by Jean-Michel Jarre and Pet Shop Boys
Writers - Jarre/Lowe/Tennant
First released - 2016
Original album - Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
Producer - Jean-Michel Jarre
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)
French musician/composer Jean-Michel Jarre has been a pioneering electronic artist since even before the tremendous success of his breakthrough 1976 album Oxygène. His nineteenth studio album, Electronica 1: The Time Machine, released in 2015, found him collaborating with a number of artists, including Vince Clarke, Pete Townshend, and Edgar Froese, among others. The second album of this ongoing collaborative project, Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise, released in May 2016, includes the highly atmospheric track "Brick England," recorded with the Pet Shop Boys. (Among the other artists also featured on the album are Gary Numan, The Orb, Cyndi Lauper, Yello, and Primal Scream.)
Jarre has said that he first composed and created a demo track, which he sent to Chris and Neil. Liking what they heard, they then (in Jarre's own words) "added their unique vocals and magic textures to it." The Boys themselves noted that they added lyrics and music (presumably a melody) to a backing instrumental track composed by Jarre.
Neil's lyrics were inspired in part by a passage from the 1854 Charles Dickens novel Hard Times. They describe, with a blend of affection, melancholy, and critique, an industrial (or post-industrial) English urban landscape, the redness of its brick compounded and emphasized by the glow of sunset. The climactic lines of the chorus summarize the irony of the way "walls rise and fall" in the seemingly endless cycles of construction and development:
In light of these words, it's certainly worth noting that in November 2013 Neil was among more than two dozen celebrities who signed an open letter to the London Evening Standard, protesting the pending demolition of Earls Court arena by real estate developers and arguing instead that the famed Art Deco structure should be preserved and restored. The Earls Court arena isn't constructed of red brick—at least it doesn't appear to be since the predominant color of the building is white—but it and other historic buildings threatened by modern development are likely to have served as an additional "non-Dickensian" inspiration for the lyrics.
Even such mundanities as taking a walk and noticing an ordinary street sign can inspire the observant songwriter. "I was walking up Brick Lane in the East End of London," Neil said in Issue 42 of the PSB fan publication Literally, "and there was a sign saying ROAD CLOSED DIVERSION,… and that went into the song as well." He then added, "It's about how cities come and go."
- As noted above, the lyrics were partly inspired by a passage from the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times. Neil has confirmed that the following passage, from near the end of "Book the Second," Chapter 1, served this inspirational purpose:
She sat at the window, when the sun began to sink behind the smoke; she sat there, when the smoke was burning red, when the colour faded from it, when darkness seemed to rise slowly out of the ground, and creep upward, upward, up to the house-tops, up the church steeple, up to the summits of the factory chimneys, up to the sky.
This passage is clearly echoed by several lines of the song:
- The last verse name-checks Brick Lane, a street in a section of East London that has become the heart of the city's South Asian community. Long a heavily industrial and somewhat downtrodden area, in recent years it has been undergoing economic revitalization and, indeed, a good deal of redevelopment, all alluded to in the references to tourists and road diversions in that same verse. The street's name derives not so much from its large number of brick buildings—of which there are many—but more from the industry that flourished there for several centuries, taking advantage of nearby clay deposits used to manufacture bricks.
When the sun begins to sink behind the smoke
There's a burning red glow all around
Evening creeps beyond the terrace walls
Up the church steeples
And the chimney-pots so high
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