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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The BRIT Awards 1993

The BRIT Awards 1993 were, by relative standards, uncontroversial and reasonably unexciting. To tell the truth, I only picked this year because of the host. The show took place at London’s glittering Alexandra Palace on February 16th 1993. Here’s a quick introduction, and here’s your host, fresh out of the Crystal Maze, Richard O’Brien.

If you thought he was an odd choice of presenter, you wait till you see the award presenters!

Best British Group

Brilliantly presented by Vic and Bob. Nominees:

  • The Cure
  • Erasure
  • Right Said Fred
  • Shakespears Sister
  • Simply Red

Winner: Simply Red.

Best British Newcomer

Presented by Lenny Kravitz. Nominees:

  • Dina Carroll
  • KWS
  • Take That
  • Tasmin Archer
  • Undercover

Yes, that’s KWS and Undercover up against Take That. Wow.

Winner: Tasmin Archer.

Best British Video

Voted for by the audience of Going Live, and presented by exotic protoplasm par excellence Naomi Campbell. Nominees:

  • Simply Red – For Your Babies
  • Genesis – Jesus He Knows Me
  • Erasure – Take A Chance On Me
  • Annie Lennox – Walking on Broken Glass
  • Shakespears Sister – Stay

The BRITs website also lists the following, which I assume were weeded out in earlier phases of the contest:

  • George Michael – Too Funky
  • Lisa Stansfield – All Woman
  • Peter Gabriel – Digging in the Dirt
  • Tasmin Archer – Sleeping Satellite
  • The Cure – I’m in Love

Winner: Shakespears Sister.

Best British Single

Voted for by listeners of BBC Radio 1. Presented by Simon Mayo and Jaki Brambles out of BBC Radio 1. The top five nominees:

  • 5. Wet Wet Wet – Goodnight Girl
  • 4. Take That – It Only Takes a Minute
  • 3. Take That – A Million Love Songs
  • 2. Shakespears Sister – Stay

A soppy bunch of singles this year. Note that already darlings of the music biz, Take That managed to grab three of the top five nominations! They really were that big from day one.

Winner: Take That for Could it Be Magic.

Best Classical Recording

Presented by Meat Loaf while everyone else smiled politely. Nominees:

  • Nicholas Parnacourt – Beethoven – 9th Symphony
  • Cecelia Bartoli – Puccini – Heroines
  • Gorecki – Symphony No. 3
  • John Taverner – The Protecting Veil
  • Nigel Kennedy – Violin Concerto – Beethoven

Winner: Nigel Kennedy.

Best British Female

Presented by Lulu. Nominees:

  • Annie Lennox
  • Kate Bush
  • Lisa Stansfield
  • Siobhan Fahey
  • Tasmin Archer

Winner: Annie Lennox.

Best Soundtrack/Cast Recording

Presented by Roger Taylor out of Queen. Nominees:

  • Bugsy (Ennio Morricone)
  • Frankie and Johnny (various artists)
  • Hook (John Williams)
  • Mo’ Money (various artists)
  • Wayne’s World (various artists)

Winner: Wayne’s World.

Best International Group

Presented by Chrissie Hynde. Nominees:

  • Crowded House
  • En Vogue
  • Nirvana
  • R.E.M.
  • U2

Winner: R.E.M.

Best British Album

Sponsored by the Britannia Music Club, and presented by Ruby Wax. Nominees:

  • Annie Lennox – Diva
  • Elton John – The One
  • Genesis – We Can’t Dance
  • Right Said Fred – Up
  • Shakespears Sister – Hormonally Yours
  • The Orb – U.F. Orb

Winner: Annie Lennox.

Best British Male

Presented by Lisa Stansfield. Nominees:

  • Elton John
  • Eric Clapton
  • George Michael
  • Joe Cocker
  • Mick Hucknall
  • Phil Collins

Winner: Mick Hucknall.

Best International Newcomer

Quite literally presented, in character, by Smashie and Nicey (Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse), and I’d agree that The Shamen should have been up for every award. Nominees:

  • Arrested Development
  • Boyz II Men
  • Curtis Stigers
  • Nirvana
  • Tori Amos

Curtis Stigers, you will remember, had The One and Only one hit.

Winner: Nirvana.

Best British Producer

Presented by Paul Young. Nominees:

  • Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne
  • Pete Waterman
  • Peter Gabriel
  • Steve Lipsom
  • Trevor Horn

Winner: Peter Gabriel.

Best International Solo Artist

Presented by Kylie Minogue. Nominees:

  • Curtis Stigers
  • Enya
  • kd lang
  • Madonna
  • Prince

Winner: Prince.

Most Successful Live Act

Presented by Billy Bragg in honour of the most successful live act of 1992.

Winner: U2.

Outstanding Contribution

Presented by Long John Baldry.

Winner: Rod Stewart.

Performances

Further Reading / Viewing

Edit: removed numerous videos that are no longer available (13 August 2017).