A Powerful Friend

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2010
Original album - Release 2017 reissue Further Listening 2001-2004 bonus disc
Producer - Pet Shop Boys
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - limited-edition single (U.K., didn't chart)

One of the tracks recorded for their appearance on The John Peel Show in October 2002, this has been described by the Pet Shop Boys as "a kind of rock 'n' roll song" that, like "If Looks Could Kill," dates back to their pre-hitmaking days of two decades before. In fact, Chris and Neil wrote the two songs on the same day back in 1983. And, sure enough, it "rocks" like relatively few other PSB tunes. You might call the Peel version "hard synth-pop." It reportedly remained without lyrics and unfinished for more than a decade, but Chris and Neil apparently finally got around to completing it for the Peel sessions, if not much sooner.

Shortly thereafter they went into the studio to record another, more elaborate version as part of the Disco 3 sessions, although they elected not to include it on that album—which is hardly surprising because it emerged as one of the least "disco-ish" things in the PSB canon. No longer "synth-pop" (although it still has synthesizers), it's perhaps the closest they've ever come to "hard rock," complete with thick swashes of harsh, distorted electric guitar chording and feedback. Yet it can claim a beauty and grandeur absent from the much simpler, "poppier" Peel rendition. This alternate version was temporarily made available for listening on the official PSB website. The Boys finally decided to give it "physical release" (so to speak) in April 2010 as the b-side of a special limited-edition vinyl single sold exclusively in independent record shops in Britain. (Their recording of "Love Life" is the a-side.) Both versions subsequently appeared among the bonus tracks with the 2017 reissue of Release.

The lyrics provide a fascinating—and, as we shall see, somewhat ambiguous—portrait of a very strange relationship between two people, apparently both men: "He's got a powerful friend who owes him nothing and knows how to spend." As the song progresses, we learn of the inner workings of what would seem to be a rather unhealthy symbiosis. As Neil has described it, "It's definitely a sexual liaison based on power and money rather than love." One man lives in the other's apartment "for free"—"waits on the table at tea, lives on the coffee and cream." And he doesn't seem entirely happy with this arrangement since he sometimes finds himself crying, sometimes screaming. Yet the relationship continues; clearly the two get enough out of it to tolerate the dissatisfactions. Neil slips in some rather lascivious innuendos, such as a reference to the fact that "pizza boys deliver what he needs on demand."

As for the aforementioned ambiguity, it may seem on first listen that the titular "powerful friend" is the dominant partner of the relationship, the one who is "waited on" by the other. But the lyrics are worded in such a way that that's not necessarily the case. It's entirely possible that the "powerful friend" is a man who is indeed powerful in his public persona—possibly a politician, which the song hints at—who adopts a dependent, subserviant role in his private life. Such relationships are well documented in the realms of clinical psychology. With such goings-on, it's a small wonder that this song was repressed and/or left unfinished for nearly twenty years.

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