Vinyl Frontier: Retro Reviews Pet Shop Boys - Actually
Pet Shop Boys - Actually
Review by Andrew David James
The 1980’s were a strange time. In the UK politically it was an ugly era, full of spite and polar opposites. Internationally it was likewise. Culturally there was an air of upward mobility in the air that was faintly ridiculous but the effect of this is evident to the present day. Musically, it wasn’t the great decade some might have it be.
Especially for guitar bands. But the creative impulses were finding their way through electronica and several acts broke down the barriers from Gary Numan to Talking Heads before two rather downbeat stars emerged in 1985 in the form of ‘Pet Shop Boys’ comprising of singer Neil Tennant and keyboard player Chris Lowe.
Infinitely aware they weren’t kids (Tennant was 30 when they released their debut album ‘Please’) they had a measured approach towards their music and style. They enhanced their credibility on the club scene by remixing their singles plus a couple of additions (step forward the weird and wonderful soundtrack to 1980’s BBC ratings winner and sign of the times ‘The Clothes Show’).
By 1987 the decade was sobering up a little. The economy was sliding and the garish greed manifest earlier was being questioned in Hollywood films like ‘Wall Street’. The 1980’s were no longer so carefree. There was a price. With their bittersweet pitch of pop tunes, Neil and Chris recognised what that was.
‘Actually’ is ten pop songs which mostly conform to the radio friendly format of 4 minutes. But for closer scrutiny, one need not go by running order. The wry political and social commentary is reserved for ‘Shopping’, ‘Rent’ and ‘It’s A Sin’.
The first is the witty outlook on high street store addiction, the next delves into a sub-culture hinting at prostitution at worst or freeloading at best, hidden a little by a charming melody. More captivating and controversial is the last track which became a No 1 single in the UK. It’s a catchy song, but did anybody really know what it meant at the time? The nod to society’s perception of homosexuality is explicit but 24 years ago that seemed to go a little unnoticed.
There are the easier numbers in the next category which includes ’What Have I Done To Deserve This?’, ‘Hit Music’, ‘Heart’ and ‘I Want To Wake Up’. The first is an effortlessly mesmerising number with the vocal contributions of soul diva Dusty Springfield a revelation. ‘Hit Music’ possesses a chunky almost dirty rhythm but is less complex than many of the other tracks.
‘Heart’ gave them another massive No. 1 hit and it’s easy to see why; the melody and jagged electronica make up for any one dimensional lyrics. Apparently, they originally offered it to Madonna. Based on the lyrics, it’s understandable to see why she didn’t take it up but once recorded by it’s composers, in hindsight it was probably a mistake but let’s face it, Madge has not looked back and the rejection gave Neil and Chris a great opportunity to realise the potential they had shown in the mid 1980’s.
On ‘Please’ Pet Shop Boys had been proficient at the up tempo numbers but arguably were left wanting a little when it came to the slower or moodier ones. Showing their maturity, they sign off three with aplomb. Album opener ‘One More Chance’ conjures up images of Soho jazz clubs and deserted rain pelted streets at 2am. The majestic production of ‘It Couldn‘t Happen Here’ is a major step in their development with a poignant but regal chorus that rises from the tense verse.
‘Kings Cross’ isn’t about the infamous blaze there which occurred only 2 months after the release of the album despite the coincidence of lyrics referring to the “dead and wounded”. But this melancholic and almost dreamlike track finishes off the album perfectly and is the signpost to the future. The duo would pick up these reins on their next long player ‘Behaviour’.
‘Actually’ has it all for a pop album. It’s experimental, there’s plenty of memorable chart fare and the composition, production and much of the subject matter is nourishing for both the easy listener and the more discernable one. It would prove to be the launch pad to a long and successful career for the pair.