“Always On My Mind” — Elvis Presley / Willie Nelson / The Pet Shop Boys
It’s rare for any song to have even one iconic version. Very occasionally, there are two. But three? Never…except for “Always On My Mind”.
The great thing about all three wonderfully iconic versions of “Always On My Mind” is they each bring something entirely different to the song. Much as we like great song lyrics around here, great performers bring an indefinable extra dimension to even the most exquisitely crafted lyrics, and there are few better examples of that phenomenon than “Always On My Mind”.
The writing of “Always On My Mind” is credited to Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James, although the original idea and much of the songwriting was from Carson. Of the three, Wayne Carson certainly has much the greater songwriting pedigree. Among his better-known songs is another great favourite of mine “The Letter” — a big hit for The Box Tops in 1967.
But we’re splitting hairs here. “Always On My Mind” became an iconic song as the result of the efforts of all three songwriters. Precisely who did what bit of it isn’t the most important question we’re here to answer today.
The song itself explores the familiar songwriting territory of what happens when love goes wrong. But, as with all great art, “Always On My Mind” becomes iconic because of how it tells the tale.
The words, fairly plain and simple at first glance, quickly uncover the much deeper emotions just below the surface…
Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could have
And maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should have
If I made you feel second best
Girl, I’m sorry I was blind
You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind
Each of the iconic versions of “Always On My Mind” brings a different perspective to this sadly not uncommon human experience.
Elvis sings those lyrics like someone in the immediate aftermath of a breakup. His pain is still raw. His regret at not doing things he could and should have done is palpable. His remorse is plain for all to see.
It’s a bravura performance from The King and one of my favourite Elvis records. “Always On My Mind”, perhaps alongside “The Wonder Of You”, put Elvis’s career firmly back on track again in the early 70s after a quieter patch in the late 1960s.
The King reached the Top 10 in the UK and the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 back in 1972 with his version of “Always On My Mind”.
Most songwriters would feel that was a job well done and would dine out for the rest of their careers on a result like that. But just in case you think you can’t top the King of Rock and Roll taking one of your songs into the Top 10, it turns out you can.
Ten years after Elvis was riding high in the charts with his recording, “Always On My Mind” co-writer Johnny Christopher brought the song to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard while they were recording their outlaw country album “Pancho and Lefty”. Johnny Christopher was a session player on that album and thought they might like it.
In the end, Merle Haggard didn’t want to put it on the album, so when they finished their recording session Willie Nelson stayed behind to get his version down on tape. Willie Nelson ended up releasing “Always On My Mind” as the launch single and title track from his own 1982 album of the same name.
Willie Nelson, notwithstanding his other many talents, is one of my favourite interpreters of a song. He has recorded so many amazing versions of classic songs over the years there isn’t space to list them all, but I could happily listen to him sing “Blue Skies”, “The City Of New Orleans” and “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” over and over again for the rest of my life.
His treatment of “Always On My Mind” is one of rueful regret many years after the breakup. You can imagine him sitting on his porch as the sun goes down behind a shack somewhere out in the woods, reflecting on his life and what might have been.
Less overtly emotional than Elvis, the cracks in Willie Nelson’s voice give you an insight into the unspoken burden he’s carried around for years. Even after all this time the emotions are still so raw, he can only bring himself to acknowledge them when he’s on his own, late at night, with a beer in his hand and nowhere to go…
And maybe I didn’t hold you
All those lonely, lonely times
I guess I never told you
I’m so happy that you’re mine
Little things I should have said and done
I just never took the time
You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind
Willie Nelson deftly draws out the essential pain underlying those lyrics.
There’s none of the bravado Elvis deployed…he was trying to make the big gesture “in the moment” to win her back again while there might still have been time.
Willie Nelson knows he let this opportunity slip through his fingers many years ago and he’s never going to get her back after all this time, although he’s spent most of the intervening years wishing he could. He’s reminding himself of everything he had…and everything he lost.
Notwithstanding Elvis Presley’s excellent performance of “Always On My Mind”…so iconic in its own way…Willie Nelson made the song resonate even more profoundly with the record buying public.
That’s the quality of Willie Nelson’s performance, both in general, and on this song in particular. He’s a spectacular interpreter of songs.
Willie Nelson’s version of “Always On My Mind” didn’t do quite so well in the UK as Elvis had, but made Number Five in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. His iconic performance of an already iconic song picked up three Grammys that year — Song of the Year, Best Country Song and Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
But we’re not done yet. In 1987 The Pet Shop Boys performed their version of “Always On My Mind” for a British TV special to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.
Now, I don’t know about you, but back in 1987 if someone had told me The Pet Shop Boys were going go record a synth-pop version of a classic Elvis song (I hadn’t heard the Willie Nelson version myself at this point), I’d have said that sounded like just about the worst idea imaginable.
When I heard what The Pet Shop Boys did with it, though, I was blown away.
It’s the same song Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson recorded, but at the same time, it’s an entirely different song again. The Pet Shop Boys created yet another highly individual flavour of iconic from the same material.
This time, we’re in the “icy detachment” phase of the breakup. It’s not fresh and raw like Elvis. It isn’t an old-timer’s rueful recollection of his mis-steps in life like Willie Nelson’s interpretation.
We might be a few months beyond the breakup now. Close enough still that we don’t want to dig too deeply into our emotions in case we can’t handle the feelings we know will come bubbling up the minute we go down this already well-trodden road.
But we’re far enough away from it to have reached the point of telling ourselves that she’s never going to take us back and we just need to steel ourselves for a life without her. We metaphorically need to button up our coat, pull our hat down low over our eyes and push forward through the doorway of our emotions into the raging storm beyond.
Neil Tennant’s voice really suits this mood. With the greatest of respect to him…after all he’s had a lot more hit records than I’ve ever had…I think even he would acknowledge Elvis and Willie Nelson have more to offer in the technical singing stakes than he has.
However he’s absolutely perfect for the icy detachment phase of a breakup.
The Pet Shop Boys also snuck in an extra chord change which wasn’t on the earlier versions of “Always On My Mind” and, don’t you know, it’s a really appealing addition to an already perfect song.
That’s great artistry — we never missed it on the earlier versions which were perfect in themselves, but one little tweak makes us all wonder why it wasn’t done that way right from the start. It makes perfection even more perfect.
The Pet Shop Boys' version reached Number One in the UK singles chart and it was 1987’s Christmas Number One, as well as reaching Number Four in the Billboard Hot 100, making it the best performing version of “Always On My Mind” in the charts.
If your usual reaction to the term “synth-pop” is “yuk”, I promise The Pet Shop Boys’ reinterpretation of “Always On My Mind” is phenomenal.
(The Pet Shop Boys’ version also comes with one of the most bizarre music videos you’ll ever see, but thankfully it’s the song that matters here, not the video production. Goodness only knows what the video director was smoking at the time.)
For a song that’s been given an entirely different iconic treatment three separate times over a 15-year period, it’s hard to pick a favourite. It’s so hard, in fact, I’m not even going to try — they’re all equally fabulous, just in very different ways.
Whichever version of “Always On My Mind” is your favourite, you’ll find it below. Certainly in the UK, Willie Nelson’s version is probably the least well-known, and the most delightful joy to discover if you’re not familiar with it…his very understated treatment never fails to send shivers down my spine.
But, in my opinion, all three versions deserve the designation “iconic” and that’s an achievement very few other songs can lay claim to.
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here…
Elvis version: https://open.spotify.com/track/1B5Tp2Ml9nLlmTSJx8xVfI
Willie Nelson version: https://open.spotify.com/track/2xYQTU2bbg6WVAmpY1eae4
Pet Shop Boys version: https://open.spotify.com/track/07ABETRdek3ACMpRPvQuaT