Neil Tennant Of Pet Shop Boys On The Incredible String Band

"There was a fearlessness in ISB’s approach which we have in Pet Shop Boys": a conversation from 2020 between Neil Tennant and Be Glad – a new book on the Incredible String Band – editor, Adrian Whittaker

Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending: An Incredible String Band Compendium is edited by Adrian Whittaker and available from Strange Attractor Press now

"[Liking the ISB] was like joining an exclusive club, with arcane references to half-remarkable questions and natural cards revolving, never changing. Progressive rock fans sneered, which was great: this was our own territory."
Neil Tennant, Q magazine

I’d wanted to interview Neil Tennant for Be Glad ever since I came across the above quote in Q, years ago. When the first edition of the book was being prepared I didn’t manage to get in touch with him, but the 2020 lockdown and the subsequent cancellation of the planned Pet Shop Boys Greatest Hits tour gave him time to take part in this email conversation.

Hello, Neil. I’ve wanted to do this interview ever since I read that your first group, Dust, was named after the first line of ‘Maya’, but had no clue about how to get in touch! I’m a couple of years older than you and the first time I came across the ISB in 1968 I was sixteen, and in the fifth form at grammar school. There was a little clique of misfits and would-be creatives which, during maths class, would discuss the latest musical obsessions – sixties Dylan, Cream, John Mayall, Bert and John – but it was me who introduced the ISB after finding Hangman at the local record library and having it out on repeated loan for months. A few of us became major ISB obsessives, poring over the Hangman cover (Who were all those people? Whose were all the kids?) and the lyrics for hours. How did you first come across them?

Neil Tennant: I attended a youth theatre on Saturday mornings in Newcastle, the Young People’s Theatre, and in 1970 made friends with a boy the same age as me (15), Chris Dowell. He had been introduced to ISB by his elder sister and had become a big fan and was quite evangelical about them. He played me the album The Big Huge (he didn’t have Wee Tam at that point) so the first song I heard by them was ‘Maya’. I thought it was awful! It was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Then, as now, I was a pop fan and ISB’s music was too ‘weird’ for me. My friend suggested I borrow the album and I took it home. It didn’t take me long to realise that what I had regarded as the weaknesses of the ISB – strange lyrics, obscure instrumentation, whimsicality etc. – were in fact their strengths.

As a pop fan, this was a difficult period. The Beatles had broken up and both heavy rock and cheesy bubblegum pop were everywhere. I loathed both. The ‘Increds’ (as we always referred to them) filled the gap between the Beatles and David Bowie. From 1970 to 1972 I was a dedicated fan. All of our group of youth theatre friends became fans. It was like a badge of honour, a way of manifesting that you were different from ‘normal’ people. It was almost like being members of a cult.

I even kept an ISB scrapbook for a couple of years, which I hid from most non-believers. How far did you take the fan thing? My parents were seriously concerned when I went to see U twice at the Roundhouse in 1970.

NT: I lived in Newcastle so didn’t get to see U but I saw ISB at the City Hall a couple of times and would listen out for sessions by them on Radio One. But mainly I sat (on the floor probably) at friends’ houses listening to their albums and getting to know their songs intimately and speculate on their relationships. Cloaks and kaftans and communes: it was fascinating.

Chris Dowell and I both played the guitar and we formed a folk group, largely inspired by ISB, called Dust, which like ISB consisted of two boys and two girls. As you have read, the name of the band was inspired by the first word of the first ISB song I ever heard! I had been writing songs at home for a few years and now I had a chance to perform them in a group. We played our first concert in a comprehensive school on Gateshead and then entered a talent competition in Newcastle. We got through to the semi-finals when we were knocked out.

I began to write songs with slightly mystical/whimsical lyrics, again inspired by ISB. Chris Dowell had the ISB songbook which I borrowed and I learned several of their songs, e.g. First Girl I Loved. Our ambition was to write a very long, episodic song, along the lines of A Very Cellular Song but we never quite managed it. Our high point was recording a radio session of five songs for BBC Radio Newcastle which was broadcast at the beginning of 1971.

Sadly I missed seeing them when I would have most liked to, the 5000 Spirits/ Hangman/ Wee Tam era. By the time I realised you had to buy Melody Maker to find out about gigs in time to get tickets for them, it was 1969 and the four-piece line-up had moved on from hard and sharp laughter to singing about great old pigs. This was a shock. But in time I grew to love the newer stuff too, and Rose and Likky seemed to be having such fun on stage. I was always too self-conscious to try to talk to them after gigs, though. How was it for you?

NT: I was fascinated by the looseness of the performances and also the occasional theatricality. The atmosphere was of extraordinary communality and it became clear that we weren’t the only ISB obsessives in Newcastle. The second time we saw them we went backstage and chatted to them which worked because you somehow felt that they were friends. They didn’t behave like ‘stars’.

We loved the Robin/ Mike/ Rose/ Likky line-up but didn’t disapprove when Malcolm Le Maistre joined them, introducing a different voice and increasing their theatricality. However, the drift to a more rock sound seem to bring them down to earth and the magic started to evaporate.

In early 1972, I became aware of David Bowie through the album Hunky Dory, his appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test and sessions on Radio One and through his interviews in the NME. Then in June that year we went to see Bowie at the City Hall which was a life-changing experience. I remember saying to Chris Dowell as we drove away from the concert, ‘Well that’s it for the Increds! It’s all about Bowie now.’

Being an ISB fan did a lot to open up my world view – reading Graves’ The White Goddess because they had, Thomas Traherne, various introductions to Buddhism, Music Of The Bahamas, Shirley and Dolly Collins’ Anthems In Eden (because there was a Williamson song on it!)… But I could never really accept their line about politics being a whole other thing, man (neither could Rose, I later found out!). And later on in the early 70s, Scientology was just plain odd. Did the ISB take you into any new directions?

NT: Only in song-writing. The mysticism appealed to me as a style but not as something to explore intellectually. I was brought up as a Catholic and went to a Catholic school so that was quite enough mythology for me! The last time I saw ISB was at a Scientology benefit gig at the Rainbow in London in 1973 and we got sent Scientology propaganda through the post for a long while after that. Chris Dowell actually went to a couple of classes at the Scientology Centre in London but was very unimpressed. The Scientology thing was a negative for us and it felt like its influence on ISB was negative as though it was gradually destroying the magic. However, there were some beautiful songs in the later ISB albums: ‘Queen Of Love’, ‘Red Hair’, and one of my all-time favourite Robin songs in 1973, ‘Saturday Maybe’.

I can’t claim any great musical influences; I played, badly, but never really wrote songs – but struggling through the first ISB songbook did make me learn more than three guitar chords and even a bit about open tuning. Your ‘folk music band’ Dust was influenced by the ISB – how did that manifest itself? Instrumentation? Girls in the band? Wearing dressing-gowns onstage (in lieu of kaftans), like Andrew Greig and his mate George?

NT: In the instrumentation and the style of the music. Chris Dowell was much more into folk music and I was really a pop fan so it was a bit like the musical differences between Robin Williamson and Mike Heron and finding common ground. After a year or so, Dust broke up and Chris formed a folk band while I started a sort of acoustic rock/ pop group inspired by Marc Bolan, David Bowie, glam rock. I sang with two girl singers and a friend played bongos (like Mickey Finn in T. Rex). And my song-writing was evolving to include piano ballads – I’d taught myself to play the piano we had at home. I moved to London to study history and tried to interest music publishers in my songs.

I’m afraid my PSB knowledge is restricted to the hits, really (and live at Glastonbury!). I currently really like ‘Burning The Heather’. It would be easy to assume there are no ISB influences – but are there any subtle nods to them in any of your PSB work? And was there any kind of transition era from Dust-style stuff to PSB?

NT: No, you’d struggle to find an ISB musical influence in PSB but there is the occasional acoustic ballad. There was a fearlessness in ISB’s approach which we have in PSB – a desire to create our world – and I think ISB helped to educate me in that. And we like to explore a wide range of musical styles within the framework of PSB.

And finally – favourite albums or songs (and why, if you like)?

NT: My favourite is the double-album Wee Tam And The Big Huge because it has the freshness, the magic and the range of song-writing which made them so special. The Incredible String Band were like no other band and this is the perfect statement of their uniqueness.

<a href=",definitive%20book%20about%20the%20ISB. target="out">Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending: An Incredible String Band Compendium is edited by Adrian Whittaker and published by Strange Attractor Press

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today