On the 25th anniversary of the album’s release, Actually still stands as almost required listening, not just to the huge fan base that the Pet Shop Boys have garnered and kept over the period of time but to any historian or lover of music genres.
Both Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe on their 1986 debut album, Please, had struck a chord with the British public who certainly took the duo to their hearts and made songs such as West End Girls, Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) and Suburbia absolute hits, This prolific writing of music that not only captured a mood prevalent in Britain at the time but also made them radio friendly in the post disco world of the 1980’s.
The stories that the duo created on the debut album and Actually were just that, well written looks at a certain life, a certain time in Great Britain. The sexual ambiguity of the lyrics on songs as It’s a Sin and What Have I Done To Deserve This? is coupled with the hushed overtones of mocking that parades through Rent and Shopping, the thought that was placed in the conscious mind of listeners during Opportunities… is here again but in a more virulent form. Whereas Opportunities… had the ghastly overbearing 80’s dictum of making money at anyone’s expense, the reverse is true for Rent and Shopping, the over-reliance of one sided financial and monetary driven relationship and the cutting look at the way Governments were looking to sell off the so-called family silver for a quick buck, a world where everything is for sale, no matter the cost further down the line.
Rent has the feel of a song that wants to be discussed; a conversation starter between two people who have reached a point in their association where one does nothing fiscally for themselves. Whether this is down to asserting power, a dominance of one person over another or simply due to a fractured, skewed version of love is never really mentioned but where the title gives the idea of a rent boy in deepest salubrious London, the lyrics themselves suggest that one of a more elevated relationship between the protagonists. “We never ever argue or calculate the cost or the currency we’ve spent…” suggests a relationship that for the most part, if not happy, is comfortable with the arrangement that they have fallen into. There is no point in arguing in what one provides and the other doesn’t as it is built on the necessity of sex and keeping one person quiet or hidden away no matter the cost. Like the rest of the Pet Shop Boys the sexual ambiguity is there, it matters not if the song is about a mistress or a rent boy, a call girl or a man being kept in secret by a powerful woman, the outcome is the same, it all boils down to if both people are happy with the circumstances they find themselves in.
Like the rest of the album’s songs, Rent is pop driven in a world that was becoming too slick for its own good. The mixture of music that would come to a head with the idea of celebrity music for the sheer hell of it and rock musicians in parts becoming caricatures of themselves, saw bands like Pet Shop Boys have a time in the sun which could be deemed or viewed as a necessity. The inoffensive nature of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, coupled with their electronic dance music was great to hear for their now growing legion of fans but it also hid several dire warnings of what was happening in and around the country at the time. Unless you really listened to the song it was just another tune to joyfully dance along to at discos up and down the country. The Pet Shop Boys were much more a keyboard and witty lyrics, the very nature of the band held a deeper darker side that at times was overlooked.
For music lovers of a certain age there was also the very big matter of the vocal appearance of Ms. Dusty Springfield on the song What Have I Done To Deserve This? This cross generation blurring that has become the norm is recent years as the elder statesperson of any defining popular music picks with apparent careful consideration a younger artist to appear on a record with. Sometimes this has incredible results; powerful emotions can come into play for example the tremendous mix of Ray Davies of the Kinks performing alongside Paloma Faith on a much more interesting version of the classic Lola.
For the Pet Shop Boys to bring in the grand dame of 60’s music, not only crossed genre boundaries, it bought new found respect to the work of Ms. Springfield and obviously a new body of fans to entertain.
What Have I Done To Deserve This? Is not only a decent enough pop song it has the hallmarks of the ambiguity of love but the refrain of the question being asked over and over again. It certainly was a clever marketing tool to have Dusty Springfield join forces with Chris and Neil on this track as the sexual allusions that Neil himself dodged for many years till he came out in the early 90’s had surrounded Ms. Springfield years before. The song itself has the chill of being neglected, a person on the wrong end of being let go. The soul is forever asking what exactly they did wrong in the relationship. The thoughts of the person are clear, they read books to them; they bought drinks for them but ultimately left them feeling empty and cheated. In the reversal of Rent, where the feelings were left unsaid, this has the bitter aftertaste of relationship purgatory, neither knowing what you did wrong but also never realising how to fix it.
Actually is a creative high point for the Pet Shop Boys, a determined album to show that Please was not just a one-off and a record that still after 25 years rightly remains arguably the best album that the two men released.
Ian D. Hall