Thursday, 2 July 2009

1986 Pet Shop Boys: West End Girls

As Assistant Editor of 'Smash Hits', Neil Tennant must have despaired at the pop landscape of the early eighties that his publication wrote about and the kids screamed over. Yes there were good pop groups producing good pop music, but after Adam stopped playing with the Ants and took his ball home with him, where was the substance and relevance in the overproduced candy floss of the Duran's and the Wham's of the world? And so he decided to step through the mirror to the other side and do something about it.

'West End Girls' opens with a hypnotic wash of electronics sounding like passing traffic flowing like sleeping gas before settling into a neo rap beat that's only broken by a squealing brass interlude straight out of a spaghetti western set in hell. Neil Tennant raps the lyrics in the manner of a Geordie with no singing voice (which is exactly what he is) but with a delivery of self confident swagger and shine that brooks no hint of irony or parody and has his tongue nowhere near his cheek.

And how likely does all this sound as the basis of a number one song or a career in music? After all, what future could there be for a dreary Al Stewart soundalike who sang/spoke/rapped over a muted electronic backing like a Soft Cell B side played at half speed? None surely? Yet as unlikely as all this sounds, it works.

And it works largely because his dour delivery isn't regaling stories of the bright lights and beautiful people that your average listener imagines must live 'up West' (as opposed to the miserable and downtrodden screened twice weekly on 'EastEnders'). The 'west end town' of this world is twinned with the 'Ghost Town' of The Specials, a place of casual violence:

"Sometimes you're better off dead

There's gun in your hand and its pointing at your head
You think you're mad, too unstable

Kicking in chairs and knocking down tables"

and angst fuelled paranoia:

"Too many shadows, whispering voices

Faces on posters, too many choices"

It's a lyric of casual observation rather than Ray Davies type storytelling and it roots the almost ambient, other world music firmly in this one. As English as the song is (and it's very English - not British. English), this isn't London W2 (though there are London references like The Dive Bar on Gerrard Street), it's any city in the UK of 1986 that the Conservative Party's harmony, truth, faith and hope hadn't shown their faces.

The girls of this West weren't any better than the boys of the East - how could they be when the town only had one side of the tracks, the bad one? Yet there is a sense of unity in adversity and glamour in a gutter where everybody is staring at the stars, a seam that Pulp would later mine to tremendous effect in 'Common People'.

'West End Girls' has always reminded me of Marshall Hain's 1978 hit 'Dancing In The City' - that is, a low key, almost subliminal tale of urban living with an ever present hint of menace and violence that keeps the edges sharp; there was something serious going on here beneath the surface, like the razor blade hidden in the Halloween apple, and it forced you to listen rather than dance around like a fool. A rare commodity in hits of this decade.

Like 'Dancing In The City' too, I assumed (at the time) that the Pet Shop Boys would be, if not a one hit wonder, certainly a one trick pony that would be off to the knacker's yard come November. The whole set up screamed out 'novelty act' and I had my doubts whether the whole thing wasn't a publicity stunt dreamed up by the BBC to promote their new soap 'Eastenders'. I'm happy to admit my judgement was off by a mile. The Pet Shop Boys would go on to release better singles than 'West End Girls', but not many, and at one stroke this single raised the bar roof top high as to what an eighties pop song should sound like.

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