Discover more from This Week in The 90s
The queer utopia of Go West [September 12, 1993]
Plus: Kate Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, and Stereolab
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to September 12, 1993!
📰 Renewed hopes of peace in the Middle East as Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat sign The Oslo Accords. It’s a major foreign policy win for new president Bill Clinton.
📽️ Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne give Oscar-winning turns as Ike & Tina in What’s Love Got To Do With It?
📺 Agent Dana Scully is partnered with FBI’s resident kook Fox Mulder in the first episode of The X-Files.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Mr. Vain’ by Culture Beat, but today let’s chat about this week’s Number 2…
Pet Shop Boys, ’Go West’
William Bonill was a labourer who lodged alone in a small room on London’s Blackfriar Road in the mid-1830s. Bonill spent little time at home, but his room was rarely empty. Men often came to the house in pairs and spent a few hours in Bonill’s lodging.
One August afternoon in 1835, Bonill’s landlord saw two men—James Pratt and John Smith—enter his tenant’s room. Suspicious, he pressed his eye to the keyhole and witnessed Pratt and Smith doing something that newspapers called “a crime too dreadful to reflect upon”. The landlord called the police, who arrested Pratt and Smith, plus Bonill for being an accessory to depravity.
Bonill was exiled to Australia, where he lived the rest of his life. Pratt and Smith were convicted under The Buggery Act, a 300-year-old law that made sodomy a capital crime. The two were held in Newgate Prison’s death row along with 15 other men facing death sentences for crimes like robbery and assault. Charles Dickens visited Newgate and saw Pratt and Smith. He said of them, “Their doom was sealed. They well knew that for them, there was no hope in this world."
All of the death row convicts were later granted clemency and allowed to live—except Pratt and Smith. On November 27, 1835, they were hung in a public gallows.
Pratt and Smith were the last people to be executed in Britain for homosexuality. The law was revised soon after, reducing the penalty to ten years in prison while also making it much easier to convict people, as Oscar Wilde discovered.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967, although there were rules about sexual activity happening in private (it was illegal for a third person to be present, even consensually). Even supporters of decriminalisation were in favour of extreme privacy. The Earl of Arran said:
“I ask [gay people] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity. This is no occasion for jubilation; certainly not for celebration. Any form of ostentatious behaviour, any form of public flaunting, would be utterly distasteful and make the sponsors of the Bill regret what they have done.
“Homosexuals must continue to remember that while there may be nothing bad in being a homosexual, there is certainly nothing good.”
Gay Britain largely ignored Arran’s advice. Swingin’ London was filled with jubilant, ostentatious people who flaunted whatever they felt like flaunting. And among those people was avant-garde artist Derek Jarman.
Life is peaceful there
Derek Jarman—painter, writer, designer and filmmaker—made his name in the 70s, especially during the punk era. One of his first major works was the film Jubilee, in which Queen Elizabeth I is transported to contemporary London and meets people like Adam Ant, Toyah Wilcox, and Siouxsie.
Vivienne Westwood hated Jubilee so much that she wrote an angry letter to Jarman, accusing him of being pretentious, anti-punk, and having “a gay (which you are) boy’s love of dressing up & playing at charades”. She then screen-printed this letter onto t-shirts and sold them in her shop. It was a fun time.
Jarman became involved in music, making a short film with The Sex Pistols before Sid Vicious joined, then creating music videos for the likes of Marianne Faithful, Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and The Smiths.
His first (and only, really) movie success was Caravaggio in 1986, an abstract, high-brow biopic of the great painter with early-career performances from Tilda Swinton, Sean Bean, and Dexter Fletcher. Caravaggio wasn’t the most successful film of 1986 (that was Top Gun), but it did impress a lot of people.
One of whom was Neil Tennant.
Tennant and his buddy Chris Lowe—aka Pet Shop Boys—had become unlikely pop icons in 1986 thanks to ‘West End Girls’. Tennant approached Jarman about making some Pet Shop Boys videos. Jarman, who had self-financed Caravaggio, was very grateful for some paid work.
Their first collaboration was ‘It’s A Sin’, which looks quite like Caravaggio. Ron Moody plays a sneering Inquisitor who listens as Neil Tennant claims his innocence. Tennant’s crime? It isn’t explicitly stated, but if you know you know.
Jarman followed up with the video for ‘Rent’, a four-minute satire on the class system in which Tennant plays a bored limo driver. It’s intercut with Chris Lowe wandering around King’s Cross at night—again, if you know you know.
Jarman also directed tour films for Pet Shop Boys’ live shows, which included footage filmed in gay clubs like Heaven. The films were so magnificent that Tennant and Lowe referred to those shows as “The Derek Jarman Tour”.
1987 should have been a happy time for Jarman. However, all of this was success overshadowed by one piece of bad news. Derek Jarman was HIV positive.
In the open air
Most governments responded poorly to the AIDS crisis. Vulnerable people found themselves shunned, shamed, and left to fend for themselves.
Margaret Thatcher’s government went a step further. In 1987, they introduced Section 28, which said that local councils could not:
“(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
“(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
Schools couldn’t support young gay people. Government-funded bodies couldn’t organise AIDS prevention initiatives. Medical professionals weren’t even sure what they could say to patients.
For people like Derek Jarman, this felt like being at war. His art from this period became furious and apocalyptic. There are pieces like Smashing Times, which shows a crucifix with a used condom and lube; shiny coins pressed into black paint in Dead Man’s Eyes; and the unambiguous Margaret Thatcher’s Lunch:
Jarman worked and campaigned over the next five years, even as his friends died and he grew sicker. In 1992, he opened a show in Manchester called QUEER, containing some of his most political work
To launch QUEER, he asked his old friends if they’d play an AIDS fundraiser at The Hacienda.
Where the skies are blue
Pet Shop Boys played on May 13th, 1992, which was also part of the Hacienda’s tenth anniversary celebrations. They wanted to do something special for their doomed friend and the equally doomed nightclub, so they decided to perform a cover.
The original plan was ‘Fool On The Hill’, but Lowe decided he’d rather do ‘Go West’ by The Village People. Neil Tennant was against it as he hated The Village People and he’d never even heard ‘Go West’, which wasn’t one of the band’s bigger hits.
When Tennant did hear the song, he declared it “ghastly beyond belief”. However, he relented after Lowe pointed out that the melody was based on Pachelbel’s Canon in D (Pachelbel has inspired many songs, from Green Day’s ‘Basket Case’ to Coolio’s ‘C U When U Get There’.)
Also, Tennant and Lowe understood the hidden meaning of the lyrics. ‘Go West’ might be an old catchphrase of American exceptionalism, of cowboys and oilmen, but The Village People use it to describe a different freedom. Out on the West Coast, in cities like San Diego, gay people were freer than perhaps any other place in the world. They could be what they want to be, even in the presence of a third person.
Or, at least, they could before AIDS.
Chris Lowe later said:
“I thought it would be a good song to play at a Derek Jarman event - a song about an idealistic gay utopia. I knew that the way Neil would sing it would make it sound hopeless—you've got these inspiring lyrics but it sounds like it is never going to be achieved.
“And that fitted what had happened. When the Village People sung about a gay utopia it seemed for real, but looking back in hindsight it wasn't the utopia they all thought it would be.”
This is what we're gonna do
In 1993, Jarman went partially blind due to AIDS complications. In the darkness, he sometimes saw bright fireworks of colour, all of them blue.
His last creative work was the film Blue. It’s an unchanging blue square (the shade is called International Klein Blue, after artist Yves Klein). Viewers stare into this blueness while voices, including Jarman’s own, tell stories of living and dying. Jarman passed away in February 1994.
Meanwhile, Tennant and Lowe released ‘Go West’ as a single, along with a completely bananas CGI video that features butch Soviet choirs, Judge Dredd-style skysurfers, a gospel-singing Statue Of Liberty, and Neil & Chris in costumes that can only be described as “Star Wars, but mushrooms”.
It’s a lot of fun. If queer joy really is an act of resistance, ‘Go West’ is one of the most political singles of 1993. It’s got Derek Jarman’s rebellious spirit.
The song also enjoyed a weird afterlife in football. The 1994 Cup Winners Cup match between Paris Saint Germain and Arsenal was one-nil at half-time when the DJ played ‘Go West’. The Paris fans joined in, singing, “Allez, Paris Saint Germain”. Their London opponents sang their own version: “one-nil to the Arse-en-al”.
It became a terrace regular (Arsenal won 1-0 a lot in those days) and morphed into other chants (e.g. “Stand up if you hate Man U”)
Chris Lowe said:
"Who would have thought that an obscure Village People song covered by the Pet Shop Boys would become the song of football. It's fantastic. I think it's our greatest achievement.”
Considering that football is incredibly homophobic—even today, there’s only one gay top-flight player in the world—this counts as a victory. And in a war that’s been raging for centuries, every victory matters.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 12, New] Kate Bush, ‘Rubberband Girl’
She’s back! Kate Bush fans had waited four years for Her Majesty’s next studio album, The Red Shoes, and they would still have to wait a few weeks to hear the whole thing. Meanwhile, they could enjoy this promo single and its video, which is an extract from Bush’s short film The Line, The Cross and The Curve.
Fans love the film; she has described it as “a load of old bollocks”. Either way, she sure can dance.
[Number 22↓] New Order, ‘World (The Price Of Love)’
Good song with a beautiful video, but it’s one of those tracks that seems to have been designed with remixes in mind. The Perfecto remix is pretty good.
[Number 31↓] Stone Temple Pilots, ‘Plush’
Stone Temple Pilots are the first band that can accurately be described as “second-wave grunge”, having released their debut LP a full year after Nevermind. What can they tell us about the cultural legacy of the Seattle sound?
Well… first, it’s worth noting that STP were divisive in the 90s. Rolling Stone readers voted them the Best New Band of the year, but also voted them Worst New Band.
The problem with STP is that, instead of being inspired by the best parts of Nevermind, they seem to draw on the worst parts of Ten. Weiland’s performance on this track is extremely Vedder-coded, to the point where they almost feel like a tribute band.
‘Plush’ sounds much closer to mid-90s FM rock bands like Matchbox 20 or Goo Goo Dolls than, say, Soundgarden or Alice In Chains. Now, that’s not a value judgement of any of those bands—I’m just saying that second-wave grunge straddled the boundaries of alternative and mainstream rock in a way that the artists involved sometimes tried to deny.
[Number 35, New] Def Leppard, ‘Two Steps Behind’
See, there’s not a huge difference between ‘Plush’ and this power ballad from Def Leppard. Which, again, is not a sleight on either band. Def Leppard are great.
‘Two Steps Behind’ shows Def Leppard doing what they’re best at: making unfussy, unpretentious, crowd-pleasing rock music. It’s meat'n’potatoes stuff, sure, but as nourishing as your ma’s Sunday roast.
[Number 39, New] De La Soul, ‘Breakadawn’
When you listen to bands like De La Soul and Tribe these days, you just think, “My god, this music has aged so well.” Hip-hop typically has a limited shelf life, but these records are ageless.
‘Breakadawn’ also has that “ah one-two” bit that was a prominent sample on Sneaker Pimps’ ‘6 Underground’.
Album of the Week
Stereolab, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements
All of the people involved in making Stereolab’s second studio album are credited in the sleeve notes… except one. This person’s identity is unknown, although we know that she worked with the East German intelligence forces in the 1960s and she looked like this:
A numbers station known as Swedish Rhapsody broadcast her ghostly voice every night, reading a list of German numbers that contained instructions for Communist spies. To make things a bit more spooky, she wasn’t even reading the numbers herself. Recordings of her voice were used in a primitive text-to-speech machine called a Sprach Morse Generator.
Her voice also appears in Transient Random-Noise Bursts, where a recording from Swedish Rhapsofy fills the middle of ‘Pause’:
This sums up the whole vibe of Transient Random-Noise Bursts, a record that tries to make sounds in the weirdest way possible. For example, you know when a vinyl record gets to the end and it spins around making a gentle hiss? That’s called a lock groove, and Stereolab sampled the sound on the album’s closer, ‘Lock-Groove Lullaby’.
On the album’s 18-minute opus, ‘Jenny Ondioline’, they sample a test record that’s used to balance your hi-fi speakers:
All of this might sound needlessly geeky and a bit tedious. And it probably would be if it weren’t for the presence of Laetitia Sadlier, who fills out these spaces like a French-speaking Nico. Tim Gane (formerly of McCarthy) also does an incredible job of finding melodies and turning these experiments into recognisable songs. ‘Our Tritone Blast’ summons some of McCarthy’s old rock energy, while ‘Pack Yr Romantic Mind’ is a gorgeous bossa nova background for Sadlier’s voice.
As mentioned when we discussed 1992’s Peng!, Stereolab have always been relentless pioneers and arguably the most indie of all indie bands. Transient Random-Noise Bursts is another successful experiment, a record that’s as full of mysteries and surprises as an old Soviet numbers station.
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