Pet Shop Boys

30 years after West End girls - 15 defining Pet Shop Boys moments

I had a pretty awful taste in music as a child, cheerfully soaking up Radio 1 in its Smashie & Nicey phase. Whatever lurked near the top of the charts was usually good enough for me.

And while I would later discover The Smiths, The Beatles and New Order, my musical education can be traced back to 28th October 1985 -- release date of the record that rather changed my attitude to music.

Thirty years on, this is my thank you to the Pet Shop Boys.

Sometimes you're better off dead... 28th October 1985

Of course, I didn't actually buy West End girls the day it was released. I discovered it like almost everyone else did, through Top of the Pops. Another Thursday night of neon and fake smiles, then suddenly two people just.. standing there. A hypnotic sound and extraordinary performance. It would slowly drift up the charts, hitting number one in January, which turned out to be surprisingly vital validation for a 13-year-old.. 

Imperial phase June 1987-April 1988

That validation kept coming. For a brief, shining period of the late 1980s, the Pet Shop Boys were THE biggest group in the country. It's a sin went to number one, What have I done to deserve this almost did, Actually was hardly ever taken off my record deck. Even Heart, by no means their greatest song, spent two weeks at number one. And at Christmas, Always on my mind beat all-comers. Suddenly, my side was on top -- like Preston North End winning the FA Cup, only happening in my lifetime.

I smell youth... Vintage youth.. 8th July 1988

A modest crowd gathered by the doors of the smallest screen at the Blackpool Odeon, waiting for children, high on Kia-Ora, to leave the early evening screening of Snow White. We were there for something somewhat different. Really, really, quite different. It couldn't happen here apparently started as a "video album" (always about to be a huge thing in the 80s), but instead turned into a 90-minute film with Barbara Windsor and Gareth Hunt. There almost certainly is a plot there, beyond "Neil and Chris go on a journey". You don't see it on TV much, though...

MCMLXXXIX 15th July 1989

Somehow, I was on the third row at the NEC in Birmingham, for the Pet Shop Boys' first ever tour. A flurry of costume changes, including a bright blue dressing gown and papal robes, Derek Jarman's films and a string quartet support act, it was exactly what you'd want a Pet Shop Boys show to be. I got there thanks to my amazing Grandmother, who died earlier this year, and who for reasons I will never understand drove me from Lancashire to Birmingham, sat in a Little Chef while the show was on, and then drove me home again at 11pm. My Grandmother's favourite Pet Shop Boys song, by the way, was Go West, which she used to whistle, slightly out of tune.

I love you more than you love me 4th December 1989

I ended the 1980s on crutches, an unfortunate accident involving a footballer-style slide across the living room to try to videotape Morrissey's performance on Top of the Pops. But it left me with far more time to listen to the first Electronic single. Not strictly speaking a Pet Shop Boys record, but when you take elements of them, New Order and The Smiths, clearly you're going to end up with something remarkable. 

In fact, following the Pet Shop Boys led to all kinds of discoveries. Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony, played at the start of the 1991 Performance tour, now sits in my record collection. The list of performers and artists they've worked with would be, well, longer than this post for a start. Not everything was a winner, admittedly.

I never dreamt that I would get to be, the creature that I always meant to be 12th November 1990

Three years earlier, it really mattered how high a Pet Shop Boys single charted. Number one was clearly the target, but top five would do. Anything below that was disappointing. But when Being boring debuted at number 36, I simply shrugged my shoulders. The public had clearly gone mad, rejecting this beautiful song. Twenty-five years later, it still makes me stop whatever I'm doing to listen. I was 18 by this point, and chart positions didn't really matter anymore.

You dance to disco and you don't like rock 1st June 1993

I probably started wearing ties because Neil Tennant wore them on Top of the Pops. I was never going to start wearing orange jumpsuits and pointy hats. Was it a mid-career crisis? Or just a way to defeat boredom? Either way, Can you forgive her introduced the poppiest Pet Shop Boys album yet, and sounded like an epic proclamation of intent. It also led to one of the strangest TV performances ever...

Hallo Spaceboy 19th February 1996

Yoko Ono, Tina Turner, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams, Liza Minelli and Dusty Springfield. All have taken their turn as collaborators. But perhaps this was the high point. David Bowie, on stage at the Brits, with Neil Tennant singing Space Oddity-inspired lyrics in the background. Everyone wants to meet their childhood hero -- few get to record a duet with them.

When you feel your song is orchestrated wrong... 13th April 1998

Through the 1990s, the discoveries associated with the Pet Shop Boys were as important as the albums, singles and tours. It's unlikely the 26-year-old me would have had cause to discover Noel Coward's songwriting gifts, it it hadn't been for 20th Century Blues, a compilation of modern covers. The album's hard to find these days but well worth tracking down, if only for Vic Reeves' interpretation of "Don't put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington" and this version of "Sail Away"

I don't know what you want... 19th July 1999

The 90s were very much the "costume era" -- and the time the Pet Shop Boys went from being a top 10 band to a top 20 one, and by the end of the decade struggling to last more than a week in the charts. That meant this song, first to be released from the Nightlife album, was largely ignored. A pity, not least because of the grim, faded beauty of the dystopian video.

Battleship Potemkin 12th September 2004

To give you an idea of the scale of the journey... Twenty years after the unsuccessful first release of West End girls, comes a new score for Eisenstein's silent 1920s Soviet propaganda film. It's premiered at an open air screening in Trafalgar Square -- I'm one of thousands standing in steady drizzle -- but one of the few who managed to get a one-to-one interview out of it. What was that about getting to meet your childhood heroes? And why on earth didn't I bring a camera?

Purveyor of electronic music... 8th May 2006

Not that the decent pop songs had dried up. Fundamental was one of a number of Pet Shop Boys albums to be reviewed as a "return to form", prefaced by this vicious song -- cruel about the Blair/Bush relationship, while charting the way so many had by this time fallen out of love with New Labour. The Blair face masks caused chaos in the dying days of Top of the Pops -- fearing allegations of bias, photocopied cut-outs of David Cameron and Ming Campbell were hastily added. The video, meanwhile, knowingly nodded at that costume era of the early 90s.

Thank you for this impressive award 18th February 2009

I had just signed up for twitter when, finally, the Pet Shop Boys got the lifetime achievement award at the Brits. A ten minute medly in front of millions on TV, a few surprise guests, and me, tweeting my delight to, I don't know, four people. Truly, the future had arrived. A few months later, a huge crowd turned out at the O2 for a sell-out gig. Was my side winning again, all these years later?

You're a winner... 12th August 2012

Maybe not. The Olympics-tinged "Winner" peaked at number 86. I know chart positions don't matter, but for pity's sake... Still, after performing at Wimbledon at the start of the Olympics, they returned on bikes for the closing ceremony, and a few weeks later in front of Buckingham Palace for the British athletes' parade, flown back at the apparent request of both the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London.

More banging, with lasers.. 18th June 2013

The 2012 album Elysium had a fin de siecle  feel to it. But just a year later came the frantic Electric -- the first album away from EMI. It was extraordinary. Short, just nine songs, not a moment wasted, and in "Vocal" one of the best Pet Shop Boys singles ever released. The live show was spectacular, the music still amazing.

So the hits dried up, but the fantastic records never did. Along the way I stood in the drizzle watching a silent movie, sat awkwardly with my boss at a musical, took a trip to the ballet, and danced to West End girls at my wedding disco.

So, you know, thanks.