release date: 7. September 1987
chart: UK #2,US #25
Actually, the second Pet Shop Boys studio album, was released in September 1987. "We hadn't toured, which we were supposed to do at the end of 1986, and I think it was a strength, because we spent quite a while writing songs," says Neil. "The idea was to make it more musically ambitious. Bigger-sounding. The arrangements slightly more adventurous. My criticism of this album is that I don't think it hangs together as well as some of our other albums. But it definitely marked a high point of our success."
"Very exciting times," echoes Chris, then adds, wryly, "I knew it was never going to last."
The first song recorded for Actually was their collaboration with Dusty Springfield, 'What have I done to deserve this?'. Though it was produced by Stephen Hague, who had produced Please, the Pet Shop Boys had already decided that this time they wanted to work with a variety of producers. Over the next few months they recorded with Hague, but approached a number of other people and worked with Julian Mendelsohn (whom they'd first worked with on the single version of 'Suburbia'), Andy Richards (whom they'd met as Julian Mendelsohn's programmer) and Shep Pettibone (the New York dance producer who had remixed 'West End girls', 'Love comes quickly' and 'Opportunities'.).
The album was preceded by two singles, 'It's a sin' in June and 'What have I done to deserve this?' in August. Subsequently they released a remix of 'Rent' in October and then, after the non-album single 'Always On My Mind' in November, a different version of 'Heart' from the Actually version came out in March 1988. In Britain, 'It's a sin', 'Always On My Mind' and 'Heart' all reached number one; 'What have I done to deserve this?' was only blocked by Rick Astley's immovable 'Never Gonna Give You Up'.
"As soon as Actually came out we planned another tour and promptly cancelled it," Neil remembers. "We did lots of promotion instead. We were still having hits in America, and I felt at this time that we had the secret of contemporary pop music, that we knew what was required. We entered our imperial phase. We did our thing with Dusty, we made a film, It couldn't happen here. It was exciting."
"It was a very busy time," says Chris. "I can't really remember much about it. Just hectic. What was good was, a lot of British people were successful in Europe so we were always at airports with the rock and pop fraternity. It was really great - you'd arrive at Heathrow and everyone would be there: Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Nick Kamen, Paul Weller, Eighth Wonder. And you'd be, 'Oh God, look who's over there'."
"...The Spands...The Human League," continues Neil. "Every time we had a number one Susanne would phone me up. She'd say, 'Well, you're number one - Philip's dead jealous'."
They had thought of the title, Actually, early on, and then, typically, went off it, and decided not to use it. Eventually they came round. "It was so English and kind of arch and it was kind of a joke and it was something we said a lot," says Neil. "And also it could be a sentence - 'Pet Shop Boys, actually' - which echoed Please."
For the sleeve, they had first commissioned a painting of the two of them by a Scottish artist, Alison Watt, who had just won the National Portrait Gallery competition. She wanted them to sit for three weeks; they persuaded her to paint from photos taken of them in her Glasgow flat. But Chris hated himself in the finished portrait, and Neil didn't think it was the right album cover anyway, so they began searching through recent photos of themselves. At the last moment, they realised that the best photo was one which had been taken by Cindy Palmano on the set of the 'What have I done to deserve this?' video. They had initially dismissed it as a sleeve image because they were wearing dinner jackets and bow ties. "Me yawning next to Chris," says Neil.
'She'd done a session backstage, with a metallic background. For the very first photograph we'd just sat down and I'd yawned because I was tired.' Unfortunately, the photograph had already been sent to Smash Hits magazine for their next cover, which went to press the following day. Desperate phone calls were made, and the Pet Shop Boys agreed to do a new photo session that evening for Smash Hits, and in return got back the yawning image. "Then," Neil recalls, "Mark had the idea of making it white and cutting out the background." They knew it was good - "it was very un-whatever everyone else was doing," says Neil - though that still didn't mean Chris liked it. "I hate the photo," he says. "I can't stand the way I look in it. I hate wearing a bloody dickie-bow, I hate wearing a white shirt and I hate the way my hair is. Straight after that video I had my hair cropped."
"It's very much the defining image of the Pet Shop Boys," Neil reflects.
"Ennui," says Chris.
"It was a good and a bad image," Neil considers. "It was one of those things that maybe people wonder whether we were serious or not. In fact that album itself is pretty serious. Even the jokes are serious jokes."
During this period, the Pet Shop Boys also completed a full-length motion picture called It Couldn't Happen Here. Featuring songs from the duo, it was most famous for housing the video for "Always on My Mind" (starring Joss Ackland as a blind priest), which - while not on Actually - was released as a single during this period.
Fairlight and keyboard programming: Andy Richards,
Blue Weaver, Gary Moughan, Adrien Cook, J. J. Jeczalik.
Recorded in London at Sarm West and Advision studios.
Pet Shop Boys managed by Jill Carrington/Pet Shop Boys Partnership Limited, assisted by Gabrielle Webb.
Pet Shop Boys representedin North America by Arma Andon/PURE, assisted by Chris Luongo.
Thanks to Spike, Bobby "O" and Mike Nielson.
Designed by Mark Farrow at 3 and Pet Shop Boys.
Cover photograph:Cindy Palmano. Inner sleeve photograph:Eric Watson.