The Pet Shop Boys took a disco song and turned it into an electronic utopian dream, creating an overly grandiose—if absurd—anthem out of a cheerful ditty. Neil Tennant, though he initially disliked the original song and called it "ghastly" (source), was sold when he realized it was a souped-up version of Pachelbel's Canon, following the same familiar chord progression.
When Tennant realized the song could be recorded with a full choir, he got even more into the idea. "I liked the idea of doing vocals like 'There Is Nothing Like a Dame' from South Pacific on a pop record, a big choir of butch men, so we got a group of Broadway singers in New York arranged by Richard Niles to perform it in that style," says Tennant. (Source)
The choir seems to reminisce in the gay sub-cultural roots of the song and hint at the song's ironic meanings related to gay utopias and HIV/AIDS.
The "big choir of butch men," Neil Tennant's nasal singing, and a club beat are the dominant musical elements, with strings and wind instruments holding down the chord progression in the orchestral Pachelbel's Canon style. A woman sings out a call to "go west" in a gospel form over the occasional jazzy horn section, which drops in sounding quite a bit like a college marching band.
To top off the song's general weirdness, seagulls caw in the background and the song opens and closes with sampled ocean sounds. And who does a utopian anthem without a dramatic key change?
In fact, on close inspection, "Go West" is pretty creative for a pop song. The elements altogether have an unpredictable sound. You might not fully realize it on a club dance floor, but the song's catchiness probably owes something to its quirky creativity.
Neil Tennant may have hated the Village People, but he loved the Pet Shop Boys' status in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles: The Pet Shop Boys had a hit each year since the 1984 release of "West End Girls," and when he agreed to do "Go West," Tennant wanted a hit for 1992.
The song didn't end up getting released until 1993 because neither of the Pet Shop Boys liked the first version they came up with; c'est la vie. Still, the song that Tennant had initially disliked so much became one of their biggest hits and is often referred to as their signature song.
Whether they like it or not, "Go West" is perfect for the Pet Shop Boys. It's quirky, clever, and smart in a way that the Village People original never managed. It also hints at the political without making any political statements. This postmodernist evasion of any clear meaning, identity, or message is essential to the Pet Shops Boys' approach.
For example, although they've been embraced by the gay community, Lowe and Tennant never intended to be a "gay" band, and only Tennant is publicly out as gay. Lowe vaguely explains their views on the matter: "Well, we've never hidden anything. There was never any pretense in what we do. We covered 'Go West' by the Village People. We've never actually thought there was the need to be explicit about anything. We don't like to be political and we don't make political statements. Everything is in the music and you can get it if you want it. We're just awkward bastards, really." (Source)
Even more than they've been called "gay" or "political," the Pet Shop Boys have been called "ironic" all too many times. "Go West" seems a bit ironic, especially with little touches like the rows of men in tight white tank tops marching west from Moscow in the music video.
Lowe insists, however, that this tag is just plain wrong to describe their work altogether: "We have done ironic things, but you can't dismiss everything we've done as ironic. There's a lot more to it than that. Going back to 'Legacy,' there's no irony. There's no irony in 'Love, etc.' Sometimes people confuse winks with irony. The payoff line in 'Love, etc.' is: 'You don't have to be beautiful—but it helps.' And it's also true." (Source)
Whether the irony is intentional or just meant as a series of "winks" at certain audiences, "Go West" is clearly a Pet Shop Boys classic, epitomizing their tongue-in-cheek but smart approach to catchy pop music.