Pet Shop Boys singles – The Top 40
By admin | August 13, 2021
Classic Pop picks out the best Pet Shop Boys singles, from 1985 to 2016… By Ian Wade
Pet Shop Boys are one of pop’s most successful duos of all time – national treasures, even – and have an enviable back catalogue from over 35 years of hitmaking, from West End Girls through to 2021’s Cricket Wife, via four UK No. 1s and 14 Top 10 studio albums.
We have no less than 56 singles complete with their B-sides to consider – many of those flips are worthy of top-billing themselves and could fill a Top 40 alone – plus tracks from their first 13 (famously one word titled) studio albums, eight compilations and two live sets.
For our chart, however, we have decided to focus on singles (with a couple of cheeky exceptions) and have selected them chronologically, as at least half of them would be strong contenders for PSB’s best.
Neil Tennant came up with the term ‘imperial phase’ to describe an artist’s commercial and creative peak. He was then referring to the period from the release of album Please in 1986 to Domino Dancing in late 1988, but in reality, the career of Pet Shop Boys is littered with such phases.
If the singles that stormed the top of the charts became instant fan favourites, others have grown in stature over the years, and the ones that caused alarm bells to ring when they failed to replicate earlier successes often become the most well-loved.
The duo have also been adept at covering other people’s music too, such as U2, Elvis Presley, Coldplay, Madness and “the English group Blur”.
So sit back, and let us regale you in songs about Oscar Wilde, Tony Blair, Che Guevera (and Debussy to a disco beat), the Gulf conflicts, the things Chris Lowe hates, Zelda Fitzgerald, youth cults (both Italian and French), Madonna, Marx and madeleines.
These are tunes that marry high art and low life, glamour with grime, the has-beens and the have-nots, the intelligentsia and the inbred. There are tales of kept women, dejected husbands, jealous lovers, pompous rock stars, closet cases and New York City boys, with musical references and nods to Desireless, Purcell, Expose, Take That, Village People, Michael Nyman, Grandmaster Flash, and Pachelbel.
There are walk-ons from Johnny Marr, Dusty Springfield, Robbie Williams, Ian McKellen, Example, Kylie, David Bowie and Liza Minelli; there’s the producers too, some of the finest knob-twiddlers such as Stephen Hague, Stuart Price, Xenomania, David Morales and Trevor Horn, who have all laid their hands on a PSB production. And all this output is invariably housed in impeccably designed sleeves with a creative aesthetic that has been a constant presence. Consistently compelling, endlessly inventive and never boring, they were, and still continue to be, one of the very finest things to have blessed our lives. Hurrah!
Top Pet Shop Boys singles
4o WEST END GIRLS, 1984/5
Originally produced by Bobby O and released in ’84 on the Bobcat label, West End Girls became a US club hit and made small inroads across Europe. After Neil and Chris signed with Parlophone, the Stephen Hague version became an international No. 1 single in early 1986. With influences ranging from Grandmaster Flash to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, it was voted Best Single at the 1987 Brits and Best International Hit at the Ivor Novellos. Any fans planning to make a pilgrimage to the Dive Bar will be sad to learn it’s now a Chinese restaurant.
39 LOVE COMES QUICKLY, 1986
Love Comes Quickly detailed how you can give up hope of ever finding love and then, suddenly, it finds you. Making only No. 19, it caused a bit of one-hit-wonder worry, yet it’s one of PSB’s favourite tunes. The sleeve, with Chris in a BOY cap, was later admitted by Neil to being the band’s ‘coming out’ moment; “In the 1980s, we didn’t say we were gay. We had a big teen following and I’ve always thought it more exciting when the sexuality thing is all mysterious… but that BOY cap, I thought ‘That’s incredibly gay! We’re OUT!’”
38 OPPORTUNITIES (LET’S MAKE LOTS OF MONEY), 1985/6
Another early single that had failed to ignite the upper reaches of the charts, Opportunities was given a welcome reboot when Stephen Hague re-recorded it with a new vocal from Neil. The song was seen as a celebration of Thatcherism, but a closer look at the lyrics suggests that all the claims made will result in no one making any money at all. Thus began the ‘ironic’ tag that’s been dogging the duo ever since. A Top 11 hit in the UK, it went one better in the US.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – Opportunities
37 IN THE NIGHT, 1985
The Zazous were a subculture in France during the German occupation in WWII. Distrusted by both the Nazis and French Resistance, they were only interested in clothes and music. Neil had read about them in David Pryce-Jones’ book Paris In The Third Reich, and questions whether their apathy essentially led to cooperation with the enemy. Issued only as the B-side to the first release of Opportunities – and as a promo in Germany – In The Night enjoyed a decade-long spell from 1987 on as the theme tune to the BBC’s The Clothes Show.
36 SUBURBIA, 1986
The fourth PSB single took inspiration from unrest in Brixton and also Penelope Spheeris’ 1984 film Suburbia. Re-recorded from the Please version, doofed up with the addition of snarling dogs, Suburbia reached No. 8, and is best experienced in its Full Horror extended version. The duo filmed some of the video in LA with director Eric Watson when they were over for a MTV Awards do. It was released across a variety of formats, including a double-pack seven inch, and the B-side Paninaro would take on a life of its own…
35 PANINARO, 1986
While touring Italy promoting West End Girls, Chris noticed a cult-like group of kids known as the paninari, who wore designer clothes while eating sandwiches and listening to early Eighties disco. Originally released as part of the Suburbia package, this rare Chris vocal item featured on Disco but was only released as a proper single in Italy. A re-recording, Paninaro ‘95, was released ahead of the B-sides compilation Alternative (which featured the original), with updated lyrics, notably shifting the line “You are my lover” to the past tense.
34 IT’S A SIN, 1987
And so began the duo’s ‘imperial phase’. It’s A Sin, a song about Neil’s Tennant’s Catholic education at St Cuthbert’s High School in Newcastle upon Tyne, had been demoed as far back as 1984 as part of their sessions with Bobby O. It became the first single of the then-some-months-off second album Actually, and their second UK No. 1 in July 1987. It was also the best-selling single across Europe that year, and reached No. 9 in the US. The video, featuring Neil being imprisoned by Chris, was the first of several hook-ups with Derek Jarman.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles –It’s A Sin
33 WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS?, 1987
Dusty Springfield had been an enormous star in the Sixties but had gone into a semi-reclusive state after she left the UK for the US in 1974. She had become all but forgotten until Neil – who counts 1969’s Dusty In Memphis as one of his favourite albums – began a campaign to reel her in. The song raced to No.2, giving Dusty her biggest hit in decades. Neil and Chris would work with her again on Nothing Has Been Proved and also help out with her comeback album, 1990’s Reputation.
32 RENT, 1987
Rent was not, in fact, a topical essay about a relationship with a ‘kept man’ or rent boy, a fascination with the tabloids at the time. “I’ve always imagined it’s about a kept woman,” Neil mused in the Actually sleevenotes. “I vaguely thought of one of the Kennedys, for some reason, and imagined that this politician keeps this woman in a smart flat in Manhattan, and he’s still got this family, and the two of them have some sort of relationship and they do love each other, but it’s all kind of secret.” It was a No. 8 hit in October ’87.
31 ALWAYS ON MY MIND, 1987
To celebrate a decade since Elvis died, ITV decided to cobble together a show called Love Me Tender with covers sung by the likes of Meat Loaf, Kim Wilde and Boy George. The PSB performance of Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind was deemed so good that they decided to release it. It became 1987’s Christmas No. 1 – keeping The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York off the top – and was accompanied by a video featuring clips from their rum feature film It Couldn’t Happen Here, with Joss Ackland singing along in the back of a taxi.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – Always On My Mind
30 HEART, 1988
The story of Pet Shop Boys’ fourth No. 1 is one of many ‘nearlys’. It stems back to the early sessions for Please, when the duo wrote it with Madonna or Hi-NRG lungsmith Hazell Dean in mind; it turned out to be the wrong tempo to be used in the film Inner Space; and it was called Heartbeat, until Culture Club sticksman Jon Moss launched a new band of the same name. The vocal refrain is made up from vocals by Neil, Pavarotti and Wendy Smith of Prefab Sprout. While the duo aren’t too keen on the song, it’s become a big fan favourite.
29 DOMINO DANCING, 1988
Inspired by Latin pop and French chanteuse Desireless’ Elle Est Comme Les étoiles, Domino Dancing was helmed by Expose producer Lewis A Martinée. Neil and Chris were expecting the same level of success they’d been enjoying, and were a bit disappointed. Tennant remembers: “It entered the charts at No. 9 and I thought, ‘that’s that, then, it’s all over’. I knew that our imperial phase of No. 1 hits was over.” It fared better when Swedish tribute turns West End Girls took their version to No. 3 on the Swedish charts in 2005.
28 LEFT TO MY OWN DEVICES, 1988
A soup-to-nuts production job by Trevor Horn, Left To My Own Devices is the tale of someone spending a day alone and indulging in occasional flights of fancy. Full of quotable lines, it’s Pet Shop Boys in excelsis, combining the mundane with the extravagant. Neil’s mum was apparently upset when she heard it, thinking that the lines “I was a lonely boy” suggested that he’d had a sad upbringing. Bonus pub quiz-type fact: the ‘party animal’ is rumoured to be writer/cultural historian Jon Savage. It was a No. 4 hit that November.
27 SO HARD, 1990
The first single from Behaviour was recorded with a selection of old technology, but David Morales had a tinker and turned it towards the dancefloor. In fact, at a party in LA, Frankie Knuckles played a mix of it that caused Neil to ask Chris “Why don’t we make records like this?”, to which Chris replied, “Neil… it is us.” Keen-eared listeners may detect a sample from a ‘special interest’ film where the title is moaned by one of the actors, though it was actually nabbed from Modern Rocketry’s 1987 track Deeper And Deeper.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – So Hard
26 BEING BORING, 1990
Now considered one of the duo’s greatest songs, Being Boring managed only a measly No. 20, although this was possibly down to Bruce Weber’s video, which featured some gents in the nip. The title was taken from the Zelda Fitzgerald quote “she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring”, and is about a childhood pal of Neil’s: the two had moved to London together, but the friend had eventually succumbed to AIDS. George Michael selected it as one of his Desert Island Discs in 2007, and it’s one of Axl Rose’s favourites too.
25 HOW CAN YOU EXPECT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY?/ WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME (I CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU), 1991
A snarl at the hypocrisy of megastars such as Bono, Phil Collins, Sting etc, although Neil has never admitted to it being about anyone in particular. It was released as a double A-side, cut-and-shutting U2’s Where The Streets Have No Name with Can’t Take My Eyes Of You, the Andy Williams fave, although one suspects Neil and Chris were referencing the Boys Town Gang’s cover.
24 JEALOUSY, 1991
Chris wrote the music to what was first called Dead Of Night on the piano at his parents’ house in Blackpool in 1982, and Neil’s lyrics turned out to actually be about Chris – although other interpretations can be drawn from Neil’s reciting of Iago’s lines to Othello on the 12-inch version, as the hero succumbs to the jealousy that will be his downfall. A version has been pencilled in for each of their albums with a view to getting Ennio Morricone to score it, but he never got back to them, so Harold Faltermeyer did the honours instead.
23 DJ CULTURE, 1991
A song ostensibly about the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq and how the way George Bush and the media spoke about it as if it were WW2, and also about how people would sooner pretend rather than authentically experience life, or create themselves out of nothing; with the saturation of media and opinion, there are no longer genuine responses, only fake ones which increasingly drown out reality. Recorded with Brothers In Rhythm and released as a new track to accompany the hits on Discography, it’s one of the duo’s favourite songs.
22 CAN YOU FORGIVE HER?, 1993
A tale about a young man who can’t accept his own gayness, and is being teased by his girlfriend about how ‘girly’ he is and his memories of love for a school chum. The generalisation “you dance to disco and you don’t like rock” was intended as irony, but further reiterated the potential homosexualness of the subject, playing on stereotypical notions. The song was written in 6/8, making the music sound ‘sneaky’, as Neil suggested. With a video of the pair in conical hats, it kicked off the Very campaign, reaching No. 7 in June 1993.
21 GO WEST, 1993
Having tackled Elvis and de-pomped U2, it was hard to imagine how Neil and Chris could top those covers and also out-gay the Village People original, but they managed it. They’d performed it in 1992 at the Haçienda for an AIDS benefit; now they threw in a new verse, amplified the musical nods to Pachelbel’s Canon and the Soviet national anthem, and added an all-male Broadway choir to update the carefree feeling of the original into something much more intense, doof and post-AIDS. It now has an interesting afterlife as a terrace chant.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – Go West
20 LIBERATION, 1994
Very was considered to be the album where Pet Shop Boys ‘came out’, and it was around this time that Neil confirmed he was gay in an interview with Attitude magazine. In truth, you’d have to have been fairly thick not to have noticed via telling tracks such as I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Sort Of Thing, as well as this. Neil plays an ex-cynic who thought falling in love would end up as a series of compromises, but is proved wrong by how liberating it is. The computer-generated video was also used to demonstrate IMAX film technology.
19 BEFORE, 1996
The lead single from Bilingual, certain lines in Before (“a man who loved too much – he ended up inside a prison cell”) were believed by fans to be about Oscar Wilde, but the lyrics echo a letter that OJ Simpson wrote before his arrest in which he stated that if he and his late wife Nicole “had a problem, it’s because I loved her too much”. The single promos came in eye-watering sleeves featuring a flaccid male member (Chris’ idea, according to designer Mark Farrow). Neil and Chris have assured fans it didn’t belong to either of them.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – Before
18 SE A VIDA É (THAT’S THE WAY LIFE IS), 1996
Recorded to cheer one of Neil’s friends up, Se A Vida É… (actually a translation of If Life Is) shares a writing credit with Nego Do Barbalho, Wellington Epiderme Negra and Ademario of the group Olodum; their Estrada Da Paixãao had been a favourite when the duo toured South America, and the melody and arrangement had been lifted by Neil and Chris for this song. The whole Bilingual project was a rejection to the then-prevalent Britpop mood, and it worked… Se A Vida É became a No. 8 hit.
17 NEW YORK CITY BOY, 1999
New York City Boy could be regarded as a tribute to YMCA hitmakers The Village People. There were hopes that they might record the backing vocals; it didn’t happen, but Randy Jones, aka The Cowboy, recorded a cover of it in 2006, so the circle is sort-of complete. It was produced by David Morales and was full of nods to disco bangers such as Native New Yorker and MacArthur Park; the video for it was even filmed at Studio 54. It became their first Billboard Dance chart-topper since Where The Streets Have No Name eight years earlier.
16 YOU ONLY TELL ME YOU LOVE ME WHEN YOU’RE DRUNK, 2000
Originally written for their Closer To Heaven musical until the character they had in mind got dropped from rewrites, this is the nearest the duo get to a country song – especially with BJ Cole’s pedal steel and Neil’s prominent acoustic guitar, which he produces whenever the song is performed live. Neil wearily details his other half’s ‘performance’ with an air of both exasperation and dark humour. The third and final single from Nightlife, it was the only one to reach the Top 10.
15 HOME AND DRY, 2002
The 2003 album Release saw Neil and Chris depart from their traditional template and embracing pianos and guitars, with seven of the 10 tracks featuring the finger-hurting stringed instrument. Neil admits that the theme of lovers separated by oceans and flights meant Home And Dry took on further poignancy after 9/11, although he’d written the lyrics long before. Some suggest that the video – which consisted mainly of some rats enjoying scraps of food in London’s Tottenham Court Road tube station – might have held it back a bit.
14 I GET ALONG, 2002
I Get Along starts off unlike any other PSB number, beginning in an almost ersatz Beatles manner, not too dissimilar to the sound of Oasis. While the tradition of ‘getting along well without you while patently not’ is not unusual in showbiz, the song was revealed by Neil to be about ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair having to fire his close friend and ally Peter Mandelson. Seeing as Pet Shop Boys had been no fans of Britpop, I Get Along could be seen as a gentle puncturing of the whole Cool Britannia nonsense that Oasis had been complicit in.
13 MIRACLES, 2003
One of two new songs that the duo recorded for PopArt, Miracles was co-written by drum’n’bass type Adam F and featured orchestration by Anne Dudley. Sounding not unlike something out of a musical, the song details that “the jasmine gets stronger” – a nod to a Stephen Sondheim line – and “rain wouldn’t dare to fall near you” in the spirit of a besotted lover in the first flush of obsession. The B-side features their cover of My Robot Friend’s homage We’re The Pet Shop Boys, which they went on to record with Robbie Williams for Rudebox.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – Miracles
12 FLAMBOYANT, 2004
The other track recorded for PopArt, Flamboyant followed as a single in March 2004 reswizzled by Loneliness hitmaker Tomcraft, reaching No. 12. It addresses ‘an archetype of a celebrity’, albeit more fondly than Shameless did. As Neil said, “It’s about the importance of flamboyant people in our way of life… people like Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp, Boy George and Marilyn, Elton John and David Beckham… anyone with a bit of sparkle.” The single sleeve is written in Katakana, part of the Japanese writing system.
11 I’M WITH STUPID, 2006
Trevor Horn returns to the PSB orbit to produce this first single from 2006’s Fundamental album. An update on the old T-shirt slogan, while the lyrics are initially abstract to suggest a love affair going badly, it’s actually about Blair’s ‘special relationship’ with George Bush Jr. Especially in regards to the Iraq War, it questions whether Bush and Blair are genuinely stupid, seeing as Bush was supposedly highly educated but tended to play dumb to his electorate. Ah, how 2006 seems so long ago and innocent by comparison to now.
10 NUMB, 2006
Neil and Chris had come across the Diane Warren-written Numb ahead of compiling PopArt, but ended up holding on to it for Fundamental. Diane, best known for countless Lovely FM classics by Celine Dion, Cher, LeAnn Rimes and Toni Braxton, had originally offered this song about the death of her mother to Aerosmith (they said no); she also pitched Pet Shop Boys another song called Kisses On The Wind, but Neil flatly rejected it due to its title. Numb made No. 23 in October 2006.
9 INTEGRAL, 2007
Fundamental may not have set the charts alight as previous albums had but many consider it to be one of their best, as well as one of their more political. Integral dealt with the government’s Identity Cards Act 2006, and referenced Yevgeny Zamyatin’s book We; it was this issue that made Neil decide to end his support of Tony Blair. Remixed and released as a digital promo ahead of Disco 4 as their first download-only single, the ‘cover’ was – rather fittingly – a QR code.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – Integral
8 LOVE ETC, 2009
For their tenth album Yes, the Pets joined forces with the production team Xenomania, led by Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper, who’d been behind hits for Girls Aloud, Saint Etienne and Rachel Stevens. This ‘post-lifestyle’ anthem didn’t sound like anything the duo had put out before, as it was revealed that Xenomania had worked on the backing track before Neil and Chris got involved – luckily they liked it. Neil got the idea from a friend’s email, who signed off with ‘Love, etc.’ which he found to be a bit strange, but rather good as a title.
Enjoying this article on the top Pet Shop Boys singles? Then check out our feature on the making of the duo’s Electric album
7 IT DOESN’T OFTEN SNOW AT CHRISTMAS, 2009
Pet Shop Boys have long had a jolly tradition of sending fan club members a card or CD each Christmas, and they first issued It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas back in 1997. Fans started clamouring for the duo to release it, and they eventually conceded with an EP called Christmas in 2009. Neil’s anti-Bing lyrics resonate much better with the real, slightly damper, UK festive experience – “Christmas is not all it’s cracked up to be/ Families fighting around a plastic tree”.
6 WINNER, 2012
Winner hadn’t been planned to be the first single from 2012’s Elysium, but with the 2012 Olympics in London in full swing, it seemed a natural choice. The boys performed West End Girls at the closing ceremony, and supplied a special performance for Team GB outside Buckingham Palace. The video was notable for featuring all-women team the London Rollergirls and their new transgender member, Dirty Diana. Afterwards, the duo received a letter which thanked them for positively showing the transgender community.
5 LEAVING, 2012
Elysium begins and ends with songs about death. Leaving, written in 2010, although focusing on the death of Neil’s parents within 12 months of each other in 2008/9, is also about believing in love after the ‘death’ of a situation. It originally had the working title of Heaven Is A Playground, and was based around some music Chris had written. Some of the original lyrics are said to appear in or at least have inspired the rap section in the duo’s dancier Side-by-Side remix of the track.
4 MEMORY OF THE FUTURE, 2012
Elysium’s working title HappySad summed up the mood of the album, with Memory Of The Future certainly summoning both emotions. Neil’s addressing a lover, someone who has come into his life and was fated to be part of it from then on. He also manages to squeeze a dab of Proust into proceedings, with the line “I keep tasting that sweet madeleine”, referencing his À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search Of Lost Time), in which the French sponge treat triggers a childhood memory.
3 VOCAL, 2013
Held over from Elysium and the first official extract from Electric, Vocal was given the full bells-and-whistles single release treatment. Described in the press release as being inspired by “the way British youth found its own freedom with a new culture epitomised by dance music and raves”, it’s a first-person hymn to dance music and the communal experience. To emphasise the rave nation feelings, they have also taken to using elements of Alright in the version they play live.
Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles – Vocal
2 LOVE IS A BOURGEOIS CONSTRUCT, 2013
Based in part on Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds from Michael Nyman’s score for the 1982 film The Draughtsman’s Contract, itself based on a bit of Henry Purcell’s 1691 opera King Arthur, Love is A Bourgeois Construct also takes inspiration from the novel Nice Work by David Lodge. Neil portrays a man who has been living a respectable life until his wife leaves him. A stand-out track from Electric, what it lacked in chart position, it made up for in ‘best of the year’ lists.
1 THE POP KIDS, 2016
Chris had composed a piece called Munich while on tour with Take That. It made Neil think of a title he had, The Pop Kids, inspired by a friend who, drawn to London by university, had dived into the city’s nightlife with his partner. The Full Story version catches up with the pair of them in the present day – no longer together, but still in touch. A Stuart Price production from 2016’s Super (“Electric, but more so”), it’s the quintessential Pet Shop Boys song – a glorious ode to the power of music, and the way it connects us.