Later in 2020 – 12th November, to be precise – unbelievably marks the 30th anniversary since Being Boring was released. And I reckon it’s the Pet Shop Boys’ greatest ever single.
The greatest, I hear you cry? Really? Well, you’re not alone. Even Neil Tennant has admitted: “No-one thought that when it came out.”
But first, a few facts. Rewind three decades from current hit album Hotspot and Being Boring was the second single from the Pets’ fifth long player, Behaviour, an autumnal masterpiece. It stalled at No 20, but quickly became a fan favourite (for me, like many other 15-year-olds stuck in suburbia, its lack of commercial success underlined its greatness).
What makes the perfect pop song is, of course, another feature altogether, but whatever the formula – let’s say, 2:52 min of verse/chorus + sentiment – we’re still essentially dealing with subjectivity. So my argument is a personal one.
None the less, certain factors are incontestable. Being Boring is a classic minor-key grower, its imprint on the soul deepening with repeated plays. Over to Tennant (in a 1996 BBC Radio 1 documentary) to shed some light: “We were always fascinated about the way Stock Aitken Waterman would change key for choruses. And so the verse of Being Boring was in A minor or D minor, maybe, after we went up a semi-tone into A flat for the chorus. Which we would never have done before. It wasn’t an attempt to be mature; it was actually an attempt to be like Stock Aitken Waterman.”
Intriguingly, what began as an attempt to do out-and-out pop (if we are to believe the sometimes disingenuous Tennant) morphs into something else. And it’s this juxtaposition, this delicate balance between disposability and maturity that forms part of the song’s elixir.
Another ingredient is autobiographical detail, which Tennant sums up: “The first verse is about all my friends in Newcastle [one in particular, Chris Dowell]. It just described what our aspirations were. And in the second verse I moved to London with an idea to go to polytechnic … and the third verse is looking back at what’s happened and I’m doing what I’m doing, and he’s dead. I mean, it’s quite simple.”
Perhaps, yet its themes are anything but. In the panoramic lyrical sweep from the 1920s to the 70s and, finally, the 90s, Being Boring really is about everything: innocence and experience, ambition and self-realisation (“I never dreamt that I would get to be/The creature that I always hoped to be”), love and (AIDs-related) loss (“All the people I was kissing/Some are here, some are missing”), friendship, nostalgia, ennui and, of course, defiance (“We had too much time to find for ourselves”).
Tennant’s plaintive vocal style only adds to the pathos. And it’s all infused with the glamour and spirit of writer Zelda Fitzgerald (whose 1922 essay, Eulogy on the Flapper, contained the song’s ideological kernel: “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.”)
There are other factors that, like an elegant interior, don’t add anything structurally to the argument, but are still dazzling: the oddly successful (though often unscannable) rhyming couplets (“When I went I left from the station/With a haversack and some trepidation”); the sophisticated production; harp flourishes, wah-wah guitar, eerily extended opening note (from which the “overture” breaks out in an unexpected direction); the subtle irony of the title, with Pet Shop Boys playing on the perception of them as “boring”; and the black-and-white Bruce Weber-directed video, a thing of beauty, with its homoeroticism, nudity, poodles, white horses, tap dancers, writhing couples and handwritten scrawl of intent: “The song is about growing up …”
But greatest PSB single ever, you ask, really? Well, Being Boring has followed me into my early forties through teenage parties, student days, fumbled relationships, marriage and countless boozy evenings. In the summer it feels nostalgic, rose-tinted; in the winter it’s a sun-beam, a cause for celebration.
“I remember dancing to this,” says one of the hundreds of comments on YouTube, “and I’d get tears in my eyes thinking of all the friends and lovers I’ve lost, where my life has gone and where it ended up.”
In short, does another song evoke, so perfectly, the sigh of experience with the hope of living?
Listen to all 15 tracks here
Pet Shop Boys’ new album Hotspot is out now. New single ‘I Don’t Wanna’ (the David Jackson remixes are especially fine) is out this week, while their Greatest Hits tour Dreamland has been postponed till 2021 (see their website for more info). A brilliant 2-hour documentary presented by Graham Norton can be heard on BBC Sounds.
Follow Stephen Emms on Twitter @stephen_emms
Thanks to Adrian Ruth for creating the Spotify playlist