The Performance of My Life

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2009
Original album - The Performance (Shirley Bassey)
Producer - Bassey rendition: David Arnold, Mike Dixon; PSB rendition: Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - Fundamental 2017 reissue Further Listening 2005-2007 bonus disc (PSB)
Other releases - (none)

It had been long rumored that the Pet Shop Boys would collaborate somehow with legendary British diva Shirley Bassey. Those rumors were finally confirmed in March 2009 when it was announced that she was recording a song that they had written for her. The news apparently came as a semi-surprise for Neil and Chris themselves. Although they had submitted a new song for her consideration several months before and had heard that she liked it, they weren't absolutely sure that she was indeed going to record it until she was already in the studio committing her vocal to posterity.

According to excerpts from Neil's diary published in the July 2006 issue of their official fan club magazine Literally, the Boys wrote the song in January 2005. They recorded their own version of it with Neil's vocals—only a demo—the following month. They hadn't written it with Bassey or even anyone else in particular in mind, but they knew that it wasn't quite right for Neil. As he later put it (in the July 2008 issue of Literally), "I'm not singing about myself…. It's a female diva looking back on her life," adding, "And we can write a song like that because we've worked with people like Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli." It was only in late 2008 that, during a telephone conversation on a different subject with composer/arranger David Arnold, that the latter broached the subject of the Boys submitting a song for Bassey's next album. Neil told him that they already had the perfect song "in the can," so to speak, and emailed the demo to him. He loved it, so the Boys went back in the studio and "personalized it" somewhat for Dame Shirley, revising some of the lyrics. But they then neglected to send her those new lyrics, so she wound up recording the original text. Neil later described this as "a fortuitous mishap," having come to the conclusion that the original words were much better, anyway.

Tennant-Lowe's "The Performance of My Life" should not be confused with a much older song in Dame Shirley's repertoire: "The Greatest Performance of My Life," which first appeared on her 1972 album I Capricorn and which she has often performed in concert as a closing number. Even before the release of the new track, unauthorized downloads were floating around purporting to be the new song, when in fact they were the older one. (And here's a delightful twist of a sidenote: that same 1972 album, I Capricorn, also includes Bassey's cover of Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," anticipating the PSB/Liza Minnelli versions by nearly two decades!)

In August 2009 Neil asserted on the Boys' official website that Bassey's recording of the song boasts an "Amazing vocal; gorgeous arrangement and production by David Arnold." (Arnold is famed for writing the scores of five classic James Bond films, although he didn't write the Bond theme that became Bassey's all-time biggest hit, "Goldfinger.") Elsewhere Neil has described it as "very Shirley Bassey.… one of those 'looking back on your career and life' things." In light of this fact, it's worth noting that Bassey was born in 1937, making her 72 years old at the time of the recording—aptly enough for such subject matter. In an interview quoted on the PSB website, she stated that "the Pet Shop Boys' song 'The Performance Of My Life' got right into my head, and made me sob, and not many songs do that. Now I feel I don't need to write a book. The record is my autobiography."

"The Performance of My Life" is a lovely, slow, heavily orchestrated track that's in many ways reminiscent of a "Friendly Fire" with much denser instrumentation. The rather direct yet highly emotional lyrics seem to be another of Neil's extended double entendres (like "I Get Along" and "I'm with Stupid," among many others) that can be applied both to a very specific scenario and to a more general situation. When Bassey sings—

Right on cue I fell in love with you
You caused many a tear
But I had applause, I had a career
Until the final day
I'll play this part the only way I can
For to live I have to give
The performance of my life

—she could be a woman speaking to her lover, a singer addressing her fans, or (perhaps most likely) both. The song suggests that love and even life itself are essentially just as much performances as what a singer does onstage. They're played out in front of others, and bring with them their own challenges, troubles, rewards, truths, and falsehoods. Everyone finds an audience in their lover, and every performer becomes a lover to their audience. Both onstage and in life, it's generally only those who face their challenges head-on that make it "to the top" and achieve their dreams. The lyrics also carry a fundamentally existential message: that it's in the very nature of the greatest performers, whether onstage or in "real life," to give their utmost—to invest themselves totally in what they do. In a sense, they have no choice in the matter. It's what makes them who they are.

If you think about it, even the song's title can be thought of as a double entendre. There's the more obvious meaning, referring to "the greatest performance of one's life." But there's also a subtler meaning, in which one's whole life is a performance: that is, how you perform your life.

The album on which this song originally appeared—part of Dame Shirley's lucrative one-album contract with Geffen Records—was released in early November 2009. It's called The Performance, which makes the PSB-penned number almost but not quite the title song. It also has the honored position of being the album's closing track.

The Pet Shop Boys subsequently released their own demo version of it as one of the bonus tracks accompanying the 2017 reissue of Fundamental, offering a striking contrast to Bassey's take on the song. Whereas the orchestral arrangement of the Bassey rendition imparts a mood of sweeping grandeur, the synths of the PSB demo have an almost campy quality to them. It's hard to take the demo recording very seriously on its own, whereas Dame Shirley's version practically defines the word gravitas.

An especially poignant sidenote: Shortly after he first listened to Bassey's recording, Neil told an interviewer that he found himself wishing his mother (who had passed away the previous year) could have lived to hear it. "My mother would have been quite thrilled to hear Shirley Bassey singing the song that Chris and I wrote."



Pet Shop Boys rendition:

Shirley Bassey rendition:

List cross-references