By the mid-80s, the bright Technicolor of new-pop had dimmed and the Second British Invasion was losing ground. US icons such as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and Prince now dominated the charts, and even veteran rock royalty was resurgent, fuelled by the charitable pomp of Live Aid in the summer of 1985. It seemed the moment for intelligent electronic music had long passed, so the international success of Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls, released as the first single from their debut album, Please, took everyone by surprise – not least of all Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant.
A signature style
Theirs had been a relatively modest ambition: to have a 12” single sold from the import racks inside one of London’s trendier record shops. When Smash Hits journalist Tennant was sent to New York to interview The Police in 1983, he seized his moment and played dance producer Bobby O a selection of the demos he had been working on with Lowe for the past 18 months. O’s subsequent work on a first pass at West End Girls led to an underground dance hit and fuelled enough interest to issue a second cut, One More Chance. Building sufficient momentum to secure a deal with iconic British record label Parlophone, Pet Shop Boys’ first major release was Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money). It failed to enter the UK charts, but Tennant had enough confidence to quit his day job and start working full-time with Lowe on an album.
Pet Shop Boys’ manager, the late Tom Watkins – later to also score success with Bros and East 17 – suggested the duo work with fledgling pop powerhouse Stock Aitken Waterman, but Tennant and Lowe held out for their first choice: Stephen Hague, who had recently enjoyed an influential hit with Malcolm McLaren on Madame Butterfly. Hague’s input on a newly recorded West End Girls, which had started life as a straight-up rap, was considerable. He slowed the track down and layered it with atmospheric orchestration, weaving in Helena Springs’ classic vocals. It took a week to record, but that was time well spent: after an agonising leisurely crawl up the British charts, the song finally made No.1 in January 1986.