I still associate National Theatre with failure, which is a shame because it’s quite a good song, but there we are. I have a strong memory of phoning Hamish, my Swimmer One bandmate, very late in the Regional Variations recording process and possibly quite late at night, and tearfully insisting that the lyric wasn’t good enough and that we should either re-record the vocal completely or leave it off the album. I remember I wanted to rename it something like Everything we have will soon be underwater and him saying, quite reasonably, that the lyric was fine as it was and that anyway there were already at least two songs on the album about things being underwater, and me not being able to argue with that.
Another strong memory of this song is having a drink at the (sadly missed) Arches in Glasgow in 2006 with Vicky Featherstone, the first artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Vicky had come to see We Just Make Music For Ourselves, a show we’d just made with a theatre collective called Highway Diner. Anyway, Vicky suggested we should perform the song at the NTS’s launch party. I got very excited about this, because it seemed like exactly the sort of thing the Pet Shop Boys would get to do, and said yes immediately. And then a few days later Vicky withdrew the offer, on the grounds that as well as being in a band I was also arts editor for the Scotsman newspaper so it might not be appropriate. I remember feeling quite gutted about this, given that I didn’t even want to work at the Scotsman any more because I’d much rather be in a successful band. I bet this didn’t happen to Neil Tennant when he was at Smash Hits, I probably thought. Given how little money we ever made from The Regional Variations, I’m glad I didn’t give up the day job. At the time though I was still in the grip of my wannabe pop star fantasies so couldn’t quite see it that way.
I can now see that there was probably something deeper going on here, which is that National Theatre was, at its heart, a love song inspired by a relationship that, by the time we got round to recording it, was foundering. I’m not sure I even knew or had accepted this at the time, but the fact that I wanted to rename the song Everything we have will soon be underwater does suggest that my subconscious was trying to tell me something. Anyway, it’s only quite recently that I’ve come close to detaching myself from this song enough to enjoy it and appreciate the lyric, which has some reasonably insightful things to say about a culture in which turning your emotional life into a public performance is regarded as normal (the ‘national theatre’ of the title was reality TV, but it could also be Facebook or Instagram).
I often wonder about this aspect of songwriting. What happens if you write a sincerely meant love song but by the time it’s released you don’t feel that way anymore? There must be loads of examples of this. I imagine you just have to find a way to separate yourself from it – and actually you need to do that to an extent with all songs anyway, since they belong to other people’s imaginations once they’re out into the world – but it must be a difficult process.
Anyway, if there are people out there in the world who love and relate to National Theatre, great. But I’m still ambivalent about this song. (With apologies to Hamish, who did some really great work on it and has never seemed that bothered what the songs are actually about as long as the lyrics sound good. Although I’m quietly proud of the fact that we had a song called National Theatre on an album called The Regional Variations, in much the same way as I salute Girls Aloud for having a song called Biology on an album called Chemistry (I still think they missed a trick by not releasing a remix album or video collection called Physics).