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Speak & spell: Pet Shop Boys talk Fletch and Depeche Mode

In the if-not-red-then-orange hot off the press 2023 edition of the Pet Shop Boys’ Annually mail order book/CD combo, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe end the fan Letters section, and indeed the 64-page publication with a couple of curious Q&As — after a discussion on inflatable beds and comfy slippers (lest we forget they are now 68 and 63) — dominated by Basildon’s finest: fellow synth-poppers Depeche Mode, and, by extension, the death of founder member Andy Fletcher in May 2022. 

It’s a poignant and propitious discussion, particularly as PSB have opted to record their 15th studio album, set for a 2024 release, with Simian Mobile Disco supremo James Ellis Ford. Sessions for the “very tuneful, less electronic-sounding“ material have been taking place at his cosy attic set-up next to Hackney Downs, plus full on real, real, real! orchestral sessions have also been occurring five miles west at Crouch Hill’s Church Studios — a coveted facility formerly owned by Dave Stewart and where the majority of Eurythmics’ work was created (as well as, famously, the location where Erasure collided with The Jesus And Mary Chain*).

As well as being a member of the Last Shadow Puppets, Ford is the helmsman of the last two Depeche Mode opuses, as well as varied production soundscapes for the likes of Gorillaz, Kylie and Klaxons, so the portents are certainly promising and eminently timely.

The exclusive exchanges are reproduced in full below, and the illuminating interview Tennant wrote-up in a 1984 issue of Smash Hits will follow in the next post. Memento Mori.

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Chris, as a multi-instrumentalist, how come you never learnt how to play the guitar? 

Miki, Medford, USA. 

Chris: Multi-instrumentalist! How dare you? No, it’s never appealed to me, playing the guitar. I’ve never wanted to. If I was going to play anything like that, it would be the bass probably. There’s something about the bass. But it’s funny because even most synth pop people can play the guitar. Martin Gore… 

Neil: …Vince Clarke… 

Chris: Yeah, they can all do it. Actually most people can play guitar, can’t they? 

Neil: It’s an entry-level music thing.

Chris: It’s never appealed to me at all. I sort of know where I am with a keyboard. 

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I’m aware that Neil interviewed Depeche Mode on several occasions while he was working at Smash Hits in the early Eighties. I was just wondering if Neil and Chris, subsequent to finding success as the Pet Shop Boys, had had much interaction with the band over the years, and what Neil and Chris think of Depeche Mode’s music and Martin Gore’s songwriting. 

Don, Heddon-On-The-Wall. 

Neil: I think I’m right in saying I only interviewed them once for Smash Hits and I didn’t really interview them, I did a sort of following-them-around-on-the-road piece when they’d just gone sort of leather — Martin Gore had started wearing a sort of leather skirt or something. [The November 22, 1984 issue]. 

It was me and a photographer, and I thought what a good live performer Dave Gahan was. Three years before, Eric Watson had photographed them for the cover of Smash Hits for See You, and they were so fresh-faced and young. Now they’d all gone a bit sort of Berlin — I think maybe Martin Gore was living in Berlin at this point. But then, after that, I think we occasionally bumped into them on a TV show or something. And they came to our parties. 

Chris: And our tour manager at the time, Ivan Kushlick, was their tour manager. And of course, when we were briefly in Electronic, we played with them. But we didn’t meet them then, did we? 

Neil: Yeah, the second night** Dave Gahan came back. He said, I watched it last night, it’s amazing because it was just like a sort of history of Eighties pop — all the different styles, Johnny [Marr], Bernard [Sumner] and you two. He said something like that. He was very sweet about it. And we’ve bumped into him in New York before. 

Chris: We did. We were doing an interview for MTV about the impact of MTV and it was great. Neil was on one of his negative things. I doubt if they used any of our interview because he was, “No, MTV had nothing to do with our success. No impact whatsoever.” It was great. Anyway Dave Gahan was also coming in to talk about the same thing.

Neil: But Fletch is the one we sort of knew best because, in the Nineties, Fletch had a wine bar near Abbey Road and we used to occasionally go when we did things at Abbey Road. Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit used to go there quite a lot. And then we have a mutual friend with Fletch. I think the last time we bumped into him was at Heathrow and he was going DJ-ing somewhere. I must say, it was very sad when Fletch died. He always just seemed to be around — he lived in London and of course the other two don’t. And he was just 60. As for their music, I always remember when Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode and everyone thought, ‘Well, that’s that — the songwriter’s left.” And Martin Gore came up with still one of my favourite Depeche Mode songs, See You. It’s a wonderful record, and I was very impressed by that. It’s a real teen, almost-1950s pop song. And he went on a journey into this sort of dark material, Germanic almost. But then what most impressed me, as with George Michael and I think Chris Lowe as well, was when he wrote the song A Question Of Lust. 

Chris: I loved that. 

Neil: You thought, “Wow, where did that come from?” It seemed like a different sort of song. And I like his voice — he has quite a high singing voice. And then the only time we’ve ever been mildly influenced by them was when they did the Violator album. Enjoy The Silence in particular. We were starting to write Behaviour in a studio in Glasgow, and there was actually a guitar shop next door and I bought a guitar and played it on The End Of The World, and that’s a bit Enjoy The Silence. 

Chris: Enjoy The Silence, it’s just inarguable. One of the best records ever made, I think. You can play it anywhere. I played it when I was DJ-ing and it’s just euphoric, isn’t it? That synth line is just so moving, so emotional. 

Neil: It was one of those moments where everything is right at the right moment. Because Depeche Mode were getting very, very big in America already. 

Chris: And then they made the right album… 

Neil: … the right single and the right video. 

Chris: They’d already had Personal Jesus months before, which was also a complete change of direction for them, because it was a shuffle beat, which was unusual for them, with a guitar all the way through it. And then to follow that up with Enjoy The Silence. What a great moment for them. 

Neil: Yes, it was. 

Chris: I still listen to Enjoy The Silence quite frequently. 

Edited by Steve Pafford

Reproduced by kind permission © Pet Shop Boys Partnership 2023 

Kilburn & kink: The time Neil Tennant interviewed Depeche Mode in Smash Hits is here

*Also the venue of sessions by Alison Moyet, Bob Dylan, Coldplay, Oasis, Suede and Paul McCartney, The Church Studios is currently owned by Paul Epworth, co-writer of the Bond theme Skyfall, and chief renovator who installed a state of the art SSL console that resulted in Adele, Beyoncé, Lana Del Rey, Madonna and even non-solo females such as U2 mixing recent albums there.

** August 4 and 5, 1990 were the actual dates Pet Shop Boys made their first public (ie not TV) live appearances in the USA, guesting on two songs with Electronic at the Los Angeles Dodgers Stadium. The new electro combo have been invited to play by the headline act Depeche Mode. Both nights coincided with David Bowie performing down the road from me at Milton Keynes Bowl, so you can guess where I was.

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