Released September 7th, 1987. Review originally published March 29th, 2009.
In comparison to the decades which followed and preceded the eighties there’s an avalanche of clichés for the marketing men to get their exploitational teeth into; big brands, big hair, chrome, neon, naked greed and moral turpitude, all dressed up as emancipation from our post war homogeneity.
The Pet Shop Boys at first seemed to resent being associated with pop stardom: whilst Chris Lowe spent their Top of The Pops appearances stabbing disinterestedly at a Fairlight, Tennant further confused by delivering his urban fairy tales in a tone somewhere between Quentin Crisp and James Bond. As well as that he was also a former journalist, for both Marvel Comics (Where he worked somewhat ironically on the title Captain Britain) and then at Smash Hits, the teen mag which had epitomised the era’s brash mirror kissing.
Despite what some perceived to be as their deliberate ambiguity, Tennant and Lowe’s Beauty And The Beast routine definitely struck a chord; if ‘West End Girls’ had been all slick, shallow melodrama, its clattering techno B-side ‘A Man Could Get Arrested’, in which “A hail of broken bottles smashed across the city street, and someone got arrested, for a breach of the peace” hinted at an ambition for more than just reflecting the contemporary fascination with capitalism.
Actually fulfilled a number of different purposes; big hits – ‘Heart’, ‘Its A Sin’, ‘Rent’ and ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This’ charting at #1, #1, #8 and #2 respectively – plus the successful engagement of venerable collaborators such as Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalementi (On ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’) and most surprisingly the brief resurrection of Dusty Springfield’s previously train wrecked career.
Its main impact though was in bringing the politics of the self into the nation’s living rooms, the acerbically witnessed character sketches all far easier to relate to than the wheezy sixth form hectoring of The Housemartins, Britain’s other mainstream voice of non-conformity. As an example, ‘Rent’, with its pragmatic refrain and dolefully introspective tone, summarised the reality of lop-sided relationships everywhere, the words about compromise and exploitation.
For Tennant especially, Actually was a landmark release, as wry observation became auto biography on ‘Its a Sin’, the words a castigation of the brutality of his religious upbringing, both at the hands of peers and superiors at a catholic school. Elsewhere ‘Shopping’ bore the same intrinsically playful approach to structure as Please’s ‘Two Divided By Zero’, albeit together with a laugh out loud chorus which pegged the nihilistic pursuit of consumption that would become known as retail therapy.
It wasn’t all clipped social commentary however, as their duet with Springfield demonstrated. Stories of the former sixties’ icon cast her as an irascible diva, but ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ more than justified the pursuit, a warmly humanist love song stamped with devotion. Amongst all the loneliness, lust, and loss however its Actually’s prescience that leaves the greatest impression.
To many Northerners, London’s King’s Cross station is a place of entry and exodus, the embarcation point for all those seeking to run away from secrets and regrets in equal measure. Those expecting streets paved with gold soon get the rudest of awakenings in the surrounding area, a twilight world of vice and poverty which Tennant evokes lyrically with skill and chagrin. With Lowe’s technology shrilling with melodrama, the song which bears the station’s name is both desolate and heart-breaking, even more so when only three months after the album’s release a stray match caused the fire there which resulted in the deaths of 31 people.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how immaculately the duo’s high concept was pulled off, one where Tennant and Lowe both lived the dream but successfully corroded its envelope. Actually was a time bomb, set to explode the moment you woke up realising that your townhouse and BMW were only yours because you were bought and sold just like everything and everyone else. Face value didn’t give this up. But then again this was a record could soundtrack a disco or a riot with equal elegance. And not even London Calling can do that.