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It Was 20 Years Ago Today: Steve Pafford interviews the Pet Shop Boys

Steve Pafford does lunch with the Pet Shop Boys

“Is the other half of the group coming?” queries a Cappuccino-consuming Neil Tennant. We are at the, it has to be said, less than luxurious environs of West End watering hole the Groucho Club, and the helpful young press assistant escorting me to my seat assures us both that Chris Lowe is indeed coming. He may be some time.

Ostensibly we’re here to talk about the gorgeous new Pet Shop Boys album Release, and, in particular, accusations from some quarters that our favourite pop duo have ‘gone rock’ on us. Only the singer seems much more interested in what I’m wearing. “Are those Prada trainers?” he asks, quick as a flash. He certainly knows his labels. “These are Prada as well. Prada motorbike boots,” he adds. “They’re all I wear at the moment.” Neil lifts his leg up and permits me a closer inspection. Very nice, I coo. Looks like he’s a decent size too, though I resist the temptation to enquire of his exact dimensions and it prays on my mind for the rest of the conversation.

I’m not sure my Pradas go well with the Kerrang! T-shirt, but my excuse is that the Gucci tops are all in the wash, I fib. “This is Gucci, by the way!” he exclaims, indicating a super-smart black knitted polo-neck. In reality I’m wearing the tan top as a sort of tribute to the PSB’s much talked-about New Direction. Eschewing the ’80s revivalist lo-fi synthcore sound currently led by manic Germanic electroclash club faves Fischerspooner, for Release the duo have contrarily opted for a downbeat collection of rock-tinged ballads which, according to this half of the group, “have no basis in dance music whatsoever.” And if Neil was worried that such a departure would cost them fans or the critical approval they’ve come to expect, then his fears would appear to have been largely unfounded.

“Actually the reaction to the new album has been fantastic, he beams. “There have been people who obviously expected us to do an early ’80s thing, because of Miss Kittin and The Hacker and Daft Punk, and Madonna’s done stuff like that, but, ultimately, the Pet Shop Boys don’t follow other people’s trends. We follow our own instincts.” Strong words. But that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows much about Messrs Tennant and Lowe. After all, it was they, was it not, who inserted a loop of someone shouting ‘arsehole’ into one of the PSBs most under-rated tracks, The Theatre, directed at a Tory MP who made some less than charitable comments about waifs and strays camped out on the Strand.

“No, it’s not ‘arsehole’,” insists the accused. “I agree, it sounds like it though. But it’s a sample that’s totally meaningless but sounded right.” Oh, don’t tell me it’s just another case of me reading too much into their work, looking for hidden codes that don’t exist? I always assumed the operatic intro to the epic Left To My Own Devices was ‘arse’, and was horrified to learn only recently that it was something that doesn’t quite have the same ring about it: “Oh, you thought it was arse’?!” Neil cackles so much it sounds like he’s about to bring up oil at any moment. “I’ve never heard that before!! No, no, it’s ‘house’! This was early ’88, when House music was just getting going.”

Ah well, at least all this botty talk prompts him to reveal a little of a future project.
N: “When we do another musical, one of my ideas is that it starts with The Theatre and on stage is the theatre you’re sitting in, and you’ve got all the homeless outside singing ‘We’re the bums you step over as you leave the theatre.’ I don’t know what happens next unfortunately…”

It’s heartening to hear that the Boys haven’t been put off by the decidedly dire diatribes directed at
Closer To Heaven, last year’s disco musical collaboration with playwright Jonathan Harvey, which closed after just five months So they don’t regret doing it then?

N: “Oh god, no! In fact it’s made us more determined to succeed in that field,” Neil vows, with an admirable air of defiance. “It’s a very difficult thing to do a West End musical. One of the things we’ve learned is that you can’t shove songs in that you’ve already written, because they just won’t make any sense.”

But, I counter, there’s a London show now into its fourth year that hasn’t done the backcatalogue of a certain Swedish supergroup any harm at all, at least on a commercial level. 

N: “You can do it in Mamma Mia because the story is neither here nor there. Everyone’s gone to hear an Abba concert, ultimately,” he suggests. “But we never set out to do a blockbuster like that.”

2002 is the year that everyone from Boy George, Madness and, lord help us, what’s left of Queen jump on that West End stagecoach, trying to find new avenues to bring their songbooks to a new audience. Though, curiously, not David Bowie. He’s chickened out of staging a long-promised theatre production based on his alien androgyne alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust.

It’s exactly 30 years since his epochal Top Of The Pops performance of Starman blew so many minds, and Neil remembers it as a truly great moment in pop, but how could anything have impact now? Far from launching someone’s career in spectacular style, nowadays it doesn’t even make a blind bit of difference to a
single’s success whether the act makes it on TOTP or not.

N: “Until the late ’80s it did,” he agrees. “Of course, the reason is the music business now front-loads everything in the first week. With West End Girls we released formats over a long period of time. Now it’s just week of release and you can’t get people to change that.”

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, why should we give a stuff about the Top 40 anymore? “It depends what you want,” answers Neil, evenly. “Singles are mainly bought by kids now, or you can get into the Pop Idol thing of people
participating in a huge media event, or those who buy two records a year suddenly get Kylie‘s single because it’s a fantastic record. You get genuine hits like that and they kind of run forever. I think the singles market isn’t really a powerful force anymore. And,” he points out: “CDs are quite cheap really. I mean, how many albums can you buy for a pair of trainers?”

Surely it depends if you’re a shameless label queen or not? I guess I could’ve got got my hands on a sizeable pile of discs for what these Pradas set me back.

N: “Depends on the brand, but usually five to eight albums,” Neil calculates. “I was amazed that a pack of cigarettes costs over £4 now! Well, you can buy our new single with three tracks on it for £2.99 – that’s astonishingly good value, but it will only really be bought by our fan base, whatever that is.”

So who or what is your fan base these days?

“EMI do research into these things. And they show us this research!” he laughs. “Our core audience is aged between 27 and 35, is slightly more predominately male (surely not? – Ed), and their favourite newspaper is the Daily Express, which appals me.” It could have been worse – The Sun or the Daily Mirror for instance, but Neil’s already off overseas: “It changes in different countries as well; in Germany, which is our biggest market, I got a fan letter that said ‘I’ve liked you since New York City Boy.‘ That’s great. If you’re 12 years old, you’ve heard Pet Shop Boys on the radio and you discover they’ve made all these other albums. We do get quite a lot of that, but if you look on fan sites you’d realise that.”

I make a mental note to stay in more.

“And I’ve suddenly noticed,” he continues, “that it’s the one a lot of rock critics now like: ‘Oh New York City Boy’s great! So what number did that get to then?’ I think it’s a really underrated, beautiful song. But I know some fans think it’s a cheesy load of old bollocks…”

Neil looks to me for support, but I can’t give it unconditionally. While it may have been picked up on Teutonic transistors, the fascists that have hijacked Radio 1 refused to A-list NYCB, because it was “too gay”, apparently. But that’s not the reason I dislike it.

I tell Neil that while the song’s not quite as stale and unappetising as an aged unwashed scrotum, I’ve always thought of it as little more than Go West Part II.

“It’s nothing like Go West really, if you look at the melody and everything,” he counters. “Though it is a Village Peopley thing. But that was (producer) David Morales’ idea! It’s always a huge lift in the show though. When we did it at Glastonbury, the dancers were dressed as sailors and it went down amazingly well.”

It’s not Glasto, but it is the live premiere of NYCB from the year before, complete with slightly dodgy vocals from Mr Tennant

Talking of festivals, last summer the Boys organised a Homopolooza-styled US tour also featuring such turns as Sinéad O’Connor and a recently reformed Soft Cell. With days to go before it opened, Wotapalava, for that is what it came to be so appropriately named, was cancelled after Sinéad decided she preferred the funnel to the tunnel after all, and a last minute lesbian replacement was nowhere to be found.

The rumour was, of course, that virtually non-existent ticket sales were to blame; symptomatic of a PSB fanbase that’s been shrinking for more than a decade over there.

“We always think America is a nightmare for us,” Neil readily admits. “But what’s weird is that we can still go to any city and play to between 2,000 and 4,000 people – though a lot of that is the gay audience, which is very loyal. But I’m very suspicious of this notion of a ‘fanbase’ because people come in and out all the time… Hi!”

With perfect timing, Chris makes his entrance: “This, by the way, is not my fault,” he offers, by way of an apology. Looks like it might have been a heavy night. “Are we eating here?” he asks. Which is his way of saying ‘I’m starving. Let’s order now’. “I decided on the way here that I’m going to have a Groucho Club veggie burger,” replies Neil, with impressive forward-planning. Chris goes for a meatier version. Sustenance sorted, let’s talk music again, OK Chris?

“‘Freak’? That’s not a George Michael top, I hope. Oh no, it’s spelt differently.” Before I can explain, Neil is straight in: “Chris, it’s a Kerrang! T-shirt!” he proclaims, looking for a reaction. A “Wow” is all he gets.

I wonder if the Pets think American audiences expect a perfunctory ’80s hits show from them. After all, your
Diana Rosses and Stevie Wonders can still pack out your Wembleys and your NECs, but, I ask, perhaps a little too pointedly, when was the last time you saw them in the charts?

“Mmm. Well maybe it is that then,” Neil says, curtly. He shifts uncomfortably when reminded of their decline
in Stateside singular sales. “The classic one’s Neil Diamond. I’m quite happy to be like Neil Diamond, by the way.” Actually, he’s just been in the Top Ten for the first time in years.

“Well there you go then. What about Barbra Streisand at No.1?” he demands, perking up. “And she’s done a duet with Bryan Adams! Can you believe that?” Chris looks alarmed. “They’ve done a single?” Oh, it’s been out already, I add, helpfully. She did one with Celine ‘why the long face?’ Dion as well, which was even worse. It’s here Chris suddenly gets animated: “Oh, the video of that was fantastic – they were trying to outdo each other. They were seconds from ripping each other’s wigs off, it was hilarious” “Very French & Saunders that,” Neil notes. “Where are French & Saunders when we need

Talking of duelling Divas, the most recent star to have a hit with the PSBs was David Bowie and Hallo Spaceboy. It was his sassiest single for years, but his radical reinvention as their latest disco Dame wasn’t without its power-struggles either.

“We got the impression that Bowie thought we’d won,” confesses Neil. “That he found himself making a Pet Shop Boys record, though in fact it was all his idea!”

But isn’t that the whole point, that these ageing icons look for a PSB collaboration as a way to rejuvenate their careers? I heard that even Debbie Harry came knocking on their door.

“Yeah, she did,” Neil confirms. “Because we did Liza and Dusty we’ve been approached by every single female artist in the world to make a record with them, and that’s not an exaggeration… with the exception of Barbra Streisand,” he adds, carefully. “The music business always typecasts you: you know, if you produce k.d. lang you get to do Eddi Reader, and maybe Tanita Tikaram too.” But the door’s not for opening. “The way I feel now is that I don’t want to work with another female singer ever again. Or if we do it’ll be a complete unknown.”

Looks like that Madge will have to look elsewhere then. No longer just a disco duo, Pet Shop Boys are about to tour provincial British theatres for the first time, with a fully-fledged rock-based outfit replacing the costumes and campery of previous outings. Sounds like Neil’s enjoying his new role as lead axeman too.

“It’s funny, when we were rehearsing with the guitarists for this tour I was teaching them what I call showbusiness chords, D minor 7 with a G bass – they were very impressed by that,” he declared, proudly. “They didn’t know how to play C sharp major 7 either. But the guitar ballads idea for this album was Chris’s idea actually. Chris also decided… actually why don’t you tell him some of this?”
C: “I’m eating.”
N: “But I want to eat too!” Conceding defeat, he continues: “Chris thought we should use real drum sounds as well. But I have to emphasise that making this album was no different to any other we’ve done. It’s all programmed apart from my guitar, which we decided to put on more of the tracks because it emphasised the melodies and made the songs sound stronger.”

If they don’t release the fabulous Birthday Boy, with its Christ-like lyrical references, as a Crimbo single I’ll eat my pointy hat. But does that guitar intro sound too good to be true?

N: “On Birthday Boy I got round my limitations by playing arpeggios and then putting them into the computer, double tracking them, then programming them through the song. So in fact we’re using the guitar in a completely electronic way, actually. The main difference is that we decided at the beginning of this album that we’d play everything ourselves. We’d become aware that some people think that we don’t really do anything on our records.”

You sued a philosopher who made such a claim, didn’t you?

“Oh, I’d forgotten about that,” claims Neil, not entirely convincingly. “Roger Scruton suggested (in his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Modern Culture) that we don’t have much to do with the making of our records. And I think that’s because we’ve never presented ourselves as musicians. We’re thought of as being some sort of clever ironic thing, and maybe people think the actual making of the music is nothing to do with us.”

He actually put you in the same category as a certain defunct girl group, which must have hurt.

N: “He said ‘Groups like the Spice Girls and the Pet Shop Boys!’ I thought he was going to write to us and say ‘I’m sorry, the publishers got it wrong, it was supposed to be the Backstreet Boys.’ Because he’s quite a clever guy, and I thought he can’t be that daft.”
C: “He is though.”
N: “But they wouldn’t apologise so we issued a writ and he decided to justify the libel! I thought ‘Wow, he’s really crazy’.”
C: “Bloody amazing. But he lost though.” (laughs)
N: “He didn’t have any money anyway. He had to get Legal Aid.”

C: “I quite liked the idea of bankrupting him. You could waltz into the Groucho Club and he’d be sitting outside in a cardboard box and you could piss on him.”

N: “Oh!” He glares at the other half of the band disapprovingly, as if to say ‘you’ve gone too far this time’. But before Neil can bring the conversation back our time is up, and they waltz out of the Groucho and into a rainy Soho and an afternoon of eight back-to-back radio spots. “Have you seen the schedule?” he enquires of Chris, still within earshot. “I even showed him the schedule. I think any rational human being could call that a ghastly chore…”

I’m not entirely clear if Neil’s still referring to the radio interviews or the one they’ve just finished. I’ll probably never know. He hardly touched that veggie burger, by the way.

The single I Get Along is released on July 15th

Steve Pafford

First published: Gay Times, June 2002

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