In 1968 she released what many people consider to be her best LP, Dusty Memphis (also still available, with some extra tracks, as Dusty' In Memphis Plus). It marked the end of her success. Throughout the '70s and early '80s she recorded intermittently and in a number of styles but was largely ignored.
In 1985 Chris and Neil wrote the duet "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" with American songwriter Ale Willis. At first they couldn't think who could sing the female part but then someone at their management company, remembering that Neil had often said how much he liked Dusty Springfield, suggested that they tracked her down. "From then on," says Neil, "once that idea got into our heads we couldn't accept any alternative.
He had liked Dusty the first time around, when he was a child in the '60s, then had rediscovered her when a compilation of her songs was released in the late '70s. "Lots of people I know bought it and I suddenly released how much I liked it." Then he bought Dusty In Memphis Plus and he'd listen to her first solo LP A Girl Called Dusty round at a friend's. Chris had also liked Dusty, then one birthday Neil gave him a copy of the greatest hits LP:
"I would play it all the time". (Asked on the pure of the moment to name their favorite songs Chris plumps for "I Close My Eyes And Count To Ten" and Neil mentions "Little By Little", "Am I The Same Girl" and "I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore").
Originally "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" was planned to be on Please, but their attempts to contact and persuade Dusty failed. Eventually it was sorted out for "Actually" and she came to Britain in February 1987 to record her part. They hadn't been very keen on the words of the
female part of the song (Neil had wanted to change them but never got round to it), but it immediately sounded fantastic: "the best bit of the record".
"It works with Liza Minnelli because we're so different," concludes Neil, "and with Dusty it's because we're not. She's very' much a pop singer and her voice really instinctually goes very well with our music."
"I think we like the same sort of melodies," agrees Chris.
They also quite obviously admire her melodramatic determination. "She looks at making a record as like climbing a mountain. You have to grind yourself up, it's going to be quite a long journey
8pm Wednesday, October 11th.
Today Dusty Springfield has just finished singing on "Daydreaming", the last of three songs she has been recording over the last few days with the Pet Shop Boys for her forthcoming LP. Tomorrow and Friday Neil, Chris and Julian Mendelsohn will come in to rejoin and mix the songs, but her work is done. When I arrive Dusty is in a small room upstairs playing Neil and Chris a tape of a song a famous songwriter has written as a possible track for her LP; though everyone nods politely, they eventually agree it's nothing special.
Leaving the room we file past Trevor Horn who murmurs hello. Once we're downstairs Dusty mentions that she's never actually met him before, so when he returns they are introduced. He tells her to her surprise that she once sung one of his songs "Baby Blue" (it reached no.61 in the charts in 1979, her only chart entry between 1971 and "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" in 1987), one of the fires songs he ever had any success with.
Playing the video machine in the foyer is George De Angelis, a keyboard player who used to work with Stock Aitken Waterman (for instance on the Donna Summer LP and the Reynolds Girls' "I'd Rather Jack") and who played keyboards on the single version of "It's Alright". The Pet Shop Boys suggest that maybe he would be a good person to write Dusty the one extra song she needs for her LP - she looks pleased at the suggestion and disappears with Trevor Horn, promising to work on some ideas.
Once they're gone Dusty asks her accountant, who has come to see her, to wait a while and he watches TV while she sits herself down to answer some questions.
Do you remember the first time You heard of the Pet Shop Boys?
California. "West End Girls". In fact, I nearly had an accident in the car. I didn't know who it was, then after that they started playing it a lot and I just went crazy for it. Firstly because I was pleased it was British and secondly because it was just unlike anything else. It was just so full of atmosphere. I fell madly in love with it.
Did you buy it?
No. I never buy records, (laughs). I'm terrible. Sorry. Only classical records.
When did you hear that they'd like you to duet on "What Have I Done To Deserve This?"?
There are two different versions of this. They said they wanted it to be on the first album but I never heard anything about it, off in my dreamworld in California. Then the message did get through and I took the tape out by the pool and played it. It was the chant that got me: 'what have I done to deserve this?' I thought everybody, whatever their situation, can say that. They can bend that to whatever situation they are in - a divorce, losing a house, whatever. Everyone's said that at some time in their life. . . the victim role. It doesn't matter if there was nothing else on the record - that's what sells it. I really looked forward to it, though I must admit I didn't know what they wanted me to do.
What do you mean?
Well, now I know them better but when I first met them I was kind of in awe of them... it didn't occur to me that what they wanted was the sound of my voice. I have a tendency to complicate matters and it never occurred to me it would be anything that simple. I've learned now that with them it's necessary to iron out a lot of vocal affectation and style;
simplicity is the answer with them because the tracks carry and the vocals have to stay pretty simple. I've also learned not to have any preconceived notions. It's best just to say 'I'll be there'. Like with "Daydreaming", they said 'we don't want you to sing, we want you to talk.' (laughs) I said 'you want me to rap?' I call it my 'modified Neneh Cherry'. It's not really a rap - I just talk.
Had you asked people what they were like?
No, I didn't actually. I was very shy of them.
Personably you'd seen their videos?
Yeah. I think I must have thought they'd be very hip? I was a little bit nervous about having lived in California for too long. I felt perhaps
a little obsolete?
That's a strong word.
(Laughs) There's a tendency on long Californian nights to feel that way. I'm just shy of people generally when I first meet them, but I got over that fast with them. I had a horrible cold for "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" and that session wasn't very easy for me but it seemed enough for them. I went away puzzled as hell (laughs). But it was the first time I walked away from a session and said 'I'm safe I can leave it in good hands'. And that was a major step forward for me. And funny... very bright. Completely different to anything I'd encountered in the English music business up 'til then, and certainly in the American music business. Just brighter. Noise aware of things in general, not just music. You could name a composer and Neil would know what you were talking about. I spent years naming composers (laughs) and nobody knew. With them I felt very comfortable. I have certain frames of reference that I like to be able to use and it's nice to be able to. At first Chris was very quiet, of course. It was easier to get to know Neil because he talks more . . . but there's something about Chris' face. There's a sweetness to it. I fell madly in love with that.
How did you feel when you heard the finished record?
I loved it. I thought 'this is a hit!' Not good, bad, or indifferent - I didn't seek to analyze it further - but I had been handed something on a plate and it was a hit. I was especially pleased for its success in the States because I was on the point of leaving and it was kind of a nice way to give a finger to the States (laughs). America has a tendency to think of me purely as "Son Of The Preacher man". They never released to any great extent the contribution I have made, even despite myself, to the British music industry.
When did you know you'd be working together again?
I don't know why but I was sure we would and then the Scandal thing came up. I was very proud of that record. The thing that amazed me was that it sold - it was a very unlikely record and it tied in with the film and God knows what anyone could make of it who was under 40, 45 perhaps. I liked it because it was classy but it wasn't unzip, eccentric but musical. And lyrically it was really sound. It was a Greek chorus; a commentary on events... highly unusual. But it was a killer of a song to sing. Neil writes a lot of words with very little time for breath, and sometimes he writes things I have to sing very softly and I lose all control when I sing softly. I find it easier to sing loudly. Softly, I have no breath control and it's a voice that makes singing teachers cringe because they know the price you pay for it: instant laryngitis.
Have Neil and Chris ever talked to you about your old records?
well, I think they were quite knowledgeable which surprised me... flattered me terribly, of course. One tries to be cool about it but it's always terribly flattering. But I hate people who just across the board think you're wonderful, and they didn't say that.
I dare say even you can think they're all wonderful. No, but there are idiots who do (roars with laughter).
That's quite nice in a way
Yes. I should take that back about idiots. I've learnt to be a lot more patient about people who think I'm wonderful. I used to say 'what do they' know?'
What do you think Neil and Chris thought of you? I have no idea. They probably thought 1 worried too much. I hope they thought I was nicer than they thought I would be. The thing that really broke the ice for me was when we were doing a rehearsal for the BPI Awards. I was terribly embarrassed because there was the choreographer trying to tell us what to do in this day rehearsal room and I think they were embarrassed too and the choreographer said 'turn and face each other' and Neil said 'funny how potent cheap music can be', which is from Pirate Lies (a play' by Noel Coward), and I thought 'that's it; I love this man'.
The BP1 Awards being, of course, the famous event where you made Chris laugh on stage.
Yes. I was at my wits end what to do so I made him laugh. I was just embarrassed by the entire experience. I didn't want to do it, I was overweight and I just didn't think it was right. I wasn't ready for a public appearance. But we did it, it's gone, it's history . . . (sings. In imitation of Shakespeare's Sister) 'You're history'. I got some fairly scary reviews but I just laughed and sort of shrugged them off.
When you record these songs do you discuss the lyrics with Neil beforehand or is it all left unsaid?
It's just left unsaid. For 'Occupy Your Mind' I think Neil was in a cosmic mood. At first I thought it was a drugs song, then I saw it was about contemplation and meditation. But that sounds far too serious. I don't pay attention to the lyrics until after they're over. I'm more occupied with hitting the notes.
Surely that can't always have been the case?
Yes. Lyrics means very little to me.
But don't you have to be thinking through the drama of a song to sing them like you do?
No. The drama always comes from where the notes come for me: musical drama rather than lyrical drama. If the two happen to coincide, it's wonderful.
Listening to the records it certainly sounds as if you're trying to act out the emotions in the lyrics... No. if you really listen there's tremendous emphasis on words like 'if', 'and' and 'but'. (Laughs Listening back to some of them I cringe. But if the lyrics are really important and need an interpretative approach I do pay attention, but it's the last thing I think of.
So when you sung a song like "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" it was really just a blur of words?
No, that one actually wasn't. That did indeed have some meaning; it just happened that the lyrics fit very well with the tune. But the priority is the tune and what I can do with the tune. The lyrics always come second, and if they match it's a good day. (When Neil and Chris read this they confirm what she says and point out that in her most famous songs "You Don't Have To Say' You Love Me"', no one can ever work out the second line of the choirs 'just be close at hand').
The new single "In Private" was initially planned for the Scandal soundtrack, wasn't ii?
Yes, then they decided they were going to use back catalogue and we were quite upset about that well, mildly. But as it happens it's better this way. Originally they were thinking of it as a B-side but Neil played it to me and said this is too good for a B-side and I agreed. It sounded like such a commercial record to me. I just loved it. It had a really Wally' element. (Laughs. They sings) 'In private . . . ' (laughs again) It's kind of a slick pub song.. It makes me very happy.
They've said they think it's the song with the clearest links to your past work.??
Yeah. Yeah. There's very much a sound - the tone of the voice, the double-tracking - it's like the first records, brought into today. (There are also whispered backing vocals iii one verse, suggested by Dusty because she knew' (they' liked the similar backing vocals on her song "I Don't Want To Hear it Anymore"). What's so delightful is that it's an improvement on those. It's too good to be true.
What's on the other, non-Pet Shop Boys side of the LP?
I've done one with Paul O'Duffy producer for. Amongst others, Sing Out Sister) called 'Arrested By You', a strange introverted moody song, and I'm doing another called 'Reputation' with him, a good old thumped. And I'm going to do a song by a young Londoner called Geoffrey William's, "I Was Born This Way". The rest is still in debate - hopefully one with Dan Hartman, and Phil Collins is hopefully doing one. He wrote this thing which he hasn't got a title for - it's up on his board as "New Slow Song" because it's his new slow song. But he's busy with his stuff and we're trying to work out the timing
frankly I'm willing to wait for Phil Collins. His music is so sound and very beautiful.
Are you proud of your old hits?
of them. Not too many. "Going Back". "Some Of Your Loving".
(Silence.) The others I can take or leave. I just prefer today's music.
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