An Iconic Image

No, not "ironic." Iconic!

Chris and Neil had dressed in formal wear for the filming of their "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" video. Professional photographer Cindy Palmano was on the set as a chronicler of the event. The Boys decided on the spot to take further advantage of her services to produce some much-needed publicity shots. Surely they didn't realize it at the time, but when they sat for Ms. Palmano, they were about to create one of the most indelible images to emerge from pop-music culture of the 1980s—and perhaps even of the entire "Rock Era."

The very first photo that she took of them that day proved to be their favorite, and they ultimately chose it to appear on the cover of their second studio album Actually. Two pop musicians, wearing tuxedos, one of them staring directly at the camera with a near-scowl, the other broadly yawning. An instant captured by the lens. It says so little, yet it says so much. You can read worlds of meaning into it, or you can read virtually nothing. And it's completely unforgettable.

It has also proven irresitible to takeoffs and parodies, a sure sign of its iconic status. Here's a sampling of this spinoff imagery.

The Boys seemed to grasp the image's iconic potential right from the start. They even went to the trouble of re-creating it for the U.K. television advertisement for Actually. You can tell that it's a re-creation and not from the original photo-shoot because of the difference in their hair, Neil's in particular: his hair is much more closely cropped in the advertisement. (Speaking of hair, Chris is said to dislike the original photo because he "can't stand" how his hair looks in it, although obviously not enough to stop him from approving its use for the album cover.) I especially like the fact that, in the footage leading up to Neil's infamous yawn, Chris glances about nervously, impatiently, or both. He appears extremely ill at ease. Maybe he really was, or maybe it was just an act. In either case, it's nearly as effective as the yawn itself.

Their record company and/or publicists quickly grasped the power of the image as well. When Actually went gold, this ad appeared in Billboard magazine (and perhaps other music industry publications as well). If you look closely, you'll notice that Chris's and Neil's bowties are gold. Cute.

They've demonstrated their own awareness of the image's "branding power," so to speak, in other ways as well. For instance, in the "Petheads" section of their official website they use a silhouette version of it as a "stand-in" for fans who haven't submitted photos for use there.

Here's another self-referential use by the Boys of this image—humorously modified—on a mousepad given as a bonus to new official Fan Club members starting in late 2011. The heading reads "Mouse Mat, actually." I wonder how the Disney organization would feel about this?

Perhaps the first true parody came almost immediately on the heels of Actually itself. When U.K. record producer and media personality Jonathan King began to wage (unsuccessfully) a one-man campaign to convince the world that the Pet Shop Boys' 1987 hit "It's a Sin" had plagiarized Cat Stevens' 1970 release "Wild World," he quickly recorded his own version of the Stevens song with a "PSB-ish" arrangement. The cover of the resulting single featured King himself alongside a non-yawning Cat Stevens head superimposed upon an appropriately tuxedoed body. If you like, you can read a little more about this incident elsewhere on this website.

The British comedy team of Vic and Bob—also known by their last names of Reeves and Mortimer—have been fixtures on U.K. television since around 1990. They've starred in several TV series and specials of their own and have frequently appeared as guests on other shows. For the October 1993 issue of the British magazine Select (which not so coincidentally had Chris and Neil on the cover), they posed for a portrait mimicking the Actually shot, in the process matching both Chris's expression and Neil's yawn more closely than any other similar takeoff.

Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert—half of the great band New Order—have also recorded together as The Other Two. (The name of their duo refers to the fact that the other New Order members, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, had already released fruits of their own outside projects.) At the suggestion of photographer Kevin Cummins, they signified their fellow synthpop/dance hitmakers the Pet Shop Boys in a publicity photo that appeared in an issue of NME (New Musical Express). It's a good approximation, though not quite as spot-on as Vic and Bob's.

A 1990 single, "I Never Gave Up," by the anarchic agitprop/agitpop group Chumbawamba was released with packaging that rather cheaply (which wasn't inappropriate considering the band's punkish, highly irreverant philosophy), somewhat ineffectively, but nevertheless obviously parodied the Actually cover using a shot from a ride on a rollercoaster. (The metaphors are nearly irresistible.) A low point, perhaps, from which things could only get better.

"If I Give You My Number," a 1994 single by the U.K. duo PJ and Duncan—more recently and more popularly known as Ant and Dec—boasted a cover that paid direct tribute to their pop forebears. Despite variance in the form of the cell phone and cap, it was considerably more effective than Chumbawumba's takeoff.

You'd think that more than a decade after it first appeared this image would lose its hold on the collective pop-culture imagination. But that's hardly the case. Now, well into the twenty-first century, the tributes/parodies continue. A Spanish-language Chilean edition of Rolling Stone magazine drew upon the famous PSB shot for the cover of its 2006 "annual review" issue. The guys standing in for Chris and Neil are, respectively, Benjamin Vicuña and Daniel Muñoz, both well-known actors in Chile.

In October 2007 the British "automotive humorists" Sniff Petrol employed the Actually iconography when they assumed the guise of the "Pit Stop Boys" to record a parody titled "(It's Just That You Remind Me of) Alain Prost." You can read more about that elsewhere on this website, but their own "PSB photo" demonstrates once again just how enduring this image has proven to be.

Later, in 2012, also courtesy of Sniff Petrol, came this photoshopped double-image of Russian racecar driver Vitaly Petrov. The title caption "Petrov Boys, cashtually" alludes to the fact that Petrov is (or at least was at the time) what's known as a "pay driver": a racecar driver who brings with him outside funding to finance his and/or his team's operations and participation in a race.


Coincidentally, October 2007 also saw the release of a new compilation album of techno/house dance tracks, Secretsundaze Volume 1, by the well-known London club-scene promoters, DJs, and mixers Giles Smith and James Priestley. And—wouldn't you know it?—the album's cover mimics perhaps the single most famous visual image in dance music history since John Travolta struck his unforgettable pose on the cover of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Simply delightful.

And on it goes. The July 2008 of the U.S. pop music magazine Under the Radar features a cover story about the satiric band Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie), who had previously parodied "West End Girls" with their song "Inner City Pressure." On the cover, Jemaine and Bret parody, of all things, the Captain and Tennille, but an interior shot depicts them in full PSB Actually drag. Seems irresistible, doesn't it?

The U.K. comedy team of Adam & Joe, who specialize in pop culture parodies, couldn't resist, either. Here's the cover of their album Song Wars Volume One, released digitally in June 2008. (Its by no means their first PSB parody, as evidenced by the "Pet Shop Droids," described elsewhere here on my website.)

Of course, we would fully expect that wonderful Swedish PSB tribute band, West End Girls, to take a crack at it with this image borrowed from their website. Interesting that they should trade formal wear for hardhats. But, then again, they've always been ones to mix 'n' match.

For "Record Store Day" 2012, the British indie rock band Field Music released a special limited-edition 7-inch vinyl single with their renditions of "Heart" on one side and "Rent" on the other. But those two songs weren't the only aspect of the Pet Shop Boys they chose to "cover," as evidenced by the single's sleeve reproduced here. The title at the top, incidentally, is "Field Music, actually, nearly."

A U.K. synth duo of a younger generation, The MFA have made no bones about their indebtedness to the Pet Shop Boys, going so far as to pay overt tribute to them on more than one occasion. This Actually-inspired publicity photo is one such instance. Another is the video for their 2009 single "Throw It Back (We Will Destroy You)," an obvious homage to the "West End Girls" video.

Another talented musical duo, Nathan Jay and Kaya, are also heavily influenced by the Boys. And they similarly pay tribute to the Actually album cover with their own digital-download album Virtually.

Tal Berman and Aviad Kisos, who are well-known media personalities in Israel—their morning radio show is extremely popular, and they frequently make appearances on television as well—approximated the "Actually pose" for a photo in a late January 2010 issue of that nation's equivalent of TV Guide.

The U.K. comedy duo of Shane and Eddie (Shane Justshane and Eddie Sails, proclaimed by some as "the ultimate 80s power couple") posed for this image—a truly bizarre parody of the Actually cover—to promote their 2011 show "Shane and Eddie: Picking Up the Pieces."

On the last Saturday of every month, an Edinburgh (U.K.) nightclub hosts a special evening of electronic dance music called "Dare!", with its sets mixed and played by the popular DJ/mixer Jonathan Richard Cooper, better known by his professional moniker Jon Pleased Wimmin. A poster/flyer advertising this ongoing event ingeniously blends its own takeoff on the Actually imagery with the appearance of a Japanese import DVD. Clever, very clever. I believe the dude on the left is Jon, but I have no idea who the other one is. By the way, how have the Boys managed to avoid getting this guy to do any "official" remixes of one of their songs? I recall hearing a Jon Pleased Wimmin remix of an Erasure track some years ago, and I thought it was quite good!

The Australian duo of Sylvester Martinez and Johnson Peterson, known professionally as Yolanda Be Cool, scored a #1 hit in the U.K. and various other countries in July 2010 with their retro-techno (imagine a 1930s nightclub dance band using synths and samples) novelty song "We No Speak Americano." Apparently fond of appearing in tuxes (like you-know-who you-know-where) but equally inclined to hide their mugs (like Daft Punk), this publicity shot strongly suggests a possible homage to the Actually cover, only with the spin of facial anonymity.

The idiosyncratic Viennese duo Tanz Baby! (David Kleinl and Kristian Musser, the former of whom is known for always wearing a red rose in public) released their debut album Liebe ("Love") in 2009, brandishing a cover that leaves no doubt as to at least one of their sources of inspiration. Their musical style might be described as "retro-pop electronica," a quasi-easy listening blend that draws upon such vintage instruments as a 1970s electronic organ and a 1980s drum machine, with accordions and horns thrown in for good measure.

The obvious PSB influence on the young U.K. synthpop duo Hurts was apparent even before the release of their debut album Happiness in September 2010. You could hear in their music and see it in their publicity shots. And then there's the album. Yes, right down to the single-word album title. Yes, right down to the cover shot. The yawn is missing, but that would have made it simply too obvious, transforming what amounts to a tribute into a parody. For that I'm grateful.

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Swedish indie musician GNAK doubled himself to create this homage to accompany his 2011 online remake of "King's Cross."

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The Irish indie singer-songwriter John Bermingham similarly duplicated himself to pay tribute to the Actually cover, one of many bits of classic PSB imagery he adapted for the music video he created to accompany his 2012 cover version of "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)."

Maxwell's Complex - Joy
Maxwell's Complex is the professional moniker of synthpop artist Christopher Rose of Amherst, Massachusetts, who counts PSB among his prime influences. He has released a number of albums and standalone tracks online (such as on SoundCloud), one of which is his cover of Tracey Thorn's lovely Christmas song "Joy." Not only is the accompanying artwork ("Joy. From Maxwell's Complex, actually," with Christopher himself pictured on the left—appropriately enough, in the "Chris role") a takeoff on the Actually cover, but one of the song's mixes employs a synth riff from the track "Because You're So Sweet" by yet another obvious influence, Erasure. He even gives it an arrangement clearly modeled on Vince Clarke's synth stylings. As for the photo, I especially like the way the Actually yawn has here been replaced with a big, open-mouthed smile of—what else?—joy!

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An interview dated July 8, 2011 in online Smashing Magazine with Google Senior User Experience Designer Marcin Wichary includes this superb double-shot of the interview subject, clean-shaven in the Chris role, lightly bearded in the Neil role. The article itself makes no mention of the image or its surrounding circumstances, although it was undoubtedly Wichary's idea—and probably his creation as well. After all, he's known in fandom for his own PSB-focused website, "10 Years of Being Boring" (which remains an online treasure despite its apparently having been neglected and left un-updated since 2003). It goes without saying that a man with his credentials knows an iconic image when he sees one.

Pop journalist Ian Peel, editor of the marvelous U.K. magazine Classic Pop (founded in 2012, with a debut issue prominently featuring the Pet Shop Boys), provided in Issue #2 his own takeoff on the Actually cover, with he himself sitting in for both Chris and Neil. (I used to have a better-quality version of this image, but I lost both it and its backup during my big computer meltdown of Spring 2013 and subsequent switchover to a new webhost. So this poorer-quality substitute will have to suffice until I can get a "cleaner" one again.)

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Every year the U.S. gay magazine Out names its "Out100": 100 persons or organizations in the gay community who they feel were the "most compelling" and deserve special recognition that year. (The Pet Shop Boys themselves have been past recipients of this recognition.) The 2014 list, appearing in the magazine's December 2014/January 2015 issue, depicted its honorees for the year in ways meant to "pay homage to pivotal moments in LGBT history." One such moment was the release of the PSB album Actually, and the "out" Brooklyn-based band The Drums (Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham) were the members of the 2014 Out100 tapped to offer tribute to that particular moment. (They also posed for a separate photo wearing orange costumes and cone-caps commemorating the Boys' nearly-as-iconic "Can You Forgive Her?" video.)

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In May 2017, BBC Radio 2 host Sara Cox posted online a delightful promo video for her Sounds of the 80s show in which she quite cleverly appears in animated reproductions of the covers of several classic 'eighties albums. Receiving this treatment are Adam Ant's Prince Charming, Kylie Minogue's Kylie, Roxy Music's Flesh + Blood, and—last but certainly not least—Actually, where Sara assumes the roles of both Chris and Neil. A very brief snippet of "It's a Sin" plays in the background when it appears. As she subsequently wrote on her Twitter page, "I think I make a rather dashing pet shop boy [sic]."

As we transition for the time being to other graphic arts, we find a "twofer" created by the Canadian husband-and-wife team of Stuart and Kathryn Immonen. She's a famous writer of comic books and webcomics, and he's a equally famous comic artist. In 2011 they posed together for a photo for an article published by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, clearly drawing upon the cover of Actually for their inspiration. And in early 2014 Stuart drew a series of cartoons that pay tribute to four PSB album covers—not surprisingly, one of them Actually (the others being Please, Very, and Nightlife)—each in the style of another well-known cartoonist.

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Greg Frederick is a talented graphic artist who has chosen a medium that is, if not unique, certainly unusual. He creates his art from recycled materials, primarily broken record vinyl, sleeves, and packaging. Among his artworks is this adaptation of a familliar image that, on his Vinyl Pop Art website, he has filed appropriately enough under "Icons." (There you can get a much better look at this image, as well as several other works.)

Like the Immonens described two steps above, the folks involved with a comic strip titled The Rack are responsible for not one but two takeoffs on the Actually cover. If you like, you can learn more about the genesis of these images on their website. Kevin Church, the writer of the strip, obtained the services of his friend Ming Doyle to draw the tribute featuring the strip's characters, using herself and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Neil as the models.

Another tribute has similar origins in the world of cartooning, which you can learn more about at the artist's website. Tom Schoon actually has a bit of a penchant for rendering his Fred Little character in parodies of famous album covers.

Mischell "Meech" Yost says she loves to sketch and loves the Pet Shop Boys. So she has combined her loves and created a webpage devoted to her self-avowedly "horrifyingly cuddly" renderings of iconic PSB imagery, including this one. If you'd like to see more of her work, here's the link. Horrifyingly cuddly though it may be, I love the simple elegance of this sort of line art.

A Parkade DJ'ing gig on the virtual world website Second Life resulted in this spoof. Appropriately enough, it features the DJs in question—Tim of RadioClash and Amanda Shinji aka Ms Cyberpink—in their Second Life avatar guises.

The website "Album Covers by Kids" purports to display the attempts by children to put their drawing skills to work in reproducing the covers of famous record albums. By now it should come as no surprise which Pet Shop Boys album would receive this treatment, attributed to "Samantha."

It was just a matter of time before someone would do it up in Lego® format. I don't yet know, however, who created this image, but I'll be sure to credit him, her, or them as soon as I find out. It's one of a number of PSB/Lego images one can find online.

The Berlin-based graphic-design team of Rike and Timo—known collectively as We Love You All—created this Actually tribute as part of their series of takeoffs on classic album covers. (Others in the series include Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July, Grace Jones's Island Life, David Bowie's Aladdin Sane, Prince's Controversy, Björk's Homogenic, Kraftwerk's Man Machine, the Beach Boys' Endless Summer, De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising, and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.)

I really like this very direct adaptation by a U.K. artist who goes by the monikers "brokentv" and "Mark X." It takes the form of a "classic" book cover that boils Chris and Neil to the "Actually bare essentials"—greatly simplified high-contrast semi-silhouettes that are nevertheless immediately recognizable—which demonstrates in one fell swoop just how iconic the image is. The "heat" of the dominant red color also contrasts nicely with the archetypal "cool" of the image itself. Quite ingenious, if you ask me. And if you like, you can see more of brokentv's work on the deviantart website.

This one is so astoundingly off the wall that I was somewhat hesitant to include it. But, what the hey, there's a place in the world for random associations. Somebody figured that Raven and Starfire—two members of the DC Comics superhero team Teen Titans—might be good subjects for an Actually cover parody. Don't ask me why. Now, normally I would provide a link to the website where I found this, but it contains banner ads with very graphic graphics, so to speak, for assorted porno sites. I personally have nothing against pornography (as long as only consenting adults are involved), but I realize that not everyone shares my rather libertine viewpoint on the matter, and I have no wish to inflict such imagery on the unsuspecting and/or easily offended. So there you have it. If someone had told me yesterday that I would stumble upon a thread that, no matter how tenuously, connects PSB, comic book superheroes, and pornography, I would've laughed in their face.

Certainly one of the more peculiar products of the impulse to parody the Actually cover (and considering the competition, that's saying something) is this greeting card that "mashes up" the iconic PSB image with the equally iconic (at least within the U.K.) "Frank Sidebottom" character created in the mid-1980s by the late British musician and comedian Chris Sievey. This is not the venue for going into details about Sievey and Sidebottom (especially since Wikipedia exists for just such purposes), but let me say that this image reminds me of the way that clowns can be quite terrifying under the right (that is, wrong) circumstances. Incidentally, so far I haven't been able to determine whether this is an "authentic" Frank Sidebottom product (that is, created by Sievey and/or his associates themselves) or just something devised by someone else; nor at this point do I even know when it was created. I'll supply additional info if and when I learn more.

It isn't every day that two separate iconic images meet and "shake hands," as it were. But that's precisely what happened when somebody took the iconic "Manny, Moe & Jack" caricature of the founders of the U.S. automotive supply and repair chain Pep Boys—which has appeared in the company's logo for nearly a century, since the mid-1920s—put them in tuxes, and placed Neil Tennant's yawn on "Jack's" face, titling the resulting hybrid "Pep Shop Boys, actually." With the apparent blessing of the Pep Boys company, this image appears on t-shirts sold by the print-on-demand brand Redbubble, which offers an entire line of Pep Boys-inspired t-shirts, many of which are takeoffs on assorted pop-culture iconography.

A Russian artist and musician who goes by the handle Goldyfox has posted some of his artwork on the fascinating DeviantArt website. Much of his work takes the form of album-cover parodies with foxes substituting for the humans. I really like his takeoff on Actually not just because it's so well done but especially because I find his style highly reminiscent of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, et al.), which are very near and dear to my heart.

Fans can get in on the act, too. Here's one from Roy Tapping, aka Minge, a familiar presence in online PSB fandom.

Someone else with a longtime online presence within PSB fandom is Rob aka Your Funny Uncle. This detail comes from a larger Actually cover takeoff titled "Your Funny Uncle, probably." (If I were to reproduce the entire thing at a reduced size to fit, you wouldn't be able to see the images very clearly.) By the way, Rob invites you to check out his Flickr photostream.

Barry Francis similarly has his own Flickr photostream in which he displays his imaginative use of Adobe PhotoShop, mainly to insert himself into all sorts of unexpected places. So it's probably not too surprising that he should turn up on the Actually album cover. But some of the others are, at least in my opinion, even better.

Another regular website visitor, Andrew Dineley, and his partner Jason sent out this absolutely marvelous Christmas card for the 2010 holiday season. Oh, I wish I'd thought of that! Only we don't have an adorably cute little doggie like their Ruby to sit between us. wink

Ivy and Lil are a couple of U.K. ladies in their eighties who have accepted a challenge for charity to do 25 things before they turn 100. Being Pet Shop Boys fans, one of those 25 things was to star in their own PSB tribute! If you like, you can watch it on YouTube. This Actually takeoff image is included in the video.

This one, posted by a young woman who goes by the handle eyelinersmudge when she shares photos on the Buzznet website, gets points for not only its spontanaeity but also for the touch of having the clip-on bowties dangling askew. It's so un-self-consciously tacky that it comes across as quite charming. The title of her imaginary album, by the way, is Rescue Shelter Girls, Hardly.

Longtime site visitor Dan Newton took a photo of his sons that he later realized resembled a certain familiar album cover. So he created "The Newton Boys, actually" and shared it with us.

Matt Bennett (he's the one yawning) and his pal Andrew are featured in his "Us, actually" tribute as part of a series of takeoffs on album- and single-cover artwork that he has created over time with his friends. This one originally appeared back in 2012 on his Tumblr photo-blog ivegotarocket.

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"Funny cats" seems to be an especially popular angle for Actually homages. First came this kitty-themed rendition, a delightful takeoff submitted quite some time ago to the "funny caption" site fark.com.
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A short time later, site visitor Paulo from Brazil created this charming "Cat Shop Boys, catually" adaptation as a tribute to his favorite band.
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Another regular visitor, Jeff Koch, told me about this image, which appeared on the Cheezburger.com website. (Hairless cats are comic virtually by nature, aren't they?)
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My favorite, however, is this one titled "Pet Shop Boys, catually," provided here courtesy of artist Alfra Martini and the delightful "The Kitten Covers" website, where literally dozens of classic album covers have been rendered in a "feline fashion."

But, with these four images, I must declare a moratorium on cat/Actually images. Otherwise there may be no end to them.


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Finally, we have this poster advertising an event put on by a gay bar in Tel Aviv in late January 2010: "Shaving the Pet Shop Boys." Describing it as an "80s and New Wave party with a Pet Shop Boys special," the promoters went for the single most immediately recognizable PSB image they could think of—but probably figured some digital manipulation would help attract attention and get their message across in an especially unforgettable way.

Persis KhambattaPersonally I find this image a bit disturbing, especially in that the "bald Chris" reminds me of the late Persis Khambatta (right) from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Not that there's anything wrong with her—I actually think she was the best thing about the film—but I just don't want Chris reminding me of her.


I imagine there must be other such takeoffs of which I'm not yet aware.* If you know of any additional public images that parody or pay tribute to the Actually cover,

*I'm indebted to the Pet Shop Boys Community Forum and certain of its members for some of the images and information appearing on this page.

Blancmange, 1982A Remarkable Influence—or a Remarkable Coincidence?

Ian Peel, Editor of the magazine Classic Pop, has brought to my attention the obscure publicity photo shown here of the U.K. synthpop duo Blancmange (Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe) from 1982—yes, roughly five years before Actually—which is of course in some ways strikingly similar to the far more famous Pet Shop Boys image.

This suggests several distinct possibilities:

  • The Blancmange photo was indeed a heretofore unacknowledged conscious inspiration for the cover of Actually.

  • The Blancmange photo was seen at some point and forgotten, but, having left an impression, later "emerged" as an unconcious influence on the Actually photo.

  • The Pet Shop Boys and photographer Cindy Palmano were totally unaware of the Blancmange photo, and the similarity is a complete coincidence.

Considering that the Boys themselves have never publicly (or, as far as I know, privately) acknowledged this possible inspiration—they have, in fact, always maintained that Neil's yawn was a happy accident caught on film—the third possibility seems to me the most likely explanation. But, whatever the case—even if the earlier photo really did influence the latter—it really can't be said that all of the subsequent takeoffs and tributes to the Actually cover are "copies" of Blancmange. It wasn't the Blancmange image that inspired the many Actually takeoffs; it was the Actually image itself. If nothing else, the frequent use of tuxedos proves as much. So the "Actually icon" remains an icon, even if it may (emphasis on "may") not have been as wholly original as we've always believed.