Adam Sweeting speaks to the sixties icon who has risen
from pop's graveyard to breath new life into the charts.

Among the various achievements of the Pet Shop Boys, the reinvention of Dusty Springfield is among the most fascinating. Adored in the sixties, mired in drugs in the seventies, cast adrift on American TV game-shows and the supper-club circuit in the eighties, Dusty seemed permanently beached. Luckily for her, Dusty in Memphis is Neil Tennant's favourite album of all time.

Dusty herself is almost dismissive of the album, which has steadily accrued legendary status since its release in 1969. "It's become rather an over-rated classic," she thinks. "It's not as if it's some magnificent work of art. It's a good record."

Good enough for the Pets anyway, and in 1987, the Boys invited Dusty to sing on "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" Then came a Top 5 hit with "Nothing Has Been Proved" from the movie Scandal, an inspired deployment both of Dusty's voice and her enduring aura as sixties icon.

Now there's her new album Reputation, half-written and half-produced by the Boys, the other half the product of a motley assortment of writers, producers and engineers. It's bound to generate more discs to hang on the wall.

And if the Pet Shop Boys hadn't come along? "God knows," exhales Dusty, along with a jet of cigarette smoke. She is looking unmistakably diva-like, a vision in peroxide and pink. "I just would have taken a different route. It probably would have been more scenic. I was plotting a bit over in California, wondering how I was going to approach all this again, and then all the decisions were taken out of my hands, which I was very relieved about."

It's always with hindsight that I realise things blindingly clearly, but "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" was a great rehearsal for the next one, "Nothing Has Been Proved". It's as if I'm being weaned in some way and allowed to rehearse things little by little. I want to work with them again, but I'm sure neither side wants to always work together. With the album being a mixture, I'm being given things to do that gradually build up the confidence and allow me a little more freedom."

The album is a slick and well-planned showcase for Springfield's voice, which has retained its familiar timbre and twang remarkably well, considering how it's been abused in its time. "Reputation" and "I Was Born This Way" allow her to lay back and roar. "Nothing Has Been Proved" and the beautifully floaty "Daydreaming" draw on Dusty's ability to suggest and confide.

"The record is fairly eclectic in tempos," she reflects, huskily. "I would be somewhat distraught to have to go and make a dance record with somebody more frivolous than the Boys because it really wouldn't work. With them, there's always something slightly off-centre that I like. I'm a bit off-centre as well. We get along fine."

Dusty's off-centreness might account for the turbulence she has encountered in her life, although, like Sandie Shaw and Marianne Faithfull, she has turned out to be tougher than she looks. It was the troublesome intrusions of the press that first drove her to live in America, but there's a part of her personality which can't help getting itself in the news. Perhaps it's because newspapers run in her family, her grandfather having been parliamentary correspondent for the Irish Independent.

"I always did blunder into things," she admits, one of them being apartheid, which the pioneering chanteuse clashed with in 1964. Having had a clause written into her contract saying she could and would play to mixed audiences in South Africa, she walked into a political storm which ended in her being confined to her hotel under a kind of house arrest.

"I wasn't making any major statement, I just felt better about it that way, being the naive person I was," she remembers ruefully. "I thought it was morally the right thing to do. But they were waiting for some idiot to write a very small clause into their contract, they were so goddamn smart. There was a real backlash because I was accused of making things worse, and so unwittingly I had. But what meant something to me was the airline workers, the black guys, lifted their hats when I got on the plane. I thought oh, you did notice, even though I fucked it up."

It was open season on Dusty when she arrived back in Britain. Well-loved stars of stage and screen, like Max Bygraves and Derek Nimmo, criticised her for making it harder for them to work in South Africa. "What a prat!" snaps Dusty, of Nimmo. "Is he still alive? Well, he's still a prat. I would say it to his face. That was such a prat-like thing to say."

Also somewhat regrettabe was her abortive effort at a comeback two decades later under the auspices of clubland entrepreneur Peter Stringfellow. "Boy, was that a blunder," Dusty winces. "I didn't know Peter had a fetish for butterflies - he has them everywhere. I present him with a song called "Sometimes Like Butterflies", and he goes yes! We'll put it out in an eight-minute version and it will be Number 1! I said I don't think so.

"Peter is the most marvellous club person, and I really respect what he's done, but he wasn't a record person. It didn't work. He still sends me flowers every now and again, but he's just such a mixture of being abusive publicly to me and being a gentleman."

Assorted cock-ups behind her, the trick now will be to maintain her new winning streak. Having moved back to Buckinghamshire, she has already been reminded that some things don't change. A local reporter came banging on her door, and when Dusty (hair in curlers and about to catch a plane) declined to do an interview on the spot, the hack gave her address to The Sun.

"All of a sudden they're out there with telephoto lenses," she wails. "I thought they must be really hard up for news. Why do they want to take a picture of me taking my rubbish out? I have absolutely nothing to hide. I live there with my cat. That's it. That's my life."

Though, of course, it might be even worse not being in the papers. "It backfires if you talk to them, and it backfires if you don't," Dusty reasons. "I chose this job, nobody forced it down my throat. So either you stand it or you get out."

Adam Sweeting
The Guardian, June 7, 1990