Wednesday, October 4, 2017

West End Girls

 

The Pet Shops Boys during filming of West End Girls.
The summer of 1986 was coming to an end as I was riding in the back of my father's van with my brother and two cousins. The radio was playing the latest hits from a station I liked called KZ 106. We were coming into the city of Chattanooga and the air was thick with smog; that summer had been miserably hot and stifling when on the radio came the new number one song in the country, West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys.

I heard it as a thirteen year old boy and thought, 'this is different and I like it.' There was something in the lead singer's voice that my ears picked up on that I identified with. I knew I was gay and my early teen gaydar was hearing something I liked.

That song and that moment has since been frozen in time in my mind. I can't hear that song today without going straight back to that polluted day in Chattanooga.

1986 was the year of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion that I watched live on television because I was home from school that day because of snow. It was the year of the Chernobyl explosion in the Soviet Union which still fascinates me today. Senile Reagan was President, cold hearted Thatcher was Prime Minister and Gorbachev was beginning to open up his country with glasnost. AIDS was still spreading like wildfire and was still largely misunderstood. I was in middle school, my parents were separated and this period to me felt dark and gloomy.

I was the nerdy gay kid in the gifted program living in the country thirty miles from Atlanta. I had already learned to never expect too much from the world, my parents had made sure of that. I had a girlfriend, but I was secretly eyeing all the boys in school and had many crushes hidden in my closet. I was starting to become fascinated by cities, distant places and like most teenagers music was where I escaped. I watched MTV every afternoon after school and every night listened to the Atlanta radio stations like Z-93 and Power 99. Radio and MTV were exciting and creative back in those days.

Scene from the music video.

 

Watching the video for West End Girls set on the streets of London you can see that gloominess that I associate with that time. It might have been gloomy but still it felt exciting to me. And seeing the faces that were behind the music of West End Girls confirmed my feelings that this was the music of my tribe and where I belonged.

This wasn't the shiny pop music of Madonna or Wham! and it wasn't about love or sex or partying but instead was about a city, that city being London. This song felt different to me. It felt different much like INXS from that same time period felt and sounded different to me when compared to what was dominating the airwaves at that time.

Little did I know at the time but the version of the song that would become a radio hit and launch the Pet Shop Boys wasn't the original version. The song had been previously recorded in New York in 1983 and then released in 1984. The original producer was Bobby Orlando who was well known for producing club music in the 80s.

The 1984 version of West End Girls became a hit in the gay clubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles. That club success however didn't translate to radio airplay.

The 1984 single cover for West End Girls.
Not seeing much success with the Bobby Orlando version of West End Girls it was recorded again and re-released in the fall of 1985 and that is the version that would reach number one in the U.K. and the United States.

I prefer the Bobby Orlando version though I also love the 1985 radio hit version too. The Bobby Orlando version sounded much more like a club song of the time, has a darker sound to it and the vocals are delivered in a more spoken/rap manner than sung.

The song resonates with me because of the lyrics that are about dissatisfaction, alienation and the overall mood of the song is dark. There was plenty of dissatisfaction to go around in U.K. society under Margaret Thatcher and her reforms to the public sector in the 80s. Thatcher made life miserable for many, many people much like Reagan.

"In a West End town, a dead end world
The East End boys and West End girls..."

This world and I have changed a vast amount since 1986 for better and worse, but I still love this song.