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Best Pet Shop Boys Songs: 20 Synth-Pop Hits Always On Our Mind
Finnbarr Webster Editorial / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

Best Pet Shop Boys Songs: 20 Synth-Pop Hits Always On Our Mind

Brightening the singles charts for decades, the best Pet Shop Boys songs showcase why they are one of the greatest pop duos of all-time.

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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 20 best Pet Shop Boys songs you must hear.

20: I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind Of Thing (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) (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 (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 (1991)

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 best Pet Shop Boys 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. (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 best Pet Shop Boys songs, 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 (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 (1986)

One of the best Pet Shop Boys 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 (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? (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 (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 (1988)

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 (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) (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 best Pet Shop Boys songs 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 (1987)

Rent is another triumph among the best Pet Shop Boys songs, 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 (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 (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 best Pet Shop Boys songs of all time.

4: What Have I Done To Deserve This? (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 (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 (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 songs of all time.

1: West End Girls (1985)

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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