PSB songs with "Russian connections"

Neil is a student of history, with a particular interest in Russian history and culture. So it shouldn't be surprising that Russian references pop up with some regularity in Pet Shop Boys songs.

1. West End Girls

The line "From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station" tracks the exiled Lenin's route of return to Russian on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Why it should appear in the stream of consciousness narrative of "West End Girls" is anyone's guess. Some alternative versions of the song also include the line "Who do you think you are—Joe Stalin?"

2. I'm Not Scared

The album Introspective was released in a special limited-edition set of three 12-inch vinyl discs, each side featuring one of the six album tracks. The label of the side devoted to "I'm Not Scared" boasted a photograph of Neil that, as noted in the book Pet Shop Boys Catalogue, was very consciously modeled on a particular image of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)—or, more accurately, an image of the actor Ben Kingsley portraying Shostakovich in the 1988 film Testimony. The odd facial expression might be described as one blending profound dejection and resignation, reflecting the composer's mood after suffering a public denunciation during the Stalinst era.

3. This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave

Near the end of the song, somewhat buried in the mix, there's a brief sample from a speech made by Andrei Vyshinsky, the Soviet state prosecutor, during the infamous Stalinist "show trials" of 1936. He's saying, translated from Russian, "Our people demand only one thing: to crush this vermin!" (Vyshinsky is referring to the "enemies of the state" under prosecution.) Also, just after the guitar solo (at about 3:24), a choir shouts "Lenin!"—apparently lifted directly from a recording of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2. Although this song focuses primarily on remembrances by Neil of his Catholic school days (which may have played into his choice of the Vyshinsky/Voltaire quote), he has also stated that it's "about the end of communism as well": hence the Russian references.

4. My October Symphony

This song is written from the perspective of a Russian composer who contemplates the implications of the collapse of communism, especially with regard to his work. The shout at the start of the track is the Russian word for "October," again (see the preceding entry for "This Must Be the Place I Waited Years to Leave") taken from Shostakovich's Second Symphony.

5. Miserablism

The instrumental break of this track contains a brief sample from Shostakovich's Twelfth Symphony.

6. I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing

Neil sings of feeling like taking all his clothes off and "dancing to The Rite of Spring." The Rite of Spring is the score of a ballet, one of the greatest works by the Russian (and later, American) composer Igor Stravinsky.

7. Liberation

The melody was, in Neil's words, "triggered" by a portion of the ballet Romeo and Juliet by the great Ukrainian/Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.

8. Go West

Although the primary context of this recording is a bittersweetly ironic take on gay consciousness in the wake of AIDS, the Boys established a whole other alternate meaning in the video, which equates "going West" with the fall of communism in Russia. The fact that the chord structure of the song (based on that of Pachelbel's "Canon in D") closely resembles that of the Soviet national anthem only fosters the Russian connection. Chris and Neil even went to Moscow to film brief portions of the video in Red Square—yes, while wearing those sci-fi jumpsuits and helmets! More than a decade later, on July 2, 2005, they appeared at the Live 8 concert in Red Square, during which they made it a point to perform "Go West," which Chris introduced with a slow, quiet piano rendition of that famous chord sequence, only slightly embellished.

9. Euroboy

There's a bit of uncertainty about this one. Neil has said that this track contains a sample of "Cossack" voices. But Chris has stated that the voices are actually African, although he concedes that they sound Russian. The Boys agree, however, that this track has a very "Eastern European" sound.

10. A Red Letter Day

In a likely pun on the word "red" in the title, the Boys enlisted a classically trained male Russian chorus to sing background vocals for this song.

11. Up Against It

The lines "So deep in quicklime, the bones of an old crime" refer to the discovery in 1979 of the remains of the Russian royal family murdered in 1918, during the Revolution.

12. Happiness Is an Option

This song is replete with "Russian references." It was built around a fragment of Vocalise, a 1912 composition by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov. Neil also makes passing reference to what is allegedly a Russian aphorism about "wondering why we're born under a blue sky but die in a dark forest." (Then again, a Russian email correspondent—a teacher with a background in linguistics, so he's in a position to know—has disputed this, saying that he's never heard of any such aphorism.) If that weren't enough, the lyrics further allude to the poem (or at least the title) "This Is Neither Old Nor New" by the twentieth-century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

13. Silver Age

The lyrics refer in a rather imagistic fashion to the period in Russia from 1901 to 1914, a "Silver Age" filled with optimism and a flourishing of the arts. Yet an overwhelming air of foreboding ("It's very atmospheric," says Neil) hangs over the song. The First World War and the Russian Revolution, after all, are just around the corner.

14. London

A song that tells the story of a couple of deserters from the Russian Army who flee to London, where they wind up resorting to crime to survive. Although it has been speculated that this song may have been partly inspired by the 2001 book Bigger Than Ben (Bolshe Bena in Russian), which tells a similar story, the similarities between the two are coincidental in that the Boys had never heard of the book even years after they wrote and recorded the song. More accurately, "London" was inspired by a general influx of Russians into the English capital in the late 1990s. The authors of the book were apparently part of that influx.

15. Psychological

This track contains a sample from a recording of a 1991 composition by the modern Russian composer Aleksandr Knaifel (born 1943 in Uzbekistan), "Song of the Most Holy Theotokos for Tatjana Melentieva," excerpted from Svete Tikhiy ("O Gladsome Light").

16. Numb

According to the official PSB website, the directors of this song's video (Julian Gibbs and Chris Sayers) have described it as "an icy emotional landscape of borrowed dreams, sewn together with the power and style of Russian constructivist cinema." This might seem like a rather tenuous connection, but even a single viewing of the video confirms a very obvious Russian influence. In fact, on the Cubism DVD commentary track, Neil confirms that at least some of the video footage is taken from early Soviet films. A Russian site visitor has at least tentatively identified brief snippets from the films Peter the First (in two parts, 1937-39) and Leningrad Symphony (1958) as well as from assorted World War II-era Soviet newsreels.

17. Twentieth Century

The Russian Revolution and the soviet state that emerged in its wake were among the inspirations for this song (though, to be sure, not the only ones). As Neil put it, "I was thinking of communism—that as a solution to the problems of the world, the problems weren't as bad as the solutions."

18. Minimal

"White on white," the first line of the song, is almost certainly a reference to the 1918 minimalist painting of that name by the Ukranian-Russian artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). The painting currently hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

19. Integral

Partly inspired by the 1921 dystopian science-fiction novel We by the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), about an extremely bureaucratic "perfect" society that completely dominates the lives of its citizens.

20. All Over the World

This song on the Pet Shop Boys' 2009 album Yes was written by them "with a little help from Tchaikovsky." as stated on their official website. (It borrows from The Nutcracker March.) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was, of course, a great Russian composer of the Romantic period.

21. Up and Down

The lyrics contain the phrase "a cloud in trousers," which is also the title of a 1915 poem by the Russian poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). (He might also be considered Georgian and Ukranian; he was born in Georgia of Ukranian descent. But he spent most of his life in Russia and wrote in Russian.)

22. A Certain 'Je Ne Sais Quoi'

The lyrics mention Moscow in passing ("…before you catch the first flight to Moscow"). OK, it's not much of a Russian connection, but it's something.

23. Hell

No fewer than four Russian autocrats—or, depending on how you look at the one still-living personage among them, just three—get a mention: Ivan the Terrible, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Vladimir Putin. That's more than for any other single nationality among the song's named characters in Hell.

24. Bolshy

This song from Electric bears the title of a slang term that originated in the second decade of the twentieth century as a mildly disparaging reference to the Bolsheviks, the extreme leftist socialists who led the Russian Revolution and who evolved into the Russian Communist Party. The track itself contains a large number of audio samples of Russian words and phrases, most of which were sampled from a Google routine translating snippets of the English lyrics.

25. Get It Online

Another track that incorporates brief, passing samples of spoken Russian, along with several other languages.

26. The Dead Can Dance

This song was inspired by the 2010 book The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin by Stephen F. Cohen, about how Soviet prisoners sent to gulags during the Stalin and Khrushchev eras later returned to their homes and families as if "from the dead."

27. Jack the Lad

It's only a bit of a stretch to include this song in the list seeing as how it alludes by name to the infamous British traitor Kim Philby, who spied for the Russians for more than two decades before defecting to the Soviet Union in 1963.

28. Kazak

This instrumental (aside from wordless vocalizations and the occasional "Hey!") was originally envisioned by the Boys as part of a project in which people would perform Russian/Cossack dances to techno music. They abandoned that idea when they couldn't figure out how to finance it.

29. Mongrel

It's a less pronounced connection than most of the others listed here, but in this song from Musik, Billie Trix describes how she was the unwanted product of her German mother's rape by a Russian soldier in post-war Berlin.

30. Skeletons in the Closet

Although the core conceit of this song—that of the past haunting the present—has far wider implications, Neil has suggested that he was thinking specifically of Russia in that it has "never really dealt with Stalinism," but has instead "just created Putinism. And the skeletons in the closet are rattling to get out.… There's so much unresolved stuff, so much pain that's never been even really discussed."

31. Kaputnik

An extended metaphor that dresses up Vladimir Putin as a crazed stalker trying to force his former lover (Ukraine) back to him—although it could be the other way around, in which case Putin is the metaphor. Whatever the case, the title is a portmanteau slang term for something that has proven a failure or that otherwise doesn't meet expectations. It's derived by combining the German word kaputt (meaning "broken," "failed," or "useless")—widely adopted by Russian soldiers during the late stages of World War II, who would often confront German soldiers with the words "Hitler kaputt," by which means it entered the Russian language (and, from there, English) as kaput—and the Russian words putnik (meaning "traveler") and/or Sputnik (the name of the famed 1957 Russian satellite, the first man-made object placed into orbit, which itself means "traveling companion" or "fellow traveler").

32. Living in the Past

Neil gives voice to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin malevolently reflecting on the usefulness, in the wake of his war on Ukraine, of Stalin's memory as well as on his own personal and international ambitions.

33. Where the Streets Have No Name (I Can't Take My Eyes Off You)

Although it wasn't a PSB original and wasn't written by the Boys—its composers instead being Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe—the melody and chord progression of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (its original title, without the "I") bear a pronounced similarity to the introductory theme of Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the 1954 ballet Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian. A Soviet Armenian composer, Khachaturian wasn't strictly "Russian," but he lived for most of his life in Moscow, capital of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, and came to be regarded as one of the nation's leading composers.

34. Dancing Star

This song was inspired by the real-life story of Rudolf Nureyev, the internationally acclaimed ballet star who famously defected from the Soviet Union in 1961. Although Nureyev was of Tatar descent and therefore not ethnically Russian, he was born in the Russian Siberian region of Irkutsk. And, of course, the Soviet Union was thoroughly dominated by Russia and Russians.

35+ Battleship Potemkin (including 15 new songs and instrumentals)

Certainly we can't overlook the Pet Shop Boys' electronic/orchestral score for the 1925 silent film classic Battleship Potemkin, directed by the Latvian-Russian screenwriter and director Sergei Eisenstein. They debuted it at a live performance on September 12, 2004, during a showing of the film at London's Trafalgar Square, and the studio recording was released about a year later. The score is primarily instrumental but includes several new songs with Neil's vocals: "Our Daily Bread," "No Time for Tears," "After All," and "For Freedom." Battleship Potemkin concerns a 1904 revolt by Russian sailors—an event generally acknowledged as having foreshadowed the Russian Revolution more than a decade later. So if we count all 15 of the separately demarcated tracks in the score, that brings the total of PSB songs with "Russian connections" to 44!

Plus one possible unconscious connection—

Note: One might think that I could point out a similar Russian connection with Chris and Neil's 2011 ballet The Most Incredible Thing considering that it was instigated by a request from dancer Ivan Putrov. But Putrov is not Russian; rather, he's Ukrainian. He was born and raised in Kyiv (the capital of Ukraine) and danced with the National Ballet of Ukraine (better known at the time as the Kiev Ballet) before joining The Royal Ballet in London. Some critics have also cited certain Russian (specifically Soviet-era) stylistic influences in the staging of the Boys' ballet, but those are tenuous enough that I'm just not going to count them here.