Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe first struck a magic formula of quintessentially English lyricism and rap-inspired electro-pop with 1985’s West End Girls. Since then, they’ve set the pop world aglow with a peerless mix of dazzling synths and ironic wordplay. Here’s a list of the 30 best Pet Shop Boys songs you must hear.
30: I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today (B-side, 2004)
Everyone knows Pet Shop Boys curate their deeper catalogue with the same care they do the obvious hit singles (in 1995, they compiled Alternative, a collection of 30 chronological B-sides issued to that date). I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today is one such example – a 60s-influenced stomper that ended up as the B-side to 2004’s Flamboyant, which was released to help promote PopArt: The Hits. “If you want a great lost Pet Shop Boys single, I will totally go with I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today,” Neil Tennant told Classic Pop almost 20 years later. Inspired by seeing The Strokes at London nightclub Heaven, it was recorded for 2002’s Release but sidelined as it didn’t seem to fit. No matter, the track has become a fan favourite and is as good as any of the more familiar contenders among the best Pet Shop Boys songs.
29: I’m With Stupid (from ‘Fundamental’, 2006)
The lead single from the Fundamental album, and Pet Shop Boys at their most caustic, I’m With Stupid took a pop at the “special relationship” between then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush, earning Tennant and Lowe their 21st Top 10 single in the UK. Comedians David Walliams and Matt Lucas, then riding high thanks to the success of their TV sketch show, Little Britain, star in the video, but the BBC wanted a little less heat around a planned Top Of The Pops performance, insisting that Tennant and Lowe perform with dancers masked in a range of political figures, not just Blair and Bush. Trevor Horn’s lush production elevates this nagging electro cut into a highlight of a terrific album that reunited the duo with the man who helped create another of the best Pet Shop Boys songs, Left To My Own Devices.
28: Vocal (from ‘Electric’, 2013)
Anyone who was at London’s Royal Opera House in the summer of 2018 will know why this hands-in-the-air glowstick anthem deserves a place among the best Pet Shop Boys songs. Tennant and Lowe’s innovative residency that year was a towering high point of a substantial touring CV, and this electric dance track erupted in one of the world’s greatest music venues across those nights. The cut was written for 2012’s Elysium album but held over for the following year’s Electric, the first of three studio sets the duo recorded with producer Stuart Price. The 2013 album is a blistering collection of club music that re-imagined what a great Pet Shop Boys record sounded like in the 21st century.
27: Monkey Business (from ‘Hotspot’, 2020)
Issued as the planet started to go into COVID-19 lockdown, Monkey Business remains a brisk, compulsive single that got somewhat buried by world events. The Stuart Price co-write is an exuberant pop record with shades of 70s funk and disco that should have set dancefloors alight, if they weren’t all being cordoned off. Lifted from 2020’s Hotspot album, Monkey Business finally got its due on the 2022 Dreamworld – The Greatest Hits Live Tour, which had been inevitably delayed by a couple of years.
26: Leaving (from ‘Elysium’, 2012)
This lush synth track has all the hallmarks of the best Pet Shop Boys songs – Take That’s Gary Barlow tweeted “#ClassicPSB” on hearing Leaving, and who are we to disagree? It went Top 10 on the US dance chart, and Andrew Dawson’s rich, smooth production gives this melancholic gem a set of neat musical hooks, leading to it being picked as Elysium’s second single, in autumn 2012.
25: Was It Worth It? (from ‘Discography: The Complete Singles Collection’, 1991)
This Hi-NRG single was released to promote the duo’s first greatest-hits release, Discography: The Complete Singles Collection, and in many ways drew to a close everything that had routinely been part of the best Pet Shop Boys songs to date. Though the formula was familiar, there is a testy defiance in Was It Worth It?’s sound and lyrics – Neil Tennant would later describe it as “real disco. It’s a very gay song – very gay-positive.” The single has since become a glorious time-capsule of a challenging era for a community that the PSB frontman would shortly later claim as his own.
24: Before (from ‘Bilingual’, 1996)
Produced by superstar DJ and remixer Danny Tenaglia, Before was the lead single from 1996’s Bilingual album and was expected to become a big US hit. Despite label confidence, the track wasn’t especially successful anywhere except Pet Shop Boys’ homeland. “The trouble is, we’ve set ourselves up as releasing big records so, if we do something different, people are always going to be disappointed,” reflected Chris Lowe. Nonetheless, this slick midtempo masterpiece features a distinct bassline that doesn’t follow the root note of the chords and is among the catchiest of the pair’s mid-90s period.
23: It’s Alright (single version, 1989)
Covers are relatively rare in Pet Shop Boys’ extensive back-catalogue (some honourable exceptions aside), but this take on Sterling Void’s Chicago house original is a standout. The duo had originally suggested producer Trevor Horn record it with 80s female harmony group The Mint Juleps but decided to cover it themselves for 1988’s Introspective. Unhappy with the album version, the pair recorded it again for single release the following year. That version made the UK Top 5, closing Pet Shop Boys’ run of 80s hits, even though Chris Lowe infamously hates his “It’s going to be alright” spoken highlight.
22: You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk (from ‘Nightlife’, 1999)
Issued as a single just three days into the 2000s, You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk was written before Bilingual but released on 1999’s Nightlife. Produced with Scottish composer Craig Armstrong, this stripped-back, wistful electro ballad is the duo at their most accessible, and it’s somewhat surprising the song hasn’t been interpreted by one of the era’s vocal giants (you can imagine Céline or Mariah tackling this, for sure). Once considered for inclusion in Pet Shop Boys’ hit musical, Closer To Heaven, You Only Love Me When You’re Drunk went Top 10 in the UK, and it remains a connoisseur’s choice among the best Pet Shop Boys songs.
21: Paninaro (standalone single, 1985)
A single so good they released it twice, Paninaro was originally only issued in Italy, but was substantially reworked for Paninaro 95, which finally made this cult classic a Top 20 hit in the UK. Originally conceived as a gay disco record called I’m In Love With A Woman, the lyrics were reworked when Tennant and Lowe became fascinated by Italian youth cult the Paninari. Chris Lowe’s famous spoken segments were taken from a US TV interview, adding much to a stomping Hi-NRG smash that electrified gay clubs on its original release in 1985.
20: I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing (from ‘Very’, 1993)
With its upbeat 60s-inspired vibe, this whimsical Beatles-esque single from late 1993 benefitted hugely from a dance remix by hip-house pioneers The Beatmasters, which helped elevate it to the level of the best Pet Shop Boys songs. Said to be inspired by a comic strip by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, Neil Tennant wanted the song to embrace the artist’s joyous outlook, writing in his poetry collection: “I imagined myself as a Feiffer cartoon figure, going crazy with happiness.”
While singing about stripping off and “dancing to The Rite Of Spring”, the music video revels in psychedelic imagery allowing Neil and Chris to dress up in moptop wigs and pay tribute to the Sgt Pepper-era Lennon and McCartney. “I’m sure if The Beatles had formed in 1983, they would’ve been a duo,” Neil once said. “John and Paul would be using synths and drum machines instead of George and Ringo.”
19: Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is) (from ‘Bilingual’, 1996)
Ditching the drum machines in favour of all-woman drumming ensemble She-Boom, this Latin-inspired pop banger became one of Pet Shop Boys’ biggest hits of the 90s and spent two months on the UK singles chart. Neil Tennant wrote the song as an antidote for a friend’s depression, and though his schoolboy Portuguese is somewhat questionable, the song remains a fan favourite with its crowd-pleasing, carnival-esque flavour.
Imploring the listener to “throw those skeletons out of the closet”, Se A Vida É (That’s The Way Life Is) has all the cheery, unbridled joy of a Pride march on a beach in Rio De Janeiro. In fact, since the arrangement and melody was lifted from Brazilian song Estrada Da Paixão, a co-songwriting credit was shared with the group Olodum, who had supported Pet Shop Boys on tour in South America.
18: Home And Dry (from ‘Release’, 2002)
The lead single from Pet Shop Boys’ eighth album, Release, Home And Dry toned down the synths and opted to use real drums and guitars – one of the best Pet Shop Boys songs to make a welcome foray into more traditional musical instrumentation. With lyrics pining for a long-distance lover on a business trip, it’s refreshing to hear Neil and Chris cut loose on a song with more full-bodied studio production and poignant guitar solos.
Coming just six months after 9/11, Neil’s reference to “all those dark and frantic transatlantic miles” was coloured in the wake of a more anxious, socio-political climate, even though the song was written before the tragedy occurred. Nevertheless, its social relevance is matched perfectly by its melancholic nature, with the end result sounding like a combination of The Police’s Every Breath You Take and fellow New Wave contemporaries New Order.
17: Jealousy (from ‘Behaviour’, 1990)
Kept in their back pocket for several years, Jealousy was actually the first complete song Pet Shop Boys wrote together, but it didn’t see the light of day until closing their fourth album, Behaviour. Written on a dining-room piano in Chris’ parents’ house in Blackpool, back in 1982, Neil imagined himself as an English version of Edith Piaf while the lyrics explored his fear that he was losing Chris to some unwanted interloper.
That alone makes it one of the Pet Shop Boys’ best songs, but what really elevates Jealousy is its final minute. The duo originally wanted Ennio Morricone to create the song’s orchestral outro, but the job instead fell to movie composer Harold Faltermeyer (creator of the Axel F theme, from Beverly Hills Cop), who conjured a suitably epic and cinematic finale.
16: Love Etc. (from ‘Yes’, 2009)
This buoyant dance-pop collaboration with Girls Aloud and Sugababes producers Xenomania couldn’t have been more apt for the MTV Cribs generation. Neil’s lyrics shimmer with trademark cynicism for those flaunting wealth and privilege; repeating a mantra of all the trappings of consumerism that we know (deep down) we shouldn’t aspire to, he sarcastically concludes: “You don’t have to be beautiful, but it helps.”
Unique among the top Pet Shop Boys tracks, the duo’s chief input was lyrical as opposed to musical, but Chris Lowe agreed it was a timely and much-needed comment on the financial crisis. “There was just so much greed and selfishness out there with all the city bonuses and all the rest of it,” he told CBC News. “I think it definitely was a reaction against the materialism of the recent years.” Neil Tennant seemed to agree: “It’s definitely a song for 2009.”
15: So Hard (from ‘Behaviour’, 1990)
Telling the story of a couple going through a troubled relationship beset by infidelity, So Hard cuts right to the heart of a culture of sexual promiscuity and the resentment it wreaks. Tormented by his lover’s cagey behaviour, the song’s narrator hints at seeking hook-ups from a pre-Grindr-era lonely hearts publication: “I’m indebted to a contact magazine,” he admits.
Lending weight to the sexual connotations of the words “so hard”, buried in the audio mix are samples from a porno movie featuring adult movie stars expressing glee for the well-endowed. The song’s immediate context, however, is relatable for any couple trying to avoid temptation and move on from a nightclub scene which celebrates sexual permissiveness. “If you give up your affairs forever I will give up mine,” Neil sings with resignation, “but it’s hard, so hard.”
14: Love Comes Quickly (from ‘Please’, 1986)
One of the Pet Shop Boys’ best songs from their early days, Love Comes Quickly features Roxy Music saxophonist Andy Mackay, celebrating one of the earliest musical influences on the synth-pop movement. “Sooner or later, this happens to everyone,” Neil sings, referring to how even the most cynical of souls cannot avoid falling in love, singling out those who “live a life of luxury” or prefer to “taste forbidden pleasures”.
For Neil, love is an inevitable consequence, no matter who you are: “Whatever you do, you can’t stop falling,” he divulges. The artwork chosen for the song’s single release was considered by Neil to be the band’s “coming out” moment, as it features Chris wearing a baseball cap with the word “BOY” in capitals. If there was any doubt of the pop duo’s sexual orientation, it was bravely dispelled with this creative decision.
13: Domino Dancing (from ‘Introspective’, 1988)
Yet another expression of Neil’s fascination with jealousy and how it makes romantic relationships more fractious, Domino Dancing gave a Latin twist to Pet Shop Boys’ dance-pop style with production from 80s girl-group producer Lewis A Martineé. Hitting the UK Top 10 in 1988, the song’s music video featured two young men vying for the affections of Puerto Rican model Donna Bottman.
Despite being so jolly and upbeat, there are some who consider Domino Dancing to be a veiled analogy for the AIDS crisis, as it seemingly depicts young people beholden to casual sex who end up falling like dominoes (“Watch them all fall down”). Alternatively, Neil gave a more innocuous interpretation of the title, recalling a stay in the Caribbean island of St Lucia where “in the evening there was nothing to do except play dominoes”.
12: Can You Forgive Her? (from ‘Very’, 1993)
Borrowing its title from a novel by Victorian author Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her? once again shows how the best Pet Shop Boys songs contained Neil Tennant’s literary aspirations. A tongue-in-cheek serving of social satire, it is an oddly comical character study of a man seemingly in denial about his own sexuality, which hit No.7 in the UK in 1993.
Trapped in a heterosexual relationship, the young man’s girlfriend seems to know he is secretly gay and taunts him about it. “She’s made you some kind of laughing stock,” Neil sings, “because you dance to disco, and you don’t like rock.” The young man’s sexual performance is mocked, and it’s even ironically suggested he’s a former public schoolboy who remembers being “easily led behind the cricket pavilion and the bicycle shed”. It’s a satirical tour de force to rival Ray Davies of The Kinks.
11: Left To My Own Devices (from ‘Introspective’, 1988)
Left to My Own Devices is an apparently autobiographical song in which Neil follows a gay man going about his daily life. From waking up mid-morning to talking street with a party animal, the song’s jarringly dramatic pop bombast defies expectations by lyrically exploring a range of dull, routine habits. In a later interview, Neil admitted it “was an experiment in seeing how mundane a pop song could be, before setting it against extravagant music”.
By emphasising ordinariness instead of the flamboyance associated with a gay lifestyle, the song is masterfully subversive. Neil’s Catholic upbringing is also referred to, evoking a Civil War metaphor by confessing: “In a secret life I was a Roundhead general.” Interestingly, the “friend who’s a party animal” is believed to be punk rock historian Jon Savage. No doubt Neil Tennant has sympathy for those who express their inner rebel.
10: Heart (from ‘Actually’, 1987)
At the time Heart was written, the British charts were dominated by a formidable stable of artists produced by Stock Aitken& Waterman, such as Aussie sensation Kylie Minogue and UK pop trio Bananarama. Pet Shop Boys thought about giving the song to Hi-NRG singer Hazell Dean but, following Pete Waterman’s criticism of It’s A Sin, they decided to record it for themselves. It turned out to be the best possible decision they could have made.
A simple love song originally written with Madonna in mind, Neil and Chris re-worked the chord arrangement with producer Andy Richards and the single was an immediate success, asserting its place among the best Pet Shop Boys songs when it became their fourth No.1 hit. Famously, the music video featured Gandalf The Grey himself – Sir Ian McKellen – as a Nosferatu-esque vampire conspiring to steal Neil’s new bride away.
9: Go West (from ‘Very’, 1993)
Recording a cover version of Go West – a 1979 disco hit by Village People – Pet Shop Boys’ superior remake repositioned the campy floor-filler as an art-pop statement on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism. Thanks to its garishly CGI-laden music video, the irony of seeing marching hunks heading westward and waving flags next to a hammer and sickle was a satirical masterstroke.
Reflecting a time in the early 90s when Russia was opening itself up to Westernisation, the song is also regarded as a gay anthem about the strides for social equality. “We tried to bring out the elegiac quality of a utopia that couldn’t be realised,” Neil recalls. Despite the foreboding spectre of AIDS, Go West aimed to offer the LGBT community an escapist message of hope for a better future.
8: Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money) (standalone single, 1985)
With 80s Britain under the ideological grip of Margaret Thatcher, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe strapped on their banker braces and dropped Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) to mock the yuppie generation, creating one of the greatest songs by the Pet Shop Boys in the process. Sadly, like many great satires before it, the song went over many people’s heads. “That was meant to be a satire on Thatcherism,” admitted Neil. “Actually, we’d written the Thatcherite anthem.”
With so many Gordon Gecko wannabes embracing the song as a money-maker’s credo, the singalong chorus of “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks/… Let’s make lots of money” saw the joke get lost in transit. However, in retrospect, Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) disguises its cynicism so cleverly that Neil’s lyrics should rank up there with Noël Coward and George Formby as one of the best English satirical compositions of the 20th century.
7: Rent (from ‘Actually’, 1987)
Rent is another triumph among the best Pet Shop Boys tracks, depicting an exploitative relationship in which the character seems to enjoy being objectified (“You dress me up, I’m your puppet/… You buy me things, I love it”). Referring to a political scandal involving the mistress of US Senator Edward Kennedy, Neil admits in the book The Art of Noise: Conversations With Great Songwriters that the song “was written from the point of view of that woman”.
“Whether it was a love affair,” Neil continued, “whether it was a sex thing. What her motive is, how she feels about it now. That’s why there’s no conjunction,” he concludes, “because it’s ambivalent whether she loves him or not.” The conjunction Neil refers to is the last line of the chorus (“I love you, you pay my rent”): a kiss-off which proves Rent has the kind of nuance other pop songwriters lack.
6: Suburbia (from ‘Please’, 1986)
The kitchen-sink realism of Suburbia demonstrates Pet Shop Boys’ music at its most euphoric, elevating Neil Tennant’s caustic powers of social observation. Playing out like a soap opera, the memory of youth violence would no doubt have made an impression on Neil, as the song describes “roaming suburban boys” breaking themselves free from boredom by taking a ride to “run with the dogs tonight”.
Like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, a mother waits at a bus stop on her way to the hairdresser’s salon while the noise of police sirens reminds us how far this is from a utopia. From tabloid gossip to reporting TV coverage to the police, Suburbia is a warts-and-all portrayal of English life in the provinces, a mix of the humdrum and the dramatic. It’s probably the most poetically ambitious song that Neil Tennant ever penned.
5: Always On My Mind (from ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ soundtrack, 1987)
Invited to perform a cover version on TV to mark the tenth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, Pet Shop Boys’ rendition of Always On My Mind was an instant success by taking a slow, country-inspired dirge and transforming it into a bona fide synth-pop classic. Due to popular demand, Neil and Chris later recorded the song for a single release, eventually going on to occupy the Christmas No.1 slot in 1987.
To this day, Pet Shop Boys’ take on the song continues to top polls as one of the best cover versions of all-time, such as in a public vote by the BBC in 2014. In fact, it could even be argued that the duo’s version of Always On My Mind is even more definitive than Elvis’, as it is still widely recognised as one of the Pet Shop Boys’ best songs of all time.
4: What Have I Done To Deserve This? (from ‘Actually’, 1987)
The origin of What Have I Done to Deserve This? can be dated back to Neil Tennant’s time as a music writer for Smash Hits magazine. Inspiration for some rap-style verses struck him on a bus trip home, with a melody later added by co-songwriter Allee Willis. Pet Shop Boys’ ambition was always to sing the song as a duet with blue-eyed soul legend Dusty Springfield, one of the finest female singers of the 60s.
This dream collaboration soon became reality following the success of West End Girls. However, producer Julian Mendelsohn remembers the long hours Springfield spent in the studio. “Even though Dusty was a great singer,” Mendelsohn said, “she was very long-winded when it came to getting the vocals right to her own satisfaction.” The singer’s perfectionism soon paid off, however, as What Have I Done To Deserve This? became both one of the best Pet Shop Boys songs and Springfield’s second highest-selling single since 1968’s Son Of A Preacher Man.
3: Being Boring (from ‘Behaviour’, 1990)
Being Boring was one of the bravest songs Pet Shop Boys ever recorded, directly confronting the AIDS epidemic and the collective survivor’s guilt that gay men felt at that time. “A very good friend of mine from that era, my best friend really, had died of AIDS,” said Neil, in a 1991 interview on The South Bank Show. “So it was kind of an elegy for him.”
On the one hand, the song can be seen as a melancholic work of lyrical self-reflection in which Neil reminisces about his past, while on the other, it’s a bittersweet lament to the lost souls who had succumbed to this terrible disease. Being Boring – a Zelda Fitzgerald-inspired reference which Neil used to express his generation’s raison d’être – shows us how pop music should never avoid being intelligent or thought-provoking.
2: It’s A Sin (from ‘Actually’, 1987)
One of Pet Shop Boys’ biggest hits, It’s A Sin is a revolutionary and transgressive critique of religious moral standards, inspired by Neil Tennant’s journey from God-fearing schoolboy to lapsed Catholic. Though many interpret the song to be about the Church’s attitudes to homosexuality, Neil has a far less confrontational take: “It always seemed to be taught that everything was a sin. Everything you wanted to do was a sin.”
What makes It’s A Sin so enduring is Neil’s confessional lyricism as he reels off his struggles with shame and victimhood, calling upon the Lord to forgive him, to no avail. Musically, from the moment it kicks off with a NASA countdown, the song’s over-the-top production imbues it with all the pomp and gravitas of a holy ceremony, making It’s A Sin one of the best Pet Shop Boys hits of all time.
1: West End Girls (from ‘Please’, 1986)
Topping our list of the best Pet Shop Boys songs, 2West End Girls their breakout hit in November 1985 and remains their most memorable pop-culture touchstone. Arguably never bettered, it was inspired by TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land and Grandmaster Flash’s Bronx-based raps, with Neil’s half-spoken rhymes recounting a story of urban paranoia over the pulsing bass of Chris’ moody soundscape.
“It’s about escape into the city at night,” Neil remembers, though there’s an air of menace and gangsterism about the song, too. Deeper still, its social observations grimly portray London as a melting pot of rough East End boys cavorting with posh West End girls; streets overflowing with hard or soft drugs, with dollops of class envy (“How much have you got?”). Hitting No.1 in both the US and the UK, it’s a brilliantly evocative pop masterpiece that remains the duo’s greatest moment.
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