A Little Black DressA Little Black Dress
by West End Girls

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2009
Original album - (none)
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - single (West End Girls)

This early 2009 single by the West End Girls—a talented pair of Swedish PSB devotees who so far have recorded and released nothing but PSB covers—has a unique background that's well worth describing at length.

The Pet Shop Boys wrote this song in 1998 for their stage musical Closer to Heaven, then in its very early stages of development, but cut it from the score before it opened. Since then it had existed only as an officially unreleased demo. It was originally intended for the character of Shell, to be sung halfway through the first act as she gets dressed for a night on the town. A fast-paced number with a galloping bass synth line, it simply extols the virtues of the titular garment, widely regarded as just about the sexiest thing a woman can wear (at least in public) and therefore an essential part of her wardrobe. Interestingly, the lyrics suggest that such a dress is both an emblem of female power and a post-feminist prescription for lifting a woman's spirits: "You're dressed for success wearing a little black dress."

A fascinating sidelight of the PSB demo version occurs during the brief instrumental break, when Neil and Chris toss in a snippet of movie dialogue that has no direct bearing on the musical itself. Sampled from the Quentin Tarantino film Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson says, "That shit'll rob you of ambition," to which the pot-smoking Bridget Fonda blandly replies, "Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV." I don't know which is more clever: the dialogue itself or the decision to drop it offhandedly in the middle of the song. The PSB demo also features a prominent trombone part. Though it's quite possibly a sample, I like to think that it's Chris playing it. (He does play trombone, you know!)

Yet another "sample connection" (as revealed in Issue 20 of their fan club publication Literally) is the fact that Neil and Chris originally wrote this song around an excerpt from the classic T.Rex hit "Get It On." This would ultimately prove, however, to be an extremely important point—and a rather unfortunate one. They had planned on including their demo among the bonus tracks released in 2017 with the reissue of Nightlife. But the fact that it was based on a sample of "Get It On" caused unforeseen difficulties. An unresolved dispute over the ownership of the late Marc Bolan's song catalogue in the United States prevented legal clearance of the sample, so the Boys weren't permitted to release their demo. The legal complications actually delayed the release of the reissues by several months as Neil and Chris kept hoping for resolution. But, in the end, they felt they couldn't hold off any longer and had no option but to proceed with the Nightlife reissue without "A Little Black Dress."

Despite all of these remarkable aspects of the original demo, it's to the West End Girls that the honor goes of releasing the first official, commercially available rendition of the song. Their version is an extremely "electro" affair, stylistically quite unlike the demo, with a much rougher, harder edge. It almost sounds angry. In fact, maybe the Girls are a bit angry about the way a single iconic article of clothing can carry such a cultural cachet. It's not inconceivable that they consider it a negative reflection on the still sexually charged power of women in the post-feminist mindset alluded to in the lyrics. Whatever the case, the single has so far received play on the radio and in dance clubs in Sweden, but it's too soon to tell just how successful it will ultimately turn out to be both there and elsewhere.

The single cover artwork, by the way, is a treat unto itself. It displays a rather sad-looking dog—presumably the "pet shop" connection—wearing (you guessed it!) a little black dress. Although it was announced at the time of its release that the single would also appear on the West End Girls' upcoming second album—the title of which was variously reported as Shoplifters or Shoplifting—that album has yet to see the proverbial light of day.



Officially released

West End Girls rendition

Official but unreleased

Pet Shop Boys rendition

List cross-references