Remember The Time – May 1987 by Sharon Davis

We’ve not strayed far this month as we take a little stride across three years to 1987 where in July the Pet Shop Boys were basking at the top of the singles chart with “It’s A Sin”.  Written by the English synth-pop duo three years earlier, the song outlined Neil’s memories from his Catholic school days at St Cuthbert’s High in Newcastle, when he believed everything he had said and done was a sin in the eyes of the church. He later explained though that while the lyrics were written in a mere 15 minutes from pure frustration, they were meant to be light hearted – “People took it really seriously…(it) was intended as a camp joke and it wasn’t something I consciously took very seriously.”  He might not have done, but the local parish priest in Newcastle did when he delivered a sermon on it, as Neil once explained. “(He) reflected on how the Church had changed from the promise of a ghastly hell to the message of love.”  As an add-on to this little story, keen listeners to the single will have heard Neil recite a passage from the Confiteor in Latin which when translated included the sentences  – “I confess to almighty God….that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, act and omission….” and so on.

Once the demo recording was finished, the duo wanted Stock Aitken Waterman to produce it, weaving their magic as they had done across so many singles for the likes of Kylie Minogue and others.  That didn’t happen because Pete Waterman hated the song.  I bet he kicked himself when it raced to the top, thinking of that lovely production fee he could have earned.  Anyway, moving on, I think it’s fair to say that “It’s A Sin” was a heavy metal record, PSB style, with a generous nod to Hi-NRG (uptempo disco/electronic dance music). It was loaded with synthesizers and, to quote one reviewer “bookended by a non sequitur sample of a NASA countdown” exemplifying the theatrical extreme of the duo’s songs which we came to love almost instantly.  Neil Tennant’s persuasive vocals drew us in, so no

wonder the public hung on to every lyric that kept the sales high enabling the single to sit at the top for three weeks.  “It’s A Sin” was their second chart topper, the first being “West End Girls” two years beforehand, and was extracted from their second studio album “Actually” which also included a future chart topper with Dusty Springfield titled “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” The UK success of “It’s A Sin” was repeated across the world, cementing the duo’s popularity for years to come.  Oh, the music video was rather fun.  Directed by Derek Jarman, it extended the song’s theme by showing Neil under arrest with Chris his jailer and Ron Moody in the role of his judge.  Brief reminders of the seven deadly sins were clipped in.

Formed in London during 1981, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe met in a hi-fi shop on King’s Road, London.  By purchasing a particular type of synthesiser, Neil sparked off a conversation with Chris because he was besotted with electronic music.  Together they would listen to the likes of Kraftwerk, Depache Mode and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark which Neil called the “pioneers of electronic music”.   Long-story-short. The two began writing material together; first in Neil’s  apartment in Chelsea, later in a small studio in Camden Town. They swiped their stage name from friends who ran a pet shop in Ealing but before they could get started, Neil (who was an assistant editor at Smash Hits) flew to New York to interview Sting.  While there, he took the opportunity to meet Hi-NRG producer Bobby Orlando and gave him the demo of “It’s A Sin”.  This led to the duo working with Bobby between 1983 and 1984 when he recorded and enjoyed American hits with several of the future PSB hits.  By the way, it seems none were available in the UK.  In 1985 their working relationship with Bobby Orlando suddenly ended with the Pet Shop Boys giving him substantial royalties from future sales.

One of the first moves they made was to return to the studio to record their own version of “West End Girls”, followed by their debut album “Please”.  Neil Tennant gave up his day job to concentrate on being lead singer in the duo while Chris Lowe took over the keyboards/synthesizers.  To say the guys enjoyed a remarkable career would be an understatement on several levels.  For example, they estimate they’ve sold over 100 million records globally to date.  They’re also listed in the 1999 edition of The Guinness Book Of Records as the most successful duo in the UK; won three Brit awards, nominated six times for a Grammy, and enjoyed 42 top thirty singles, 22 of which were top ten hits, including four number ones. Pretty good going huh?

The title of the “It’s A Sin” single lived on.  This time it marked a recent television drama miniseries screened by Channel 4 which depicted the lives of a group of gay men and their friends who lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis from 1981 to 1991. As initially expected, it was a difficult project to sell to any broadcaster:  ITV and BBC1 refused to touch it, while Channel 4 took it on due to their commissioning editor of drama fighting for it. However, the planned eight episodes were cut to five, and filming kicked off during October 2019 in Manchester. 

Starring young Olly Alexander in one of the starring roles, alongside Keeley Hawes and Stephen Fry, the Russell T. Davies script spared no punches as these young people showed their determination to enjoy themselves against the backdrop of the killer disease. The cast included a number of openly gay actors and performers which was an intentional move by Russell because he wanted to create a safe space “where gay actors could voluntarily come in and be themselves.”  The series was a resounding success. Over 6.5 million people watched live the first show, with catch-up views of 2.5 million within three days of that broadcast.  And the first episode on 22 January 2021 marked Channel 4’s biggest drama launch and was the most nominated show at the 2022 British Academy Television Awards.  Well, as you can imagine, despite all the inevitable criticism from certain quarters, there was an  upsurge in HIV testing and £100,000 was raised for the Terrence Higgins Trust through sales of commemorative t-shirts featuring the slogan “La” , a catchphrase used widely throughout the shows.

However, nobody could find fault with Russell T. Davies’ script.  “One of the most beautiful explorations of gay life that I have ever seen” wrote one reviewer, while another said “it was a joyful tribute to lost lives that delivers a seething verdict on ignorance and cruelty”.  And in the Radio Times a review of the first episode included – “Russell T. Davies portrays London’s early 1980s gay scene as giddily optimistic – but foreshadows the AIDs crisis to come.”  Finally, Elton John gushed the show as “a triumph of creativity and humanity….it was a moving testament to a pivotal and important moment in LGBTQ history.” Talking of our Elton, I mentioned earlier that the Pet Shop Boys had been Brit award recipients.  Well, for some reason or another, the duo couldn’t make the 2021 award ceremony so Elton John and Years & Years pre-recorded “It’s A Sin” for inclusion in the show.  Following its airing, the collaboration was issued as a single with all proceeds earmarked for Elton John’s AIDS Foundation. 

And all these wonderful happenings resulted from the Pet Shop Boys recording a cute little single back in 1987.  Who’d have thought it!

Sharon Davis