“West End Girls” is a synth-pop song influenced by hip hop music by English duo Pet Shop Boys. Written by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the song was a highlight in the duo’s career, released twice as a single. The song’s lyrics are concerned with class and the pressures of inner-city life .
The original version of the song was released in 1984, becoming a club hit in the US and some European countries. The song was re-recorded for their 1st studio album, Please and released in 1985, reaching #1 in the UK and the US in 1986.
In 1987, the song won Best Single at the Brit Awards, and Best International Hit at the Ivor Novello Awards. In 2005, 20 years after its release, the song was awarded Song of The Decade between the years 1985 and 1994 by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. A critic’s poll in 2020 by The Guardian selected “West End Girls” as #1 of the 100 greatest UK #1 singles.
For the traffic noise that runs in the beginning, Hague recorded it using a Sony Professional Walkman out on Gosfield Street outside Advision.
In addition to the rap verses and choruses sung by Tennant (each using different microphones – one for verse and another for choruses), singer Helena Springs was brought in to sing background vocals.
Tennant started to write the song when he was staying at his cousin’s house in Nottingham while watching a gangster film. Just when he was going to sleep he came up with the lines: “Sometimes you’re better off dead, there’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head”. The song’s lyrics are largely concerned with class, inner-city pressure. Tennant later said that some listeners had assumed the song referred to prostitutes, but was actually, “about rough boys getting a bit of posh.”
The lyric “From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station” refers to the train route taken by Vladimir Lenin when he was smuggled by the Germans to Russia during World War I, a pivotal event in the Russian Revolution. Indeed, it is highly likely the lyric was inspired by the book To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson, a famous work on the history of revolutionary thought and Socialism that Tennant would have at least heard of, if not read, as a student. The Bobby Orlando-produced version of the single included another line, “All your stopping, stalling and starting/Who do you think you are, Joe Stalin?” which was removed for the 1985 version.
Sound-wise, the 1985 version also features a considerably smoother arrangement than the 1984 version, trading out the collage of disjointed samples (such as glass breaking and Tennant shouting the word “I”) in favor of soft synth pads and Hague’s Emulator trumpet solo. At the same time, however, the 1985 version “starts off like a film noir”, opening with ambient traffic sounds not heard in the 1984 version. In the liner notes to the 2001 reissue of Please, Tennant noted that this was born out a desire for “filmic” music.
Nitsuh Abebe commented that in the song “we meet Tennant not as a singer, but as a speaker”, adding that “he mumbles the verses to us not like a star, but like a stranger in a raincoat, slinking alongside you and pointing out the sights”.
In 2015 the song was voted by the British public as the nation’s 12th favorite 1980s #1 in a poll for ITV. In 2020 The Guardian selected “West End Girls” as #1 in a critics’ poll of the 100 greatest UK #1 singles.
The music video for “West End Girls” consists of shots of the duo around London.
At the beginning of the video, noises from the city can be heard, a camera passes Lowe on the street, and focuses on mannequins in a shop window. Then appears a sequence of quick cuts with shots of the city’s different sub-cultures; the video freezes and cuts to Tennant and Lowe, who walk through an empty Wentworth Street in Petticoat Lane Market. They stand in front of a red garage door; Tennant is in front dressed with a long coat, white shirt and dark necktie, directly addressing the camera, with Lowe standing behind him with a blank expression. Lowe is filmed in double-exposure and appears almost ghostlike. In other shots, Tennant power-walks imperiously while Lowe casually follows behind. While Tennant delivers the lyrics and chorus directly at the viewer, Lowe appears at times disinterested in the proceedings or preoccupied with other goings-on around them.
Then the video shows various shots at Waterloo Station, as the chorus starts. In slow motion, the camera pans across the WHSmith shop on the station concourse as the duo walk past. It cuts to a brief shot of a No. 42 red double-decker bus, showing the destination as Aldgate, also advertising the stage-show Evita, then black and white shots of the Tower Bridge, Westminster and the Westminster Palace Clock Tower from the sky. The duo poses on the South Bank of the River Thames in a pastiche of a postcard image, with the Houses of Parliament as a background.
The camera shows shots of young women, and passes through arcades and cinemas in Leicester Square. The camera now passes South Africa House showing protestors in the Non-Stop Picket, an anti-apartheid vigil. The video cuts to a closeup of Tennant singing the chorus, with a purple neon sign eerily passing across his face. At the end the camera passes again through Leicester Square, where people queue to see Fletch and Desperately Seeking Susan. The video was nominated for Best New Artist in a Video at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards, but lost to A-ha’s “Take On Me”.