Pet Rock: Steve Pafford interviews Pet Shop Boys

First published: Gay Times, June 2002.

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 back
catalogue 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 sizable
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?

“EM 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.

“‘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 Wembley’s 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
them?”

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 kd 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