The expression “imperial phase” is a term coined by Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys to denote a musical act who are at the height of their critical and commercial success, when they can apparently do no wrong, and where success seems all but guaranteed. He used the expression in 1988, around the time of Introspective and “Domino Dancing”, but few bands have had an imperial phase quite like Pet Shop Boys in 1987.
“It’s A Sin” was the fourth-biggest selling single globally, a UK Number 1 and to this day is their defining song. The album, Actually, produced a second Number 1 hit – “Heart” – and a Number 2 hit with “What Have I Done To Deserve This”. There was a further Number 8 hit, the excellent and greatly under-appreciated “Rent”, and Actually ascended to the Number 2 spot on the UK album charts. Oh, and they had the Christmas Number 1 with a vastly improbable cover of the cheesy Elvis song “Always On My Mind”, reimagined and given an up-tempo electronic workout. It was, by any measure, a good year. But that’s what an imperial phase is. It would all come to an end in 1989 with the pretentiously self-important Behaviour, but for three albums – Please, Actually, Introspective – and three years Pet Shop Boys were basically untouchable.
In fact, as a synth-pop band, they came rather late to the party. Most of the first wave of the great synth-pop era were already on the wane by the time “West End Girls” was released in 1986. Ultravox had already achieved all they were going to, Eurythmics won’t see out the decade, Soft Cell had already split, Kraftwerk were in terminal decline, and many of the early adopters – Human League, Gary Numan, OMD – had already passed their peak. There were one or two survivors, like New Order, risen from the ashes of Joy Division, or Depeche Mode, but they were very much the exception rather than the rule. By the time Pet Shop Boys arrived, music had by and large moved on from the early-80’s high points of the synth-pop movement. Which in some ways makes their success even more impressive.
Foundational to that success is the fact that Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are just really, really good songwriters. They had already proven that on their first album, but knocking out a great first album then fading away to nothing is a time-honoured path taken by many bands. It’s getting the second one right that separates the wheat from the chaff. As an album, Actually is a noticeable improvement on the already-good Please, both in terms of songwriting and overall coherence. What didn’t necessarily seem like an obvious approach was getting Dusty Springfield on-board to lend her considerable vocal talents to one of its numbers. And let’s be clear about something straight away – Dusty has an amazing voice here, more mature and developed than the familiar 60’s sound audiences might identify with but still full of power and emotion. That contrasts fantastically well with Neil Tennant’s distant, observational style as the two take up opposite sides lyrically.
And yet, having an old 60’s icon pop up and deliver a vocal isn’t quite as counter-intuitive as it seems. Synth-pop was meant to be cutting edge, technology and music meeting each other in the sophisticated modern 80’s, so having someone like Dusty Springfield – someone from an entirely different era – appear on a single would seem to cut against that. Yet the charts in the 80’s are littered with examples of old singles and old styles coming back. The biggest selling single globally in 1987 was “La Bamba”. Sure it’s off the back of a movie, but still. At the start of the year Aretha Franklin and George Michael had a Number 1 hit with “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”, so there’s precedent in 1987 for the equation (Modern Act + Oldie x 2 fanbases) = Big Chart Success. The Number 1 hit that followed Franklyn and Michael was a re-release of Ben E King’s “Stand By Me”. And the creation of The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame was suddenly throwing new light on old acts. This will all reach its hideous apotheosis in 1989 with Jive Bunny And The Mastermixers but suffice to say – there was reason to believe getting Dusty on board would be no bad thing.
That makes it sound more cynical than it actually is, though. It’s more straightforward than that really – Neil Tennant was just a big fan of Dusty In Memphis and wanted to work with Dusty Springfield as a result. The lack of commercial success Springfield had suffered from since her late-60’s peak was in some ways strange for such an obvious talent, and when “What Have I Done To Deserve This” was released she didn’t even have a recording contract. None of that remotely changes what is an absolutely show-stopping performance. The structure of the song is a bit peculiar but when Dusty comes in on the “since you went away…” line it’s a genuinely spine-tingling moment. The song combines the best of what Pet Shop Boys do with the best of what Dusty does and the results speak for themselves. Neil Tennant’s dry vocals on the first section of the song (“You always wanted a lover…”) give him a chance to deliver his typically sly lyric in traditional style. The second section (“I bought you drinks I brought you flowers”) lapses into a spoken delivery redolent of “West End Girls” – again a dry, sardonic delivery but in a different style. Then Dusty comes in on the third section and the song ignites, the slow burn of the first two sections exploding into her peerless vocal before rolling into the second verse.
The song maintains this slightly lolloping structure throughout but the peculiarity of it adds to the song. There’s no traditional chorus, just the title repeated a few times, but it’s still a fantastic hook, delivered in Tennant’s traditionally deadpan style. By the time we get to the final Dusty section, when she’s bellowing out “We don’t have to fall apart / we don’t have to fight” the sheer force the song has built up bursts through and we get a catharsis of sorts, but far more importantly than that we get Dusty at full pelt and she’s simply glorious. And of course we absolutely mustn’t underestimate Chris Lowe’s contributions either, because he’s doing some seriously career-best work here, and the song has a third writer – Allee Willis, who wrote the Dusty bits which lend such a distinctive touch to the song. Throw all of that together and you have one of the best singles of the 80’s.
And an effective one too. “What Have I Done To Deserve This” became Dusty Springfield’s biggest US hit and it revived her otherwise-finished career and rekindled interest in her music. In 1990 Reputation would be her first album to have any kind of meaningful commercial success since the early 70’s and a string of go-nowhere albums. Pet Shop Boys were involved in Reputation too – they co-produced it and wrote four of the songs on it. The album got to Number 18 in the UK charts and put Dusty back on the map. Dusty’s revival wasn’t just some drab nostalgia act, she came roaring back to life with something artistically meaningful.
All that would be more than worthwhile but the fact that it all happened off the back of such a great single just makes her success that much sweeter, and so well earned. And Pet Shop Boys would go on to have their own measure of success. They’re the most successful duo in British chart history bar none. They’ve sold over 100 million records. Twenty-two top ten singles and 43 Top 30 singles. Gay icons. Huge global touring success. The inevitable musical. By any measure, Pet Shop Boys are dizzyingly successful yet they’re often much overlooked when discussing the big successes of British music. That’s deeply unfair – few bands write worthwhile, meaningful, intelligent and as straightforwardly fun music as Pet Shop Boys. “What Have I Done To Deserve This”, written at the absolute height of their Imperial phase, is a foundational single in that success and a fantastic song to boot. They really do deserve this.
What Else Happened in 1987?
Michael Jackson releases the follow-up to Thriller, Bad. It goes on to produce five Number 1 singles in the US, a record which has yet to be broken, though none of them make the Top Five singles of the year. As mentioned in the article Los Lobos, improbably, top that list with “La Bamba” and meme-tastic Rick Astley trails with the second-biggest single of the year “Never Gonna Give You Up”. Actually it’s quite the diverse list this year, with Whitney Houston, Pet Shop Boys (“It’s A Sin”, of course) and Madonna making up the numbers. Elsewhere, U2 become the giants they were always destined to be with The Joshua Tree and Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Mallrat classic “I Think We’re Alone Now” sees the (brief) arrival of Tiffany, George Michael releases his first solo album, Faith, and The Smiths release their last (and best) album, Strangeways, Here We Come. George Harrison releases his final “proper” solo album, Cloud Nine, which means he gets to go out on a bit of a high point, and Ice T and The Happy Mondays both release debuts. MARRS – who were founded and split in the same year – become a one-hit wonder with “Pump Up The Volume” and Prince sees a Sign O’ The Times. Art rock provocateurs The KLF are founded and The Pretenders split. Guns’n’Roses release the biggest selling debut of all-time with Appetite For Destruction while Bon Jovi is “Living On A Prayer”. Lucky him. Zac Efron enters the world and, at the age of 88, Fred Astaire soft-shoe-shuffles off it.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Doing Jan Hammer’s “Crockett’s Theme” was almost a temptation too far, less because it’s an excellent piece of music (though it’s pretty good) but more because getting an instrumental to the UK Number 2 slot is no mean feat. And, yes, lingering memories of watching Miami Vice as a teenager. It was never going to be “Fairytale of New York” because really, it’s just as dreary as every other Christmas song (it was Pet Shop Boys’ “Always On My Mind” that kept it off Number 1, amusingly). So no. George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” got to Number 2 in the UK and is a bouncy, enjoyable song and might have been nice. America furnishes us with nothing of interest this year, unless your idea of “interest” is Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”. It’s not mine.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
11. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
12. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
13. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
14. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
15. Queen, “Killer Queen”
16. Blondie, “Denis”
17. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
18. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
19. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
20. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
21. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
22. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
23. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
24. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
25. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
26. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
27. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
28. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”