7 Fascinating Insights into ‘Actually’ by Pet Shop Boys
7 Fascinating Insights into ‘Actually’ by Pet Shop Boys

7 Fascinating Insights into ‘Actually’ by Pet Shop Boys

History and Development of Actually

The music scene of the late 80s vibrated with an electric pulse, much of which could be attributed to British pop acts. Among these dynamos were the Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the dynamic duo that form this iconic band, have never been just a passing phase in the vast universe of pop music. Their sophomore album, ‘Actually,’ released in 1987, stands as a testament to their timeless charm.

After their triumphant debut with ‘Please’ in 1986, there were high expectations for the follow-up. Tennant and Lowe, not ones to shrink from a challenge, poured their experiences, observations, and genius into ‘Actually.’ Developed primarily in London, the album, at its core, reflects urban life’s ironies, romances, and heartbreaks, all set to the backdrop of the eclectic 80s.

To truly appreciate ‘Actually,’ it’s crucial to understand the backdrop against which it was crafted. The late 80s saw the world in a state of flux. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of a global youth culture, the AIDS crisis, and the pervasive consumerism under the Thatcher and Reagan eras marked this period. These events, whether directly or indirectly, influenced the music of that era. The Pet Shop Boys, with their pulse on the sociopolitical scene, encapsulated this zeitgeist in ‘Actually.’

Upon its release, ‘Actually’ wasn’t just a hit in the UK; it resonated globally. The album climbed charts across Europe, Asia, and even made significant inroads in the US, a market notoriously tough for British acts. “It’s a Sin” became an anthem in countries as varied as Germany and South Africa, transcending language barriers.

Collaborations and Featured Artists

One of ‘Actually’s’ standout tracks, “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”, was a brilliant collaboration with the legendary Dusty Springfield. This wasn’t just a strategic musical partnership; it reinvigorated Springfield’s career, introducing her to a new generation. The mutual respect between the artists was evident, with Tennant and Lowe later producing tracks for Springfield’s subsequent albums.

Music Videos and Visuals

The Pet Shop Boys were not just auditory artists; their vision extended to the visual domain as well. Their music videos from ‘Actually’ were revolutionary for their time. “It’s a Sin” presented a haunting critique of Catholicism, while “Heart” surprised audiences with its vampire-themed narrative. These visuals, often dramatic and cinematic, added layers to the album’s interpretation.

Touring and Live Performances

Following ‘Actually’s’ release, the Pet Shop Boys embarked on a series of iconic performances, bringing their studio creations to life. Their live renditions often incorporated theatrical elements, blurring the lines between a concert and a stage show. Their ability to reinvent their songs live gave ‘Actually’ a new dimension for concert-goers.

Reception in Contemporary Culture

Decades after its release, the relevance of ‘Actually’ hasn’t waned. Contemporary artists from genres as varied as indie, electronic, and even rock cite the Pet Shop Boys as an influence. Tracks from ‘Actually’ are sampled, covered, and remixed, underlining the album’s lasting impact.

Awards and Recognitions

‘Actually’ garnered numerous awards and nominations. Apart from chart successes, tracks from the album were nominated for various music awards across the globe, underlining the album’s critical acclaim. While awards are a mere reflection of an album’s impact, ‘Actually’s’ accolades are a testament to its brilliance.

The Fashion Influence

The Pet Shop Boys, ever the trendsetters, extended their influence to the world of fashion. The 80s saw them don bold outfits, oversized hats, and stylish spectacles, often sparking fashion trends. The ‘Actually’ era was no different, with their visual style inspiring designers and fans alike.

Track Listing

‘Actually’ is a tableau of emotions, with each track offering a unique flavor:

  • One More Chance – The album opens with a sense of longing, beautifully encapsulated by the repetitive plea for another chance.
  • What Have I Done to Deserve This? (with Dusty Springfield) – A hit single that not only showcased the PSB’s brilliance but also reintroduced the world to the ethereal voice of Dusty Springfield.
  • Shopping – A sardonic take on Thatcher-era consumerism and the politics of the time. It’s as catchy as it is critical.
  • Rent – This song delves into the dynamics of a financially imbalanced relationship, its haunting refrain echoing the transactional nature of love.
  • Hit Music – A more upbeat track, reflecting the hedonistic vibes of 80s nightlife.
  • It Couldn’t Happen Here – A somber reflection, infused with orchestral undertones, this track offers a more introspective feel.
  • It’s a Sin – Arguably the album’s centerpiece, ‘It’s a Sin’ confronts Tennant’s Catholic upbringing and the associated guilt.
  • I Want to Wake Up – Chronicles the torment of unrequited love. A theme many can resonate with.
  • Heart – A dance track through and through, ‘Heart’ celebrates love in its purest form.
  • Kings Cross – The closing track subtly critiques the then socio-political scenario, The lyrics of “King’s Cross” hint at despair, disillusionment, and a society awaiting some unnamed tragedy or event: “Dead and wounded on either side / You know it’s only a matter of time.” Such lines, especially when considering the timing of the song’s release, have made it hard not to draw a connection to the tragic event. However, it’s worth noting that the song itself was written before the Kings Cross fire occurred, and regardless of how people have associated it with the King’s Cross fire, the song stands as a melancholic and poignant reflection on societal events and personal struggles, indicative of the broader themes the Pet Shop Boys explored in their ‘Actually’ album.

Significant Reviews

‘Actually’ didn’t just create ripples in the music industry upon its release; it was a tidal wave. Critics, both of the 80s and contemporary reviewers, have heaped praises upon the album.

Rolling Stone, for instance, appreciated the maturity in songwriting while highlighting the duo’s ability to blend poignant lyrics with upbeat melodies. The magazine pointed out that, while ‘Actually’ catered to the dance-loving audience, it never compromised on depth or substance.

NME (New Musical Express) lauded the Pet Shop Boys for their critical reflection of society, a trend not commonly associated with pop music. The duo’s genius, according to NME, lay in their capacity to create anthems that simultaneously made you think and dance.

Modern-day retrospectives often cite ‘Actually’ as the album that defined the Pet Shop Boys, elevating them from pop stars to musical legends. Its multifaceted tracks, intricate production, and unforgettable melodies have made it an evergreen favorite.

Key Themes

The charm of ‘Actually’ lies in its intricate tapestry of themes, interwoven seamlessly.

1. Social Commentary: Songs like ‘Shopping’ and ‘Kings Cross’ provide a critical view of consumerism and political ineptitude.

2. Love and Relationships: ‘Rent’ and ‘I Want to Wake Up’ explore the multifaceted nature of love, from transactional relationships to the pangs of unrequited affection.

3. Personal Struggles: ‘It’s a Sin’ stands out as a deeply personal reflection on guilt and rebellion against conservative upbringings.

4. The Essence of the 80s: ‘Hit Music’ and ‘Heart’ encapsulate the upbeat, carefree spirit of the 80s, offering a danceable rhythm while ensuring the album’s versatility.

Track Themes

  1. One More Chance: This track echoes the theme of longing and desperation. It’s a plea for redemption in a relationship, emphasizing the universal human desire for second chances and the fear of losing someone precious.
  2. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (with Dusty Springfield): Here, the theme revolves around surprise and incredulity at the ups and downs of love. The collaboration with Dusty Springfield adds a layer of retrospective romance, hinting at the unexpected nature of relationships.
  3. Shopping: A satirical look at the consumerism rampant in the Thatcher-era UK. This track uses shopping as a metaphor for political wheeling and dealing, underlining the transactional nature of both politics and personal relationships.
  4. Rent: A deep dive into the complexities of a relationship where financial imbalances exist. The song explores the themes of dependency, transactional love, and the delicate balance of power in relationships.
  5. Hit Music: Celebrating the hedonistic vibes of the 80s, this track emphasizes the sheer joy and escapism music offers. It’s an ode to the dance floor, where worries evaporate, and the rhythm takes over.
  6. It Couldn’t Happen Here: A somber, reflective piece, this track explores disillusionment and the unpredictable nature of life. It serves as a melancholic breather in an otherwise upbeat album.
  7. It’s a Sin: A powerful critique of religious guilt, this track delves into Tennant’s own experiences with Catholicism. Themes of rebellion, self-acceptance, and societal judgment run strong here.
  8. I Want to Wake Up: Chronicling unrequited love, this track touches on the themes of longing, heartbreak, and the agony of loving someone from a distance.
  9. Heart: A straightforward love song, this track celebrates the euphoria of being in love. It’s about the quest for a soulmate and the joy of finding true love.
  10. Kings Cross: A more subtle social critique, this track addresses the dissatisfaction with the sociopolitical climate. It references real events like the King’s Cross station fire, painting a grim picture of 80s Britain.

Album Themes

  1. Societal Reflection: The album frequently delves into social and political critiques, reflecting the duo’s observations of 80s Britain.
  2. Complexities of Love: Multiple tracks discuss various facets of love, from its euphoric highs to its heart-wrenching lows.
  3. Self-Reflection and Personal Struggles: Several songs mirror Tennant’s personal experiences, especially with regards to his religious upbringing.
  4. Escapism: The upbeat synth-pop tunes, even when discussing serious topics, offer a sense of escapism, embodying the spirit of the 80s dance culture.
  5. Transience and Uncertainty: There’s a persistent theme of things being unpredictable and transient, whether it’s love, life, or societal norms.

In essence, ‘Actually’ stands out as a multi-dimensional album that seamlessly intertwines personal narratives with broader societal observations. Through its tracks, the Pet Shop Boys paint a vivid picture of the 80s, all while touching on timeless themes that remain relevant even today.

Version/Release History

‘Actually’ was initially released on vinyl and cassette in 1987, with the CD version following shortly after. The original version contained the ten core tracks, but subsequent releases and special editions have offered fans more.

A significant re-release was the 2001 ‘Remastered’ version, which included a second disc of remixes and rare tracks. Then there’s the ‘Further Listening’ edition from 2018, which expanded on this, giving fans a comprehensive look at the ‘Actually’ era, complete with demos, alternative mixes, and more.

Similar Albums

For fans of ‘Actually,’ the late 80s offered a treasure trove of similar gems.

  • ‘Introspective’ by Pet Shop Boys: This following album, released in 1988, continued in the same vein as ‘Actually’ but with a more club-oriented feel.
  • ‘Control’ by Janet Jackson: Another iconic release from 1986, this album offers a mix of dance tracks and ballads, all with a personal touch.
  • ‘Rhythm Nation 1814’ by Janet Jackson: Released in 1989, this album, much like ‘Actually,’ combines infectious beats with socially conscious lyrics.
  • ‘The Innocents’ by Erasure: Vince Clarke and Andy Bell’s 1988 release mirrors the PSB’s knack for crafting synth-pop masterpieces with depth.

Diving into ‘Actually’ is more than just a musical experience; it’s an immersive journey into the vibrant and sometimes chaotic world of the 80s. With the Pet Shop Boys as our guides, we navigate through love, loss, societal critiques, and pure euphoria. It’s no wonder that decades later, ‘Actually’ continues to captivate audiences, reaffirming the Pet Shop Boys’ place in the pantheon of pop music legends.

King’s Cross

The King’s Cross fire, which occurred on November 18, 1987, was a devastating event where a fire broke out at the King’s Cross St Pancras tube station in London, resulting in 31 deaths and around 100 injuries. This tragedy was embedded in the public consciousness of the UK, becoming a sombre reference point for various discussions and artworks relating to that time period.

In the song “King’s Cross” from the ‘Actually’ album, Pet Shop Boys don’t narrate the story of the fire incident, the song was written before the tragedy took place. The eeriness lies in the fact that the lyrics seem to prophetically hint at a looming disaster, a disaster that would later mirror the real-life events of the King’s Cross fire.

The lyrics of “King’s Cross” allude to a general sense of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, and foreboding, possibly hinting at the socio-political climate of 80s Britain. Here’s an excerpt:

Only last night I found myself lost,
By the station called King's Cross.
Dead and wounded on either side,
You know it's only a matter of time.
The line "Dead and wounded on either side, You know it's only a matter of time." takes on a chilling resonance when paralleled with the real-life tragedy that would occur. It's an eerie coincidence that a song discussing disappointment, decay, and seemingly impending doom would align so tragically with an event that would happen shortly after the song was written.

The song, therefore, becomes somewhat of a dark prophetic poem, adding a layer of solemnity and depth to an album that intertwines vibrant, energetic tracks with more contemplative, darker themes. The connection between the song and the actual event lends a gravity to the album, showcasing the Pet Shop Boys’ uncanny ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the era, even predicting real-life events through their keen observations and articulations in their music. It reflects a moment in time where art and reality intersect in the most unexpected, and tragic, of ways. It serves as a testimony to the unpredictability of life, a theme that finds threads across various tracks in the album, making it a stark representation of the times it seeks to portray.