“But this wasn’t going to be the first single from the album. Heart was agreed to be the first single. It had You Know Where You Went Wrong on the b-side and we’d done artwork for it with Chris and I smiling, because we were so sick of people saying ‘please smile’. Then, one day, we were in Paris promoting Suburbia, the famous time we had to rehearse miming on the radio and we threw a major wobbler because it was so stupid. Anyway, Tom Watkins phoned up and said, ‘Right, no one at EMI dares say this to you but everyone thinks you’re mad not releasing It’s A Sin because it’s easily the most commercial track on the album. I know you’re not going to listen to anything I say but I think you should think about it.’ So we did. We were going to use the same artwork, but Jill Carrington – who worked at EMI and later became our manager – said, ‘No, it’s stupid for It’s A sin.’ So we did a new session with Eric Watson in a church in Spitalfields.”
Neil Tennant, Actually reissue booklet, 2001
It’s consistently fascinating how much a song or record can trigger memories of the past, many of which we imagined were lost forever. Without warning, a lyric, a hook or even a beat can instantly transport you back in time, like a Tardis excursion in the head that only you’re privy to. Songs can be, quite literally, in the key moments of life.
Coming from Britain, home-grown acts like the Pet Shop Boys have had more than their fair share of personal musical markers for me. I entered my teens in the summer of 1982, the very same summer that saw Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe in a poky basement studio in Camden Town writing a damning confessional entitled It’s A Sin, a full five years before its official release.
My further education (or tertiary, if you’re reading this in my adopted Australia) kicked off in September 1985; just a month before West End Girls – PSB’s first chart-topper – was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. I can still visualise my Bletchley Park classmates opining on their ‘controversial’ appearance on Top Of The Pops, in particular Chris Lowe’s one-finger keyboard mime, as if it were yesterday. Garry hated it, but then he liked poodle-permed rawk, so what the hell did she know?
Flash forward to 15 June 1987 and the arresting melodrama of It’s A Sin was finally released and about to make its considerably shorter ascent up the charts. In fact, the week I turned 18, the track – with its sensational fire and brimstone (still the most explosive intro in the Tennant/Lowe catalogue) – caterpaulted itself straight into the UK Top 40 at No.5, instantly besting the peaks of the duo’s singles from the previous year. I’d become ‘of age’, but as Margaret Thatcher had already been returned to Downing Street for the third time earlier that month, I had to wait until the ripe old age of 22 before I could vote in a General Election.
It’s A Sin was earmarked for release much earlier than as the trailblazing trailer for their sophomore album, actually, as Tennant recalls demoing it “in New York with Bobby ‘O’ (in 1984). We thought of recording it with Stock Aitken Waterman for (their first album) Please because we liked You Think You’re A Man, the Divine record they did, but Pete Waterman didn’t like the song. We also submitted it to Divine’s manager.” They didn’t even receive a response.
On its second week on chart, It’s A Sin became the boys’ second No.1. The same June ’87 saw me complete that City & Guilds college course and already gained full-time employment as a grill chef at the distinctly unglamorous Harvester by the Milton Keynes Bowl – later the venue for memorable concerts by David Bowie and Michael Jackson – in Buckinghamshire. Even now whenever I hear It’s A Sin I can’t help but think of surf ’n’ turf.
It’s A Sin found Tennant and Lowe pushing their hi-NRG arsenal into the red, overloading it with an army of gloriously gothic bangs and – quite literally – flashes. I was used to the synthetic simplicity of the duo’s earlier singles, so when Simon Bates premiered this grandiose over-the-top slice of disco drama on BBC Radio 1 my first impressions were I thought it sounded too euro, actually.
In these pre-satellite dish days, there was free cable access to the fledgling single channel Sky TV where we lived. And one could really detect the Italo Disco influence of Sandra, Desireless and even Princess Stephanie of Monaco, who were dominating the Eurochart Top 50, broadcast every weekend by Sky and hosted by various sexy Dutch girls and Pat Sharp.
It’s A Sin is Neil Tennant’s first great exploration of the theme of looking back; in this instance glaring, accusingly, at the St Cuthbert’s Roman Catholic High school in Newcastle upon Tyne he attended in the 1960s. “Having been brought up as a Catholic you thought everything was a sin, said the singer. “You’re told that thinking about it is as bad as doing it.” Tennant has no qualms about mocking the archaic institution of Roman Catholicism but there’s also an underlying sense of humaneness in his work that seems to be quite Catholic in its instruction. In 2009 he told The Atlantic magazine:
“When we brought out It’s a Sin, it was quite interesting, because people took it really seriously; the song was written in about 15 minutes, and was intended as a camp joke and it wasn’t something I consciously took very seriously. Sometimes I wonder if there was more to it than I thought at the time, but the local parish priest in Newcastle delivered a sermon on it, and reflected on how the Church changed from the promise of a ghastly hell to the message of love.
“I’ve become less religious as I’ve got older. Even when I wrote It’s A Sin part of me was probably still a Catholic. The thing that I always liked about Catholicism they got rid of! I liked the Latin and the incense and the sort of music and plainsong. When I was eight years old I could sing the Latin mass in plainsong because I was an altar boy. It was ghastly to hear all those boys sing. It was a like a football chant. But there was something very beautiful about that.”
It’s A Sin was one of the first songs in mainstream pop to critique religion, pre-dating Madonna‘s Like A Prayer shenanigans by a good couple of years. ”When I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of shame” opens an act of contrition that finds our protagonist admitting to being a modern-day heretic.
Tennant’s witty, valedictory disdain for Church indoctrination is deliciously conveyed in “At school they taught me how to be, so pure in thought and word and deed. They didn’t quite succeed.” He’s smirking at them here, goading the hierarchy, wallowing in his impurity and heresy, though with typical understatement, Neil claims it was little more than a throwaway: “The song was meant to be kind of big and funny and camp… The first of our funny, silly songs.”
Indeed, it is fantastic fun. Rarely can songs make you gasp and chuckle simultaneously, though it’s easy to feel bludgeoned by the song’s apocalyptic oppressiveness. Far from euphoric, the cold, wrathful tone, coupled with a maelstrom of epic effects – samples of preachers and choirs at mass, NASA countdown, thunderclaps and meā culpā mumbling, to name just a few – add a foreboding ambience to the defiant narrative flourishes (“They didn’t quite succeed!”), savaging the dogma of the young master Tennant’s boyhood he’s still struggling to escape.
Perhaps you need to know what damnation is to sound quite so damning. It’s A Sin was seminal because it reflected the waning power of the Church, heralded the emancipation of gays in the time of AIDS hysteria, and showed just what was possible between two men and a synthesiser. I will survive? Hell, yeah.
To date, It’s A Sin remains a concert staple, being one of only two songs (alongside West End Girls) that has been played during every Pet Shop Boys tour, and one of four or five songs they will surely be remembered for, and, by far, the Tennant/Lowe song most frequently covered by other artists. It also ended 1987 as the biggest selling single of the year in Europe. And the young Madonna, then on her first European tour, couldn’t have failed to notice. I wonder if she surfs and turfs.
PS I’ve written this article from the Upper Fountain suite at the iconic Hotel Portmeirion in North Wales. The very same room that, coincidentally, Noël Coward used to pen Blithe Spirit 76 years ago. Fittingly, PSB covered his later song Sail Away in 1998 as part of a Neil Tennant-helmed tribute album, Twentieth Century Blues: The Songs of Noël Coward