Animal Instinct: A Pet Shop Boys Interview

As Pet Shop Boys prepare to release a new single and release reissues of Chris Heath's classic books on the band, we delve back into the archive of our friends at The Stool Pigeon for an interview with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe on why PSB are a post-punk group, the homogenisation of British culture, and why you should never trust West London hippies

This interview originally took place for the May 2009 edition of The Stool Pigeon, reproduced by kind permission

Today’s postmodern retro-obsessed culture is packed full of groups getting back together for one last ill-advised hurrah. But as their contemporaries disappeared, only to emerge whitened in tooth, perma-tanned and crammed into shiny suits 20 years later, the Pet Shop Boys remained a thriving, creative constant. As being awarded a lifetime achievement gong at this year’s Brits suggests, they’re both an inspiration to, and forebear of, the current crop of massively hyped pop acts feted for fame right at the moment when the nation makes a welcome step away from landfill indie. Yet it’s hard to see any of this new generation having the same legacy, lasting commercial success or artistic shelf life as that enjoyed by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

In a lesson to musically aspirational journalists anywhere, the Pet Shop Boys’ debut single ‘West End Girls’ came about when Smash Hits writer Tennant met record producer Bobby O on a trip to New York to interview The Police and gave him a tape of demos he’d been writing with Blackpool-born architect Chris Lowe. An impressed Bobby O agreed to produce and release ‘West End Girls’, and although it took a while for the track to become a success, it eventually sold over 1.5 million copies and remains one of the duo’s most popular songs. Many other hits followed: over the 28 years since they formed, the Pet Shop Boys have released 56 singles (of which 39 have gone into the top 30) and 10 studio albums, which have sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide.

Yet the Pet Shop Boys have always been more than a mere singles’ machine with a knack for turning in a terrific cover version, collaboration or remix. They’ve always had a keen eye on aesthetics and performance, and in fact eschewed touring until they had the resources to present themselves in the way they wanted. That may have resulted in some fairly preposterous stage outfits, but they can’t be faulted for trying.

The Pet Shops Boys have worked with Derek Jarman, Barbara Windsor in a feature film called It Couldn’t Happen Here, Liza Minnelli, Rufus Wainwright, the architect Zaha Hadid, David Bowie, Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner’s Electronic, Tina Turner, Dusty Springfield, Sam Taylor-Wood, Elton John, Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue… the list goes on. They also set up a label to release the Crying Game soundtrack and remixed Blur’s ‘Girls & Boys’ into a Europe-smashing club banger. Then there’s their own musical, Closer To Heaven, while one of their most successful and well-realised projects in recent years has been their superlative score to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. They’re now working on a ballet based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, to be performed at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in London.

You wouldn’t have got all that from Wham! or Kajagoogoo, who formed in the same year. In fact, which other English groups have been so ambitious and broadminded, crossing with ease the boundaries between music, art, film, fashion, and theatre? In many ways, the Pet Shop Boys and their body of work can be seen more as a legacy of the post punk era than the eighties pop milieu. What’s obvious is that, since their inception, Tennant and Lowe have continually attempted to explore intellectual ideals born in the radicalism of the late 1970s, and sought to embrace new technology and ideas in art to keep moving forward.

New album Yes sees them hooking up with Barry Higgins of unstoppable pop production house Xenomania. Higgins has taken the Pet Shop Boys’ sound and given it a glossy, high-end sheen that does nothing to detract from the impact of the songs, which are among the finest they’ve written in years. Yet, as we discover when we sit down with the erudite, amusing and avuncular pair in a central London private members’ club, not everyone has been entirely thrilled…

Neil Tennant: Please and Actually got really slagged off. And Behaviour, now regarded as the masterpiece, was terribly slagged off by the NME. They didn’t like it because it wasn’t a dance album. Well yeah, it’s not a dance album.

Chris Lowe: People have an idea of what they want our new albums to sound like, and when we haven’t done that, they think they’ve failed. They try to set the agenda.

With Yes, do you feel that you’ve taken control of the agenda?

NT: Just to give you a negative spin on the new album, there are people who’ve said, ‘Oh, I was expecting it to be like ‘Call The Shots’ by Girls Aloud meets ‘Delusions Of Grandeur’ by the Pet Shop Boys’. They said that about the new single. And I said, ‘Well, we didn’t think that.’ We didn’t think, ‘Oh, what’s our favourite record by Xenomania and what’s our favourite Pet Shop Boys record? Let’s try and cram them together.’ Maybe we should think that!

CL: Somebody told me they thought it would be ‘West End Girls’ with ‘Push The Button’…

NT: …which would be awful.

That would be a terrible record…

NT: But every time you make a record, you always have to face people’s expectations.

What’s it like working in the Xenomania hit factory?

CL: It’s great being part of that whole pop experience, with Girls Aloud hanging around. You’d go into the sitting room and they’d all be there with their laptops. We had lunch with Alicia Dixon…

NT: She’s very nice…

CL: And loads of new bands. There’s a really good atmosphere there.

NT: It was a bit like when Tom Watkins managed us in the 80s. He was always after having a stable of artists, and he did manage Bros at the end of his time with us. So we’d go into the office and there’d be all these Bros fans outside. Bros were the biggest teen sensation in Britain, and that was fun. Their limo would be outside and we’d arrive on foot.

Was working with Xenomania the first time since then that you’ve had that experience?

NT: You don’t get that sort of camaraderie these days.

CL: We’ve always liked being part of that, doing Top Of The Pops and so on. We used to really enjoy taking off on the same plane with all these people…

NT: We once flew back from an Italian pop festival and on the plane was The Smiths, The Style Council with Paul Weller, Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet. Dave Gahan was making jokes about the plane crashing. People used to meet each other all the time, partly because of Top Of The Pops. And because pop music was so international, you’d be on the same German TV show, like Peter’s Pop Show, or the San Remo pop festival.

So Top Of The Pops was like a social club for 80s popstars, then?

NT: Well, you’d all always be on it.

CL: And in those days, the Limelight had opened, do you remember? Everyone was always in the VIP bar. George Michael, Gary Kemp, Patsy Kensit… The last time that happened was with Britpop and the Groucho, and Camden. Also in the early-80s there was the Star Bar at the Camden Palace. Everyone was there.

NT: I was there once and George Michael came up to me and asked, ‘Do you know Jerry Wexler?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he produced Dusty In Memphis, he’s amazing.’ He said, ‘I’ve got this song ‘Careless Whisper’, do you think I should do it with him? I said ‘Of course!’ Anyway, he goes and records it, and he comes back and says, ‘It didn’t work out, so I’ve produced it myself.’ I thought, ‘Oh God.’ But, of course, George’s version is better than Wexler’s version, which he released on a b-side. So anyway, that was the early-80s.

What about later on?

CL: The Hacienda was a big scene. There was one area under the balcony, and everyone was there.

NT: Mani from the Stone Roses, Johnny, Bernard, Bez… It’s true actually – we were there for that. That was luck – we’d been up working with Electronic just as that was getting big.

It’s interesting you’ve been something of a constant in all these different movements.

CL: We’re like Andy Warhol, aren’t we?

NT: [Laughing] We just like music. In the mid-90s, you’d be having a chat with Damon Albarn in the Groucho. It’s always interesting when new people come along…

Then again, on the other hand you recently did a cover mount CD with the Mail On Sunday, who seemed like strange bedfellows for the Pet Shop Boys. I believe you referred to that as a ‘Trojan horse’?

NT: Most of the collaborations we’ve done, we didn’t initiate them. Dusty Springfield we did, Liza Minnelli we didn’t, David Bowie we didn’t, and the Mail On Sunday approached EMI about having a Pet Shop Boys CD. Our initial feeling was negative, because we’re not Mail On Sunday readers. But then we thought about it, and they’ve got an audience of two million people. We said we had to put the album together ourselves. It had to be an overview of our career – it wasn’t going to be just the 7" mixes, and we had to do the artwork. They agreed to everything. On the back of the Brits, which reawakened a certain amount of interest in people who’d lost interest in the Pet Shop Boys, we felt it was a good idea to do this compilation, It’s actually really great; it’s got ‘Home And Dry’ on it, which I think is a very underrated record by us. I was rather pleased with the album.

Have you had good feedback about it from people in the shires who perhaps haven’t encountered you before?

NT: Well, I haven’t been in the Shires since then, but I know that the Mail On Sunday were very pleased with the reaction to it. I think it’s quite good to do something that’s totally against your rules. One of the unusual things about the Pet Shop Boys is that we have an ideology of our own, and then we change it. And people get annoyed with us. ‘That’s against the rules! You’re meant to hate guitars and now you’ve made a guitar album!’ I think we make our own rules and we break them, just to see what happens.

Did you break any rules for Yes?

NT: One of the things people like about Yes is that it seems to have a very Pet Shop Boys quality. And there is a rule broken on it, because there are live drums on one of the tracks.

How about lyrically? Fundamental felt like the most overtly political record you’ve done, dealing with the War on Terror. Some of the tracks on Yes – ‘Beautiful People’ say, or ‘Love Etc.’, seem to be more a critique of celebrity culture.

NT: We’ve always commented. One of the things that could be regarded as rule breaking is that I’ve always criticised people who write directly political songs. I think that there’s only ever been one directly successful political song and that was ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Special AKA, which actually made Nelson Mandela famous and really helped that cause. What I like to do with my lyrics is comment on what’s happening in the world around me, and society. That’s always inspiring to write about. Our society has changed a lot in the last 10 years, you know, and also the War on Terror really accelerated that, with this drive towards surveillance and database creation. On Fundamental, we wanted to write an album that wasn’t just about that, but was partly inspired by it. So the song ‘Integral’, right at the end, which is probably the most directly political song, is sort of ironic, because I sing from the role of the Home Secretary, and it’s not called ‘No To ID’ – it’s putting the case for ID cards.

But we did that on the first album. “I’ve got brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money” [from the song ‘Opportunities’], that’s about Thatcherism. I think pop music works as a commentary to society, and to attitudes, and that’s the Pet Shop Boys. We wrote a song called ‘Shameless’ for the b-side of ‘Go West’, which was about celebrity culture. We thought then had reached its zenith, but it had barely started. That was 16 years ago. I like doing that – I like writing songs with an element of humour about them as well. There’s a whole strand of Pet Shop Boys that’s social/political commentary.

Thinking about ‘Building A Wall’ on the new album? I really like the line ‘There’s nowhere left to defect to’. What shaped that song?

CL: You could go to North Korea…

NT: That’s the only place left! But I don’t know if they’d let you in. I was walking down the street one day and sang it into my telephone. There was also a lot of debate when the Berlin Wall came down. People were saying that they really missed the fact that there weren’t two political systems anymore, but the other political system – communism – wasn’t a political system as such because it was enforced. The moment you took the enforcement away, it collapsed. So it wasn’t really a genuine political system in that respect, which is why it went wrong. The world just isn’t the same. I was thinking about the homogenisation of everything – all our towns have all the same shops and so on. I sometimes find Britain stifling because of that – there’s this mono-culture everywhere.

One of the things that’s great about being in a foreign country is that, because you don’t speak the language, you can’t hear their bullshit. It’s very relaxing. At the same time, we participate in this culture, through Twitter and things like that. That was the inspiration. And then I was looking back at my childhood. Sometimes you have an idea for a song but don’t know what the song’s about. I didn’t write the verse until way on in the album. I just thought about the Cold War, and other walls, like the Roman walls, and I built the lyric. Sometimes I think it’s good to bring together allusions and references and not really have a clear linear meaning. Again, we’ve had songs like that here and there through our career, and they’re the ones I tend to like. I don’t always like obvious meanings. At the same time, it’s very satisfying when you take something and see it through to the bitter end. My favourite poem has always been ‘The Wasteland’ by TS Eliot – all these different voices and allusions. Even a song like ‘West End Girls’ was supposed to be like ‘The Wasteland’ because it’s got different voices in it.

SP: Let’s talk a bit more about this idea of the homogenisation of British culture…

CL: I tell you what, it’s not just the shops. Have you noticed how all towns now have those horrible bricks on the floor? Who decided it was a good idea to have orange bricks on every pedestrianised town centre in the country? That’s one of the reasons they all look the same – it’s not just the shops, it’s the actual, physicality of the streets; those horrible benches, they all look the same. Yellow bricks – cigarettes get caught between them, it’s horrible. What was wrong with a bit of York stone?

NT: There speaks the former architect.

Have you felt this has had an impact on gay culture?

NT: Is there such a thing as gay culture? Perhaps in the 70s, because gay people had been persecuted, and still were being persecuted. After homosexuality was legalised in 1967, there were still more prosecutions for cottaging and all that sort of thing. So the gay scene had a radical element. But you know what? Everything had a radical element in the 1970s, and well into the 1980s. During the miners’ strike, they used to have gay nights collecting money for miners’ wives. There was this amazing combination of the gays and the miners both helping each other. Everything became less radical in the 1990s, when life became retro and sentimental. It’s also a genius of capitalism – it sees a market. It looks at gays, having thrown them in jail at one time, and thinks, ‘Well, let’s sell them things.’ It’s like the cartoon I saw in 1990 in an American newspaper: the German army are invading Russia and one officer says to another, ‘I’ve got a better idea, let’s buy it.’ I don’t know if that era is coming to an end now, but I think people have an idea of gay culture… well, straight people have an idea of gay culture and that idea doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I’ve always fought against the idea that sexuality means a series of inevitable cultural decisions. I don’t think it does. I think, as a society, we will always be, in the back of our heads, a bit homophobic, until we realise that sexuality isn’t really worthy of comment. I do think that behind a lot of gay friendliness there’s a sort of coded homophobia that people don’t even realise.

On TV you do tend to get the safe gay characters, with the message that gay people are unthreatening and acceptable if they behave a certain way.

NT: It’s funny because we’ve become superficially gay-friendly, but a lot of the gay characters in things are John Inman in Are You Being Served?

I’ve been thinking about Pet Shop Boys, and how you’ve kept this strong identity and kept going over the years, and I can’t help but be reminded of what John Peel said about The Fall: ‘Always different; they are always the same.’ Do you think that could be applied to the Pet Shop Boys?

NT: One hundred percent. We’re always trying to do something different, but it’s always going to be a bit the same because it’s the two of us. In The Fall, you’re stuck with Mark E Smith – it’s never going to be that different because you’ve still got him! He’d have to throw himself out of the group for it to be different, and so would we.

What is it about your generation of musicians and the desire to keep things fresh rather than sinking into cosy complacency? Is it a post punk attitude?

NT: It is a post punk thing, you’re absolutely right. I think most people don’t realise this. Punk was great, but it was a bit limiting. When you took a punk ideology and applied it without any fear of market or of fashion… that’s where interesting things happen, and that’s where the Pet Shop Boys come from, and I’m sure where Mark E Smith has come from. In a way, it’s even where Annie Lennox has come from, but it’s not where Take That have come from. That’s why there’s an ideological division between modern pop of that kind, and other pop. The Killers have a relationship to punk music. I have always judged music on its relationship to punk because I think to have music with integrity, you’ve got to think about the meaning of it. I think anyone who thinks about the meaning of their music has a relationship to punk, because punk was essentially about meaning over form, ability and technique. To this day I have a suspicion of music that’s about technique, even though I totally respect it when you get a great musician in. But when you do, to put it crudely, they play too many notes. The thing punk didn’t do is play too many notes – there’s a wonderful economy to it.

It’s interesting because very few people have pointed this out. I thought for the younger generation, where punk is very much just a style… it’s possible to look at Green Day, for instance, because they’ve got the style of punk but there’s nothing remotely punk about them.

What about the difference between the different strands of punk and post punk? I went to a Simon Reynolds talk recently and there was a noticeable ideological divide in the panel, between Tom Morley of Scritti Politti and Viv Albertine from The Slits on one hand, and Colin Newman from Wire on the other. The first two sounded like hippies. It was quite a shock.

NT: What you want to do is ask yourself where they’re from. They’re Notting Hill Gate. You’re talking West London. Now, West London has a pop culture which, as someone from Newcastle, I’ve always regarded with the deepest suspicion. Whereas your man from Wire was from Watford, which is practically the North of England. Coming from Watford is a very different thing from hanging out on Portobello Road at that time. It’s interesting, Lily Allen’s first album, which I didn’t particularly like, is pure West London. Lighting one spliff after another. Lily Allen’s second album, I was saying to EMI, will be big in Scotland, because it’s all electro.

The Clash and the West London punk groups hold sway culturally. They’ve become canonical.

NT: Like I said, I’ve always had this deepest suspicion because I think it gets away with murder, and a lot of it is posing. And also, I was around in the hippy period, and although I was an Incredible String Band fan, I had very ambivalent feelings about hippies, because I thought it was very complacent. Sitting in repulsive squats, smoking joints. I like the fact that punk attacked it, but it was interesting because very quickly a punk and hippy dialectic developed, hence punks with dreadlocks. I think people of our generation – the post punk generation – still have their roots in loving David Bowie when they were teenagers, and being inspired by punk even if they didn’t make punk records. There’s also the thing of saying no, and not always being agreeable.

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