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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 – a copy of “Atomic” which literally glows as it’s withdrawn from its sleeve.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. 61
    pink champale on 6 May 2010 #

    Instinctively I wouldn’t have pegged this as quite a ten but having read the thread i’m thoroughly sold – ten ten ten. vote early and vote often. whatever the mark, it’s a total joy and surely the missing link between the Flying Lizards and DJ Sammy.

    I’m with lord s on Joss Ackland’s atrocious mugging in the video. has anyone actually seen ‘it couldn’t happen here’? (silly question, I’ll be the only one here who hasn’t). is it as bad as its supposed to be?

  2. 62
    Alan on 6 May 2010 #

    I saw it couldn’t happen here at the Cambridge Arts Cinema. I liked it more than I did the biopics of Wittgenstein or Shostakovich I saw that same year (IIRC). which is to say there were better songs in it. it’s an odd seaside-postcard via viz comic strip nightmare of a film — nonsense stringing together extended videos. ie, much as you’d expect. the only memorable bits are really tiny fragments.

  3. 63
    DietMondrian on 6 May 2010 #

    I had It Couldn’t Happen Here on video; the Boys’ acting wasn’t up to much, and everyone else mugged furiously. I wrote about it in a school magazine, a review that would make me die of embarrassment it it were to resurface.

  4. 64
    Alan on 6 May 2010 #

    (a quick google tells me i’m probably confusing something else with jarman’s 93 wittgenstein)

  5. 65
    Tom on 6 May 2010 #

    I watched ICHH when getting enjoyably drunk with a fellow PSBs fan, on an old videotape several years after its rubbishness mattered. This is, I feel safe to say, the very best way to watch it, in that I came away convinced it was a Good Thing and equally convinced I would never ever see it again.

  6. 66
    pink champale on 6 May 2010 #

    thanks all, pretty much as expected then. #63 – beware! my old school magazine has recently turned up online in googleable form. the horror…

  7. 67
    MikeMCSG on 6 May 2010 #

    #61 pc – last time I looked, all of it was on Youtube.

  8. 68
    pink champale on 6 May 2010 #

    cool, i might check it out tonight when the proceedings get too gruesome

  9. 69

    I see the Style Council’s Jerusalem is also on youtube! Its release date seems to be given as 1989. but I certainly saw a preview while I was still at NME, I would guess in 1987…

  10. 70
    Mutley on 6 May 2010 #

    Re #57 – the strength of Elvis as an icon is in his fallibility as much as in his outstanding talent. The lasting icons emerging in the 50s/early 60s are Elvis, Brando, Ali and Monroe (and possibly James Dean). In their different ways they all destroyed themselves (for good or bad), and they didn’t seem to really care about their fame. And they all gave the impression (rightly or wrongly) that they didn’t have to work at their art, but that it came naturally. Contrast this with other major artists such as, from that era, Paul Newman compared with Brando, or, in the world of music and somewhat later, Springsteen or Madonna compared with Elvis. Big and talented as these stars are, for me they do not achieve the ultimate iconic status of the earlier-mentioned. To reach that status your flaws have to be a prominent part of your iconography (I’m not talking about Madonna’s film career here!). There’s nothing new about this of course, ancient myths and legends abound with fatally flawed demi-gods – Achilles, Hercules etc.

    I’m not sure who else in pop/rock will achieve long-term ultimate iconic status that will last for 50 years or more. Dylan – probably, but somewhat lacking in the fallibility department? Michael Jackson? (possibly, but seems to have had to work too hard at his art); Lennon? (possibly fits the bill but is he a sufficient icon without the Beatles collective?). No one else springs to mind.

  11. 71
    punctum on 6 May 2010 #

    I only think of the terms “icon” and “iconic” in relation to Byzantine and Russian Orthodox art. Otherwise they seem to have become lazy shorthand for well-known people or movements, i.e. they don’t mean what most people think they mean.

  12. 72
    thefatgit on 6 May 2010 #

    Mutley, perhaps we’re not meant to find anyone (from today) to fit the bill. The iconic only remain that way, because they are a rarity. We’re meant to look upon them in awe for their otherness, and yes their flaws which make them more human and less “alien”. But then perhaps “icon” isn’t the correct terminology either. It feels like deification, which is something else entirely. “Canonical” doesn’t fit the bill either. Nor does “legendary” which is bandied about too often these days (I get called a legend if I buy someone a pint!). So “icon” seems to be filling in for another word which at this moment, I’m failing to grasp.

  13. 73
    Erithian on 6 May 2010 #

    #71 – I hear what you say and sympathise, Punctum, but language moves on and I fear that particular battle is lost. (What would you understand by “gay icon”?!)

  14. 74
    Billy Smart on 6 May 2010 #

    Icon is acceptable for any well-recognised image that is frequently reproduced, I’d say – but is lazy and inaccurate whenever applied to anything else.

  15. 75
    thefatgit on 6 May 2010 #

    Also “idol” feels somewhat cheapened, through frequent use and connotations with Simon Cowell. I’m coming to the conclusion that any alternative to the word “icon” loses a certain amount of impact. I’m willing to agree with Punctum that it’s proper usage should be in relation to the Orthodox depictions of Christ, but as modern language is such a fluid and ephemeral thing, then perhaps some compromise is required.

  16. 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.)

  17. 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.)

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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!)

  21. 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.’” […]

  22. 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

  23. 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.

  24. 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…)

  25. 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.)

  26. 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…)

  27. 87

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

  28. 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.)

  29. 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?

  30. 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.

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