Battleship PotemkinBattleship Potemkin

Released - 2005
Chart peak - UK #97, US (didn't chart)

Visitors' rating (plurality): ★★★☆☆
Visitors' rating (rounded average): ★★★☆☆
Wayne's rating: ★☆☆☆☆

These star-ratings reflect how PSB albums compare to each other—not how they compare to albums by other artists.

On September 12, 2004, before an estimated audience of between 15,000 and 25,000 (reports have varied widely) at London's Trafalgar Square, the Pet Shop Boys debuted a score they had composed for the Latvian-Russian director Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film classic The Battleship Potemkin. Surprisingly, despite Neil's well-known fascination for Russian history and culture, this remarkable project wasn't originally the Boys' idea. Rather, they had been approached the previous year by a representative of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, which has commissioned similar works in the past. And perhaps just as surprising is the fact that Chris was even keener on the idea than Neil, who feared that Chris wouldn't be interested. But conversely, as Chris told interviewer Anne-Marie Minhall of Classic FM, he felt it would be "interesting to write music that didn't have to conform to a standard pop song structure."

This highly influential film, made during the very early years of the Soviet Union, concerns a 1904 revolt by Russian sailors and its bloody aftermath—events generally acknowledged as having foreshadowed the Russian Revolution more than a decade later. As Neil has put it, Potemkin is "a rather romantic film of protest." The ICA and the Pet Shop Boys therefore agreed that Trafalgar Square, with its own history of British political protest, would be the perfect venue for a free concert and showing that would resonate with a modern audience on multiple levels.

Undoubtedly seeing it as an opportunity to flex their creative muscles in an ambitious new direction, Neil and Chris set about the daunting task of composing a virtually continuous score for a 73-minute film. Although the work would be primarily electronic, they determined it should have orchestral accompaniment, so after completing the core music they asked German composer Torsten Rasch to do the orchestration. (They were drawn to him because of their fondness for a piece that he had composed based upon the music of the German alt-metal band Rammstein, which indirectly led to the Pet Shop Boys remixing Rammstein's single "Mein Teil.") At both the live concert and on the studio recording (made shortly before the concert itself), the 26-member Dresdner Sinfoniker (Dresden Chamber Orchestra) performed the orchestral parts, although five of the tracks—"Men and Maggots," "Our Daily Bread," "Stormy Meetings," "Night Falls," and "Full Steam Ahead"—are performed by the Pet Shop Boys without the orchestra.

A CD of the complete score was released in September 2005. It's a rich electronic-orchestral composition, predominantly instrumental as one would expect, but with occasional vocal passages sung by Neil. The individual tracks—the titles of which are often based on subtitles in the silent film—vary widely from somber, contemplative pieces to upbeat, raucous, techno workouts. Chris and Neil take advantage of the extended instrumental format and inherently ambitious artistic environment to engage in musical experimentation as seldom before, employing unusual time-signatures, rhythmic patterns, and at times tremendous dissonance. Some passages even bear a surprising stylistic resemblance to certain instrumentals by Genesis. For this reason, it's tempting to describe this music as the Pet Shop Boys' stab at "prog rock."

It's important to note that the studio recording isn't quite the complete score. As Neil and Chris have performed it live in conjunction with the film, the score is roughly five minutes longer. Most if not all of the music cut from the CD occurs in the latter portion of "Men and Maggots"—a rather abstract, percussive instrumental segment that leads into the next song, "Our Daily Bread." This was apparently done to streamline "Men and Maggots," Potemkin's longest track, to make it less likely to bore listeners without the benefit of the film itself to help sustain interest.

It's also worth noting that the CD cover art and associated press releases don't refer to this as a "Pet Shop Boys" album. Instead it's by "Tennant/Lowe." Neil and Chris insisted on this because EMI Classics co-released the CD, and classical records are generally organized in shops according to the names of the composers, not the performers. The performers, by contrast, should be considered the Pet Shop Boys and the Dresdner Sinfoniker conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer.

This 2005 work wasn't officially released in the United States on CD until 2011. Not surprisingly, it didn't make it onto the U.S. album charts.

Plot Synopsis

The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin, floating in the harbor of the Black Sea port city of Odessa, sleeps at night in their hammocks ("'Comrades!'"). After one of the sailors is physically and verbally abused for no good reason by a petty officer, the crew, led by Vakulinchuk, begins discussing their grievances.

The next morning, a shipment of meat is brought aboard. The men express their dismay and disgust at its rotten state, literally crawling with maggots ("Men and Maggots"). The ship's doctor, however, callously asserts that it's perfectly acceptable, and the meat is taken below to the kitchen for preparation. Soup made from the meat is served to the men later, but some hesitate or even refuse to eat it. Afterward, a crew member washing the plates notices with bitter irony the plate inscription "Give us this day our daily bread" ("Our Daily Bread").

Word reaches the senior officers that the crew is unhappy with their meal. The captain challenges the more openly dissatisfied sailors, first threatening to hang them and then calling up the armed guard ("Drama in the Harbour"). The captain orders the guard to fire upon a group of sailors—but the armed men hesitate and then refuse to shoot their comrades. With this, open rebellion breaks out ("Nyet").

During the melee, most of the officers are thrown overboard, but one of the last remaining shoots and kills Vakulinchuk. But despite his death, the mutiny is successful. His body is borne in honor to the shore ("To the Shore"), where it rests "in state" on the pier at Odessa. Word spreads quickly through the city, whose townpeople come by the hundreds to pay their respects ("Odessa"). Their mourning, however, soon turns to revolutionary anger ("No Time for Tears"). After a flotilla of boats from the town carries food over to the battleship ("To the Battleship"), a group of Cossacks begin firing on townspeople. A massacre ensues, its central point being the Odessa Steps ("After All"). In retaliation for this outrage, the crew of the Potemkin fires upon what they perceive as the "enemy stronghold," the Odessa Opera House.

After the crew members debate their next steps ("Stormy Meetings"), they settle in for the night ("Night Falls"). As they sleep, however, a squadron of intercepting battleships approaches. Alerted to this, the crew prepares to defend themselves ("Full Steam Ahead")—a battle they know they are doomed to lose unless they can persuade the crews of the approaching ships to join them in revolution. As the squadron bears down on the Potemkin ("The Squadron"), its crew members signal, "Join us!" After a few tense moments in which it appears a battle is inevitable, the other crews stand down, agreeing to join the revolution ("For Freedom"). The Potemkin—and the revolution—is saved.

Top Picks by Voter Ratings

  1. No Time for Tears
  2. After All
  3. For Freedom

Wayne's Top Picks

  1. No Time for Tears
  2. After All
  3. For Freedom


"Comrades!"

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The opening theme of the score bears the title "'Comrades!'" (enclosed within quotation marks)—chosen no doubt because of its dual implications as both a term of "revolutionary address" (indicating partners in the Marxist/socialist utopian ideal) and a word simply expressing the close bonds of friendship so often formed among those serving together in the military. The music—which Chris had composed even before he and Neil were commissioned to write the score—begins with simple but ominous synth chords that later emerge as a recurring motif at various points throughout the score. Slow and stately, building in intensity, the segment extends from the opening credits through a scene in which the Potemkin's sailors are sleeping in cramped quarters below deck—the intimacy of which provides even greater rationale for the title.

One of the most distinctive aspects of this track is its unusual time signature. Most likely written in either 7/4 or 7/8 time (it's difficult to tell for sure which without the sheet music), it has the sort of challenging time signature that was highly favored by the high priests of prog-rock back in the 1970s—one that ambitious songwriters and musicians like to use to show their chops, so to speak. It's not easy to write and perform a smooth, "natural-sounding" piece of music with such a rhythmic pattern as this. But our musical heroes pull it off.

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Men and Maggots

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

This instrumental might be described as a "techno-waltz." Then again, it's an oversimplification to call it a "waltz," what with its complex, shifting, highly syncopated rhythmic patterns. But triple-time of some sort (3/4, 6/8, 12/8?) certainly predominates. It's vaguely Russian in mood, appropriately enough, almost reminiscent of a traditional folk melody. As the title indicates, this music coincides with the following morning on deck, in which the sailors discover that the meat that has been brought aboard for them to eat is rotten, literally crawling with maggots. Their refusal to eat it serves as the catalyst for rebellion.

As noted above, the full score features a somewhat longer version of "Men and Maggots" than what appears on the CD.

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Our Daily Bread

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

After many of the sailors refuse to eat soup prepared from rotten meat, some of them are cleaning the dishes. Ironically, the words from the Lord's Prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," are engraved on the plates (in Russian, of course) and appear in the film's subtitles. Neil takes off on this, singing a brief, downbeat passage: "Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses…." During instrumental development of this melodic theme, the crew is called on deck, at which time the ship's captain decrees that the sailors who refused to eat will be killed. When an elderly (and ultimately unsympathetic) priest appears to "bless" the proceedings, Neil again sings "Give us this day…" with even bitterer irony than before.

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Drama in the Harbour

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

In the film a sailor blows a bugle and, appropriately, a trumpet motif opens this lengthy segment. All hands are called on deck as the captain challenges the sailors who refused to eat the maggoty soup, threatening to hang them from the yardarm. He then calls the ships armed guard and orders them to fire upon the rebellious sailors. Neil then intones some of the most crucial lyrics of the score:

Brothers, oh brothers
We are your brothers
Do not forsake us now

For several tense moments the guards consider whether to fire on their comrades. When they refuse, general mutiny breaks out.

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Nyet

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

An uptempo segment in which voices repeatedly cry "Da!" (Russian for "Yes!") and "Nyet!" (No!). (The "Da's" certainly sound like Neil, which makes me wonder whether the "Nyets" are Chris.) It coincides with the mutiny, in which the sailors overthrow the officers and take over the ship. At one point roughly halfway through the track, a crashing piano chord in the score matches up with a scene in which someone climbing atop a piano steps on its keys—one of many instances in which the Pet Shop Boys incorporate musical elements that serve as "sound effects" for action onscreen.

Incidentally, the music here—easily the most danceable portion of the entire film score—would fit right in at a circuit party or a rave. It brings to mind, in fact, a famous quotation often attributed, rightly or wrongly, to Emma Goldman (1869-1940): "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution."

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To the Shore

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The leader of the rebellion, Vakulinchuk, is shot and killed by one of the last surviving officers. His comrades solemnly bear his body to the shore (hence the title of this section). The music is appropriately stately and funereal, but not as slow as one might expect. A trumpet melody adds a subtle note of triumph, clearly a reflection of Vakulinchuk's status of martyred hero.

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Odessa

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Sailors from the Potemkin place their fallen leader's body on the pier of the nearby city of Odessa, where the largely sympathetic townspeople gather to pay tribute to him. Once again the Boys employ a complex time signature based on either 7 or 14 beats per measure. It's as if Chris and Neil are reveling in the opportunities that such a comparatively abstract, extended work as a film score provide, allowing them to "stretch out" musically.

The repetitive melody builds in intensity as more and more people arrive at the pier. Soon it seems as though the entire city has turned out in Vakulinchuk's honor, at which point the music takes on an almost frenzied tone.

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No Time for Tears

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - Format, Fundamental 2017 reissue Further Listening 2005-2007 bonus disc
Other releases - bonus track on the "Minimal" single

Suddenly the mood changes.

This slow, beautiful song has quickly emerged in the minds of many who have heard it as their favorite part of the score—its "hit," as it were. In fact, Neil and Chris seriously considered releasing it as a single and commissioned at least two alternate mixes—a "seven-inch mix" and an "orchestral mix"—but these plans were abandoned. The former did, however, appear on a promo with very limited distribution, and it later gained wider release as a bonus track on the "Minimal" DVD single and thus earned a place on the 2012 b-sides collection Format.

Boasting one of the Boys' prettiest melodies, this song begins with simple piano accompaniment to which first strings and then more orchestral instruments are added. It coincides with a sequence in the film in which the mourning of the people of Odessa for the fallen leader of the mutiny turns to anger and revolutionary rage. No, they decide, it's not a time for tears—rather, it's a time for action.

Neil's lyrics draw deeply from the tradition of revolutionary rhetoric, calling on "brothers" and "sisters" equally. "Where is the freedom we've been dreaming of for so long?" he sings in his most heartfelt voice. "It can't be wrong to cast off the chains that still bind us…. Let us be strong." The earlier "Do not forsake" refrain recurs, emphasizing that the desire for revolution is so often inspired by collective disenchantment at having been forsaken by one's government. The "song proper" ends with a call for "freedom today" before the tempo picks up and a rapid instrumental segment takes over.

Incidentally, the recurring "One for all and all for one" line may seem like a terrible cliché—OK, it is a terrible cliché—but it's lifted directly from the subtitles of the film itself, written more than three-quarters of a century ago when it wasn't such a cliché. Neil can therefore be readily forgiven for what might otherwise have been a lyrical faux pas. Nevertheless, he acknowledged to an interviewer for the German magazine Galore the difficulties such lyrics present: "It is a big challenge to sing or present them in a way that they have a genuine meaning again.… To make it sound sincere is a great difficulty."

It's worth noting that this song has assumed great personal significance for Neil. As related in an early 2012 interview, Neil had been asked by his family a few years beforehand to perform a song at his father's funeral; they settled on "No Time for Tears."

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To the Battleship

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

A veritable flotilla of boats from the town ferry people to the Potemkin. They bear gifts of food to the sailors, lending their material as well as moral support to the rebellion. The music here is lovely and peaceful, evocative of sailing on the water.

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After All (The Odessa Staircase)

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Faster, longer, and somewhat more "techno" in style than the preceding songs with lyrics, "After All (The Odessa Staircase)" accompanies the film's most celebrated sequence: the massacre of protesters by Cossacks on the Odessa Steps. "People are all falling down," sings Neil, adding the poignant "becoming memories" as a means of emphasizing the finality of their deaths. Again he makes the "revolutionary" assertion that "Someday we all will be free," idealistically noting that "Heaven is possible after all." This romantic idealism, of course, isn't necessarily Neil's own—it may or may not be, I don't know—but it surely fits well within the milieu of the film itself.

This song highlights the special relevance that, in the minds of the Pet Shop Boys and those who commissioned their work, the film can have to a modern audience, what with the Iraq War going on. As Neil told an interviewer for the London Telegraph, "The song's refrain is 'How come we went to war?' which is something you hear quite often in Britain these days. It's rather romanticised, but the idea of people getting together to improve their lot is a completely timeless notion."

Some critics have pointed out the seeming incongruity of such a song occurring during a sequence famous for its depiction of, among other things, a dying mother's body pushing her baby's carriage down the steps to certain destruction. Ultimately that's a matter of taste. Nevertheless, the Boys do a superb job of linking musical sounds to the visuals: percussion blasts match up with the firing of guns, wailing synth-lines coincide with screaming people. Even just standing on its own, it's a powerful song—the revolutionary flipside, so to speak, of "No Time for Tears."

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Stormy Meetings

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

The musical theme from "Men and Maggots" is briefly reprised here, as the Potemkin's sailors debate what they should do next. It's clearly a transitional segment, leading to the "slow burn" of the film's final scenes.

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Night Falls

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

As the title indicates, night falls on the Potemkin. As most of the crew sleeps, the "music" is initially nothing more than a background wash of soft mechanical sounds—the ambient sounds of ship's engines. But tension is in the air, and a synth motif joins along with the mechanical rhythm. An intercepting naval squadron approaches, and as the Potemkin's nightwatchmen become aware of the fact, they roust their comrades.

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Full Steam Ahead

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Continuing the musical theme from the previous track, but now with greater force as the full gravity of the situation becomes all too apparent. The order goes out for "full steam ahead." The Potemkin begins to charge into battle and, it would seem, almost certain doom.

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The Squadron

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

Starting off fairly slow, but highly rhythmic, this repetitive two-chord theme and development grows in power and becomes almost hypnotic in mood. Tension continues to build both in the music and on the screen as the intercepting ships draw closer. The tempo steadily picks up. Soon the music is moving at a breakneck pace. A rapid, sweeping, majestic melody takes over, evoking the mood of moving through the waves at the greatest possible speed. Even as they ready themselves for a battle to their deaths, the mutineers hold out hope. They desperately signal the other ships: "Join us!"

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For Freedom

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2005
Original album - Battleship Potemkin
Producer - Pet Shop Boys, Sven Helbig
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - (none)

A moment of tremendous tension. No one knows what will happen next, emphasized by an ominous minor-key musical theme.

But then the tension breaks! The sailors on the intercepting ships choose not to fire on the Potemkin, opting instead to join the revolution. The film score thus concludes with a soaring "power ballad" that is essentially a reprise of both "No Time for Tears" and the "Brothers, oh brothers" lines from "Our Daily Bread." The title comes from its final acclamation:

One for all and all for one
For freedom!
For freedom!
For freedom!

And with that final assertion of revolutionary comradeship, The Battleship Potemkin ends.

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