❉ An appreciation of one of the very best British pop records of the ’80s.
Don’t be put off by the cover: Neil Tennant yawning is the only sign of boredom found anywhere on this record. A pop-on-the-rocks spectacle of Catholic guilt, tainted lust, accessory odes, eighties material excess, confessional singing and AIDS, Actually was one of the very best British pop records of the eighties. It sounded as crisp as the best of Madonna and A-ha, but Actually had lyrical substance to it too, pointing the way to their introspective masterpiece Behaviour (1991) and planting the seeds for the veritably gay party placed Very (1993), pitching itself as the duo’s first masterpiece. Never judge a book indeed.
“They were great to work with,” producer/engineer Julian Mendelsohn recalled to ‘Sound On Sound’ in 2010. “Chris was the one who came up with the hooks — the little synthesizer parts that you always remember — and Neil was really good in terms of the arrangement. They were very talented.”
Indeed, few could forget Chris Lowe’s synth alarm on I Want To Wake Up or the thunderous intro on the colossal It’s A Sin, arguably the best religious protest song since XTC’s Dear God. Where Andy Partridge lashed into God, Tennant and Lowe took the Catholic schooling to task with zingers galore; “at school they taught me how to be/ so pure in thought in word and deed” is followed with the knowing “They didn’t quite succeed”. One of the more unlikely U.K. #1s (well, not as unlikely as Shaddap Your Face!), this was the middle-finger salute a generation of Catholic-persuaded, sexually ambiguous schoolboys (this writer being one of them) needed.
The album’s other #1 , Heart, had less to do with political sloganeering, and more with dance pioneering; an infectious chorus impossible not to dance to. Camp as hell, deft and daft, this was a monster European hit when re-mixed in 1988. Their fourth number 1, their third in less than a year, was their standalone cover Always On My Mind, the Christmas hit of 1987 (it defeated Fairytale Of New York – Shane McGowan responded with the repartee “We were beaten by two queens and a drum machine”!)
This dance trend starts early in the album, the opening two tracks One More Chance and What Have I Done To Deserve This? – Bacharachian pop for keys, the first a re-working of the duo’s 1984 single, the second a showcase for Dusty Springfield’s smokey pipes (She duets with Tennant here, the pair wrote the sizzling Nothing Has Been Proved as heard on Profumo based Scandal (1989)). Shopping, a camp classic, had one of the kitschiest openings since The Village People tore into the seventies: “We’re buying and selling your history/how we go about it is no mystery” (you can practically smell the outfits and the choreography here!)
Melancholia enters behind the synth satisfaction; It Couldn’t Happen Here, a desolate tale of ignorance and suffering (1987 was the year of the AIDS epidemic – this was also the period where Timothy Dalton had to romance one lady only in The Living Daylights), was the album’s starkest moment. Ennio Morricone receives a co-writing credit here- and deservedly so. Bereft of his strings, and Couldn’t… would sound like Dylan with a keyboard; with Morricone’s help, there’s a touch of the opera here; and it’s magical.
This tone would later be matched by downridden closer King’s Cross, Tennant’s penchant for lyrical poetry Joycean at points (Tracey Thorn would cover the song in 2007 – amazingly, it’s even better than the original, Thorn’s resonance a staggering collection of pretty notes placed on one another). Months after release, the song took on a new meaning following the tragic King’s Cross fire, though Tennant maintains it was written about those fallen under Thatcher’s rule, nothing else.
If anyone track best represented the tone of the album, it was the duo’s best piece: Rent, a slow hypnotic trance with lyrics chanted/rapped of a lover proclaiming they love their partner for paying their rent.
Behind the delightfully camp bravado, there’s a sense of mock jingoism, parody of an eighties Britain falling further and further into materialism; sanguine, but sad, witty, but weary, brash, but benign, Rent is classic Pet Shop Boys, perhaps their archetypal song- dynamic and diva-like, but bitter and biting, much like the entire record really. Forget the yawning Tennant at the front. Would I recommend this? I would, actually!
❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life.