Every Hot 100 Number-One Single: “West End Girls” (1986) by Pet Shop Boys

Just because I’m now trying to move over to video reviews doesn’t mean that I have to abandon this site entirely! (Now that you’re here, though, consider checking out my review for the latest EP from The Weeknd!)

Today’s Every Number-One Single review may be the only one to reference T.S. Eliot! Well, unless I can somehow sneak in a reference in my review of “Look What You Made Me Do”… or something. I’ll stop with my pitiful attempts at humor now and actually get on with this damn review.

When I, personally, think about the music of the 80s, the decade’s biggest hits, and those that seem to define the decade as a whole the best, few fit these categories as well as Pet Shop Boys. Pet Shop Boys are a synthpop duo from London, consisting of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. While they have achieved considerable success in the states, there’s no denying that they have found the most success in their home country, wherein they’ve achieved 22 top ten hits, four number-one singles, and are more than likely the most successful duo in UK music history. Some of their most notable tracks include “West End Girls”, “Opportunities”, “It’s a Sin”, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” (with Dusty Springfield), and a cover of the Willie Nelson hit “Always On My Mind”. Although the crux of their international success took place in the 80s and many consider them integral to the decade, they have actually achieved notable success all the way through the 2000s – and they are still recording!

“West End Girls” was the debut single for the duo in 1984, though the original mix of this single, produced by Bobby Orlando, didn’t make much of a dent outside of the underground club scene Having been basically raised on the remixed version of the tune (which would be the one to top the charts), it was pretty jarring to go back to the original. While much of the original synth sound effects would make their way into the remix, the sub-par quality of the Casio-like keyboard sounds (including crashing glass and vocal chopping) feel so explicitly cheap and so very 80s. Depending on who you ask, though, these qualities are part of what makes this version so charming. Even the mixing on Tennant’s voice sounds significantly rawer and even unfinished. Notable for this version, though, is the line, “Who do you think you are, Joe Stalin?”, which didn’t make its way into the hit version, for reasons that I hope are obvious. This was the mid-80s, after all.

Eventually, the guys would collaborate with producer Stephen Hague, who was a popular choice amongst British synthpop acts of the 80s. Prior to meeting Pet Shop Boys, Hague had worked with Gleaming Spires (who had a minor hit with “Are You Ready For the Sex Girls”) as well as Malcolm McLaren on his ambitious hit single “Madam Butterfly”. Hague worked wonders at cleaning up the sound, ridding of all the cheesy Casio gimmicks and crafting the tune into something sleek and sophisticated. Later singles from Pet Shop Boys would be recognized for their garishness and flamboyancy – just listen to “It’s a Sin”, their cover of The Village People’s “Go West”, and even their hit medley that meshes U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name” and Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”. These dudes got around! However, the relaxed atmosphere of “West End Girls” proves that their artistic integrity stretches beyond these confines. The loveliest elements of the track are rightfully mixed at the forefront – the punchy bass synths, the ghost-like backing vocal effects, the saxophone bits at the bridge, Tennant’s soothing lead vocals.

But I would be incorrect to discuss this song without remarking upon its richly illustrated lyrics and the delivery thereof. Written by both Lowe and Tennant and conveying images of inner-city life through spoken-word delivery, it’s probably safe to say that this was the closest thing to rap music to top the pop charts at this time. Specifically, the duo were inspired by the cultural tidal wave that was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982) ; it even lifts the bassline from this single. While it’s obvious that there’s an entire ocean separating these two environments from each other, the attention-grabbing opening line, “Sometimes you’re better off dead / There’s a gun in your hand, it’s pointing at your head” could certainly belong to a number of records from the American rap scene. But equally as so, Pet Shop Boys were also inspired by T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Waste Land” for its switching of narrative voices and kaleidoscope of cluttered, yet vivid imagery of hypnotic depravity. A line like, “Too many shadows, whispering voices / Faces on posters, too many choices” certainly portrays this well. Personally, the couplet that comprises the chorus (“In a west end town, a dead end world / The east end boys and west end girls”) always conjured imagery of West Side Story for me… though, only the sad, dark, murderous parts, without all the romance or singing.

Honestly, even the production itself brings to mind the collage-like format of “The Waste Land”. Like so many of the best dance tracks from the 80s, there are so many compellingly unique sounds on display here, all meshed together in a manner that comes off less cluttered and more appealingly hypnotic. This sound, coupled with the duo’s rich lyricism, results in a pop single that is cinematic in its aesthetic and existential in its quality. While many synthpop acts of the time were still trying to cram as many hip keyboard sounds into their record as possible (the original version of “West End Girls” was certianly guilty of this!), this mix opts for a big, layered sound, rather than a gimmicky one. The end result is a beautiful piece of sonic atmospherics, certainly a good sign of what was next to come from Pet Shop Boys.

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