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45 at 33: How Petula Clark went Downtown ’88 after being rejected by Pet Shop Boys

“A Dutch DJ once made a remix of Downtown. He didn’t even ask permission, but it sounds very nice. Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli allowed themselves to be abused by Pet Shop Boys a bit. Their new repertoire adds absolutely nothing to their careers. If a producer contacts me for an interesting project, I will certainly react. But not if they’re called Pet Shop Boys.” — Petula Clark, AD.nl, 2007

What have they done to deserve this?

After years of neglect, in 1987 Dusty Springfield was in the curious position of being popular again. It’s easy to forget that this was the same beehived diva who made her name as a key player at the forefront of a female invasion of the British charts that sometimes gets overlooked by the one led by The Beatles. 

Dusty and co helped tear the hinges off the doors of that particular boys’ club and became the most recognisable face (and hairdo) in an era that was awash with brilliant women, all bringing something different to pop’s table – among them Lulu, Sandie Shaw and Shirley Bassey.

Pet Shop Boys resuscitated Dusty’s career, The Smiths coaxed Sandie Shaw out of semi-retirement, and Swiss dyad Yello threw Shirley Bassey an electronic lifeline — as did Propellerheads in the 1990s, by which time Take That (and in televisual terms Absolutely Fabulous) had pulled off a similar feat for little Lulu. Oh, hi Lu!

Older than those other legendary sixties chanteuses by several years, Petula Clark was never asked to lend her voice for a comeback project, to her chagrin. Though, according to Neil Tennant, she certainly wouldn’t have minded being reinvented as the duo’s latest disco diva. In a 1996 interview with this author, the PSB frontman was in post-legends mode, telling me

“Because we produced Liza Minnelli and Dusty Springfield, we’ve been approached by every single female artist in the world to make a record with them. Actually, that’s not an exaggeration — with the exception of Barbra Streisand. We’ve really had millions of approaches.”

“I don’t want to work with another female singer ever again,” he added, before slightly changing tack. “Or if we do it’ll be a complete unknown. We once got a letter from someone claiming to be Petula Clark but we don’t know if it was real or not. ‘Dear Boys, please work with me, love Petula.’ I still don’t know if it was her.” 

Possibly coloured by this alleged rejection, a slightly bitter Petula vented her disdain in a 2007 interview with the Netherlands daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, as quoted at the top of the page. 

Used and abused? I think adored and explored would be more appropriate, considering Dusty herself — a mass of insecurities at the best of times — went on record numerous times to thank Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe for bring her back from pop’s graveyard, for instance:

“I’m really grateful to the Pet Shop Boys… they had the faith in me that I didn’t have. They saw something in me that I was about to lose.” 

In other words, I think you can take Petula’s petulance with a sack of salt. It’ll make those green-eyed grapes taste even more sour. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuQ9ywE8wdI

Although an enduring theatre star right through to the 2020s, Clark had to make do with the most fleeting moments of contemporisation when Dutch DJ Peter Slaghuis* took it upon himself to remix her signature song Downtown in 1988.

Hitting No. 1 across West Germany, New Zealand and North America in 1964 (where she became the first British woman ever to reach pole position on the American pop charts), many assume the Tony Hatch-penned Downtown was one of Petula Clark’s earliest successes. In fact, as a former child star since World War II, the single was the singer’s 14th hit and was only held off the top spot in Britain by The Beatles’ I Feel Fine over the Christmas period.

Compared to the gutsier Dusty and Lulu, Petula was more in the Bassey mould of showtunes and balladeering, with songs even to her by Charlie Chaplin and duets with Serge Gainsbourg. So if this treacly paean to the big city is middle of the road, then it’s MOR of the most undeniable kind, an explosion of bombastic, beautifully orchestrated joy that punches through the boundaries between adult easy listening and teenage thrills, and even features future Led Zeppelin guitar star Jimmy Page (around midpoint of the original, you can clearly make out the sharp stabs of his favoured black Gibson Les Paul Custom).

Rather than aping a PSB production, Downtown ’88 has all the hi-NRG hallmarks of a typically lightweight Stock Aitken Waterman production‑line aesthetic of the time. With its slightly cheesy sequencer-led instrumentation, the track’s dominated by the sounds of the Linn Drum 9000, Minimoog bass and Yamaha DX7 synthesiser percolating underneath Petula’s achingly polite, patrician vocals. Clark recalled:

“The first time I heard the ’88 remix of Downtown I was in my car. I thought: ‘This sounds familiar. I wonder who’s singing this?’ and it turned out to be me! They’d wiped out the orchestra and put on some kind of ticka-ticka-tick thing. I don’t know what the hell it was, but it turned into a hit. They don’t have to ask my permission, if you know what I mean. But it’s fine. I find it rather flattering, actually. And quite amusing.”

Happily, in the week before Christmas, Downtown ’88 gave Clark a top tenner for the first time since 1967, and she even promoted the record with a live performance on Top Of The Pops. Her last significant hit had been a No. 12 placing for Don’t Sleep In The Subway, which was cleverly used as the B-side for this remix 45.

And yes, I bought the CD single, in a card sleeve that got tatty very quickly. 

What was that line about needing a gentle hand?

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS

Peter Slaghuis was from Rijswijk in the Netherlands, a ten minute drive from where I lived in Den Haag on, appropriately enough, Rijswijkse Landingslaan.

A couple of years earlier, as Research Editor on MOJO Collections magazine in London, I was elected to interview a Petula Clark superfan about vintage pressings or something. Editor Mark Paytress told me I should do the phone as “I’ve spoken to him before when I was at Record Collector. He’s obsessed… he’ll probably be able to tell you what she had for breakfast this morning.”

Me being me, I could’t help but weave that tasty titbit into my line of questioning, and enquired of the Northern gentleman, “And would you happen to know anything about Petula’s eating habits? What’s her favourite food?”

By this point Mark and the deputy ed Simon Ward were listening in and were literally in hysterics, but trying very hard to keep their mirth volume dialled down a bit. But not enough that my interviewee couldn’t tell there was some merriment, possibly directed at him.

“Well,” he started nervously, “Far being from men to know the minutiae of her daily life. But I did hear she liked sausages and curry, though probably not at the same time.”

Richard Harries we salute you, and whatever you’re having for brekkie tomorrow. 

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