That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
The Pet Shop Boys’ final release of the ’80s, the decade they helped define, was the apocalyptic yet uplifting summer single “It’s Alright.” Concerned that their “imperial phase” was behind them, the British synth-pop duo enlisted producer Trevor Horn to help launch a fresh assault on the UK #1 spot, by remixing what they first recorded as an epic album track. The architect of ABC’s “The Look of Love” and Frankie’s “Relax,” in turn, bolstered it as only he could, by plying it with calamitous sound effects, machine-gun-fire samples, a harp, a string section, extra synthesizers, horns, backing singers, and (why not?) a soprano. Singer Neil Tennant, meanwhile, supplied additional lyrics – “Forests falling at a desperate pace” – to pile eco-anxiety on top of the political anxiety. All of which resulted in a typically dramatic, commercial, and strangely moving slice of Pet Shop Boys pop.
Which was credited to “Sterling Void.”
It was hard to know from the single, but Tennant and Chris Lowe sourced “It’s Alright” from the Chicago house scene of the late ’80s, out of love for crudely made electronic dance music marked by all-conquering bass lines, and sparse lyrics of the “jack your body” and “rock your body” variety. They didn’t repeat the trick of applying a synth riff and distinctly un-country vocal to a country song famously recorded by Elvis Presley, but instead adopted a track known only to those attuned to the underground club sounds of the Windy City. How they zoned in on Sterling Void, though, is still a point that needs clarifying, as is the way they found in a six-minute dance record, on a specialist Chicago label, the raw materials for a top 5 hit in July ’89.
To begin with, the Pet Shop Boys drew inspiration from Chicago house in the making of their experimental third album, Introspective, while halting production on pure synth-pop in the vein of early ’88’s “Heart.” They’d seen Chicago DJs Marshall Jefferson and Frankie Knuckles, masters of the Roland TR-808 and 909 drum machines, popularize the new genre in the UK with hits like “Move Your Body” and “Your Love.” They’d also become converts to the four-on-the-floor beats ushered into London on DJ International Records and Trax Records, which became the bedrock of era-defining clubs Shoom and the Hacienda. They found affinity with British DJs Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling, too, in their championing of these euphoric new sounds, with Tennant going on to recognize that “when house music came along, the British musical community jumped on it immediately.”
The duo released the masterly Introspective in October ’88 and indeed made clear their debt to the same cutting-edge tunes that stimulated a youth subculture of ravers across Britain that year, manifested in warehouse parties, illegal outdoor gatherings, and the ecstasy-tinged “Second Summer of Love.” They offered six dance mixes of old and new songs, including a gloriously sinister Frankie Knuckles remix of “I Want A Dog,” and an intoxicating nine-minute remake of their former UK #1, now titled “Always On My Mind / In My House.” They were all about exploring the structural and vocal innovations of house on such tracks, with the latter, particularly, featuring a breakdown in which the melody makes way for an immense bass-line groove, with claps, snares, and a distinctive Tennant rap. In the same spirit, and with Horn at the helm, they presented their 11-minute cover of “It’s Alright,” the final number on the album.
Tennant and Lowe discovered the 1987 original on a DJ International compilation, The House Sound of Chicago, Vol. III: Acid Tracks, and were faithful to it on Introspective. They changed remarkably little to the song that musician Sterling Void wrote with vocalist Paris Brightledge and produced with Marshall Jefferson, being particularly careful to retain the dominant piano sound that Jefferson had continued to make a feature of house music since his innovations with the instrument on “Move Your Body.” Simply put, they took on a song that had been an anthem of the Second Summer of Love, which Tennant later referred to as “a euphoric record with inspirational lyrics,” emanating “a feeling of hope and love on the dancefloor.” Sure, there were allusions to pockets of escalating political violence across the globe (the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the uprising against apartheid in South Africa) and, more vaguely, “People in Eurasia on the brink of oppression,” but only to make the loved-up acclamation that “Music is our life’s foundation / And shall succeed all the nations to come.”
One thing the Boys did change by way of introducing the song to a huge pop audience on Introspective was the title, replacing “all right” with the more commonplace “alright.” They also dropped the gospel element that Brightledge brought with his powerful and life-affirming vocal. Tennant instead matched his more melancholy tones to lyrics that now read “I hope it’s gonna be alright,” in place of “And it’s gonna be all right.” He further left it to the dozen backing singers to add the soul, and to Horn to add the subtle strings and wah-wah effects, all of which made for a perfect closing track to a phenomenal club record that reached #2 in the UK album chart and spawned two top 10 singles in “Domino Dancing” (#7) and “Left To My Devices” (#4). Such was the success of the LP, in fact, that FFRR Records re-released Void & Brightledge’s original on 7″ in January ’89, with a giant sticker saying “now recorded by Pet Shop Boys.” It continued to evade crossover success, however, by stalling at #53.
The Pet Shop Boys entrusted Horn to remix their cover for release as the third Introspective single in June ’89, while they went off to work with Liza Minnelli. Never one for understatement, the producer turned it into something punchy, dynamic and attention-grabbing, with an eye on radio airplay rather than the dancefloor. He ordered extra everything, and even asked Tennant to write another verse, which turned out to be one about ecological collapse. Horn saw the commercial appeal of even this, though, as lines such as “The earth is dying / And desert taking its place” chimed with the mass movement then happening around saving the rainforests, at a time when greenhouse gases, the ozone layer, and CFCs started to become a daily reality in the media.
The duo ended up with a socially and environmentally conscious single that soon occupied the upper reaches of the Top 40, shoulder to shoulder with Prince’s “Batdance” and Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” They helped get it there with a pretty unlikely video, too, in which they kept company with dozens of babies (with no English thespian in sight), who were there to represent hope for the future of humanity. It was powerful in its simplicity and sincerity, and got plenty of MTV attention, while remixes by Rocky Jones and (hey!) Sterling Void on the 12″ also contributed to the success of the single. This obviously brought Void mainstream recognition, though not so much for Brightledge, who the Boys failed to credit as songwriter at the time (an omission corrected in 2001).
None of this, of course, changes the fact that “It’s Alright” is now an oft-overlooked Pet Shop Boys track that rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as the duo’s iconic covers, “Always On My Mind” and “Go West.” But maybe it’s a reminder to give it fresh consideration and respect. The reinterpretation does, after all, capture the summer of ’89, when Chicago house was at its peak in the UK and somehow had the power to provide joy and inspiration to a new generation in the face of endlessly depressing news. The album version particularly depicts anguish gradually losing out to hope, so as to be a poignant closer to what is now considered the duo’s masterpiece. Tennant and Lowe clearly proved sensitive to the beauty and humanity of the song, which still has the capacity to bring out the raver in anyone:
The year 3000 may still come to pass
But the music shall last
I can hear it on a timeless wavelength
Never dissipating but giving us strength.
Actually… Sterling Void stole this track from Marshall Jefferson. Sterling was outted a few years ago as being a ‘song thief’. It has happened time and time again with him. I get so annoyed every time he is mentioned.
Point taken, Stevie, thank you. I’ve read that Void burgled Jefferson’s house once, and that he doesn’t have the best reputation… We’ll keep the quote marks around Sterling as the songwriter.