Neil: Everyone said she couldn’t sing anymore. She had a very bad reputation. Then later, after Please came out, we heard that Dusty wanted to do it…
Chris: …and I met her and talked through the song. I think she was wearing a shell suit.
Neil: No. She was wearing black leather.
Chris: I always picture her wearing a shell suit — pink shell suit and Reeboks.
Neil: She did later on, when we recorded the solo album.
Believe it or not, I still remember the very first time I heard “What Have I Done To Deserve This,” the hit Pet Shop Boys single featuring guest vocals by a 48-year old Dusty Springfield. I was six, and my mom was doing laundry, and we were listening to 92 PRO-FM, the top 40 station that more or less defined my childhood listening experience. Every night at 7:20, or maybe 7:35, or some other specific time during the 7:00 hour, they’d do something called Make It Or Break It, during which they’d play a new song and ask people to call in and say whether they liked it or not. If a majority of callers liked it (so they claimed) the song would move into the regular rotation. If folks didn’t like it, they’d play a sound effect of a 45 being smashed in order to (allegedly) destroy the song forever. This didn’t always happen, of course, since unpopular songs occasionally did get muscled onto playlists. “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” was so thrilling to me, though, that I called the DJ for the first time ever to say that I really, really, REALLY liked it. Luckily, so did a lot of other people. It became a hit on 92 PRO-FM and nationally, ending up at #2 on the Hot 100 in February of 1988.
During the late Reagan era the entertainment industry played on baby boomer nostalgia by glorifying the allegedly simpler era when rock and roll was new and JFK was not yet assassinated and Vietnam was a place people had probably never heard of, so I’m not going to claim that the Pet Shop Boys pulling Dusty Springfield out of semi-retirement was a particularly revolutionary act. In 1986 Eddie Money yanked Ronnie Spector out of the woodwork to repeat her immortal whoa-oh-oh’s for “Take Me Home Tonight,” and in 1987 movies like Dirty Dancing and La Bamba used hits of the early sixties to great effect both on the screen and on the Billboard album charts. (My favorite movie as a first-grader, Adventures In Babysitting, started off with a lengthy credits sequence wherein Elisabeth Shue lip-synched a Crystals song into her bedpost.) Also, Dusty recorded music through the seventies, and as recently as 1982 released the not-actually-bad disco single “Donnez-moi.”
But oh, “What Have I Done To Deserve This” is good. So so so so so so good. Every single thing about it is perfect, really, from the synth horns to the atypical lyrical structure to the lyrics about so many drinks and such pretty flowers. It is so good, in fact, that a group of PSB fans recently named it the best of all the duo’s offerings. (It’s definitely in my own top two, and depending on the day might actually be my favorite.)
Tennant and Lowe co-wrote “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” with Alee Willis, whose songwriting credits also include Earth Wind and Fire’s “September” and the godforsaken Friends theme. According to Willis, she met the duo when she was commissioned by their management to paint their portrait for fan club stationery. This would become the first time the Boys worked with an outside songwriter, and according to the Actually CD re-release liner notes it was Willis who was responsible for the brilliant “Since you went away…” part. Springfield sings that bit twice, once rather calmly and the other time very dramatically, which I believe was her own idea, though I can’t remember where I read that.
Though the song’s structure is odd and it featured a guest turn by a singer who hadn’t had an American hit since 1970, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” surprisingly hit #2 on both sides of the Atlantic; soon after, Tennant and Lowe would write and produce a number of songs for Springfield’s comeback album, including a couple of hit singles in the UK (“Nothing Has Been Proved,” “In Private.”)
Dusty died a pop icon in 1999, just short of her 60th birthday. The Pet Shop Boys don’t deserve all the credit for her legacy, clearly, but who knows how fondly she’d be remembered were it not for their resurrection of her career in the late eighties.