PSB songs with literary references
The Pet Shop Boys are an uncommonly "literary" group. So far I've found (or been alerted to) the following, but I'd be willing to bet there are plenty more. I'll add them as they come to my attention.
- First off, it's obvious that their entire ballet score The Most Incredible Thing is one great big literary reference to the short story of that title by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).
- And A Man from the Future is in its entirety based on Andrew Hodges's 1983 biography Alan Turing: The Enigma.
Now, with that out of the way—
1. Being Boring
The title and spirit of this song were inspired by a line from a 1922 article written by Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of the great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald), "… she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn't boring."
The lines "You said if you'd to choose between some money and a friend / You'd always choose the friend" adapt a famous statement by British author E.M. Forster (1879-1970): "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country" (from Forster's 1938 essay "What I Believe"). In addition, the lines "And still you need to justify yourself to others but not me / With that more-in-sorrow-than-anger routine" echo the words of Horatio in Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 2) when he describes the ghost as having "A countenance more in sorrow than in anger."
Neil's lyrics for this PSB collaboration with Jean-Michel Jarre were partly inspired by a passage from the 1854 Charles Dickens novel Hard Times.
This song was written for (but, as it turns out, wasn't actually used in) the 2003 film of the same name, which itself is loosely based on the Evelyn Waugh 1930 novel Vile Bodies. The title phrase does appear repeatedly in the novel, but otherwise the lyrics have little or nothing to do with the book. So the "literary reference" here is tenuous at best. (Thanks to my frequent site contributor Jeffrey Dursta fan of Waugh as well as of the Pet Shop Boysfor confirming the "tenuousness" of this connection.)
The line "More work for the undertaker means there's less for me" was inspired by the title of the 1948 novel More Work for the Undertaker by British author Margery Allingham. There's also a spoken bit where Neil refers to "Sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea." The twentieth-century British poet (and poet laureate) John Betjeman's poem "Trebetherick" includes the exact same line, raising the spectre of a direct connection. Neil, however, has suggested that this apparent allusion is more or less coincidental, describing it as one of those "typical experiences of a British picnic which Betjeman will have experienced, too." While it's quite possible Neil may have been unconsciously influenced by the Betjeman poem, it's also possible that the poem and the song simply draw upon the same common British expression.
The title is borrowed from an 1864 novel by the British author Anthony Trollope.
Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) wrote his famous (and infamous) Memoirs in his old age, as described by the Pet Shop Boys in this song, though they almost certainly take some liberties with the details. The song itself, however, was more immediately inspired by another literary work, the short 2005 novel Casanova's Homecoming by the Viennese writer Arthur Schnitzler.
Inspired by the 2010 book The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin by U.S. academic Stephen F. Cohen, about how Soviet prisoners sent to gulags during the Stalin and Krushchev eras later returned to their homes and families as if "from the dead."
In the booklet that accompanies the 2001 reissue of Bilingual, Neil notes that this song was inspired by the novel Hadrian VII by the relatively obscure late nineteenth/early twentieth-century British author Frederick William Rolfe, alias Baron Corvo. He also states that the "ring the bells" portion was inspired by the poem "A Sane Revolution" by a far better-known British author, D.H. Lawrence. The poem concludes with the line "Let's make a revolution for fun!"
The line "You don't have to be in Who's Who to know what's what" is borrowed (unwittingly, although Neil has confessed upfront his conviction that the line wasn't original with him) from the title of a 1979 book by the American writer and humorist Sam Levenson (1911-1980). Another line, "Just to thyself be true," echoes the famous advice of Polonius to his son Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet: "To thine own self be true."
The reference to "where angels fear to tread" may be a familiar metaphor, even a cliché, but it originated with the brilliant British neo-classical poet and satirist Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who wrote, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" in his 1711 work An Essay on Criticism. It also served as the title of a 1905 novel by the great British author E.M. Forster (1879-1970).
12. DJ Culture
The line "And I, my lordmay I say nothing?" is a slight rearrangement of the words actually spoken by Oscar Wilde immediately after he was sentenced in 1895 to two years of hard labor: "And I? May I say nothing, my lord?" Despite Wilde's plea, the judge adjourned the court.
13. Don Juan
The legend of the amoral Spanish nobleman received its earliest known literary treatment more than 350 years ago in a drama written by Gabriel Tellez, using the pseudonym Tirso de Molina. In subsequent centuries artists as diverse as Molière, Mozart, Shadwell, Byron, Browning, and Shaw have told his tale in one way or another. So the Pet Shop Boys put themselves in very good company indeed when they decided to use him as a metaphor for Adolf Hitler. In an additional literary connection, Neil has stated that he tried to compose the lyrics somewhat in the style of the 1922 abstract poetic sequence Façade, written by the British poet Edith Sitwell (1887-1964).
The chorus ("There are no more lovers left alive") was inspired by the title of the 1964 novel Only Lovers Left Alive by British author Dave Wallis.
15. Gin and Jag
The scholarly consensus seems to be that the line "Youth is wasted on the young" was coined by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), although the precise source seems uncertain and there's some disagreement as to whether it actually originated with Shaw. Another line in the song, "Boredom deplores a vacuum," is a takeoff on the ancient dictum "Nature abhors a vacuum," attributed to the Greek philospher-scientist Aristotle (384-322 BC). And the narrator's line about there being "a lot of room at the inn tonight" sounds like an inverted takeoff on the biblical "no room at the inn," which led to Joseph and Mary taking overnight shelter in the stable in which Jesus was born. The implication could be that, if the night in which there was no room at the inn was the holiest of nights, then this night in which there's a lot of room is anything but holy.
When Neil speaks the line "This is neither old nor new," he is directly quoting the English translation of the title of a poem by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966).
The line "We're lying in the gutter, but we're looking at the stars" is a paraphrase of Oscar Wilde, who actually wrote, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" in his 1892 play Lady Windermere's Fan.
This song, written by Neil and Chris for Liza Minnelli's Results album, concludes with Liza reading William Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 in its entirety.
19. I'm Not Scared
The line "Take these dogs away from me " is, according to Neil, a "quote, or a misquote" from the poem "Senex" by the twentieth-century British poet John Betjeman.
20. In the Night
The lyrics were inspired by the 1981 book Paris in the Third Reich: A History of the German Occupation, 1940-1944 by historian David Pryce-Jones.
21. Inside a Dream
The song's recurring lines—
The Land of Dreams is better far
Above the light of the Morning Star
—are quoted directly from the conclusion of the short 1803 poem "The Land of Dreams" by the English romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827).
This song was partly inspired by the 1921 science-fiction novel We by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), although Neil hadn't actually read the book; he had merely thumbed through it. The novel's dystopian plot concerns the inhabitants of a totalitarian, highly bureaucratic, and efficiency-obsessed "One State" that deems itself "perfect" and "immaculate." Their lives are dedicated to the construction of a spaceship called The Integral, designed solely to achieve the goals of the One State.
23. Into Thin Air
The title phrase—like so many others in the English language—is generally believed to have originated with William Shakespeare, who uses it in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Tempest, in lines spoken by the play's protagonist, the magician Prospero.
A slight variation on It Can't Happen Here, the title of a 1935 novel by American author Sinclair Lewis.
Neil has stated that the line "I didn't intend to interrupt your own shadowplay" is a reference to Shadow Play, a dramatic work by Noël Coward.
26. Jack the Lad
The line "To feast with panthers every night" is again adapted from Oscar Wilde, who in his 1897 apologia De Profundis wrote of his scandalous life, "It was like feasting with panthers. The danger was half the excitement."
The "Extended Version" of this song opens and closes with Neil's recitation of a brief quotation from one of world literature's greatest works focusing on jealousy, Shakespeare's Othello.
Incidentally, in addition to quoting him in "Jealousy" and "If There Was Love" (noted above), the Boys also mention Shakespeare in the "New Version" of "Discoteca." I've put that reference in my list of people mentioned by name in PSB songs, but it's certainly worth mentioning here as well.
28. King of Rome
The lyric's reference to Manderley stems from Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca, where it serves as the name of the house at the heart of the story. Apparently the song originally included additional allusions to the novel, but Neil decided to cut back on them in its final version. In addition, we shouldn't overlook a possible "allusion by extension" to the famed 1892 poem "Mandalay" (an alternate spelling of Manderley) by the British author Rudyard Kipling—a work that, despite its somewhat distracting use of what is meant to pass for dialect, conveys a profound sense of romantic longing, as the PSB song does.
29. Love etc.
It seems very likely that the title of the song (without the comma) was borrowed from the title (with the comma) of British author Julian Barnes's 2000 novel Love, etc.
This song was inspired by the 1988 novel Nice Work by British author David Lodge. Like much of Lodge's other writings, Nice Work satirizes academia (among other things). One exchange in the novel proved especially influential:
"I love you," he says, kissing her throat, stroking her breasts, tracing the curve of her hip.
"No, you don't, Vic."
"I've been in love with you for weeks."
"There's no such thing," she says. "It's a rhetorical device. It's a bourgeois fallacy."
"Haven't you ever been in love, then?"
"When I was younger," she says, "I allowed myself to be constructed by the discourse of romantic love for a while, yes."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"We aren't essences, Vic. We aren't unique individual essences existing prior to language. There is only language."
31. Luna Park
Although it was not the first PSB song to make this particular literary reference (see "The Sound of the Atom Splitting," below), it does come first alphabetically. The "circuses and bread" reference here inverts the classic phrase "bread and circuses," coined nearly 2,000 years ago by the ancient Roman satirist Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis), who wrote in the late first and early second century. Juvenal's original Latin phrase was "panem et circenses," which more literally translates as "bread and games." It refers, of course, to the means by which governmentsthen and nowstrive to keep the masses in ignorant contentment by meeting their basest needs and distracting them with crude entertainments.
The final "title movement" of A Man from the Future concludes with a paraphrase from the Bible, specifically the Apostle Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 3, Verse 6. In the King James Version it reads "…for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." (The word "letter" in this case refers to the law, as in "the letter of the law," and in some translations it is indeed rendered as "the law.") In "A Man from the Future" this is slightly modified to "The law killed, and the spirit gave life."
The recurring line "I keep tasting that sweet madeleine" is a metaphorical reference to a famous incident in French novelist Marcel Proust's monumental work À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), published in several parts from 1913 to 1927. Proust's adult narrator eats a madeleine—a type of small French sponge cake—which triggers an "involuntary memory" of a similar childhood experience that then introduces part of the ensuing story. The title of the PSB song itself, "Memory of the Future," is almost certainly meant to contrast with Remembrance of Things Past, a very common (though now academically disfavored) alternate translation of the title of Proust's work.
Neil has referred to the line "Though the mountains may divide, we can reach the sea" as "biblical." I haven't been able to locate any "we can reach the sea" reference in the Bible, but the book of Isaiah (54:10) does contain the words "For the mountains may depart…" (King James Version), which is rendered in some more modern translations as "For the mountains may divide…."
Neil has stated that this song was partly inspired by Ian MacDonald's 1989 book The New Shostakovich.
The song's "one for all and all for one" cliché, borrowed from the subtitles of The Battleship Potemkin, originated with The Three Musketeers, written in 1844 by the French novelist Alexandre Dumas. More accurately, the Dumas original has it the other way around: "Tous pour un, un pour tous" ("All for one, one for all"). The line recurs in "For Freedom," the final track of the Boys' Potemkin score, but I'll give "No Time for Tears" the credit since it appears there first.
I could also cite "Our Daily Bread" for its quoting from The Lord's Prayer, but that has such familiarity beyond a purely biblical context that to call it a "literary reference" is perhaps questionable.
Long before the Boys were asked to write the theme song for the film Scandal, about the Profumo Affair, Neil had written a song inspired by his reading of the 1964 book The Trial of Stephen Ward by Ludovic Kennedy. Having unearthed this old song, he and Chris modified and completed it to create "Nothing Has Been Proved."
This segment of A Man from the Future mentions Oscar Wilde and includes a stanza of his 1897 poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." It also mentions both the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the 1818 novel Frankenstein written by Shelley's wife, Mary Shelley.
Although this particular literary reference didn't come from Neil's (or Chris's) pen, it does appear in a legitimate PSB track built around excerpts from a February 2014 speech by Irish drag artist Panti Bliss (Rory O'Neill), who describes the "neat Orwellian trick" by which homophobic people suggest that gay people themselves are not the best arbiters of what is homophobic and oppressive to them. The word Orwellian—derived of course from the name of the twentieth-century British author George Orwell (1903-1950), best known for his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four—refers to concepts and strategies like those used by the totalitarian regimes appearing in those works. Panti uses it to refer to something he views as all too similar to the revisionist linguistic distortions epitomized by "newspeak" and "doublethink" in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The line "A vision of love revealed in sleep" has a double source. First, it's the title of a prose poem written in 1870 by the British Pre-Raphaelite artist and author Simeon Solomon. It's also the title of a 1989 drama based on Solomon's life by the modern British playwright Neil Bartlett.
41. A Red Letter Day
One line in this song refers clearly (by title) yet somewhat cryptically to Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. And the line "What on earth does it profit a man?" is clearly derived from the words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (16:26): "What does it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
Inspired by Sarah Wise's 2004 book The Italian Boy: Murder and Graverobbing in 1830s London, which is based on a factual criminal case of that period.
43. Silver Age
Neil has noted that this song was inspired by Russian art and literature of the period just before the First World War, which has often been described as Russia's "Silver Age" of the arts. In particular, he has cited the work of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)—who has come to be known as "The Soul of the Silver Age"—as a key inspiration.
Sodom and Gomorrah were the biblical "cities of the plain" that were destroyed by God for their wickedness, as described in Genesis 19:1-29. Of course, the song isn't "about" Sodom and Gomorrah, but the reference is absolutely vital to its understanding. Neil was also drawing upon French author Marcel Proust (1971-1922), the fourth volume (1921) of whose great work À la recherche du temps perdu (variously translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time) is titled Sodome et Gomorrhe (translated either as Sodom and Gomorrah or as Cities of the Plain). And the lyrics contain another reference to Alexander Pope's "where angels fear to tread," described in the entry above for "Discoteca."
This song preceded "Luna Park" by roughly 18 years with its "bread and circuses" reference, courtesy of Juvenal.
Neil has acknowledged that the line "History, someone had blundered" is a meaningful echo of the second stanza of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's famous, fatalistic, and quite historical 1854 poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade":"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Also, the sampled Russian at the end of the track comes from a speech made in 1936 by the Soviet state prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky. Part of what he's saying (which can be translated "Crush this vermin!") is a paraphrase of the great French writer Voltaire's famous phrase "Écrasez l'infâme!" ("Crush the infamy!"), used often in his essays and letters. True, it's a "second-hand" literary reference, but it's good enough for me.
47. To Step Aside
The title is borrowed from a 1939 collection of short stories by Noël Coward.
The lyrics include the line "And so to bed," which almost sounds like a throwaway until you realize that it's a literary cliché that first gained familiarity from its repeated use by Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), English public official and member of Parliament. Pepys is best known today for having kept from 1660 to 1669 what became one of the most famous diaries in world history. "And so to bed" is often the last thing he would write for any given day's entry.
49. Up Against It
Not only is the title borrowed from that of an unfinished screenplay by British playwright Joe Orton, but the lyrics make passing reference to another twentieth-century British playright, Harold Pinter.
50. Up and Down
The lyric's phrase "a cloud in trousers" is taken from the title of a 1915 poem by the early twentieth-century Russian poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky. With regard to the subject matter of the song, it's a telling choice in that Mayakovsky's poem is written from the perspective of a spurned lover, corresponding to the situation in which the song's narrator finds himself.
51. Viva la Vida
Of course, Neil and Chris didn't write this song, which was composed by the members of Coldplay. But that doesn't stop it from boasting literary allusions aplenty, most notably from the Bible. St. Peter (one of Jesus's disciples) and Calvary (the place where Jesus was crucified) are obvious. Only slightly more obscure are references to pillars of salt (the fate of Lot's wife), castles standing on sand (one of Jesus's parables), and having one's head on a silver plate (the death of John the Baptist). The lyric is both vague enough and rich enough to invite further—though far less certain—citations as well.
In 2012 the Pet Shop Boys set to music this 1910 poem by the British author Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
53. West End Girls
The line "From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station" refers not only to Lenin's journey from exile back to Russia at the start of the Russian Revolution but also to the book To the Finland Station, a 1940 study of the history of European socialism by the great American literary critic and cultural historian Edmund Wilson. Neil has also cited T.S. Eliot's great 1922 poem The Wasteland as a significant influence on this song.
Inspired by the Jewish Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), who fled his native country rather than face persecution by the Nazis. Neil had recently read a biography of Zweig, thereby giving rise to the song.
There's some uncertainty about this one. The opening exclamation, "Darling, you were wonderful!" may be taken from a reference in The Orton Diaries by Joe Ortonwhich Neil is known to have bought and read while on tour in 1989or perhaps from the title of a 1990 play by Derek Lomas, Darlings, You Were Wonderful, or maybe from the title of a 1977 memoir collection (yes, Darling, You Were Wonderful) by Harvey Sabinson. As it turns out, "Darling, you were wonderful" is apparently something of a theatre-world cliché, often spoken casually by directors and fellow actors who wish to comment favorably on someone's performance—whether they truly mean it or not. Therefore it's quite possible, even likely, that someone actually did say those words to Neil regarding their Performance show, inspiring him to use them in this song. So while it may be a "literary reference," that's not necessarily the case. But we can safely call it a "literary connection" in any event.
56. Your Funny Uncle
Neil has stated that he borrowed the title from a line in the John Betjeman poem "Indoor Games Near Newbury": "And your funny uncle saying/'Choose your partners for a foxtrot'." In addition, the lines near the end of the song beginning "To wipe away the tears" and ending "These former things have passed away" are directly adapted from the BibleRevelation 21:4 to be precise: "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away" (King James Version). Neil had read those very words at the real-life funeral service that inspired this song.
One of my site visitors has suggested the intriguing possibility that this song, which deals with (among other things) the way rumors can cause hurt and concern in a relationship, may have been partly inspired by the 1852 Hans Christian Andersen tale "Det er ganske vist" ("It's Quite True!"). This very brief story begins with a hen who plucks out one of her feathers. Other barnyard animals start gossiping about it. With each telling the story becomes a little more exaggerated. By the time it gets back to the original hen, the one plucked feather has inflated into five completely denuded hens. One feather, thanks to rumor, becoming five hens. Hmmm— It's probably just a coincidence. But considering that the Boys' 2011 ballet The Most Incredible Thing is based on an Andersen fairy tale, it may be worth noting.
All text on this website aside from direct quotations (such as of lyrics and of other nonoriginal content) is copyright © 2001-2016 by Wayne Studer. All Rights Reserved. All lyrics and images are copyright © their respective dates by their respective owners. Brief quotations and small, low-resolution images are used for identification and critical commentary, thereby constituting Fair Use under U.S. copyright law. Billboard chart data are copyright © their respective dates by Nielsen Business Media, Inc.