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Go West: How Pet Shop Boys Led The Way To A New Utopia
In Depth

Go West: How Pet Shop Boys Led The Way To A New Utopia

Pet Shop Boys’ iconic cover of Go West rescued the song from the pop footnotes. ‘I think it’s our greatest achievement,’ said Chris Lowe.


So successful was Pet Shop Boys’ 1993 cover of Go West that Village People’s original version is largely considered a footnote. Originally released in 1979, after the disco troupe’s mega-hit YMCA and its almost-as-successful follow-up, In The Navy, Go West signalled a sudden cooling in the five-piece’s chart fortunes when it failed to break the US Top 40 and stalled at No.15 in the UK. As the title track of their fourth studio album, Go West’s relative commercial misfire wasn’t quite enough to stall the momentum building around their first feature film, 1980’s Can’t Stop The Music, but the writing was already on the wall. “Disco Sucks” became the mantra of a wider backlash, and Village People would soon be ostracised as the US turned to AOR and the UK got swept up in new wave and the emerging synth-pop revolution.

“You’ve got these inspiring lyrics, but it sounds like it’s never going to be achieved”

Go West might have remained an occasional surprise on one of those Forgotten 45s TV or radio segments were it not for a call asking Pet Shop Boys to appear at an HIV-crisis fundraiser to be held at Manchester’s Haçienda and organised by their occasional collaborator Derek Jarman, then in the final stages of his own battle with virus-related illness. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe had planned to perform a cover of The Beatles’ The Fool On The Hill until Chris had a hunch about this marginalised track by a band he had always loved.

Neil wasn’t convinced. “I thought it was ghastly beyond belief,” he recalled. But Chris remained persistent, and knew how to win his classical music-inclined colleague over. He pointed out that the track shared the same chord change as Pachelbel’s Canon and, once Chris accentuated the chords by playing the tune on a French horn, Neil could sense something special in it.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of the Village People,” says Chris. “I thought Go West would suit Neil’s voice and I thought it would be a good song to play at a Derek Jarman event – a song about an idealistic gay utopia. I knew the way Neil would sing it would make it sound hopeless – you’ve got these inspiring lyrics, but it sounds like it’s never going to be achieved.”

“It wasn’t the utopia they thought it would be”

Chris’s interpretation of the song’s political message was timely. Neil was now publicly identifying as a gay man, and the LGBTQ+ community was locked in a painful battle. In the UK, the age of consent was still unfairly fixed at 21 for gay men; public and professional prejudice remained high; equal marriage was a pipe dream; and HIV was still a death sentence for the vast majority of those who contracted it.

“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,” says Chris. That simpler, optimistic era of the late 70s seemed shockingly naïve, but it had something to say about the brittle, fractious atmosphere of the early 90s, too.

Neil and Chris added extra bridging material and new lyrics to their version, ahead of recording it in Chris’ new home studio during 1992, with a plan to issue the song as a standalone single. But the duo’s record label had reservations about the timing, and no one was happy with the first mix of the track. The band asked Brothers In Rhythm, then regular fixtures on the pop and dance charts, to remix it. The production mavericks improved the bassline and brought the now-so-familiar Richard Niles brass arrangement up higher. Along with a group of Broadway vocalists, the brief sample of seagulls at the start and Steve Anderson’s wonderful piano work, Go West’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach worked.

“I think it’s our greatest achievement”

Go West was added as the final track to the duo’s fifth studio album, Very, and was released as a single on 6 September 1993, in parallel with the parent album hitting the shops. Peaking at No.2 in the UK, it went gold and platinum around the world, immediately cementing itself as one of the best Pet Shop Boys songs while also affirming Go West’s status as an LGBTQ+ anthem.

With Pet Shop Boys’ habitual knack for mild provocation, the Soviet-era stylings of the promo clip, and the arrangement’s nod towards the state’s old anthem (accentuated by parts of the video being filmed in Moscow’s Red Square), ruffled some feathers in former Eastern Block states emerging from the Cold War. Most onlookers, however, simply marvelled at the production’s cinematic scale and enjoyed their reacquaintance with a largely forgotten but really strong tune – so strong, in fact, that the track has enjoyed an even more surprising afterlife as a football terrace singalong.

“Who would have thought that an obscure Village People song covered by Pet Shop Boys would become the song of football?” says Chris. “It’s fantastic. I think it’s our greatest achievement.”

Check out our best Pet Shop Boys songs to find out where Go West lands.

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