The Sound of the Atom Splitting

Writers - Tennant/Lowe/Horn/Lipson
First released - 1988
Original album - Alternative
Producer - Trevor Horn, Stephen Lipson, Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - Introspective 2001 reissue Further Listening 1988-1989 bonus disc
Other releases - b-side of single "Left to My Own Devices"

Quite possibly the least popular track in the entire PSB catalogue, though definitely a cult favorite with some fans. The flip to the "Left to My Own Devices" single, heavily influenced by the "acid house" style of dance music, was written and recorded in collaboration with Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson. The track originated as a conscientiously experimental "jam" in which Tennant, Lowe, and Horn all played keyboards while Lipson "played the desk," manipulating the recording controls. The result is a song essentially devoid of melody. Neil, who admits that it's "a funny-sounding track," says that "the lyrics are meant to be a dialogue between a reasonable person and a fascist" who, as he much later revealed in One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, has "his finger on the nuclear button."

The title, which the song employs as something of a refrain and comes across as a non sequitur, was taken from a line in Derek Jarman's film The Last of England. And just what is the sound of the atom splitting? It's apparently supposed to be an "atomic age" metaphor for the end of the world.

One of the seeming mysteries of Pet Shop Boysdom is the fact that the 12-inch version of this song is an edit more than a minute shorter than the full-length 7-inch b-side version featured on Alternative—a complete reversal of the usual pattern. But as one of my U.K. site visitors has noted, this oddity can be explained by the rules of the British singles charts. At the time that "Left to Own Devices" was released as a single, the total length of all the tracks on any one format of a single couldn't exceed 20 minutes. The long version of "The Sound of the Atom Splitting," together with the 7- and 12-inch versions of "Devices," would have been about 21½ minutes. So "Atom" was edited (it's tempting but inaccurate to say it was "split") for the 12-inch disc and CD. But since the 7-inch disc didn't include the 12-inch mix of "Devices," the full-length version of "Atom" could be used there.

Incidentally, "The Sound of the Atom Splitting" was played as an instrumental during the Boys' first full-fledged concert tour, a fact briefly documented on their Highlights concert video. I've been told by someone who attended one of those shows that it came across much more spectacularly "live" than it does on record, thanks at least in part to its embellishment through imaginative concert lighting and clever use of the sound system, replicating a "rave environment." I can certainly imagine how exciting that would have been.



Officially released

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