Talk about intelligence in pop and you quickly find yourself on slippery ground. Behind every successful record there’s someone, somewhere with a good brain but the smarts required vary by case: initiative, speed of thought, low cunning, political skill, not to mention a host of effects and reactions so canny and quick we handwave them away as “instinct”. And that’s without even touching on composition, studio skill, technique…
So if I said something – and I very well might – like “Neil Tennant is the most intelligent man in pop”, let’s be clear that what I’m talking about is a kind of intelligence critics like me are comfortable with, understand, perhaps envy: an unshowy, wide-ranging sort of brain that in another life would have ended up writing minor novels or maybe reviewing them. An intelligence nurtured and to an extent measured by education: “West End Girls”, for instance, is apparently inspired by T S Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Now, writing a song inspired by The Waste Land is not an inherently noble endeavour. What matters is the use the inspiration’s put to: how well the one aspect of intelligence meshes with all the others. Which in Tennant’s case are highly developed and probably a lot more relevant. With one flop single (whose B-Side was, naturellement, about fashion and politics in Vichy France) he and Chris Lowe needed to get this one right.
So “West End Girls” in its Steven Hague incarnation hits a number of bases. It was a novelty record if you wanted it to be (hitting the top in January, the kindest month for such things). At another angle it was a single like “Ghost Town” or “Mouldy Old Dough”, sunk deep into its times. At yet another it was one of the most cryptically affecting pop songs you’d ever hear.
Novelty first: the Pet Shop Boys’ approach to becoming pop stars was like some kind of record industry martial arts. They took the things they knew would prevent them from being successful and emphasised them as much as they possibly could. They aren’t natural performers, so they turned it into a barely-moving, never-smiling gimmick and announced – before anyone would have cared one way or the other – that they wouldn’t play live. Tennant’s reedy, punctilious singing voice was an absurd vehicle for pop, so on “West End Girls” he makes it still more so by rapping the verses. And while the mid-80s were a good time to be a thirtysomething performer, Tennant carried himself like a man still older, walking through the video in a black overcoat like a dispassionate phantom.
If the “East End”, “West End” stuff could be a lot of places that video puts us squarely in London, and I hear “West End Girls” as a London song. But not any London and not just London. “In a West End town”, after all, suggests “West End” as a stand-in for a state of mind, working like uptown and downtown do in pop. But what kind of state? The phrase also brings to mind the Wild West, and the chaos and hustle in the lyrics point to a city where things are breaking down, structures and meaning replaced with an endless sell.
The city’s dissolution is mirrored in the lyric’s fracture – and this is where The Waste Land comes in, Tennant supposedly borrowing its juggling of narrative voices. It’s a trick he’s fully absorbed, and pulled quite often – most effectively on “Kings Cross” and “DJ Culture” – and what it does is thicken a song with ambiguity as well as make it seem broader in scope. I called Tennant’s vocals on the verses “rapping” but they work like a cross between commentary and patter, now detached from the story they’re selling, now leaning into it – “How much have YOU got?” (The contemporary track “West End Girls” is most like is Murray Head’s “One Night In Bangkok”, which walks a similar, knowing line to a fraction of the effect.)
“West End Girls” mood is emotional dislocation, a sense of being a stranger somewhere you thought you knew – a city, a culture, your own head. The music isn’t so dramatic – synthpop taken at walking pace, drum machines and electro bassline low-key but insistent, synths rolling coldly out across snatches of footfalls and street chatter. And a reminder of when we are – a horn solo and gospel backing vox, the trimmings of modern pop turned into just more found city sound.
And yes this can be every city in every nation at every time – the flux of emergent consequences when you pack people together – but it also specifically is London in the mid-80s, the years of Big Bang, wine bars, braces, Canary Wharf, all that Thatcher boom iconography. 1986 was her zenith: political opposition in civil war, unions routed, privatisation program in full commercial swing, and now the old press and banking establishments in retreat. The Pet Shop Boys would write a whole album that reflected and dissected those times better than any other pop: “West End Girls”, written years before, still catches something of their glassy hunger.