Hey, Headmaster

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 1993
Original album - Alternative
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Stephen Hague
Subsequent albums - Very 2001 reissue Further Listening 1992-1994 bonus disc
Other releases - b-side of single "Can You Forgive Her?"

My attitudes about this song have changed somewhat since I first wrote about it here, although it took an email from one of my regular site visitors to inspire me actually to write about those changes. But perhaps my ambivalence is understandable in light of Neil's own admission (in the Alternative booklet) that, regarding this song, he "never quite know[s] what it's about."

For a long time the lyrics struck me as being about a headmaster who has always been rather repressed in his life and behavior, ever sticking close to his school, but who now is seriously considering opening himself up more to travel, socialize with friends (and perhaps even lovers) and, in general, enjoy life more. Those around him, particularly the boys in his charge, notice this change in his attitude and therefore ask, "What's the matter with you?" In other words, this improvement in his personal life is so out of character for him that, ironically, it causes concern among others. In many ways it seemed reminiscent to me of the James Hilton novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

At least, that's what I thought for a long time. But Neil has also stated that, as he sees it, "there's been some terrible sex scandal and the headmaster's about to be arrested or something like that…. Actually, I think that at the end of the song the headmaster is going to kill himself." And there's no denying that there's something terribly wrong at the school, parallelled in the mood of the headmaster himself. He's "always so serious… [and] so blue." Even the football team is experiencing "disintegration." And at the end of the song, when our headmaster hero has a chance to get away from the school to enjoy a "reading party on the coast," he seems very reluctant to do so: "Hey, headmaster, aren't you gonna go?" So while he may indeed be seriously considering opening himself up to more of "life," as I originally believed, I'm much less certain now that he will actually do so. As Neil suggests, the final outcome may be much sadder.

Then again, it's an artistic fiction in which nothing of the story truly exists aside from what we're actually told. There is no real "final outcome." To put it another way—what happens to Horatio after Hamlet is all over and done with? Nothing, really. When the play ends, Horatio ceases to exist.

By the way, in the booklet accompanying the 2001 reissue of Very, Neil notes that "Hey, Headmaster" is one of those occasional PSB songs written almost totally by himself, with minimal input from Chris. In fact, he had composed it in its original form before the two even met.


List cross-references