It’s a Sin... to steal: how Pet Shop Boys’ hit single ignited the music industry's strangest feud
It’s A Sin, Channel 4’s drama about a group of gay friends in the Eighties as the spectre of Aids appears on the horizon, was one of 2020's most talked about shows and made a breakout screen star of musician Olly Alexander, who last night performed the song with Elton John at the Brit Awards.
But the Pet Shop Boys can lay claim to its own dramatic story, albeit one that is more bonkers than poignant.
It’s a Sin was the second UK number one single for the deadpan synth-pop duo, often dubbed the Gilbert and George of pop. The song topped the charts for three weeks in July 1987. A gloriously over-the-top track that featured a NASA countdown, claps of thunder, choral chanting and quotes from the Latin Mass, It’s a Sin marked the peak of what Pet Shop Boys’ singer Neil Tennant would memorably call the band’s “imperial phase”. It also had one of the most catchy synth hooks of the decade.
But in what must rank as one of the most bizarre incidents in the colourful world of 1980s pop, the song saw the Pet Shop Boys accused of plagiarism by the (since disgraced) columnist and music mogul Jonathan King. King very publicly claimed that It’s a Sin had stolen its melody from Cat Stevens’ 1970 hit Wild World.
Not content with baselessly accusing the band, King recorded his own version of Wild World in the high-energy style of It’s a Sin and released it as a single. Its sleeve ruthlessly parodied the cover of the Pet Shop Boys’ accompanying album Actually. The band sued King for libel, but not before Stevens himself got involved. In a decade known for excess and silliness, few stories were as downright odd as this.
“There are a lot of very strange episodes in the wonderful world of pop, but I do remember this,” recalls Barry McIlheney, who was editor of Smash Hits at the time. “The Pet Shop Boys were flying high. The two records didn’t sound particularly alike to me. If you’re going to claim that It’s a Sin is based on Wild World then I don’t know where you begin with a lot of others.”
In the summer of 1987 the Pet Shop Boys were on a roll. Their debut album, Please, had been a commercial success the previous year and had spawned their first number one single, West End Girls. It’s a Sin was the first single from the follow-up studio album, Actually. Speaking to Smash Hits (a magazine where he coincidentally used to work) in August 1987, Tennant seemed genuinely surprised at It’s a Sin’s chart success.
“I didn’t expect It’s a Sin to get to number one. We always expect our records to be huge, disastrous flops. So I was thrilled to pieces. Two number ones – it’s a proper thing. Have one number one and you’re a one-hit wonder. But have two…,” the singer said.
Just as the Pet Shop Boys were enjoying this first flush of fame as copper-bottomed “proper” pop stars, King sought to dislodge their crown.
Jonathan King was at the time a famously outspoken character in the British music world. (He was jailed in 2001 for child sex offences). He’d been a singer himself and had seen success with a song called Everyone’s Gone to the Moon in 1965. He’d then become a producer, discovering Genesis, and founded his own record label, UK Records. By the mid-1980s, King had become a well-known broadcaster and media commentator with a regular pop column in The Sun newspaper. And it was to The Sun’s four million readers that King made his claims about the Pet Shop Boys’ alleged plagiarism.
“When It’s a Sin went to number one Jonathan King wrote about it in his column in The Sun, suggesting they had committed an act of theft from Cat Stevens and that they should by punished for it,” recalled Chris Heath in his 1990 Pet Shop Boys’ biography, Literally.
Other newspapers picked up the allegation, with one journalist contacting Stevens – who by then had converted to the Muslim faith and changed his name to Yusuf Islam – for a comment. The singer told the reporter that he wasn’t bothered. But when King repeated the plagiarism claim on the radio, Tennant and bandmate Chris Lowe instigated defamation proceedings.
Recalling the events in his diary, Tennant wrote: “One of the most ancient clichés of the music business is ‘Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ’. In 1987 Jonathan King announced on the radio and in his column in The Sun that It’s a Sin was copied from Cat Stevens’ Wild World. We ended up starting to sue King for libel.”
It would be reasonable to assume that anyone making a plagiarism claim would have piped down once legal proceedings had been initiated and after the writer of the song alleged to have been copied had shrugged the issue off. Not King. He doubled down.
In a hubristic attempt to support his claims, King recorded a single of Wild World to It’s a Sin’s arrangement, down to the choral chants, the thunder clap, the pulsating disco beat and the synth hook. King’s opening vocal lines of ‘Now that I’ve lost everything to you / You say you wanna start something new’ were delivered in a staccato style that mimicked Tennant’s ‘When I look back upon my life / It’s always with a sense of shame.’ As King approached the chorus, he mashed-up the two songs he was conflating. ‘It’s a / It’s a / It’s a / It’s a Wild World,’ he sang.
Things got stranger in the spoken-word breakdown (the bit in the original that begins ‘Father forgive me’). King changed the words to: ‘Stevens forgive them / They don’t know what they’re doing / So now they are suing.’ He goes on to make what appears to be sexually suggestive remark about the pair.
He didn’t stop here. The sleeve of King’s Wild World single featured a pastiche of Tennant and Lowe on the cover of Actually. On the real album, the pair were famously pictured sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in tuxedos looking bored. King’s sleeve used computer trickery to sit him and Stevens next to each other in tuxedos in precisely the same position. The song title was subheaded: ‘Actually, It’s a sin – to steal.’
Just to make sure that his message wasn’t lost, King’s B-side was a medley of the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine with George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord. Back in 1976, Harrison’s song was found by a US judge to have borrowed from The Chiffons’ song when he wrote his own. The ex-Beatle paid damages to the song’s copyright holder. King’s point was as subtle as a sledgehammer.
But it didn’t work. The single bombed. Far more importantly, though, repeating the allegations on an actual record did nothing to help King’s case. Listening today, the songs don’t really match. “If anything it weakened his case,” wrote Heath.
McIlheney’s recollection of the episode no doubt mirrored the thoughts of many people in the pop world. “I am sure that at the time we would have been very much on Neil’s side. Partly because of his relationship with Smash Hits, partly because the Pet Shop Boys were a fantastic act and partly because Jonathan King would have been regarded with suspicion,” he says.
The case took a twist when Islam himself offered to intervene on behalf of the Pet Shop Boys. Tennant recalls: “Yusuf Islam wrote us a very charming letter offering to mediate at one point.” I approached the Pet Shop Boys’ camp, asking for further details of this letter but to no avail.
Yet ultimately the Wild World writer’s help wasn’t needed. King settled out of court. At the band’s request he made a donation to the Jefferiss Research Foundation, which researched sexual health and sexually transmitted infections.
In diaries published online a few years ago, Tennant likened the case to when guitarist Joe Satriani claimed that Coldplay had copied their song Viva La Vida from a track of his called If I Could Fly. (The case was dismissed by a US judge but it is not known if whether an out-of-court settlement of any kind was made). Tennant noted that Islam had remarked in an interview that the Coldplay song also sounded like one of his from the 1970s.
“We hadn’t stolen It’s a Sin from Wild World and I don’t imagine that Chris Martin of Coldplay has copied his song from either Satriani or Stevens. It is possible to write a song based on a strong, logical chord change with a melody line that follows the chord change and so come up with something new that can coincidentally sound like another song which you may never have heard,” Tennant wrote. “For years we used to perform a medley of It’s a Sin and I Will Survive just because the chord changes were so similar.”
McIlheney says that the mid-to-late Eighties were a “golden era” for British pop. The “frenetic and relentless” scene was bursting with stars, from stalwarts like the Pet Shop Boys and George Michael to emerging boy bands Bros and Brother Beyond to singers from Stock Aitken Waterman’s ‘Hit Factory’ such as Rick Astley, Mel and Kim, and Kylie Minogue. The industry was awash with money and huge egos. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that things like the It’s a Sin/ Wild World episode should emerge from the melee.
The biggest testament to the greatness of the Pet Shop Boys’ song is that it still sounds like a classic 34 years on, whereas the King controversy is largely a forgotten footnote.
And yet, we know that the daft cover version lives on in at least one record collection. According to the Pet Shop Boys’ biographer Heath, Chris Lowe bought a copy of King’s record “because he liked it”. Now that really is a sin.