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May 10

PET SHOP BOYS – “Always On My Mind”

Popular106 comments • 7,295 views

#601, 19th December 1987, video

In the comics series Phonogram, there’s a scene in which the – kind of horrible – pop DJ Seth Bingo and his indie collaborator Silent Girl are struggling to work a recalcitrant dancefloor into life. Their solution? “Play the Blondie!” – a copy of “Atomic” which literally glows as it’s withdrawn from its sleeve.

Every club and every DJ has this kind of record – the song you put on as an act of faith to galvanise the night, or as an act of celebration to help it to its peak. “Always On My Mind” has been one of mine. There comes a point whenever I play pop music to a crowd that I want to play the Pet Shop Boys, and the next question becomes, well, why not play this? Those five seconds of groans and drum tracks to alert the lapsed or doubtful and then – boom! The mighty, unmistakable synthesiser fanfare which is the Boys’ great addition to the song, kicking off one of the most simply and sympathetically joyful tracks we’ll ever encounter, a gallop of sequenced Eurodisco drum lines and bright blasts of keyboard in service of the original track’s warm chords.

“It’s A Sin” found the Pet Shop Boys pushing their hi-NRG arsenal into the red, conquering pop by overloading it: “Always On My Mind” unleashes the same level of force but this time they’re handling it with happy precision, while somehow preserving the song’s humility under all the flashes and bangs. They manage this partly through another marvellous performance from Neil Tennant. He can’t compete with the arrangement’s fireworks so he stands back from them, making himself a calm, sincerely regretful presence in the middle of the track, and making “Always On My Mind” seem as heartfelt as it is grandiose.

Of all their big singles it’s perhaps their most relaxed – there’s no particular cleverness or conceit, no great message to take away, nothing ironic or ‘subversive’. Their other hit covers have points to prove: “Where The Streets Have No Name” is a bit of anti-rockist mischief making, “Go West” a defiant coming-out parade. Here they are making a huge technicolour hit simply because they’re pop stars and that’s their job: “Always On My Mind” has no real gameplan or reason to exist other than to delight people. It feels – appropriately for a Christmas Number One – like a gift, and I think that generosity is what makes a friendly dancefloor always respond so well to it. I don’t play “Always On My Mind” every time I DJ – there are always too many new and rediscovered peaks to fit in – but if the night’s gone well I always feel like I did.

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Comments

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  1. 76
    koganbot on 6 May 2010 #

    The point I want to make to you guys about someone my age and Elvis is that during the years ’64 through ’76 or so it was easy not to have an opinion of Elvis, and if one did have an opinion of Elvis it was easy to think that the opinion didn’t matter, wouldn’t have an impact on my relations with others, or on how I viewed anything else. Whereas that wasn’t possible later. Of course this says something of my historical ignorance at the time, and my social ignorance as well (in fact Elvis was very present in the Sixties, in the music and the life of a lot of performers I liked, I just couldn’t recognize his presence, just as, say, Lex can’t recognize the presence of the Rolling Stones in a lot of what he likes today). But this is something it’s useful for people younger than I am to understand about the Sixties (which lasted well into the Seventies): I could get away with having no opinion of Elvis. Whereas in the ’80s I couldn’t have no opinion of Elvis. Nor could Chuck D: in fact he forced other people to have opinions of Elvis, too.

    Whereas I think Elvis is potentially potent now, still, for today, because he escapes the social map, doesn’t fit the map, doesn’t seem to fit history, hard to place, hence harder for me to pass over than he was 45 years ago. (Not that I’ve ever given his music the attention it deserves. A subject for further research.)

  2. 77
    koganbot on 6 May 2010 #

    Well, Fuller and Cowell et al. were just picking up the “teen idol” usage that had once been applied to Fabian and Bobby Rydell.

    Incredible as it seems, starting in ’64 it was possible to have no opinion of Fabian and Bobby Rydell. (Except I did have an opinion of Bobby Rydell, having seen him in Bye Bye Birdie back when I was a tyke. Thought he was OK.)

  3. 78
    Alfred on 6 May 2010 #

    For the record, America loved the PSB’s version almost as much as Nelson’s: a #4 hit, their last top ten, and the last of three. One still little-remarked on phenomenon is the PSB’s North American popularity, which never rivaled their overseas success but was nevertheless considerable (five top tens in 18 months). Then it all vanished.

  4. 79
    Alfred Soto on 6 May 2010 #

    I don’t understand complaints about Tennant’s voice here, since what he does it with it is everything the Pet Shop Boys have excelled at: confusing distance and immersion.

  5. 80
    swanstep on 7 May 2010 #

    @79. I’m one of the skeptics about AOMM, and I don’t take any of us to be harping on about Tennant’s voice here. I really just don’t hear this record as anything special – it’s not a close call for me that it’s not a ’10′ (I prefer the Aretha/George Michael collab to it, but that’s not close to a ’10′ either). Trying to make sense of how others could think/feel so differently, one kind of marches through the record’s components to see what one could possibly be missing. Since the song is a cover it’s natural to look at the vocals (many of the best covers/later versions of songs have some extraordinary vocal in their favor – Sinatra or Aretha just blowing the doors off the joint say – a great Porter or song has suddenly shifted from b/w into color is the effect). So, we alight on Tennant, and… no, it’s his usual thin stuff (which works well in West End Girls and Being Boring with their roving eye and commentary approaches). One looks then at the main synth figure – is it sounding as good and outright thrilling to some people as Telstar’s or Dancing Queen’s main melodies sound to me?

    That’s what I’m actually guessing is the case (I originally surmised that simple PSB-fan tribalism was afoot, and I hereby temper that surmise). I still can’t quite get my head around anyone thinking that AOMM is on a higher creative level than Grapevine, or Rhythm Stick or Space Oddity or I Feel Love or Hound dog/Don’t be Cruel, but a ‘magic, spine-tingling melody’ explanation *sort* of makes sense. (After all, I can’t really *explain* why Telstar gets me every time: I find it packs a wallop, but I understand that someone else might shrug – people divide over popular bits of Copland and Beethoven too!)

  6. 81

    [...] Another superb piece by Tom at FreakyTrigger on the Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind,” the Christmas Number One of 1987 in England, where these things matter. What struck me most about Willie Nelson’s version, which I heard years after the PSB’s, was its guilelessness, humility. Nelson’s courtly delivery evoked the parable of the prodigal son — a rake who’d wandered the word from sin to sin and returned chastened, ready for the rest of his life. I hear little humility in Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s version; the hi-NRG beats and orchestral synths thrust Tennant’s thoughtlessness in listeners’ faces. It’s the character in “It’s a Sin” months later, having decided that decadence was awesome.  But he wants it all: he wants his partner to forgive him when he (inevitably) wanders off the reservation again. Tennant’s vocal here is extraordinary considering that anyone else would have gotten swamped by the arrangement. First he’s going nyah-nyah-nyah in his partner’s ear by switching from ascending to descending flat notes on the verses (“Maybe I-I-I-I didn’t treat y-o-u-u-u/Quite as G-O-O-D as I sh-ou-ou-ould…), then he rises to the challenge of those celestial synths on the chorus. He’s going to keep trying to become worthy of the attention lavished on him. In the comments section of Tom’s post, “punctum” nails perhaps Tennant’s greatest moment, which takes place as the song fades: “Tennant, strolling out of sight at the far end of the horizon, turning back briefly and saying, `Maybe I didn’t love you.’” [...]

  7. 82
    Izzy on 8 May 2010 #

    ‘West End Girls’ is clearly the tenworthy Pet Shop Boys hit to me, I’m surprised it’s barely been mentioned. I like ‘Always On My Mind’ fine, but i always found it a bit throwaway. Plus I was utterly overwhelmed by the richness of Elvis’ version when I heard it years later, which I never was with this – so I’d probably be saying seven here. I like your reasoning though.

    And ‘icon’ is a fine word, there’re no complaints from me! I see it as bound up with struggle, of which vulnerability is the personal part* but not the whole. When the dust’s settled on pop, I think that for broader social reasons the black American tradition will be the icon production line, with the odd Elvis or Rolling Stones subsumed as part of that – and The Beatles as usual floating free as their own benevolent gods.

    * Jim Morrison, Kurt and Tupac have this sewn up by the way, unpalatable as that may be

  8. 83
    punctum on 9 May 2010 #

    I don’t quite get the equation of “icon” with “struggle” – isn’t the whole point of an icon, however you choose to define its parameters, that it’s invulnerable? – unless you mean as a symbol of the struggles of others (hence Guevara, Mandela etc.). Certainly have no idea what you mean by “icon production line”; don’t musicians deserve better than to be equated with IKEA furniture?

    Also, “subsumed” under what? “Floating free” of what, and if they’re “floating free,” how can they be “benevolent”? Most mythology defines its gods as irrevocably tied to their creations, whether they like it (“sport of the President of the Immortals” &c.) or not.

    Sorry to be so nitpicky here but language is the only tool we have with which to communicate so words and the way we use them are important.

  9. 84

    I assume this modern usage of “iconic” derives primarily from Charles Peirce’s semiotics, which categorises signs into three types (or modes): “symbolic”, “iconic” and “indexical” — semiotics being widely taught (or shall we say partially taught) in design and cultural studies courses, and hence a semi-analytical lingua franca for a lot of people talking about pop. An iconic sign is one in which the signifier is felt in some key way to resemble or imitate the signified: hence an icon (by back-formation) becomes a person (or picture) who is is a handy shorthand for a stance or type or discipline.

    (Also in computing, an “icon” is the image you click on to access a document or programme — though this seems less likely to be a source of what we’re discussing.)

    Icon is from the greek eikon, which i believe just means “image” in classical greek: it doesn’t have the religious connotation till later, I don’t think. Social sciences in the 19th century liked to pimp their scientificity by grabbing onto pseudo-Greek terminologies — not that this has lessened much, cv all those third-level critical theorists who talk about “jouissance” and “hedonics” and the “libidinal” when all they mean is “stuff we want” and “boy she’s hott”, except they want to sound like they’re wearing a white coat and discussing YOUR SYMPTOMS WHICH THEY AREN’T PUPPETS OF, OH NO.

    (Sorry, in my dayjob I have to sub a fvck-ton of bad art writing in this vein: I have become very out of sympathy with it…)

  10. 85
    koganbot on 9 May 2010 #

    My old, relatively purist American Heritage Dictionary gives as its primary definition “1. a. An image; representation. b. A simile or symbol,” with the religious usage only number 2 (“a representation or picture of a sacred Christian personage, itself regarded as sacred, especially in the tradition of the Eastern churches”). And the online Merriam-Webster gives these:

    Date: 1572
    1 : a usually pictorial representation : image
    2 [Late Greek
    eikōn, from Greek] : a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians
    3 : an object of uncritical devotion : idol
    4 : emblem, symbol <the house became an icon of 1960′s residential architecture — Paul Goldberger>
    5 a : a sign (as a word or graphic symbol) whose form suggests its meaning b : a graphic symbol on a computer display screen that usually suggests the type of object represented or the purpose of an available function

    The word “uncritical” doesn’t seem right in number 3, since criticizing or trashing some versions of that sort of icon can be part of one’s devotion (I’m thinking of Johnny Rotten and ilk here).

    I have no problem in principle with how “icon” is being used on this thread, except that the word doesn’t take care of itself, needs more elaboration. So if you think of stars as quasi-deities who play symbolic roles (the roles often multiple and the symbolism often murky), then Elvis is an icon, Sarah Palin is an icon, Justin Bieber is an icon. Production lines come in handy for roles whose embodiments come with imminent use-by dates. As for multiple roles, think of Brando as simultaneously being smoldering ethnicity and critical cool, as emotional vulnerability and inaccessible hauteur. Struggle and defeat can be something we want in certain icons from whom we want to see blood, even if the blood is sacred. Deities need not be all-powerful, just special, or especially emblematic, even if what they’re emblematic of is pretty normal. (I’m thinking of June Allyson as a girl-next-door type.)

  11. 86

    the word doesn’t take care of itself, needs more elaboration: I think doubly so as — qwuite apart from ordinary usage — there are two rival technical usages (one from the history of religious art; one from semiotics) which, while connected, very much aren’t synonyms. Peirce’s terminology allows a huge number of basically very mundane things to be “iconic”, which very much conflicts with the Byzantine meaning. If you’re calling the signs for male and female toilets “iconic”, Peirce would know what you were talking about; Lord Clark of Civilisation would probably not.

    (Of course there are lots of religions in which godlings of small mundane items also proliferate: the Romansm being a practical lot, had their lares and penates, household microgods of the piano stool and what have you; animism is a generic terms for such theologies…)

  12. 87

    jouissance not actually pseudo-Greek in anyone’s language: you can see how cross this kind of thing makes me — incoherently cross :)

  13. 88
    koganbot on 9 May 2010 #

    Or Christianly cross, or additionally cross. +

    My post xposted yours, Mark. I’d say the usage on this thread combines Peirce and the Byzantines, since our icons – in the Elvis sense – function simultaneously as objects of devotion and as emblems of a stance or a type; and as such we can think of them not just being deities and emblems but as channeling something as well. That’s why I used the word “embodying.” Our icons don’t just resemble something, they act it out.

    (I’m influenced here by Michael Ventura in “Hear That Long Snake Moan,” where he’s arguing that Elvis et al. in singing and dancing didn’t just feel “possessed” – metaphorically – by the spirit of the music but derived from an African tradition where a god was assumed to literally intersect with or flow through someone. Except, so as not to mystify this, I’d say that for me “acting something out” just means being a part of the culture – but doing it in a way that attracts other people’s imagination.)

    Of course when I use the word “symbol” in my previous post I’m not being Peircean – don’t remember and may never have understood Peirce’s usage of the term, but I ran across it recently in Terrence W. Deacon’s The Symbolic Species. “Icon” and “symbol” are different things in Peirce’s terminology, whereas I say that we’re calling Elvis an “icon” because, among other things, Elvis functions as a symbol. From Deacon’s usage I was gathering (just barely) that Peirce’s concept “symbol” runs close to the concept “word,” at least nouns and verbs, meaning that it is a sign that is part of a linguistic system and so its role therefore is determined not just by whatever it stands for but by its relation to other words. (I’m not altogether convinced that my previous sentence means a hell of a lot. Deacon tries to explain why we can teach icons and indices to some monkeys and chimps, but why it is relatively rare for a chimp or monkey to grasp symbols (in the Peircean sense), and why the chimps and monkeys that did grasp them still only had a rudimentary ability to use them. An “index” is something that associates with something else, so smoke is an index of fire, and so is the word “smoke,” but the word “smoke” doesn’t become a symbol, hence part of language, unless it relates to other words. We humans apparently can shift our attention from what we’ve actually experienced as associating with something else and can overlay (or undergird) it with knowledge of what can associate with something else, whether we’ve seen it do so or not. This is special to language. But again I can’t see that what I’ve just written in the previous several sentences necessarily means anything or makes sense. Just typing something that I read recently.)

  14. 89
    thefatgit on 9 May 2010 #

    Are we to conclude then, that 3 of the greatest minds on this comments thread are unable to find a satisfactory replacement for “icon”? Where does this leave us?

  15. 90
    Paul U on 9 May 2010 #

    This is also very much my favourite song to DJ with, although in my experience the youngsters (which is to say, those between 20 and 27) aren’t really sure how to dance to the Pet Shop Boys.

  16. 91
    swanstep on 9 May 2010 #

    @90. ‘Guru’ perhaps, e.g., here today. ‘Very naughty boy/girl’ even better perhaps. ;)

  17. 92
    Matthew H on 10 May 2010 #

    I know it’s not this version (which is indeed fabulous), but the long-withheld synth fanfare on the Introspective cut is one of my favourite moments in pop. A little hint a few bars earlier, during the In My House acid workout, to make your heart beat that bit faster then the delirious rolling drums. I feel sick just thinking about it.

  18. 93
    DietMondrian on 11 May 2010 #

    @92 – I invariably find myself playing air drums during that bit! Marvellous.

  19. 94
    Rory on 11 May 2010 #

    What sold this for me was always the hi-NRG synth stabs in the lead-in – so exuberent, so at odds with the wistful lyrics. To my mind, it’s the definitive up-tempo Pet Shop Boys track, but I can see how a devoted fan might prefer others. Not a ten for me, but a solid 8 with an option on 9.

  20. 95
    David Belbin on 11 May 2010 #

    Mark James, of course, wrote this with Johnny Christopher and Wayne Carson and the Presley version was a B side in the States, hence his version is obscure there. James is still alive and, oddly, performs as Frankie “Uray” Zambon.

  21. 96
    anto on 11 May 2010 #

    It Couldn’t Happen Here – a fascinating rock folly. I don’t know what they were thinking but there’s a part of me that relishes those moments when pop stars do think that way. Cool song. My fave Christmas number one.

  22. 97
    Martin Skidmore on 20 May 2010 #

    I’d have given this 10 too, despite probably preferring Willie Nelson’s version – that is one of my favourite recordings by one of my favourite singers, and if I had to restrict 10s to records I love that much there would be only a couple in the whole Popular project.

  23. 98

    [...] music charts enjoy, like the annual race for a #1 Christmas single (which occasionally kicks up some golden dust). Like “Back Home” above, the first few FA-approved tracks were performed by the [...]

  24. 99
    Lena on 23 Jul 2010 #

    The Christmas of ’87; one that in some ways brought me right to where I am, London, though at the time I had no idea, of course…

    My father was ill; all late summer and through the fall his short term memory began to falter, he got confused and thus angry, and eventually he went to bed and didn’t get out. Mid-December the ambulance was called, the diagnosis made: brain tumor. He was in hospital the last time I saw him, hallucinating that people from 30 years ago were all around him. I wondered if he would even remember me, recognize me, but he did; he couldn’t remember when I was to graduate, but he knew who I was. The operation the next day was not a success; he went into a coma and died in February the next year, alive but not alive…

    …and I remember this song in the swirling snow as I walked in Toronto that Christmas, the winter I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep, the same winter I got a trip to London for Christmas. It said everything that would or could be said between us, me twenty and unsure of where I stood in relation to anything or anyone, including him.

    So this song is beyond any marks from me, though it’s a 10 beyond question; it is as infinite and deep as death itself to me, Tennant’s voice like a guiding hand through the snow.

  25. 100
    Billy Smart on 28 Dec 2010 #

    MMWatch: Jonh Wilde, December 5 1987;

    “The greatest song that Elvis ever sang. The lousiest, most hamfisted idea that Pet Shop Boys will ever have. They’ve made it *scamper*! Imagine. Just when I was ready to watch Tennant completely melt with languid ease as he dreams of love’s banishment. Instead, it’s like UK Subs doing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ with a particularly rude guitar-break after the large sigh in the second verse. I’m let down. They sound like they want to get it all over and done with so Neil can fit in his Xmas shopping. I’m looking for explanations for this slab of sacrilege. Anyone?”

    Wilde awarded single of the week to ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’ by New Order. Also reviewed that week;

    The Justified ancients Of Mu Mu – Downtown
    My Bloody Valentine – Strawberry Wine
    Cindy Birdsong – Dancing Room
    Rick Astley – When I Fall In Love
    Anita Dobson – I Dream Of Christmas
    Run DMC – Christmas In Hollis

  26. 101
    MarkG on 12 Sep 2011 #

    SWEET GENE VINCENT!

  27. 102
    Lazarus on 5 Dec 2011 #

    This and the next Number One were the opening tracks on “Now …. 11″ – appraised here by the Guardian’s Peter Robinson (not, presumably, the artist formerly known as Marilyn).

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/musicblog/2011/oct/17/now-thats-what-call-music-11

    Reading that set me wondering if there’s anyone with sufficiently catholic tastes to own all 80 albums in the series – I think I have three or four.

  28. 103
    wichita lineman on 5 Dec 2011 #

    Hands up. Though I still haven’t listened to no.79 yet, let alone no.80. They’re good for parlour games.

  29. 104
    hardtogethits on 5 Dec 2011 #

    I wish one could delete one’s own comments, rather than have to replace them.

  30. 105
    Nixon on 12 Sep 2013 #

    Good lord, that Melody Maker review @ #100.

    Years and years ago, my friend took me to see Hefner play live, and I thought they were unbelievably crap. My friend couldn’t understand how I didn’t instantly fall in love; to this day I remember the absolutely stunned, crestfallen, *disbelieving* look on his face when we got outside and he asked me what I thought.

    Always thought he was being a bit precious; surely nobody really believes that their opinion is actually universal? But reading that review, and some of the comments that don’t see anything special in this record, I’m pretty sure I’m feeling what he was feeling.

    This record – in its album incarnation, including the whole “In my house” section, which seemed so strange and bewildering to my tween self (even as a kid raised on a diet of Kraftwerk), and which being a pretentious child I likened to Halley’s Comet blazing out into the darkness of space but always on a fixed trajectory to come back, with the chest-bursting payoff (#92/#93) that marks its return to familiar skies – is probably responsible for almost every step of my musical fandom. I will love it forever.

  31. 106
    Phil on 16 Aug 2014 #

    The Introspective (“…in my house”) version is, indeed, a Great Moment in Pop.

    I haven’t read all the comments posted when this thread was new, but I see that somebody drew attention to Neil’s ad-libbed parting shot (“Maybe I didn’t love you…”). But I think that line’s wonderful, and not at all heartless. The thing is, this is actually a strange song (whether in this version, Elvis’s or Willie Nelson’s): the music (particularly under the chorus) gives you a lush celebration of sentimental love, while the lyrics (particularly the verses) return obsessively to guilt and self-reproach. In its conventional treatments, the song doesn’t quite resolve the gap between the two, leaving you with a rather queasy (but very C&W) sense of guilty sentimentality and/or sentimentalised guilt. The PSBs version does three things: in the choruses, the sentimentality is replaced with a heady rush of physical joy (the way those synth stabs come wham!ing in makes you smile before you know it); in the verses, all that lingering over guilt is replaced with an offhand reading of the charge sheet, as if these things were just something that we need to talk through before we go out; and in the fade, instead of ending on an obsessively stuck repetition of the things he didn’t do (or an equally stuck reassertion of his good intentions), the singer suddenly realises that none of this matters: Maybe I didn’t love you! That would explain it! It’s a weirdly liberating moment.

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