Listen to this track by urbanely detached duo and superlative synthpop vectors Pet Shop Boys. It’s “West End Girls”, a smash for them in 1984 as a US club single, and then again in late 1985 as a single released internationally, later to appear on their debut record, 1986’s Please. From there, it would be re-mixed many times, ready for the clubs once again.
This song had made inroads into a musical area that really hadn’t been explored; a synthpop and rap hybrid. Somehow, I’d be hard-pressed to call this a rap tune in the strictest sense. But, one might see why someone might argue that it is, I suppose. It certainly takes its cues from early hip hop records like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”. To me, it’s more of a spoken word piece, with a big groove behind it, which somehow isn’t the same thing as a flat out hip hop record. It’s actually much closer to Isaac Hayes’ “(The Theme From) Shaft”, with the extended, tension-building instrumental intro, and with the rest of the song buoyed up by a narrator’s voice (the original definition of a “rap”, kids), this time with a cut-glass English accent.
However like rap at the time, “West End Girls” certainly does evoke a distinctly urban feel. This is a song about the city, and the culture around cities. And despite it being a hit all over the world, it touches on something that is very much associated with the culture of those who created it, which is class structure and socially encoded roles. Yet, it was originally born outside of that culture, and in a place where the roots of the song were firmly established.
As much as this song references London, it was actually New York that served as the birthplace for this song. Before he became known as the straight-faced singer for Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant was a music journalist for Smash Hits magazine. It was on one of his journo-related forays to New York where Hi-NRG club scenes were emerging from the ashes of disco, that Tennant met up with producer Bobby Orlando. An earlier version of this song was subsequently recorded with Orlando, and turned into a Stateside club hit, released on a Columbia Records imprint.
But, later on, Pet Shop Boys were signed to EMI in the UK and the song was re-recorded by producer Stephen Hague. It was released to commercial and critical acclaim not only as a dance hit, but a mainstream pop hit to define an era, too. It was number one in both the UK and in the US not to mention in many other countries, the first of four smash number ones in Britain before the decade was out. So what gives with this tune? What makes it so compelling?
Well, let’s start with Neil Tennant’s voice, which is an emotionally distant, and yet strangely hypnotic instrument. With that voice at the center of the song, the lyrics sound like modernist poetry (T.S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is another influence…), very much concerned with the hidden life in the city after dark. It’s full of barely repressed sex and violence, and jaded sentiment that draws you right into the narrative. And let’s not forget synthesist Chris Lowe’s contribution, taking the Bobby Orlando template of the arrangement and filling it out into a cold yet substantial groove, punctuated by the soulful and almost ghostly interjections of backing vocalist Helena Springs. I haven’t even mentioned Lowe’s left-hand bass-synth riff, which is probably one of the most recognizable pop hooks of the era.
The subject of class dynamics found in the song are understatedly positioned in a very London setting; the wide chasm between East End working class neighbourhoods, to the privileged, posh landscapes of the West End. Yet, this east-west divide existed beyond that too, certainly during a time when the Berlin Wall stood in the early to mid-1980s, with Lenin’s train journey smuggling Germans into Russia during World War I from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station (a train depot in St.Petersburg) being referenced directly. Even Joseph Stalin was mentioned in the Orlando version. That was a discussion of class on a whole different level, as well as making reference to the Cold War, which was a looming spectre over the entire era.
Despite all of that, this song isn’t really overtly political. It’s a song that makes sketches and impressions, evokes images and draws parallels rather than present a clear message on anything. But, I’ve always found this to be something of a subversively political tune, created during a time when greed and a single-minded pursuit of profit were seeping into mainstream culture more and more. This song is about what it felt like to live in the 1980s, a time when a good deal of the socioeconomic fall-out we’re experiencing now was gathering into a big bang. Trickle-down economics, Wall Street criminality, and the obsession with net worth were all hallmarks of the decade; if, when, why, what, how much have you got?
This song still has legs even now, of course. After a string of number ones, Ivor Novello awards, and becoming the most successful British duo in history by today, this one still remains to be a Pet Shop Boys signature. It was performed by them at the 2012 Olympics in London, now a part of the rich tapestry of songs about that city. And it’s still something of a subversive statement about western culture that has delved even deeper into the heart of darkness than it did even the era out of which it comes.
Pet Shop Boys are active today. You can find out more about them and their latest musical efforts at petshopboys.co.uk.