Engulfed by thick fog machine clouds flashing orange and pink, the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant sits with his legs spread in full leather, provocatively rubbing his knees as if sending inviting signals in a bygone sex club where anonymous couplings were nearly as casual as a handshake. Shown primarily in misty profile wearing a cap that matches his similarly severe leather outfit, bandmate Chris Lowe scowls at his keyboard while administering the rendition’s synth-horn hits like a dungeon master wielding a whip.
Maybe to straights, the duo simply suggested circa 1968 leather-costumed comeback Elvis and nothing more: This was, after all, the Pets’ very first performance of the country standard “Always on My Mind” for Love Me Tender, a 1987 British TV special commemorating the 10th anniversary of Presley’s death that aired before the duo had even released their rendition.
But to the queer eye and ear, the black-clad pair evoked another kind of mourning – one not only for fallen comrades during the worst stretch of the AIDS crisis, but also for an entire way of life based on utterly unfettered love and sex as the ultimate expression of LGBTQ liberation. Framed by mortality and infused with a profound melancholy eerily offset by their version’s festive dance club rhythms, PSB’s reinvention of “Always on My Mind” lives on as one of the epidemic’s key and most beautifully unsettling artifacts: In a 2014 BBC Music poll, it was justly voted the top cover version of all time.
This achievement is all the more remarkable given this adaptation’s blatantly expedient showbiz roots. As Tennant explains in 1000 UK #1 Hits, the synth-pop duo – then at the peak of their international multi-platinum popularity – were asked to participate in this tribute to the King, “and for some reason, we agreed to do it.” Their manager’s assistant gave them a bunch of Elvis cassettes for research, and, as luck would have it, the opening track on the first tape Lowe grabbed, Magic Moments with Elvis, was the song they’d perform
The tenderness and commercial success of Willie Nelson’s reading makes it for many US listeners definitive: It was Billboard’s top country song for 1982 and a #5 pop crossover. In England, however, the song had been mostly associated with Presley, who’d recorded his take a few weeks after separating from his wife Priscilla in 1972. In the US, it was the thematically linked B-side to “Separate Ways.” But in the UK, it was the A-side, and reached #9. There, love for Elvis’s version lingers; a 2013 poll conducted by the UK’s ITV voted it the greatest song of his prolific career.
The Pets appeared on Love Me Tender alongside Meatloaf, Ben E. King, Duane Eddy, Roger Daltrey and other rock icons who gave faithful renditions of the King’s catalog. These Boys, however, did not do that. “We wouldn’t have done ‘Always on My Mind’ unless it was very different from the original,” Tennant testified in #1 Hits. “There’s a B flat at the end of each chorus that wasn’t like the original. It makes it far more like a pop song.” They also gave it the spritely tempo, strident synthetic arrangement, and clattering electronic cowbells archetypal of hi-NRG, the defining groove of 1980s gay clubs.
“’Everybody had told me, ‘”You’re not going to like it. They changed some of the melody, they changed a couple of words and they added all these synthesizers and things,’” the song’s main writer Wayne Carson said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “But I just kept an open mind and when I finally heard it, I thought, ‘That’s a great record.’”
In 1987, AIDS was on every LGBTQ person’s mind, nearly always. If you lived in a major, gay-friendly city, you either knew friends, lovers, and family who’d perished in the plague, or you would soon. It was a time when those of us who’d risked most everything to live our lives honestly and openly were forced to question our choices. Should we have shared physical intimacy so freely? Should we have focused on just one?
A Christmastime UK #1 and a #4 hit here, Tennant and Lowe’s most enduring cover embodies its era of conflict and loss, and presages the pair’s implicitly AIDS-themed hits like “Domino Dancing” and “Being Boring.” According to Tennant in Lives of the Great Songs, the lyrical perspective is, “a typical country music sentiment, really, that the man should be a bastard.” Carson’s lyric reads like litany of typically masculine misgivings – we didn’t give enough attention, respect, finesse, tenderness, or encouragement. The bridge added by co-writers Johnny Christopher and Mark James begs not only for a second chance to articulate and share what’s been previously denied, but also for reassurance. “Tell me that your sweet love hasn’t died,” it pleads. Hold on. Help maintain our bond.
When an HIV-positive test result was pretty much a death sentence and gay men found themselves attending memorials at the pace with which they’d thrown parties, this request could rarely be granted by the sick; that bridle was shouldered nearly solely by survivors. And so for those still alive to remember, the Pet Shop Boys’ simultaneously elegiac and convivial rendition – sung as if hosting a funeral held at a disco – absolutely sears. Those we couldn’t save could only be kept alive inside us. They remain there, like the songwriter’s regrets, a reminder of the past and what might’ve been.