The Pet Shop Boys go shopping


A disco beat political statement from the electropop duo.

by Allen Therisa in Rock & Pop

The arch twosome
The arch twosome

Now here's a funny thing. Shopping, the 1987 Pet Shop Boys track from their lovingly polished, laid-back 1987 album Actually is now a trusted soundtrack to any news montage showing happy consumers running amuck on the High Street.

Suitable for the Christmas rush, the January sales, and any boom time when credit is flowing, Shopping is the musical shorthand to the sounds of tills ringing and cards swiping and, because of that, familiar to millions.

It will also be familiar to those with Actually sitting on their CD racks (it's the one with Chris yawning on the cover) and, though it was never released as a single, it is one of those songs that seemed to sum up the decade it came from, which is also ironic (how Pet Shop Boys!) and amusing (anon), because Shopping is actually about privatisation.

Actually itself was not that different from the Boys' first album (the exciting and frenetic Please), though it does have a more reflective, shiny veneer than its aggressive older brother. The highlight of Actually is undoubtedly What Have I Done to Deserve This? a bathetic mediation on bruised ego and emotional loss that held up the flag for the album and the wig for Dusty Springfield.

The privatisation thing

Shopping is the political yin to What Have I's emoting yang and a surprisingly acerbic sideswipe at one of the great government policies that began in the 1980s, and which has continued until the present day. The repercussions of the move by governments around the world to shift state assets and service providers from the public to the private sectors have created new ways of thinking about those services, enormous wealth for some parties and an unforeseen degradation in the relationship of citizens to state and to free-market partners which both the business and political elites have demonstrated themselves to be singularly unprepared for.

Privatisation itself (which was initially labelled denationalisation at the time) describes the transfer of property or responsibility from the public sector (i.e. government) to the private sector (i.e. business). And what a lot of privatisations there have been in this country alone: British Gas, BT, the TSB, British Airways, the electricity generating companies, the water utilities and BP. Slightly hard to believe today, but BP, one of the most powerful and profitable oil companies on the planet, was also once a state asset.

Supporters of privatisation (particularly in the main political parties and vested interests in the business community) are keen, whenever the topic is put on the table - which is very rare these days, privatisation being seen very much now as a historical chapter - to point to the spectacular failures of state ownership; BT (an under-invested and shambolic state corporation which used to rent - yes! - telephones to its customers) and British Leyland (which could create cars, some of which were innovative, but which couldn't actually make them to an acceptable level of quality) being the usual suspects.

What is less well publicised are the successes when they were in state hands; British Gas (Europe's most productive and commercially successful gas utility at the time); TSB (a tidy, effective banking operation established to provide services to low-income customers, turned into a commercial basket case once in the free market) and the water utilities (enough said).

Causes and effects

Still, we are where we are (i.e. in a slightly tawdry state of affairs where consumers increasingly feel ripped-off by their power and water providers though at least the communications sector works). What this song describes is the process by which those interests were sold off in the first place.

1987 was the year that the Thatcher government won its third election victory in a row, despite, or perhaps because of, Peter Mandelson's red roses and Labour leader Neil Kinnock's hearty performances for the cameras.

Privatisation as a policy had largely been stumbled upon by the government as a means of investing in BT (if the government could not do it, perhaps the markets could if it was made a private company). The unexpected success of the policy and its grasping (perhaps literally) by the newly energised Great British Public paved the road for where we are today. Money flowed into the government account, critics complained about the "selling off the family silver" (as it was called at the time) and the wonderful world of customer care, call centres, profit margins and buy-outs followed as some, if not all of the privatised companies become more market-responsive.

Shopping, laced as it is with barbed references to corruption and fraudulent argument, is effectively Actually's bookend to Please's Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money). Opportunities, a cynical tale of slipped morality in the face of the free market, er, opportunistically set to a disco beat, had, by 1987 soured into a remorseful parody of the quickly shifting cultural climate that shift then triggered. It's the Pet Shop Boys being, perhaps surprisingly, overtly political, transparent and, yes, Shopping is also set to a disco beat (hey, if it ain't broke, etc.)

Shopping is also a melancholic song, filled with a genuine sense of loss: "They're buying and selling our history/how they go about it is in mystery," and upfront as to where the blame for this slightly tawdry state of affairs lies. "Our gain is your loss, that's the price you pay/I heard it in the House of Commons: everything's for sale."

Not perhaps the most attractive snapshot of where Great Britain was heading and why it was heading there, but a decent beat matched with a good lyric or two, nonetheless. Which is why it is slightly bizarre, a little funny and also slightly contemptuous that today this angriest and pointed of songs is now what you hear whenever those shots of happy shoppers flash up on the television scream.

How The Pet Shop Boys must find themselves laughing at that over.

"We're S.H.O.P.P.I.N.G/We're shopping."

As we mostly are.

Or rather, for a relatively short time, were.

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