We assumed she’d be a nightmare’: how the Pet Shop Boys salvaged Dusty Springfield’s Reputation

Thirty years ago, the troubled soul legend had retreated from the world following a ‘dark phase’. Then she met Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe

Dusty Springfield’s association with Pet Shop Boys in the late Eighties and early Nineties revived her career after nearly two decades of decline. The electronic duo comprising Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe produced half of Springfield’s 1990 comeback album, Reputation, which became her most successful since 1970’s From Dusty with Love.

But when the pair first asked the singer known for her soaring soulful voice and distinctive beehive hairdo to duet with them five years earlier, offering her a part on What Have I Done to Deserve This?, one of the Eighties’ finest pop songs, she turned them down. A few months earlier, Springfield’s rollercoaster career had hit rock bottom.

The perfectionist singer who’d scored a string of memorable hits with string-swathed Sixties classics including You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me and Son of a Preacher Man had even resorted to signing a record deal with nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow because she needed the money.

In 1985, Springfield returned to London from semi-obscurity in LA to promote the first and only single she would release on Springfellow’s Hippodrome Records. Sometimes Like Butterflies, a cover of an unremarkable Donna Summer B-side inexplicably chosen over an original song by Spandau Ballet producers Jolley and Swain, stalled at a disappointing Number 83 on the charts.

Springfield later described the whole endeavour as “horrendous” and said working with Stringfellow “was one of the incidents that made me feel so fed up with the [record] business, I nearly gave up for good”. Friend and backing singer Simon Bell recalls in Karen Bartlett’s biography of the star, Dusty, that “shortly after that, when she went back to America, we got to hear that she was really having problems”.

Bell isn’t exaggerating when he calls this Springfield’s “dark phrase”. Around a month after the single’s release, the 46-year-old singer was admitted to a secure psychiatric unit at New York’s Bellevue Hospital after calling paramedics to say she’d accidentally cut herself. In reality, Springfield had begun self-harming decades earlier as a way of coping with tempestuous parents who rowed frequently and heavily dented her self-esteem.

Born Mary O’Brien but nicknamed “Dusty” because she liked playing football with the boys on the streets outside their Ealing home, the tomboyish future star was called “stupid and ugly” by her father, a frustrated tax accountant who felt trapped by his comfortable suburban lifestyle.

Later, after she became Britain’s most respected female singer of the Sixties, Springfield turned to drink and drugs to quell swelling insecurities about her appearance and sexuality. Though she famously said in a 1970 interview that she was “perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy”, Springfield lived in constant fear that being outed as a lesbian would end her career.

“She wanted to be true to herself,” her friend Billie Jean King told The South Bank Show in 2006, “and she had a lot of demons because of it. I think her sexuality was difficult because I think she knew she was gay by this time, and there is no way back in the Sixties and Seventies that you were gonna talk about it.”

By the mid-Eighties, after a string of unsuccessful albums including 1982’s White Heat, a genre-hopping attempt to modernise her sound, Springfield had also developed a self-sabotaging streak which compelled her to turn down potentially advantageous opportunities like the Pet Shop Boys duet.

“Hearing Dusty say ‘No’ to a list of new songs, or a list of producers, was very frustrating,” Springfield’s friend Vicki Wickham, who became her manager during this period, recalled in 2000. “Plus, managers are supposed to manage their clients by doing what’s best for them, for their career. And Dusty always needed money, but she would pass on so many things that would have helped her career and made her money.”

Nevertheless, following prolonged sweet-talking from Wickham and American songwriter Allee Willis, who’d worked with Springfield before and co-wrote What Have I Done to Deserve This? with Tennant and Lowe, Springfield eventually agreed to record the duet. Hot property thanks to their chart-topping breakthrough hit West End Girls, the electronic duo had to reassure their record label that the faded star was a suitable collaborator. Tennant later recalled that when they first broached the idea of working with Springfield, a label executive said scoffingly that “no one’s interested in her anymore”.

Still, there’s no doubt the duo knew what they were letting themselves in for. Tennant told The Telegraph in 2018 that they were “slightly terrified” at the prospect of recording with Springfield because of her off-putting reputation. “Dusty was assumed to be a nightmare on a personal level. Couldn’t sing any more. Probably some sort of drug addict. Whispers of sexuality, which was regarded as a problem,” he recalled. “But the minute she walked in she was really sweet. And it was immediately evident she could sing as well as ever.”

The risk paid off and What Have I Done to Deserve This?, an incredibly catchy yet sophisticated pop song which Tennant once described as “neither teenage romance nor nostalgia, but a dialogue about the end of an affair between two adults”, was a creative and commercial triumph. When it peaked at Number Two in 1987, it became Springfield’s first significant chart hit in 17 years.

But despite singing its memorable “since you went away” hook and delivering some brilliant ad libs, Springfield felt unable to claim its success as her own. “Dusty was not as excited about it as she might have been,” Bell recalls in Bartlett’s memoir. “I don’t think she felt it was her career. I think she thought she was just playing a bit part in theirs.”

Springfield duly refused to promote the single, though she did agree to appear in a music video and join the Pet Shop Boys for a Brit Awards performance. Thanks to her part on What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Springfield also appeared on the soundtrack to It Couldn’t Happen Here, a surreal cult film that was originally envisaged as an hour-long music video featuring a succession of Pet Shop Boys songs.

Directed by The South Bank Show’s Jack Bond and choreographed by future Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips, it follows Tennant and Lowe as they encounter an array of colourful characters on a road trip from the Essex coast to London. In the film, Tennant sings What Have I Done to Deserve This? down the phone to his mother, played by a pre-EastEnders Barbara Windsor who gamely mimes along to Springfield’s vocals.

Neil Tennant, Dusty Springfield and Chris Lowe in the video for Nothing Has Been Proved CREDIT: Pet Shop Boys

Though Springfield didn’t appear to capitalise on the song’s success, she was preparing to cement her comeback behind the scenes. With a new record deal in the pipeline, she gave up drinking and embarked on a bizarre crash diet that involved eating nothing but cauliflowers and ice cream. She also moved from LA to Amsterdam so she could be close to London without putting her beloved cats, Malaysia and Nicholas, into quarantine.

But when she finally returned to the recording studio to cut Nothing Has Been Proved, a song Tennant and Lowe had written for Scandal, a film about the Profumo Affair, it became a rather painful process. “Doing a whole album with Dusty would probably give you a nervous breakdown,” Tennant recalled in Pet Shop Boys’ recently reissued 1990 tour diary, Literally. “She recorded Nothing Has Been Proved one syllable at a time. It took two days.”

Both Nothing Has Been Proved and In Private, another Tennant and Lowe composition inspired by the Profumo Affair, became Top 20 hits, but perhaps understandably, the duo only co-produced the second half of Springfield’s comeback album Reputation. The first half features contributions from other songwriters and producers including Tina Turner collaborator Holly Knight and Relight My Fire singer Dan Hartman.

Credit: Nick Levine The Telegraph

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