June 05, 2020
Thirty-six years on, their debut single still pulses with beguiling ambiguity – a heady rush of lust, naivety, disco and opaque references to Lenin Read our 100 greatest No 1 singles list in fullNeil Tennant on West End Girls: ‘It’s about sex and escape. It’s paranoid’What did we miss out? Have your sayWest End Girls is a lens on to a glamorous demimonde. Primped young Women and hungry young men meet in a corner of London that is starting to gentrify, although still seedy enough to expose the transactions behind the flirtation. You can almost hear their egos rattle as they use each other for sex and drugs, second-hand cool and sly oneupmanship, parsing the social codes in a suspicious, cinematic rush: “Have you got it? Do you get it? If so, how often? Which do you choose, a hard or soft option?” But a scene’s beautiful people are rarely as captivating as the wallflower at the orgy. After all, the West End girls and East End boys are doomed to a dead-end world. The real glamorous demimonde opened up by West End Girls is that of the Pet Shop Boys, perceptive night owls who make a virtue of being outsiders yet understand the allure of the charade.
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: No 1, Pet Shop Boys – West End Girls
Thirty-six years on, their debut single still pulses with that beguiling ambiguity; the exact emotion of Chris Lowe’s glacial chords and abrupt beat, and of Neil Tennant’s alternately wry and rhapsodic observations, impossible to pinpoint. Although Tennant cited Grandmaster Flash’s The Message as an influence on the rapped verses, West End Girls isn’t so much social commentary on London’s burgeoning yuppie class as it is an impressionist marvel, in which lust, naivety, disco and opaque references to Lenin rush by as if caught in the reflection of a bus window. TS Eliot’s The Waste Land was another influence. Years later, Tennant said he had never understood the poem, “but the poetry of it, the different voices talking about strange and disparate and even exotic things, is completely riveting and makes you want to read it again and again … hoping to find new meaning”. Some urbane listeners may have recognised themselves in the song, whether the flirtatious insider or worldly observer. But it is kids who send songs to No 1, and West End Girls was an aperture on to a mysterious adult world, the Pet Shop Boys’ distanced framing as captivating as the picture.
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