The biggest lightning bolt of them all: the album that made me a music fan, and so, for me, the most important album of all time.
“Push me in a corner and I’ll scream!”“One More Chance”
Just hearing that line from this album’s opening track, with its associated piano rolls, screeching tyres, ‘eee eee’ noises and sleigh bells, and I’m back in my bedroom in Singapore, the leaky aircon unit blaring behind me as I sit at my desk trying to do maths homework, with this album playing on my cassette deck next to me. This was a difficult period in my life, and when I look back upon it, it’s easy to see just how music came into it at exactly the right time, in exactly the way I needed most.
In September 1988, my family had been living in Singapore for three and a half years, and it looked likely that we would continue as expats there for many more years to come. I had been attending one of the international schools, Dover Court, since our arrival in Singapore in 1985 when I was ten, and had finished primary school and moved on to the first two secondary years there. However, as Dover Court only provided schooling up to the third year of secondary school, in 1988 my parents thought it wise for me to transfer to the school my older brother attended, United World College of South East Asia, for my third year, with the plan that I would be able to complete my secondary education there up to the 7th and final year.
For some reason, this move of school was particularly difficult for me. Perhaps because I was at a difficult age – 13 – or perhaps it was because I’d moved country and/or school just a few too many times by that point, but I found myself unable to discover new friends in this new school for the whole of my first term there. And with teenagers being what they are, it was imperative for me to not be seen sitting about the campus on my own during this friendless time. So it was an era of hiding in a cubicle of the girls’ loo at recess, and returning there to wolf my lunch down as quickly as I could before hotfooting it to the library to hide with a book until it was time to return to classes. As disgusting as it was to eat lunch in a toilet cubicle, I still found this preferable to risking being seen alone and friendless, with all the bullying that might invite.
During this unhappy era, one very significant memory stands out for me. Sitting in maths class one morning, prodding at the day’s exercises, I had this sudden thought:
I can’t wait until I get home so I can listen to the Pet Shop Boys again.
I’d never had a thought like that before. Previously, I had been much more of a bookworm than a music fan. I’d soundtracked my evening homework sessions with cassettes from my mum’s collection, but I had never spent my school days counting down the minutes before I could listen to more Simon and Garfunkel tunes. But once I’d borrowed my mum’s copy of “Actually”, everything changed. The Pet Shop Boys were different. For the first time in my life, I had a favourite pop group, and knowing that I could go home and listen to them made the horrible school days bearable. Reading books had been an escape for me, but music became something much more than that – a true companion.
This album was the beginning of my lifetime of music obsession, and so it was the first that I ever listened to with real intent and interest, rather than just as something to hum along to while puzzling over physics exercises. Because of this, it exists almost in a vacuum in my memory, as I had nothing to compare it to when I first heard it. This means that listening to the album again now, it’s almost impossible to write anything coherent about the songs. This is the album which, in some sense, every single album I’ve loved since has been compared to.
I’d been in the habit of raiding my mum’s cassette collection for a few years, imbibing the greatest hits of Queen, the Bee Gees and ABBA, but in the Pet Shop Boys, I found a modern pop group who delved deeper into the mysteries and complexities of life than anything else I heard in the charts at the time. I know I would have been drawn in by the infectious beats, sinister basslines and melancholy melodies, but there are a few more aspects of this album which made it a particularly compelling listen for me at this point in my life.
One is the fact that even in their romance-themed songs, the lyrics never addressed some nameless ‘she’ or ‘her’, or elaborated at length about a woman’s beauty or sexiness. Of course, I would later understand more completely why that was, but for the 13 year old me, it felt somehow comforting to discover music where the woman was not an object to be desired, decried or otherwise dissected. The love songs on the album deal with topics such as mutual antagonism, relationship dynamics or the simple feeling of yearning for a relationship, without any sense that one partner – by default, in much of the pop music I’d heard so far, the female one – is passive or demeaned.
A further aspect that drew me into this album were the mentions of London scattered throughout the album. As an expat family in Singapore, we were lucky enough to have the wherewithal for foreign holidays for the first time in my life, and I was full of memories of trips to London that my family had made in recent years. I had become obsessed with the idea of returning to London, the city which seemed to hold the most opportunities for excitement and adventure. The tantalising mentions of London landmarks like Kensington, the House of Commons or King’s Cross station throughout “Actually” seemed to bear witness to the thrills and intrigue that this city could offer me, if only I could get back there.
Finally and most importantly, this album brought me, more than any other pop music I’d heard so far in my life, a sense of the enticing adventures that the adult world might hold. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate all the nuances of all the lyrics at 13, such as the privatisation narrative of “Shopping”, for example, but that didn’t matter to me. Just the sense that something deeper was going on underneath the synths and samples was enough to entrance me – the promise of a world where strangers in overcoats hurry on home, or where you might find yourself lost by King’s Cross station infused with a sense of mystery and drama, or where even standing by the kitchen sink listening to “Tainted Love” on the radio felt like a snapshot of an intriguing, interesting life.
Given that it was a time in my life that the teenaged world seemed very harsh and unwelcoming, the knowledge that I could one day, in the not too distant future, escape into the enticing world that the Pet Shop Boys sang about, was undoubtedly something for me to cling to in those dismal days. And that fact made the Pet Shop Boys feel like the best friend I could possibly have, and the one I needed the most at that point in my life.
As it turned out, my term of misery in late 1988 was entirely unnecessary. We left Singapore in mid-1989 to return to Australia, and so I could have carried on into third year at my original school with no need to be uprooted into another. But I sometimes wonder if I hadn’t been through the misery of that term, would I have reached out for the comfort and connection of music quite as strongly as I did? Would I have needed the Pet Shop Boys quite so much, if my days at school had been filled with friendship and fun rather than furtive, lonely attempts to find a place to hide? I will never know, of course, but one thing I know for sure is this: I am so very, very glad that on one of those difficult days, I decided to borrow my mum’s copy of “Actually”. It was, undoubtedly, one of, the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.