The Number Ones

May 10, 1986

The Number Ones: Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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There’s a phrase that I’ve used in this column enough times that I’ve probably worn it out: The imperial phase. That’s the point of a career where a musician is in an absolute zone, where she’s at the zenith of her popularity, where everything she does makes sense to the public. An artist in the imperial phase can do anything, and a vast audience will happily accept it. The man that coined that phrase and codified that concept is Neil Tennant, the slightly more animated of the two Pet Shop Boys. When Tennant came up with that term, he was talking about his group’s late-’80s run, where all their singles soared up near the top of the UK charts. In the US, the Pet Shop Boys didn’t exactly have an imperial phase, but they did have a run, and they did score one glorious and unlikely #1 single.

Tennant was uniquely qualified to assess his own career and to come up with pithy ideas to describe it. Before he found pop stardom, Tennant was a pop critic, an editor at the UK magazine Smash Hits. That means that Tennant is my people. Unless I’m forgetting something, Tennant is the only critic ever to score a #1 hit. One of the most magical things about the Pet Shop Boys’ whole run is that it’s recognizably music made by a critic. As a vocalist, Tennant has always been aloof and detached, as if he’s commenting on the things he’s depicting in his songs rather than living those things. Being permanently stuck inside your own head is a quality that many people of my profession share. But Tennant is also clearly a lover and a connoisseur of pop music — someone who thinks and feels long and hard about the sounds he’s hearing in the world, who processes those sounds and translates them into something else.

You could almost imagine the Pet Shop Boys’ best records as acts of pop criticism. Tennant stripped away all the stuff from pop music that he thought was stupid: The guitar-shredding, the blues-descended howling, the constant striving for someone’s idea of authenticity. He’s never much cared for rock ‘n’ roll or any of its stylistic descendants. Instead, Tennant and his Pet Shop Boys partner Chris Lowe have long found inspiration in different waves of underground dance music: Disco, hi-NRG, rap, house, Latin freestyle. As a gay man who lived a nightclub life, Tennant experienced those sounds and shaped them into a whole approach.

“West End Girls,” the Pet Shop Boys’ only Hot 100 #1, is that approach in action. The song couldn’t exist without Tennant’s pop-critic background, his love of underground sounds, or his deadpan outsider perspective. With the song, he and Lowe almost accidentally hit upon a sound that, against odds, resonated as pop music on a global level. That’s some kind of miracle.

Tennant came from a small coastal English town and grew up subjected to the strict religious upbringing that would later inspire the Pet Shop Boys’ classic 1987 conflicted-Catholicism smash “It’s A Sin.” (“It’s A Sin” peaked at #9. It’s a 10.) As a teenager, Tennant played in a folk band called Dust. Then, after college, he moved to London and found work as an editor at the UK office of Marvel Comics, where he was tasked with making the dialog more British. From there, Tennant became a book editor and then found his way to Smash Hits.

In 1981, the same time that he started at the magazine, a 27-year-old Tennant met 21-year-old Chris Lowe at a hi-fi shop. Tennant was having the wires of his keyboard welded to his sound system, and Lowe struck up a conversation about synths. Soon after, Lowe came to Tennant’s house to check out that keyboard, and they started writing songs together.

For a few years, the Pet Shop Boys weren’t really a band; they were more of a theoretical proposition. Tennant and Lowe would put song ideas to tape, but they weren’t out performing. In 1983, Smash Hits sent Tennant to New York to interview the Police, a group whose music he didn’t much like. (I wish people would send me across the Atlantic to interview people who live in the same city as me, but that era seems to be over.) While Tennant was in New York, he tracked down Bobby Orlando, a producer who made underground hi-NRG dance jams that Tennant and Lowe both loved.

Bobby Orlando’s tracks weren’t exactly trans-Atlantic hits, and he was happy to meet a British writer who was excited about his music. Orlando agreed to produce the Pet Shop Boys, and so Tennant and Lowe returned to New York shortly thereafter to record some songs with Lowe. One of those songs was “West End Girls,” an impressionistic free-floating account of urban London glamor and squalor. Tennant’s East End boys are the brutish young men of working-class London; his West End girls are the monied young women attracted to those boys.

There’s no real narrative to “West End Girls.” Instead, Tennant muses about class and attraction, about the threat of violence that lies under the surface of those interactions. He flips the Sex Pistols’ line about “no future for you”: “We’ve got no future, we’ve got no past/ Here today, built to last.” Tennant also alludes to the way that class conflict reappears throughout history, mentioning Vladimir Lenin’s return to Russia from Germany: “In every city, in every nation/ From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station.” (The original version of the song also rhymed “all your stalling” with “who do you think you are, Joe Stalin?”)

“West End Girls” opens with Tennant zoning out on an image of desperation: “Sometimes, you’re better off dead/ There’s a gun in your hand, and it’s pointed at your head.” Tennant has said that he was inspired by both TS Eliot’s 1922 modernist poem The Waste Land and by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s 1982 urban-hunger rap classic “The Message.” (“The Message” peaked at #62. It’ll eventually appear, in sampled form, in this column.)

Tennant has said that he was trying to write a rap song with an English accent. That’s not what “West End Girls” is. Tennant may have loved rap music, but he wasn’t rapping any more than fellow 1986 chart-topper Falco was on “Rock Me Amadeus.” Instead, Tennant’s detached vocal has a lot more to do with the reserved, icy sing-speak of early-’80s UK synthpoppers like Soft Cell’s Marc Almond or the Normal’s Daniel Miller.

When Tennant and Lowe recorded “West End Girls” with Bobby Orlando, Orlando programmed in the drums from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” He recorded the duo live-to-tape, then overdubbed a bunch of the synth effects that he used on his hi-NRG records. There’s a bright, appealing crudeness to the Orlando version of “West End Girls,” which Orlando released on his label O Records.

At that point, Tennant and Lowe thought of “West End Girls” as a New York dance record. Earlier this year, Tennant told The Guardian, “At this point, our career ambition was to have a record you could only buy on import in the gay record shop on Berwick Street, which we used to hang around in and where I used to buy imports on my Smash Hits expenses. And we achieved that — by September 1984, you could only buy ‘West End Girls’ on a Canadian import in the Record Shack. Even as I say that to you, I’m quite thrilled.”

“West End Girls” did well in the dance clubs of a few American cities, and then it randomly took off in France and Belgium, making the charts in both countries. Tennant and Lowe found a manager, who got them a deal at EMI. This meant that they had to sever ties with Bobby Orlando, which resulted in a legal battle and prevented them from making any new records for more than a year. The duo didn’t get the rights to release the Orlando version of “West End Girls,” so they re-recorded all the tracks they’d recorded with Orlando with producer Stephen Hague, an American who’d worked with British new wavers like Malcolm McLaren (a fellow pseudo-rapper) and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.

The Stephen Hague version of “West End Girls” is the one we know. Hague made the song sleeker and more layered. He added sound effects, transforming it into something more cinematic. (Like “The Message” before it, “West End Girls” has the sound of breaking glass.) Hague’s drums sound less like “Billie Jean,” and he adds in foggy hums and lonely trumpets and echo-drenched backup vocals from session singer Helena Springs. That Hague version of the song came out in late 1985, a year and a half after the original O Records version of the song.

In its final form, “West End Girls” is a rich, layered pop song that still keeps some of its strange, stilted otherness of the original. Neil Tennant doesn’t really rap, but he doesn’t really sing, either. Instead, he comes off like a narrator, dispassionately describing scenes of passion, sounding both amused and bemused. It’s got a sense of mystery to it, and the video only enhances that. In the clip, from Wham! director Andy Morahan and Smash Hits photographer Eric Watson, Tennant and Lowe wander, blank-faced, through London, never looking surprised or excited. Much of the time, Lowe is half-transparent, like a ghost.

“West End Girls” is a great song, but it doesn’t sound, at least to my 2020 ears like a hit — or, at the very least, a centrist American pop-radio hit. Instead, it’s something that came from the margins to conquer the center, and I always love stories like that. Partly by sounding like nothing else at the time, “West End Girls” became a true global smash, a #1 record in the US, the UK, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Hong Kong. Maybe there really are East End boys and West End girls in every city, in every nation.

“West End Girls” could’ve easily been a novelty. It wasn’t. In the US, the Pet Shop Boys had four more top-10 hits. Please, the duo’s debut album, went platinum, and one more of its tracks, an electro remix of the deeply sardonic “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money),” reached #10. (It’s an 8.) A year later, the duo teamed up with the blue-eyed soul goddess Dusty Springfield, who’d been missing from the charts for years, and they made it up to #2 with the duet “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” (That song, which remains Springfield’s highest-charting US single, is a 10.)

In the US, the Pet Shop Boys made the top 10 for the last time in 1987, when their cover of the country classic “Always On My Mind,” previously a hit for both Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson, peaked at #4. (The Pet Shop Boys’ version is another 10.) But at home in the UK, the Pet Shop Boys became a beloved national-treasure pop institution. They racked up dozens of top-10 hits; through the end of the ’90s, barely any of their singles missed the top 20. At this point, it’s probably not a stretch to say that the Pet Shop Boys are a part of British cultural identity. In 2012, for instance, they performed a strange and elaborate version of “West End Girls” at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics.

But maybe it’s more accurate to say that the Pet Shop Boys, the group that figured out how to turn criticism into pop, are part of our global pop heritage. In 2015, for instance, the Pet Shop Boys were given the Worldwide Inspiration Award at the MAMA Awards in Hong Kong — a K-pop-centric spectacular that also featured future Number Ones subject BTS. Tennant sang that night with the Korean girl group f(x), and the Pet Shop Boys were the only Western group to perform.

The Pet Shop Boys remain active. Earlier this year, they released a new album. This summer, they were supposed to tour with fellow dance-pop survivors New Order, but the pandemic ended those plans. Instead, the Pet Shop Boys gave a remote performance of “West End Girls” at the Smithsonian Pride festival in June. They’re still figuring out new things to do with the song, and the song still kicks.

Another thing happened with “West End Girls” in June. The Guardian named it the greatest British #1 single of all time. I don’t agree with The Guardian. For my money, the Pet Shop Boys truly became great on their 1987 sophomore album Actually, when they sweetened their sound up with thicker beats and prettier melodies. “West End Girls” slaps, but it’s not the best of the duo’s British chart-toppers, let alone of the entire history of the UK pop charts. I like The Guardian‘s pick, though. You could do a lot worse.

To mark the occasion, Tennant did a Guardian interview with my friend Laura Snapes. In that conversation, he tells all sorts of great stories about making “West End Girls,” about the song’s rise to smash status. By the end of it, though, Tennant and Snapes are just bullshitting with each other about other great #1 hits, and about songs that should’ve topped the charts but didn’t. I’m telling you: Neil Tennant is my people. If you’re reading this, he’s your people, too.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1993, the British boy band East 17 had a hit across Europe and Oceania with a deeply unnecessary cover of “West End Girls.” Here’s their very silly video, which features at least three different outfits that I wish I owned:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the goofy lark of a “West End Girls” cover that My Morning Jacket included on a 2004 early-recordings compilation:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Flight Of The Conchords’ 2008 “West End Girls” parody “Inner City Life”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s noise-rap experimentalists Death Grips playing around with a “West End Girls” sample on “5D,” a short instrumental interlude from the 2011 mixtape Exmilitary:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the pretty-great 2014 episode of the AV Club’s AV Undercover video series where the beloved Virginia institution Gwar bash out a pretty fucking badass “West End Girls” cover, then careen headlong into a version of the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died” that salutes fallen frontman Dave Brockie:

THE 10S: Phil Collins’ dazzling, heartsick bleeps-like-raindrops odyssey “Take Me Home” peaked at #7 behind “West End Girls.” It helps to keep me warm, and it’s a 10.

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