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May 10

PET SHOP BOYS – “Always On My Mind”

Popular109 comments • 10,068 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 – a copy of “Atomic” which literally glows as it’s withdrawn from its sleeve.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. 91
    swanstep on 9 May 2010 #

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

  2. 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.

  3. 93
    DietMondrian on 11 May 2010 #

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 […]

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 101
    MarkG on 12 Sep 2011 #

    SWEET GENE VINCENT!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 104
    hardtogethits on 5 Dec 2011 #

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

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 107
    mapman132 on 16 Mar 2015 #

    I’m often lukewarm about remakes, feeling they’re redundant unless they add something or significantly alter the original to “make it theirs”. This is an example of a remake that does that. I’ve listened to Discography so many times the only reason I might not give it a 10 is overfamiliarity, but I’ll give it a 10 anyway.

    Even though it reached #4 in America, the PSB’s AOMM unfortunately has never the achieved the canon status it appears to have in the UK. Here the only PSB tracks you ever hear in the wild are WEG and WHIDTDT, with “Opportunities” and “It’s A Sin” maaaybe showing up once in a while. Everything else is pretty much fanbase only.

  18. 108
    Mark M on 2 Aug 2015 #

    A slightly belated (d. 20 July) RIP for Wayne Carson, one of the co-writers of this song – according to an obits, he was the one who came up with the initial idea. And was a big fan of the PSB version.

    He also wrote The Letter and Neon Rainbow, so a figure worthy of note, I think.

  19. 109
    paigejarvis on 19 May 2018 #

    thanks

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