Our Internet was out almost all day yesterday, so my web time was greatly reduced. Fortunately I had some notes pulled together for this post, which I was able to hammer out between other activities.

Chart Week: April 26, 1986
Song: “West End Girls” – Pet Shop Boys
Chart Position: #3, 7th week on the chart. Peaked at #1 the week of May 10.

What is 80s music? Sounds and fads ebb and flow over a ten year period. They didn’t magically start fresh on January 1, 1980, continue unabated for ten years, and then come to a screeching halt on December 31, 1989 clearing the way for the ‘90s. Quintessentially 1980s music covers a wide range of genres. Do you put Blondie and Soft Cell and Michael Jackson and Van Halen and Lionel Richie and Guns ’n Roses all in the same bucket? Maybe in terms of airplay – at the time – but what made ‘80s music so great was how big the tent was and how many sounds it pulled in.

While I think the greatest stretch of music in the ‘80s came from mid–1983 through mid–1985, I would expand that a little to say when I think of ’80s music I most think of what arrived between early 1982 and the summer of 1986.

So this week’s countdown was one of the last, great runs before music and my tastes began to change. The top 20 was filled with songs that I would label as absolute classics. Level 42’s “Something About You” at 20; OMD’s “If You Leave” at 18; the magnificent “Tender Love” by Force MD’s at 17; INXS’s monster “What You Need” at 11; Janet Jackson’s first big hit, “What Have You Done For Me Lately” at 8; The Bangles singing the Prince-penned “Manic Monday” at 4; Robert Palmer with “Addicted to Love” at 2; [1] and Prince’s “Kiss” at #1.

A bunch of legendary songs. It sure seems like more than three of these should have hit #1 but I guess they were keeping each other out of the top spot.

“West End Girls” has always stood out to me. I’m still not completely sure what it is about. Is it ripping on girls from the West End of London? Ripping on men who chase those women? Celebrating one or the other? Does it have something to do with class tensions in the UK in the Thatcher era? Or is it a more subtle take on the themes Bronski Beat explored in “Smalltown Boy,” about the perils of being openly gay in Britain in the ‘80s?

I could probably make compelling arguments for any of those, and it speaks to the song’s genius that a pop track is open to so many interpretations.

But what the song has always been about for me is sound and mood. It all comes from that intro, 40 seconds of pure genius. The slow fade up, the noises that could be the trains of the Underground, a street sweeper, or the surf on the shore. The sweeping synths that are simultaneously lush and stark. The icy taps on the high hat. Then the single beat before an unforgettable bass line comes in to snap the song into place.

BOM-BOM-BOM Budum-budum.

The rest of the song is great, but you could put those first 40 seconds on a loop and I would listen to it forever.

My love of this song is partially because of how I was listening to music at this point in my life. I went through a phase that spring when, at night when I could pull it in, I listened to Chicago’s WLS, 890 AM a lot.[2] When I was younger that was the station my parents switched over to at night to hear newer music than what our local stations offered. And it was our soundtrack when we took overnight trips across Kansas out to my grandparents’ homes. I guess I was feeling nostalgic that spring and wanted to hear the same songs that Q–104 and ZZ–99 in Kansas City were playing in a slightly different order and with a far worse signal.

There was something about hearing “West End Girls” in mono with static crashes that added to its mood. Maybe it was the line, “From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station,” that made it seem proper to hear the song via a more distant signal. Neil Tennant’s lines sounded like a strange transmission from across the globe that I happened to stumble across in my search through the wavelengths.

  1. I did not know, until hearing this countdown, that “Addicted to Love” was supposed to be a duet between Palmer and Chaka Khan, but Chaka’s record label wouldn’t clear her to sing on it. I guarantee the video would have been very different if she had appeared on the track, which probably means it has a completely different history. Hell, is Robert Palmer a late–80s icon if this song is a duet?  ↩
  2. Kids, once people mostly listened to AM radio, and once those stations mostly played music. Hard to imagine, I know.  ↩