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5 June 2024

Rediscovering the bright lights

An old album and a Pet Shop Boys gig remind me of music’s power to refresh memories and forge new connections.

By Tracey Thorn

A couple of weeks ago David Hepworth wrote here about the classic 1974 Richard and Linda Thompson album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight. I read and enjoyed his article, as it concerned an album I already knew and liked. Or thought I did.

Then I decided one evening to listen to it again, so I dug out our old vinyl copy, and what followed was one of those strange transformative moments when you have your preconceptions and expectations swept away. I had thought I liked this record, but suddenly I was hearing it for the first time. It was raining outside and I was pottering about in the kitchen, but a light seemed to have gone on somewhere – above my head perhaps – and I had that giddy feeling of falling in love. What I had felt up until now was platonic friendship; now I wanted to marry the album.

How does this happen, though? It’s mysterious to me. Nothing had changed in the music itself, which was recorded 50 years ago, but something had changed in me. Somehow I was in the right mood, or the right place at the right time, to be fully receptive. It made me realise once again how much of ourselves we bring when we listen to music; that it isn’t a passive experience, but an active one – songs fly out into the air, and something in us flies out to meet them.

A week after this experience, I found myself in the crowd at a Pet Shop Boys gig. As a warm-up for their forthcoming tour they were playing at the small Camden venue Koko, and I had squeezed myself into the packed room, not knowing whether to expect a launch of the new album or a smattering of old hits. I had said to myself, “Ooh, I hope they play ‘Suburbia’,” so when they opened with that song my spirits soared. And then, an embarrassment of riches – “Love Comes Quickly”, “It’s a Sin”, “Go West”, “Left to My Own Devices”, “Heart”, “Domino Dancing”.

I was moved to tears by the encore of “West End Girls”, and “Being Boring”, which Neil Tennant dedicated to George Michael, whom he used to see here at the bar back when this place was Camden Palace. I remember those days too, and even older ones, when it was called the Music Machine, and I came to gigs here. For me, and I suspect for many others, the room was full of ghosts and memories. “Being Boring” is a song about trying to find and define yourself; about trying to live every second of the life you are given; about acknowledging the inevitable losses that underpin that life. It’s full of hope and grief, defiance and regret, but it seems to carry all that weight very lightly. Hence my tears.

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On the way home I thought about the slight incongruity of the two musical experiences that had so overwhelmed me in the same week. But then I began to think perhaps it wasn’t so incongruous after all, and that perhaps the Pet Shop Boys’ songs had more in common with I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight than I might have thought.

Hepworth wrote that, “Richard and Linda’s records were notable for what Hilary Mantel called ‘a feeling of power in reserve’.” And I thought how much that applies to Pet Shop Boys songs too, with their deadpan English-accented vocal delivery, their wit and precision, and constant attention to detail – often the mundane detail of everyday life, set against the promise of nightlife, the dream of a transcendent escape.

I began to see similarities in their songwriting, and I realised I could quite easily imagine hearing Neil Tennant sing, “I’m so tired of working every day/Now the weekend’s come I’m gonna throw my troubles away”, and just as easily hear Linda Thompson sing, “I get out of bed at half past ten/Phone up a friend who’s a party animal…”

I went to sleep with it all blurring in my mind, one song bleeding into another. And I dreamed of unlikely connections and collaborations, waking with the feeling that anything’s possible.

[See also: Pet Shop Boys: “Labour could do with an infusion of idealism”]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024