Chart for stowaways – 19 August 2017

Here are this week’s top albums:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Release
  2. Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife
  3. Saint Etienne – Home Counties
  4. Erasure – World Be Gone
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Fundamental
  6. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog
  7. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  8. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  9. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  10. Pet Shop Boys – Format
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Chart for stowaways – 12 August 2017

A top ten full of electronic legends!

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Reunion
  2. Saint Etienne – Sweet Arcadia
  3. Erasure – Love You To The Sky
  4. Saint Etienne – Magpie Eyes
  5. Erasure – Be Careful What You Wish For!
  6. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  7. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  8. Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express
  9. Pet Shop Boys – I’m with Stupid
  10. Jean-Michel Jarre & Pet Shop Boys – Brick England

Chart for stowaways – 5 August 2017

Here are the top ten albums right now:

  1. Saint Etienne – Home Counties
  2. Kraftwerk – 3-D Der Katalog
  3. Erasure – World Be Gone
  4. Pet Shop Boys – Release
  5. Pet Shop Boys – Nightlife
  6. Goldfrapp – Silver Eye
  7. Pet Shop Boys – Fundamental
  8. Depeche Mode – Spirit
  9. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  10. New Order – Music Complete

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.

Chart for stowaways – 29 July 2017

These are the week’s top singles:

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Reunion
  2. Saint Etienne – Sweet Arcadia
  3. Erasure – Love You To The Sky
  4. Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express
  5. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  6. Erasure – Be Careful What You Wish For!
  7. Jean-Michel Jarre Oxygène (Part 17)
  8. Saint Etienne – Magpie Eyes
  9. Depeche Mode – Cover Me
  10. Jean-Michel Jarre & Pet Shop Boys Brick England

Stowaway Heroes – Shep Pettibone

One of the most important names of the 1980s is Shep Pettibone. You’ll know him from multiple remixes and production credits, but there’s a good chance that you don’t actually know anything about him. Me neither, frankly, so let’s start with something we can all agree on – the brilliance of his 1986 remix of Love Comes Quickly, by Pet Shop Boys:

The New York-based DJ would work with Pet Shop Boys a number of times between 1986 and 1988, working on ten tracks in total. But by 1986, Pettibone was already half a decade into his career, having cut his teeth on Afrika Bambaataa‘s Jazzy Sensation in 1981:

His CV for the late 1980s is impressive to say the least, including remixes and production work for Art of NoiseThe B-52sBee GeesBrosDavid BowieDepeche ModeDuran DuranDusty SpringfieldElton JohnErasure, FalcoGeorge MichaelJanet JacksonNew OrderRun DMCWhitney Houston and many others. But his most prolific collaborator seems to have been Madonna, who used his services no less than sixteen times between 1985 and 1993. Here’s Into the Groove:

His mixes were undeniably of their time, with huge drum fills and solos, and a lot of orchestral hits – so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his remix work dried up somewhat in the 1980s. But if you’re looking for someone who heavily impacted the sound of a particular era, Shep Pettibone should be very high on your list.

Stowaway Heroes – Ian Levine

This is the first, and potentially also last, mention here for an unlikely Stowaway HeroIan Levine is a divisive personality, who has been involved in three main spheres that are relevant to this blog: first and least relevant is northern soul. If you’re not familiar with what that means… well, frankly, you are:

Yes, Fatboy Slim joins the ranks of Soft Cell and many others who have appeared on this blog previously as acts who have been influenced by northern soul, the gentle black American pop music that surprisingly took the north of England by storm in the late 1960s.

By the mid-1970s, Levine was one of the better known DJs who was bringing northern soul to Blackpool, and in more recent years, he has put his name to several compilation albums covering the era.

Over the decade or so that followed, he also made his name in the world of television show Doctor Who, writing the theme for the 1981 spin-off K-9 and Company, and also being responsible for this awful and rather tasteless charity single to try to persuade the BBC to bring the main series back in 1985:

Astonishingly, Hans Zimmer helped out on fairlight for that recording, along with a lot of people for whom this hopefully wasn’t the highlight of their career.

More specifically though, for this blog, Levine was the man who produced this hit single for Evelyn Thomas, later also covered by Erasure:

While the electronic parts of the song are almost depressingly simple, there’s a lot to be said for the vocal performance. His subsequent remixes for Pet Shop Boys (of Paninaro and It’s a Sin) definitely deserve to be forgotten, as does this (subsequently deleted) shockingly misogynistic tweet about the casting of a female Doctor Who:

CHRIS CHIBNALL MAKES ME WANNA VOMIT He has put the final nail into Doctor Who. RIP

But for all of that, I think we can agree that Ian Levine has influenced this blog in his own way, and for that we should be grateful!