Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles of the 90s

It was around the turn of the 90s that people started to take the Pet Shop Boys seriously. Acceptance and praise increased their range and life expectancy, but it trashed their trump card: this was a band who could kick off their first big hit with “Sometimes you’re better off dead / There’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head” and have nobody for a mere moment realise they might mean it. That’s why the band’s first few albums, with their unfussy production and pitiless detachment, leave their recent work standing. The Pet Shop Boys’ 90s records find ever-more-grand, ever-more-forced uberdisco workouts dotted about a landscape of deepening, personal gloom. Of course Tennant and Lowe’s sheer class pokes through – their intelligence, craft and ability to move you – but that’s anyhow the reason they’re under-represented on this list.

“So Hard” was their first release since Introspective, a six-track masterpiece showing Yuppie melancholia redeemed through ecstasy culture which had really kick-started the Pets’ critical habilitation, and so it was pretty eagerly awaited. In fact it’s probably the first single this decade I remember truly looking forward to. Had they come back with the sickly sweep and self-regarding nostalgia of “Being Boring”, I might have called it a day with them right there, but “So Hard” was muted, almost dour, and tough to get a grip on: altogether more intriguing.

The band might have been trying for a retro-disco synthesiser throb, but “So Hard” lumbers rather than glides, never achieving the beautiful machine-oil flow of the Donna Summer productions it wanted to emulate. But the slight grit in its gears is entirely apt: “So Hard” is a picture of a relationship’s dying days, its witty and weary lyrics outlining the sniping accusations and counter-claims that turn up when an affair runs out of gas and stutters towards its end. Tennant has never had a great voice but his timing is impeccable, and there’s nobody else who could bring out all the wry bitchiness in some of these lines. Unfussy, neither very danceable nor very songwriterly, “So Hard” is here simply because it’s a record I’ve never tired of, but if you wanted some wider significance you could may say that its Autumnal pop sensibility mapped out a reasonable route for a great English band to manage their own decline.