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.