From 1986 to 1990, Pet Shop Boys released a series of albums that spoke to Thatcherite England. Moody dancing and synthetic ballads marked a period of contemporary queer history grappling with the AIDS pandemic and a government that (in 1988) enacted Article 28: a law that prohibited the “promotion of the ‘homosexuality’ by local authorities. (Some schools believed they should follow the law as well, and libraries avoided materials with explicit homosexual content.) The moral panic over children recruited into homosexuality led the conservative government to sue the law. Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, mentionned from queerness, “Children who need to learn to respect traditional moral values learn that they have an inalienable right to be gay…. All of these kids are cheated on a good start in life. Yes, cheated.
Strangely, in this restrictive and oppressive atmosphere, pop music responded with a resounding queer roar. In the 1980s, artists like Boy George, Pete Burns, Marilyn, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, George Michael and Madonna were all playing with the concepts of gender, queerness, and androgyny. Although many young gay men couldn’t turn to their teachers during this difficult time, they did have songs like the Bronski Beat’s.Small village boy” or “Relax” by Frankie goes to Hollywood. With their first four albums –Please (1986), In fact (1987), Introspective (1988) and Behaviour (1990) – Pet Shop Boys took a clever, literate, and very ironic look at the 1980s. While the Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, both vocalists and multi-instrumentalists) continued to make great music throughout the 1990s, it was in 2006. Fundamental which most concerns the political / social conditions and environments of the period of the 80s of the Thatcher era.
More than any other Pet Shop Boys album, Fundamental is one of the duo’s most politically charged albums. It found its place at a time of politics beset by division and grudge that included the “war on terror”; the war in Iraq; the hawkish governments of Tony Blair and George W. Bush (whose destructive partnership had tragic and fatal consequences in the Middle East); revelations of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib prisons; and the continued work of gay rights activists. (On the one hand, Bush used queer people as a wedge issue to bow to his Conservative base and win votes.) This moment in contemporary history was the perfect – but painful – inspiration for the album.
The Pet Shop Boys have adopted a character of slouchy eccentrics who casts a critical and withering eye on their surroundings. Neil Tennant’s soft and ethereal voice – an often impassive instrument – infuses a distant and witty irony into his singing. He and Lowe prove that although they passed their salad days in the 1980s, they could still grow up over time and have something interesting and clever to say. Teaming up with Trevor Horn (a cognate spirit who had not worked with The Boys since 1989), Fundamental is a gloriously queer record laden with post 9/11 anxieties shrouded in national identity, liberalism, globalization and queer identity.
Auditors are introduced to Fundamental with the dark and gloomy “Psychological”, a tense song that sounds appropriately paranoid and tense. It speaks and sums up perfectly the concern the nation felt after 9/11 or July 7 (when a pervasive sense of impending doom seemed to take hold in modern society). In response, Lowe and Tennant craft a creepy response, starting with a buzz before an icy synth starts to moan like a disco theremin. Tennant’s voice is processed by reverb and echo to give a ghostly sound. It’s a haunting record that ushers in a wary Pet Shop Boys.
After the suspect “Psychological” the tone immediately changes as the Boys flirt with U2-esque beats and the great rock god swaggering with “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show”. It is a driving number that celebrates sin and hedonism. The policy of respectability had hampered gay rights; in the movement’s quest to earn the equality it so deserves, some actors felt it was strategic to avoid any aspect of queer culture that has been militarized by the right. Sodom and Gomorrah had become synonymous with anti-gay attitudes (scan crowds of gay bashers at a Pride event, and you’ll see the Biblical Twin Cities painted on signs).
When the Pet Shop Boys sang about queerness in the 1980s, they were speaking at a time when a global pandemic left gay people outcasts in their communities (a consequence which is sadly familiar in 2021). In 2006, gay activists fought to overthrow “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and win marriage equality. Most poignantly, Tennant and Lowe delved into global queer issues and devoted themselves to Fundamental to Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, two queer Iranian teenagers executed by their government after being convicted of raping a minor when many gay rights activists believed the charges were trumped up to breed hostility against both.
The boys talk about the fatigue and weariness that many of us have felt during these difficult years via “Numb“, A great pop ballad written by this power ballad witch, Diane Warren. Horn surrounds Warren’s dismal lyrics with a full orchestra with the pale voice of Tennant plaintively stammering sad lines about wanting to escape the onslaught of bad news; it’s a terribly unsettling song – one of Warren’s best, as it didn’t target that explosive cinematic moment it’s known for – and one that reflects a piercing desire to take refuge in troubling times.
When it comes to criticizing the alliance between Bush and Blair, the Pet Shop Boys respond with the scorching “I’m With Stupid,” a devious throwback. Tennant and Lowe’s contempt for the “special relationship” between the US president and the British prime minister fades as Horn’s synthpop arrangement is in full swing. As a smart companion, the pulsating club banger “Twentieth Century” has Tennant’s sweet voice condemning nation-building and Western military intervention in the Middle East. Although the song apparently represents good intentions, he notes bitterly that sometimes “the solution is worse than the problem.”
In a clever twist of words and metaphor, Tennant writes the pretty ballad “Undefined Leave to Remain”. It works both as a love song for the UK and as an empathetic hymn for immigrants who see the UK as their new home. While it seems like Tennant is singing for a reluctant lover, he’s also begging the UK to accept him (much of the rhetoric and narrative about immigration to the West after 9/11 was all about tribalism. and the drawing of the borders as well as on the proof of fidelity and patriotism). So it’s even more moving that Tennant chooses to advocate for multiculturalism with sincere advocacy. This is probably the best moment on the album.
It’s like they want to remind listeners that despite being perhaps the most intellectual pop act of the 1980s, they can still dismiss it. The album’s second single, “Minimal,” is the kind of vintage Pet Shop Boys song that sounds like it was born in the brightly colored gay clubs of 1980s London. There’s an elegantly uplifting energy, resulting in a busy, cluttered song that presses vamping vocals, rubbery synthetic bass, and scintillating production that belies the song’s title.
Fundamental has been somewhat misunderstood and underestimated in the US (although it was a solid success in the UK). It was the rare record of protest that defied politics with tunes set for the dance floor. After all, the clever recklessness of art schools that marked their early work has been replaced by a weariness that comes with age and the wisdom that comes from living and witnessing some of the most trying times of life. contemporary history.