Mar 10

PET SHOP BOYS – “It’s A Sin”

Popular74 comments • 7,609 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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  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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’!

  5. 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…

  6. 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.

  7. 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’

  8. 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.

  9. 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. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 73
    hectorthebat on 5 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Blender (USA) – Standout Tracks from the 500 CDs You Must Own (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    OUT (USA) – The 25 Gayest Songs of the 1980s (2011)
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 15
    Paul Morley (UK) – Words and Music, 210 Greatest Pop Singles of All Time (2003)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 345
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 410
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 30

  14. 74
    Gareth Parker on 6 Jun 2021 #

    Another very good PSB single imho. 8/10.

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