We all have guilty pleasures…no, I’m not talking about anything inappropriate, I just mean those things that are uncool…and that we know are desperately uncool…but we love them anyway.
I’m talking about guilty pleasures like a secret love of Country music, an admiration for the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, discovering jazz in the 1980s… obviously these are just random examples and nothing whatsoever to do with my own guilty pleasures…
Sometimes, though, you secretly enjoy something desperately uncool for years and then something happens to make it cool…finally you can publicly admit to liking it without risking ridicule from friends and family.
Tattoos, for example, have made this transition in recent times. When I was growing up only sailors and criminals had tattoos and even they tended to go to great lengths to cover them up, wearing long-sleeved tops in the middle of summer, that sort of thing.
But somewhere along the way, society decided tattoos were now cool…no longer the exclusive preserve of footpads and ne’er-do-wells. Now it seems just about everybody has them and flaunts them with pride.
I’m not a major fan of tattoos, but I will share another guilty pleasure that went through the same cycle from uncool to cool…much to my delight at the time.
Back in the late 1970s the Village People were regarded, slightly unfairly I thought, as something of a novelty act. However, they made some great songs. To this day a DJ friend of mine always has a copy of “YMCA” ready to go in case the wedding or party he’s performing at gets a bit dull…nothing gets people up and moving about like “YMCA”, he always says.
“YMCA” is a great song. There’s the pulsating beat, the exuberant brass, the Welsh Male Voice Choir-style backing vocals, the disco guitars, the non-stop bass…I could go on, but I won’t. Musically it’s got something for just about everyone.
Lyrically, it’s not quite so good, perhaps, but it’s decent enough and the lead vocals are delivered with enthusiasm and power…rare itself in an era the two main vocal styles were either “hair metal” or androgynous, slightly disinterested, cool singers doing their best to sound mysterious.
But good as it is…in my opinion at least…”YMCA” remains kitsch to this day. On plenty of people’s guilty pleasure lists…especially if my DJ friend is to be believed…but still kitsch.
One Village People song that did make the journey from kitsch to cool was their 1979 hit “Go West”. Not as big a hit for the Village People as “YMCA”, “Go West” only made Number 15 in the UK singles charts and Number 45 on the Billboard charts.
At the time…and indeed for the next 15 years or so… “Go West” was distinctly uncool.
Until, one day, the Pet Shop Boys decided to perform a cover of it at an AIDS charity concert. That went down so well they ended up recording “Go West” for official release.
The Pet Shop Boys did add a slightly different intro and outro, as well as adding a verse…possibly, more accurately, a bridge…to the original lyrics. But they took the same song and, as X Factor judges say…rather too often…made it their own.
Out went most of the brass from the original…which of course was done by real instruments…to be replaced with one or two understated synthetic brass flourishes on The Pet Shop Boys’ synthesizers. And in came a rapid-fire synth-pop beat.
When overlaid with Neil Tennant’s somewhat languid vocal delivery, The Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Go West” turns into an unusual interplay between the laid-back vocal and the insistent synth-pop beat. It becomes one of those things that probably shouldn’t work in theory, but does in practice.
They did, however, keep the Welsh Male Voice Choir-style backing vocals and produced an unusual video, with lots of visual clues taken from Stalinesque posters about parades in Red Square to mark the anniversary of the revolution. I’m sure they thought it was all great fun at the time, but looking at it today, you can’t help but wonder what the video director was smoking…
More important than all that, though, The Pet Shop Boys made a kitsch record cool.
The Pet Shop Boys are one of British music’s all-time best-selling bands…and the best-selling UK duo ever, with 50 million record sales to their name. Twenty-two of their songs were UK Top 10s and four of them reached Number One. They were also critically acclaimed with three Brit Awards and six Grammy nominations.
And they were cool, back in the 80s and 90s at least…their clinical, electronic sound…the almost motionless stage act…the identical jumpsuits…their art school vibe.
Yep, The Pet Shop Boys were much cooler than the Village People and that’s what allowed them to take “Go West” …a great, if underappreciated, song…and make it the monster hit it deserved to be.
Lyrics and music for “Go West” are credited to Victor Willis…who was Village People’s lead singer and sometime “cop” and “naval officer” character…together with Jacques Morali and Henri Belodo, their producers and French disco music pioneers.
I was a bit conflicted about which version of the video to post…the original, deliciously kitsch version by The Village People, or the much cooler, considerably better-selling version by The Pet Shop Boys.
But I couldn’t decide between them…they are both perfect in their own way…so I’ve linked to them both.
(For extra bonus points, watch the Village People’s dance routine for “Go West” and then go and look at the original “YMCA” dance routine here… https://youtu.be/CS9OO0S5w2k …it seems the Village People pretty much had only one dance routine, but depending on which song they were singing, they put the elements together in a slightly different order…)
But whichever version of “Go West” is your favourite, please enjoy today’s song.
I prefer Village People’s version, so I’ve linked to that below…
The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0SdfUMRHhcjxrMv5d9V1UP
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