From Lake Geneva To The Finland Station

West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys recently topped The Guardian’s countdown of The 100 Greatest UK Number 1 Singles. The article is here. Cue obviously much gnashing of teeth and wailing in certain quarters, not least in the comments below the article, often from rejected and upset Beatles fans, people crying about the 1960s and ‘real’ music, someone saying that West End Girls is ‘plastic music for plastic times’ (as if music that is real and emotive can only be made by men with bits of wood with six strings attached to them). The list and placings are neither here nor there really but well done to the writers who put this song at number 1 and Ghost Town at number 2 (and for that matter choosing She Loves You as the sole Beatles song, thus upsetting the really serious Beatles fans). It’s all good fun.

West End Girls as some people said may not even be the best Pet Shop Boys number 1 single. That honour could go to It’s A Sin or Heart or even Always On My Mind (and how it irritates some people that that song kept The Pogues off the Christmas number 1 slot in 1987). But West End Girls is a superb song and I have no problem with it being rated so highly. The opening seconds are an announcement, cinematic and prowling, and the release of tension when the three note bass riff comes is exciting enough even before Neil enters with his deadpan singing and rap. West End Girls made London in 1986 sound impossibly electrifying and dangerous, especially for those of us up north, and the culture clash he describes using  a variety of voices- West End Boys and East End Girls, nightclubs, dive bars and casual sex, the ‘just you wait til I get you home’ line, the gangland stuff about guns, police and madmen- is all brilliantly realised, inspired Neil said later by T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland and the sound and rhythms of the words of that poem. Once I also twigged in later years that the line about ‘from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station’ referred to Lenin’s secret journey on a sealed train across Europe back to Russia, sanctioned by the Germans, to take charge of the Bolsheviks in 1917, it flipped my mind a little- a synthpop song about clubs and (to quote Neil) ‘rough boys getting a bit of posh’ that is also about the Russian Revolution! Neil took it up a level later on with the ‘Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat’ line, one of my favourite lyrics by anyone.

It’s a great dance record as well as a great pop single. The 12″ carried the Dance Mix as the A-side to make the point. There’s a seven minute mix from the 10″ release which comes in more slowly with a lovely, twinkling piano part before lift off at one minute thirty and a great rap with extra lyrics in the breakdown. When I saw them play Blackpool Empress Ballroom a couple of years ago they played a sleek modernised, upgraded version of West End Girls. Maybe the sign of a great song is one which can be re-figured and remixed, pulled apart and reassembled, and sound equally good in multiple forms and formats. Chris Lowe’s music is superb, keyboards, synths and drum machines, the full shebang. Producer Stephen Hague must take a share of the credit too. The earlier Bobby Orlando version just doesn’t have the same menace or sex appeal. Not that it’s bad by any means, it just isn’t quite there. Hague finds the drama, depth and sheen that it needed, pushing it all out front but with layers of intricacy. The video is a big part of the song’s success too, Neil and Chris stalking the streets of London, Neil in front in long black coat and Chris hatless (for the only time) and sulky (like every time thereafter). It established the deadpan, standing still delivery as they fade in and out in front of shuttered shops.

In 1986 the release of Disco, a six song remix album with some blinding songs and versions not least In The Night and Paninaro, included the nine minute Shep Pettibone version of West End Girls. More cowbell.

West End Girls (Shep Pettibone Master Mix) 

In The Night, let’s not forget, was used as the theme tune to the BBC’s Clothes Show and lyrically dealt with French proto- Beatniks in Nazi occupied Paris and the nature of resistance and collaboration, ultimately criticising them for their existential angst preventing them from engaging with the real life struggle. Paninaro was about an Italian 80s youth subculture with a preference for expensive casual wear, boating shoes and Italo disco. ‘Armani, Armani, ah- ah Armani’. This collision of interests and lyrical concerns with modern music is one of the things that marked them out as being different from the pack and one of the biggest things I’ve got from them.

With fortuitous timing Neil and Chris have recorded a new version, a 2020 lockdown take on West End Girls. Seek and with an air of sadness, West End Girls and East End Boys shut away and in isolation.


You Took My Time And You Took My Money

New Order in the summer of 1987. I was seventeen and was listening to the True Faith single repeatedly that summer, thirty two years ago (Substance, the singles compilation came out in August 1987 too). The band played True Faith on Top Of The Pops and it rose into the top five the week after. They played live, as this clip shows, broadcast recently on BBC4’s re-runs of Top Of The Pops. The re-runs are deep into 1987- and it has to be said it was a year of largely terrible music on the nation’s favourite chart run down show- most of the episodes can skipped through in minutes with your finger on the fast forward button on the remote control. The week New Order appeared they shared the BBC canteen and dressing rooms with Sinitta and Spagna. This version is, as you’d expect, less sleek and produced than the Stephen Hague single with Hooky’s clanging bass more prominent (glorious as the single is) and has a truncated guitar break. I’ve posted this clip before but watching them the other night I thought it was worth doing again. True Faith is a song I don’t get bored of.

True Faith is a New Order tour de force, a single aimed at selling copies in large quantities- earworm keyboards and boom- bash metronomic drumming providing the rush, a song pitched in a sweet spot between pop, indie and dance. Hooky complains in his autobiography Substance that they’d left nowhere for his bass playing in the mix (but he found his way in) and that the only shot of him in the video is his left foot. Bernard was talked into changing a lyric to ensure radio play (altering ‘now that we’ve grown up together/now they’re taking drugs with me’ to ‘now that we’ve grown up together/ we’re not afraid of what we see’). The song feels like a group effort whatever everyone’s actual contributions were. I think I read somewhere that Deborah Curtis, Ian’s widow, said she couldn’t listen to New Order after Ceremony, it was too much following Ian’s death, but with True Faith she could listen to them again and enjoy it- which tells you something about the way the song was received and something about the distance travelled from 1980 and Closer to 1987 and True Faith. I love it- partly because at seventeen years old you’re so susceptible to these things and partly because it is in some way definitive New Order. It would make it onto any New Order compilation I’d put together.

Peter Saville created a beautiful sleeve, the falling leaf painted gold against the blue background, the leaf idea coming to him as he sat in his car and one fell onto his windscreen. The single was followed by a remix 12″ with an alternative Saville sleeve, a remixed version of the song, a different mix of 1963 and also this Shep Pettibone dub.

True Dub

New Order toured in 1987 too, at home and through the USA (the US leg being the scene of much Hook and Sumner debauchery). The graphic on the tour t-shirt below is very 1987.

Last year Denise Johnson, backing singing extraordinaire, released her own, more emotional reading of the song, done acoustically.


Beauty’s Where You Find It

There are plenty of Madonna singles I’ll make a case for, from Into The Groove to Ray Of Light and several in between. I even like American Pie. In 1990 she released two singles that are as good as anything she did, splicing pop with house to stay a step ahead of the rest, and pushing pop music into new places. Vogue is a smart pop song, a dance, a homage to 1920s and 1930s style and Hollywood legend, a light shining on the gay club scene, and a celebration of the dancefloor. The rap section is totally memorable and the rhythm can only have come from producer Shep Pettibone’s exposure to house music in Europe.


Justify My Love was a step further, calculated to cause offence and controversy. Co-written by Lenny Kravitz, drums borrowed from Public Enemy (and Clyde Stubblefield originally), it sets off like a train and Madonna’s breathy vocals make it clear there’s only one thing on her mind. The video features the full range of button pushers for the TV censors- scenes of a sexual nature, cross-dressing, BDSM and nudity, all par for the course for Madonna in 1990. The Sex book (with Vanilla Ice of all people) was just around the corner. Justify My Love is a great single in its own right though, a chuggy dance pop monster. The video was banned by MTV (obvs) and to watch it you’d have to buy it on VHS. Until Youtube was invented.

Justify My Love