In the spring of 1986, I was a freshman in high school, and I never went on those end-of-year extracurricular weekend class trips to places like Philadelphia or Toronto or Washington, D.C. They just didn’t seem like my thing – they seemed like things the popular cool kids did.
But that year, the trip was to New York City, and I wanted to go the day they sent us home with the information packet. My parents were a little surprised, I think, but they supported me, and over the course of a weekend, I stood at the top of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, and inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I rode a boat past the Statue of Liberty because it was undergoing renovations at the time, I wandered around Chinatown with a couple friends for an hour or so, and I tried to stay awake in the top row of 42nd Street on Broadway. I loved everything about it.
Also: “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys was on the radio, and I had never heard anything like it.
At 15, I had developed some musical preferences, but nothing really niche. My first cassette was The Police’s Synchronicity, followed by Huey Lewis and the News’ Sports and Dennis DeYoung’s Desert Moon. Songs I taped off MTV by sitting a boom box in front of the television speaker included Men At Work’s “It’s A Mistake”, “Distant Early Warning” by Rush, and Genesis’ “That’s All.”
This “West End Girls” song, though? It got to me. The synths and electronic drums and Neil Tennant’s vocals that swung from low, half-spoken tones to oddly yearning near-cries – it was all completely unlike anything else I was hearing on the radio or MTV. It was weird and these guys looked strange but cool – I am 100% certain this is where my obsession noir-ish trenchcoats began – and I dug it all so very much. “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” came out a month or so later and cemented the deal for me, but I still got a general vibe from other kids of “Yeah, those guys are weird,” so my fandom was a quiet one.
Flash forward a little more than a year to the summer of 1987, and man, there is this bizarre music video on MTV with people in foam costumes hitting each other and kooky dancing and it all feels so strange and artsy and whatever, but my god this song is incredible. And that is how I found “True Faith” by New Order. It rekindled everything that “West End Girls” had sparked and hardwired synthpop into my synaptic connections for good. Even so, I kept my love for the genre relatively quiet my last two years of high school – even my closest friends would look askance at my Please and Actually cassettes in the car – although I did see New Order at Blossom Music Center two years later in the summer of 1989 solely based on “True Faith.” (I had never bought the Substance 1987 album due to its higher cost as a double-cassette.)
In college, I went into full-on alternative music mode, with a heavy emphasis on synthpop, thanks to close friends who surrounded me with the likes of OMD, Xymox, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Alphaville, and Yaz. Many fun, sweaty hours spent bounce-pop-flailing around the dance floor of Bowling Green’s Uptown bar on Progressive Night.
The only chance I’d had to see the Pet Shop Boys live was in the summer of 2001. I was in my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter, and our paper’s entertainment writer offered me the passes to see the Wotapalava tour at Blossom. I jumped at it, but the tour never happened.
This summer, 20-plus years later (36 years after “West End Girls”), Jenn and I drove to Toronto for opening night of the the twice-delayed Unity Tour featuring the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and it was a pure joy of a show. Three hours of my favorite music and songs that go back decades in my brain – with a couple sets from DJ Paul Oakenfold in there, too – and I was on my feet the whole time. Multiple goosebump attacks to opening tones of certain songs; the sheer delight of the crowd chorus sing-alongs; even a couple tears-to-my-eyes moments. Some highlights from a show that was pretty much all highlights:
- Jenn pushing me ahead and yelling “Go! GO!” as we rushed to our seats for the Pet Shop Boys opening song. As it happened, one of my closest friends from those BGSU Alternative Years was at the show, and we caught up with her during Oakenfold’s opening set – only to have to hurry to our seats when he wrapped up right on schedule. The opening sounds of “Suburbia” make me howl with joy and I am already flailing around when we get to our chairs.
- “Opportunities” followed by “Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You)” God, I love these guys.
- “Domino Dancing” because 9 times out of 10 I hate crowd sing-alongs, but we hollered the chorus and Neil seemed to enjoy it.
- “Always on My Mind” – I remember when this single was released and my dad said, “Hey: That’s a Willie Nelson song!” It’s always been one of my favorites.
- “It’s A Sin” – Fuck, this was fun.
- “West End Girls” – And There. It. Is. Damn.
From New Order’s set:
- Fourteen songs total – and look at this home stretch: “Subculture”, “1963”, “Bizarre Love Triangle”, “True Faith”, “Blue Monday” (That triad right there was almost worth the price of admission.), “Temptation”, and as the only encore, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, with imagery of the late Ian Curtis and the phrase Forever Joy Division onscreen behind the band.
You know what else? Respecting the age of their mostly Generation X audience, the headliners were punctual. Oakenfold started his first set later than expected, but Pet Shop Boys were on at 7:30 and off at 9; New Order played from 9:30 to 11, just as scheduled. 180 minutes of dancing, time for some ibuprofen and bed, synthpop adrenaline thumping in my head.
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