May 10

PET SHOP BOYS – “Always On My Mind”

Popular110 comments • 13,234 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 – a copy of “Atomic” which literally glows as it’s withdrawn from its sleeve.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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  1. 1
    Tom on 4 May 2010 #

    Quick notes:

    – the video is from the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘interesting’ fillum project, It Couldn’t Happen Here, so maybe I am being slightly disingenuous in implying AOMM is an act of the purest generosity. But it’s long since shaken off any associations it had with that.

    – the extended mix of this on Introspective deserves, and may one day get, its own post.

    – I decided not to mention “Fairytale Of New York” in the blurb (partly because I half suspect it’ll end up getting to #1 EVENTUALLY). It is an excellent record, I do not enjoy it as much as this one but I do feel one of the four weeks “Always” was at the top could have been handed over. Oh well.

  2. 2
    Tom on 4 May 2010 #

    (And there have now been more 80s 10-out-of-10s than the rest of pop PUT TOGETHER! Anyone would think I grew up then or something.)

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 4 May 2010 #

    I’m not a huge fan of the PSB but I like this better than most of their stuff.
    I think Neil Tennant benefits from singing a lyric which he hadn’t written himself – and particularly one which is such an iconic song.
    The Elvis version is a camp classic with his intense, theatrical performance. PSB achieve a different sort of camp here with NTs almost affectless delivery contrasting with the frenetic pulse and synthetic brass flourishes of the music.

  4. 4
    MikeMCSG on 4 May 2010 #

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Tom that this originally surfaced in an ITV special to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death in September which, this song apart, was filled with dross (although Kim Wilde’s “One Night” was notable for non-musical reasons). Initially the PSBs seemed reluctant to put it out because they had one more single to come from “Actually” which we will get to shortly.

    I like it but wouldn’t give a cover 10.

  5. 5
    fivelongdays on 4 May 2010 #

    I’d argue that the marks for this and “It’s A Sin” are the wrong way round ;-)

  6. 6
    Lex on 4 May 2010 #

    I’m surprised you didn’t reprise what you said about this song a few years ago on ILX, Tom –

    this is one of Tennant’s finest vocal hours because in his slight diffidence you can hear exactly how and why he neglected his lover, and in the unstoppable synthesized beat you can hear exactly how he’s going to get him back

    ^^which is completely OTM, absolutely crucial to why this version succeeds, and a line I always think of whenever I hear or think about this song. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, to convey a character flaw like that without losing sympathy (or more precisely, without making the listener transfer their sympathies to the object of the song) – and MOST DON’T, especially the kind of passive-aggressive weedy boy who uses Tennant’s diffidence as a template. I think it’s because Tennant sounds resolved to actually rectify this flaw, or at least try.

    One who does succeed is Ne-Yo on “Part Of The List”, where you can hear this fastidious attention to minutiae that would have driven the girl away but which is also what makes the song so great as a crafted piece of work.

    Haha you also wrote (in Oct 2002), “I want this played at my wedding” – was it?

  7. 7
    Tom on 4 May 2010 #

    Oh – yes that is a good line! Well done me :)

    And yes it was played at my wedding, at least to the extent I can remember what was played at my wedding….

  8. 8
    Mackro on 4 May 2010 #

    I love both versions, but I prefer the PSB version only for this subtlety. At the end of the main chorus in the Elvis version, they hold that last note.

    The Pet Shot Boys pull a trick where they inject two new bass notes that bridge to the post-chorus. Those two notes are the ones that have hooked me into this song altogether.

    Oddly enough, whenever I go back to the Elvis version, I so want to hear Elvis’s band play those Two Crucial Bass Notes.

  9. 9
    tonya on 4 May 2010 #

    A well-deserved 10, although maybe not to the “Always in my House” version.

    Was the Willie Nelson version known in the UK at all? It was huge around 82-83 in America, and I thought of this as a Willie Nelson song when the PSB version came out. Willie also sings it in an understated way, which is probably the best way to approach a lyric that can come off as “things on my mind: we’re out of milk, you, my sister’s birthday is next week.”

  10. 10
    Pete on 4 May 2010 #

    Yes, I distinctly remember playing it at your wedding, in a bit of a rush when I remembered that the bride & groom shuffle off before everyone!

    Possibly not a ten for me (Always In My House might have been, but for annoying my sister reasons) but I love it and hear it probably as often as I need to (ie about once a month a Poptimism – of which there is one this Friday!)

  11. 11
    abaffledrepublic on 4 May 2010 #

    I was surprised by the 10 for this. It’s probably my favourite of the PSB’s number ones, but I still think they had stronger singles which didn’t get there. I love the weird roaring noise which opens the track, it gives me a shiver of anticipation for the rest of the song every time I play it.

    And I’m glad it blocked Fairytale of New York, which just irritates me.

  12. 12
    flahr on 4 May 2010 #

    (New here, by the way)

    I’m also with the less-than-a-ten crowd, probably around an 8, but I like what you say about it seeming like a gift – it’s a good way of getting across how at ease the record sounds.

  13. 13
    daavid on 4 May 2010 #

    Finally, a PSB single gets a 10! I was kind of worried, since I knew it was the only one left that had a chance.

  14. 14
    Greg Pallis on 4 May 2010 #

    This is, for whatever it’s worth, my favourite single ever – I remember the first time I loved it, on Fox FM in bright Oxfordshire sunshire and thinking it was Elvis; it’s as pure a translation of joy – as I understand & feel it – as any medium’s ever brought to me.

    I like what you said, once, about the note of triumph in “Gi-ive me…” – that Tennant is at that moment & for the first time totally certain that he’ll get his second chance.

  15. 15
    swanstep on 4 May 2010 #

    I find AOMM a big yawn, and the love for it expressed here quite baffling. The synth chords bludgeon (I swear this band’s arrangement and keyboard skills went backwards from their first album), the voice is thin, the rhythm track is unremarkable. I’d take True Faith (let alone Peekaboo – a genuine ’80s ’10′ in my view) by at least several points over this any day of the week. To me, AOMM sounds knocked out in about half an hour using It’s a Sin’s presets, which were lousy. I understand that I’m in the minority on this, but apart from people reliving youthful PSB-mania I don’t see how this can be seriously thought an especially delightful record, let alone one of the best ever made. Unwanted consistency watch: where does one begin? Perhaps with TomScore(Jailhouse Rock) = 7. I mean, good God. For me, AOMM can score no more than a:

  16. 16
    daavid on 4 May 2010 #

    No complaints from me. This is a solid 10. Not only one of the PSB greatest singles, but one of my favourite songs, period. Pure bliss!

    My favourite part, which, iirc, is absent from previous versions, is towards the end when Tennant sings “Maybe I didn’t love you…” omitting the following “quite as often as I could” line. I’m not sure if it was intentional but to me it suggests a shift towards a more genuinely reflective, rather than apologetic tone. As if all of a sudden he understands.

    BTW, I would’ve given “It’s a Sin” and “West End Girls” 10s too (although maybe the former deserves a slightly minor 10).

  17. 17
    daavid on 4 May 2010 #

    BTW this was a nice blurb and all but my favourite review of AOMM is still Tanya Headon’s, which I find remarkable not just because it’s ROFL, but also because I cannot object to a single thing she says about it. I was going to post a link but I can’t find it :(

  18. 18

    Tanya: written ten years ago just six weeks from now!

  19. 19
    Alan on 4 May 2010 #

    “The Pet Shot Boys pull a trick where they inject two new bass notes that bridge to the post-chorus.”

    I recall them saying in interview how they had deliberately simplified the song – reduced the chord sequence or something. What mattered to me was that it was at the RIGHT SPEED.

    I woke up in my first year college room, turned on the radio on my modular ghetto-blaster thing, and went back to sleep. I had a dream that went at a tremendous canter, and when i woke up again, this was the dream tempo on the radio.

    MY. FIRST. SINGLE. And the 12″ at that. which i still have.

    Not actually my first single – i’d had (eg) Rubber Ducky by Sesame Street bought for me when i was very small – but the first one i bought for myself. Which (if you know me) seems like a late stage, but before now I had been happy KILLING MUSIC BY HOME TAPING the top 40.

    As others have variously observed, I’d give either this or It’s A Sin a 10 depending on my mood that week.

    That year I thought xmo number one was going to be Barcelona.

  20. 20
    Steve Mannion on 4 May 2010 #

    Most predictable 10 ever! I love it but I’m a little sick of it I guess and several of the PSB’s excellent b-sides and album tracks from this time are still quite new to me so I’m spending more time and love on them.

    The spectral gusto of Horn and Lipson seems to be chief informant here as with It’s A Sin – the despairing other side of the drama-ramic coin to the euphoric immense sound of AOMM. In a particularly busy year of hit songs that aimed for enormity (IAS, China…, You Win Again) the apex arrived in this climactic affair.

  21. 21
    TomLane on 4 May 2010 #

    Elvis recorded it first in 1972. In the States, it was a b-side. Willie Nelson had the next biggest hit with it in 1982, peaking At number 5. But I was surprised to find that this version made it to number 4. Not as enthused as Tom’s 10, more like an 8. A good overhaul of what, at that time, was already an Adult Contemporary evergreen.

  22. 22
    thefatgit on 4 May 2010 #

    There is a moment in every pop music fan’s life that he or she is asked to consider 2 versions of the same song and decide which is the better version. “Always On My Mind” is one of those moments. Elvis’ version was imperious, untouchable. A piece of grand pop perfection, larger than the sum of it’s parts. Presley’s almost restrained vocal, the orchestraition that allows the song to build naturally, to suck you in emotionally, to feel what Elvis felt, what Willie felt, what Brenda felt…what Neil felt. Country music tells stories, conveys emotion to those who find emotion the hardest thing to convey. Elvis elevated it to high art, this conveying of longing, of yearning, of hope. It’s a boomer anthem. If you can imagine the postwar generation wondering for what, their parents and grandparents sacrificed in 2 world wars, and then the 60’s came with it’s paranoia and permissiveness and the other side of that, the 70’s almost nullifying the hippy philosophy with recession and energy crisis and Vietnam. AOMM through that lens becomes an apology, an act of contrition. An admission of guilt. For the next generation it shines. An achingly beautiful tale of lost love with the hope of love regained. A promise of a better tomorrow. And this is where Neil comes in. This is probably one of the most forward-looking nods to the past ever. It feels re-invented, re-imagined and new like all good cover versions should be, but always aware of its roots and origins. In the wrong hands, the song could have drowned in sparkly newness, but it’s much more deft and clever than you think. How do you speed up a slowie and keep it’s earnest integrity?

    Wiki states it’s all in the cadence:
    “The Pet Shop Boys version introduces a harmonic variation not present in the original version. In the original the ending phrase ‘always on my mind’ is sung to a IV-V7-I cadence (C-D7-G). The Pet Shop Boys extend this cadence by adding two further chords: C-D7-Gm7/B♭-C-G (i.e. a progression of IV-V7-i7b-IV-I).”

    The change allows for AOMM to accelerate into a higher tempo arena without it feeling rushed or clunky. The change allows this version to build with the drama and urgency necessary for a discoed up, camped up homage to Elvis, Brenda and Willie. Just a little tweak that makes all the difference. IMO, this elevates the PSB’s vesion to the top. Among the greatest cover versions ever made, and worthy of a 10 indeed.

  23. 23
    Tom on 4 May 2010 #

    Great comment thefatgit – was hoping someone would explore the covers angle in a bit more depth! (I’d forgotten the Elvis TV special entirely!)

  24. 24
    James on 5 May 2010 #

    Yes, in the U.S. the Willie Nelson version is the best known. Some may be dimly aware that it was recorded by Elvis first, but it is not associated with him at all.

  25. 25
    MBI on 5 May 2010 #

    I hadn’t seen Tanya’s review of this, but boy oh boy, she had it right on the nose. Given some space and restraint, this thing might have some impact, but as it is it’s an awful blaring piece of crap brought down by the fact that it’s exactly the kind of thing that Neil Tennant cannot be trusted with whatsoever. I genuinely hate this.

  26. 26
    Conrad on 5 May 2010 #

    Clunky, pompous and sung with all the emotional intensity of a man reading the classified football results. Both this and ‘Its A Sin’ share the same overbearing synth sound, and same propensity for ill-conceived drama of production. It leaves me cold, and genuinely dumbfounded by the majority of the comments.

    So, 4 – because it has a great melody to start with, some of which survives unscathed.

  27. 27
    punctum on 5 May 2010 #

    Maybe the truest version of the song was the quiet, shattered dignity of Willie Nelson’s acoustic reading, one of the legions of great singles released in 1982 but seldom acknowledged as such. Elvis sang it like a brute belatedly tamed, probing into his deepest, least hardened arteries to discover the core of tenderness which would still justify his asking “Love Me Tender” in Vegas, and as with most of his later work was interpreted as simply another chapter of signifiers in his dysfunctional descent.

    The Pet Shop Boys were asked to participate in a Granada TV special in the summer of 1987 to mark the tenth anniversary of Presley’s death. They settled for “Always On My Mind” with the declared intent of making it sound as little like Elvis as possible. On the programme they came across as a wiser and disillusioned Flanagan and Allen, mournfully bearing haversacks as they proceeded slowly down a back-projected railway track. As a performance it was as decidedly at odds with the relatively bland fare proferred by the other artists taking part as the duo themselves were defiantly at odds with the suffocating blandness of the upper reaches of 1987 chart pop. It elicited a massive response, and though initially reluctant to release it as a single, they went back into the studio with Julian Mendelsohn and recorded a full version; too late to appear on the Actually album (though it was added to later pressings), it was rush-released at year’s end and became the best Christmas number one since “Don’t You Want Me?” and possibly the best Christmas number one ever.

    In 1987 the Pet Shop Boys ruled pop – even if, other than New Order, the Smiths (defunct by year’s end) and SAW at their best, there was so little competition. The ingenuity, originality and genuine (not second-guessed from quarter-century-old soul sides) honesty of their work was enough to make most other mainstream pop in 1987 feel ashamed to call itself pop (particularly since, from Curiosity to D’Arby, they didn’t really want to be pop but soul, or at least pub rock). If one record were to be chosen which summed up the Thatcherite, post-Big Bang Britain of this period it would have to be Actually, the group’s second album; few pop songs of any era were as politely but brutally honest about the societal milieu from which they emerged than “King’s Cross” or, especially, “Rent” – the latter courageously released as a single (and it still made the top ten), a song so good that artists as diverse as Liza Minnelli and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine would subsequently be able to derive new meanings from it. “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” complete with an Ennio Morricone orchestral arrangement, is a noble litany for what could be Aids, or more likely Clause 28 – if only Kenneth Williams, then screaming towards the agonising end of his guilt-suffocated life, could have heard this music he would have understood it in a second.

    “Always On My Mind” follows the tried and tested Hi-NRG template of delivering ballads at ballad tempo while the rhythm exultantly rushes along at double speed, but the Pet Shop Boys do it with exceptional elan, complete with the triple tease of the delayed intro. Neil Tennant delivers the song in the persona of someone who knows he’s a bit of a shit (whereas Elvis simply sounds bemused and confused) but still needs that love, that company – he walks the sardonic/vulnerable tightrope with enviable skill, dropping down his “my mind” with the ingenious altered chord changes in the second half of the chorus as though challenging you to guess whether he has a mind, as such. As with Bernard Sumner, Tennant’s “soul” is latent and inherent in his vocal uncertainty; unable and indeed unwilling to emulate the howls, screams and other “soulcialist” memes deemed necessary to signify Soul Passion And Honesty (and predictably the Pet Shop Boys turned out to be more genuinely socialist than most of the “real” acts of the time), Tennant derives his vocal style from the unlikely sources of Donovan, Al Stewart and Jonathan King – verging on the deadpan but never less than tactile and, when he needs to be, extremely moving.

    But the little addendum incorporated into the final, most minute seconds of the record’s fadeout is one of the most chilling endings to any pop single; Tennant, strolling out of sight at the far end of the horizon, turning back briefly and saying, “Maybe I didn’t love you.” The portrait of the thrusting Thatcherkid too busy greedily sizing up his bonuses and stuffing himself with cold trinkets signifying nothing (see the song “Shopping”) that not only didn’t he have the time to say and do all those “little things,” but that he viewed the concept of “little things” with near-inexpressible contempt. Five years later, burned out in his bedsit, he suddenly wonders when the sun stopped shining in those now lonely, lonely times.

  28. 28

    I actually have a theory about this song and this reading of it, which I may commit to pixels at some point. For now I will just say that TV’s (and LaRoux’s dad) Joss Ackland doesn’t half ruin the video for me with his rubberised hamminess. And don’t the PSB’s look young! Blimes, as the yoof of today say.

  29. 29
    vinylscot on 5 May 2010 #

    I have to agree with the less enthusiastic posters – this really did nothing for me – it sounded disrespectful, both of Elvis and of the song itself. The PSBs didn’t do much for me overall – I could appreciate/admire what they were doing without actually liking much of it – to my mind Tanya pretty much sussed them, and I can’t help thinking that Tom maybe painted himself into a corner and had to give this a 10, which is quite frankly, a joke. If he’s going to maintain any sort of consistency, there are a hell of a lot of 10s to come (and a hell of a lot of re-rating previous entries)!

    (The?) One other highlight from the Elvis 10 year anniversary special was the Blow Monkeys surprisingly sprightly take of “Follow That Dream” – I don’t think they ever recorded it, but maybe one of you knows better?

  30. 30
    punctum on 5 May 2010 #

    They certainly did; it’s on the superb NME compilation The Last Temptation Of Elvis.

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