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Music

Remembering when Dusty Springfield made a defiant comeback

We all know Dusty Springfield as the 1960s queen of pop who popularised cuts such as ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and ‘Spooky’. However, what people invariably forget is that Springfield was one of the most complex characters of the era, enduring a lengthy period of obscurity before making a stellar comeback with the help of one of the biggest pop bands on the planet, The Pet Shop Boys. The tale of her return remains one of the greatest indicators of the old adage: “It’s not over ’till it’s over”.

The album Springfield returned with was the 1990 effort Reputation, and it was her first since her commercial flop of 1982’s White Heat, which wasn’t even released in the UK. Reputation saw the singer return to the charts for the first time in 20 years, which was remarkable when you note just how neglected Springfield had become by the mid-1980s. What is even more mind-blowing, however, is just how far her star had fallen since her heyday in the ’60s.

Notably, Springfield left the folk trio The Springfields in 1963 in order to become a solo superstar, and for a time, she could do no wrong. She was one of the most prominent selling artists of the day, with an iconic and glamorous image to boot, and in terms of ’60s pop, you don’t get more quintessential than her work. Although she was criticised for not being a songwriter, this didn’t matter. It was the way Springfield interpreted songs that caught the eye, as well as her sophisticated voice. 

However, Springfield had her demons, and some commentators have attributed this factor to her commercial and artistic decline over the 1970s and ’80s. She had battled severe depression for most of her adult life, which was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder, as well as crippling self-doubt, and both of these were exacerbated by substance abuse. Added to this was the internal war over her sexuality. Dusty Springfield was bisexual, but given just how homophobic the world was back then, she put off coming out. 

Later, she came out as bisexual during a 1970 interview with The Evening Standard, and in a statement that was incredibly ahead of the time, Springfield said: “Many other people say I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it … I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.”

Three years later, during an interview with The Los Angeles Free Press, she clarified her position by saying: “I mean, people say that I’m gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. I’m not anything. I’m just … People are people … I basically want to be straight … I go from men to women; I don’t give a shit. The catchphrase is: I can’t love a man. Now, that’s my hang-up. To love, to go to bed, fantastic; but to love a man is my prime ambition … They frighten me.”

Springfield was never reported to be in a heterosexual relationship and, instead, had long-term relationships with women, including Norma Tanega and singer/actress Teda Bracci. However, Springfield struggled to reconcile her traditionally ‘feminine’ appearance with the fact that she was attracted to women, which caused much stress. Before coming out, she said in the same interview in 1970: “I’d hate to be thought of as a big butch lady.” This perfectly reflects the internalised homophobia that Springfield grappled with on a daily basis.

Fast forward to 1987, and The Pet Shop boys wanted their idol to have a resurgence. They enlisted Springfield for the vocals on the hit ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ and it was a resounding success. The song reached number two on both sides of the Atlantic and became Springfield’s first major hit since ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ in 1969. This set a precedent for what was to come on Reputation. In the time before the album, they collaborated again for the other top 20 hits, ‘In Private’ and ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’. Dusty Springfield, it goes without saying, was back.

At the time, nobody could believe the turnaround, as Springfield had left the UK for Los Angeles at the start of the 1970s and hadn’t returned until then. Between 1970 and 1982, she carried on working and released six albums, but none of them were successful. Then, in 1985, her career hit what is ostensibly viewed as rock bottom when she signed a record deal with controversial strip club magnate Peter Stringfellow. Springfield only released one single on Stringfellow’s label, Hippodrome, a cover of the Donna Summer B-Side ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’, which peaked at 85 on the charts. 

After this terrible experience, Springfield told The Sun: “Working with Stringfellow was one of the incidents that made me feel so fed up with the business, I nearly gave up for good”.

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Only a month after the single was released, Springfield was admitted to the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York after she called 911 saying she’d “accidentally” cut herself. In the biography of Springfield, Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend by Karen Bartlett, her manager Vicki Wickham is quoted as describing the confluence of her mental health issues and as a drug addict as “absolutely lethal”.

This point makes Springfield’s change in fortunes only two years later even more miraculous. The Pet Shop Boys had first approached her in 1985 for the duet, but at first, for obvious reasons, she turned them down. However, Wickham and others changed her mind. At the time, The Pet Shop Boys were at the peak of their powers, and this could not have been more serendipitous for Springfield. Much like when Tina Turner returned earlier in the decade, her iconic image hadn’t changed, and she was still sporting her beehive and eye shadow, so people lapped her new music up. More crucially though, she still sounded incredible.

There must have been something in the air around that time. A year prior to the release of Reputation, in 1989, The Pet Shop Boys wrote and produced Results, the album that reinvented Liza Minnelli for the modern audience certifying her as a pop diva. However, for Reputation, they only wrote four songs, including ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ and ‘Daydreaming’, as they were allegedly put off by just how meticulous Springfield was when it came to being in the studio. She’d go over everything with a fine comb because of her self-doubt and would constantly tell herself she was a “fraud”.

“Doing a whole album with Dusty would probably give you a nervous breakdown,” Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys recalled in their reissued 1990 tour diary, Literally. “She recorded ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ one syllable at a time. It took two days.” 

It’s safe to say that the highlights of Reputation come courtesy of The Pet Shop Boys, and they can all be found on the second side. They were lifelong fans of Dusty Springfield, and they knew exactly how to write for her voice and personality. However, what they did with the writing really stands out. They managed to pull Springfield in a more modern direction whilst also appealing to the classic facets of her artistry, a testament to their creative vision. ‘Nothing Has Been Proved’ kicked off proceedings and went into the UK top 20 in February 1989, putting Springfield back where she deserved to be. 

After ReputationSpringfield released A Very Fine Love in 1995, but tragically, her resurgence was brought to an end when she succumbed to breast cancer in 1999. Even though she was only 59 when she passed away, we cannot overlook the final sprint that she gave. Reputation reminded everyone of her luminance and was a great finger up to all of her detractors. It’s a story that shouldn’t be forgotten, as the message is clear, there is always hope, even when it seems like there’s no way out. 

As for The Pet Shop Boys, they deserve a medal.

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