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Nov 09

PET SHOP BOYS – “West End Girls”

FT + Popular112 comments • 8,574 views

#563, 11th January 1986, video

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.

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Comments

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  1. 101
    wichita lineman on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Lex at 55: for what it’s worth I found West End Girls to be far too pleased with itself (especially ‘from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station’ ie “I studied history, dontcha know!”) when it arrived – Love Comes Quickly was the PSB hit that tuned me into them, with the warmth of its minor chords (best since Architecture And Morality), and “just when you least expect it, just what you least expect” which is a killer line.

    Tom, Suburbia never sounded like the suburbia I knew either, which I’m guessing is much the same as yours. It probably means something else entirely in the north east. Without googling it, the lyric sounds a lot like Suede (bad thing) in my head.

  2. 102
    Izzy on 11 Nov 2009 #

    Oh no, I love that line, it scans superbly – and it made me laugh when I read (was it here?) that ‘Lake Geneva’ and ‘The Finland Station’ were also bars on Gerrard Street, 1985.

    I did get the too-pleased-with-itself feeling from the ‘All your stopping, stalling and starting, who d’you think you are? Joe Stalin?’ line though, but fortunately that was excised when it counted.

  3. 103
    pink champale on 12 Nov 2009 #

    #101 “the lyric sounds a lot like suede” i.e. it’s about dogs!

    i think the reason ‘suburbia’ doesn’t really sound like suburbia is that it was apparently inspired by ‘suburbia’ – penolope spheeris’ (pretty great) film about punks in suburban los angeles. the suburbia of the film is half abandoned tract developments falling into the desert rather than 30’s semis and being a bit bored. the odd lyrical tone of the film seems to have made it into the music but (apart from the “run with the dogs” line) not the lyrics, which are a bit sub-weller (and yes, also suede-y) – (“where’s a policeman when you need one to blame the colour tv” is particularly awful – the word “colour” is so obviously in there just to make it scan that it annoys me every time). anyway, that’s why the song feels a bit disjoined I think, though i do really like it nonetheless.

  4. 104
    AndyPandy on 12 Nov 2009 #

    @95
    Going to a Wimpy seemed very exotic to me as well we went to one a few years running in the early 70s on the way to our week’s holiday in Weymouth – I used to have a to me unbelievably exciting cocktail type thing for pudding which I thought was about as good as food got as a 6 year old.
    I think there was one in High Wycombe too which we went in for a treat a couple of times when we went shopping there and then didnt go back for about 10 years or so started till I started frequenting another Wimpy in my late teens for a bit and realised just how unglamourous these places really were!

  5. 105
    LondonLee on 12 Nov 2009 #

    I’ll never forget my mum complaining to the waiter in the Wimpy on North End Road that her Shanty Brunch tasted bad and she wanted another one instead. It was mortifying, English people just didn’t do that sort of thing.

  6. 106
    Chelovek na lune on 7 Sep 2010 #

    People, come to Southend-on-Sea. There are AT LEAST four branches of Wimpy (all but the one on the seafront having been renovated, seriously tarted up and reverted to the traditional red/white colour scheme, and at least one of them sells Steak as well as Benders, etc) in the town (two in the town centre, one in Westcliff, one in Shoebury), and another one in Benfleet on the A13 on your way in or out.

    Anyway, great pop song. I think the thing about it being an outsider’s perception of London is key actually (as an East End boy). I had the impression I’d read once that Neil Tennant had said that “Suburbia” was partly about Brixton (which, when built in the 19th century had originally been a place of some stature, but had decayed to become riot-torn by the mid-80s, even if it has largely picked itself somewhat since) – although it makes me think of vaguely sinister, outer-suburban places (sort of Welling/Bexleyheath/East Wickham/the fantastically named Fanny On The Hill probably above all, at a push Harold Hill or New Addington) which seem to be filled with bored kids with nothing to do except commit acts of vandalism and pretend to be hard without really so being.

  7. 107
    Billy Hicks on 7 Oct 2010 #

    One of my mum’s favourite songs. Like other posters here, she moved to London in 1986 and this is a defining song for her. Two years later, I was born there.

    For me, this was part of my major discovery of 1980s music at the beginning of 2001, when I turned over from ‘The Box’ and wondered what this VH1 channel was like. Helped with the visuals of the video, it actually makes me feel like I’m in the London of the 80s every time I listen to it.

    Years later, shortly after I got my first iPod, this happened to play while I’m walking through Waterloo station, where Neil and Chris walk through in the video. Walking past the WHSmith at the exact same time as the video was quite a special moment.

  8. 108
    swanstep on 8 Aug 2012 #

    A play called ‘West End Girls’ based on Barbara Tate’s 2010 book with that title premiered in Wellington, NZ last Saturday. Apparently it recreates “the 1984 Pet Shop Boys synthpop hit ‘West End Girls’ (and East End boys…) as a ukulele-accompanied musical hall number, delivered busker-style”.

    Review here if anyone’s interested. Evidently the intention is to have the show come to the West End fairly soon.

  9. 109
    Erithian on 11 Sep 2012 #

    Good to see the PSBs reprising this yesterday for the Games victory parade, and to see from the big screen that Paralympic dressage gold medallist Lee Pearson appeared to be word-perfect on the verses.

  10. 110
    Lena on 14 Aug 2014 #

    This is the apex of Hits 4, as discussed at Then Play Long: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/various-artists-hits-4.html

  11. 111
    hectorthebat on 2 Jan 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now! (2003)
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 57
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    Swellsville, Chuck Eddy (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 80s (1990) 10
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 486
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Mojo (UK) – 80 from the 80s: Our Fave 45s for Each Year, 1980-1989 (2007) 3
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 148
    Q (UK) – 50 Greatest British Tracks (2005) 28
    Q (UK) – The 80 Best Records of the 80s (2006) 8
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Wanadoo (UK) – The 20 Best Songs of the 80s
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 12
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 146
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 16

  12. 112
    mapman132 on 14 Jan 2015 #

    Wow, seems like almost everyone loves this song! And I’m no exception: A definite TEN for all the reasons stated previously. The Pet Shop Boys are one of my all-time favorite groups, although I didn’t really get into them in a big way until I borrowed Discography from someone in my freshman year at college in 1991. Looking forward to getting to the other three PSB entries as I work my way through the archive.

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