This Used to Be the Future

Writers - Tennant/Lowe
First released - 2009
Original album - Yes etc. (bonus disc with the special edition of Yes)
Producer - Brian Higgins, Xenomania
Subsequent albums - (none)
Other releases - Yes 2017 reissue Further Listening 2008-2010 bonus disc

Like Fundamental before it, Yes was released in a special edition with a bonus disc that featured, in addition to the virtually ubiquitous remixes, an extra song unavailable elsewhere. In the case of Yes etc., that song is "This Used to Be the Future."

The Boys are hardly unique among baby-boomers in being deeply disappointed in how the "future" turned out. When I was growing up in the 1960s, I distinctly remember thinking that by the year 2000 we'd surely have flying cars and colonies on Mars. The post-war generation was raised to think the future world was one of endless possibilities. If not actually utopia, then it would at least be a hell of a lot better than the past. Popular culture told us so. It was virtually a promise. Chris had, in fact, spoken wistfully along these lines way back on July 10, 1989, as recorded by Chris Heath in his book Pet Shop Boys, Literally: "It never really happened, the space age, did it?… [W]e were meant to be having holidays on the moon by the year 2000. And we're nowhere near going to other planets."

So as it turns out, that promise has been substantially delayed, if not simply broken. We're living in the future of our youth, yet it's hardly what we boomers expected. In "This Used to Be the Future," two full decades after Chris's comment in Literally, he and Neil both express their dismay at the way the future has turned out. They're so disheartened by it that Neil sings, "Let's tear the whole bloody lot down and start all over again." A bit extreme, to be sure, but an understandable sentiment nonetheless.

This track is noteworthy on several counts. First of all, it features lead vocals offered in turn by Neil, Chris (yes, singing!), and guest singer Philip Oakey of The Human League. (If you're interested, you can read a definitive breakdown of who sings what in this song.) Like Yes, it was produced by Xenomania. With its extremely electro, "futuristic" sound—or at least what would certainly have passed for "futuristic" in our youth—it would have fit very nicely onto the second, more experimental half of Yes. In fact, Neil and Chris have confirmed that it was originally going to be part of the standard-edition Yes tracklist, slotted between "King of Rome" and "Pandemonium." But they decided to move it to the bonus disc because they felt that "Yes proper" was too long. (Well, that and maybe to nudge more fans into buying the special limited edition.)

Getting back to the lyrics, our three singers take turns laying one charge after another against the world we live in. They're not happy about it, although at times they come across sounding quite selective and naive—which may not be altogether inappropriate considering that the future they grew up expecting was, after all, expected by children. It's probably no accident that the opening notes of the track bear a vague stylistic similarity to the opening of the theme from the original Star Trekthe iconic optimistic science-fiction vision of the future from boomers' youth. Yes, they were looking forward to a world of "science fiction made fact," as the song puts it. (This of course overlooks the fact that science fiction has never been completely optimistic.Think H.G. Wells and The War of the Worlds.)

Current events are enough to make many if not most of us sympathize with such lines as "Now all we have to look forward to is a sort of suicide pact." OK, so that's extreme again. Sometimes you have to overstate your case to drive the point home. But, then again, is it really so far-fetched? After all, in a likely reference to the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the Boys point out that "religion and nuclear energy have united"—a situation that many would agree is a very real and looming threat.

The song's twice-stated bridge contains what I consider to be its most poignant and insightful observation: "Was it the dear old future that created the problems we face?" That is, to what extent is our present-day dystopia the product of our old utopian dreams? Did our progressivist drive toward a far better future actually pave the way for one that was far worse? The very fact that Neil raises this question—and sings it in such a wistful manner at a suddenly slowed-down tempo—suggests that the Boys indeed suspect as much.

Parenthetically, I wonder whether it's sheer coincidence that one of the names used by an early version of Oakey's band, The Human League, was "The Future." If not, then does that make the title "This Used to Be the Future" a pun?

One more thing: in the longer demo version of the song that the Boys have posted on their official website, Neil is the only singer. Yes, it does indeed sound as if there's a different singer in the chorus, doing the "Phil Oakey part." But really is Neil, simply singing in a deeper pitch than we're accustomed to hearing him.



Officially released

List cross-references