A Red Letter Day

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 1996
Original album - Bilingual
Producer (album version) - Pet Shop Boys; (single version) - Pet Shop Boys, Steve Rodway
Subsequent albums - PopArt, Smash
Other releases - single (UK #9, US Dance Sales #8)

Very nearly a gay pride anthem. Neil longs for that special day—a virtual holiday marked red on the calendar—when "all of those who don't fit in, who follow their instincts and are told they sin" won't have to justify themselves or struggle anymore just to live ordinary lives. "I want what you want," he sings, asserting the fundamental equality of all people, stressing their similarities, not their differences. Seemingly but not necessarily contradicting this interpretation (not so much contradictory as complementary), Neil has specifically pointed out that this song is "about waiting for someone to tell you they love you."

One of my U.K. site visitors, however, has offered a most interesting and thoughtful alternate interpretation of the song, one that I can't deny makes a great deal of sense in spite of what Neil himself has said about it. (As I always say, it's the mark of great art to invite multiple sound interpretations.) I can actually do no better than to quote at length some excerpts from the detailed explication provided by this visitor, Oliver Topham:

Back in 1996 when the song was released, the Labour Party had been out of power for 17 years and the U.K. public itself was just waiting for the next year, 1997, for the General Election so that they could vote the Conservative government out.… [W]hen I saw Neil and Chris… on Top of the Pops surrounded in red light and singing, "Go to work and take your calls/Hang the fruits of your labour on the walls," I naturally thought the song was about, amongst other things, New Labour (as the Labour Party had been rebranded).

This was confirmed to me when I saw the video, which was based around the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising campaign from the 1979 General Election for the Conservative Party…. It's of an endless queue of people waiting at an unemployment office. The video cleverly reverts this so that the people queuing look like they're queuing to vote out the Conservative Party at a polling station. It shows people from all parts of society waiting patiently…. These pictures of the British public queuing are interspersed with pictures of the poster in question changed to say "How Long?" "Why are we waiting?" and "Too Long!"

As I said, a most interesting alternate interpretation, one that holds a lot of merit. While I believe it hinges primarily on the video—in much the same way that the alternate "fall of Russian communism" interpretation of "Go West" hinges upon that song's video—it can't be ignored. In fact, it's distinctly possible that, just as they had done to tremendous effect with "Go West," the Boys had very consciously decided with the video to subvert or deconstruct the original meaning of the song with their own alternate interpretation—albeit much, much more subtly this time around. In fact, these two interpretations (the longing by gay people for full equality vs. the longing for a Labour victory in the election of 1997) are by no means mutually exclusive, particularly in light of the somewhat anti-gay stance at the time of the Conservative Party and the contrasting comparatively pro-gay stance of Labour. Lending credence to the "Conservative vs. Labour" interpretation is the fact that, as another of my site visitors has pointed out, the final date that year on which the current prime minister, John Major (of the Conservative Party), could call an election was March 17—which just so happened to be the date on which "A Red Letter Day" was released as a single. PSB Fan Club members were even sent a postcard that simply read, "17 MARCH IS A RED LETTER DAY." As it turned out, Major indeed announced the election that very day. This all seems like much more than a mere coincidence.

On a more musically oriented note, a touch that adds greatly to the song's anthemic quality—and perhaps a pun on the "Red" of the title—is that the Boys commissioned an all-male Russian chorus to contribute support vocals. Also, the chord progressions are very similar to (though not exactly like) those of the "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.



Officially released

Official but unreleased

List cross-references