You may have heard this story before.
On 19th August 1981, Smash Hits music journalist Neil Tennant was living in a first floor flat on Chelsea’s Kings Road when he went shopping for a cable in an electronics store on the other side of the fashionable West London street.
Chris Lowe, architect of a Milton Keynes staircase who lived in nearby Sydney Street, happened to be in the shop and the two northerners struck up a conversation about “all our favourite records. We both really liked David Bowie.”
Forty years of electronic wonderment later they are the most successful pop duo of all time. And they are still the Pet Shop Boys.
For me, the (PS)B-sides are where the songwriting genius of Tennant/Lowe‘s partnership really shine through.
Shorn of commercial considerations, they’ve been able to indulge their artier, wordier and sometimes cattier sides to such devastating effect, partly because they would never have got away with the subject matter of many of the tracks as A-sides, but also such unconventional and experimental song structures have rarely made it to their albums proper.
You want them belittling Mick Jagger for being the counter culture rebel of the rock world turned pillar of the establishment and Richmond’s respectable Knight Of The British Empire? Go listen to The Former Enfant Terrible.
You want songs that namecheck King Zog, or Armani, or Fred West and Robert Mugabe? Go listen to Don Juan, Hell or the legendary Paninaro.
I consider Alternative their greatest compilation album by far. The range and depth of material across the 30 tracks still astounds even now. There is a reason it is the highest charting collection of flipsides in the UK, and to enter the album charts at No.2 in the summer of 1995, when Britpop was in full force, was no mean feat.
2012’s Format pickes up where the first volume leaves off, and offers another 38 B-sides taking us through to 2009, including a new version of In Private, the song they helmed for Dusty Springfield, now reimagined as a karaoke duet with an excruciatingly over-singing Elton John.
Cream of the crop for me is Friendly Fire, a pretty piano ballad with a slight, understated melody, and a clever, intriguing set of lyrics written from the point of view of being David Bowie.
The Dame had spent a day in the studio with the boys just before Christmas ’95 for their remodelling of his Hallo Spaceboy (from the Brian Eno-produced Outside album) into chart-friendly territory. Single in the can, there was talk of further collaborations, “But in the end that album never got made,” Neil told me in an interview years later. However a new song with DB did get off the ground pretty quickly, if only in Tennant’s imagination:
“We went to Jamaica on holiday at the beginning of 1996, and while we were there I had a dream that we were working with David Bowie on a record. When I woke up, I could remember David Bowie in my head singing “I’m coming under friendly fire/shot in the fatal cause of rock ’n’ roll.” Which lead to this song.”
“Then Jonathan Harvey suggested the character of Billie Trix” for their 2001 musical excursion, Closer To Heaven, “and the lyrics were finished to represent her character” – part Nico, part Marianne Faithfull,* – though Neil confesses, “The words are really written about David Bowie: ‘I who studied make-up, mime and Buddha’. I mean, hello everyone, it’s David Bowie.”
An inspirational tirade against me
How to explain my life?
Boys to the left of me
girls to the right of me
neither husband nor wife
Though the days are filled with pain
there is no one who’ll explain
why I’m coming under friendly fire
shot in the fatal cause of rock-and-roll
but there’s nothing, really nothing, to say
Why I endure under force majeure
slander without shame or tact
I who studied make-up, mime and Buddha
who taught two generations to react
About me the critics lied
I ignored them and survived
In spite of coming under friendly fire
Shot in the fatal cause of rock and roll
I have nothing, really nothing to deny
When I look back my eyes are filled with tears
Danger to mascara, applause to my peers
When fame sustained me and arenas acclaimed me
I floated through life on a cloud
Of love and insanity and pagan profanity
Before a worshipping crowd
Now my status is ill-defined
As an icon I’m inclined
to be coming under friendly fire
shot in the fatal cause of rock-and-roll
but whatever dull or clever points they’ve scored
I have never, oh no never, been ignored
Tennant/Lowe. Published by Cage Music Ltd/Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.
Little self referential plug here, but I interviewed Neil for the first time in April 1996, and he later told me that parts of the interview (for a Bowie magazine I used to publish entitled Crankin’ Out), as well as an earlier edition of the magazine I’d sent him, which featured one of Bowie’s masturbating minotaur artworks, actually inspired a little of the song’s lyrics, in particular the ‘pagan profanity’ and the fibbing critics. Chuffed beyond belief was I, as you can imagine.
Friendly Fire was premiered back in June 1997 during the duo’s summer residency at the Savoy Theatre on the Strand, the street where I was born. Neil would usually introduce the song with “This is a song I wrote when I dreamt we were in the studio with a famous rock star…”
Sadly they left the song off the official Somewhere: Live At The Savoy video. However, they did leave the Spaceboy in. This is him.
The studio version had a low-key debut on a 4-track CD freebie issued with the Daily Telegraph in 2001, and the following year as the B-side to I Get Along, an All The Young Dudes-meets-Oasis type anomaly. In 2017 it was included on a three-disc expanded remaster of the Boys’ 1999 album, Nightlife. It really is a thing of beauty.
*The character of Billie Trix is also said to be based on Neil and Chris’s late-makeup artist Lynn Easton, who died of a drugs overdose. PSB penned a fascinating tribute to her – which also namechecks Adam Ant and Bryan Ferry – entitled Requiem in Denim & Leopardskin, from their 2012 album, Elysium.