Left to My Own Devices
Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 1988
Original album - Introspective
Producer - Stephen Lipson, Trevor Horn
Subsequent albums - Discography, PopArt, Concrete, Pandemonium, Ultimate
Other releases - single (UK #4, US #84, US Dance #8)
"'Left to My Own Devices' was an experiment in seeing how mundane a pop song could be, before setting it against extravagant music."
– Neil in the January 2011 issue of Word magazine
A strong contender for the single most dramatic track in the entire PSB catalogue.
So much is going on in this song that it's hard to know where to begin. For one thing, it's tempting to think that something very campy is going on in this recitation of everyday events given an epic, orchestra-on-the-dancefloor treatment (arranged by Richard Niles). Are the Pet Shop Boys implying that everyday life is epic in and of itself? On another front, one critic has described this song as indicative of the "desperation of the gay lifestyle," or some such rot. (Well, there may be a modicum of truth to it. Gay commentator Andrew Sullivan refers to it in this song as a form of "detachment" common among gay people.) One might even combine the aforementioned concepts and suggest that Neil and Chris are providing a camped-up parody of the epic self-referentialism to which certain gay men are inclined.
There's no denying the element of autobiography implicit in this song. For instance, Neil has said that he indeed played English Civil War general to his toy soldiers as a boy, as described in the song, although he admits that at the time he was actually a Cavalier rather than a Roundhead. (This isn't surprising considering that Neil was raised Catholic, and the Roundheads were fervently anti-Catholic. His more anti-monarchial leanings as an adult are likely what inspired him to shift his allegiance in the song to King Charles I's Roundhead opponents.) Neil's mother was reportedly rather upset when she first heard it (particularly by the lines beginning "I was a lonely boy ."), disheartened to think that he may have had a sad, troubled childhood. Another autobiographical aspect lies in the fact that, according to Neil, his "friend who's a party animal" is none other than well-known British music journalist/pop culture commentator Jon Savage. As for the famous couplet, perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted in the entire PSB corpus
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet
Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat
though inspired by the interests of the track's co-producer, Trevor Horn, it's perhaps as good an encapsulation of the Boys' typical musical style (revolutionary sensibilities set to a danceable, romantic, yet occasionally discordant setting) as anything else they themselves have stated so succinctly. The spoken lines toward the end about "Che Guevara's drinking tea … and takes to the stage in a secret life" apparently suggest that he has ceased actually being a "revolutionary" and has instead become a media celebrity: an image on t-shirts, an inspiration for one of the main characters in Evita. In this world, even the subversives get subverted.
And then there's the chorus, with its blasé, hesitant, but strangely affecting confession of love: "I could love you if I triedand I could. And left to my own devices, I probably would." (Some for whom English isn't their native language have wondered about the meaning of the title phrase. To be "left to one's own devices" is a common idiomatic expression meaning to be forced to rely upon oneself, particularly upon one's own plans and abilities.) It's terribly understated, and yet it's that very understatement that lends it power, as if the narrator can't help but concede his true feelings despite his seeming reluctance to do so.
At any rate, we're probably best off throwing up our hands and admitting that "Left to My Own Devices" is about a lot of different things, and just leave it at that.
- The song's title is a common English-language expression of uncertain age and origin, although "to be left to one's own devices" undoubtedly dates back at least to the mid-1700s. It generally has one of two closely related meanings. If someone is "left to his own devices," either he is permitted to do precisely as he pleases without anyone else's interference, or he is forced to fend for himself without any else's assistance. (In other words, he will devise his own way to deal with whatever situation is at hand.) The phrase might even be traced, with some variation, to the King James Version of the Bible, where in the book of Proverbs (1:31) it reads, "Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices."
- "Pick up a brochure about the sun / Learn to ignore what the photographer saw" – It has been suggested by more than one observer that these lines might allude to the British tabloid The Sun, which has been in operation since 1964 and which, at the time this song was written and recorded, had the largest circulation of any newspaper in Britain. It's notorious for its gossip about celebrities in general and—at least at one time, if not still—its dubious allegations about gay celebrities in particular. For instance, in the late 1980s (again, around the time this song was recorded) its persistent and frequently false reports about Elton John triggered a libel suit, resulting in a £1 million out-of-court settlement in Elton's favor and a printed apology from The Sun. All that being said, if the Boys were indeed specifically referring to The Sun in these lines, wouldn't the words "the sun" be capitalized? Yet in the "official" lyrics (published on the PSB website) they're not capitalized. Nevertheless, one can't ignore the possibility that these lines were meant to be ambiguous in nature, referring to some scientific brochure about the sun and/or the tabloid. This is especially true in light of the line that immediately follows. This juxtaposed reference to a photographer strongly suggests paparazzi, which celebrities like Neil and Chris might indeed need to learn to ignore in order to maintain some semblance of composure in the face of repeated invasions of their privacy.
- "In a secret life I was a Roundhead general" – The "Roundheads" were the pro-Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War of the mid-1600s. The name "Roundheads" came from the fact that they generally wore their hair trimmed short, unlike their opponents, the long-haired "Cavaliers" who supported King Charles I. (And in case you're not up on your British history, Charles I was ultimately defeated, deposed, and beheaded.)
- "Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat" – Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928-1967) was a Marxist revolutionary born in Argentina who became a major figure in the Cuban Revolution of Fidel Castro. (His visage has become such a commonplace symbol of the counterculture that it's now a virtual cliché.) Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a French composer, one of the leading figures of the impressionist movement (though he himself apparently disliked having the term "impressionist" applied to his own work). Both Guevara and Debussy may be viewed as revolutionaries in their respective realms. Their juxtaposition and association with a "disco beat" has often been interpreted—rightly or wrongly—as the Pet Shop Boys' own encapsulization of their musical style and ambitions.
It should be noted that, in July 2016, the track's co-producer Trevor Horn reminisced to interviewer Chris Payne that he had provided the inspiration for this line. While working together, Neil had apparently asked him, "What are you doing next, after this?" to which he replied, "I'm going to put Debussy to a disco beat." In return for using his words, the Boys awarded Horn a compositional co-credit (and its associated royalties) for the single's b-side, "The Sound of the Atom Splitting."
- The "Disco Mix" (by Robin Hancock) of this song takes a cue from that same line to insert a few brief measures of a clearly Debussy-esque orchestral sequence immediately afterward. The quoted segment almost certainly comes from about two-thirds of the way through one of Debussy's most famous compositions, the 1894 Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune ("Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun").
- Mixer: Trevor Horn and Stephen Lipson
- Album version (8:17)
- Available on Introspective
- 7" Mix (4:47)
- Available on Discography, Essential, and the Further Listening bonus disc with the Introspective reissue
- Album version (8:17)
- Introspective Version - Edit (4:23)
- Available only on a rare 1988 U.S. vinyl promo
- Mixer: Robin Hancock
- Disco Mix (11:29)
- Disco Mix Edit (4:53)
- Mixer: Shep Pettibone
- Device Mix (7:38)
- Shep Pettibone Mix (9:23)
- Mixer: Frankie Knuckles
- Frankie Knuckles Royal Piano Mix (8:20)
- Available on the 2015 two-CD set House Masters: Frankie Knuckles
- Frankie Knuckles Royal Piano Mix (8:20)
- Mixer: Tim Weidner
- Live Concrete rendition (8:34)
- Mixer: Stuart Price
- Pandemonium CD live version in medley with "Closer to Heaven" (5:40)
Official but unreleased
- Mixer: Frankie Knuckles
- Frankie Knuckles Royal Piano Dub (6:39)
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