Sunday, 27 November 2011
70 Actually - Pet Shop Boys
Purchased : 17 October 1987
Tracks : One More Chance / What Have I Done To Deserve This ? / Shopping / Rent / Hit Music / It Couldn't Happen Here / It's A Sin / I Want To Wake Up / Heart / King's Cross
This one was purchased on a Saturday morning trip into Manchester.
There are some critics aforementioned on this blog for whom the Pet Shop Boys can do wrong. I'm not one of them ; I like the band rather than love them. I'm not completely sure of the reason for that reservation. Certainly they were the best British band of the post-Smiths eighties but that's damning with faint praise. I was beginning to tire of synth-pop around this time ( and forthcoming posts will reveal where that ennui led me ) but that's not the whole story. Neil Tennant's voice may be relevant, the limiting factor that often prevents their music soaring to its full potential. I also don't love them as people. I see Tennant as the embodiment of Pete Wylie's ideal of the anti-rock star, the role he didn't have the chops to assume. Tennant's arrogant disdain for U2 or The Police was straight out of the Wylie manual and the consciousness of "canon" that led him to strenuously deny any influence by the likes of Al Stewart or Sparks was alienating. And Chris Lowe is quite possibly the most charmless man in music.
But for all that they had a good run of singles under their belt which made this album a desirable purchase. Unlike the previous entry this LP doesn't get off to a good start. "One More Chance" is a re-recording of the B-side of the original "West End Girls" single from 1984 co-written with disco producer Bobby Orlando. It's reappearance here after not being included on the debut LP "Please" immediately suggests a shortage of material. The song itself is very slight with Tennant muttering in his usual deadpan fashion about a late night urban stroll in the manner of Flash and the Pan's Walking In The Rain ; doubtless Tennant would deny that connection but the title is actually referenced in the lyrics. The music is a generic Hi-NRG rhythm track with some Lovin Spoonful - style urban sound effects and there's no bridge to the very boring chorus at all.
Next is "What Have I Done To Deserve This ? " the well-trailed collaboration with Dusty Springfield which some regard as a classic but I think is one of their weaker singles. Co-written with American songwriter Allee Wills and conceived as a sort of Don't You Want Me mini-soap where a man ends up working for his ex-lover, it doesn't work for me. The synthesised brass refrain in the intro is promising but the song itself is over-complex with neither a clear separation of the actors' voices or enough melody to make the effort of unpicking it worthwhile. Nor is the duetting successful; Tennant sounds more bored than usual while Springfield sounds strangely muffled. Whether that was necessary to disguise the decline in the 48-year old's voice or to prevent her overpowering Tennant it only heightens the sense of anti-climax that hangs around the whole thing.
Matters then improve with "Shopping", the most overt of several attempts on this LP to capture the zeitgeist of 1987 and the implications of Thatcher's third election triumph. Lyrically the song was inspired by the sell-offs of the nationalised industries and share trading generally while musically the influence is definitely Kraftwerk particularly The Robots. The analysis isn't particularly deep but Tennant nails the feeling of progressive despair on the line - "I heard it in the House of Commons, everything's for sale ". Of course the world it describes experienced an abrupt convulsion just two days after I bought the LP and it's not the only prescient song here.
"Rent" is another minor-key song about the times but much more subtle. Here we have a relationship based on financial security with Tennant singing from the point of view of the "kept" person so his wheedling tones are absolutely perfect. The music is again heavily indebted to Kraftwerk with Andy Richards's Fairlight trumpet adding appropriate chilliness particularly if you interpret the title to mean this is a young boy groomed for the pleasure of a paedophile. Shockingly this was by far the smallest hit of the four singles, turning tail at number 8 after only two weeks in the chart. Clearly some of their audience didn't want to know about their darker side.
"Hit Music" relies on a facsimile of the Peter Gunn riff for its propulsion and on the surface seems relatively slight but there are fatalistic references to AIDS in the verses - "Live and die it's all that we know, I need a friend at the journey's end" emphasised by brief but telling Fairlight string interventions and Tennant's double-tracked vocal. I'm not sure the chilled-out coda really adds anything to the track.
"It Couldn't Happen Here " is another touted collaboration this time with Ennio Morricone and yet again the results are disappointing ; if nothing else this LP proved that Tennant and Lowe were best, ahem. left to their own devices. The former was very proud of the song describing it in Smash Hits as "the highlight of the album" but he's well wrong there. Apparently an attack on complacency the lyric is too oblique and personal to make much sense to an outsider and musically it's a bit of a dirge, the Fairlight on the chorus conjuring up not so much a spaghetti western as a Hovis commercial.
"It's A Sin" follows next , their second number one from earlier in the year. The guys pull out all the stops here with thunder cracks for emphasis and a Latin recitation of the Act of Confession on Tennant's autobiographical tale of Catholic guilt ; it's significant that in the video Tennant is a passionate participant rather than his usual laconic observer. It's triumph was sullied by Jonathan King who, following his pathological anti-patriotic urge to undermine any British success story , accused them of plaigiarising Cat Stevens' Wild World in his column for The Sun. Although the duo sued and won the similarity in the main melody line is undeniable and takes the gloss off a very good song.
"I Want To Wake Up" is a fairly routine Fairlight chugger ( although Adamski was obviously listening to some of the bleeping noises ) with Tennant expressing his ambivalence about love. It's never a good idea to resort to namechecking other songs (here , Tainted Love and Love Is Strange ) to make your point and it's not one of their better efforts.
"Heart" became their fourth and to date final number one in March 1988 , a rare triumph for a fourth single release from an album. It's a better attempt at a simple love song and was originally intended for Hazell Dean. The earworm is that staccato synth hook ; otherwise the backing track is a bit too close to Stock, Aitken and Waterman for comfort. Tennant sings it so sweetly he could almost be Green Gartside.
I'm always inclined to mark up an album which saves its best song until last and "King's Cross" is probably my favourite PSB track of all. It's a lament for the runaways picked up at the titular station and exploited , the same nightmare world depicted in the third and best of the Prime Suspect series. The meaning of the line "Dead and wounded on either side / You know it's only a matter of time" is only too clear. There are no walloping dancebeats here just a discreetly buzzing bass line to move things along while the choral synths weep for the doomed youngsters and trains go by packed with commuters ignoring what's going on right before their eyes. A couple of months later the King's Cross fire took place and The Sun pressurised them to release it as a charity single. Given that the same newspaper had given King a platform for his bile and had just been running a very nasty smear campaign against Elton John it's not surprising that their suggestion was ignored.
So it's a pretty good album that represents the group at their commercial peak before their ubiquity became too exhausting for a mass audience to keep pace with and enough fell off to prevent them having any more number one singles ( ther only number one LP came in 1993 and sold far less than this one which peaked at 2 ) .