As the perennial pop duo’s sophomore album turns 30, here’s why Actually remains one of the most celebrated Pets sets. I’ll give you more than ten good reasons to play…
1. It’s the biggest selling PSB album in the UK, where it debuted at No.2 and got stuck behind Michael Jackson’s immovable Bad.
2. It features possibly the greatest pop duet in history: What Have I Done To Deserve This? by Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield. We can chat unusual structure all you want (it’s essentially three songs in one), but this song just has that thing: before it’s even finished, you already want to play it again. It’s touching too, which is impressive considering it’s about a “major capitalist” (her) and a “pathetic feeble wreck” (him).
3. It brought back Dusty Springfield. Dusty was done before WHIDTDT?. Put it this way: her previous single had been released by Peter Stringfellow. When she finally said yes, the duet gave her a major comeback and sealed her legendary status. It reached number two on both sides of the Atlantic (stalling behind Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up in Britain, though the Boys would get their own back later in the year) and re-introduced the world to that voice: huskier, sure, but still magical and magisterial.
4. The album features three more classic singles. Two of them, It’s A Sin and Heart, became UK number ones. The other – Rent – features the chorus “I love you, you pay my rent” and still made it onto Top Of The Pops. Respect.
5. One of those singles was written for Madonna. But they were too nervous to send it over, in case she said no.
6. So they almost gave to Hazell Dean instead. Before, thankfully, realising it was a keeper. Which single? This one (and it even features Sir Ian McKellen as Dracula):
7. It’s a little bit spiritual. Let’s be honest, the Pope doesn’t have It’s A Sin on his iPod. This is a song that celebrates a Roman Catholic upbringing with the line “I didn’t care and I still don’t understand”.
8. However, The Vatican should give the Pets some credit for seeking authenticity. While making It’s A Sin, they even went to Brompton Oratory, a Roman Catholic church in west London, to “record the ambience”.
9. They were properly arsed to record that ambience. This is a very ‘80s pop star thing to do, so it’s worth flagging up.
10. It’s a little bit clever. Sometimes dumb pop is great pop – hello Starships! On the other hand, it’s always nice when some smarts hit the charts. Look at this verse from Rent. “You phoned me in the evening on hearsay / And bought me caviar / You took me to a restaurant off Broadway / To tell me who you are“. Now listen to Bieber and bawl your eyes out.
11. The utterly iconoclastic artwork features Neil Tennant yawning. Though the contents are far from (being) boring, Actually possibly boasts the only record sleeve to feature a pop star in this undeniably bored/tired state. Although the singer has pointed out that his yawn was totally real and spontaneous (“I’d yawned because I was tired”, said Neil, matter of factly), their selection of the picture for their album cover was brilliantly calculated.
12. The sleeve is so instantly recognisable it’s been parodied by everyone from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Ant & Dec (as PJ & Duncan), Sniff Petrol, Chumbawamba, Flight of the Conchords, Field Music, MFA, Hurts, Sara Cox and Frank Sidebottom.
13. The Boys seemed to grasp the image’s iconic potential right from the start, even re-creating on video for a British television advertisement. Note how Neil’s barnet is much more closely cropped in the ad. Incidentally, Chris Lowe dislikes the original image: “I hate the photo,” he says. “I can’t stand the way I look in it. I hate wearing a bloody dickie-bow, I hate wearing a white shirt and I hate the way my hair is. Straight after that video (the shoot was done at London’s Brixton Academy on the set of What Have I Done To Deserve This?) I had my hair cropped.” “It’s very much the defining image of the Pet Shop Boys,” Tennant reflects. “It was a good and a bad image. It was one of those things that maybe people wonder whether we were serious or not. In fact that album itself is pretty serious. Even the jokes are serious jokes.”
14. The first true parody came almost immediately on the heels of the album’s release. When the BBC’s Jonathan King began to wage (unsuccessfully) a one-man campaign to convince the world that It’s A Sin had wilfully plagiarized Cat Stevens’ 1970 release Wild World, he quickly recorded his own version of the Stevens song with an outrageously “PSB-ish” arrangement. The cover of the resulting single featured King himself alongside a non-yawning Cat Stevens head superimposed upon an appropriately tuxedoed body.
15. King didn’t quite succeed and PSB sued him and The Sun, which had published his allegations. Neil later revealed, “Yusuf Islam (the former Cat Stevens) wrote us a very charming letter offering to mediate at one point.” Alas, the case was settled out of court to the Boys’ advantage. Talking of ‘They didn’t quite succeed.”, that line from It’s A Sin is so brilliantly British, they should give it a blue plaque.
16. But it’s no museum piece. Beats date. Production will always tie an album to its time. But great songs continue to resonate and these ones still feel crisp and insightful. Of course, it helps that they’re so laden with catchy hooks and intelligent lyrics.
17. It has Shopping on it. Yes, as in S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G. Surprisingly, this was never a single, but it’s been used on Watchdog and countless other BBC programmes so often, it feels like one.
18. It’s a little bit political. Sorry Nicky Campbell, but Shopping is actually about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher flogging off state-owned industries in the 1980s. And talking of The Iron Lady, the album ends with an “angry song about Thatcherism” called King’s Cross.
19. When the King’s Cross Underground fire happened a few weeks later, The Sun tried to persuade the boys to release the song as a charity single. Thankfully they refused.
20. In 2011 the Boys humorously self-parodied the cover image on a mousepad given to members of their official fan club. The heading reads “Mouse Mat, actually.” I bet Disney were delighted.
21. It also has a song called Hit Music on it. Which they also planned to use as the title for their 1991 singles collection, despite said track not being included on the tracklisting. They eventually went with the rather more highbrow Discography.
22. It’s a little bit electro, a little bit dance, and quite a lot pop. Often on the same song. That’s kinda the Pet Shop Boys’ thing.
23. It’s the first time anyone used the word actually for an album title. Why did they call the album Actually? Over to Nelly: “It was so English and kind of arch and kind of a joke and it was something we said a lot. And also it could be a sentence – “Pet Shop Boys, actually” – which echoed (their first album), Please.”
24. It’s a little bit emotional. The album’s centrepiece is a wistful but epic orchestral ballad called It Couldn’t Happen Here, co-written by Ennio Morricone and arranged by Angelo Badalamenti and rarely tackled live. It’s about the AIDS epidemic arriving in the UK in the mid-1980s. “I thought we said it couldn’t happen here,” Tennant sings on the chorus, mournfully and majestically.
25. It spawned its own film. At the time, the Pets couldn’t find time to tour, so they decided to give fans a 60-minute video based around songs from Actually. During the creative process, this grew into a full-length musical film starring Joss Ackland, Barbara Windsor and Gareth Hunt. It was named It Couldn’t Happen Here after the song, but they really should have kept the Beatles-punning working title: A Hard Day’s Shopping.
26. It contains the world’s most unlikely threesome. You know the “oh-oh-oh” bit in Heart? That’s actually a three-way harmony featuring Neil Tennant, Prefab Scout’s Wendy Smith and… wait for it… Pavarotti, sampled from a CD engineer/producer Andy Richards had lying around.
27. It’s a snapshot of 1987. Not just Maggie Thatcher and the Tory government, but also materialism, the post-Aids club scene and so-called “1980s paranoia”. The Boys don’t lay it on thick though. A line like “You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job,” says a lot about the time without spelling anything out.
28. It captures Pet Shop Boys during their self-proclaimed “imperial phase”. At the time, they couldn’t put a foot wrong. Between the release of the album’s third and fourth singles, the Pets recorded a cover of Always On My Mind… and scored the Christmas Number One, famously beating Rick Astley and The Pogues to the holiday top spot. This is the early ‘demo’ version as featured in It Couldn’t Happen Here:
29. Always On My Mind was packaged as a bonus disc with some copies of Actually in America, but, ever the pop savants, the duo refused to allow the song to be added to the album proper.