Saturday Flashback: Pet Shop Boys – Always On My Mind

“Congratulations, you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!”

Tom: This week, we saw Pet Shop Boys in concert. It was an incredible gig, and as we left, I said I was surprised that they ended on a cover. And you said…

Tim: “Wait, it’s a cover?”

Tom: I quelled my initial reaction of “how could you not know that?” because, congratulations, you’re one of today’s lucky 10,000!

Tim: Hooray!

Tom: Always On My Mind is a country standard. It’s been recorded by dozens of artists — there’s a history on Wikipedia, of course — but I’d like to pick out just the two most popular versions that aren’t Pet Shop Boys, because the difference between them is astonishing.

The canonical version was sung by Elvis Presley, recorded just after he separated from his wife, and is one of his best-known and most loved records. In fact, the only reason the Pet Shop Boys version exists is because they performed it on a tribute-to-Elvis TV show.

Tim: Oh…oh, I do recognise that, now I hear it.

Tom: And it’s emotional. It’s an apology of sorts, and that’s certainly how it came across, but in hindsight it almost sounds like a passive-aggressive apology, the sort provided by someone who doesn’t know why they’re apologising, but knows that they have to. The instrumentation is almost triumphant.

Why do I say that? Because the hindsight is provided by Willie Nelson’s absolutely heartbreaking, wistful version, ten years later.

Tim: Ooh.

Tom: It sounds like an apology. It sounds like it should. Everything, from that one quiet “you did, you did” from a female vocalist in the first verse, to the instrumentation that somehow manages to avoid Elvis’s triumphalism despite being almost as large and full. It sounds like the song of someone who is genuinely sorry.

Tim: It really does. It’s an almost completely different song, and it’s lovely.

Tom: Despite my love for the Pet Shop Boys cover, to me, this will always be the canonical version of Always On My Mind.

Tim: Nice to know. I’ll throw in my two cents cents: looking at that Wikipedia article you linked to, I realised why the Pet Shop Boys’ version is the only one I really know: because it’s on my family’s primary Christmas compilation album, due to its Christmas number one status. Anyway, thank you very much for today’s education.

Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds (Viva Elvis Remix)

Damaged in the time travel process.

Tom: Elvis’ estate never used to allow remixes or re-edits of his work – something that changed when Nike paid them a lot of money. That resulted in the staggeringly good “A Little Less Conversation”, and a couple of followups that were never as popular.

Well, someone else has come along and paid a lot of money: Cirque du Soleil, who are doing a “Viva Elvis” show – doing for Elvis what they did for The Beatles with the Love album. And this is the lead single: a thorough, orchestral reimagining of the classic ‘Suspicious Minds’.

Tom: I liked the Love album. I love mashups. I don’t think there’s such a thing as ‘sacrilege’ when it comes to old records. Now you can certainly make terrible new versions, but the old ones will still be there. So I went into this with an open mind, ready to say that, like A Little Less Conversation, it was brilliant. But, alas, it’s really not.

Tim: Admission: I’ve never really listened to any Elvis at all (aside from the aforementioned JXL remix, which probably doesn’t really count), and have no feelings for his music one way or another – I’m happy to judge this as a song in its own right, without comparisons.

Tom: It’s technically great, of course; the new orchestral pieces are lovely and the whole thing sounds wonderful – but Elvis just doesn’t seem to be there. The drums and the instrumentation are compressed to be as loud as the vocals, and the man himself – this amazing singer and performer – is reduced to a vocal sample. If they’d have kept just half of the energy, of the charisma, of the presence of this 1970 performance, I’d probably be praising it. But it’s not. Unlike the Love album – which had the original producers watching over it – it’s been damaged in the time travel process, and what’s emerged from our end of the machine is a soulless replicant.

Tim: Perhaps, but should we be comparing it to a big energetic live performance? Even if I was just comparing it to the original studio recording, I like this a lot – there’s so much more to it that, like you said, is technically great, and I think it’s brilliant.