Set in 1980s London as the Aids crisis reached the UK, Russell T Davies’ new TV drama It’s A Sin is something of a trailblazer – though we’ve seen stories of the epidemic told in recent shows such as Pose – they’re often told from the American perspective. The first British TV series about HIV and Aids stars Years & Years’ singer Olly Alexander, Keely Hawes, Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris and Lydia West alongside talented newcomers Callum Scott Howells, Nathaniel Curtis and Omari Douglas.
Though fear, shame and grief all cast a shadow over the lives of the exuberant young people at the centre of It’s A Sin, the show also serves as a celebration of the queer community’s resilience, and the unwavering support of the LGBTQ+ people and straight allies who supported each other through the crisis. Despite the huge upheaval the residents of the Pink Palace will face, they face it together – and their shared love of music and dancing plays a crucial role.
Borrowing its title from Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 single, the It’s A Sin soundtrack includes a faultless selection of queer anthems and ’80s smash hits that take on a new resonance. Though it’s difficult to pluck out highlights from a soundtrack which includes Blondie, Joy Division, Erasure and Culture Club, these have to be the show’s most powerful musical moments.
Pet Shop Boys – ‘It’s A Sin’
Bursting with melodramatic orchestral stabs, a NASA countdown, and huge-sounding, sweeping synths, Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’ lends its name to Russell T Davies’ entire show, and vents upon the anger and frustration of a life lived in shame. “Everything I’ve ever done, everything I ever do,” Neil Tennant sings, “every place I’ve ever been, everywhere I’m going to, it’s a sin.” Tennant wrote it about his experience of Catholic school – whereas in It’s A Sin the song accompanies Ritchie (Olly Alexander) on a visit back home to the Isle of Wight as he grapples with confronting recent events. In a deathly-quiet local pub, he sticks it on the jukebox while checking out the local talent. An example of the series’ remarkable ability to mix light with dark, it’s a standout moment of carefree joy amid the horrors of the Aids epidemic.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – ‘Enola Gay’
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s biggest hit is named after the Boeing B-29 Superfortress heavy aircraft used to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima towards the end of World War II. The song’s connotations have a particular prescience in a show about the mass-devastation caused by Aids – a pandemic which has killed an estimated 36 million people. In fact, four years after the song’s release, an unrelated activist group in San Francisco called Enola Gay mounted what is now thought to be the first act of civil disobedience relating to Aids. In It’s A Sin, however, ‘Enola Gay’ soundtracks an early moment of more personal rebellion – Ritchie packing up his porn magazines and leaving the Isle of Wight for London. It’s a powerful new home for a song long associated with protest.
Kelly Marie – ’Feels Like I’m In Love’
Several of the tight-knit friendship group at the centre of It’s A Sin flee the closeted restraints of their hometowns for the freedom of London in the opening moments of the show, and when Roscoe (Omari Douglas) walks out on his homophobic family, it’s soundtracked by Scottish singer Kelly Marie. Her 1980 disco hit ‘Feels Like I’m In Love’ became a sleeper hit on the Scottish club scene, and later won her a sizeable gay following. Charged with cheeky, campy horn flourishes, it oozes a kind of carefree, shoulder-shimmying joy – the perfect accompaniment to Roscoe finally being free to be himself.
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Louis Clark – ‘Hooked On Classics (Parts 1 & 2)’
At the tail-end of disco’s popularity, the ‘Hooked on Classics’ series plucked out and mashed-up classical music staples from the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach and set them to a relentlessly pounding LinnDrum drum machine. Incorporating fragments of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’ and Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 5’, ‘Hooked on Classics Part 1 and 2’ – which opens the first record in the series – ended up bagging a number two spot in the UK charts. On It’s A Sin, the frantic arrangement scores what can only be described as Ritchie’s highly euphoric shagging montage – one of the show’s most brilliantly ridiculous sequences.
Patrick Cowley – ’Do You Wanna Funk?’ (feat. Sylvester)
Early in the epidemic, misconceptions were rife about both HIV and AIDS, amid a lack of information. Many people believed that it could be transmitted through touch, saliva and the air – some even doubted the seriousness of the virus. And early on, breezing from pub to club to house party, Ritchie and his friends react to news of a deadly new disease killing gay men in New York with a reaction of anger, bemusement and conspiracy. Their early reaction is soundtracked by ‘Do You Wanna Funk?’ – a perfectly suggestive slab of disco by Sylvester and dance music pioneer Patrick Cowley released in 1982. It’s a poignant inclusion; the same year the track came out, Cowley died from Aids aged just 32.
Kate Bush – ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)’
By the late ‘80s, the effects of Aids in the UK were tragically far-reaching, and young gay men particularly were dying at an alarming rate – and increasingly, the epidemic begins to turn the lives of It’s A Sin’s main characters upside down. As the household rallies together to try and stay fit and healthy, Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)’ sounds the way. Originally, Bush wrote the song about striking a deal with God so that men could swap places with women in order to understand each other better – here, its quest for empathy takes on a slightly different meaning.
Wham! – ‘Freedom’
When Collin moves from the Welsh Valleys to the bright lights of London (well, suburban Elstree) and gets a job on Savile Row, he’s left longing to have more fun. Luckily enough, he soon stumbles across The Pink Palace – the gang’s ramshackle place in Hampstead – and ends up joining their chosen family, finding the freedom he always longed for. One of Collin’s most crucial scenes is soundtracked by Wham!’s ‘Freedom’. The 1984 single declared unwavering devotion to someone who sounds like a bit of a cheating rotter – and like Collin, it’s both completely charming, and a little naive.
Barry Manilow – ‘One Voice’
On one of Ritchie’s duty-bound visits back to the Isle of Wight, his family won’t stop gossiping about Barry Manilow – though the singer has been in a relationship with his now-husband since 1978, he chose to keep his sexuality private until six years ago. Meanwhile, Ritchie and best mate Jill sign up for karaoke at the local pub, and sing his track ‘One Voice’. Largely a cappella, Manilow recorded his vocal up to 40 times and layered it for the track – and in the context of the show, it’s a sorrowful yearning for connection.
Ronnie Hilton – ‘A Windmill in Old Amsterdam’
Though not released in the 1980s, we couldn’t leave out one of the show’s most poignant music choices. As we’ve mentioned above, colliding its euphoric, uplifting soundtrack with darkness and grief is something that It’s A Sin does very well. Most memorably, Ronnie Hilton’s novelty tune ‘A Windmill in Old Amsterdam’ – a song about a lucky, clog-wearing mouse who lives in a snug windmill – plays during one of the show’s bleakest scenes. The choice to use a children’s song seems deliberate. Amid the immense stigma and shame surrounding Aids, men dying from the disease would often “go home” – a euphemism for being quietly taken away back to their childhood homes to suffer in secret. It meant the full extent of the disease was hidden behind closed doors.
Eurythmics – ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’
As fear about the Aids epidemic reached a peak, and terrifying headlines about the disease began to appear on newspaper front pages, the group of mates at the centre of It’s A Sin become increasingly involved with activism and campaigning, while also worrying about their own health. In one such scene, ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ shows Ritchie meticulously checking himself for symptoms of the virus. The hopelessness of the initially uplifting song – which is essentially about trying to make sense of life and survive it – is a powerful accompaniment.