In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls,” which reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 on May 10, 1986.
It’s a classic hip-hop story: Two young bucks inspired by old gangster movies and modern club culture go into a New York City studio and record a song about guns, sex, class, consumerism, and what it means to hail from the east and west sides of their city.
One guy handles the music; the other raps over sampled drums in a regional accent, spitting a series of casually nihilistic lines that begins with the assertion, “Sometimes, you’re better off dead.”
The song is a minor hit, and after it’s polished up and re-recorded a couple years later, it shoots to the top of the charts, launching the duo into the big leagues.
A few things to note: This tale begins way back in 1984, and the men behind the music and rhymes are Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, better known as Pet Shop Boys, a pair of dapper Englishmen whose effortlessly suave synth-pop would make them one of the era’s most enduring groups. The tune is “West End Girls,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986, becoming the first rap song to do so. Though not everyone sees it that way.
On its 2013 inventory of “Every No. 1 Rap Song In Hot 100 History”—a surprisingly short list containing just 61 entries—Complex skipped over “West End Girls” and instead cites Vanilla Ice’s 1990 suburb-wrecker “Ice Ice Baby” as the first-ever rapped chart-topper. (Blondie’s 1981 hit “Rapture” is disqualified for containing only a single rap verse.)
But make no mistake: “West End Girls” was Tennant’s attempt to rock the mic, and even if he rarely gets props as a pioneering MC, Pet Shop Boys set a standard for U.K. hip-hop that none of their countrymen have really surpassed.
The Boys’ hip-hop fandom is well documented and totally legitimate. It goes back to the early ’80s, when Tennant visited New York City while working as a writer for the teenybopper music magazine Smash Hits. Speaking with Colleen Nika for Interview magazine in 2010, Tennant copped to biting his “West End Girls” flow from Melle Mel’s rap on the 1982 Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five hit “The Message”—a much grittier record Tennant thankfully stopped short of fully emulating.
“Yes, the rhythm of the rap is exactly the same—but I do it in an English accent,” Tennant said, quoting a “Message” lyric to prove his point. “‘People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care. You know, originally all of ‘West End Girls’ was going to be spoken, but then I realized I needed to sing at least a bit of it. Still, we often boast it is the first No. 1 rap record in America, but nobody believes us.”
Maybe that’s because Grandmaster Flash wasn’t the only influence. Neither was whatever old James Cagney flick Tennant says inspired the memorable opening line. Tennant also drew from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and as with much of Please, Pet Shop Boys’ 1986 debut album, “West End Girls” is a vaguely melancholic dance-pop tune about longing to escape the realities of everyday existence. Tennant’s realities were nothing like Melle Mel’s, but there’s something universal about that teenage desire to venture into the big city and wrangle a bit of enjoyment out of life.
In a 2003 audio interview released in conjunction with the Pet Shop Boys hits collection PopArt, Tennant recalls basing the song’s “enigmatic” lyrics on his experiences as a starry-eyed university student in ’70s Tottenham. In this “grim” section of London, he and his friends weren’t much different from the kid he’d sing about years later on the 1999 Pet Shop Boys single “New York City Boy,” even if they rocked some different clothes and kicks.
“We used to get all dressed up in our platform shoes and Oxford bag trousers and get the bus to Seven Sisters tube station, go clattering down the escalator at Seven Sisters, and get out at Oxford Circus,” Tennant said. “And it was very exciting. You’re in the city now.”
That excitement can be heard on the original 1984 “West End Girls,” a rougher record more appropriate for a club than it was an eventual pop smash. Tennant and Lowe cut that version in New York City with disco guru Bobby Orlando, who reportedly swiped the drum sound from Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” On the Please remake, producer Stephen Hague slows the tempo and inserts female backing vocals, keeping the general feel but adding some welcome pop sheen. Both producers did right by the song, and neither version sounds like frilly-knickered English lads pretending to be from the South Bronx.
In fact, Pet Shop Boys steer so clear of cultural appropriation that many Americans still don’t hear “West End Girls” as hip-hop. Tennant’s accent obviously has a lot to do with that, but the fact he’s rapping is further masked by his twee, effeminate delivery. While this likely came about naturally—gangsta bravado wasn’t really in the cards for these guys—Tennant’s foppishness amounted to good marketing. It was very much line with what American had come to expect from their British pop stars.
As far back as Mick Jagger, even the edgiest U.K. musicians had done danger with a dash of dandy flare. Perhaps not coincidentally, Tennant references a Stones song in a line that also reps Blondie: “You’ve got a heart of glass or a heart of stone / Just you wait ’til I get you home.”
However proper and dainty it seems to Yanks, London isn’t immune to violence or social troubles, and to the extent that “West End Girls” touches on some of these issues, it’s an even more legitimate hip-hop song.
“It was meant to be about class, about rough boys getting a bit of posh,” Tennant said in the liner notes accompanying a 2001 reissue of Please (reproduced on the Pet Shop Boys fansite At Dead Of Night). “It’s opposites—west/east, lower class/upper class, rich/poor, work/play.”
In that same commentary, Tennant goes on to explain that the “dive bar” referenced in the lyrics was a gay hangout he and Lowe used to frequent. It’s worth remembering that Tennant—who officially came out in 1994—is part of a marginalized minority group, and while that doesn’t automatically make him a better or more credible rapper, it doesn’t make him a lesser one, either.
Hip-hop has always been about self-empowerment: If you can say it, you can be it, and in the early days—before it was a real money-making proposition—that’s part of what made this music so sexy to inner-city kids looking for escape.
Nowadays, hip-hop is for everyone, and from a Hot 100 standpoint, planet earth is “Planet Rock.” On that 1982 single, released shortly before “The Message,” Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force rap, “We know a place where the nights are hot / It is a house of funk / Females and males / Both headed all for the disco.” In this utopian fantasy, the east end boys and west end girls meet in the middle and vibe to the funkiest, freshest jams. If it’s really a perfect world, the DJ doesn’t forget about Pet Shop Boys.