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On This Day In Music… May 10, 1986: 'West End Girls' Tops the U.S. Charts

The Pet Shop Boys' minor-key masterpiece started life as an underground club hit only available on Canadian Import in the U.K.

pet shop boys west end girls
Source: YouTube

The original version of 'West End Girls' had been released two years before it reached No. 1.

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When the Pet Shop Boys burst into the public consciousness in early 1986 with “West End Girls”, it seemed the duo had arrived fully-formed with what most people assumed was their debut release. The reality was that the single had been written two years earlier, and in a different form had already been an underground hit in the clubs of Europe and the U.S.

“West End Girls” would slowly climb up the British charts after its November 1985 release to finally hit No. 1 in January 1986 – and after breaking into the Billboard Hot 100 in March, gave the Pet Shop Boys their only U.S. No. 1 on May 10, 1986.

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Source: YouTube

'West End Girls' set a template for dance music as pop music.

The single was arguably unlike anything else that topped the charts in either country before. All-but inventing what would later be termed the “sad banger”, it was a peculiar mesh of rap, singing, thumping bass and moody soundscape, and somehow, to borrow a phrase from the legendary producer Martin Hannett, feeling “faster but slower”. And the lyrics painted a complex, alluring, slightly melancholic, slightly frightening picture of a clubland nether world.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2020, Neil Tennant said: “'West End Girls' is quite a lot of records in one record. It’s a dance record. It was actually written to be a rap record, back in the day. It’s about the city at night. It’s about boys and girls meeting to have fun. It’s about sex. It’s paranoid.

“The idea is really that opposites attract, the glamorous posh girls and the beautiful rough East End boys all meeting in the West End and going clubbing or something. This was a very exciting time for clubbing in the West End of London. You’d go to the Wag Club and see George Michael dancing... You’d go to the Camden Palace and be in the Star Bar chatting to Spandau Ballet, and of course I knew them all ’cause of Smash Hits. And so the excitement of all these clubs went into our song.”

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“West End Girls” began in 1983, when Tennant was still working at Smash Hits magazine, spending days interviewing pop stars and evenings and weekends with architecture student Chris Lowe, writing and recording demos. After watching a Jimmy Cagney movie one night, the lyric “Sometimes you’re better off dead, there’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head” came to him: he jotted it down before bed, and over the following days fleshed it out into a full rap, to which he and Lowe then added instrumentation.

What happened next was one of those beautiful confluences of luck and inspiration. While on a trip to New York to interview Sting for Smash Hits, Tennant bumped into dance producer Bobby Orlando, and persuaded him to listen to a Pet Shop Boys demo tape. Just weeks later, Tennant and Lowe were in Orlando’s New York Studio, laying down “West End Girls” with a drum part lifted from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”.

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Source: mega

Pet Shop Boys got their first break after Neil Tennant met Bobby Orlando in New York.

“Bobby O said [loud American voice]: ‘OK guys, let’s do it!’” Tennant told the Guardian. “We played the instrumental live straight on to tape. Bobby goes, ‘OK, vocal!’ And so I go to the microphone and do the whole thing for the very first time. The assistant engineer, a woman called Tracy, said: ‘Oh, your voice is so easy to listen to!’ It sort of had something. And then Bobby O did a load of keyboard overdubs. And there we have it. We recorded three other songs in an hour and a half.”

Over the following months the pair would also record versions of later hits “Rent”, “It’s a Sin” and “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” with Orlando, and in April 1994, “West End Girls” was released.

Although the song failed to trouble the mainstream charts in either the U.K. or U.S., it built up a strong following in the underground clubs of New York and Los Angeles, as well as becoming a minor hit in continental Europe. Two other singles released with Orlando that year, “One More Chance”, and “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” likewise failed to chart, and by September 1984, the only way to get hold of “West End Girls” in Britain was through hunting out a Canadian import 12-inch.

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Source: Agencia EL UNIVERSAL/ Especial /MEGA

Pet Shop Boys have gone to enjoy a career spanning over four decades.

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Finally, in March 1985, the Pet Shop Boys cut their remaining contractual obligations with Orlando, and after hiring manager Tom Watkins, secured a contract with EMI. Their first task was to rerecord “West End Girls”, this time with producer Stephen Hague.

“We said, we want this to sound filmic,” remembered Tennant. “And so the Stephen Hague version starts off like a film noir with someone walking down the street. The chord comes in, it’s quite sinister. You can feel the darkness.”

Hague’s less dance-oriented and more cinematic version also gave greater prominence to Tennant’s deft lyricism – crammed full of literary tricks, allusions, and references to T. S. Eliot’s bleak between-the-wars masterpiece The Waste Land, as well as, in the line “From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station”, a nod to the train route taken by Vladimir Lenin returning to Russia from Switzerland in 1917 in preparation for the Russian Revolution.

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The combination of dance music, literary and historical references, and the dark mood of a city at night – all contained in a song about “glamorous posh girls and beautiful rough East End boys all meeting in the West End and going clubbing” – finally caught the public imagination, and after a career-launching performance on Top of the Pops, “West End Girls” would go on to win Best Single at the 1987 BRITs and Best International Hit at the Ivor Novello Awards.

By the end of 1986, the Pet Shop Boys would score three more British Top 20 singles, with “Love Comes Quickly”, “Suburbia”, and, a Hague reworking of “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)”, which also gave them a second U.S. Top 10 hit. Nearly 40 years later, the band is recognized as one of the most important synth-pop outfits ever… and “West End Girls” one of the most ground-breaking singles ever recorded.


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