Viva la Vida

Writers - Berryman/Buckland/Champion/Martin
First released - 2009
Original album - Pandemonium
Producer (Chrismas EP version) - Stuart Price, Dave Emery
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - Christmas EP

Shortly before the start of their 2009 Pandemonium Tour, the Boys had strongly hinted in at least one interview that the setlist would include a new cover song. But few suspected they would pick something as recent as Coldplay's big 2008 hit "Viva la Vida" (the title of which is Spanish that would translate literally as "live the life," but which would be more accurately translated idiomatically as "up with life" or "hooray for life"). In retrospect it may not be all that surprising, however, considering singer and co-songwriter Chris Martin's avowed fandom and debt of influence to the Pet Shop Boys. It's almost like a little acknowledging nod back from one pop generation to the next. Of course, it doesn't hurt to really like the song, either. After playing the Coldplay track during a guest DJ gig on Absolute Radio, Chris described it as "possibly the best song of 2008." Later, Chris and Neil decided to include the tour's Stuart Price-produced medley/mashup of "Viva la Vida" and "Domino Dancing" on their December 2009 Christmas EP.

Price had previously remixed "Viva la Vida" for Coldplay, which may have influenced the PSB decision to cover it. But other factors should be considered as well. For instance, it may have been at least partly inspired by the fact that Coldplay had been publicly accused of plagiarism and sued by guitarist Joe Satriani, who claimed that the song's melody too closely resembles his 2004 track "If I Could Fly." (The case was settled out of court and dismissed in September 2009. There's no word at this time of the terms of the settlement, although Coldplay will not be required to admit any wrongdoing and a payment to Satriani may be involved.) What's more, Yusuf Islam—the former Cat Stevens—has stated that the melody is also strikingly similar to portions of his 1973 release "Foreigner Suite." Stevens, in fact, has said that he, too, is considering a lawsuit—perhaps against both Coldplay and Satriani. It's the "Stevens connection" in particular that may have influenced the PSB choice. After all, quite early in their own career Neil and Chris had also been accused of stealing from a Cat Stevens song: in their case, the claim (by Jonathan King) was that the melody of "It's a Sin" was a rip-off of Stevens's "Wild World." The Boys were ultimately exonerated. Still, it's rather likely that, roughly 20 years later, they would strongly sympathize with Coldplay. Performing this song could well have been a way of showing their solidarity and support.

Some of my site visitors have suggested other possible inspirations for covering this song. Following the Boys' performance at the 2009 Brit Awards, where they were recognized for "Outstanding Contribution to Music," Neil attended a charity concert during which Coldplay performed "Viva la Vida." Toward the end of the song, lead singer Chris Martin pointed Neil out to the audience, who roared an ovation. Neil responded by "conducting" from his balcony perch the crowd's continued singalong to the chorus. It's possible that this may have tipped him off to the song's tremendous potential as an excuse (as if any were needed) for audience participation. Indeed, at most of the Pandemonium Tour shows, the Boys' rendition of "Viva la Vida"—despite the somewhat different arrangement that they've given it—has proved an occasion for widespread singing along.

In perhaps the most fascinating interpretation of all—one that Neil and Chris themselves have alluded to—the lyrics of "Viva la Vida" may have particular resonance as commentary on the Pet Shop Boys' changed status in the world of popular music. When Neil sings, "I used to rule the world…," could he be applying Coldplay's lyrics to the path of his own career? After all, he himself coined the term "imperial phase" to describe the period in the late eighties when it seemed that he and Chris could do no wrong.* To use metaphors from the song, they were "kings" who "held the key." But the world of popular music is one "built on sand," with ever-shifting styles and tastes. Pointedly, "Domino Dancing" with its famous "Watch them all fall down" refrain—the track that the Boys chose to mash up with "Viva la Vida"—is widely considered (including by Neil himself) to have signaled the end of their imperial phase. In essence, they've had to make way, at least at the upper reaches of the pop charts, for much younger artists, brand new "kings"—like Coldplay themselves. Are Neil and Chris now wondering when St. Peter will call their names, at least as a major hit-making pop act?

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