it was originally released, but I now find myself really enjoying it, with its gentle ukulele strumming and soft vocals. Underworld turn up next with 8 Ball, which is far from the contrast you might have been expecting from them. As with so many tracks on this album, it’s good, but it’s just not all that great.

Things become more unremarkable still, with a trio of dull inclusions from Sugar Ray, Asian Dub Foundation, and Blur. There’s nothing particularly wrong with any of them, but there’s nothing particularly right with them either. It’s left to Hardfloor to pick things up with their iconic remix of Mory Kante‘s Yeke Yeke, which is always a real treat to hear.

Returning to the theme of amazing artists recording relatively uninteresting tracks, Faithless turn up with a submission entitled Woozy, which is dark, dreamy, hypnotic, and not really anywhere near as good as We Come 1 or Insomnia. Barry Adamson follows with the dramatic, military sound of Richard, It’s Business as Usual, and then there’s another exclusive, this time from New Order, who if I remember correctly were on one of their many hiatuses at the time.

Brutal is probably the best of the exclusive tracks too. It’s a lot livelier than anything else, and while it’s pretty much New Order at their most rock-sounding, it’s actually a pretty good song. Remember, as they have said themselves, a lot of what they put on their albums isn’t entirely up to standard.

I’ve never been entirely convinced by what I’ve heard from Unkle, and while Lonely Soul is certainly interesting, and Richard Ashcroft‘s vocal is characteristically strong, it doesn’t seem the most captivating track in the world until right at the end when you find yourself fighting the urge to listen again as you realise that actually you quite enjoyed it.

Finally Orbital and Angelo Badalamenti turn up, collaborating on the truly exceptional Beached. You could probably dispense with the slightly vacuous voice-over by di Caprio, but otherwise it’s a great piece of music – another example of Orbital at their best, and while I’m not sure exactly what Badalamenti is up to on the track, somehow it all seems to come together perfectly.

The Beach has a patchy soundtrack, then – when it’s good, it’s exceptional, but it has its fair share of filler too. But if you don’t already have those tracks from Mory Kante or Orbital with Angelo Badalamenti then it’s highly recommended.

You can still find The Beach – Motion Picture Soundtrack at all major retailers, such as here at Amazon.

Another Five Fascinating BRIT Awards Facts

You may have seen the previous posts: Five Fascinating BRIT Awards Facts, and Five More Fascinating BRIT Awards Facts. Admittedly, they’re not always as fascinating as the title may suggest.

Hedging Their Bets

Every once in a while, an artist will manage to fill up the nominations with several instances of their own name. This has happened a number of times:

  • Adam and the Ants, 1982, Best British Single – Prince Charming and Stand and Deliver. Won by the only other record in the caregory, Tainted Love by Soft Cell
  • Angelo Badalamenti, 1991, Best Soundtrack/Cast Recording – Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart
  • Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 1985, Best British Single – Relax and Two Tribes. Won by Relax
  • Gareth Gates, 2003, Best British SingleAnyone of Us and Unchained Melody. Won by Liberty X‘s Just a Little
  • The Prodigy, 1997, Best British Video – Breathe and Firestarter. Won by Spice Girls (below)
  • Spice Girls, 1997, Best British Video – Say You’ll Be There and Wannabe. Won by Say You’ll Be There
  • Wham!, 1985, Best British VideoLast Christmas and Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. Lost to Duran Duran‘s Wild Boys
  • Robbie Williams, 1999, Best British Single – Angels and Millennium. Won by Angels. Also, the same year, Best British Video – Let Me Entertain You and Millennium. Won by Millennium. Then in 2002, Best British Video – Supreme and Kids. Lost to So Solid Crew‘s 21 Seconds

Just twice, an artist has managed three nominations in a single category:

  • Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, 1990, Best British SingleSwing the Mood, That’s What I Like, and Let’s Party. All three lost to Phil Collins‘s Another Day in Paradise
  • Take That, 1993, Best British SingleCould it Be MagicA Million Love Songs, and It Only Takes a MinuteCould it Be Magic won

Define “Newcomer”

Logically, it should also be impossible to be nominated for Best Breakthrough Act (or Newcomer) more than once. But a few acts have snuck around that technicality:

  • Atomic Kitten – nominated for Best British Newcomer in both 2001 and 2002
  • Death in Vegas – nominated for the first round of the Best British Newcomer award in both 2000 and 2001
  • Seal – nominated for Best British Newcomer in 1992, despite a nomination for Best British Video (for Crazy) the previous year

Also, in normal circumstances, you might expect a newcomer to keep coming back for more, but a surprising number of acts have won a Best Newcomer award (British or international), and have never received any other nominations:

  • A1 (British, 2001)
  • Belle and Sebastian (British, 1999)
  • Julie Covington (British Female, 1977)
  • Lisa Loeb (International, 1995)
  • Graham Parker (British Male, 1977)
  • PM Dawn (International, 1992)

Best Solo Artist?

  • Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals – nominated for Best British Male Solo Artist in 1990, despite not releasing solo material until 2002
  • Mick Hucknall from Simply Red – nominated for Best British Male Solo Artist in 1993, despite not releasing solo material until 2008
  • Annie Lennox – nominated for Best British Female Solo Artist in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, and 1992, despite not beginning her solo career in earnest until 1992
  • Robert Smith from The Cure – nominated for Best British Male Solo Artist in 1991, despite never having released a solo album

A Second Chance

Normally, BRITs rules dictate that you can only be nominated if you released an album the preceding year. But it doesn’t always seem to work like that:

  • Adamski – Killer was nominated for Best British Video in 1991, and then proceeded to win in 1992
  • Craig David – nominated for Born to Do It in the Best British Album category in both 2001 and 2002
  • Dire Straits – nominated for Brothers in Arms in the Best British Album category in 1986, and then again in 1987. It won the second time
  • Alicia Keys – nominated for Best International Album for Songs in A Minor in 2002 and 2003. Neither won
  • Outkast – nominated twice for Best International Album for Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, in both 2004 and 2005
  • Radiohead – nominated for Best British Album for Kid A in both 2001 and 2002

British or not British?

Irish group U2 must have been a little taken aback in 1985, when they were nominated for Best British Group, and also Best British Album for The Unforgettable Fire. The following year, they were nominated again for Best British Group.

Then in 1988, they dramatically ceased to be British, with a nomination (and win) in the Best International Artist category. They proceeded to win that or the Best International Group award for most of the next couple of decades.

Finally, many wins down the line, they were nominated for Best British Single in 2005, thanks to their collaboration (in the loosest sense) with LMC on Take Me to the Clouds Above.

The BRIT Awards 1991

On February 10th 1991, the BRITs took place at the Dominion Theatre in London, presented, perhaps appropriately, in the form of a voice over, by voice over artiste extraordinaire Simon Bates.

This post is part of a series about the history of the BRIT Awards. You can read about the 1990 ceremony here, and the 1992 ceremony in a couple of days’ time.

Best British Album

Presented by The Bee Gee Robin Gibb. Nominees:

  • The Beautiful South – Choke
  • Elton John – Sleeping with the Past
  • George Michael – Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1
  • Van Morrison – Enlightenment
  • Prefab Sprout – Jordan: The Come Back
  • Lisa Stansfield – Affection

Winner: George Michael

Best British Female

Presented by Annie Lennox. Nominees:

  • Betty Boo
  • Elizabeth Fraser
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Lisa Stansfield
  • Caron Wheeler

Winner: Lisa Stansfield

Best British Group

Presented by Roger Daltry. Nominees:

  • The Beautiful South
  • The Cure
  • Happy Mondays
  • Soul II Soul
  • The Stone Roses
  • Talk Talk

Winner: The Cure

Best British Male

Presented by Kim Appleby. Nominees:

  • Phil Collins
  • Elton John
  • George Michael
  • Van Morrison
  • Robert Smith
  • Jimmy Somerville

Winner: Elton John

Best British Newcomer

Presented by Jimmy Somerville. Nominees:

  • Beats International
  • Betty Boo
  • The Charlatans
  • Happy Mondays
  • The Las

Winner: Betty Boo

Best British Producer

Presented by Kim Appleby. Nominees:

  • Nellee Hooper
  • George Michael
  • Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne
  • Chris Thomas
  • Youth

Winner: Chris Thomas

Best British Single

Presented by Simon Mayo.

Winner: Depeche Mode – Enjoy the Silence

Best British Video

Presented by Philip Schofield and Simon Le Bon from off of Duran Duran. Nominees:

  • Adamski – Killer
  • The Beautiful South – A Little Time
  • The Beloved – Hello
  • Betty Boo – Where Are You Baby
  • The Cure – Close to Me
  • Depeche Mode – Enjoy the Silence
  • Go West – King of Wishful Thinking
  • Billy Idol – Cradle of Love
  • George Michael – Freedom 90
  • Seal – Crazy

Winner: The Beautiful South

Best Classical Recording

Nominees:

  • Matthew Best – Serenade to the Music
  • John Elliot Gardner – Vespers of the Blessed
  • Oliver Knussen – The Prince of the Pagodas
  • Zubin Mehta – In Concerto – Carreras
  • Kent Nagano – The Love for Three

Winner: Zubin Mehta

Best International Female

Presented by Paul Jones. Nominees:

  • Mariah Carey
  • Neneh Cherry
  • Whitney Houston
  • Janet Jackson
  • Madonna
  • Sinéad O’Connor
  • Tina Turner

Winner: Sinéad O’Connor

Best International Group

Presented by Shakin’ Stevens. Nominees:

  • B-52s
  • De La Soul
  • Faith No More
  • INXS
  • Roxette

Winner: INXS

Best International Male

Presented by Rick Astley. Nominees:

  • Jon Bon Jovi
  • MC Hammer
  • Michael Hutchence
  • Prince
  • Paul Simon

Winner: Michael Hutchence

Best International Newcomer

Presented by Chris Rea. Nominees:

  • Mariah Carey
  • Dee-Lite
  • MC Hammer
  • Maria McKee
  • Wilson Phillips

Winner: MC Hammer

Best Soundtrack / Cast Recording

Presented by Rick Astley. Nominees:

  • Angelo Badalamenti – Twin Peaks
  • Angelo Badalamenti – Wild at Heart
  • Maurice Jarre – Ghost
  • Various Artists – Days of Thunder
  • Various Artists – Pretty Woman

Winner: Twin Peaks

Outstanding Contribution

Presented by Terry Ellis.

Winner: Status Quo

Performances

Further Reading / Viewing