Pet Shop Boys: Our Back Catalogue Is 25 Years Of Social Commentary

Julian Marszalek meets pop renaissance man Neil Tennant to talk Potemkin, production and pop

In much the same way that baby boomers can’t think of a time when The Rolling Stones weren’t a part of their lives, there now exists a generation that hasn’t been without the joys of avant pop duo, Pet Shop Boys. Yet unlike the musical heroes of times gone by, Pet Shop Boys remain as vibrant as ever. Indeed, as evidenced by Yes, the tenth studio album from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, Pet Shop Boys have lost none of their talent for producing the sleekly elegant pop that’s made their name. Co–produced by Xenomania, the pop production unit behind the pop monster that is Girls Aloud, Yes is characterised not only by the sound of the here and now but also by the fact that almost every track on the album could be single. This is a group with an understanding of pop so innate that it hurts.

But there’s more to them than that. In the 25 years since they first released the original Bobby Orlando-helmed version of ‘West End Girls’, Pet Shop Boys have observed and critiqued the changing face of a country that’s finally seen Margaret Thatcher’s demon seeds come into full bloom. A combination of all embracing pop and social commentary is rare enough but factor in over 50 million album sales world wide and the release of 55 hit singles and it doesn’t take a genius to release that Pet Shop Boys really are something of a national treasure.

With Yes ready to take it’s place as Pet Shop Boys’ finest effort since Actually, The Quietus hooked up with Neil Tennant to find what keeps them going for so long, winning The Outstanding Contribution To Music Brit Award and what the meaning of pop is in the 21st century.

Yes is the 10th Pet Shop Boys album – and that’s not counting the various remix albums and soundtracks – in 23 years. What keeps you motivated to produce music after so long?

Neil Tennant: "I think we just like making music and writing songs. We are actually quite driven in a funny kind of way; you know, it’s what our life centres on and it’s what we like doing."

But you do give the impression of not being driven. There’s an almost casual ease about what you do.

NT: "Not really, as any of our various managers from any point in our career would tell you. We’re not necessarily financially driven – not that we don’t like making money, but that’s not really what drives us. There’s a creative ambition to do things with pop music that drives us. I know that we do it in a style that makes it look easier than it is; we don’t hype ourselves that much really. And I think it’s the collaboration between the two of us, which is very enjoyable, and we’re always thinking of things."

Speaking of which, how did you come to work with Brian Higgins and Xenomania and to what degree was it a collaboration?

NT: "Oh, it was very much a collaboration. We almost approached him for our last album, Fundamental but we heard that New Order were working with him – and we know New Order and there’s always been a friendly rivalry with them – so we thought, ‘Oh well, we can’t work with him now.’ But actually, New Order did just one track with him. But with this album, we approached Xenomania because we wrote quite a few songs that just sounded sort of poppy and we thought we’d ask him and make the best out of them.

"So we went and met Brian Higgins in Kent and we really liked him; he was a real character. He’s totally committed to pop music and making hit records – more so than anyone else that we met. And the set up [at the studio] was great and all the people who work there, and he has this house with all these different rooms with all these different people making music. You’d have Girls Aloud tripping through and Alesha Dixon tripping through and all sorts of new acts that they’ve got signed to their label. Bob Stanley from Saint Etienne was in the kitchen."

Was it inspiring to be surrounded by such company?

NT: "Yeah, it is! Very inspiring. And because we’re a duo we welcome people to come and play on our records. Xenomania were doing a record with Franz Ferdinand at one point and I think Franz Ferdinand realized that they were a rock band and not a pop band. And when you’re in a rock band, the guitarist plays the guitars and the bassist plays the bass and all that sort of thing, but with us we arrive there with very, very completed demos and we’re quite happy for them to play with them and to do what they want with them, really."

Sometimes with producers it’s a question getting the band in, they do their bit and off they go and the producer is left alone to weave his own brand of chemistry. Was that the process with you or did you work together where ideas are being traded in the same room as you all attempt to reach the same goal?

NT: "Yes. Ideas are traded and sometimes there are heated debates – not very often, actually – but it’s like that with just the two of us."

One of the characteristics of Yes is the collaborations throughout. Johnny Marr’s there with his very distinctive guitar sound and Owen Pallett who provided the strings for The Last Shadow Puppets’ The Age Of The Understatement. His contribution to ‘Beautiful People’ is wonderfully evocative as it conjures up a lot of 60s imagery.

NT: "It is. When we wrote the song it didn’t actually sound all that 60s, it sounded folky rather than 60s. We originally wrote it for this TV series called Beautiful People that Robin Harvey was writing and he said, “Oh, the producers want something quite uptempo” and not what we’d written. But we kept it and Brian Higgins loved it.

"But the guys from Xenomania put a 60s beat on it and that made it much more powerful than it was – very catchy. And I loved The Last Shadow Puppets’ album; I thought it was really great and I’d read something about Final Fantasy – and that was Owen Pallett’s own musical project – and we thought we’d ask him to do the orchestra. And so he did two tracks; he did ‘Legacy’ as well. But the strings and the cellos he uses on ‘Beautiful People’ are very percussive and he uses them in a very pop way."

‘Beautiful People’ works in quite a deceptive way. There’s a joyous feeling about the music but there’s a melancholy thread that runs through it and that same feeling runs through current single, ‘Love Etc’. You seem to be casting quite a withering eye over the cult of celebrity.

NT: "Well, actually, ‘Love Etc’ and ‘Beautiful People’ are the same theme from different points of view, really. [In] ‘Beautiful People’ I’m imagining a woman at a bus stop in London, and she’s by a news stand and she’s looking at Hello and Heat magazines, and she’s contrasting that with waiting for a bus in the rain in London. It was written as a TV theme so it’s very straightforward. ‘Love Etc’, again, is about the celebrity wealth thing. Whereas the other song sees the woman almost wishing she has this, ‘Love Etc’ is saying you don’t need it; it’s not what makes people happy. You know, people who have the big houses in Beverley Hills: are they really happy? We have become so obsessed with money and look where it’s got us, so it’s a coincidental theme for the credit crunch era."

Yes, it’s almost like a logical conclusion to the ‘Opportunities’ that you were singing about around 20 years ago.

NT: "Yes, that’s very true but ‘Opportunities’ was written at the beginning of the initial Thatcherite boom and the start of deregulation. Politics and everyday life have always been a massive inspiration for the lyrics of the Pet Shop Boys; they always have been. You could probably go through all of our songs and you’d find the social history of the last 25 years. ‘Opportunities’ commented on Thatcherism and ‘Shopping’ was about the privatisation of the national industries while our previous album, Fundamental, was sort of about the political climate and the angst created by [George W.] Bush."

Does it ever annoy you that perhaps that aspect of Pet Shop Boys gets overlooked?

NT: "Sometimes, but it’s people who don’t know anything about us will just write off the Pet Shop Boys as being sort of camp. I think that’s just rude and partly homophobic and I find that insulting more than anything. And what do people mean by ‘camp’? We do theatrical theatre, we believe in visualising our songs but I don’t think that necessarily means camp, but these people think ‘camp’ means gay or something and some of these songs have gay imagery but most of it doesn’t. I write songs from all sorts of points of view. We were talking about ‘Beautiful People’ and that’s about an English woman waiting for a bus.

"That’s what happens – that’s the shorthand version of you in the media that I find irritating. But when you talk to people who like the Pet Shop Boys like fans or whatever and those people understand a lot more about what we’re about. That’s why we still have an audience."

And that’s some audience. When you were receiving your Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution a figure of 50 million album sales was quoted.

NT: "Yeah!"

Did you feel that the award was timely or overdue?

NT: "You know, I wouldn’t really think either way about it. I thought it was nice that they gave it to us. If we hadn’t got it, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. We have been up for it before. You know, your record label puts you up for it and this year it only occurred to me because they actually phoned up and said, ‘Would you mind if we put you up for it and if you get it will you turn up?’ And in our hearts, we’re sort of punk rockers in a way and we always, always do things our way. We have a kind of awkwardness about what we do and we had to wait to find out if we’d won the award – because it’s not a given that we will – whereas with some artists it would be. And it just suddenly occurred to me that it was 25 years since ‘West End Girls’ was released in June 1984.

"I think there’s a lot of respect for the Pet Shop Boys in the music industry because it’s a funny thing, the music industry. We all slag it off but at the end of the day it sort of respects talent and integrity over X-Factor."

Did you ever feel overlooked? You mentioned New Order earlier and it seems to me that New Order got all the plaudits in the music press but somehow you seemed to be overlooked.

NT: "Oh, do you know, I really don’t know? Pet Shop Boys have, consistently over the years, got amazing press. Not just in this country but also all over the world so no, I don’t feel that. Pet Shop Boys and New Order are very different groups really. We got to know each other because New Order loved our first album and in fact then worked with our first producer, Stephen Hague, who produced ‘True Faith’ and ‘World In Motion’ and the Republic album, and he ended up doing more records with New Order than he did with Pet Shop Boys! But they’re a rock band with a drummer and bass solos and it’s a very different thing from the Pet Shop Boys. There are certain similarities: we discovered that Bernard Sumner and Chris [Lowe] and I had very similar record collections. Bernard likes pop music and dance music; he’s not a musical snob in any way like a lot of rock writers are!"

You’ve reached your half-century, as indeed have artists like Nick Cave, Siouxsie Sioux and Paul Weller, and these artists, like yourselves, are still producing exciting and relevant music whereas previous generations who’d hit 50 hadn’t. They’d stopped doing that and jumped onto the heritage trail and churned out bad copies of themselves whereas Yes sounds vital. To what do you attribute this?

NT: "You know why? Because we’re all punk rockers, really! In a way, we’re all awkward. You just mentioned Paul Weller and we have little in common with Paul Weller but we’re all fucking awkward! And we all do things our own way.

"I’ve been struck, flicking through the music papers, how often we see something described as ‘Pet Shop Boys-like keyboards’ or ‘Pet Shop Boys-like irony’ etc etc and I think it’s because we’ve created something of our own and we all still have our integrity. Paul Weller is still a mod and I think that those are the artists that survive. If you look at Bob Dylan, he goes through highs and lows and does very strange things occasionally but he’s still good at being Bob Dylan and he’s totally true to what he wants to do. If he wants to record ‘Froggy Went-A Courting’ then that’s what he’ll do. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks. I mean, with Pet Shop Boys, we do that in the realm of commercial pop."

I’ve been living with Yes for the last two weeks or so and it comes across almost like a Greatest Hits package. Almost every track could be a single. When you wrote these songs, did you write them with the concept of a 7” pop single in mind?

NT: "We had absolutely no concept in mind. With the last album, we had an idea about writing an album about how paranoid society is and the whole War on Terror thing and a lot of fake attitudes, but with this album there was no plan. We just sat down and thought, right – pop songs.

"And it was sequenced at the beginning so you’ve got like a Greatest Hits package because it’s got warm, energetic pop songs but all in slightly different styles, so we wanted it to have a rush of energy. The last album, Fundamental, starts with a really weird track, ‘Psychological’, whereas this one comes in with a very light, interesting poppy song and then it just goes through different pop styles, but all with a lot of energy.

"After 25 years, we’ve still got that kind of energy in our music and we haven’t exhausted ourselves touring. I mean, some of the artists who went through the 70s and 80s and they toured non-stop, and you get that thing when somebody says, ‘Oh we wrote this album at a sound check’ and that to me is the sound of alarm bells ringing! You know, you’re having your guitar tech going, ‘Oh that’s really great man!’ but it probably isn’t that great at all."

Let’s have a look at your extra-curricular activities. You scored The Battleship Potemkin and you’re about to score a ballet. How do these projects arise?

NT: "We are very reactive; people phone us up, you know? For The Battleship Potemkin we were asked by the Institute of Contemporary Arts because it was playing in Trafalgar Square, which was pedestrianized, and they were told they could have Trafalgar Square for the night. That was a lot of work, but we don’t get any money for that show but we’ve done it nine times now. We like the creative ambition and we’ve done The Battleship Potemkin in a shipyard in Newcastle which was amazing; we’ve done it Dresden in east Germany where it was projected onto a huge building of what we’d call council flats and it’s been a really exciting project.

"The ballet came about because we knew the ballet dancer and he asked us to write a ballet for him and this is at Sadler’s Wells. And what was supposed to be a one-act ballet is now a two-hour thing for 30 dancers."

So how does the scoring process differ from writing an album?

NT: "Well, firstly, we’re not writing songs and they brought in a playwright who’s kind of writing the script who tells us what’s happening in each scene and what the motivation is and so you write it. Actually, it’s not dissimilar to writing for silent films like The Battleship Potemkin because you’re writing to a very strict brief of what’s happening."

What are your hopes for Yes?

NT: "I don’t know. It’s out tenth album but it doesn’t sound like someone’s tenth album."

Yeah, it sounds remarkably fresh.

NT: "Well, Xenomania helped us to get that freshness as well. I think we’ll just see, you know? But I think it’s getting a good reception. I don’t think it’ll sell 60 million copies but it would be nice if it did! I think Pet Shop Boys feel right for the time; the pop pendulum has swung back to electropop away from guitar rock, which has been with us for the last few years so I think that the climate is quite good for us. And ‘Love Etc’ is getting played on the radio both here and in Europe and in Japan so we’ll just see how it lands really."

Do you agonise over these things in the way that say, U2, do? They’ve just released their 12th album and they seem to agonise over every detail. They’ve had seven people mixing the new album, which kind of strikes me as panic stations. Do you agonise in the same way?

NT: "Their album is produced by Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite! I can’t even work out how that all works! And then there’s the four of them! I think with us, musically, it still has a freshness and energy about it and maybe it comes to us easier, in that sense.

"We once did a day with Brian Eno – and we know that he really likes us – and one of the great things about Brian Eno is that he comes up with these strategies to help people create songs. Well, we turned up for our sessions with 12 finished songs. So what we wanted to do with Brian was take the Pet Shop Boys sound and go past it, maybe.

"With U2, you get the impression that it’s quite a laborious process and probably starting with jamming and the songs then pretty much unfold before you make the record. Maybe that’s why it takes such a lot of personnel. But if you take a look at the credits on our album there’s a lot of people playing in it; you know, different musicians like Johnny Marr, who you mentioned earlier, but I think it’s a creative process and a bit less complicated.

"But the thing with U2 is that they want to be the biggest group in the world and I applaud that but we’ve never really [wanted that]. And it’s not because we’re not ambitious because we are; we’ve had a lot of number one singles and probably more than U2 – but that [desire] is a rock thing, isn’t it? One of my great criticisms of rock shows has always been that they always tell you that they’ve got more; they’ve got more vary lights but yeah, what do you do with them? That’s the rock way to think. We think about how we want to present it, not how many lights you’ve got. That’s the main difference."

You’re an avowed pop fan and you’ve seen music change and mutate over the years. What does pop mean in the digital age or does it have any meaning at all?

NT: "Oh, I think it has as much meaning as it ever has. Pop, really, is a way of putting into music contemporary social attitudes. That sounds like sociology, right? But it is, really; it takes the street and it puts it into music and puts it back onto the street and that’s a circular process and that’s why pop stays alive. It’s a process between the street, the radio and maybe the club and they all feed off each other. So it’s actually real life as music."

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