In a 1988 TV interview, the late Dusty Springfield recalled the first time she ever heard the Pet Shop Boys.
“I nearly had an accident on the freeway listening to ‘West End Girls,’ and I thought, ‘What is that? Who are they? I’ve got to know!’ There was a symphonic quality to it, a larger than life quality. They struck me in that way, that kind of off- handedness, not really trying very hard. There was a pulse to it and I just loved that sound. Never in a million years did I think about working with them.”
But when Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe recorded “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” they had only one singer in mind. Tennant recalls, “That song’s unusual because we wrote it with Allee Willis, a successful American songwriter. On the demo of the song it was a duet between me and her. So when we came to record it, we needed a woman to sing it and Dusty Springfield was our favorite female singer.”
Tennant fashioned the lyric as a dialogue between former lovers. “I imagined the two people as an older woman who’s in charge of a building site and a man who works for her,” he says. “They have an affair, they break up, and then they both regret it.”
Though the parts were clear in Tennant’s mind, Springfield wasn’t so sure: “I came to London, still not knowing what they wanted me to do. I remember going into the studio and really mucking the song up because it didn’t occur to me that Neil was too polite to tell me. They were being very polite and very quiet, and I said, ‘What is it you want?’ and they said, ‘The sound of your voice.’ And that was when my life began to get simpler. I thought they wanted much more from me, much more decorative, much more wild, much more involved. Basically, they just wanted me to sing – ‘Since you went away, I’ve been hanging around . . .’ That’s what they wanted and they were right.”
Of Dusty’s vocal style, Tennant says, “She never sings a verse or a chorus of a song the same. She sings everyone differently, and she builds the song to a climax in her vocal by bending the melody. She’s very husky and breathy, with an intensity and desperation to her voice that’s fantastically sensual. She sort of floats off on another plane.”
And so the song floated up the charts to #2, becoming the fourth consecutive Top Ten by the Pet Shop Boys while single-handedly reviving Dusty Springfield’s career. She went on to record two successful follow-up songs with Tennant and Lowe, “Nothing Has Been Proved” (featured in the movie Scandal) and “In Private.”