In 2020 – 12th November, to be precise – it’s 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 released in October 1990.
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?
Four more lesser-known PSB classics
From Suburbia to Left To My Own Devices, What Have I Done To Deserve This to It’s A Sin, Go West to the ace Years & Years collab Dreamland, we all know and love the many pop hits that have filled the PSB albums over the last three-and-a-half decades. But here, for a bit of sport, are four more of the most underrated PSB tracks ever.
1986: I Want A Lover
“Driving through the night, it’s so exciting/ Turning off the light without another thought tonight”
Rewind thirty years and this fast-paced corker, from debut album Please, is actually one of the earliest ever PSB tracks (written in 1983). Giving off more than a poppers-fuelled whiff of gay clubs in that era, there’s an urbanity and predatory nature to this disco classic that simply throbs like the venue the narrator and his new friend are urgently leaving.
1999: I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore
“Do you mind that it hurts me? Because You’re breaking my heart”
A typically very-long-titled PSB track, this song – a middling #15 hit in the late ’90s – necessarily splits fan votes, and yet its chorus, which simply repeats the title, is subtly insistent. The subject matter – a dissolved love affair – coupled with soaring brass, piano stabs and addictive synth riffs adds up to something quite majestic; overall, a subtle grower that will stick in your head almost without you knowing.
2002: Here (New Extended mix)
“And if you ever feel / the pain is far too big a deal/ I say with pride/ I’ll be on your side”
A six-minute rework from their eighth album Release, this love song exerts its quiet power without resorting to sentimentality. Despite supposedly upbeat lyrics – “you’ve got a home here” – and production that’s smooth as silk but not cliched, there’s the usual PSB-grasp on transience and fleeting happiness: “We all make a mess of our lives from time to time.”
2009: The Way It Used To Be (Richard X extended mix)
“I can remember days of sun/ we knew our lives had just begun/ We could do anything / We’re fearless when we’re young”
Like the nearly as impressive After The Event, a B-side to Did You See Me Coming released in the same year, this ambitous masterpiece from 2009’s Yes fully blossoms in its eight-minute remix by then flavour-du-jour Richard X (who had just worked with Sugababes and Liberty X).
Structurally it’s up there with Abba’s finest – say, Winner Takes it All or The Day Before You Came (read why I think that’s their best song here) – as the narrator tells a tale of a couple who meet years after their affair ended, with one party still nostalgic about their past: “I want more than only memories/ a human touch to make them real.”
Quite simply, it’s one of their Top 10 greatest songs: there are esoteric reference points (‘don’t give me your northern pain’/ ‘you elsewhere with Culver City Blues’), unexpected shouty bits, an overwhelming sense of increasing despair, the catchiest exploding synth line ever, and the always moving lyrics – once again, on loneliness and a wistful mortality – that will make sense to anyone who might wonder where they’re going in their life.
And finally: Ten more ‘off-the-beaten-tracks’
Quizzical ballad from 1990’s seminal Behaviour.
Classic 1987 Chris Lowe-rapped synth anthem that still sounds fresh.
To Speak Is A Sin
Of-its-era tale of the etiquette of cruising, an antidote to the rest of 1993’s joyous Very.
It Couldn’t Happen Here
Another masterful ballad, about AIDS, with a soaring strings crescendo in the hook.
You Know Where You Went Wrong (rough mix)
Funky mid-1980s anthem with street-style spoken section by backing vocalist Helena Springs.
Don Juan (Extended mix)
Allegedly written in 1978, this analogy of the Balkans before WWII is an unlikely grower.
A mournful rumination on a dying love from the 2012 album Elysium.
Love Is A Bourgeois Construct
Witty, upbeat and scaldingly bitter all at the same time, this 6-minute 2013 anthem was a highlight on the Super tour this year.
The Dictator Decides
The only PSB song with a dictator (really) as narrator, this Vivaldi-sampling track from 2016’s Super was also a tour highlight.
Memory Of The Future
Classic happy-sad PSB track with Proust-inspired themes of sorrow and regret: “You seem to be/ inevitable to me”.
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.
* This feature was first published in 2017 and comprehensively updated in April 2020.
* The section on Being Boring originally appeared for the song’s 20th anniversary in the The Guardian in 2010.
* Further reading? Pet Shop Boys’ Top 5 locations in Camden.
* Finally, a resource for any fan is this this comprehensive and highly informative website by Wayne Studer.
Follow Stephen Emms on Twitter @stephen_emms
Thanks to Adrian Ruth for creating the Spotify playlist