Artist: Pet Shop Boys
Title: Always On My Mind
Release date: 1987
First heard: 1987
It’s funny. I’ve been dipping randomly in and out of The 143 while on the move, trying to decide which song to enshrine next. After quite a lot of trekking between meetings and appointments one rainy London day last week, I had a handful of contenders. Then I got home, dried off, ate some dinner and watched Episode 2 of Season 2 of The Newsroom. Towards the end, as is Aaron Sorkin’s wont, they had Will McAvoy refer to a song playing in the newshounds’ local bar (it had been The Who’s You Better You Bet in Episode 1): this time, it was the whiny 1982 Willie Nelson version of Always On My Mind, which Will declared to be “the best version, even better than Elvis’s.” I like Nelson well enough, but he’s wrong. This is the best version, and it is even better than Elvis’s.
Whether or not you agree that Always On My Mind is the Pet Shop Boys’ best song is another matter. There are so many to choose from. But I believe it to be the case. And that’s not to belittle the rich catalogue of hits they’ve written for themselves. I love those, too. The Pet Shops Boys are among this country’s finest ever singles artists.
Since it is a cover – and a great song is not a great song without a great version – I am duty bound to tell you that it was a country tune written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, and first recorded by Brenda Lee in 1972. The torrid Elvis version came out the same year – such haste! Willie’s followed in 1982, and the imperious Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe covered it in 1987 to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death on some ITV spectacular that I never saw, on account of always being out in pubs in Tooting on Saturday nights at the time. It became their third number one, and, so I gather, their best selling UK single.
My main memory of getting into the Pet Shop Boys – and I fell instantly on hearing West End Girls during its second bite of the chart cherry in 1985, despite, or perhaps because, it didn’t quite fit into what I thought of as “my” music in those first years of college (ie. it was neither Wagnerian nor jingly-jangly, my longitude and latitude) – was admiration for the whole package. I felt the same way about Frankie Goes To Hollywood: the music, the look, the design, the philosophy, everything counted, and it was all up there on the screen, as it were. Buying Please, then Actually, via the first remix album Disco, I felt I was buying into something urbane and clever and graphic, something distillable into one-word titles. All that white space.
I don’t mind telling you, as we’re among friends: I bought a horizontal blue-and-white striped t-shirt and wore it under a reversable black/cream hooded top with a neat, canvas baseball hat in tribute. I was so Paninaro. It coincided with fancying myself as a bit of a B-boy, and the lightness of being, after the choking Goth years, was bearable.
Always On My Mind feels like it was already number one when I first heard it, which may well have been via Top Of The Pops or the Chart Show. (Joss Ackland!) The Pet Shop Boys were a big pop act. There was nothing underground or show-offy about liking the Pet Shop Boys. And yet they were an intellectual cut above the synth-driven competition (“Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat” – that was their catchphrase), aloof to the point of self-parody and JSE (Just Sleazy Enough). Spicy hints of the illicit homosexual subculture, the power to revive a gay icon like Dusty Springfield and a song about rent boys, you could read what you liked into the essentially vanilla intentions of Always On My Mind. Its synth pulse pumps new life into what is a country song, but the sincerity of the sentiment is not lost in Tennant’s characteristically nasal delivery. Some find him detached. I find him merely semi-detached.
I illustrate with the candy-striped sleeve of third album Introspective, as that, in 1988, is where the hit single was subsequently homed, albeit remixed and conjoined with In My House. (If you know the album, you’ll be familiar with the way, at around three minutes in, Tennant trills “You were always …” and instead of “on my mind,” drops down a synthesised octave for the surprise ending “in my house,” at which the song transmutes.) This is not the definitive item, but I’m fond of it, as I listened to this album a lot, so worth mentioning.
You will find Elvis’s entry in The 143 here, and elsewhere, one or two just-as-magnificent covers.