17
Mar 10

PET SHOP BOYS – “It’s A Sin”

Popular72 comments • 4,259 views

#593, 4th July 1987, video

Neil Tennant does not have a weak voice but it is a thin one, with a limited range, and a lot of the Pet Shop Boys’ effectiveness comes from how they work with and around that. It means, for example, they can’t often surrender to euphoria like the hi-NRG and house music they’ve drawn from. The voice seems to work best at a distance from the sound, which meant they were regularly labelled ironists. But often the distance isn’t the knowing detachment of the commentator, it’s a felt, painful gap born of self-knowledge. No other pop star I can think of has had so many hit singles about self-reflection: looking back, considering ones life and its successes and failures: “Being Boring”, “Left To My Own Devices”, “Can You Forgive Her”, “Always On My Mind” even. Tennant is like some sort of Marcus Aurelius of pop.

And “It’s A Sin” is his first great exploration of the theme, though for me it’s the least of them. I’ve never quite loved it, though it’s marvellous fun, a brilliant tribute to the more grandiose end of italo disco. Its apocalyptic busy-ness works in the song’s defiant context, and all the samples, thunderclaps, Latin mumbling, synthetic gothickry and so on are great at establishing Tennant’s boyhood as a kind of moral Gormenghast he is still struggling to escape. But at the same time I can feel bludgeoned by it – the narrative flourishes (“They didn’t quite succeed!”) make me gasp and chuckle but they don’t get under my skin the way “Rent” or “Devices” do. Maybe I should just put it down to not being raised Catholic.

This is still a very fine record, though, and one of Tennant’s best performances. The force in his voice comes through fully as he hovers and swoops above the maelstrom of effects: a cold, wrathful tone he usually only shows in flashes. Perhaps you need to know what damnation is to sound quite so damning.

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Tom on 19 Mar 2010 #

    Some really good stuff on Madonna v PSB here – obviously we’ll have the mother of all opportunities to talk about Madge and religion but don’t let that stop this interesting conversation.

    I think Swanstep @49 is right – what’s at stake in “It’s A Sin” isn’t religion or childhood hang-ups or even sin, all of which the music casts in such a theatrical light it’s hard to take them seriously: it’s Tennant’s right to live as he pleases now, the coding Punctum talks about. So I guess my stuff about self-reflection is sort of wrong – or at least I don’t BELIEVE NT when he sings “when I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of shame”, certainly not the way I believe him in “Being Boring”, say.

  2. 52
    mike on 19 Mar 2010 #

    Lex (#48), your amazement is completely understandable. The PSBs were hardly hiding in the closet, and there was an unmistakeable gay subtext running through all their work, from roping in Bobby O for “West End Girls” onwards. The defiantly out-gay Derek Jarman produced the “It’s A Sin” video, and Ian Levine – the out-gay leading light of UK Hi-NRG (and Saturday night DJ at Heaven) – supplied one of the lead remixes.

    And yet, and yet… in the context of the times, where the British gay community (such as it was) felt under attack like never before (AIDS hysteria; overtly homophobic stories constantly running in the tabloid press, such as The Sun’s front page headline NOW THE POOFS CAN STAY IN THE PULPIT; a mounting brouhaha over “loony left” council spending priorities (including the “Jenny Lives With Eric And Martin” business) that led directly to Clause 28, “pretty police” agent provocateurs stalking cruising grounds and even chatting up gay men at gay venues and then arresting them for importuning, random police raids on gay pubs such as the Vauxhall Tavern, where the arresting officers wore protective rubber gloves), these barely coded signifiers STILL didn’t feel enough!

    These were ideologically entrenched times, and there was a mounting feeling that it was time to pick your side, stand up and be counted. (Hence for example the coming out of Ian McKellen, as a direct response to Clause 28. And of course he soon appeared in a PSBs video, but more of that another time.) So it didn’t wash that the PSBs were striving for universality, or maintaining their mystique, or that by coming out they would risk being bracketed as a strictly gay act, with the attendant restrictions that would then be placed upon the interpretation of their work.

    Which is not to say that there was any outright anger about this – just a sort of low-level muttering, in the young “activist” circles in which I was mixing, and who were turning up to my club nights.

    With hindsight, I do have more sympathy with their position. After Neil Tennant came out in Attitude magazine circa 1994 (and incidentally, Chris Lowe has never to this day declared his sexuality), the PSBs seemed to dabble for a while with some more explictly gay-identified output, and perhaps this *did* somewhat weaken them.

  3. 53

    Some of what make those times so baffling to look back on, I suspect, is that the activist community itself was so bitterly divided. I’ve talked a little on popular about the ugly wars — personal and political, cultural and ethical — within the NME’s editorial team (codename the “hiphop wars”); but these basically reflected broader, deeper turmoil within the (what to even call it?) “progressive community” as a whole at that time (if it was a community, it was a furiously internecine one). Anyway, it’s all too easy I think to look back and identify one strand as typical (and in retrospect bizarre); to overlook, because the battlesites have over 25 years moved elsewhere, that any given signifier of any given politics was back then bitterly contested, within the given movement agitating for that politics.

  4. 54
    enitharmon on 19 Mar 2010 #

    Mike at @52: You’ve got me puzzled now. If Neil Tennant only came out in 1994, how come I, who was only familiar with the name and not the music in 1997, knew for certain that the Pet Shop Boys were gay? Very shortly after this was number one I was involved in a lot of discussion about gay coding in popular culture and I knew it then, particularly with reference to a collaboration with Dusty Springfield. When I saw the video of this song the other day for the first time, it never occurred to me that the song was about the taboos around gay sexuality.

    There were a lot of openly gay people in my circle in Notting Hill – perhaps I knew it through them. But it never occurred to me that there was any ambiguity about it.

  5. 55

    There’s two meanings of “coming out” at issue here: coming out to friends, family, colleagues and so on; and making a public (quasi-political) statement. NT was early and unambiguous about the first (he operated in a very gay-friendly territory, the pop media); but interestingly dilatory about the second (at least in the eyes of some at the time). The first meant that it was a very open secret indeed from the mid-80s; but not one given official unambiguous sanction for almost a decade.

  6. 56
    enitharmon on 19 Mar 2010 #

    In @54 I mean to say : “it never occurred to me that the song wasn’t about the taboos around gay sexuality.”

  7. 57
    mike on 19 Mar 2010 #

    Rosie at #54: I guess it depended on where you stood. If you were having discussions about gay coding in popular culture with gay friends in Notting Hill, such things might have been self-evident – and perhaps there were enough friend-of-a-friend corroborations to turn supposition into fact. But if you were buying the 7-inch of “It’s A Sin” in Doncaster Woolies because you liked the video on The Chart Show, perhaps the coding was a good deal less apparent!

  8. 58
    mike on 19 Mar 2010 #

    Sükråt at #53 – quite agree with you re. the divisions within the activist community. Around the time of the Clause 28 protests, it was all getting very Judean Popular Front vs Popular Front Of Judea – God, the ROWS we used to have at campaign meetings! – although it was still kinda heartening to witness the SWP Trots and the RCP space cadets finding transitory common cause with the disco bunnies and flaming queens on the marches.

    Although this did lead on one occasion to the Best Demo Chant Ever, formulated specifically to piss off the opportunistic Trots:

    “Give us a G! Give us an A! Give us a Y! What does that spell? GAY! What is gay? GOOD! What else is gay? A BOURGEOIS DEVIATION THAT WILL DISAPPEAR COME THE REVOLUTION!”

  9. 59
    lex on 19 Mar 2010 #

    @52 – I guess I do understand, completely, why there were those mutters; but equally, I’ve always found it an important point that one’s right to be who you are* goes way beyond crude gender/sexuality/ethnicity labels – at heart this is a fight for individual expression, and bullying people into following a political agenda goes against the spirit of the thing. It’s not just crucial for me to be allowed to be a gay man – it’s crucial to be allowed to be a gay man in the ways I choose to be and the ways that I naturally am. So I have a great deal of sympathy for Tennant, who I imagine would have wondered why he had to make such a big song and dance about coming out when everyone already knew; in the same position, I’d also shy away from making any Official Public Announcement. It’s not that interesting or that important and it’d just be awkward to act like it is.

  10. 60
    mike on 19 Mar 2010 #

    Although I don’t think that was the freedom that we were explicitly fighting for at the time – the stated issues were more to do with emancipation and equality – it’s certainly the logical end-point of the struggle, and one that has, for many if not for all, largely been achieved. And Hallelujah for that!

  11. 61
    MichaelH on 19 Mar 2010 #

    By a significant distance, my least favourite PSB single up to the point in the mid-90s when I stopped being terribly interested in their singles. Too blousy and over emphasised, like a Sunday evening Victorian melodrama adaptation on BBC1. It seemed heavy handed, where the songs I liked were about lightness of touch, and since I came from a family where religion just didn’t matter in the slightest, the “father forgive me” section just had me rolling my eyes. The poster above who notes that it sounds simultaneously overdone and underdone reflects my feelings: it’s a song I always skip when I put on Discography or Pop/Art.

  12. 62
    johnny on 19 Mar 2010 #

    I don’t know much about NT in this instance, but how much do you think his refusal to be pinned-down by making a public statement was an act of promotion? Again, I know nothing about him so I’m not implying it was. The reason I ask is because it reminds me a bit of the position Michael Stipe of REM was put in (put himself in?) in the early ’90s. The meme put forward by the hetero rock press was “Why won’t Stipe just admit he’s gay?” and, for his part, MS definitely played along and used this ambiguity to his own ends in promoting his band. This probably peaked with the promotion of the “Monster” album in ’94, the album’s subject matter itself dealing with issues of sexuality and public persona. Every interview from this time seemed to focus on MS toying with journalists re his sexuality.

    Sorry if that’s a bit off-topic, but what I’m wondering is: could NT be accused of having done the same at this time?

  13. 63
    H. on 19 Mar 2010 #

    It’s worth remembering that there were very few top 40 type stars who were unequivocably “out” in a Jimmy Somerville way at this time. There were many who didn’t particularly try to cover it up but stopped short of publicly proclaiming their homosexuality. In 1987, George Michael was still in the closet, Freddie Mercury was coy about it, even Elton John had felt the need to marry a woman only a few years before. It was quite a different world in that respect.

  14. 64
    enitharmon on 19 Mar 2010 #

    mike @ 57: Actually the discussions about gay coding in popular culture were with Open University students in Preston but yes, you make a very fair point. Which can be extrapoltaed to comment in passing that the pop scene looks very different out in the sticks from what it does to the cool kids in the Kings Road or the offices of the NME!

    1987 was a year when I learnt a great deal about things I hadn’t thought much about before. It was in the general election of that year – on the previous Madonna patch – that my partner and I decided after a heavy leafleting session to show solidarity by calling into The Champion on the Gate. I knew something about that kind of coding, of course, but there was still something startling about the massed ranks of men, all with near-identical shaved heads, moustaches, leather jackets, plaid shirts and belted jeans.

    Before the year was out I’d know a great deal more about the infinite varieties of the West London ‘scene’!

  15. 65
    AndyPandy on 19 Mar 2010 #

    What an amazing sleeve! (I’ve never seen it before) – the classic seedy bedsit kitchen unit etc – extremely evocative.

    63: very true there was always an element of obfuscation around all gay pop stars – Boy George saying he preferred a cup of tea, George Michael pretending his PA was his girlfriend (incidentally re Rosie’s on “how did she know NT was gay before he came out” I knew George Michael was gay from about 1983/84 as there were insinuations in gossip columns all the time – I remember a particular one from around that time in the “Blues and Soul” clubbin’ gossip column of all places talking about George being a regular at the Coleherne which I believe was a gay pub).
    The only unequivocally gay pop-star back then was Tom Robinson (famously always tagged buy the Sun “Britain’s Number One Gay” back then).

    Fatgit@ 46: Allegri, Tallis (esp “In Spem Allium”), Rachmaninov Vespers etc surely the most beautiful music ever made – the ultimate chillout.

    Mike @52: was the Vauxhall Tavern round the back off Strawberry Sundae (underneath the arches) in Vauxhall – as that may be the pub my very straight friends went in by mistake before I met them in Strawberry Sundae one night).

    Swanstep @ 49: I don’t think this is the place to be slagging off religion in such a smug way.And re your idea that religion is in some way dying I would draw your attention to such books as “God Is Back – How The Global Rise of Faith Is Changing The World” by Micklethwait and Wooldridge (an atheist and a Catholic incidentally) to show how wrong you are.
    Someone was bemoaning not having a secular upbringing, I was brought up a Methodist (and to be honest would have loved to have had a secular childhood when I was a kid)but I’m very grateful that I was part of that world now. Looking back most of the people who belonged to our church (as in Methodism generally )were decent working-class/lower middle class people who overall I’m very glad now to have known.

    My attitude may have been a bit different if I’d been brought up an Anglican where it’s always been much more of a case of “the Tory party at prayer” and being a part of a club where being seen to attend trumps any actual belief 10 times over.Having said that the leaders were always a thorn in Thatcher’s side so they couldn’t have been all bad…

  16. 66
    swanstep on 19 Mar 2010 #

    @AndyPandy,65. Sorry to have caused offence, but, in all seriousness, I *wasn’t* slagging off religion. I discussed (pontificated about!) religion strictly at a meta-level, e.g., ‘In the US religion goes like this. In the UK et al. it goes like this….’ and suggested that those differences explain at least some of the difference between PSB and Mad. that others had identified.

  17. 67
    lonepilgrim on 19 Mar 2010 #

    the gay/pop/religion intersection is covered in the latest issue of The Word magazine which features an interview with Richard Coles, formerly of the parish of The Communards and now a senior Curate in Knightsbridge – coincidently(?) he speaks highly of ‘spem in alium’

  18. 68
    Conrad on 26 Mar 2010 #

    What a dirge. I just don’t get this PSB love-in at all I’m afraid. Tennant’s voice is a problem, and maybe the first reason why I always find them so unloveable. I don’t know – the synth sounds are too pompous as well. And this record sounds slow to me.

    Like Classix Nouveau meets Yes.

  19. 69
    ciaran on 4 Apr 2010 #

    Thought this would be a 10.Probably my favourite PSB track.was only a toddler at this time but still thought it was great when i first heard it and still holds up to this day.Indeed maybe my favourite number one of all time.Frantic speed, great intro,wonderful chorus and the slowed down reflections of tennant only to speed up again just after the second chorus.marvellous.

    call it overblown if you like but i believe that it helps the song.of all the 80s songs ive heard on the list so far its by far and away one of the most attention grabbing, exciting ones you will come come across.

    10.

  20. 70
    DobbyNobson on 8 Jun 2010 #

    As I was reading this, this very song came on the radio. It’s a great pop track and probably my fave PSB song.

  21. 71
    fredy on 9 Sep 2012 #

    i think it a sin is the one of the best pop song in all history

    many psb songs relate religion issues:
    paninaro,closer to heaven ,This must be the place I waited years to leave, searching for the face of jesus,you funny uncle,

    ,and my favourite is birthday boy, in which they compared to mathew shephard with jesus

  22. 72
    DanH on 2 Aug 2013 #

    I didn’t know this until I got into U.K. charts, even though it did scale the Top 10 here in the States. Yeah this is not a fave of mine, I prefer the similar but smaller-scale “Opportunities.” Cool video though, with the 7 Deadly Sins shown throughout.

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