IT’S PETSHOP BOYS, ACTUALLY.
Here at Underground, we are celebrating thirty years since the release of our first original collection, which looked to contribute to our founding philosophy of unorthodox, renegade and subversive style. In homage to the year that started it all, we have started a series that will look back on the aura of 1987; exploring the sound, sights and feel of a year that is vital to our history.
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, AKA Pet Shop Boys are undoubtedly synoymous with the ’80s and the pop music epoch of the decade. Before his starring role in the iconic electro pop-duo, Neil worked as a journalist, interviewing Depeche Mode, Madness and Yazoo. His cool credibility already instated, he quit the freelance life in order to become a full-time Pet Shop Boy in 1981. The two met in an electronics shop after Neil forgot to buy a piece of equipment to plug his new and sparkling synthesizer in to. In walks Chris, and the two begin to talk about their mutual love of music before Neil gives Chris his phone number. Like a modern day fairy tale, it really does prove magic can be found in the mundane. Defined by their sonambulant synths, politically powered lyrics and their timeless image, the pair, like an endless revolving door, have constantly been able to reimagine themselves, relentlessly riding the pop-waves of each decade. They have sold over fifty millions records worldwide, and are rightly-so the biggest selling duo in UK history no less. And it is with that that we turn our attention to their 2nd offering, released in 1987: Actually.
After topping the charts with their hit ‘West End Girls’, the duo decided to scale it back musically, and put more focus on the lyrics for their second album. Actually – called precisely that after Neil found the word to be ‘so English’ – is an epitomical example of the band’s detached but politically-aware brand of dance-pop that has now come to define them. It has been heralded as a loose critique of the political zeitgeist of the ’80s.
The absolutely quintessential artwork was arguably a happy accident. Chris and Neil were shooting their video for ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’. British photographer Cindy Palmano was brought there to document the event. To make the most out of their money, the duo asked Cindy to take some publicity shots. The very first photo she took was the one that they chose for the Actually artwork: Chris scowling into the camera, Neil whimsically yawning. Whilst they may not have known it at the time, the spontaneous photograph was one of the most indelible images to rise out of the pop-culture of the 1980s.
After grasping the pop potential of it, the duo endeavoured to re-create the iconic image for a television advertisement for the album. As the narrator reels off information about the ‘world wide million seller ‘West End Girls” and the new ‘worldwide number one’ from the album, ‘It’s a Sin’, Chris, bored and listless, looks away from the camera, almost disenchanted by the narration that deals with the wealth of music he has created. Just as expectations would have it and right on cue, Neil then yawns before a freezeframe of the image. The advert seems ironic in its disaffection with the pop-industry, and it is this disillusionment with society that has come to exemplify the Pet Shop Boys’ music.
Whilst production and sound will always tie albums to their times, what allows Actually to transcend its date is the catchy songs that also have a subtle substance to them: the politics aren’t spelt out, but it is the small nuances in lines like: ‘but look at my hopes, look at my dreams, the currency we’ve spent / I love you, you pay my rent ‘ that appeal to a universal mistrust of materialism.
As an ode to the perfect pop album, we take a look over some of the most iconic tracks from Actually.
What Have I Done To Deserve This?
One of the biggest singles off of the album, ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’ is a lamentful duet between the Boys and Dusty Springfield, and single-handedly relaunched the career of the blue-eyed songstress. The song exemplifies the ’80s and the duo: swathes of synths and jaunty beats complimented by Neil’s inimitable vocals. Written in collaboration with Allee Willis – who had co-written the disco ditty ‘Boogie Wonderland – the song is about ‘two people [that] have broken up and they’re both in different places regretting that they’ve split up, and at the end of the song they get back together again’.
‘Shopping’ is a brilliant bop critiquing the privatisation that was sweeping the nation during the ’80s. In an interview, the duo said they were inspired by Cameo’s ‘word-up’ so decided to write the song in the style of the American funk band. […] The song started as a joke, with Chris and I walking down Oxford Street singing ‘S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G’ when we were shopping. The word ‘shopping’ is somehow a humourous word […] I don’t think anyone had ever written a song about shopping, and it’s such a common human activity, and in the Eighties it ceased to be presented as a necessity and instead became a leisure activity. The Eighties were very concerned with buying and selling. However I couldn’t think of anything particularly interesting to say about shopping so the words are about the government selling off nationalised industries.’ We see your logic there. Unlike their other songs that are more subtle in their political examinations, ‘Shopping’ literally spells it out for you: ‘our gain is your loss, that’s the price you pay . I heard it in the House of Commons: everything’s for sale’. Just like the magically mundane meeting between the two men at the beginning of their career, the song takes the common human activity and turns it in to a politically-charged tune.
It’s a Sin
‘It’s a Sin’ was also another single taken from the album. The awesome anthem is a rhapsodic homage to Neil’s staunch Catholic school upbringing. Like a pop Shakespearean tragedy, the song explores the turmoil of religion, claiming that everything that could ever be pleasureable is in actual fact ‘a sin’. With thunderous sound effects, an orchestral minefield, the overblown production values in both the song and the video, the sampling of Latin verse and the song being bookended by a NASA countdown means the song relishes in the extremes, commenting directly on Neil’s tumultuous time with religion.