And so we reach the finishing line of our Pet Shop Boys marathon, first begun in honour of their new single, “Winner” (to recap on what it’s all been about go to our introduction, here). For those of you who have been keeping an eye out, you’ll know we’ve been naming what we consider to be the 10 greatest Pet Shop Boys songs, as well as the B Sides, the ones that almost made it but didn’t quite. Looking back we realise that much as we love the pop Pet Shop Boys (and they feature heavily in the B Sides, from Always On My Mind through to Domino Dancing), it’s the melancholic, thoughtful side of the duo (from Jealousy through to Being Boring) that we love most of all. And that’s certainly represented in our final choice.
A Side – It Couldn’t Happen Here
And from the apocalypse springs beauty. There have been many famous songs written about the AIDS epidemic that emotionally and physically decimated the gay community in the early 80s (ranging from the Pet Shop Boys’ own “Being Boring” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia”) but none have matched “It Couldn’t Happen Here”. Though the music is orchestral, lush and beautiful to the point of being almost – but not quite – too much, the lyrics are of horror and disbelief, as well as a terrible, weighty sorrow.
Written long before new treatments stopped the HIV virus from being an automatic death sentence, Tennant heartbreakingly captures the moment when the gay community was first able to see the extent of the hell that had fallen and would continue to fall upon it – friends dying by the dozen, usually in agony, often terribly young. He doesn’t name the disease once in the song, but nobody with any awareness of the world around them could fail to understand what this terrible “it” in the title was.
For those who didn’t live at the heart of those plague years (and that includes the writers of Pop Lifer, who were 11 at the time this song was released, and only aware of AIDS through the terrifying public advertisements, and media hysteria) “it almost seems impossible”, in Tennant’s own words. Many religious tubthumpers gleefully said the gay community had brought the apocalypse upon themselves. One of the worst things was that some in the gay community secretly, partly believed this. After the hedonism of the seventies, the surge towards public recognition and personal freedom after centuries of repression, AIDS could seem like some terrible Biblical punishment for having dared to live a life that we had been told was wrong. As Tennant sings, “we’ve laughed too loud, and woke up everyone.”
As Pop Lifer reader Michael Kay emails, the fear was that AIDS would reverse all that progress, would destroy not only gay men, but the fledgling gay rights movement itself. As Michael writes “the gay community has risen beyond all expectations since, but 1987 was a whole different world, and this song captures it perfectly and beautifully. Did I mention that it sounds bloody amazing too? It hasn’t dated to this day, and still brings a tear to my eye.”
We can only agree. It is perhaps the most exquisite song the Pet Shop Boys have ever released, something for which arranger Angelo Badalamenti must take much credit, given the sublime orchestral backing (though the duo’s extraordinary instinct for choosing unexpected and exceptional collaborators also deserves credit – this was released long before Twin Peaks made Badalamenti famous). That all of this beauty, all of this grace, was bestowed upon such a terrible and ugly disease is what makes the song so remarkable, and definitive proof that pop music can be great and powerful art, that there is absolutely no contradiction in this. Key lyric: “Now it almost seems impossible/ We’ve ended up right back where we started from.”
Apologies but for copyright reasons the video is unavailable. Still, some snooping around on Google should sort you out, but if you don’t own “Actually”, the album it came from, and one of the finest pop records of all time then do yourself a favour and buy it here.
B Side – Paninaro
After the intensity of “It Couldn’t Happen Here” it is something of a relief to end with a song which is as frothy, eccentric, poppy, silly and sheer fun as “Paninaro”. We’ve already said that one of the signs of a pop band’s greatness is writing songs that could only be written by them but another is to be so abundantly brilliant that they can fill their b sides with amazing songs (see The Smiths, Suede): Paninaro meets both criteria. Originally the b side to “Suburbia”, the song is about the 1980s Italian youth subculture known as the paninari, a fashion-crazed movement who caught the Pet Shop Boys’ ever curious eye, and is a glorious celebration of the things that make life worth living: “girls, boys, art, pleasure.” A perfect antidote to “It Couldn’t Happen Here”‘s terrible sadness, Chris Lowe’s biggest moment in the Pet Shop Boys spotlight and one of their very greatest, most distinctively PSB moments. Key lyric: “I don’t like much really, do I?/ But what I do like, I love passionately.”
We love the Pet Shop Boys -passionately. But maybe you had already guessed.