As is the case with the best partnerships in music and beyond, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (always in that order, like Lennon and McCartney or Richard and Judy) are two very different but complementary personalities who combine to create a third: Tennant/Lowe.
Often it’s Blackpool boy Lowe (he went to the same school as Soft Cell’s Dave Ball), with his daft head gear and his giant complicated coats and his almost heroic refusal to smile in photographs, who seems like the guardian of the essential Pet Shopness of the Pet Shop Boys. This former architecture student who once, unfathomably, designed a staircase in the town I grew up in*, happens to turn 60 today.
Chris’s refusal to join in, to play the game, to participate in pop’s fake joviality from 1980s Top Of The Pops to modern talent shows, is as much part of the duo’s enduring appeal as their impressive catalogue of songs.
You may not know all of these, because one of the seminal synthmeister’s bold red lines is that he won’t vocalise any tracks on a PSB album proper, but here’s six of the best Lowe vocals, one for each decade this “some kind of wizard” (thank you, Brandon Flowers) has been making noises. All hail the Sexagenarian Northerner!
Paninaro (1986) & Paninaro ’95 (1995, obviously)
“I don’t like country and western. I don’t like rock music, I don’t like rockabilly or rock and roll particularly. I don’t like much really, do I? But what I do like, I love passionately.”
Lowe’s infamous off-the-cuff manifesto from a 1986 US TV interview was quickly transplanted onto Paninaro, a song about Italian pop kids from the days when B-sides could become as famous as A-sides, in this case the urban sprawl of Suburbia. “Armani, Armani, A-ah-ah-Armani. Versace. Cinque.” Italy in the early 1980s boasted a youth cult consisting primarily of young men dedicated to fashionable clothes (particularly baggy jeans), Timberland boots, scooters, and ineffably large sandwiches known as panini (the plural of panino).
“I can do lists, I suppose. I’ve sung on the odd obscure B-side but I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. We had dinner with Brandon Flowers recently, and he started singing Paninaro at me. Which was quite a strange moment.” — Chris Lowe, GQ, 2013
The first of the Boys’ list songs (there would be several to come), this one has a soccer chant, big big drums, and an octave-skipping synth line. A latin-infused rejig even saw the song flipped to single status nine years later, featuring Lowe’s modified rap. In the added lyrics Chris describes his sense of loss and his need to find someone else to dance with him, which is widely interpreted as a reference to the recent death of his long-term companion Peter Andreas. Highly pertinent to this particular interpretation is the fact that the line “You’re my lover” from the original song has now been shifted to the past tense, “You were my lover,” in this version. If you don’t dance to this, you’re Neil Tennant.
One Of The Crowd (1989)
The painfully shy Lowe has often stated that he feels little or no need for recognition and, in fact, would prefer to blend in with everyone else, hence the title of this candid B-side to the duo’s cover of Sterling Void’s house anthem It’s Alright. The hats and dark glasses that he usually wears in PSB photos and on stage are essentially his ‘public costume’ allowing him to be relatively unrecognisable when he goes out without them. Furthermore, he claims to have little use for the frequent perks and platitudes of wealth and fame: “I don’t want to meet the Royal Family just ’cause I’ve paid my tax.” Chris sings-speaks his lyrics in a highly distorted vocodered manner, hiding his real voice in much the same way that he so often hides his eyes. Of special interest is his opening sexual metaphor: “When I go fishing with my rod….” Meanwhile, as with Paninaro, Neil is left apparently with little to do but sing nothing but the title in the chorus.
We All Feel Better In The Dark (1990)
As he later explained, this was inspired in part by a tape Chris bought at a health food store located near the studio where he and Neil were working at the time. The cassette was titled The Secrets of Sexual Attraction. And on this frisky and fabulous flipside to the sublime Being Boring, Chris wants the world to know he’s feeling really horny.” So lustful in fact that he performed an elaborate dance routine to the track during Performance, the PSB’s celebrated theatrical extravaganza of 1991, live in his undies. Not to put too much of a finer point on it, it’s the sexiest Pet Shop Boys song ever made.
Originally paired with You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk (the boys’ first 21st Century single) once again, Lowe demonstrates his mastery of upbeat club bangers, creating vast sonic landscapes made for dancing, and on which the Blackpool one actually sings rather than speaks in a voice that hasn’t been greatly distorted (cf Postscript, a hidden mini track tucked at the way of 1993’s Very LP). The lyrics, which were authored by Chris (a rarity for PSB tunes), emerged from what he describes in the booklet to Format, the duo’s second collection of flipsides, as “a true story.” As Neil adds, Chris was “in a very, very angry mood.” In short, he’s a bit annoyed at somebody for being deceitful. But rather than wallow in self-pity, he strikes a defiant pose, à la I Will Survive. In so many words, he says, “If you think you’re gonna get away with this, think again and take a hike.”
This Used To Be The Future (2009)
This unsettlingly electronic epic, the opening gambit on Yes etc., a limited edition bonus disc that came with their Xenomania-produced album of ten years ago, this noteworthy on several counts. First of all, it features lead vocals offered in turn by Neil, Chris (yes, singing, actually!), and guest singer Phil Oakey of the Human League. With current horrors like Trump, Brexit and Islamic terrorism enough to make most of us sympathise with such nihilistic lines as “Now all we have to look forward to is a sort of suicide pact.” In a thinly disguised reference to the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, the powerhouse trio point out that “religion and nuclear energy have united”—a dystopian situation that many would agree is a very real and looming threat.
When Finnish DJs Jori Hulkkonen and Alex Nieminen joined forces in 2011 under the production moniker Stop Modernists, “with a knowing head-nod to the late Eighties New York/Chicago deep house scene,” they decided to record a remake of New Order’s minimal electro classic from 1985’s Low-Life—adjudged “criminally underrated” by PSB themselves—that features none other than Chris Lowe on voice duties, with Neil nowhere to be seen or heard, for once.
While preserving much of melancholy of Bernard Sumner’s original vocal, there’s little of the studio treatment that Chris has so often given his own tones in the past: no vocoder, no distortion, no computerised stand-in. He’s been forthright, however, in asserting that he did have a little technological assistance. As he noted in the Boys’ fan club magazine Literally, he (with engineer Pete Gleadall’s help) used some Autotune-ish computer software called Melodyne to fine-tune his vocal—“to put the note exactly in tune and … get rid of all the wobble.” Yet the effect is so subtle as to be essentially unnoticeable. As he offhandedly describes it, “You won’t even notice that you are alone.” Yet, despite his forlorn resignation, he can’t help but admit, again with devastating understatement, “It’s got to hurt a little bit.” Oh oh oh.
*OK, it’s called Milton Keynes, and talking of staircases, here’s Lowe’s sterling effort. I have absolutely no idea who the skinny guy sitting on it is. No, really.
With thanks to Wayne Studer