In 1981, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe formed the synth-pop duo, Pet Shop Boys. Fours years later, they made their splashy entrance onto the charts with their phenomenal debut single, West End Girls. Since then, they’ve sold over 100 million records worldwide, picked up over 40 Top 30 singles, four number ones, and numerous awards, and gone down in history as one of the most commercially successful duos of all time. If you’re ready for some synth-pop perfection, check out our pick of the 10 best Pet Shop Boys songs of all time.
10. Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)
Kicking off our list of the 10 best Pet Shop Boys songs of all time is Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money). The song put the spotlight on two grade A losers, the first of which is a self-proclaimed intellectual and the second of which has “looks” and “brawn” but precious little brainpower. After coming together, they hatch a series of plots to “make lots of money,” all of which are doomed to failure. First released in 1985 but re-issued to greater success in 1986, it reached number 11 on the UK Singles Chart and number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
As theguardian.com notes, this 2004 single from the greatest hits compilation, PopArt, showed Pet Shop Boys, even 20 years into their career, could still move up a gear. Key to its success is producer Tomcraft’s bright arrangements, which bring the song to life. Released as a single in March 2004, it hit number 12 on the UK Singles Chart.
8. Go West
The Village People might have performed Go West first, but it’s arguably Pet Shop Boys version that most people remember best. The duo originally performed it at an AIDS charity event at The Haçienda nightclub in Manchester in 1992. Despite Tennant forgetting half the words, they liked it enough to turn it into a single. With its pillowy synths, sweet vocals, and delightful contrast between the wistful verses and fist-pumping chorus, it is, as AllMusic describes it, a “bizarrely moving” cover.
As Smothradio.com says, it’s often thought the lyrics to Rent deal with a financially one-sided relationship, with the title seeming to refer to a rent boy. Yet according to Neil Tennant, we’ve all got it wrong. “I’ve always imagined it’s about a kept woman, and I always imagined it set in America” he’s explained. “I vaguely thought of one of the Kennedys, for some reason, and imagined that this politician keeps this woman in a smart flat in Manhattan, and he’s still got this family, and the two of them have some [sort] of relationship and they do love each other but it’s all kind of secret.” Whatever it’s about, it proved a huge hit for the duo, taking them to number 8 in the UK Singles chart and reaching the top 20 across various other countries.
6. Always on My Mind
Pet Shop Boys first covered Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind during a televised tribute to the King in 1987. Both they and the audience liked it so much they ended up recording a synth-pop version later that year. Released in November 1987, it took the coveted Christmas number one and held onto the top spot for an impressive four weeks. It also proved a success in the US, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Actually, the duo’s second studio album, is crammed with exceptional tracks, this next song being one of them. Heart was originally written with Madonna in mind, but Tennant and Lowe liked it so much, they decided to release it themselves. The end result is an exquisitely playful piece of pop perfection. Released in March 1988, it became the duo’s fourth and final single to ever reach the top of the UK charts.
4. King’s Cross
Explaining the inspiration for this next song in the liner notes to the 2001 reissue of Actually, Tennant said “King’s Cross is the station you come to when you come down to London looking for opportunity from the north east, then the most depressed part of England. And there’s lots of crime around King’s Cross – prostitution, drug addicts, and a lot of tramps come up to you there. I just thought that was a metaphor for Britain – people arriving at this place, waiting for an opportunity that doesn’t happen.” An angry, achingly sad song that offers up brief flashes of hope one moment, before dashing them the next, it stands as one of the chief highlights of the duo’s second album, Actually.
3. It’s a Sin
It’s a Sin reflects on Tennant’s experience during his time at Catholic school, during which he felt that everything he did or could do was a sin. Written in a moment of frustration to purge his feelings, he ended up being caught off guard by how seriously people took it, saying: “The song was written in about 15 minutes, and was intended as a camp joke and it wasn’t something I consciously took very seriously. Sometimes I wonder if there was more to it than I thought at the time. But the local parish priest in Newcastle delivered a sermon on it, and reflected on how the Church changed from the promise of a ghastly hell to the message of love.”
2. West End Girls
Inspired by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land and written about class wars in the UK and the struggles of life in the inner city, West End Girls was an audacious debut for Pet Shop Boys and one that, over 35 years after its first release, still ranks as one of their all-time greatest songs. Released in October 1985, it topped the charts in both the US and UK and picked up awards for Best Single at the Brit Awards, and Best International Hit at the Ivor Novello Awards.
1. Being Boring
In at number one is a song that Tennant has called “our moment of pop perfection … our Shangri-La”. With a title inspired by the Zelda Fitgerald quotation “…she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring” and a painfully honest narrative that finds Tennnat exploring his relationship with a childhood friend who died of AIDS, it’s a nervy, insistent earworm that’s anything but boring. Although it only reached number 20 on the UK charts on its release in 1990, it’s since become one of the most perennially popular songs in their catalog.