Probably the most vital reason why the song “West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys continues to make such an enormous impression on me has to do with the context in which I first heard it. Through that hazy and awkward childhood memory filter,I seem to remember that it was playing on the radio,actually towards the middle of the song. I was driving alone from somewhere with my mother,it was a dreary and drizzly afternoon through what was (at the time) a rather dingy looking part of town-filled with a lot of businesses that seemed closed and homes that were either unoccupied for the day or flat out abandoned. Responding to the song as the permanent Alpha personality most children are,everything from the it’s melody to the sounds I heard from it perfectly reflected the environment I was visualizing around it at that time. Not only that but there was a quality about the song that reflected on a sense of mystery around such a place. Was there something beyond the world I was seeing around me? What was this world I saw and heard on the record like? Were they at all alike? It was actually the beginning of me beginning to view life outside the more self centered view of early childhood and taking a broader look at the world. Now that I understand music far better than I did at that time,I have even more insights into the song I thought I’d share.
It all begins with cymbals,high hats. In the back round you can hear the distant sound of traffic and people talking as they walk in the street. Than,in perfect sync with these sounds there’s a very minor chorded orchestrated string melody. Than the beat of the song comes in,with it’s thudding electronic bass lines. It’s a very atmospherically telling introduction that really sets the stage for the rest of it. The lead singer Neil Tennant comes in here and he’s rapping,not singing,very melodically with his prominent British accent “Sometimes your better off dead/there’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head”. A gruesome image,almost off putting. Than this story unfolds before the ears. He’s talking about kicking tables in a restaurant in a “west end town”,police getting involved. Then come lines that in and of themselves could easily tell their own story. “Too many shadows/whispering voices/Faces on posters/too many choices/ If, when, why, what?/ How much have you got?” He talks about choosing a hard or soft option which,for most of my life I misheard as “which do you choose a hard or soft potion?”. Could be either. Either way the effect of this is that Neil Tennant is talking directly to me. For that matter anyone listen to the song. The lyrics are conversational rather than poetic in nature. And it seems totally appropriate in that case he’s using the spoken word vocal approach of rap/hip-hop to deliver such messages.
All through this there is a voice in the back round that is singing conventionally. It sounds female. But it is very soft,like a voice in the distant dark singing through layers of echoed distortion. It seems to be a call-and-response style answer to Neil’s main vocal part: “How much do you need”. It’s repeated two times in a deep and bassy tone. On the next two choruses, in a much higher octave,and distorted to the point where it sounds like another whole phrase entirely the phrase “How far have you been” is stated by the same voice. Is it in fact a female voice? A high male voice or a deep one speed up? In the end Neil’s tone grows rather hopeless as he states “You’ve got a heart of glass or a heart of stone/Just you wait ’til I get you home/Here today/Built to last/In every city/In every nation/From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station”. Somehow at the end his words sound much more confident and even a little hopeful about the events,such as they are,illustrated in the rest of the lyrics. In the coda it ends on the same note that it began,with that orchestral sound along with Tennant’s repetition,sung this time,of the songs title-again with that ghostly voice stating “how far have you been”. Also as with the beginning and the middle,there is the rather eerie sound of an English horn playing a counter melody to the main one of the basic song itself.
Now that I’ve deconstructed this song both musically and lyrically,there’s a sudden realization this song embodies in spirit (if not sound) that Steely Dan had a decade or so before this song. The overall production is polished and professional. Melodically and lyrically it expresses both lightness and darkness in near equal measure. And the subject matter is cryptic: very much the expression of the songwriter and an invitation to the listener to write their own song from it as it were. Is it about a fight among dispossessed young men at a gay bar? The bleak existence of younger urban professional British people?Rough Trade? Or all or none of that? I firmly believe that the sense of mystery this song creates is,on many levels,the primary source of it’s enduring appeal even up to this present day. I’ve never actually heard any detractors of this particular song either. If any criticism does arise it’s against Pet Shop Boys themselves,and their assertion they polished their strong pop song craft within the much maligned disco-dance medium. My own view on the song is this: alternative rock,gangsta rap,praise rock and many varieties of teen pop have all come and gone. They’ve been passing trends by and large. But this song,and to a somewhat lesser extent any songs that followed a similar ethic have continued to inspire and endure listeners,songwriters and musicians as the years have passed.