Thirty-three years ago this very week the Pet Shop Boys were atop the British charts with their first ever cover version, a souped-up synth reworking of the country classic Always On My Mind, which would go on to be the Christmas number one single of 1987, leapfrogging over Rick Astley and keeping those smelly old Pogues in their place. By virtue of its last minute inclusion in the seminal pop duo’s then to be released film It Couldn’t Happen Here, the song’s promotional video acted as a de facto movie trailer, boasting a tasty triumvirate of screen legends in Joss Ackland, Gareth Hunt, and Barbara Windsor, the actress and kitchen sink icon who has died aged 83. This is the story.
Not long ago, esteemed music critic Pete Paphides suggested on Twitter that the Pet Shop Boys were worthy of their own neologism: ‘melanphoric’. It’s a very PSB word, and a perfect encapsulation of the meticulous soundscapes the duo have made their own over four decades, as applicable today as with their chart debut, 1985’s West End Girls.
Coming less than three months after the pair’s second studio set, the non-album single Always On My Mind (the rear of the sleeve bore the legend, typically PSB in its lower case double meaning ‘not from the album, actually) was released on 30 November 1987. Its release as a 45 almost an afterthought, having been a “tarted up” demo recording dashed off for Love Me Tender, an ITV programme marking the 10th anniversary since Elvis Presley expired on a toilet in Memphis.
Yes, I feel duty bound to tell you that it was originally a sweet lovin’ country tune called You Were Always On My Mind, and written by Wayne Carson Thompson and Johnny Christopher with additional lyrics from Suspicious Minds author Mark James, who provided the song’s pleading memorable bridge (“Tell me, tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died…”).
The song was first released by Gwen McCrae and Brenda Lee respectively, in early 1972, and became a huge hit on Elvis’s hips a few months later – such haste, such taste.
Willie Nelson’s affecting, understated rendition followed in 1982, but when the imperious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe tackled it in 1987, it became their fastest ever hit, their third chart-topper, and their all-time best selling single in Britain. It was also the first time PSB had recorded a song they hadn’t written, kicking off an occasional series of cover versions that would co-opt Sterling Void’s house classic It’s Alright, and the Village People’s utopian disco anthem Go West, as well as Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘60s saucepot Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus with guest vocals from Britpack artist Sam Taylor-Wood.
Always On My Mind, though, is the greatest Pet Shop Boys cover version, and probably always will be. Whether or not you agree that it’s their finest 45 is another matter. There are so many to choose from. And that’s not to belittle the rich catalogue of hits they’ve written for themselves: the Pet Shop Boys are among this country’s finest ever singles artists, producing a stream of consistent, smart pop songs.
There was nothing hipster or show-offy about liking them. They were a big pop act. And yet they were an intellectual, erudite cut above the synth-driven competition (“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” – that was their meaty manifesto), aloof to the point of self-parody and JSE: Just Sleazy Enough, because although Soft Cell were more obviously deviant there was something magnificent about how two Pet Shop Boys surreptitiously smuggled queer kink into the living rooms of millions that makes what they achieved so deliciously subversive.
Spicy hints of the illicit gay subculture, the determination and power to revive a forgotten icon like Dusty Springfield and a song about rent boys, you could read what you liked into the essentially vanilla intentions of Always On My Mind. Joyous and infectious, its tinny synth pulse pumps new life into what is essentially a self-pitying song about regrets felt by someone who took the love of their life for granted, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery. Some find him detached. I find him merely semi-detached.
I illustrate with the rainbow candy-striped sleeve of third album Introspective, as that, in 1988, is where the hit single was eventually homed, albeit deconstructed and conjoined with In My House. (If you know the album, you’ll be familiar with the way, at around three minutes in, Tennant trills “You were always …” and instead of “on my mind,” drops down a synthesised octave for the surprise ending “in my house,” at which the song transmutes.).
This is not the definitive item, but I’m fond of it, though not nearly as much as the original Extended Dance Mix of Always On My Mind — the lead track on the second CD single I ever bought (numero uno? Peter Gabriel’s Big Time, issued much earlier in ’87) — and a fabulous slice of kitchen-sink disco pop, replete with samples of Joss Ackland’s road trip dialogue (“Stop the car? Stop!”) snatched from the song’s promotional video, a taster of what would become ver Boys’ oddball venture into cinema, 1988’s It Couldn’t Happen Here.
I can remember vividly watching the ‘video exclusive’ premiere of Always On My Mind on the Chart Show, a soon to be Saturday morning staple that felt way cooler and less juvenile than the BBC’s Going Live. It was a hoot, and testament to the power off editing that it made what was ostensibly a film trailer way more exciting than the movie turned out to be.
There’s that brilliant voyeuristic bit as the horn stabs kick in just before the minute mark where the camera allows you into this secret sepia world, and you realise you’re watching a saucy short flipping on a hand-cranked What The Butler Saw machine on a windswept seaside promenade barely changed since its Victorian heyday.
At that precise moment my mum walked in, and asked who the woman was in a French maid’s outfit, looking like she’s game for a laugh and a whole lot more.
“It’s Barbara Windsor,” I replied, as the lady in question I recognised from those naughty Carry On films of old was getting her derrière groped by Neil Tennant.
“Really? Where’s she been all these years?”
“She’s in their new film. This video is from the film,” I added, matter of factly.
“Oh, I can see it’s her now. I recognise her eyes,” mum added, while the television screen flashed up an image of a hair-netted Babs on the blower, (2:22 on the clip above) her panda eyed make-up not dissimilar to Dusty Springfield, which was surely a knowing nod seeing as Windsor was actually lip-synching to Dusty’s lines in What Have I Done To Deserve This? in the forthcoming film.
What has Dusty done to deserve this?
Ah yes, It Couldn’t Happen Here, the Boys’ cinematic pop flop, their first misstep, etc etc.. Musicians making pop films are not a new thing – since the dawn of rock ’n roll, acts have sought to ‘extend the brand of their band’ via the medium of the feature length movie, with wildly varying results: some good (The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night), some shockingly bad (Duran Duran’s Arena: An Absurd Notion).
After missing a couple of release windows, It Couldn’t Happen Here finally received a limited cinema outing in the summer of ’88, though, tellingly, nowhere near me in Buckinghamshire. ‘Er, this is a band who have had three number one hits in the last year,’ I said to myself, utterly pompously).
The only screening I could find in the press was for the odd picture house in the capital, though when I made discreet enquiries whether friend Judi might care to join, I was told in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want to go all the way to London just to see a film. Neither of us owned a car at the time (that would soon change), and we had just travelled to the big smoke to see David Bowie in concert only the week before. I decided to wait until the inevitable video release came a few months later.
Despite the film’s panned vision, it was perhaps the first indication that the Pet Shop Boys were prepared to venture into areas where most pop acts wouldn’t dare or probably just wouldn’t think of. Tennant & Lowe always insisted they were more pensive and caustic than their pop-chart peers anyhow. And they did it during their most commercially successful period – when they looked and sounded like they were at the very top of their game.
It was also a portent that the duo’s imperial phrase, the now widely used phrase coined by Tennant himself to signify the period in which an act is regarded to be at their simultaneous commercial and creative peak, was coming to an end.
Originally conceived as an extended pop video based around the Actually album, It Couldn’t Happen Here was made as the duo still weren’t in a position to tour, so keen to capitalise on their spectacular run of chart success, their label Parlophone EMI suggested they do a 60-minute television special for the South Bank Show or some such similarly highbrow arts programme.
The ITV series’ director Jack Bond was hired, and he had the idea to turn it into a full-length feature film which follows Tennant and Chris Lowe from coast to capital as they embark on a surreal semi-biographical musical odyssey across England, but, if I can paraphrase Steve Strange, they’re travelling with no destination, no place to go.
Along the way they meet and endure various ‘interesting’ characters and perform songs from the Please and Actually albums along with the original demo version of Always on my Mind. Earlier this year, the quaint, quixotic folly was rescued from worn out VHS obscurity and remastered for DVD and Blu-Ray for the very first time. Here’s Neil Tennant:
“When we made a film in 1987 it didn’t start off as a film, it started off as a video album. Then it gained a narrative. When we started shooting it they said it was going to be released in a cinema so we had to shoot half an hour more. It became a 90 minute film. Chris and I just went along with it, it was a sort of disaster, but an interesting disaster. People have always asked us about it. Now the BFI, the British Film Institute have paid for a restoration and they’re releasing it because they find it a fascinating curiosity. It’ll probably get slammed all over again, it’s a very strange film.”
Filmed mostly in Clacton-on-Sea, very much the ‘coastal town that they forgot to close down’ that Morrissey would soon parple about in Everyday Is Like Sunday, It Couldn’t Happen Here will never stand as a proper movie. It’s too much an impenetrable, unfathomable piece of work for that (some uncharitable sorts decided It Should Have Never Happened Here, and renamed it accordingly), but it is littered with cameos from some extremely watchable darkly comic characters who, occasionally pepper the bizarre script with some hilarious one-liners, especially the bonkers serial killer/blind priest played by veteran golden voiced actor Joss Ackland.
Gaining future diplomatic immunity due to his role as the antagonist assassin in Lethal Weapon 2, by 1987 Ackland had already become typecast as the villainous sort because, as he told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, “It’s very difficult to portray good without being boring.”
During the Always On My Mind road trip sequence, Ackland gets picked up by our pop turns and regales them with hilariously pretentious ramblings purloined from everything from poetry to age old jokes while waxing lyrical on violins, Jewish cowboys and Salvador Dali.
Neil Tennant: “You haven’t got any weapons in there’s have you?
Joss Ackland: “Why, what do you need?”
“I can’t tell you how embarrassing that was,” the actor told the BBC, dismissing the film as a “piece of rubbish” he only did because his grandchildren liked the Pet Shop Boys’ music.
Both Gareth Hunt, of New Avengers and Nescafé notoriety, and Barbara Windsor play a variety of grotesques, a host of bleak caricatures of seaside types. Indeed, the scene where Babs plays an overly-attentive landlady in a creaky old B&B and has a monstrous sized fried English breakfast thrown at her by Chris Lowe is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. The look of horror on her egg-strewn face is hilarious, probably because she was as surprised as I was at how the bacon, sausage and tomato seemed to vanish mid air.
She was a plucky sort, Barbara Windsor. Had she been of age in World War II, Vera Lynn would never have gone on to become a Dame. Instead, it would have been the other Windsor who invigorated the troops with her boundless effervescence and as much front as the white cliffs of Dover.
All Carry On sauce and cheek, Babs was an hourglass icon who, when she aged (like fine wine, like blue cheese), would see out her retirement as a national treasure and part-time landlady of the Queen Vic.
Coincidentally, when my mum wondered rhetorically where she’d been in the years preceding Always On My Mind, I would soon discover exactly where she was: living in the same Bucks county as us and running a pub with her new hubby.
On 4 January 1988, the start of PSB’s final week at No.1 before Always On My Mind was replaced at the top spot by Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven Is A Place On Earth (ironic BBC clip above) I started a new job at Unisys, an industrial computer training centre on the very edge of Milton Keynes. Though the mornings were uncharitably early (hardly a surprise in the catering department) I could walk there, through the orchard and past the lake and over the river, from my parents’ house in 15 minutes flat. Bingo.
Though I had already started to wonder if cheffing was really the long-term career prospect I thought it might be, I did well enough in the new place to make it past the trial period. Indeed, it only emerged later on that I was initially taken on as a temporary replacement for another Steven who had been serving time at Her Majesty’s pleasure for contempt of court. After a few weeks he was released and, amazingly I thought, walked straight back in to his old job that I was doing. The, again surprising, reconfigured set-up being that the two Steves would share production duties.
On a fag break, I engaged my namesake in conversation and he volunteered that his previous job had been in the kitchen of The Plough, a pub in the south of the county, in a village just outside Amersham called Winchmore Hill.
“The owner is Barbara Windsor’s husband (Stephen Hollings) but she runs the show. She’s even renamed the bar and restaurant Windsor’s. It was ‘Yes Miss Windsor, no Miss Windsor, three bags full Miss Windsor. I couldn’t wait to leave.”
These were indeed the wilderness years. And it would be another six years before the role she was born to play, Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders would transform her fortunes. And how.
It’s funny, because I’m not one to be easily swayed by the opinions of another, though when I briefly met Babs herself years later I found myself all those years later furiously scrutinising her body language, just to see just how much of her chirpy character that we all grew to love was an affectation.
After all, this was someone with what they once colloquially termed a ‘chequered past’. Haven’t we all, though?
For her sins, Barbara Windsor had relationships with robbers, gangsters and murderers, including two of the Krays and their associate Ronnie Knight, who became her first husband. Not to mention adulterous affairs with married men such as her Carry On co-star Sid James. It became the tabloid stuff of legend that, unsurprisingly, completely overshadowed her career.
One sunny morning in the mid to late nineties, I leaving Elizabeth House, a nurse’s home on Devonshire Street in Marylebone, when the sound of click-clacking heels tottered past the door as my friend and I walked out of the door. I looked up and it was Barbara. Actually, I probably looked down she was that tiny. Just 4 foot 10 and an awful lot of front, she made Prince look like a man mountain.
“Hello Babs! How you doing?”
“Oh, ‘ello darlin’! How you doin’?”
And that was all I needed to hear. The public Babs, making you feel like she’s known you all her life. And with that she crossed from Devonshire Street into the chi chi bustle of Marylebone High Street, carrying a couple of garments into Sketchley’s dry cleaners.
“She’s always in there,” my friend Wendy said. “She lives round the back of my building, in the little mews.” Indeed, Companies House listed a Barbara Ann Windsor as director of a business perfectly named as Sauce E Ltd., at 7 Devonshire Mews West — handy for tottering over Marylebone Road to have a chinwag with her old mucker Dale Winton, who was living in Regents Park.
Only in Britain could someone like Babs become that deified thing, the gold plated national treasure. While Hollywood had international sirens like Marilyn Monroe, the UK had the far more parochial Barbara Windsor and Diana Dors.
While it’s usually assumed that her acting talent was wasted as the bra-popping ingenue in the sexist, lowest common denominator Carry On films (cheaply funny as they could be, regressive fripperies it was they were), the uncomfortable truth is, no matter how good a script she may have had come her way, with her diminutive stature and Cockney accent Windsor was always going to be limited to a particular strand of English working class heroine. The chirpy, busty blonde with a wiggle and a giggle, the pantomime dame with the charisma and the chutzpah.
And that was a shame. Put her long, lean years into context and it’s easy to see how bagging the role as no-nonsense matriarch Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders was such a monumental lifeline to her, personally and professionally.
Would she have been made, however incongruously, a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE for short) were it not for pulling pints at the Queen Vic? Rather unlikely, what?
I’ll nail my colours to the masthead and admit the rebel rebel in me isn’t in favour of the British honours system as it stands anyway, and was hugely proud of David Bowie and John Cleese when they both declined CBEs and then knighthoods from Tony Blair’s government. Sir David Bowie? Just the name alone looks so so wrong.
By all accounts, Cilla Black, the plastic Scouser who lived in Buckinghamshire for more than half a century, was a far less likeable lady than Babs, and more than a little envious of her friend’s Damehood; indeed, the perceived slight has carried on in death, with the bucktoothed Tory’s loyal followers somewhat aggrieved she died a mere OBE, the second most lowly honour a monarch can bestow.
Well, historically, you don’t become a Dame of the realm by presenting a few tacky telly shows and having a ‘singing’ voice so bad it makes Madonna sound good, I would have countered. But then back before Boris, you were hardly likely to get one for essentially being everyone’s favourite pantomime dame either.
While we’re fooling no one by claiming she had the great dramatic range of a Diana Rigg or a Judi Dench, Barbara Windsor held a unique place in British life. It was terribly sad to see her afflicted with Alzheimer’s in recent years, though comforting to know she finally found happiness with Scott Mitchell, her third husband who she met in 1992. As a friend remarked upon hearing the news of her death, Barbara Windsor was always on our mind: she gave everyone vivid memories but, cruelly, had none of her own when she died.
Matron had indeed taken them away.