She’s a Singer. Doo-doo-doo-who? If you haven’t heard of her before, Misha Singer is her name, and her vocation. Not only that, but she’s just released a Pet Shop Boys song you almost certainly haven’t heard before. It’s a cracker.
Misha Stradějová was born in “the mid 1980s” in what is now the Czech Republic, moved to the outskirts of Stuttgart in Southern Germany as a child and, like her mother, married a local fellow, hence her married name Singer. Though the singing came way before wedlock, having turned professional when she was 15, her first English language record arrived in 2019 with a gutsy cover of Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born showstopper, Shallow.
Talking of voices, Celine Dion “is a huge idol”, and Misha’s a bit of a big lunged diva sort herself — though rather than an endless stream of power ballads she prefers to operate within the realms of dance music, a genre she knows all too well. She likes to listen to Cascada, Snap, Lasgo and La Bouche… and her brand new single, Diddly Squat, has been co-written by none other than electronic pop royalty the Pet Shop Boys.
In the English vernacular, if you want to use a quaint and dismissive slang expression to describe a small, worthless or non existent amount, you would say “diddly-squat”, I kid you not.
Getting titular, as renowned lovers of idioms, the celebrated pop twosome used Diddly Squat as an off the cuff placeholder name for an unfinished track they had begun at Fawnlees Hall, Neil Tennant’s then home studio in County Durham, during sessions for their guitar-based Release album in March 2001. It’s a virtually instrumental track with no lyrics aside from a single refrain sung by Neil, “And there she goes.”
In issue 25 of the PSB’s official fan magazine Literally, Tennant details the genesis of the recording.
Neil: We carried on working on the new version of Shameless and worked on Tomorrow, then we started on a new track called Diddly Squat. Diddly Squat turns into a new song called All Or Nothing which has now been recorded by a young Japanese singer called Miu.
We were on a whole new thing here — we’d lost interest in the guitar thing and had started doing very electronic stuff. After dinner Chris played this outrageous keyboard solo on the demo of Diddly Squat because he was showing off in front of Janet Street-Porter. The next day we went back to London.
All Or Nothing, of course, is a subversion of “little or nothing”, another way of describing diddly-squat. Doing diddly-squat = doing little or nothing. Almost certainly named by keyboardist Chris Lowe then.
Having handed over the demo, the Boys allowed Miu, a.k.a Miyuki Motegi, to flesh it out by writing her own lyrics, which, apart from a reference to “happy birthday to you” and the retention of Neil’s vocal line, is in Japanese. Musically, the Miu version didn’t employ a great deal of musical surgery. It stays faithful to the demo, albeit overlaid with a bunch of blistering guitar tracks in the last couple of minutes. Eat your heart out, Johnny Marr.
All Or Nothing was eventually released on her self titled album Miyuki Motegi on the domestic Toshiba EMI label in Japan in April 2002.
Almost twenty years later, the track has been reclaimed in the West, ending up in Belgium and Germany with European club producers Steve Gobin and Markus Wagner. Keen to do something other than a straightforward cover version, the team discovered Wayne Studer’s write-up on the history of Diddly Squat on the always excellent Pet Shop Boys Commentary website (geowayne.com). The dancepop duo sought the PSB camp’s blessing in producing an English language adaptation, reverting the song back to its original title and writing most of their original lyrics over Tennant and Lowe’s music.
Steve Gobin went on to explain in a Facebook post…
“When I contacted Kobalt and applied for the authorisation to release the English version, they sent me a demo with Neil humming the melody. The only lyrics that were on the demo were the “And there she goes” lines. Markus and I wrote all English lyrics apart from these lines. We had the track recorded by Misha, then arranged by James Blair (aka Project K ), who also sings the “And the she goes” lines, and PSB approved the song.”
It’s my understanding that the rights to Neil’s vocal and the entire PSB demo are owned by EMI Japan, who is now part of the Universal Music Group, unlike the bulk of the duo’s pre-Electric catalogue. Though Tennant/Lowe have always been reluctant to release uncompleted compositions deemed not “of master quality”, that probably goes some way to explaining why the track wasn’t a candidate to appear on the expanded edition of Release issued by Parlophone in 2017.
It goes to show that even the most obscure of Pet Shop Boys oddities have mileage in them. It’s expressly not a translation of Motegi’s lyrics, though there is a reinterpretation of one of her central themes: that of a couple out for the narrator’s romantic birthday dinner, a ring in a box, and an awkward encounter with a stalky ex who possesses an identical jewel. Diddly Squat is a thrusty semi electroclash stomper that, like its predecessor, doesn’t stray massively from the PSB demo — though the addition of a shimmering synth flourish that reminds me of Freddie Mercury’s Living On My Own is a nice touch. Your shiny mirrored disco needs you to check it out.
Diddly Squat is Misha’s fifth record, and her first release on Gobin and Wagner’s new indie pop label Asahi, and the Singer is delighted at the result, telling me
“Honestly, I love this track. I didn’t hear from Pet Shop Boys personally, but Steve told me that they liked it. Miu got to know them personally so there is still a little hope left. Some Pethead fans have asked me to get in touch with them to ask if Neil and Chris would consider a PSB remix of Diddly Squat but I doubt they would even answer me.”
Neil, Chris, if you’re reading this…
Misha grew up with the duo’s music, and readily acknowledges that “in the ‘80s and ‘90s the Pet Shop Boys influenced all our lives. Their songs defined a whole generation.” She’s not wearing that Yes-inspired mirrored jacket for nothing, you know.
So running with that dog, Misha has selected her five fave PSB singles exclusively for stevepafford.com, a quintumvirate of Tennant/Lowe classics that have a particular personal resonance for her. I think you may know these…
As non-native speakers we tend to give more focus to the melody than the lyrics. As a non English speaking child even more. So, for me, the melody of Suburbia is quite memorable and it always reminds me of hearing the Pet Shop Boys on local radio. Their songs were big hits. Looking back now, growing up in a small town with all the neighbours, shops and schools right around the corner you can say for sure that, like Neil Tennant, I grew up in suburbia.
We moved to Germany at what is the fifth grade here, and I actually started learning English at school around 1996/97. In Germany, you have to learn English no matter if you want to or not. But it was never a big pressure, since I’m really good in learning languages and I love to travel. So learning English was a logical step.
Like the song goes, it’s the story of my life. My mum married a German man, and just after I had started junior high school, we went west and I discovered Western culture: playing Nintendo video games, wearing things like Levi’s jeans and Buffalo boots. As you might know, Germany is very US oriented.
Talking about a better life in the lyrics to Go West, I would say that having a German education I surely had better opportunities than growing up in Czechia. My life is a good mixture of both cultures like in the Pet Shop Boys recording, where western pop melodies meet this Red Army choir-sounding background.
The Pet Shop Boys version of Always On My Mind was the one I knew first, but the Elvis Presley ballad is more than OK. For me, it’s more a question of mood. If I’m sad I tend towards the Elvis recording, and if I’m in a good mood the PSB remake is upbeat and gives me a positive feeling. It’s way better for the dance floor too!
IT’S A SIN
It’s A Sin is my favourite Pet Shop Boys song, actually. The instrumental music is so dramatic it gives me goosebumps. I know the lyrics are about Neil Tennant’s Catholic upbringing, so it has an aura of depth and darkness which reminds me of the divorce of my parents. I remember hearing it while I was looking out of the window longing for my dad to come back.
WHAT HAVE I DONE TO DESERVE THIS?
I really like the Eighties tone on this, it’s so typical of the time. Normally, the voices of Neil Tennant and Dusty Springfield are so different, but on this song they blend together so well. The production is so good that even as a singer it’s hard to tell who is singing which bit.
The refrain for me, personally, is highly reflected with my experiences with the music business as an unknown artist in this money-talking world. And it was an inspiration for my earlier song I Let You Go. But, hey, maybe PSB will record a Misha Singer version of What Have I Done To Deserve This? one day.
Misha Singer was talking to Steve Pafford
The Diddly Squat EP featuring four versions: the single edit, an extended mix, and electro dub, and an instrumental have been available since March 2021 on all your trusty streaming platforms