Pet Shop Boys - Left To My Own Devices / The Sound Of The Atom Splitting

Pet Shop Boys
Left To My Own Devices / The Sound Of The Atom Splitting

Released 1988 on Parlophone
Reviewed by flashbackcaruso, 11/12/2010ce

One of the best things about the Pet Shop Boys is that they've never skimped on their b-sides. In fact, several could have easily graced the a-sides of singles by lesser acts. On the rare occasion that the duo themselves put out a single I wasn't so keen on ('Domino Dancing' springs to mind), I knew it would still be worth buying for the flip. And so this is the reason for my choice here. 'Left To My Own Devices' doesn't need any further recommendation. If you are a PSB fan you'll know it is one of their classics, recently described by Neil Tennant as 'an experiment in seeing how mundane a pop song can be, before setting it against extravagent music.' But if the lead track is considered an experiment, then how do you begin to describe the flipside? 'The Sound Of The Atom Splitting' began life as an idea for an interlude within the lengthy album version of 'Left To My Own Devices', intended as a literal interpretation of the lyric 'Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat'. The fact that it instead ended up on the other side of the 7 inch version of that track means this record could feasibly be classed as a concept single. If this sounds a bit too prog for the Pet Shop Boys, it is useful to know that the whole thing is a collaboration with renowned producer (and former member of Yes) Trevor Horn, who only a few years before had eked out Frankie Goes To Hollywood's debut LP 'Welcome To The Pleasuredome' into an overblown proto-prog double album. And if that isn't Head Heritage enough, well, get this: 'The Sound Of The Atom Splitting' is also a fully-fledged stab at psychedelia!

In this case, inspiration was born of disappointment. Specifically, an Acid House compilation which, rather than being the dance music equivalent of Rubbles, tended towards the commercial end of the genre (although one song, Sterling Void's 'It's Alright', was the source of an elaborate cover version also produced by Trevor Horn at the same sessions). Thus was begged the question: what would Acid House sound like if it was truly psychedelic? The answer was to have a jam session and find out. The basic track, produced in less than an hour, consisted of Tennant, Lowe and Horn improvising over the beat of 'Left To My Own Devices', while Horn's second-in-command Stephen Lipson played the mixing desk to extremely trippy effect. Lipson EQs the hell out of the bubbling Roland 303 bassline, an instrument ubiquitous to house records of the era, so that one moment it is thin to the point of brittleness, the next it is a huge, monstrous thing. Outrageous levels of reverb are applied without warning to the rhythm track before just as suddenly dropping out. The panning jumps all over the shop so that the sounds move all over the stereo spectrum, at one point dumping almost everything into the left speaker. Atonal chords, supposedly in the Debussy style, have little in common with the synthesized opera singer which twitters around the same few notes in the most aggravating manner. If the music wasn't terrifying enough, Neil Tennant came up with a spoken word duologue between a fascist and a liberal which he then added to the track in the style of an aggressive Laurie Anderson. Heavily flanged, of course. The title 'The Sound Of The Atom Splitting' comes from dialogue in Derek Jarman's film 'The Last Of England' and was chosen as suggestive of the end of the world. When the world does come to an end, this would make the ideal soundtrack.

The Pet Shop Boys' early b-sides collection 'Alternative' comes highly recommended, a feast of treasures ranging from New Order-esque austerity to theatrical high camp. But somewhere out on a limb is 'The Sound Of The Atom Splitting', a strange anomoly and all the more fascinating for it.

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