Pet Shop Boys
Photo: Promotional photo courtesy of the artist

15 Years Ago Pet Shop Boys Responded to the Bush Era with ‘Fundamental’

Pet Shop Boys’ Fundamental was the rare protest record that challenged politics with tunes set for the dance floor.

Pet Shop Boys
22 May 2006

From 1986 to 1990, Pet Shop Boys released a series of albums that spoke to Thatcherite England. The moody dance and synth ballads scored a period of contemporary queer history wrestling with the AIDS pandemic and a government that (in 1988) enacted Section 28: a law that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities. (Some schools believed that they had to follow the law as well, and libraries avoided materials that featured explicit homosexual content). Moral panic over children being recruited into homosexuality led the conservative government to pursue the law. Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the UK at the time, said of queerness, “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay…. All of those children are being cheated of a sound 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 concepts of gender, queerness, and androgyny. Though many queer youngsters may not have had their teachers to turn to during this difficult time, they had songs like the Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” or “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. With their first four albums—Please (1986), Actually (1987), Introspective (1988), and Behaviour (1990)—Pet Shop Boys took a smart, literate, and heavily ironic look at the 1980s. While the Boys (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, both singers and multi-instrumentalist) continued to make excellent music throughout the 1990s, it’s 2006’s Fundamental that engages most with the political/social conditions and environments of their Thatcher-era 80s period.

More so 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 in politics that was beset by division and rancor 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); the revelations of torture and prison abuse at Abu Ghraib; and the ongoing work of queer rights activists. (For one thing, Bush used queer folks as a wedge issue to pander to his conservative base and win votes.) This moment in contemporary history was the perfect—yet distressing—inspiration for the album.

The Pet Shop Boys adopted a persona of the slouchy eccentrics who casts a critical and withering eye on their surroundings. Neil Tennant’s soft, ethereal voice—an oft-deadpan instrument—injects a distanced and witty irony to his singing. He and Lowe prove that despite being past their salad days in the 1980s, they could still grow with the times and have something interesting and smart to say. Teaming up with Trevor Horn (a kindred spirit who hadn’t worked with the Boys since 1989), Fundamental is a gloriously queer record fraught with post-9/11 anxieties wrapped up in national identity, liberalism, globalization, and queer identity.

Listeners are introduced to Fundamental with the brooding and dark “Psychological”, a tense song that sounds suitably paranoid and tense. It speaks to and perfectly encapsulates the disquiet that the nation felt after 9/11 or July 7 (when a pervasive sense of impending doom seemed to settle on modern society). In response, Lowe and Tennant craft a creepy answer, starting with a buzzing before an icy synth starts to whine like a disco theremin. Tennant’s voice is processed through reverb and echo to sound ghostly. It’s a haunting record that ushers in a wary Pet Shop Boys.

Following the suspicious “Psychological”, the tone immediately shifts as the Boys flirt with U2-esque beats and grand rock god swagger with “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show”. It’s a driving number that celebrates sin and hedonism. Respectability politics had plagued queer rights; in the movement’s quest to win the equality it so deserves, some players thought it strategic to eschew any aspects of queer culture that was weaponized by the Right. Sodom and Gomorrah had become synonymous with anti-gay attitudes (scan the crowds of gay-bashers at a Pride event, and you’ll see the Biblical twin towns painted on signs).

When the Pet Shop Boys crooned about queerness in the 1980s, they were speaking at a time when a global pandemic made gays pariahs in their communities (a consequence that’s depressingly familiar in 2021). In 2006, queer activists were fighting to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and win marriage equality. Most poignantly, Tennant and Lowe looked to global queer issues and dedicated Fundamental to Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, two queer Iranian teens executed by their government after being convicted of raping a minor despite many queer rights activists believing that the charges were trumped up to engender hostility against the two.

The Boys speak to the fatigue and weariness that much of us felt during those difficult years via “Numb“, a grand pop ballad penned by that sorceress of the power ballad, Diane Warren. Horn surrounds Warren’s mournful lyrics with a full orchestra with Tennant’s wan voice plaintively warbling sad lines about wanting to escape the onslaught of bad news; it’s a terribly troubling song—one of Warren’s best, as she wasn’t aiming for that bombastic, cinematic moment that she’s known for—and one that reflects a piercing desire to find refuge from troubling times.

When it comes to slam the alliance between Bush and Blair, the Pet Shop Boys respond with the blistering “I’m With Stupid”, a snarky acid-house throwback. Tennant’s and Lowe’s contempt for the “special relationship” between the US President and the UK Prime Minister bangs away as Horn’s synthpop arrangement pulses. As a smart companion piece, the throbbing club banger “Twentieth Century” has Tennant’s sweet voice condemn nation-building and Western military intervention in the Middle East. Although the song seemingly accounts for good intentions, he bitterly notes that sometimes “the solution is worse than the problem.”

In a clever twist of words and metaphor, Tennant writes the pretty ballad “Indefinite Leave to Remain”. It works simultaneously as a love song to the UK and as an empathetic anthem for immigrants who look to the UK as their new home. While it sounds like Tennant is singing to a reluctant lover, he’s also pleading to the UK to accept him (so much of the rhetoric and narrative about immigration in the post 9/11 West was about tribalism and drawing borders as well as proving fidelity and patriotism). So, it’s even more moving that Tennant chooses to advocate for multiculturalism with a heartfelt plea. It’s probably the most beautiful moment on the record.

It’s as if they want to remind listeners that despite being perhaps the most intellectual pop act of the 1980s, they can still throw it down. The album’s second single, “Minimal”, is the kind of vintage Pet Shop Boys song that sounds as if it were birthed in the brightly colored gay clubs of 1980s London. There’s sleekly exhilarating energy to it, resulting in a busy and crowded song that squeezes in vamping vocals, rubbery synthetic bass, and glistening production that belies the song’s title.

Fundamental was somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated in the USA (though it was a solid success in the UK). It was the rare protest record that challenged politics with tunes set for the dance floor. After all, the brainy, art school insouciance that marked their early work has been replaced by a weariness that comes with age and wisdom that comes from living and witnessing some of the most trying times in contemporary history.