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Pet Takes: Fugitive. Or 9/11 and the song the Pet Shop Boys wrote about suicide bombers

”It’s a modern day love story.” — Chris Lowe

”It’s about the personal cost of political convictions. It’s quite a sad song, I think. It’s got a genuine sense of pathos and longing about it.”  — Neil Tennant

There is a bit of an epic song on the expanded edition of the ninth Pet Shop Boys album, Fundamental.

Produced by electro-pop collagist Richard X, Fugitive is a controversial tale of pathos and political convictions, and the slightly disturbing subject matter the subject of intense debate in fan circles since its original, deliberately low-key release in 2006.

In the booklet accompanying the 2017 double-disc CD package, Neil Tennant finally broke his silence, and in doing so it became ever more apparent why the duo opted to maintain the mystery of the track in the years after the 2001 September 11 attacks in America – which they watched in horror while recording the Release album at London’s Whitfield Studios in Fitzrovia.

“We’ve never really explained it, but it’s about a terrorist – a terrorist whose ideology is that he believes that by killing the enemy he’s going to go to heaven, which is what we’ve been led to believe some Islamic terrorists think. I’m taking the point of view of the sister of the terrorist who understands his belief to the extent that she is saying ‘I’m really going to miss you… Are you going to take me with you?’ She doesn’t want him to do it because he’s her brother, but she’s also saying ‘Why don’t I come with you? Why don’t we go to heaven together?’

“I think of it as a sister, but it could also be a brother, or a friend. In the song, I’m not having a point of view, I’m describing he intensity of the feeling – I’m trying to get inside of their characters. So I am, as quite often, playing a character: I’m playing the friend of or brother or sister of a terrorist bomber who’s going to blow himself and other people up.”

Fugitive originally sneaked out on 2006’s Fundamentalism, a limited bonus album

Perhaps as a response to online fan speculation he’d read about Fugitive over the years, the singer continues, slightly defensively:

“There’s no reason not to write a song about something like this – the main inspirations for writing songs for me are my own life and what is happening in the world around me. What we’re writing about on this album is a world where this is a regular occurrence. This is happening all the time, and the specific album this appeared on is called Fundamentalism.

“The song certainly isn’t pro- what he’s going to do. I think it’s a wicked thing to do, and also a horrible waste of human life all round. I think the narrator partly thinks that too.”

PSB included a section of Fugitive on their Electric tour of 2013. My review of that is here

What’s that sound effect at the end of the song? It’s the unmistakable audio of a jumbo jet crashing into a skyscraper. Mindful of overly sensationalist headlines in the British media, it’s no wonder PSB felt unable explain the song before now.

Bang on cue, Richard X himself cast further light on the politics surrounding the track in a 2020 interview with lastdonutofthenight.

“I was never starstruck until that session. Even when you’re meeting pop stars, it wasn’t the same as meeting those two. They were so funny—just nonstop hilarity. It’s nice to be considered as a producer [on that song]. I didn’t make the whole thing, they did the original programming with Pete Gleadall. I dropped a few sly referential sounds in it, because I like doing that sort of thing. The intro’s got a few little Easter eggs.

“Trevor Horn did the rest of the album but didn’t want to touch this song, because it was originally called Suicide Bomber. It came to me from management—I think they knew I was a fan—and that was a discussion point. I couldn’t see any way it wouldn’t end in negativity. The chorus was originally “Suicide bomber!”. It was just so raw after the London bombing that it wasn’t gonna end well. The idea of the song being banned or not coming out was not a positive thing—it was a good song, it was classic Pet Shop Boys, so it would be a shame if that kept it in the studio drawer. So Neil Tennant rewrote it.

“They published a lyric book, and they mention the original title in the book—but there’s no way that wouldn’t have been Daily Mail fodder, and that would’ve been a shame. Even now, the mauling that would get…But it’s a very valid position, that a family member would question why someone would become a suicide bomber. People might think it’s trite to do that in a disco song, but that’s what they do and we can appreciate that on any other level.”

It’s also worth noting that the word ‘fugitive’ is derived from the Latin verb fugio, meaning to flee – or, as it is often translated, to fly or to take flight. In common parlance, this means that a fugitive is one who is fleeing or ‘in flight’ from someone or something he or she wishes to escape, such as justice. But in light of the song’s scenario involving terrorists and airplanes, suddenly the implications of ‘one who takes flight’ becomes rather unnerving.

A powerful reminder of the horrors of one particular day twenty years ago.

Standing atop of the World Trade Center in New York, 6th September 1996: five years and five days later the twin towers were no more


Steve Pafford

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