30 Years Ago: Pet Shop Boys Subversively Get Their Point Across on ‘Actually’
Pet Shop Boys made a splash onto the dance scene in 1986 with their debut Please. “West End Girls” topped the charts in countries around the world and landed the duo all sorts of accolades, including best single at the BRIT Awards the following year. Yet rather than build on the beats that filled their initial offering, they decided to scale it back musically and put more of a focus on the lyrics for album number two, Actually, which came out Sept. 7, 1987.
"We were thinking of calling it Jollysight, actually, which was the name of a hotel we saw in Italy," said keyboardist Chris Lowe. "So that, when people asked why, we could say because it's a jolly sight better than the last one…"
There’s a stark divergence to the songwriting on the record, with some of it demonstratively epitomizing the vacuous mid-'80s, made up of style and no substance. That part is honestly quite jolly. Then there is some depth in regards to emotional confusion and heartbreak that strikes to the core.
“Pop music is superficially more frivolous,” singer Neil Tennant told Much Music in 1987. “It’s set out to entertain.”
On a track like “Shopping,” and an infectious chorus which goes, “We're S-H-O-P-P-I-N-G, we're shopping,” it’s mostly fun and games. Even there through, when Tennant references the House of Commons and hearing there that everything is on sale, it’s clear there’s more going on than just a blatant skip to the shops down the street to do some shopping.
“What Have I Done to Deserve This?” despite a happy-go-lucky synth beat, has a crushed Tennant in a duet with Dusty Springfield, repeating the title over and over again in between lamenting all he’s put into a certain love. It’s worth noting that the song singlehandedly revived the career of the latter, and began a collaborative effort with Pet Shop Boys which would set up the legendary London songstress for a return to the charts in the coming years.
“She sounds right because her voice has got that world-weary quality,” Tennant would say of the decision to have Springfield perform on the song.
Actually is hardly a stripped-down affair in total, with the propulsive beats coming at so many key moments, like on the controversial “It’s a Sin,” where the stormy explosiveness of Lowe’s music production matches the powerful commentary on Catholicism.
“It’s about being brought up as a Catholic,” Tennant said of the song, which features passages of Latin used in mass. “When I went to school you were taught that everything was a sin.”
The track “Heart” is another dancefloor-ready number, one which Tennant described as, “a real disco song,” albeit one he’s not the biggest fan of in parts in retrospect. "The idea of 'heartbeat' the beat of the record and the beat of your heart. It's actually pretty corny, to be honest, but I think the words are quite sweet and sincere."
The decade Actually was released, it was easier to take things at face value. Even the album cover, featuring Tennant in mid-yawn, can be seen as a message of, “This is boring. Show me something.” But Actually is much more subversive in getting a message ingrained into one’s heart and head along with their dance moves. That's one of the reasons why it remains one of the greatest records to come into the clubs and out of the '80s.
Top 50 Debut Singles