1988 Countdown #92: Pet Shop Boys, “Always on My Mind”

There are two essential out-of-print music books that I own only in treasured Xerox copies. One is Jon Savage’s The Kinks: The Official Biography. The other is Chris Heath’s Pet Shop Boys, Annually. I had never thought until today about the similarities between Ray Davies and Neil Tennant–British songwriters with a particular gift for lonely melodies and closely observed foibles of the human heart–but obviously, something about their music sends me to the photocopier. (And inspires me to write at excessive length. I apologize in advance.)

Annually came out in 1988: it contained sixty pages of Pet Shop Boys arcana, including photo spreads of Neil Tennant’s coats and Chris Lowe’s sunglasses; interviews about the creation of “It’s a Sin,” “Rent,” and “Heart”; a history of Tennant’s employment by Marvel Comics; and two pages on the staircase designed by Lowe when he spent a year working for an architecture firm. Oh, and there was a crossword. The only disappointment for me was that it revealed Chris Lowe actually was crucial to the creation of the group’s music: I always treasured the image of him standing stoically behind Neil in the videos, not doing anything, and hoped that he was just as vestigial in every element of the Pet Shop Boys.

When I met Chris Heath, some years later, I asked him why there had never been any more editions of the book, given that the title seemed to promise one every twelve months. He gently explained to me that in England, an “annual” is a year-end compendium of information sold in stores such as Woolworth’s: you might buy an annual on your favorite football star or on a comics character such as Asterix. (He ended up writing many more words on the Pet Shop Boys anyway, including two excellent full-length books: Literally and Pet Shop Boys Versus America.)


Without Annually, I would have had no idea what was going on in the “Always on My Mind” video. (Not that I understand it all that well with it.) The song, you may remember, is the Boys’ version of an Elvis Presley hit (also done by Willie Nelson). The video features Chris and Neil in a large old-fashioned car. Chris, in a leather jacket, has the steering wheel (on the British side, of course), while Neil is wearing a tuxedo, accessorized with a white scarf. In the back seat, there is a hulking hitchhiker, who appears to have wandered in from a black-and-white horror movie. “Ooh hoo hoo, I love the radio,” the hitchhiker says in a spooky voice as the video begins. (MTV cut off most of the intro, where the hitchhiker says, “I smell youth. Vintage youth.”)

It turns out that most, if not all, of what follows is taken from the Pet Shop Boys’ picaresque movie It Couldn’t Happen Here, only briefly released in the United States (and never available on DVD, it seems). I’ve never seen the movie (although I just purchased a used videotape on Amazon–I’ll report back), which puts it alongside other movies that I know only through MTV videos, where the films’ narrative logic is vaguely communicated through an assortment of quick cuts. Vision Quest, I’m looking at you.

Nighttime on a British boardwalk: people watching old-fashioned “What the Butler Saw” movies on penny-slot hand-cranked Mutoscopes. We see flickering sepia-toned images of a heavyset maid being goosed and kissed by one man (Neil in a fake beard) and slowly chased around a couch by another (Chris in a horse-riding getup). Then Chris reclines on the couch and the maid leaps on top of him. A man in dark round sunglasses walks away from the machine. Cut to Neil at the seashore, standing by a snack bar. Women are doing aerobics in the parking lot. He gets on a bicycle. Chris, in a knit cap, appears to be putting his own bike away, and then runs down the coastline. A grinning man with fake oversized ears gestures wildly and eats some toast.

Neil starts singing, and we return to the car (as we will do frequently throughout the following action). We see distorted bodies in funhouse mirrors: British schoolboys, Neil in a gold Elvis jumpsuit, Chris in his usual leather jacket and knit cap. Somebody appears to be filming a heavy-metal video where a white-haired star reclines on the hood of a car. (Sorry, this is England–the bonnet.) A red car drives past a casino, and three hip-hoppers gesture as it goes.

Neil keeps singing. The lurking horror known as the hitchhiker in the back seat starts moving his shoulders in time to the music, and grows overexcited enough to fondle his own face. This is really a great single–the propulsive beat just makes the callous indifference of the lyrics all the starker.


Neil’s in a red phone booth, talking to a distressed blonde woman in a floral dress. A waitress in a café drops a plate without looking at it. Neil and Chris sit on a bench at a train station, while two conductors lead a zebra across the tracks. (Was this intended as a visual pun for “zebra crossing,” British for crosswalk?) The conductors’ faces, we see, are painted in black-and-white zebra stripes. Chris looks at them, but seems bored.

Neil rides a train, passing by some cows. A man adjusts his bad toupee; a ventriloquist’s dummy raises its eyebrows. Chris raises his own eyebrows and cracks a smile! An actual Chris Lowe facial expression!


“Tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died,” Neil sings, glancing over at Chris. One way of interpreting the body of the Pet Shop Boys’ work is as a sequence of songs that Neil sings while Chris looks on silently, as his friend, or his conscience. Another is that Neil is actually singing them all to Chris, but that they have so thoroughly crushed each others’ hearts, they can barely stand to look at each other.

Chris and Neil walk in slow motion through a train station, where a tableau of what appear to be World War I soldiers are listening to a violinist play. Neil consults with a gypsy fortune teller (Chris in disguise, Annually tells me).

The hitchhiker (prolific British actor Joss Ackland) starts singing along. “Where are you going?” Chris asks him, looking in the rear-view mirror. “I’m going there,” the hitchhiker says. “But I like it here, wherever it is.”

Any pretense of plot disappears as the editor throws in all the bits of the movie that haven’t been used yet: Footage of a reclining pilot, then a biplane curving through the British sky. Disco dancers. A car showroom. Chris throws a plate of food on a woman.


“Stop the car!” says the hitchhiker. “I’m getting out. You are no longer here.” The car halts, and so does the video.

“Always on My Mind” is credited in the text block as being on Actually. As regular commenter Chris Molanphy noted recently, it wasn’t actually a bonus track on the album: EMI just bundled a separate physical single into the Actually package. (A longer, remixed version appeared on the Pet Shop Boys’ next album, Introspective; the hit version can also be found in the Discography package.) Regardless, the single hit #4 on the pop charts. You can watch the video here.

posted 19 June 2008 in 1988 and tagged , , , . 5 comments

5 Comments on 1988 Countdown #92: Pet Shop Boys, “Always on My Mind”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    Brilliant exegesis. Thank you. (And thanks for the link.)

    The conductors’ faces, we see, are painted in black-and-white zebra stripes. Chris looks at them, but seems bored.

    Word, and the PSBs’ boredom is a big part of their raison d’etre: I went from liking them a lot to loving them the first time I saw Neil’s massive yawn on the cover of Actually. What makes this song so brilliant is that, as their first hit cover, it actually summarizes their entire ouevre: seeming ennui and mild disgust, over frenetic beats–and both the boredom and the beats are masking their actual earnestness and deep feeling. When they came out of the closet a couple of years later, it only made plain what their art was already saying: We look like we don’t care at all. We care more deeply than you ever could.

    BTW, I think you’ll have at least one more chance to catch us up on It Couldn’t Happen Here before your ’88 countdown is over. Come to think of it, didn’t the “What Have Done to Deserve This” video also take footage from the movie? (I’m going to need your review, because I’ve never seen it, either.)

  2. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    “Callous indifference” sums up the Pet Shop Boys pretty well, doesn’t it? I have to confess, I’m not a fan. If they don’t care, why should I?

    Willie Nelson’s version of this song is so ridiculously heartbreaking, one of the saddest songs ever recorded, the tale of a man who has just realized he has wasted his entire life.

  3. gavin Says:

    This single doesn’t twist the knife the way the version on Introspective does: leaving off the final five words the last time the song comes around to “Maybe I didn’t love you as often as I could.”

    I love the Pet Shop Boys when they’re glib and bored, but I love them even more when they’re yearning and emotional. Often, they’re both at the same time.

  4. Enrique Says:

    I have never been able to understand what the hitchhiker says when the car leaves. “You went away if you make me fell better(?)… but I don’t know how I’m going to get through” Can anybody tell me?

  5. Pablo Says:

    Hi Enrique,

    It’s a reference to the song “What have I done to deserve this?”, just listen to it and you’ll understand.

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