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Life is peaceful there? Russia, Ukraine and Pet Shop Boys’ Go West at 30

In May 2023, well-seeded tennis player Daniil Medvedev claimed his first clay-court title by winning the Italian Open at Foro Italico in Rome. As the lanky Russian gleefully hoisted the trophy at the award ceremony, the stadium’s PA system blasted the Pet Shop Boys’ euphoric dance hit Go West, an adaption of the Village People’s minor hit from 1979.

Whilst it’s become a massively ubiquitous selection at sporting events – ever since football got in on the act after Chris Lowe’s home team reimagined it as One Nil To The Arsenal with Ian Wright – the PSB’s 1993 dance classic was a peculiar choice to mark Medvedev’s victory.

First off, it’s common knowledge that the melody of the Village People original — and especially the Pet Shop Boys redux with its soaring French horn intro — resembles the State Anthem Of The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR’s national anthem, and, later the current equivalent, the State Anthem Of The Russian Federation, which uses the same music attributed to Alexander Alexandrov). In the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russian sports competitors are not allowed to officially represent their country or carry its national flag, with no Russian music performed at any occasion either.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=E2xg8f1FhCo

Secondly, the song has a not-so-subtle message. While the original lyrics, by Jacques Morali, Henri Belolo and Victor Willis, were about finding opportunities (if not lots of money) by migrating to the American West Coast – ostensibly the gay “mecca” of San Francisco – the Pet Shop Boys take, released less than four years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was less about partying the night away and more of an international reimagining with a new coda and rejigged words by Neil Tennant. 

A self-confessed scholar of Russian history, Tennant re-imbued Go West with a backdrop referencing the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the former Iron Curtain countries, ultimately embracing Western values and “our pace of life”. As oil to hammer and sickle the point home, the PSB’s triumphant promotional video uses images of the Statue of Liberty amid myriad symbols of the USSR, communism and Russian landmarks, like Moscow’s Red Square. 

The irony was not lost on some viewers who watched the tennis trophy presentation.

What is even more remarkable in 2023 is that this thirty year-old pop promo now looks like an unnervingly prescient clarion call, in which cartoon-like armies of Lycra-clad soldiers, Constructivist graphics and camp choir choruses dwarf the lead characters, unembarrassed by their blue-and-yellow boiler suits and ridiculous colander helmets.

Yellow and blue being the colours of the Ukraine flag. So you can sing Go West over the Russian National Anthem while visually honouring Ukraine’s fight for freedom. Talk about subversive. 

It’s well known that the chord structure of Go West is loosely based on Pachelbel’s Canon in D (as is the Russian National Anthem), but in recent years an even more alarming discovery emerged: it shares some remarkable melodic elements with Give Thanks With A Grateful Heart, an American Christian worship song written by Henry Smith in 1978, ie the year before Go West was originally released. 

Whatever the source material, the utopian optimism of the original was modified in the PSB’s cover – or their “adaptation”, according to Neil – transforming the song into into a more restrained, melancholy and altogether more knowing delivery.

It’s been said that the darker approach had everything to do with the knowledge of the AIDS epidemic that was still causing carnage throughout the gay community, adding a twist to the once optimistic and promising message that the Village People shared. Indeed, Tennant and Lowe came up with the idea just months after Freddie Mercury had passed away from an AIDS-related illness in November 1991.

Go West might have remained little more than a footnote in the history of pop were it not for a call asking Pet Shop Boys to appear at an HIV fundraiser gig, on 13 May 1992. With Manchester’s Haçienda the venue, the show was organised by their occasional collaborator, the filmmaker Derek Jarman, then in the final stages of his own battle with the virus. Neil said the duo had planned to perform a cover of The Beatles’ The Fool On The Hill, “because I knew the chords”, until Chris Lowe overruled Neil and dug out this marginalised and almost forgotten track by a band he had always loved, despite their novelty kitsch appeal.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the Village People. I thought Go West would suit Neil’s voice and I thought it would be a good song to play at a Derek Jarman event – a song about an idealistic gay utopia. I knew the way Neil would sing it would make it sound hopeless – you’ve got these inspiring lyrics, but it sounds like it’s never going to be achieved.”

The mysterious, enigmatic twosome who’d given us moody epics like Rent and It’s A Sin and brutal kitchen sink dramas like the Madness-inspired Suburbia (essentially Our House part two in all but name) would never have countenanced singing Village People songs. Would they?

It’s tempting to see Go West as a knee-jerk response to the swingorilliant success of Erasure’s Abba-esque EP. After all, the other synth duo’s tribute to a bygone band from the 1970s achieved two feats PSB never quite pulled off: crashing straight into pole position atop the British singles chart and staying there for five solid weeks.

Go West was, in chart crossover terms, pretty much the Pet Shop Boys’ last throw of the dice – but even that was a rework of a previous gambit: the OTT mega cover grab for the year’s festive No.1.

The parallels with 1987 are striking, because soon after the Village People track was recorded its vague designation as a B-side-turned-standalone Crimbo single mirrored that of the happy fate of Always On My Mind five years earlier.

Alas, it was not to be. In their Yuletide 1992 edition, Select magazine’s strapline claimed that the Boys had decided to “bottle it in Xmas single race” to avoid any sense that they were reacting to the success of Abba-esque. Knowing full well that a confirmation or denial would make jolly good copy, the music monthly’s Andrew Harrison would raise the issue in a subsequent interview with the pair. It worked. 

Neil (crisply): “We’d never have done Abba-esque in a million years.”

Chris: “Far too tacky for us, that.”

Neil: “I’m afraid we first did Go West at the Haçienda’s tenth birthday party, which was considerably before Abba-esque came out. One reason we didn’t put it out last Christmas was because someone at EMI said ‘Oh, it’d look a bit like Abba-esque wouldn’t it?’”

Considering that the original version of Go West mixed by Mark ‘Spike’ Stent has an unmistakably Vince Clarke-sounding high synth riff that had been carried over from the initial demo, I’d say there was certainly a whiff of bandwagoning at some stage in the proceedings, yes.

In fact, Erasure’s EP was released just two and half weeks after the Haçienda gig, and had already been ‘serviced’ to radio, as they say in the industry.

“Pet Shop Boys has always been a struggle between total embarrassment and total shamelessness.” — Neil Tennant

Tennant said he hated the idea of covering Go West at first, opining that Chris’s suggestion was “ghastly beyond belief”. And the pair maintain that Parlophone dissuaded them from releasing a one-off single and thought the track had better disco potential as promo for their yet to be completed next album – at which point, not totally happy with the mix anyway, they tinkered with it into the new year and buried the offending Erasure-ish synth line, more’s the pity.

No fun in winter time then.

The boys asked Brothers In Rhythm, then regular fixtures on the pop and dance charts, to remix it. The production mavericks improved the bassline and brought the now-so-familiar brass arrangement up higher. Along with a group of Broadway show vocalists, the brief sample of seagulls at the start and Steve Anderson’s wonderful piano work, Go West’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach worked.

With their radical new image(s) unveiled in the summer of 1993, Tennant and Lowe resumed their partnership with the brilliantly sequenced blazing megapop of fifth studio set Very catapulting the Pet Shop Boys back into public consciousness, bagging them their only UK No.1 album to date. And in a pop double whammy, Go West, its second single after Can You Forgive Her, was also the duo’s biggest hit for over five years, an almost chart-topper that narrowly missed out on the September top spot by little more than a thousand sales. As Smash Hits most probably said, Ver Boys were back, back, back!

Having said that, I know from listening to friends at the time that a combination of the dressing up and covering the Village People lost the Boys some of the street cred and artistic clout of yesteryear: “Pet Shop Prats” was a phrase I heard fairly regularly back then. Perhaps that bothered the duo not a jot though, especially as Neil Tennant was quick to point out that they were picking up new fans elsewhere, proudly telling one interviewer he’d discovered the video, with its CGI’d infinity staircase into space (an “oblique tribute to A Matter Of Life And Death”) was a huge hit with the under-tens. 

Presumably in the same way that the video to Mr Blobby was a huge hit with the under-tens. 

We’ll be what we want to be

For what it’s worth, my personal recollection is that my house mate Judi witnessed the full song and video before me by being home during the ITV Chart Show’s Saturday morning premiere when I was, quite literally, ‘up West’ in Central London. Upon my return she told me what she thought of Go West:

“It’s really funny!”

And I, in typical Tennant speak, remember thinking ‘I don’t know if I like that reaction.’ I can’t speak for others, but I’m not sure I really relished my favourite band turning into a comedy duo.

The recoloured Pet Shop Boys aesthetic came at the cost of alienating some of their following, who viewed them as tacky tin-pot parodies of their former selves, intent on ripping up their image and going for broke. It’s a marmite song, I suppose, and whether you like it or not depends on if you can stomach the Village People or not. Even Tennant himself laments that it was the song “that defined us as a gay band,” though with hindsight I always think perhaps the male voice choir, described by arranger Richard Niles as “very butch, very camp”, are mixed too lamely, as if Team PSB were nervous about making the barrel-chested vocalists more prominent for fear of being too Village People. 

Gavin Reeve from Tennant’s old employers Smash Hits was even less convinced, awarding Go West just two out of five stars and remarking that “Neil and Chris have dug up an old Village People hit from the ’70s and changed it from a singalong disco number to a… singalong disco number.” 

Much more enthusiastic was the NME’s John Harris. Then again my future editor at MOJO is a rabid Beatles and Bob Dylan aficionado, and I know from working with him absolutely loves What Have I Done To Deserve This? With admirable aplomb, JH named Go West “Complete Genius Single of the Week”, and considered it a song that “combines the ostentatious playfulness last mastered by the KLF with the Pet Shop Boys’ velvet-lined sumptuousness and an immeasurable poignancy. What a record.”

Spin’s Jonathan Bernstein decided that “It should be camp, ridiculous, and overblown. It is. But it’s also curiously affecting. Tennant’s wistful reading of the song’s yearning for acceptance turns laughter at the surrounding bombast into a lump in the throat. You can only keep it bottled up for so long.” 

David Petrilla from The Weekender said Go West “sounds like the Village People meet Al Stewart”, adding, “expect to start marching in place and finding your arms up in the air when you hear it.”

Thirty years on, the marching, the arms in the air and the sporty testosterone-fuelled fist pumps are still very much in evidence.

“Who would have thought that an obscure Village People song covered by Pet Shop Boys would become the song of football?” says Chris Lowe. “It’s fantastic. I think it’s our greatest achievement.”

Who’s for tennis?

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS

Pet Shop Boys didn‘t perform Go West on British telly at the time, mainly due to Top Of The Pops going through their brilliantly fascist “live vocals only, please“, which meant they couldn’t sample the voice choir from the record. Here’s an idea of what it would have been like, taken from Italian TV in 1994, and apparently the day the boys received an advance promo of the Blur song Girls & Boys and decided to remix it. Pronto!

Then came a lovely circular thing: headlining Live 8 in Red Square.

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