Two Divided by Zero
The first track on the first album by the Pet Shop Boys was partly inspired by a "talking calculator" that Neil had bought for his father for Christmas; the song employs the "voice" of the calculator. (It was manufactured probably either by Texas Instruments or Sharp—the stories vary. Please see my first annotation below.) Also, as Neil states in the 2006 documentary Pet Shop Boys: A Life in Pop, he also drew inspiration from his teenage years in his hometown of Newcastle, where he and his friends used to visit the train station late at night and fantasize about hopping a train and escaping to London. This longing to escape pervades the song.
As any mathematician will tell you (or even anyone who ever paid attention in their arithmetic classes), you can't divide by zero. It's a nonsensical, meaningless proposition. How can you divide something by nothing? It violates the very definition of the word "divide." So with this underlying mathematical concept as his theme, the narrator tries to persuade his lover to "run away" with him to New York City. There's no reason for them not to since, after all, nothing (zero) divides them (two). In short, it's as absurd to try to keep them apart as it is to try to divide 2 by 0. It's an ingenious lyrical conceit, and although the music is hardly of the first rank, it's nevertheless an auspicious beginning.
One of my site visitors has suggested that the lyrical protagonists of this song might be criminals—criminals who also happen to be lovers—who are fleeing either the police or a rival gang. While I can't say that I necessarily ascribe to this reading, I can certainly see how many of its lines (such as "Or someone tipped them off" and "So why hang around for the deed to be done?") can readily lend themselves to such an interpretation.
The co-writing credit for the Boys' original producer, Bobby "O" Orlando, arises from the fact that Neil and Chris built the song around a basic backing track that Orlando had created. Bobby apparently didn't know what to do with it. But the Pet Shop Boys did. Most interestingly, however, Chris does not receive a co-writing credit.
- I don't attempt to identify the specific model or even manufacturer of this "talking calculator" for a very good reason. As I say, "the stories vary." A number of site visitors have written to me through the years, identifying the specific model and generally citing evidence to back them up. The only problem is that different people have identified different devices, with seemingly conflicting evidence. Whenever I've tried in the past to be more specific, I get emails "correcting" me. So I've given up trying to be specific. Unless the Pet Shop Boys themselves ever identify the specific manufacturer and model of the calculator heard in "Two Divided by Zero," I won't specifically identify it here.
- As described above, the title sets up the clever central lyrical conceit of this song: it's impossible to divide two—or any other number, for that matter—by zero. One of my site visitors has suggested a most intriguing view of this situation, triggered by the use of that "talking calculator." What happens if you try to divide by zero on most calculators? You get an error message! So maybe the Boys are subtly suggesting that the protagonists of this song—the narrator and his lover—are themselves in an "impossible situation," so to speak. Their plans to "run away" together seem totally unrealistic and implausible, which the narrator himself appears to acknowledge when he reluctantly suggests that one possibility is to "call it all off." In fact, maybe their relationship itself is in some way "in error," and they shouldn't have gotten involved with each other in the first place. I don't necessarily agree wholeheartedly with this interpretation, but it certainly casts the entire song in a fascinating new light.
- You may need really, really good headphones to hear it—at least clearly enough to understand much of what's being said—but at about the two-minute mark in the track you can hear a sample of an announcement taken from London's Southern Network Railway system starting at Victoria Station, Platform 9, the 14:27 (2:27 p.m.) service (the "Metro Route") to Epsom Downs, listing stops at Battersea Park, Clapham Junction, Wandsworth Common, and Balham before the voice fades out beneath other competing sounds, not the least of which is the music itself. Although it's not actually a "late train" (as referenced in the song's opening lines, "Let's not go home, we'll catch the late train"), it nevertheless offers support—virtually subliminal in nature considering how buried it is in the mix—to the underlying narrative.
- The live rendition of this song on the Pandemonium CD and DVD incorporates during its introduction the sampled beat from the "Original 12-inch Dub" of Shannon's 1983 post-disco classic "Let The Music Play"—a song with which the Boys have been involved on another occasion as well.
- Album version (3:32)
- Available on Please
- Album version (3:32)
- Mixer: Stuart Price
- Pandemonium CD live version (3:45)
Official but unreleased
- Mixer: [unknown at this time]
- Bobby "O" demo (4:05)
- Mixer: Stuart Price (?)
- 2009 studio version for the Pandemonium Tour (3:19)
- The key signatures of selected PSB songs
- Real places mentioned by name in PSB songs
- PSB tracks that contain samples of other artists' music
- Films that have featured PSB songs
- The early tracks that the Pet Shop Boys recorded with Ray Roberts and Bobby 'O'
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