The Influence of the Pet Shop Boys
There’s always been this weird stigma I’ve never understood with being straight and liking Pet Shop Boys. What’s that about? After an entire childhood of loathing “West End Girls” with the fury of a thousand suns I decided to give them a chance on a long drive one day, and I’ve never looked back. Chris Lowe’s genius synth-stylings and Neil Tennant’s breathy vocals just paired so well together and stuck out like the sun in the cold industrial wasteland of mainstream pop in the 80s. Before late-eighties greats like The Style Council, Morrisey and Billy Bragg really went to town on Ms. Thatcher, synth-pop was pretty establishment. I know that in particular Duran Duran and Gary Newman were outspoken supporters, but the 80s was a tough time in Britain for everyone, and as you may well know, it was one of the toughest times in history to be gay.
Throughout their entire career, Tennant and Lowe have been tapping the highly underutilized market of gay struggle, though in not a manner so grandiose as most singers might, singing of societal oppression and forbidden sexual attraction, but more intimate stories of people who know they’re gay, struggling every day with the everyday tribulations of modern life. And I always knew they were gay, or Neil Tennant specifically, but it wasn’t until I listened to the lyrics of some of their bigger hits that I realized just how much of these problems were pushed to the fore. Like the notion of being trapped in a loveless marriage on “Can You Forgive Her?,” and relationships with men who only want to “experiment” on “Domino Dancing”. To go back to the 80s though, the Pet Shop Boys’ heyday, I’d like to talk about their sophomore album, the groundbreaking Actually, which is an epic synth-pop record from a musical standpoint, but also one that belies any brushing-aside of the AIDS crisis in Thatcher’s Britain below any danceable surface.
Unlike Please, their wonderful debut, Actually had much more on its mind. Its big single over here, “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” is a campy, heterosexual love story, but its big single overseas was “It’s a Sin,” which served as Tennant’s grand denouncement of the Catholic church he grew up in. It’s a brave song to release as a single, especially taking into account the cultural rollback of any acceptance the gay community was working to in the 70s as AIDS was rearing its ugly head seemingly on every streetcorner. Reagan in America and Thatcher over there acted as fear-mongers, spreading misinformation and not taking liberties to crack the shell of reality. And the gay community, already sidelined, had no leverage. These scare-tactics blacklisted gay people and made the world wary of them, which contributed greatly to social isolation and poverty in their community.
Closing track “King’s Cross” is perhaps my favorite track on the thing, and it tells the tale of a lonely man searching for a job and continually being turned down, eventually winding back up at the King’s Cross train station cruising for sex; and “Hit Music” is a scary club jam that only reading the liner notes gave me indication was also about the crisis, and specifically the mentality of the nightclub being the only place in which gay men were free to live in the moment while outside they were shunned and their friends turned up dead. The most explicit song here though is one called “It Couldn’t Happen Here,” written for a friend of Tennant’s who’d died from AIDS (written perhaps about later again in “Being Boring” on their critical darling, Behavior) and humanizing the community in a far more beautiful and poetic way than any songs they’d released up until then had. Unlike most of the other songs on Actually, this one is dreamy and poppy, wistful, which contrasts it even greater with the louder, dancier statements on the album until then.
Even the songs that aren’t about AIDS here are important though. “Rent” is about a young man who’s attractive and poor to the point that he needs a sugar-daddy to survive, and “Shopping” is a satirical piece about Thatcher’s government selling national industries and profiting off of the nation’s hard work. That song was later used as a theme song for a mainstream British shopping network. Go figure. But the album, as expected, remains a classic in the gay community for its lyrical courage and hand in the ultimate triumph over Thatcherism. A film, directed by Tennant I believe, came out in the album’s wake too, called It Couldn’t Happen Here, after the beautiful ode at the heart of the record, about those in Britain struggling during and due to the AIDS crisis, and it’s soundtracked with most of the songs from the album. Unfortunately it’s hard to find. But Actually isn’t, and this June you owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven’t already. The Pet Shop Boys are still killing it out there, but this one’s a high-water mark. A powerful statement, and well-deserved classic.