Bright Young Things

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2006
Original album - Format
Producer - Chris Zippel, Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - Release 2017 reissue Further Listening 2001-2004 bonus disc
Other releases - bonus track with single "Numb"

British actor, comedian, writer, and (now) director Stephen Fry asked the Pet Shop Boys to record two songs for his 2003 film Bright Young Things. This track was to have been the title song, but the film's producers decided against using it, opting instead to use period music exclusively. (Incidentally, the other song that Neil and Chris are reported to have recorded for the project is a cover of the Noël Coward classic "The Party's Over Now," which does indeed coincide with the period in which the story is set.) Although an unauthorized audio demo circulated briefly on the Internet soon after it was recorded, it had to wait several years for official release. Neil had stated on the official PSB website that "Bright Young Things" might yet be released as one of the bonus tracks on a single from Fundamental. The "Numb" single provided that opportunity, with the released track boasting a somewhat more elaborate arrangement than the aforementioned demo.

The film—a dark, satiric comedy loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies—concerns a "smart set" of fashionable young Brits living a wild life of parties, booze, and free sex in the period between the two world wars. The label "Bright Young Things," used in the novel but hardly original with Waugh, was often used by contemporaries to collectively describe this set of trendy but aimless youth. (Thanks, by the way, to Jeff Durst for providing information about Waugh and Vile Bodies. I must confess that I've never read the book myself.)

The PSB song bears in many ways a marked similarity to one of their other soundtrack numbers, "Nothing Has Been Proved" (from the film Scandal), most noticeably in the way that its lyrics refer cryptically (from the perspective of anyone who hasn't seen the movie) to various characters in the story, providing tantalizing "snapshots" of their attitudes and actions. It's obvious that these are people who lead lives of scarcely concealed desperation, partying ceaselessly to escape their troubles. ("Sometimes a party's a port in a storm.") Neil's omniscient narrator seems to pity them—"flying," as it were, "on chemical wings"—but it's only an impression; he's too subtle and skillful a lyricist to come right out and say so unambiguously.

Again like "Nothing Has Been Proved," the music could be described as a "slow burn," starting out softly but ominously, building in intensity, employing shifting rhythms (at times noticeably faster in tempo than in the original demo) to evoke different moods while working its way toward several cathartic climaxes. Neil uses his "low voice," à la "Birthday Boy," to add to the overall air of foreboding.

By the way, it's interesting to note the reference in the lyrics to "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," a 1915 romantic standard that would surely be quite familiar to the characters Neil is singing about. Another of Neil's lines from the song, "Nancy's got a monkey on a silver chain," has its origins not with the novel but rather with a letter written by Waugh at around the same time, describing someone he observed "with a pet monkey on a silver harness." Neil has said that "Nancy" is Nancy Cunard, a British writer and activist who was indeed part of that betwixt-the-wars "smart set." And the line about a character named Stephen—who, after all, has a camera—could be an "in joke" reference to the film's director, Mr. Fry himself. But, as one of my site visitors insightfully noted, later confirmed by Neil himself in the Format booklet, it more directly alludes to Stephen Tennant (1906-87), another prominent "bright young thing" who is generally recognized as having served as one of the models for Sebastian Flyte in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Given their common surnames (though no relation), could Neil resist?

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