Lights! Models! Guest list!
Following on from the “Just the one, dear” obituary of the wonderful June Whitfield I penned at the end of 2018, what do you suppose is the biggest Pet Shop Boys hit in my adopted homeland, Australia?
Go West or West End Girls? Nope.
Well, maybe Heart or What Have I Done To Deserve This?, surely.
Are you ready for this? All of the above were No.1 somewhere in the wider world, but not one of them made the Top Five in the la la land of Skippy, Kylie and Jason. Sigh. PSB’s only single to reach the upper echelons of the Aussie Arias is…. not even a song at all. It’s a novelty record, a charity record, it’s Absolutely Fabulous. The official AbFab record made No.2 in 1994 – not exactly the boys’ finest year for a multitude of reasons – and, even worse, it’s the dynamic duo’s last top tenner Down Under. And yes, I can imagine some of you less charitable sorts saying it sounds like a No.2 too. Techno, techno, bloody techno! Ho, ho, ho!
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were big fans of the British TV comedy Absolutely Fabulous, which lampooned the fake world of PR, marketing and the media. That’s hardly a surprise. The razor-sharp putdowns and abominable antics of girls behaving badly were pretty revolutionary at the time. I don’t think I’d ever heard my flatmate Judi belly laugh so much at anything more than the uproarious first series before or since. Even David Bowie tried to get in on the act, attempting to secure the rights to produce an American remake that would have starred Iman in the role of Patsy.
According to the seminal synthmeisters themselves – tongue firmly in someone’s cheek, no doubt – they came up with the idea for the 2 Unlimited-pastiching high energy campery merely as an excuse to have dinner with the show’s two stars, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. To seal the deal all profits would benefit the BBC’s Red Nose Day malarkey. Neil Tennant:
“We liked the programme so we thought, ‘Let’s do a record’. We always thought we could make a good record out of it ‘cos there’s so many good lines in it. So we just sampled them. Originally it was intended to get them in the studio with us but when we contacted them they said to leave it as it was. Jennifer Saunders came in to add a few lines.”
With a relentless nosebleed beat (“it’s a parody of Europap” admitted Lowe, the ever-candid keyboardist), the only lyrics Tennant utters in the whole four-minute showbiz shebang are ‘Absolutely Fabulous. We’re Absolutely Fabulous, constantly repeated. The rest of the vocals are the admittedly delicious dialogue soundbites courtesy of Jen and Jo, with some of Saunders’ contributions specially recorded (Lumley was away with Aunty Beeb filming Girl Friday on a desert island), but most taken directly from Fashion, the peerlessly prescient first episode which debuted in 1992.
“The reason why it’s on Comic Relief is just a peg to hang it on. It seemed logical and also to morally blackmail people to use the samples – ‘cos it’s for charidee. We don’t do charity. It’s like we don’t do the Royal Family either… yet! Lady Di: the Record. We could sample bits of her speeches, for bulimia.”
Nonetheless the track is sort of hard to find, with only the dubby Our Tribe Tongue In Cheek Mix easily available (on PSB’s Disco 2 album). After years of being out of print, the recently remastered double-disc edition of 1993’s Very album does include the original Absolutely Fabulous seven-inch mix, though why it’s labelled as such when there was no 12″ mix is a mysterious misnomer. The promotional video has never been issued on DVD either. It was shot at BBC Television Centre at the end of April 1994. Tennant, with his gorgeously gossipy asides, holds forth once again:
“Actually, we had two bottles of Bollinger after the video shoot. And we did go out to dinner. We took them to this restaurant in Holland Park and actually I got rather pissed. Then right at the end, John Cleese, Joan Collins and Christopher Biggins walked in. They’d just been to see Barbra Streisand (playing her first ever concerts in Europe). Obviously, I’d been the previous week. And, er, it suddenly seemed a bit weird. Joan Collins was a bit frosty, actually.”
Earlier that month, Tennant/Lowe unveiled the billowing futuristic pastry chef’s outfits when they performed their previous single, Liberation, on Top of the Pops. And no, it’s merely a rumour you can see a rather thin and bespectacled version of yours truly well and truly upstaged by a young (and it has to be said, extremely irritating) David Walliams in that one. The horror, the horror.
Unfortunately, this sad ‘song’ situation says so much about antipodeans that, rather than any their countless other rather more erudite compositions, AbFab is the boys’ most successful Oceanic chart performance ever. Yup, it’s PSB’s biggest in New Zealand too, flaming Kiwis. Hell, some of their other singles even make their greatest hits compilations, unlike this absolutely atrocious aberration*. The NME were sufficiently appalled. Don’t pump up the volume then.
“After a decade of Being The Pet Shop Boys, of writing some of the greatest pop songs ever, something very strange indeed has happened. They have gone mad. Where once Neil and Chris walked in the company of showbusiness angels – Dusty and Liza and Derek Jarman – now they’ve moved into the world of prime time pantomime dames. If this record was a hat, it would have a can of lager on top of it. It is daft, dumb, tacky and will get on your tits.”
Ironically the Pets’ second highest charting single in Aus is another comedy record: the U2-Four Seasons monster mash-up Where The Streets Have No Name-Can’t Take My Eyes Off You made No.9. But who can resist it when it’s given a live outing, complete with Neil low-kicking his way through the da-DAHHHs with gold lamè cowboys? I do hope they’re Lacroix, sweetie.
*OK, it’s not atrocious but allow me my alliterative triptych anyway