The release of ‘It’s A Sin’ from the second album by Pet Shop Boys marked the start of their self proclaimed ‘imperial’ phase. They’d entered that period of time when it seemed they could do no wrong. Of course, it went to number one, having been released on 15 June 1987. It seems so long ago now.
The song opens with a sample of a rocket launch countdown, typically fitting for such an overblown production. Everything seems to be thrown at it. The video, directed by Derek Jarman, is equally as arresting. The lyrical themes of the song find direct interpretation as Tennant finds himself in the role of sinner, Lowe as that of his inquisitor.
It is clearly about the perception of rights and wrongs, and it indirectly speaks to the question of how to be a gay man in Thatcher’s Britain. The Catholic Church is never too far away either. The guidance it offers has been of little use as the bridge opens: ‘Father forgive me/I tried not to do it/Turned over a new leaf/Then tore right through it’.
But it is, perhaps, in the strident verses that the full effect of the vocal takes flight: ‘At school they taught me how to be/So pure in thought and word and deed/They didn’t quite succeed.’ As the video outlines, this is hell and there is no escape: ‘Everything I’ve ever done/Everything I ever do/Every place I’ve ever been/Everywhere I’m going to/It’s a sin’.
The song doesn’t reference AIDS; that will be left to the most lyrically complex song on the album. ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’ is that particular story; a song so beautiful in its orchestration and programming that, some thirty three years after I first heard it, can still reduce me to tears. It’s not sentimental; it’s just the price some people paid for love.
The coda of ‘It’s A Sin’ has Tennant reciting the Confiteor in Latin. He’s occasionally talked about the theatricality of the Catholic Mass, the language, the rituals, the rhythm. The confession to God and the acceptance of fault, and the child Tennant as Altar Boy is finally left behind as the song, bookended as it is by the rocket launch reaches its climax with the sampled ‘zero’. Make of that image what you will.
I haven’t seen the Channel 4 series of the same name yet. It’s had some great reviews. Lots of it was shot in Bolton and, of course, it inhabits the same themes as the song. Olly Alexander of Years and Years, who also plays Ritchie Tozer in the series, has recorded a lovely version of ‘It’s a Sin’ too. Gone is the theatricality. The vocal just lifts and lilts, never really pushing, never over-reaching. The lyrics are haunting and within the start, there is a sense of a conclusion. Devoid of the original production values, it sounds like a song to which we already know the ending: ‘When I look back upon my life/It’s always with a sense of shame/I’ve always been the one to blame.’