Liza with a P: when Minnelli met the Pet Shop Boys they got Results

“Liza’s a legend. Well, she was until the Ruby Wax show.” — Neil Tennant 

There was a time when, to get Bondian for a minute, the Pet Shop Boys were the men with the Midas touch. Having released an album a year since their dazzling debut — 1986’s Please — enjoyed five* transatlantic No.1 singles, gave Patsy Kensit her only decent record and brought back Dusty Springfield from utter obscurity, by 1989 they took a breather, opting to prepare for their first tour in lieu of a new album. Under their own name, anyway. Before the seminal synth duo jetted off to peddle their stagecraft — because they “quite like proving that we can’t cut it live” — Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe spent most of March and April recording an album after all. Only this time the vocalist wasn’t Tennant but Liza Minnelli, celebrated singer of showbiz and showtunes who also happened to be the daughter of Judy Garland, one of the world’s most beloved gay icons.

In recent years, Tennant, in particular, has expressed belated niggles about the ‘gay icon’ label, but Dusty was a lesbian and gay icon, and acknowledging that fact doesn’t detract from her musical achievements in the slightest. In fact, it makes her now legendary status as Britain’s greatest ever blue-eyed soul singer even more remarkable. And after years in the doldrums, recording with the boys just cemented her gay following.

So the Pet Shop Boys producing Liza Minnelli’s “first pop record”, ably assisted by Julian Mendelsohn, must have seemed like a natural fit. In keeping with the one word nomenclature customary for PSB releases, at one stage a mooted title for the album was the not unsubtle Pink, suggesting the boys had already conceded exactly what kind of icon she was, and who her target audience were. Though she’d begun her recording career back in 1963, she hadn’t released a record for over a decade. These were trifling matters though, as the Cabaret star of stage and screen was already an admirer of the duo, and they of her, so it was a felicitous teaming from the very start. With typical chutzpah, Liza had effectively demonstrated a knack for falling for friends of Dorothy — just like her mother before her, who’d married two of them.

To paraphrase Shirley Bassey, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating,

Marrying Liza’s torchy, theatrical style with a layers of contemporary Fairlight synths, throbbing dance beats and topped off with Courtney Pine‘s classy sax interludes and darkly rich, John Barry-esque orchestration (courtesy of Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti and the Art Of Noise’s Anne Dudley), Results was – and is – unlike anything else in her six-decade catalogue. She found working with the duo to be great fun but also challenging and uncompromising, confessing that Tennant would push her to sing ranges lower than she was used to.

Indeed, for those who found her vocals “too projected” (that’ll be my bestie Judi then), on the LP’s lead single, a paranoid disco version of Stephen Sondheim’s Losing My Mind that gave Liza her only top 10 hit that August, there was surprising vocal versatility across the other tracks: from overbearing and demanding (I Want You Now and I Can’t Say Goodnight) to breathy and melancholic (If There Was Love and a hip-hop flavoured distortion of Tanita Tikaram’s Twist In My Sobriety, a beyond cheeky choice to ask her to sing), and tender and triumphant (show-stopping symphonic reworks of the duo’s Rent and Tonight Is Forever).

Though Results remained under the radar in the US, it became a top ten album in Britain. Three more 45s were extracted from the album through to 1990, though none of them troubled the top 40; namely Don’t Drop bombs, So Sorry I Said and a spirited remake of Yvonne Elliman’s Love Pains, which somehow managed to out-Hazell Dean Hazell Dean, who released her own version just weeks before Minelli’s.

While the well-worn trick of putting a legendary diva with a big voice to stomp their helium heels over a four-to-the-floor beat was hardly original (cf Diana Ross and Chic, Eartha Kitt and Bronski Beat), Results is an exemplary fusion of Tennant’s erudite lyricism, Lowe’s infectious soundscapes and Liza’s majestic emoting. As Neil once put it, “We basically made a Pet Shop Boys album and Liza Minnelli sings it.” Nonetheless it’s still the only complete album Pet Shop Boys have made for another artist.

In honour of Liza’s 75th birthday, the following is an interview-based feature conducted by long-time PSB cohort Chris Heath, which appeared in the debut issue of Literally, the Pet Shop Boys official fan club magazine, in 1989.

7pm, Wednesday March 2nd, 1989

In the huge orchestra room of London’s CBS studios 46 musicians prepare to play. Some practice phrases of the music in front of them, paring or fiddling or tooting until they’re happy. Some tune up. The brass players shake spittle out of their instruments. Others exchange musically chitchat, peppering their conversation with terms like “legato”. They all sit in a loose semicircle facing a small podium at one side of the room. On it stands Anne Dudley, best known as one half of the Art Of Noise though she’s also one of pop music’s most respected arrangers of orchestral accompaniments. In her hand she holds a cream plastic phone, every now and again muttering into it. 

Next door is a smaller, thin room full of recording equipment connected to the other by a thick wide glass window. A few technicians drift around. The Co-producer, Julian Mendelsohn, paces about, looking thoughtful. On the couch sits Chris Lowe. In front of him, sitting at the mixing desk, is Neil Tenant holding an identical cream phone to Anne Dudley’s – they’re talking about the orchestra’s last run-through. Next to him is Liza Minnelli, sitting on her hands and quietly singing through Tonight Is Forever, a typed lyric sheet in front of her. The atmosphere is surprisingly cheerful and lighthearted – the general consensus is that the song’s orchestral backing sounds quite wonderful. Except, everyone agrees knowledgeably, for one thing, the frugal horn, which is flat. 

The main subject of conversation revolves around the technical matter of how, exactly, the orchestra should play. At first Anne Dudley is told to conduct them in time with a click track – a percussive click of steady speed to ensure an even tempo – that is being played through her headphones. Much earnest debate takes place about whether the best speed is 125 beats per minute. Or maybe, it is suggested, 126. Or even, perhaps, 127. Neil and Chris have decided because even though at the moment they intend the finished song to be just Liza and the orchestra they want to have the option of changing their minds and adding electronic drums later. “In case we want to turn it into a disco stopper,” explains Chris. 

Nevertheless they soon change their minds. At an even speed the song doesn’t sound quite right. Neil picks up the cream phone and suggests to Anne Dudley that she may pace the song as she wishes. She looks relieved. 

A couple more run-throughs are done and they’re ready to record the whole thing with Liza singing. She scatters off to a vocal booth – walking, as she does so, through the orchestra and receiving a round of applause – the orchestra strikes up and she sings the song. It’s quite breathtaking. Tonight Is Forever first appeared on the Pet Shop Boys’ Please LP as a brisk hi-energy affair; this new version is much slower and the orchestral arrangement is completely over-the-top. Near the end there’s an extended crescendo that sounds both so good and so ridiculous that everyone in the small room gasps. 

Seconds later Liza reappears. “How did it sound?” she inquires nervously. 

“It’s fantastic,” answers Chris. 

“Liza,” agrees Neil, “you sounded fantastic.” 

Liza, clearly delighted by the approval, does a quick schoolgirl jig, swinging her hips and punching the air. “My boss is happy,” she exclaims, and hugs Neil. 

Congratulations over, there’s more earnest discussion about the tempo (and the frugal horn) then Lint is asked to return to the vocal booth. “I’ll slide, literally, back into the room,” she announces. “I’ve never had on such slippery shoes and I’ve never been on such a slippery floor.” Hearing this one of the studio people scuttles off to find her a mat to stand on. 

She sings the song again and it sounds just as good. “It’s exiting, isn’t it?” mutters Julian Mendelsohn to no-one in particular. “That’s another song,” says Chris, putting on his most blaze voice, once Liza has finished. “Let’s go to a restaurant.” But they don’t. They start ironing out a few finicky problems with the orchestra. Meanwhile Liza, who has been told I’d like to ask her some questions, wanders over. “Well?” she says “What do you want to know?” I take out my tape recorder and stay where I am on the floor, holding it up to her on a swinging chair next to me. She says that she wanted to work with the Pet Shop Boys because “I’d always admired them. I thought they were fantastic.” When I ask her when they first met she furrows her brow but can’t remember. She asks Chris. 

“Oh God, you need to speak to Neil,” says Chris, protesting that he can never remember details like that. Neil is in the toilet. Liza decides it was last summer. 

“I like all of that stuff,” she continues (at this stage Chris decides it is going to be far too embarrassing to listen to Liza talking about the Pet Shop Boys and disappears.) “I think they do things that aren’t – let me see, how can I put this? – they do things that are rhythmic and kind of familiar and yet the way they do it sounds brand new, they always add something extremely different and they’re meticulous in their production. Plus, they’re so nice.” 

She can’t remember the first Pet Shop Boys song she heard but with some prompting decides it was probably West End Girls. “I like Neil’s voice”‘ she volunteers. “He sounds like a choirboy.” 

Neil, who has now returned to the room, overhears this and chuckles loudly. “I know my choirboy voice,” he says. Liza, meanwhile, talks about how much she likes Neil’s lyrics. 

“He writes almost like what I call pop poetry. Even with a driving beat and an intent that’s out-and-out rock’n’roll he’s saying something too on top of it, which does make a difference to me, that the words are often important. Neil writes, I think, in images and you can see places in the songs. Almost every song on the album is like that.” 

They first met, she suddenly decides, at London’s Mayfair hotel where she was staying. “I opened the door, they were standing there and I said “Hi! Come in!” she recalls precisely. “We got along very well right away, I guess because none of us think we’re really more than what we really are, which is just musicians and workers.” 

So were they different, I wondered, to the people she’d expected from listening to their records? 

“I didn’t think they’d be as funny as they are,” she confesses, “I didn’t think we’d end up laughing so much. I thought maybe they’d be a little more serious and more …” She struggles to find the word she means and finally plumps for “…ethereal”. “In fact,” she continues, “they’re enormous fun to work with and when you’re working this hard one of the things that saves you is you get hysterical, laughing a lot, otherwise you can make it through. Right?” 

The last part of the sentence is addressed to Neil, eavesdropping again, who laughs. She carries on. “They’re different from anyone else. They’re unique in this business.” And are they not “ethereal” at all? “Oh yes they are,” she insists’ “in their bizarre sort of way.” “Are we what?” asks Neil, still half-listening. “Ethereal,” says Liza. “1 said I though you’d be much more ethereal in person.” 

“I don’t think we’re very ethereal,” says Neil. 

Neil busies himself with something else and Liza returns to the subject of this lyrics. “I think it’s a love of the English language that makes Neil able to express himself in his songs He loves words. He likes the sound of words when they come out and you can tell that when he writes a song. He’s a poet, you know? I really think that.” 

She explains that her friends in America are very puzzled by the combination of Liza Minnelli and the Pet Shop Boys. Whenever she tells them about it, she says, they first assume that she must have offered to do some Pet Shop Boys backing vocals as a favour to them. 

If not that then her friends assume they might be making a single together. “I say ‘they’ve consented to produce my album’ and they look at me in a stunned silence,” says Liza, proudly. “It gives me time to move away. It gives me time to get out of the room so I don’t have to answer any more questions. I think people are intrigued by it, and they should be. But they – Neil and Chris – know my music. Neil knows the kind of songs I like to sing. He knows I’ve always liked authors, that I like words, that I like to paint pictures, because that’s what he likes to do.” 

She says that she was never really involved in any plan of what sort of LP it should be. When they first met they just chatted about other things. “We didn’t really talk about anything in particular, just kind of were, you know what I mean? I just trust them so much I didn’t have to ask any questions. I just said ‘I’ll do whatever you want because this is new to me – you’re the boss. Whatever you want me to do I’ll do it.’ I never asked any questions. They just did it.” According to her they didn’t even talk about whether the songs should be old or new, theirs or someone else’s. “I just put it completely in their hands. The ultimate trust. And it’s weird because I’ve been working for 30 years and to for somebody who you like enough and trust enough and respect enough to say ‘forget it, I’ll do whatever you want’ is quite amazing.” 

To try things out, she and the Pet Shop Boys met up in a studio in New York. Coincidentally the first thing they tried out was Tonight Is Forever in a version about halfway between the old Pet Shop Boys version and the one being recorded here tonight. 

Then they went away and a few months sent her demo versions of everything on the album. She was delighted. “They were right in every case”‘ she says. “I thought everything was very strange and very avant grade and yet with that down-home bottom section going – such a nice groove, such a nice feel and, over the top, these beautiful lyrical songs.”

She’s interrupted by Neil who announces that he’s time to start work again. She returns to the vocal booth and suddenly the voice that had been laughing and chatting away a few seconds before is soaring all over the place quite brilliantly. 

She decides that she wants to sing the huge crescendo before the last chorus in two parts – to sing “… when we fall in love” one time and then to join that together with her beginning the chorus “tonight is forever.”

Eventually she’s persuaded to sing it all in one go and manages splendidly. The song has been arranged so that it ends with her singing “tonight tonight tonight is forever” three times but Neil suddenly has the idea that it might be better if she leaves out the “is forever” for the first two goes. Anne Dudley is called in for negotiations. She makes a few small changes in what the orchestra play and the song is changed; simple as that. 

Back in the control room Liza is rabbiting away about some friends of hers – “Frank” has apparently been up to this and “Sammy” thinks this about that and so on. It takes a while to realise that the names she’s sprinkling around are actually Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jnr., With whom she is to appear in a couple of weeks time at the Royal Albert Hall. She talks about the concert and starts eulogising about legendary band leader arrangers like Nelson Riddle and George Jerkins and says how much she loves to sing old classic songs with a big orchestra. Meanwhile Neil remarks how much he likes timpanis. “They make me think of Shakespeare.” 

“Is there such a thing as a drop of tea here?” asks Liza. 

Someone disappears to find out. 

“Shall we repair the vocal?” Julian Mendelsohn asks Neil. Neil doesn’t answer. He’s sitting facing the glass screen between the two rooms, staring into space, in a world of his own and completely oblivious to everything that’s going on. 

“He’s just making a movie in Australia for a moment,” chuckles Lira, as Neil suddenly releases that everyone is talking about him. 

Liza’s tea arrives. It’s in a rather unmajestic, UN-Hollywood plastic cup. There’s no spoon so she tries to stir it with a cheap pink plastic cigarette lighter and burns the tips of her fingers.

Julian asks her to sing the song once more. 

“How should I do it?” she asks Neil and Chris (who returned the moment Liza finished her interview). “Less expression? More expression?” The song has sounded so good every time she has sung it that the question seems a little preposterous. 

“I have no criticism at all, I’m afraid,” apologies Neil. 

Before she leaves the room she sings little bits of old show songs and declares, to no-one in particular, that Tonight Is Forever should be in a movie. Then she chats about clothes. She prefers black, she says. Today she is wearing a black jumper and a black leather miniskirt. Chris and Neil are joking about the orchestra. Orchestras are employed under very strict union rules – they have to have a 15 minute tea break (which they’ve just taken) and you have to pay a fortune in overtime if the session runs only five minutes over. At the moment, however, it looks as though the session will finish early. 

“We should make them stay,” suggests Chris mischievously. 

“Make them play scales,” chuckles Neil. 

“Or make them play something for us,” laughs Chris. 

“Maybe (Beethoven’s) Pastoral Symphony,” says Neil, pretending to give the matter deep and serious thought. “Or a little Sibelius.” 

They do finish early, despite continuing problems with the frugal horn, and of course they do let the orchestra go. Originally at the end they’d planned to record the orchestra on its own to a click track but now they decide not to bother. If they really want to piece together a version with drums it’s always possible to add electronic drums manually by tapping a pad along in time – this, they explain to everyone’s horror, is how they used to record with Bobby O. He didn’t have a drum machine so they’d take the tempo from the synthesizer sequence and play the electronic drum pads live in time to the synthesizer rhythm. 

At the end of the final take, as the final straits of the orchestra are spiralling away, Liza whispers through the microphone “Thank you Neil, thank you Chris.” It’s delightfully touching. 

“It was nice, I nearly cried,” says Neil when they play it back a couple of minutes later. 

“I nearly cried,” says Anne Dudley. “I didn’t,” says Julian Mendelsohn stubbornly, deciding things are getting far too soppy. 

And it’s all over. Everyone gathers their sessions and Liza compliments Anne Dudley and asks for her card. Liza adds that she still wants the song to be a duet with Neil. “Yes,” sighs Neil bashfully. “I’m going to do my Ivor Novello bit on it.” “Let’s go to a restaurant, says Chris once more. This time they do. 

Steve Pafford

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Author avatar
Steve Pafford
We use cookies to give you the best experience.