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May 10

PET SHOP BOYS – “Always On My Mind”

Popular109 comments • 11,675 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 – a copy of “Atomic” which literally glows as it’s withdrawn from its sleeve.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. 31
    vinylscot on 5 May 2010 #

    Thanks MC

  2. 32
    Tom on 5 May 2010 #

    Something which occurred to me, reading this thread, is that we’re maybe not quite there yet but we’re on the cusp of the period now where the canon of pop singles starts to break down a bit. Through the 60s – and even more so in the 70s and early-mid 80s – there are quite a few singles which are consensus classics, ‘natural 10s’ (even if they didn’t actually GET a 10).

    There are consensus-classic-singles from the 90s too but fewer of them got to #1, and the value of the stuff that did get to #1 is more in dispute, not settled yet. So I expect future threads where I give 10s to be more controversial. (To be honest I’m delighted so many people really love AOMM – I thought I was uncommon in thinking it’s a major PSB single)

  3. 33
    Tom on 5 May 2010 #

    (This is a Good Thing from my perspective – giving something a 10 and having people say WTF is more interesting than the dispiriting feeling of being chided for not loving an 8 or a 9 enough… ;))

  4. 34
    thefatgit on 5 May 2010 #

    Just a brief mention for FTONY…I think it’s another song that polarises opinion, chiefly because it’s either:
    i) a very finely crafted xmas song with just the right amount of seasonal pathos and humour. More importantly, it’s NOT by Shakin’ Stevens.

    OR
    ii) a complete sellout, an acknowledgment of seasonal commerciality and the need to cash in, betraying the punk/socialist ethos by suckling upon Thatcher’s capitalist teat. If I hear it one more time from November onwards, I’ll smash my radio.

  5. 35
    Tom on 5 May 2010 #

    One of the things that really gained momentum in the 00s – culminating in last year’s Xmas No.1, though it was building before Cowell got anywhere near the festive season – was a desire for “alternative” records to do well at Xmastime, and “Fairytale” has become enshrined as a kind of ultimate alternative Xmas record, while also having entered the traditional canon. It’s probably more popular now than Slade quite frankly.

  6. 36
    Lex on 5 May 2010 #

    @32 that’s a good point and something I hadn’t quite realised – despite the ’90s being the decade I grew up in and which shaped my love of pop music, there are surprisingly few No 1s I’d unhesitatingly give 10 to (only around 12 over the whole decade, and bear in mind how MANY No 1s there were towards the end of it), and I wouldn’t really call any of them “canonical” in the same way as some of the ones we’ve had (and of those 12, I’d only bet on one or two getting a 10 from Tom). (Obviously they SHOULD BE canonical.)

    Though looking ahead there were actually of REALLY AWFUL No 1s in the ’90s – how I grew to love pop music despite the surfeit of shite is a mystery in retrospect.

  7. 37
    Lex on 5 May 2010 #

    @35 it’s quite interesting that since the download chart was incorporated, the two old Xmas records to unfailingly chart highest every year are “Fairytale” and “All I Want For Christmas Is You” – the former actively sets itself up as an “alternative Xmas” but the latter is oddly both trad and non-trad at the same time: it reels off every possible traditional Xmas association, but actually rejects them all; and while it sounds so much like a non-alternative ’60s Xmas standard that most people still think it’s a cover, it’s an original self-penned track that makes as much sense in Mariah’s personal canon.

  8. 38
    punctum on 5 May 2010 #

    Yes, I’d definitely agree with that. Can’t stand “FTONY” but then in my view the Pogues are the most overrated group in the history of pop.

  9. 39
    Tom on 5 May 2010 #

    One of the curious things about Fairytale vs Always is that it’s routinely mentioned as a controversial “denial of number one” scenario but you have to look quite hard online to find anyone who actually seems very upset by it or writes like it’s a safe assumption that the Pogues song is better than the Pets one – unlike Dolce v Ultravox or “Common People” v [NOT SAFE FOR BUNNY]. In fact the only person who seems cross about it is Shane “faggots with synths” McGowan.

  10. 40
    MikeMCSG on 5 May 2010 #

    #27 A rare opportunity to pull you up on the facts Marcello, Clause 28 wasn’t presented to The Commons until December 1987 the PSB’s could not have been writing about it in the summer.
    I think “It Couldn’t Happen Here ” (not their best song) is more generally about the breakdown of the post-war Keynesian consensus. We’ll find out in a couple of days whether we’re heading back to that particular wasteland.

  11. 41
    thefatgit on 5 May 2010 #

    If Dolce v Ultravox is top of the Premier League of “denied” #1’s, then Pets v Pogues is in the League 2 relegation dogfight area. I don’t recall any major murmurings in ’87 either.

  12. 42
    Erithian on 5 May 2010 #

    Count me among the doubters too. I think if the PSB version had been the original we’d find the same things to admire in it that we always admire – the sweet if diffident voice, the synth and rhythm making the whole thing pretty overwhelming, the scale etc – but if we’d then have heard Elvis’s as a cover version we’d have thought he’d found a whole new dimension to the song and that the more powerful vocal suited the sentiment perfectly. So I’m not at all saying it’s a bad record, just not as good as the original and I was on the Pogues’ side in that particular Christmas battle. (I misremembered slightly and thought that there’d been two great songs about the Celtic diaspora in that Christmas top five, but looking it up I see the Proclaimers’ “Letter From America” made number 3 at the end of November.)

    Re whether Fairytale will ever be a Christmas number one in its own right, I think if it was going to do so it would have been in 2005 at the time of the publicity boost for the Justice for Kirsty campaign, which sadly has now been wound down.

  13. 43
    Erithian on 5 May 2010 #

    re #39 – agreed, this was a cracking chart battle between two worthy contenders, of which I happened to prefer “Fairytale” – not a “classic v crap” encounter! Looking back to the last week of T’Pau’s reign, that was a battle and a half – Rick Astley’s “When I Fall In Love” in at 2 and Jacko’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” up from 16 to 3, with the PSBs in at four. The Pets won out and then held off all competition in Christmas week.

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 5 May 2010 #

    Re: 41 Top of the denied number league is still Strawberry Fields vs Release Me, surely?

  15. 45
    Billy Smart on 5 May 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: Pet Shop Boys twice performed Always On My Mind on Top Of The Pops;

    10 December 1987. Also in the studio that week were; Rick Astley, Johnny Hates Jazz and Alison Moyet. Mike Smith was the host.

    25 December 1987. Also in the studio that week were; The Bee Gees, Rick Astley, T’Pau and Johnny Hates Jazz. Mike Smith & Gary Davies were the hosts.

  16. 46
    glue_factory on 5 May 2010 #

    Re: 43, as I recall Astley was expected to progress to number one, but was denied when the original was re-released the next week, splitting his target constituency.

  17. 47
    swanstep on 5 May 2010 #

    Some of Elvis’s best records stalled at UK #2:
    (The wonderfully psychotic/suicidal) Heartbreak Hotel shafted by Pat Boone’s I’ll be home.
    (One of the greatest double A-sides) Hound Dog/Don’t be Cruel shafted by Frankie Laine’s A woman in Love

    Those are both dolce/ultravox, bunny/pulp -level pop injustices I reckon (Tom scored both of elvis’s nemeses as 2).

    Release me holding out PL/SFF isn’t quite as bad as any of these I reckon because Release me doesn’t strike me as completely horrible. I’m not a fan of AOMM but it’s certainly no stinker either. Of course, if you think AOMM is a ’10′ then the FtoNY case may be most analogous to The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows being shut out by Eleanor Rigby.

  18. 48

    some unhelpful facts about “Always on My mind’

    Aside from those mentioned I’ve found 28 — possibly 29 — other covers, mostly country-ish, some jazz, a handful of reggae (Dennis Brown’s probably the best known), and one that’s a kind of electro-jazz vocoder intrumental that may not be a cover at all (Xaver Fischer Trio come on down). The only foax to go the PSB route arrangementwise seem to be — slightly astonishingly but rather effectively — the Shadows.

    What I also found out is that “Always on My Mind’ (or some near variant of) is a VERY popular title-type: I’ve found more than 20 other distinct songs with something like this title (though some may be covers of each other, I got a bit muddled checking, esp.re the disco remixes and mash-ups). The one i most wanted to be our AoMM was Eek-A-Mouse’s, though his is excellent as you’d expect. Possibly my favourite is actually probably called “Always on my Own” sung by Cornell Campbell, which begins “I’m a lonely soldier, yes! Gosh!”

  19. 49
    DietMondrian on 5 May 2010 #

    Hello from a newcomer. I’ve been reading through all the number ones from the start for a couple of weeks, and have finally caught up – and it seems an appropriate moment, as I absolutely loved AOMM at the time. I would have given it a 10 back then – I’ve given it a 9 now, as I now find it a little OTT.

  20. 50
    thefatgit on 5 May 2010 #

    God Only Knows v Eleanor Rigby is indeed a battle worthy of toppling Dolce v Ultravox, most notably for the quality of both songs, but as I was a mere babe in arms at that time it was off my pop radar.

  21. 51
    koganbot on 5 May 2010 #

    I would like to take this opportunity to draw from my deep well and vast aquifer of social and musical knowledge to say… I never heard any version of this song in its time. I don’t think I even knew there was a Willie version until a couple of years ago. In early ’72 I was contemplating rock’s recent descent into dreariness and was working backwards through the Stones’ catalog in awe of Jagger for deliberately shifting the sands beneath my feet in “Under My Thumb.” In ’82 I was all hip-hop and salsa and whatever was bubbling under with “Planet Rock” and “Everybody” meanwhile running back to the Cleveland minefields of ’75 punk and grasping straws with the Fall. In ’87 I knew of the Pet Shop Boys but this song slipped by me and I’d have thought that Company B’s “Fascinated” and Exposé’s “Point Of No Return” cleaned its clock anyway.

    I love the fatgit’s writeup in #22 but the concept of a boomer anthem is fundamentally impossible. Not so sure of the concept “boomer,” actually – just because there was a baby bulge from ’46 to ’63 doesn’t mean that someone born in ’63 has much in common with someone born 17 years earlier (as opposed to someone born 5 years later). But more to the point, what in ’72 someone born in ’54 might have in common with someone else born in ’54 is schism and hostility and incomprehension, not an anthem. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to generalize anyway. But one thing “we” very much did not have in common, even as a touchstone, even as a divider, was Elvis, who for some people still resonated strongly, for others barely had a presence, e.g. me and I’d bet most people who graduated high school in ’72. Elvis has more presence now, I’d say, though I don’t know how much this presence has to do with him. (See my wonderings a couple of years ago (final paragraph), which I’m hoping that some of you will expand on someday.)

  22. 52

    One thing that Elvis has that makes him the centre of a certain “we” — whether it’s Lester Bangs’s or Greil Marcus’s or whoever’s really — is that he was a FAN: that he carried in him the knolwedge and love of a fvck-ton of pop records, and that these seemed to him and to the rest of the “we” (however big or tiny it turns out to be, and however weirdly it lays across other socials maps, like GREASER or SOLDIER or AMERICAN) to be very important to how he moved through his life.

    The actual set of those records is important in defining the “we”; viz it includes Big mama Thornton and Mario Lanza but not Wanda Landowska. But so is the the set of ways the records are likely to be put to use.

  23. 53
    LondonLee on 5 May 2010 #

    This is one I’ve grown to love more than I did when it first came out, back then I was little put off by the sense that they were taking the piss somewhat* (as they did to U2). Musically it’s a belter and I do prefer it to “It’s A Sin”, it seems less clattery.

    Glad it didn’t make ‘Actually’ either, it fits much better on ‘Introspective’

    *Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Elvis never meant shit to me and all that but it does change how you hear a record.

  24. 54
    inakamono on 5 May 2010 #

    This getting a “10” kinda devalues the entire Popular project, really. There have been some quasi rules of thumb here so far: for example that a cover version automatically loses a couple of points, or that a single doesn’t get a “10” if there’s a better single by the same artist that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it to No.1 — both of which “rules of thumb” should put a ceiling on this at a maximum of 8.

    I mean, it’s a nice song, and nicely performed; it’s thoroughly nice. In the context of being a Christmas No.1, it’s pretty tinsel to hang on the tree. But, to deserve a 10, it needs to be a bit more than tinsel: it needs to be subversive, or change the future of pop music, or offer a unique future that no previous single has ever promised… But this, sadly, does none of those things. It’s just “nice”, and has no special virtue to elevate it above many other “nice” singles, and many more that weren’t “nice” but were crucial turning-points.

    [/rant]

    Seriously, how can this be a “10”?

  25. 55
    Tom on 5 May 2010 #

    I’d like to see where I laid down these quasi rules of thumb, inakamono, since I don’t remotely believe in either of them! “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” is a better single than “Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine”, for instance, and that was the second 10 I ever gave. You’d find a LOT of people willing to argue Dexy’s had better singles than “Eileen”, even if admittedly I wouldn’t be one of them. And anyway, this is in the pack of 4 or 5 PSB singles I can’t separate out as their very best – this, Can You Forgive Her?, Left To My Own Devices, What Have I Done, Being Boring are, off the top of my head, Pet Shop Boys singles I’d probably hand a 10 to.

    And the crucial-turning-point/subversive stuff is a red herring, too: “subversive” is a bit of a comfy concept when you’re dealing with 30-year-old pop music, isn’t it? I wouldn’t say I avoid taking importance into account, but it only matters when it gives the single an extra shiver in the spine in the moment of hearing it now. That’s the case with “Ghost Town”, say, but not really with “Hot Love”. For some singles the freight of importance turns me off them a bit, in fact. I’m more inclined to give weight to personal importance in the marking than wider ‘importance’ – though it’s then my job to explain it in the write-up, and I think in fairness I failed to do that here, given that “Always On My Mind” IS important to me (wait and see!).

    The impulse behind this “10” is probably the same as the impulse of the “10” for “Atomic” – whether it’s a cover version or not, important or not, this does what I need a pop record to do, perfectly and reliably. When you start saying “it needs something extra to be a 10”, what you’re doing is saying that joy on its own can’t be enough. I object to this idea. That objection can get misinterpreted as a hedonistic philosophy – that joy is always enough, pleasure above everything in criticism – but it’s not: of course pop can act in ways beyond simply ‘being pop’, how boring if it couldn’t! But I wouldn’t be much of a pop fan if I didn’t think that sometimes simply being pop IS enough to get the highest praise I can give.

  26. 56
    Tom on 5 May 2010 #

    (As for cover versions, I admit I don’t like many big hit covers but that’s not a point of principle!)

  27. 57
    thefatgit on 5 May 2010 #

    Koganbot, thanks for the comments. The way I felt about Elvis as a younger me is vastly different to how I feel about Elvis now. It’s a matter of maturity, when you align yourself to Chuck D in the 80’s as if to say “I’m different from you” in the same way perhaps an earlier generation aligned themselves to Elvis to set themselves apart from their own elders. You reach middle age and get the chance to stay around long enough to realise that the whole thing is cyclical and in the long run, incorrect. If you disregard what has preceeded your favourite artists, then you tend to disregard what your favourite artists grew up with and learned how to shape their own opinions about music and how they create what is new. Where would Neil Tennant be without Dusty, without Elvis? So how do I feel about Elvis now? What exists in my personal Elvis canon? I’m still learning, but one thing is for sure. When I think of the latter-day Elvis, the rhinestone jumpsuit, the Graceland excess, the Vegas shows with the backing orchestra, AOMM jumps immediately to mind closely followed by the pomp and folly of “An American Prayer”. I feel sorry for him, I mean genuinely sad. In a way I never expected to feel as a teenager or young adult in the 80’s. The generation who held Elvis closest to their hearts, I feel sorry for them too. To endure seeing an icon (and former iconoclast) decay in front of their eyes, must have been incredibly disquieting and uncomfortable at the very least. The closest I can equate to it is seeing Freddy Mercury’s demise, feeling that mixture of shock and disgust seeing that skeletal photo. But Freddy faded in a matter of months. Elvis’ fanbase had to endure years of decline into a bloated parody of himself. And it’s this that has made me reappraise the man. Working backwards from mess all the way back to messiah.

  28. 58
    wichita lineman on 5 May 2010 #

    Elvis’s other denied no.1 – by Two Little Boys – was Suspicious Minds written (don’t think anyone’s mentioned this yet) by the oddly obscure Mark James, who also wrote Always On My Mind.

    Re 57: The footage on 1981 biopic This Is Elvis of Are You Lonesome Tonight, at a show a few weeks before his death, is the single saddest pop clip I’ve ever seen. He’s laughing, babbling, but through the nonsense you can hear a man resigned to disappointment, waiting to die.

    Punctum – I always feel like I’m seen as either racist or stupid if I say I don’t rate the Pogues. So, thanks.

  29. 59
    Alan on 6 May 2010 #

    Knowing how personal a 10 this was gonna be for Tom I thought it might end up being the lowest ‘crowd sourced’ score out of his 10s. Ludicrously tho, come on eileen has been dragged down much lower. :-/

  30. 60
    punctum on 6 May 2010 #

    #55 – well, I think “joy” is in itself an “extra” (or a “p*nct*m”) as opposed to solemn, head-nodding appreciation (though there’s a place for solemnity too), but yes, this is de facto a personal exercise (admittedly involving a whole bunch of other people throwing in their perspectives) and Tom’s never pretended it’s anything else; certainly not an Authoritative Critical Slide Rule Bible to Great Pop Toppers (and who’d want to read the latter? Don’t stick your hands up all at once). It’s a challenge to received thought but not mechanically constructed as such; every one of us could/is entitled to do our own Populars but the value of such enterprises is that they provoke us to ask ourselves questions; do we believe that such and such is a great artist/record or do we merely believe that we believe that they’re great? Socrates enjoyed the questioning process much more than finding answers.

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