From Rock’s Backpages: Neil Tennant & Brett Anderson On Noel Coward

Today from the Rock's Backpages archive, an archive piece from 1997 where Suede's Brett Anderson and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant (with interjections from Vic Reeves) sat down to discuss the legacy of Noel Coward and changing attitudes to sexuality

WHAT A SIMPLY spiffing party. The glint of expensive jewellery, the waft of exotic perfume, the tinkle of erudite conversation "More cocaine, vicar? Help yourself, dear boy. Purely medicinal, of course. No, the orgy won’t be starting for an hour or so yet."

Sipping Earl Grey in the drawing room: Neil Tennant, Pet Shopper, in Issey Miyake scent and Chairman Mao suit. Wolfing down opium in the parlour: Brett Andersen, Suede head, in scraggy Oxfam jumper and slightly crumpled day-after-the-party manner.

Mucking out pigs in the shed: Vic Reeves, country gent, in leather jacket and permanent schoolboy grin. Squire Vic has just driven over from his farmstead in deepest Kent. "I haven’t got a farm, I’ve only got a couple of pigs," Vic protests. "And I’m thinking about shooting them soon anyway, hur hur hur!" Sorry, we must have drifted away for a moment there, This isn’t an Edwardian country house orgy at all, just a North London photo studio playing host to either the most glamorous episode of Shooting Stars ever or the Cruft’s Best Of Breed final from Hell. These are, after all, the three most high-maintenance pedigree dandies in oldie London Town. The Britfop royal family, if you like: the King and Queen of Camp plus the wayward Earl of Absurdity. A huge, fizzing cocktail of saucy innuendo topped by a throbbing globule of volatile ego.

Thankfully, AB FAB trappings are kept to a minimum. Minders and make-up artists and mobile phones remain discreet background details. This is, after all, a Charity gig, Brett and Neil are both about to embark on new albums with their respective band while Vic is currently formulating a new TV show with Bob Mortimer. But all three are here to talk about one thing only: Noel Coward, who isn’t letting the fact that he died in 1973 spoil an absolutely first-rate party.

More specifically, we are talking about the Twentieth Century Blues collection of Coward covers compiled by Neil for the RED HOT AIDS Charitable trust. The record features Brett and Vic alongside several generations of Britpop aristocracy and it’s a corker. No, really. The old guard (Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney, Sting) perform suavely spot-on Coward impressions while the youngsters (Suede, Damon Albarn, the Divine Comedy) play havoc with his acid wit and elastic arrangements. A win-win situation. As Coward himself once presciently noted: "The world has treated me well but then, you see, I haven’t treated it so badly either."

Next year marks the centenary of Coward’s birth. His estate has barred any revivals of his plays until then when a rash of Coward-related events will rise up to greet the new millennium with an acerbic quip or three. Easing the old goat back into fashion with lengthy broadsheet profiles and hefty three-part documentaries, the Coward industry is currently gearing up for a major renaissance. None of which has much to do with Twentieth Century Blues. This is a coincidental side-project born of a good cause, Tennant’s fan worship and the mercurial tastes of his peers. It is emphatically not, according to Neil, a reverential wankfest.

"Unfortunately reverence always kills stuff, like The Velvet Underground when they came over," nods Neil. "That’s what I wanted to avoid with this project: Noel Coward’s stuff is quite often done with an air of nostalgia and people call him ‘The Master’, which I think is complete bollocks. I didn’t want this album to be reverential, I wanted to see if the songs would work nowadays." And reverential the album certainty is not. Check out Neil Hannon’s ‘Born Slippy’-on-steroids mauling of ‘I Went To A Marvellous Party’ or Robbie Williams leaving hobnailed boot-prints all over ‘Bad Times Are Just Around The Corner’. It’s almost as if Neil wanted to force the composer’s sour, sarcastic side to the fore after decades of Coward being caricatured as court jester to the ruling classes.

"In recent years people have started to become more interested in that dark side, and the sexual ambiguity," agrees Neil. "He also brought into British white pop music these American jazz and black influences that definitely weren’t there before."

Unlike previous compilation by the American-based Red Hot organisation – such as the Cole Porter collection on which Twentieth Century Blues is modelled – Neil chose to give this anthology a distinctly Britpop flavour.

"We decided we would concentrated on having British artists because Noel Coward was such an important British figure, and we could make a statement about pop music through the whole thing by bringing together artists who seemed to have some link, albeit vague, with what Noel Coward represents today."

So how are Brett, Vic, Elton John, and Shola Ama, all linked to the smoking-jacketed Godfather of Camp? "We looked at artists who had some sense of theatre, wit, style, humour, even music hall," insists Neil. "Pop music in my view always swings between the kind of ‘authentic’ school, as represented when I was a teenager by progressive rock, as against the theatrical and ironic represented by Roxy Music. This album is therefore on the Roxy Music side if that divide, whereas I think the other side has been dominant in pop music in the last five of six years – with a few notable exception, like Suede or Pulp. The ‘I am baring my soul’ side, obviously represented by the Verve at the moment, has been dominant."

Surely bands like Suede prove that this divide between ‘authentic’ and ‘theatrical’ no longer exists?

"Yeah, Suede are probably a good example of that. I think you can do that, but my point is not many people are. I mean, Roxy Music were a perfectly ‘authentic’ art band, but in the 90s there has been a lot of very unimaginative rock music."

Does Brett recognise this affinity between Suede and Coward that Neil is trying to trace? "I can see the connection, " nods his Lordship. "His stuff was very song-based and lyric-based and I guess a lot of what we did in the early days was like that. But if you’re talking about two polar extremes, I think Suede are closer to the middle."

Vic: "You’re nearer The Eagles, then?"

Brett: "Yeah, something like that."

Does Noel Coward mean anything to you, Brett?

Brett: "A hell of a lot more than he did two months ago."

Vic: "You’d not heard of him before then?"

Brett: "I knew he was in The Italian Job, but that was about it. Initially, to be honest, we did it as a favour to Neil more than anything. I didn’t know a lot about Noel Coward and it was a matter of sorting through a load of pretty strangely recorded, tinkly piano songs and finding something musically that we thought we could turn on its head."

Could you hear the tune on yours?

Vic: "The cassette I got sounded like it was recorded inside a Victoria sponge."

So were you a Coward fan already, Vic?

Vic: "Well, I live in the house of his former publisher: Coward lived just down the road from me in Goldenhurst Farm. So when I moved in I started reading books about him."

Background research?

Vic "Not really I was just searching through for reference to me house."

Vic’s version of ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage , Mrs Worthington’, a spoken trip-hop rumble arranged by David Arnold, is on of the albums peaks. It highlights the original’s seethingly nasty underside without once playing it for laughs.

Vic "It’s sinister. ‘…Mrs Worthington’ is very mean-spirited, slagging off her daughter. There’s a final verse as well where he says she’s a son of a bitch, she’s got fat arse and she can just fuck off, basically. I don’t think he ever recorded the last verse because there’s foul language in it. I recorded it but it got edited out,"

Neil: "Not by me, I hasten to add."

Suede, meanwhile elected to expand Coward’s controversial debut hit, ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’, into an opiated crawl through the city’s ripped backside. Partly inspired by the notorious drug overdose of a 1920s it girl, the song fits Brett like a skinny-rib T-shirt, recalling Suede at their most chilly and nocturnal: ‘Europe Is Our Playground’.

Brett: "It was more to do with the chord sequence than anything. The original is a really uptight, tinkly piano thing, and we felt we could slow it down and make it much darker. The story behind it was another reason, because I’ve written songs with similar themes before. When you’re doing a cover version you almost have to think you’ve written it to give it the right amount of heart. You have to see the song through your own eyes. It’s like when people hear a song on the radio and think it’s about their lives."

The Pet Shop Boys, with characteristic perversity, chose a latter-day Coward number which has, according to a delighted Neil, the unique distinction of being in two flops. Even so the tune has a beautiful, yearning quality which the singer associates with its highly-strung author.

"The song itself I think is really sad. He lived on his nerves, Noel Coward; he had about four nervous breakdowns and he used to have to get away from it all, particularly when he’d had some disastrous love affair which had collapsed – and he had plenty of those."

Are you the 90s Noel Coward, Neil?

"No. First of all I’m not an actor, and he was brilliantly witty, he could just turn it on, which I can’t do at all. I could aspire to write songs as good as his, but my interest in Noel Coward has always been as a fan. I always admire people who create their own words, and that’s something the Pet Shop Boys have always tried to do – I think that’s what all the best artists have tried to do, create an atmosphere where you can say ‘that’s very Noel Coward’ or whoever."

Indeed. And that’s a very Neil Tennant answer.

The popular images of Noel Coward is as a pillar of the English establishment, a writer of lightweight comedies like Private Lives and Hay Fever, and a composer of disposable ditties who spent his life sipping cocktails at glittery dinner parties. In reality, he was born into a poor family in south London suburbia and borrowed much of his revolutionary performance style from American pop and jazz. An avowed pacifist and atheist, his early social dramas about drug addiction, bisexuality and the futility of war were frequently censored by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Most of his plays satirised the empty lives of the upper classes who, in turn, hounded him for his homosexuality. In fact, Coward alarmed the establishment by moving between social classes with slippery ease. In his 20s, he had an affair with the Prince Of Wales’ dissolute brother, George. In his 40s, he aided the French Resistance and was added to Hitler’s death list. In his 60s, he trawled the East End picking up rough trade. In his 70s, he played criminal mastermind Mr Bridger in The Italian Job and received a belated knighthood. As patriotic as the Queen Mother and as traditionally English as the shipping forecast, he nevertheless paved the way for subversive misfits like Peter Cook, Joe Orton and Morrissey. No, this isn’t some spurious smoking-jackets-were-the-old-rock & roll argument. But respect is clearly due to a progressive, iconoclastic all-rounder who both The Sunday Times and The Observer have recently dubbed "the godfather of Britpop". Or this month’s candidate, at least.

"Noel Coward was in many ways a victim of his supposed images," argues Neil, "In that it’s very difficult for people to get beyond that. There is a lot of hostility because people just see an upper-class twat with a cigarette holder, and that isn’t very useful."

Vic: "Would you ever consider using a cigarette holder?"

Brett: "Probably. Not for holding a cigarette, though."

Touché, old fruit. Does Neil agree with the makers of last week’s Arena tribute that Coward was a "1930s punk rocker"?

"That’s not what I would say," Neil frowns, "but he was a punk rocker in that he was a break with what came before. As a songwriter and playwright, he came into the Edwardian tradition of drawing room comedies and songs that came from light operas. Coward went to America when he was very young; he went to Harlem and heard jazz and saw American theatre on Broadway, which was so fast. Then he came back and put that into his work, transforming both music and British theatre."

Coward’s first big stage hit, The Vortex, was about cocaine addiction, promiscuity and adultery. At 25, he suddenly became the most scandalous dramatist in Britain.

"It did create an incredible sensation," says Neil. "It was regarded as completely shocking and there were sermons against him in pulpits. He was a bit like Mick Jagger in 1964 or something. He was regarded as a figure of horror by the middle class and the middle-aged because he was so decadent, singing songs like ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’ about people partying all night long and taking drugs."

Vic: "Like Chubby Brown. Hur hur."

Given his later incarnation as a cravat-wearing raconteur, Coward’s Angry Young Man period looks like contrived exercise in attention grabbing. Far from being the Forerunner of Johnny Rotten, maybe he was actually a prototype Malcolm McLaren?

"There was probably an element of that," concedes Neil, "but in English culture generally when people are shocked I think the people being shocked are generally more contrived than those who are doing the shocking. People like to pretend to be shocked, don’t they?"

Brett: "There’s always going be a gang of people in the world that want be shocked. It’s amazing when you hear about these people throughout history who you think of as being part of the establishment, like Stravinsky’s Rites Of Spring – the first time he played that there were riots outside the concert hall. It just sounds insane!"

Vic (to Brett): "Haven’t you got lovely hair? What shampoo do you use?"

Brett: "Erm, Wash & Go."

Vic: "Is it? Very good condition. Very lustrous. Hur hur!"

To borrow a phrase from Ouentin Crisp, Noel Coward was one of England’s great "stately homos". This as much as anything else confirms his status as a cornerstone of modem British pop which has always traded on homoerotic cool and the illicit aroma of same-sex jiggery-pokery.

Coward never hid this sexuality from friends or family and always seemed perfectly comfortable with it, and yet even as late as 1969 he was imploring author Sheridan Morley to make no mention of it in his official biography. Contrary Old Bugger. If Coward remains at all controversial today, it is his sexuality that has dissenters. Ian Brown, for instance, who unleashed an astonishing torrent of bigotry against Coward in another music paper two weeks ago, claming that homosexuality was root of Nazism. Durr, No Ian, the Nazis murdered homosexuals. Light up another spliff and give Crispian Mills a call.

"That’s interesting because it shows what powerful images Noel Coward has that Ian Brown sees this thing and explodes," shrugs Neil. "I wouldn’t necessarily have thought Ian Brown would even have heard of Noel Coward and yet here he is fulminating against the fact that he was a friend of the Queen Mother’s or something! So it’s quite interesting how, in a very pop way, he exploited the media of the time to put about this image."

Why did he deny his sexuality in public?

Neil: "He didn’t deny it, actually. The fact is that homosexuality was illegal, so to talk about it in the press or wherever would have resulted in police prosecutions. It was obviously very germane to his work, because his sexuality gave him this outsider quality. But he never made any attempt to hide it; in his autobiography there are so many references to men and stuff that you could easily tell. In the ’50s, when there was this huge prosecution against homosexuals by the Home Secretary, Coward wasn’t around much in England. And in the ’40s they got him for some dodgy tax thing, and I think that’s because they couldn’t get him for his sexuality, but it’s also why, from a society point of view, he didn’t get knighted until he was 70 – one year after homosexuality was legalised."

Brett: "Do you see his style as being camp or was that just the style of the ’20s and ’30s?"

Neil: "I think it’s part of the style that became camp – camp was an imitation of that. But Noel Coward would have been horrified to be called camp; he went out of his way not to be thought of as in any way effeminate. He was straight-acting and that was the kind of men he liked as well. So straight-acting, in fact, that they were frequently married, hee hee."

Coward once quipped "It’s not that I’m homosexual constantly, it’s just that I give them a helping hand from time to time." Did he bat for both teams then?

Neil: "I think he was incredibly secure sexuality from a very early age and sexually experienced very early too. He never seemed to have any problems about it. He wasn’t a tortured homosexual, he had no feelings of guilt whatsoever." Perhaps, to coin a phrase, he was a bisexual who never had a heterosexual experience. What do you reckon, Brett?

Brett: "I don’t know enough about him, to be honest." OK, that was just a cheap gag at your expense.

Neil: "Hee hee hee hee hee!"

Brett: "He was a bicycle who never had a puncture."

Neil: "Actually what’s interesting reading about Coward, is how bisexuality was more the norm in those days. People had homosexual affairs and got completely happily married, whereas nowadays, one of my arguments with the whole gay scene is that everything has to be written in stone and being gay has a whole lifestyle and cultural significance attached to it. I rather rebel against all that because I don’t think it’s true."

Is that why you held off giving your own coming out interview until just recently, because you didn’t want your sexuality to be rigidly defined?

Neil: "Yeah. I still don’t, really. Even now I think there’s something naff about be idea of saying, ‘I’m gay.’ Then everyone is like, ‘Oh, he’s gay, he has this lifestyle, he drinks coffee in Old Compton Street’ and all that. It really doesn’t make any difference."

Brett: "It’s just so people can section you off in a little box…"

Neil: "And ‘gay’ has become a very big box – and also nowadays it’s become a whole economy."

Vic: "It’s people who really want to be in a gang, isn’t it?

Neil: "Yeah, and I’ve never liked being in a gang. But in the ’80s, when Jimmy Somerville was slagging us off for basically not being in his gang, there was never any possibility of making any remarks after that. I am not joining Jimmy Somerville’s gang."

What if the choice was between joining Jimmy Somerville’s gang or Ian Brown’s gang?

Neil: "Oh, it’s one of those fuck-or-die questions! Erm, no, I couldn’t be in either."

Vic: "What about Ronald McDonald or the Burger Kings?"

Neil: "l wouldn’t want to be in either of those either. I think McDonald’s should be banned."

Quite right. Frightful places full of beastly people. One simply can’t abide them.

NOEL COWARD LIVED IN A world of celebrity orgies and opium dens. He hung out with Cole Porter, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and some of the wildest party animals of the century. In later years, he even met The Beatles, pronouncing them "bad-mannered little shits" and "utterly devoid of talent". It really was swinging London in his heyday – and swinging New York, Paris and Venice too. And yet he harboured oddly puritanical attitudes towards the chemical excesses of his peers.

"He only smoked a joint once, in New York, and it made him ill," giggles Neil. "The doctor put him to bed and smoked the rest of the joint, saying it would be a shame to waste it! Hee hee hee! But Coward must have been around drug taking scenes particularly in the 20s."

Vic: "Mind you they all did it in those days, didn’t they, with all the laudanum that was knocking around; was it still laudanum?"

Brett: "Opium!"

Neil: "And cocaine. Coke came in apparently, when the Canadian army brought it over in the First World War. That was when it really got a grip on all these night-clubs full of people coked off their faces. And legal, that was the joy of it."

Vic: "What do you do in an Opium Den Anyway? You basically go in a room, get in a bunk bed and go to sleep don’t you?"

Brett: "And shit yourself! Shit yourself and get robbed!"

Vic: "And what goes on at orgies? I have this images of mid- 70s window cleaner types. I can’t imagine what would possibly go on at one."

Surely after you finish a series of Shooting Stars.

Vic: "What? The orgies that we have afterwards? No, we all go silently away on our mules. That seems to happen at every post-performance party, the band disappear and you’re left there feeling stupid…"

Brett: "There’s always two extremes after gigs. You’re either confronted with going out with loads of people and it’s total insanity, or you’re stuck there with the rest of the band and a packet of crisps…"

Vic: "Weeping gently into your TV Times."

Neil: "Hee hee hee hee hee!

At which point, our three pedigree chums are whisked away to have exotic lotions applied to their quivering personages by half-naked slave boys in preparation for-their high-maintenance NME photo session. But it’s been a truly divine party, darlings. The godfather of Britpop seems safe in their manicured hands.

© Stephen Dalton, 1997

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