Unreal City, under the brown fog of a winter dawn. Earth hath not anything to show more fair. Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing on into the night. London – the lifeblood of the country and the vampire that sucks it back up.
Among other teenage favourites such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, the Eyewitness Guide to London was a library staple. Before the age of seventeen I never made the trip on the route of the Flying Scotsman down to King’s Cross; in fact, bar a school coach trip to Dover en route to France, I’d never been further south than Matlock. But there I was, lying on my bed, fitting Monopoly streets into the A to Z, memorising the names of the boroughs and their railway stations. I was doing what probably thousands if not millions of ‘provincial’ Britons had done before me, embarking on a love-hate relationship with a city I’d never seen.
I finally made the journey on a school trip in 1998. The A-level art students headed off to the National Gallery; I visited UCL with a friend, had a slice of overpriced pizza for lunch in Leicester Square, then reconvened with the English lit students to see Othello at the National. It was sticky hot, and I felt disappointed for most of the time. It was almost worse to come to London for one day, and not get to do or see any of the things on my list, than never go at all. The schedule was so overdetermined I had no time to gawp at the tube posters or read the blue plaques, no time to catch myself realising I’d jumped through the rabbit hole into Wonderland. But then, post-play, we had to cross Waterloo Bridge. The skyline shimmered into focus, St Paul’s ghostly with floodlight, the river lapping against the Embankment. I’ll be back, I said to myself, and a blood-rush flushed me all over. London isn’t a city of instant epiphanies. You don’t see it and die; it can be ugly and gawky, ill-assembled and unphotogenic. But there are always clicks; joints snapping into place; gear shifts. That moment on the bridge was one such: like a photographic print gradually darkening in the developing fluid, London was emerging.
Listen carefully to the opening of ‘West End Girls’ and this is exactly what you hear: London flickering into life, beginning to glitter through the fog. It’s morning, and someone walks into the light from the Paddington concourse. Their heels take to the wet pavement, and their heart beats faster as they scour the street for a taxi. The pulse begins to assert itself, and then the synth string chords – those chords – dark, cool and grand, clean and sleek as a black cab. And a pause, ever so slight, before the new arrival decides to walk; to take in the rush on foot, buoyed airily by the Pet Shop Boys’ smooth minimalism, slinking through the crowds. It’s all there in the video, as a rapid montage of random faces gives way to Neil and Chris, who take to their heels in a vaporous, ghostly Soho, like sombre night-watchmen coming off shift. ‘West End Girls’ is the sound of London settling into focus. Eight million people waking up to the distant rumble of tubes and screech of buses; eight million people rubbing their eyes as the greatest synth bassline in eighties pop music rings out from their clock radios.
It must have been quite an awakening, back then in 1985. It seemed to arrive fully-formed; not just a song, but an aesthetic (though the original Bobby Orlando version from the previous year proves how crucial Stephen Hague was in realising the song’s latent atmospheres). This was not the barroom and dog-track London of Ian Dury, nor was it the hazy, romanticised cityscape of The Kinks. Tennant and Lowe are, of course, northerners, and thus outsiders, though they don’t so much crash the party as float spectrally in a corner with a martini and a raised eyebrow. When the Boys first broke into the charts, much was made of Tennant’s former career at Smash Hits, the foremost evidence cited for his apparently ‘ironic’ take on pop. But I’ve often thought that the beautiful balance they strike between the knowing and the credulous is the product of northern eyes surveying southern landscapes. They are detached, perhaps even sceptical at times; but there’s also that Eyewitness Guide in the bedroom, a city learned and loved, an excitement at having gone through the portals at King’s Cross and slipped into the anonymity of the throng. Despite Tennant having said on more than one occasion that ‘West End Girls’ was inspired by The Waste Land – ‘too many shadows, whispering voices’ is a true summary of Eliot’s fractured epic indeed – the song is too stimulated by what’s going on around it to be either a lament for the lost or a prophecy of doom. It does sound dangerous – there’s something dark and doleful in that bass – but it’s the kind of danger that makes you feel alive and adrenalized. It’s determined to keep its cool, determined not to spend its money all at once; but despite this caution, it’s still the sound of two northerners who will never quite fail to wonder at their adopted home.
It’s a dichotomy embodied by the Boys themselves: arty, askance Tennant, asking questions and pondering significances, and hedonistic Lowe (you can take the lad out of Blackpool!), disappearing into the massed bodies of the rave or shopping incognito at the record exchanges (check out the 1989 B-side, ‘One of the crowd’, Chris’s very own credo). It’s why their songs at their finest have such cross-cultural appeal; the Guardianista manifesto of ‘Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat’ (‘Left to my own devices’) can coexist quite happily with the football terrace reworking of gay utopianism (their definitive cover of ‘Go West’, which was taken on in earnest by Arsenal supporters). It’s what makes them so English, yes (another epithet interviewers and critics find impossible to avoid), but more than that, it’s what makes them so London, and more specifically Northern and London. In no other city in the world do you get quite so many disparate people rubbing shoulders in the crush; underfunded social housing and potholes on one side of the street, while the opposite side gleams with stucco and swept pavements. This is the world the Boys both celebrate and lament, and often with an emphasis on the relationship between regionalism and metropolitanism. It’s mourned in ‘King’s Cross’ (the station from which Geordies spill out into the city like foaming brown ale from a broken bottle), and especially ‘The Theatre’, which again makes specific reference to expats from beyond the Watford Gap (‘Boys and girls come to roost / From Northern parts and Scottish towns / Will we catch your eye?’) But then there’s the funny B-side ‘Sexy Northerner’, about a guy who takes the capital by the scruff and recasts it in his own image. London is always up for grabs, and the Boys will be there as the daybreak traffic hits, on through lunch at the office, then dinner, pub, club, and into the demimonde of the dead hours. You always wanted a lover, I only wanted a job. You wait till later, till later tonight…
You see, London is all about almost unlikely juxtapositions, and the Pet Shop Boys pull off some of the unlikeliest. The astonishing ‘Dreaming of the Queen’ (perhaps the most moving song they have ever written) is the most surreal. It’s an elegy for the AIDS dead (‘there are no more lovers left alive’) sung by ‘Lady Di’, whose own marriage is failing; the ‘Queen’ of the title is both the monarch Neil visualizes in his dream, chastising him for being in the nude, and, perhaps, the patron saint of all ‘queens’ everywhere who are traumatized by the epidemic. It’s timely – on release in 1993, all these events were highly topical – and timeless, commenting on the ways in which our subconscious finds its own warped logic to deal with the crushing events of history. And then that heartbreaking line, ‘Yes, it’s true / Look, it’s happened to me and you’ (a rejoinder to an earlier AIDS lament, ‘It couldn’t happen here’). London is a place in which ‘big’ history is made all around us, in which we constantly rub up against grand monuments and memorials; it’s also a place that can find space for the ‘me and you’. At its best, Tennant and Lowe’s songwriting focuses through both of these lenses. Remember ‘Shopping’, seemingly a deadpanned celebration of the personal benefits of the credit boom, but actually a broadside against Thatcher’s privatisations? No eighties band was better at defining the emptiness of consumerist luxury than the Pet Shop Boys, and I’m not just talking about the immortal ‘I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money’. Stick on the original version of ‘I want a dog’, and marvel at the boredom of desire; the blank-eyed intonation of ‘oh, you can get lonely’; the killer couplet ‘Don’t want a cat / Scratching its claws all over my habitat’, expressing withering disdain for any mog that ruins Terence Conran’s finest.
In ‘West End Girls’, of course, there are cats and dogs, paws and claws. The greyhounds of Walthamstow (east end boys) and the Persian princesses of Kensington (the girls of the title). Another great juxtaposition, and one that makes London sexy in a constantly surprising way. All sorts of mythologies catch each other’s eyes on the escalators. The Kray brothers lock stares with Charlotte Rampling; there’s a frisson of sexual danger, a possibility of pugilism. But London has to brook its own contradictions in order to survive. It surfs breezily above them, just as the track itself is both shiny and seamy, dark and light. The song is all tensions: African and European (the jazzy trumpet and rich gospel backing vocalist knocking against Tennant’s high white plaint), passive and active, dispassionate and yet full of deep, deep yearning; yet it’s miraculous how these coexist with such effortless panache. These are the frictions of all great British pop, but seldom do they ever sound so exotic and lush. The Pet Shop Boys really did change the game; this is a London both real and imagined, both as good as the real thing and somehow even better. It’s not surprising that it was number one all over the world, including America, and no accident that it even featured prominently in the Olympic shebang last year.
You see, for all the expert satire, it’s easy to forget that the Pet Shop Boys are still actually in love with London, and that its allure will never pall. ‘We’ve got no future, we’ve got no past’, intones Neil in the last verse. In London, you can be someone different every day, ventriloquizing the people around you, learning to walk to their gait; only the present, and your presence matter. Just to be there at all; to be swimming in the tide. East End boys will always chase West End girls, and perhaps vice versa. Northerners and foreigners will always be both repelled and fascinated by the Unreal City. As long as London exists, so will ‘West End Girls’; so will a thousand teenagers from elsewhere dreaming in their bedrooms about ‘running down, underground, to a dive bar in a West End town’. As T.S. Eliot would have it, we shore these fragments against our ruin. Or else, we save ourselves with the power of a synth bass, a crunchy snare and the ecstasy of urban romance.