Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met in a hi-fi shop in Chelsea in 1981. Tennant had bought a Korg synthesizer and the pair bonded over their shared love of electro-pop singles like ‘Souvenir’ by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and ‘Bedsitter’ by Soft Cell. The pair formed Pet Shop Boys, named after some friends who worked in a pet shop. Tennant’s an excellent vocalist, able to switch between a deadpan speaking voice and a gorgeous pure tenor.
As the duo’s profile grew, Tennant quit his day job as the deputy editor of Smash Hits magazine. The pair’s first single for Parlophone, ‘West End Girls’, was a number-one hit in the UK and the USA. The duo were wildly successful over the second half of the 1980s, enjoying four UK #1 singles. Even as the hits became smaller, the duo’s music continued to develop into the new decade – 1990’s Behaviour is often regarded as their best record.
The pair have continued to make music together, but this list is entirely drawn from their peak years between 1985 and 1993. The duo have some excellent deep cuts (‘King’s Cross’!) and b-sides (‘Paninaro’!), but this list entirely consists of singles. Apologies to ‘Heart’, the UK #1 hit I wasn’t able to squeeze onto this list.
10 Best Pet Shop Boys Songs
#10 Always On My Mind
single, 1987, later included on Introspective, 1988
In 1987, the Pet Shop Boys appeared on Love Me Tender, a TV special marking the 10th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Lowe and Tennant’s performance of ‘Always On My Mind’ was so well-received that they recorded a studio version and released it as a single. The ballad was written by Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher, and Mark James, and was first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972.
#9 It’s A Sin
from Actually, 1987
The Pet Shop Boys presaged their second album with the provocative ‘It’s a Sin’. Neil Tennant wrote the song about his time in a Catholic school in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Impresario Jonathan King accused the duo of ripping off Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’ – he recorded ‘Wild World’ in a Pet Shop Boys-style arrangement to prove his point. King’s single flopped and the Pet Shop Boys sued him – they donated their proceeds to charity.
‘It’s a Sin’, at its heart, is a heavy metal record,” Tennant said. “There is a huge link between hi-NRG music and heavy metal: the urgency, the chords, the slightly histrionic melody.Neil Tennant, “It’s a Sin — pure pop provocation from the Pet Shop Boys”, Financial Times
#8 Can You Forgive Her?
from Very, 1993
The Pet Shop Boys launched the publicity campaign for their fifth album with the lead single ‘Can You Forgive Her?’. After the sedate and accomplished Behaviour, they’re more frivolous and energetic here. The title’s derived from a 19th-century Anthony Trollope novel, while the lyrics are some of Tennant’s most witty. “You drift into the strangest dreams/Of youthful follies and changing teams.”
#7 Being Boring
from Behaviour, 1990
‘Being Boring’ was written about Tennant’s childhood friend Christopher Dowell. They both moved to London in the 1980s, but their lives took wildly different turns; Tennant became a pop star, while Dowell died young from AIDS. It wasn’t very successful on the charts but has become one of the duo’s best-loved songs. They initially didn’t include it on their setlists on the Behaviour tour but added it after pressure from fans.
During our tour in 1991, when we performed in L.A., our manager told us Axl Rose, the lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, was outside our dressing room. When Axl came in, he said, “Man, why didn’t you play ‘Boring’?”Neil Tennant
#6 Love Comes Quickly
from Please, 1986
The Pet Shop Boys’ second single from their debut Please was the first song that Tennant and Lowe ever wrote together. The lyrics aren’t as cutting as much of Tennant’s work – it’s a musing about the inevitability of love. But the melody and vocal are irresistibly gorgeous – there’s a terrific synth bass line driving the song. Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay adds saxophone to the song’s conclusion.
#5 Where The Streets Have No Name/Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You
non-album single, 1991
The Pet Shop Boys enjoyed a #4 hit with their incongruous pairing of U2’s ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’. The Pet Shop Boys wanted to turn “a mythic rock song into a stomping disco record”. U2’s response to the campy reimagining of their song was a witty statement that read “what have we done to deserve this?”
from Very, 1993
‘Liberation’ was the least successful single from Very. It’s gorgeous, however, adding strings to a lush ballad. Like ‘Love Comes Quickly’, it’s Tennant’s gorgeous voice navigating a lovely melody. The melody recalls ‘Suburbia’, a single from Please. The song was accompanied by a virtual reality video, which toured the UK in a booth.
#3 West End Girls
from Please, 1986
The Pet Shop Boys’ debut single has remained their signature song. They released a 1984 version, recorded with US producer Bobby Orlando, as their very first single. Orlando envisaged the song as a rap record with a British accent – the song was a club hit. The duo severed ties with Orlando and re-recorded ‘West End Girls’ with Stephen Hague. The final version is slower and more sophisticated. The portrait of London’s nightlife rightfully became a huge hit, topping the charts in the UK and the US.
#2 Domino Dancing
from Introspective, 1988
The lead single from Introspective, ‘Domino Dancing’ marked the end of the duo’s UK single chart dominance. It entered the chart at #9 – Tennant later said “I knew then that our imperial phase of number one hits was over.” ‘Domino Dancing’ adds Latin pop to the duo’s sound, and it works beautifully – the brass and piano add layers to the duo’s well-crafted pop.
#1 What Have I Done To Deserve This?
from Actually, 1987
‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ was written in 1984, with American songwriter Allee Willis – Willis’ other writing credits include the Earth, Wind & Fire classic ‘September’. The group couldn’t find a suitable female singer for the duet. Tennant’s favourite LP was Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, but Springfield declined. She changed her mind after hearing ‘West End Girls’ on the radio and offered her services. The success of the song reignited Springfield’s faded career – she hadn’t enjoyed a top 40 hit in the UK since 1970. The contrast between Tennant’s deadpan and Springfield’s soaring and husky vocals is magical.
What’s your favourite Pet Shop Boys song?
More from Aphoristic Album Reviews
Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Read about the discographies of musical acts from the 1960s to the present day. Browse this site's review archives or enjoy these random selections:
I add new blog posts to this website every week. Browse the archives or enjoy these random selections: