Monday, December 15, 2003

Always on my Mind

Radio DJs, or 99% of them, are the most despicable shills for the music industry. There are some exceptions, but in the main the man on the radio who answers to Rick invariably declares the next release from the next plastic packet of talentless pop pap the best thing since, well, the last release from the last plastic packet of talentless pop pap, irrespective of how plastic the pap actually is.

There was one exception to this that always sticks in An Spailpín’s mind, as I have never been able to come to terms with it. When The Pet Shop Boys released their version of Always on my Mind, DJs always seemed to add the caveat that they themselves didn’t like it. It was either out of loyalty to the Willie Nelson original, or else a sort of loyalty to the Pogue’s Fairytale of New York, which was famously denied the Christmas Number One spot by Always on my Mind.

The loyalty to Willie is understandable, if not quite believable. Think back to the last time you heard Willie Nelson on the radio if you don’t believe me. That’s right, and you won’t hear him either, until the old man joins Johnny in that big honky-tonk in the sky. The loyalty to the Pogues is a sad joke. The most mentions that the Pogues ever got on mainstream radio was either for their exemplary levels of alcoholism or for the state of Shane McGowan’s teeth. The fact that Shane McGowan could write a song as beautiful as Rainy Night in Soho, which contains one of the greatest lines ever written in a pop song, “you’re the measure of my dreams,” mattered not a whit to the DJ-ing fraternity.

And yet they hated the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Always on my Mind. I never understood it at the time, but then I was in the ideal demographic for plastic packets of talentless pop pap then – at home, in my teens, doing yards of homework and listening to the radio. So when I heard the Pet Shop Boys’ Always on my Mind in a grocery store last night, I stood listening to it, to see if I had bought a pup by liking it at the time.

No, I had not. Always on my Mind by the Pet Shop Boys is one of the great pop songs of all time, it deserved to be Christmas Number One and it will still be played wherever the Eighties are remembered. The comparison to the Willie Nelson original is spurious – when Willie sang Always on my Mind, it was an old man’s song of loss; neither loss nor old men are welcome in pop music. The only reason I can figure for the Pet Shop Boys’ decision to cover the song in the first place is that the rising notes of the Always on my Mind line fitted into the soundscape of the production that they were creating at the time. They could have used a lyric from a phonebook for all the import that the lyric made to the song.

What makes the Pet Shop Boys’ Always great is the terrific electro-pop opera-fabuloso values of the production. As with Britney’s Baby One More Time you’re hooked after the first few chords, and on pretty much the same principles – Boom, boom-boom-boom-boom. The remaining three minutes of Always and Baby are just a question of rounding up the usual suspects, as the song has already won the day. The Pet Shop Boys created a fabulous electro-gothic atmosphere of heightened sensibility for the three minutes of Always that they hinted at in West End Girls, and often tried to emulate afterwards, not least in their nineties comeback attempt Go West. But it was only in Always that they reached the heights they have striven for, and to deny the Pet Shop Boys their three minutes of popular music glory is churlish and misguided at best.