Contemporary custom has staled and stalled what was once the infinite variety of the singles chart. The anodyne algorithmic analysis of what makes a hit has led to Top 40s dominated by teams of songwriters following overly technical templates. It’s mechanical music by committee, and, frankly my dear, that Madonna has got a lot to answer for.
The means of calculating sales has caused charts filled by songs from the same album. The focus on radio playlists and streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify has restricted the number of genres that might appear, and led to the disappearance from the charts not just of certain kinds of artists, but whole subsets of records. Doubtless some would have disappeared anyway, and good riddance to them, but some are worth mourning. The one where the wizened grandee of pop encounters the shiny and new bright young things, for instance. It’s still a phenomenon on albums, especially in the US, where grizzled veterans still deploy the services of younger artists to appear alongside them as courtiers at the throne of the old monarch. Hello again, Madonna.
The better take on all of this is when the younger partner is in control, steering the direction of the collaboration. Think of Pet Shop Boys heroically bringing Dusty Springfield back into the public consciousness in 1987 with What Have I Done to Deserve This?, often cited as one of the greatest duets in music history. Not only that, but, on a bit more than a roll, Team PSB + Dusty followed it with the sublime Nothing Has Been Proved and In Private, both written for the film about the Profumo affair, Scandal.
La Springfield was the English/Irish ‘60s folk singer turned pop icon turned soul empress, whom Elton John reckons was the best white female voice ever. In 1969, she was Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic label mate, and it was the Queen of Soul herself who passed the majestic Son Of A Preacher Man to Dusty, only for Aretha to rush her rendition out when she heard how good Springfield’s version was. Ironically, Dusty preferred the Aretha recording.
Post-Sixties shenanigans and tabloid controversy over her public utterances on sexuality saw Dusty drift from one label and one career relaunch to another, ending up in a directionless mid-Atlantic cul-de-sac. Shockingly, none of her singles between 1971 and 1986 charted on the UK Top 40 or Billboard Hot 100, and her previous single had been released by Peter Stringfellow, of all people. Enter Neil Tennant of the electropop duo Pet Shop Boys, then on an irresistible rise to imperial cool and critical acclaim.
If David Bowie was Tennant’s go-to male performer then Dusty certainly was his fave female. The Boys enlisted the singer for their 1987 single What Have I Done To Deserve This? as a genuine joint collaboration. When she finally said yes, the duet gave her a major comeback and sealed her legendary status.
Talk about an inspired inter-generational collision. It seems almost incredulous to think how such an incredible vocalist like Dusty was a washed up, almost forgotten figure by the time Tennant & Lowe stubbornly stuck to their guns, pointing them directly in the face of EMI, who desperately suggested they use label mate Tina Turner instead.
An immaculate showcase for the band’s arch hit-making intelligence and the glorious soaring dynamics of the achingly glorious Springfield voice, the song reached No 2 in both the UK and in the States, which incorporates an airplay element to their rankings. In fact, as Tennant points out, the song “reached No.1 on the sales chart over there, actually.”
Actually also happened to be the name of the PSB’s sophomore studio album, released that September, and, amusingly one of Neil’s most overused words. What Have I Done To Deserve This? trailed the long-player a month before; in singles terms, sandwiched between the gothic Europop confessional It’s A Sin and the sublimely raw Rent.
We can chat unusual structure all you want, 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). In the PSB’s 1988 cinematic flop It Couldn’t Happen Here, her matchless vocals were somewhat controversially lip-synched by future Eastenders matriarch Barbara Windsor. Carry on camping then…
One of the things I remember most about my time at Q magazine in London was working with the columnist John Harris (not the greatest fan of electronic pop, shall we say) before he upscaled his career into TV, was getting him to concede that WHIDTDT? was “one of the greatest pop songs ever written. It almost sounds like three different songs put together.” And in a funny way, it kind of is. Even Neil Tennant admits the Allee Willis ‘since you went away’ section is his favourite.
This was a duet that really led the way in a manner that had barely explored before. Though there was slight precedent with The Smiths rescuing Sandie Shaw from obscurity (1984’s Hand In Glove) and Tina Turner’s career being spectacularly revived by Heaven 17 the year before that (1983’s Let’s Stay Together), but they were cover versions with the songstress fronting the band, both acts’ regular vocalists hovering somewhere in the background. What Have I Done To Deserve This? followed Eurythmics & Aretha Franklin‘s feminist anthem Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves in being one of the first examples of a genuine pan-generational duet of equal billing. And it was all the better for it.
What is crucial in these sort of collaborations is genuine affection from young to old: it’s no good the older artist being the butt of a joke. 1999’s Walk Like a Panther by the All Seeing I could have made a joke out of a forgotten lounge crooner like Tony Christie, but instead it highlighted his gravitas, took him out of the dead-end working men’s clubs and led the way for an old chestnut like 1971’s (Is This The Way) To Amarillo being given a second, much bigger lease of life. If I can paraphrase Frank Sinatra, success is lovelier the second time around.
Dusty’s Reputation from 1990 was built on the back of her triumphant return, and the half-PSB-produced album also recalls that curious time at the turn of the decade when the keyboard washes and ultra-clean production of the ’80s still predominated but had also slightly palled. Neither grunge, nor R&B, nor the Stone Roses/Happy Mondays groove mastery had yet to go mainstream, but it was befitting that she should be presented with the chance to deliver some final performances to sit alongside the classic Dusty material.
The collection was proof positive that no one could interpret a mood quite like Dusty. In Private is a stomping, strident accusation about hypocritical love, laid out over a Motownish mid-groove. Nothing Has Been Proved is a diametric contrast: a bewitching song enveloped in a classic breathless, floaty Springfield vocal (further cloaked with an air of mystery that suited the eternal Dusty, real name Mary O’Brien, persona). Both songs were written and produced by the Pet Shop Boys, and easily rank among their greatest work.
Zip forward to August 2016, and Reputation was lovingly expanded by Cherry Red Records as a compressive three-disc set, including multiple mixes and tracks recorded but not included on the original album and a DVD of promo videos. What Have I Done To Deserve This? is included as a bonus track in the Shep Pettibone Disco Mix variant, essentially the same uptempo reworking the seminal synth duo featured in their first world tour of 1991, Performance (above). Dusty died in 1999, and didn’t capitalise in commercial terms on the return to form that the album’s hits had given her. But her “reputation” has, rightly, been restored for all time.
Next month the niche label give the same deluxe treatment to Liza Minnelli’s Results, from 1989. Ostensibly the third Pet Shop Boys album in all but name, the set was helmed by the duo with Julian Mendelsohn and included the sparkling single Losing My Mind: Stephen Sondheim transformed into high-camp dancefloor drama.
There’s also scorching covers of Tanita Tikaram’s tantalising Twist In My Sobriety and Hazell Dean’s Love Pains and seven Tennant/Lowe compositions. The whopping 4-disc collection also includes a myriad of mixes and alternate versions, plus a contemporaneous DVD entitled Visible Results. It’s another perfect pan-generational hook-up. They really don’t make them like that anymore.
Postscript: In 2009 Pet Shop Boys received the Outstanding Contribution To Music gong at The Brits. Inadvertently marking almost exactly ten years since Dusty died, her section of What Have I Done To Deserve This? were performed by an up and coming singer by the name of Lady Gaga. She’s the one dressed as a teapot.