September 1987: Pet Shop Boys Release ACTUALLY
When time came for breakout UK pop act Pet Shop Boys to follow up the group's massively successful debut album, Please, the duo of Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant had a bit of an advantage; namely a clutch of songs ready to go. Even before signing with EMI and recording Please, the pair had enough songs for two albums. It was from the batch of songs that didn't make the first album that lit the spark for LP number two, Actually.
That's not to say that the Pet Shop Boys were especially assured about the band's future; With Please being such a global success (thanks in large part to hit singles "West End Girls" and "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)"), Tennant wondered if their fame was indeed fleeting: “I wondered whether we’d ever achieve anything like it again,” he admitted in 2006 documentary, Pet Shop Boys: A Life In Pop. “I didn’t feel hugely confident.”
Continuing to work on new music during the promotional push for Please, Pet Shop Boys hit the recording studio with a wealth of fresh material for their second full-length. Among the producers chosen to help the group realize its vision: Julian Mendelsohn, who'd worked on the group's remix record, Disco.
“They are fantastic songwriters,” Mendelsohn told Classic Pop in 2021. “And it can only be the Pet Shop Boys, can’t it? There’s nobody else that sounds like them.” One of the producer's biggest accomplishments on Actually was helping the duo create the final version of "It's a Sin."
"The song had existed for years – along with Rent and West End Girls, it was on a demo tape when they signed with Parlophone, and there were plans to record it for Please with Stock, Aitken and Waterman but Pete Waterman didn’t like it," Mendelsohn recalled.
"People took it really seriously; the song was written in about 15 minutes, and was intended as a camp joke, and it wasn't something I consciously took very seriously," Tennant told OUT (via The Atlantic) in 2009. "Sometimes I wonder if there was more to it than I thought at the time. But the local parish priest in Newcastle delivered a sermon on it, and reflected on how the Church changed from the promise of a ghastly hell to the message of love."
Released as the album's lead single, "It's a Sin" exploded on radio airwaves and nightclub dance floors around the world. In the band's native England, the bombastic track soared straight to #1 on the Singles chart. In America, it crashed the top 10 of the Hot 100, peaking at #9 for the week of November 14, 1987.
For the second Actually single, "What Have I Done to Deserve This," Tennant and Lowe recruited a famous female voice from the past who also happens to be Tennant's favorite singer: Dusty Springfield.
“Dusty was, to us, a legend. When we actually met Dusty, she was living in a pay-by-day Hollywood motel," the PSB singer remembered. "She was really at rock bottom. And it was just a sublime moment hearing Dusty Springfield sing our music.”
Released as the second Actually single in August 1987, it was another smash hit for the Pet Shop Boys, peaking at #2 on the UK Singles chart. The tune replicated that chart performance in America, climbing all the way to #2 on the Hot 100 for the week of February 20, 1988. The #1 song in America that week: Exposé,"Seasons Change." It was Springfield's highest charting song since "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" in 1966.
Pet Shop Boys released Actually on September 7, 1987. Packed with deep album cuts including "Shopping" and "I Want to Wake Up," the LP was yet another winner for the band, soaring up the UK charts to peak at #2. In America, Actually made a strong showing, peaking at #25 on the Billboard 200. For Tennant, the era represented Pet Shop Boys at the peak of their powers, what the vocalist refers to as the group's "Imperial phase."
“We sort of did understand what the sound for contemporary pop in 1987 to 1988 was,” Tennant told Radio 2 in 2016, “because dance music’s influence was very very strong, but we had this strange production thing that was like no one else. It just seemed to work at the time. There’s a certain amount of luck in all this as well. But I think we had good songs and we had the confidence to follow our own instincts.”