Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Fundamental Opposition

Richard and I listened to the new Pet Shop Boys album Fundamental last night. It’s good, as many reviews have said. A lot of the songs have a very ‘big’ sound often previously associated with the Pet Shop Boys, as many reviews have also said. What I wasn’t expecting is just how political it is, nor how serendipitously timed; released two days after Doctor Who showed us a world of terrifying Cyber-conformity, while the targets of the final song are New Labour and their ID cards and register, it might have been written as a soundtrack for the Cybermen.

There’s another Doctor Who connection, for me at least, as every Saturday we discuss the new Doctor Who story (doesn’t that just sound great?) and then Richard always beats me to a review when he writes up thoughts in his guest pieces for Millennium. While normally Richard is more the PSB fan of the two of us, the other night, I found I could remember all the Pet Shop Boys albums when he couldn’t; I felt like Stuart Alan Jones naming the Doctors. Perhaps it was a rite of passage on the way to, this one time, beating Richard to a review. I suspect Millennium will still find plenty to say about it – he might mention the remix album we’ve not heard yet, he’ll be wittier than I am, he’ll have a different scary pop video image to put in your head and, last and probably least, I’d lay money that he doesn’t mention Tom Robinson.

A dozen years ago, when Richard and I first met, both of us had favourite gay artists that we used to listen to a lot, but there was quite a wide gulf between Tom Robinson and the Pet Shop Boys (not least that I quite liked his and he was not at all taken with mine). What’s surprising about Fundamental is that it’s almost as if my political punk and Richard’s dispassionate electropop have finally joined forces. It’s all about politics and sex.

Open up the CD case, in midnight black with neon lights, and appropriately enough it starts off with the threatening sound of Psychological; insidious rather than inviting start, though its studied creepiness still isn’t as terrifying as the world-conquering power of the final track (but more on that later). The big sound and arch religion of The Sodom and Gomorrah Show “Sun, sex, sin, divine intervention” – is fast, upbeat, poppy and very Pet Shop Boys, as in a quite different way is the familiar quiet regret of I Made My Excuses and Left, conjuring up the awkwardness of ‘bumping into the ex and their new lover’ so perfectly that anyone who’s been there can’t help but wince. The title of Casanova in Hell pretty much says what you’ve going to get, as does Minimal, harsh electronica with a good beat to it that I rather enjoyed. The quiet, gentle Luna Park reminds me of a quietly haunting Gerry Rafferty song, I think, though it remains tantalisingly just too far out of reach for me to check.

There are several songs on the album with a distant echo to me of other songs that took a while to place; when I first heard I’m With Stupid, I knew it reminded me of something, but it was many listenings later that I realised the melody recalled the Tom Robinson Band’s We Didn’t Know What Was Going On, a fierce track on the dangers of the government taking away freedom. Coincidentally, now the Pet Shop Boys are doing the same. After I’m With Stupid’s take on Mr Blair and Mr Bush, Numb begins with an orchestra and the cry “Don’t wanna hear the news…” from someone who finds it all too much and doesn’t want to hear any more, just as Twentieth Century sings of “one hundred years of inhumanity”. Perpetual point-scoring attacks on asylum seekers are quietly rejected in the lover-as-refugee song Indefinite Leave to Remain (just to confuse the ‘big sounds’, the gentle, understated tailing-off at the end is reminiscent of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky, which was all grand orchestration). However, the biggest song in every respect is the show-stopping climax, Integral.

I wonder just how daring their record company is going to be? Integral is by a long way the best track on the album, and the one that sounds most like a single: great tune, stunning orchestration, catchy chorus first appearing as the opening hook in the best She Loves You style… But it’s also a naked assault on New Labour both in its lyrics and in its terrifyingly triumphalist power. Sung as if by a swivel-eyedly Blairite choir, it’s again a familiar style of polemic from Tom Robinson to take the point of view of your opponent and make their creed curdle your blood, most famously in the spoken interlude from Power in the Darkness (the latest version, a 2004 remix, follows a news broadcast on the tasks of detaining suspected terrorists and returning to ‘spiritual and moral freedom for the British people’ with Tom’s Blairalike “Freedom to depose every unpleasant government / To do whatever needs to be done / Freedom from NATO and the United Nations / Freedom for the missile and the gun / Freedom from legality / Freedom from reality / Freedom from alternative views / Freedom from sanity / Freedom from humanity / Freedom from the likes of you…” You won’t have heard it; it wasn’t so much released as escaped, but I liked it all the same).

The whole project
It’s brand new
Conceived solely
To protect you
Strident and terrifyingly confident in its righteousness and its right to force everyone to be the same for their own good, this is an outstanding pop track with a particular appeal to Lib Dems – and you don’t get many of those to the euro. Will listening to this on your earpod be banned at Westminster? Will the sound of Integral blasting out of an office become the new way to spot another New Labour loyalist sickened and turning to revolt? Or are the irony levels of Labour’s identical army set so low that they’ll take it as an anthem, like Michael Portillo listening to Shopping in the ‘80s?

If you've done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you've something to hide
You shouldn't even be here
You've had your chance
Now we've got the mandate
If you've changed your mind
I'm afraid it's too late
We're concerned
You’re a threat
You're not integral
To the project
The ruthless, committed conformity the track proclaims is blatantly targeted at the government, but when we heard it last night the hairs rose on the backs of both our necks. It sounds even more like a rally by Cybermen than by Mr Blair’s true believers. After Saturday’s The Age of Steel, this is so apposite that it’s a shame it wasn’t out early enough to be a backing track on Doctor Who Confidential. Thanks to the pervasiveness of the vocoder in electronic pop, the bridge – by chance, the lyric most suited to the Cyberman ideal of preservation by making everything exactly the same for ever – even sounds like it’s sung by Cybermen.

One world
One life
One chance
One reason
All under
One sky
One season
Should this be released as a single, I don’t know what the video might involve to avoid being banned for political bias. I know the image that shot into my mind as I heard it, though: Mr Blair on a clifftop, heroic, towering, implacable, the wind running through his thinning hair, his armies of Cybermen on the march behind him. Some years ago there were a number of videos in circulation where rapid-fire clips from Doctor Who stories were set to appropriate pop songs. I remember particularly The Time Warp (obviously), A View to a Kill, and songs by the Pet Shop Boys such as Left to My Own Devices, Too Many People and Can You Forgive Her? Reader, if you know the person who created such things, beg them to come out of retirement to create the Integral Cybervideo. They’re needed.

Mr Blumic, I think that’s a vote for free will.

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Funnily enough "Indefinite Leave to Remain" never occurred to me to be actually about asylum seekers. I assumed it was just a love song cleverly written with that kind of language.

Amazing how I miss the bleeding obvious sometimes.

My only problem with "Integral" is that it desperately leaves me wanting more. If they don't do one of their now-trademark Maxi-Mixes of it there's no justice.

I also kind of worry that most Blairites won't understand that it's actually condemning their point of view. But hey. They're lost.

The Demo version of "Sodom and Gomorrah" is on iTunes and is fascinating. More of a stripped down electronic affair I think I kind of prefer it. (Fabulous though Anne Dudley's orchestration is.)
It was so bleedin' obvious that I didn't spot it the first time. Richard did, though, so I can pretend I'm the clever one ;-) I like the subtlety of making you empathise with the singer of a love song and so putting yourself into a refugee's shoes, rather than just bashing in the point.

Well, I notice there's no mix of Integral on the extra disc, and as it sounds so good and they seem to like it - it was in their concert broadcast at the weekend - perhaps that suggests they're holding it back for a single. Fingers crossed.

We solved the problem of 'more' by just sticking it on repeat.

I also kind of worry that most Blairites won't understand that it's actually condemning their point of view. But hey. They're lost.

Well, indeed. It's always the problem with irony; an old friend who was a big Bruce Springsteen fan used to tell me of the irritation that Reaganites took up 'Born In the USA' as an anthem, rather than a condemnation. And your phrase also suggests the late John Woodnutt in a big beard calling Harriet Harman a "lost, degraded creature," which can't be bad.

Ooh, I shall have to point Richard towards iTunes...

Thanks for popping by - lovely to see you :-)
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