Songs written by PSB that were inspired by AIDS (plus a few more debatable interpretations)

Please note that the Pet Shop Boys' decidedly AIDS-inspired remake of "Go West" doesn't appear in this list because, esssentially, they didn't write it, although they are listed as co-writers because they added new music and lyrics for a bridge that doesn't appear in the Village People original.

1. A Man Could Get Arrested

Some listeners have long believed that the sense of sexual frustration that this song so clearly expresses was inspired at least in part by the AIDS crisis. It turns out they're correct. Neil has noted that its subject matter is "heterosexual," but of course gay men aren't the only ones who can contract the disease. He affirms that the line "You want to see a doctor before our love is tested" is a quote from the girlfriend of a friend of his, and it refers specifically to an AIDS test. Written in 1984, it's the first reference to AIDS in any Pet Shop Boys song.

2. Hit Music

"But it's really all about AIDS, this song, though I sort of hid it at the same time," says Neil in the booklet accompanying the 2001 reissue of Actually. "It's about how sex had gone out of the entire nightclubbing ethos because of AIDS."

3. It Couldn't Happen Here

Neil again from the Actually reissue booklet: "The lyric is about this friend of mine who was diagnosed with AIDS.… [We] were discussing AIDS, and how people said it wasn't going to develop in England like it had in America."

4. King's Cross

In his 2001 book Sounds English: Transnational Popular Music, scholar Nabeel Zuberi expresses his belief that "King's Cross" was also inspired by AIDS, certainly in mood and quite possibly in overt meaning. He notes that the King's Cross station has long been a popular gay cruising area in London, and he suggests that the lines "Dead and wounded on either side/You know it's only a matter of time" indicate the narrator's awareness (depending on when you place the narrative, perhaps as a premonition, or perhaps retrospectively) that many of the young men he observes around him are, in effect, doomed. Neil himself has confirmed this connection on more than one occasion, such as in the Actually reissue booklet where he describes those lines in particular as "another AIDS reference." He adds, "King's Cross is the end of the line, the place from where there is no escape but death. It's the death of all hope." Elsewhere he has said that the general pessimism of their songwriting at the time (the mid- and late 1980s) can be attributed largely to the fact that personal friends had died or were dying of the disease.

5. Your Funny Uncle

"The words are about one of my best friends who died of AIDS," states Neil in the Introspective reissue booklet. "This is a description of his funeral. All the details are true."

6. Being Boring

"All the people I was kissing—some are here and some are missing…." All but unmistakable from the beginning. Neil has noted that this song emerged from his memories of a party thrown back in 1972 by the same friend whose funeral had inspired "Your Funny Uncle."

7. Dreaming of the Queen

Another one recognized for what it was from the start. "The idea of the song," says Neil in the 2001 Very reissue booklet, "is that the person singing it has got AIDS."

8. Postscript

Neither Neil nor Chris will discuss this song at any length. "It's personal," Chris has said. But it's generally acknowledged that he wrote this brief "hidden" song at the end of Very in honor of his friend Peter Andreas, who died of AIDS shortly after the album's release. When you consider that it immediately follows, after about two minutes of silence, a remake of "Go West"—which itself, in the Boys' rendition, serves as a "disco dirge" inspired by AIDS—it can further be viewed as a tribute to the countless others who had also fallen victim to the disease.

9. Paninaro '95

Without confirmation one way or the other from the PSB camp, we can't be absolutely certain. But this 1995 update of the 1986 b-side "Paninaro"—which changes the original "You're my lover" to "You were my lover"—is very widely regarded as having grown out of Chris's grief over losing his friend, roommate, and possible lover Peter Andreas, who died from AIDS-related illness the year before. If that is indeed the case, then "Paninaro '95" surely belongs in this list.

10. Discoteca

Although it didn't start out that way, Neil notes (in the 2001 Bilingual reissue booklet) that this song evolved into the story of "someone dealing with HIV or AIDS.… How do you deal with something going so wrong?"

11. The Survivors

Even before Bilingual was released, the Boys had described this song as a response of sorts to the recurring rumors that one or both of them were HIV-positive or had AIDS. Certainly it's about surviving more than just AIDS—for one thing, the song was partly inspired by the suicide of a woman whom Neil used to work with at Smash Hits—but that's just as certainly part of it. After its release, Neil suggested to an interviewer for The Advocate that the lyrics for this song stem largely from his sense of "survivor's guilt."

… plus several more debatable interpretations:

Neil has specifically pointed out that at least some of the following songs were not inspired by AIDS—but I still wonder.

While conceding that they're ambiguous enough to lend themselves to multiple interpretations, one of my site visitors believes (and I think there's something to it) that the "doom-laden" atmosphere imparted by the following lines strike him as at least partly AIDS-inspired:

The death-related figurative language of "a fatal mistake" and "dying to make" seems especially telling.

The Boys don't mention any connection of this song to AIDS in the 2001 Introspective reissue booklet. Rather, Neil has noted that this song concerns a relationship breaking down on account of jealousy. Yet the "Watch them all fall down" line has so often been linked to AIDS by various commentators that, rightly or wrongly, it seems an indelible part of PSB lore by now. Neil reportedly even described the song at the time of its release as the Pet Shop Boys' "Numbers," referring to a 1983 Soft Cell song about casual sex. If that's the case, then "Domino Dancing" is, if not actually AIDS-inspired, nevertheless "AIDS-inflected," its meaning to others almost unavoidably shaped by the disease. "I've watched you dance with danger still wanting more." Indeed.

Neil maintains that it's about domestic violence, and it is their song, so from that perspective that is what it's about. But art—or at least good art—must be more than what the artist says it is. Much of the greatness of great art lies in its ability to mean different things to different people. And to me it sounds very much like this song is also about AIDS. Take it for what it's worth, which may not be very much.

In what can be regarded as Neil's "all-but-coming-out" song—that is, essentially coming out in song as a gay man a couple years before he actually said "I'm gay" in print—the words "I don't give a damn when I hear people say I'll pay the price that others pay" can be interpreted a number of different ways. For instance, it could refer to the possible damage that being openly gay might have on his career. Yet coming at a time when the equation "gay man = eventual AIDS victim" had become firmly implanted in the public mind, "the price that others pay" could also be very readily be viewed from that perspective. As far as I know, however, Neil hasn't commented on this one way or the other.

While talking with Neil and Chris for the September 1993 issue of The Face during their first visit to Russia, journalist Sheryl Garrett observed that this song had "a similar feel" to the Boys' very much AIDS-influenced cover of "Go West": "…again elegaic, but also defiant, a tribute to those who have carried on, regardless of AIDS or growing bigotry." Neil didn't overtly confirm this interpretation, but neither did he say anything to clearly refute it. "It worries me in case it comes over as said," he noted, "but there is something sad about going to a bar by yourself."

The first verse of the Pet Shop Boys' own rendition of this song (as opposed to the Closer to Heaven cast version) is read by some as a statement of cautious relief over having survived what may prove to have been the worst of the AIDS epidemic. The words "Went too far, now we're fine" particularly lend themselves to such an interpretation. And, of course, consider the HIV-related connotations of the word "positive." Nevertheless, the Boys have asserted that this song is a satire about rehab and has nothing whatsoever to do with AIDS.