7 Magazine interview 1999
“7” Magazine – July 21st 1999
Buy this mag or they’ll set the dogs on you!
Since their inception the Pet Shop Boys have been intertwined with dance music. They worked with legendary New York producer Bobby O, their choice of remixer has been remarkably prescient (they’ve got Felix Da Housekatt to twiddle their new single) and they’re headlining this year’s Creamfields. Which is all cool. But the real reason we love them is because they’re uniquely British pop stars who wrap themselves up in daft arty concepts and make beautifully affecting songs. Tony Marcus enters their strange and funny world.
The Pet Shop Boys have taken over a floor of the disused St. Pancras hotel in Kings Cross to promote their new single. Although it’s difficult to establish the connection between the disco tinged (and David Morales co-produced) ‘I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’ and this near-derelict Victorian architectural landmark. Also confusing are the recordings of barking dogs playing in its empty hallways, giant video-screen showing the boys’ new promo and room full of illuminated perspex cubes where Neil and Chris agree to meet the press. “It’s art,” sighs Tennant, when I ask for an explanation, “you’re part of an installation.” “We’re secretly filming you with infra-red cameras.” adds Lowe.
The Pet Shop Boys like to play double-act. I should have suspected as much. Their new video is very Vic and Bob – it shows them getting dressed and made-up into their new ‘look’: a fusion of Samurai and mental patient. And their career, bona fide popstars since 1986’s ‘West End Girls’ (and 28 million worldwide LP sales so far), contains enough artful moves to warn that I might be about to meet a multi-platinum Gilbert and George. There is much that is interesting about them – their choice of collaborators (Dusty Springfield, Bruce Weber, Liza Minnelli, David Bowie, Derek Jarman), or their politics (they dressed as miners for a Brit Award performance and played for the campaign to equalize the age of homosexual consent). Or even their music: electronic, dance-infected, mainstream and global, yet also adult, sly and often (as some critics have noted) dealing with what it is to be gay, male and alone in the modern city.
“You know,” ponders Neil as I set up my MiniDisc, “when you’re doing a week of press the most interesting thing is the variety of recording Walkmans you get to see.” “You’ve got powder on your nose,” hisses Chris. “At this time of day,” gasps Neil (it’s 11am); “must be talcum.”
They’re a funny couple. Dressed in metal-look Versace (“It’s our uniform for the week,” says Neil, “part of the installation”) it’s hard to really know anything about them in the 22 minutes we spend together, but Neil seems more arid and a touch imperial – Chris more helpful and conciliatory. Anyway, first question. The new single is about infidelity and the end of a relationship: is this an autobiographical lyric – another sad story in a pantheon of songs about contact ads, casual sex, dancefloors, breaking hearts, guild and tears? “It’s inspired by real events,” says Neil, “but I’m not in a constant state of heartbreak or loss. But maybe those states are more interesting to write about. And happiness is legendarily difficult to write about.”
I once interviewed Tom Watkins, the boys’ first manager – and later manager of East 17 amongst others. Watkins told me that gay men are uniquely positioned to make pop because they have much in common with teenage girls (pop’s biggest consumers) – both gay men and teenage girls, he insisted, share a passion for cock and live in a constant state of romantic angst and tearful break-up. “I don’t think I’m in a teenage state,” protest Neil (Neil Francis Tennant, born July 10th, 1954; Christopher Sean Lowe, born October 4th, 1959). “I think you can be a heterosexual man and still behave like a teenager – look at all the laddish 45-year olds running around shagging supermodel type things – I don’t think it’s a uniquely gay phenomenon.”
It might seem unfair to harp on the gay aspect of the boys (only Neil has officially ‘come out’) when, as Neil warns me, he hopes his songs are universally applicable. But there’s much about them that’s queer – their feeling for hi-NRG, love for show tunes, samples from Jean Cocteau movies and trilogy of (allegedly) HIV songs (‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’, ‘Your Funny Uncle’ and ‘Being Boring’). Especially the hi-NRG – working with producer Bobby O at the beginning of their career, the Pet Shop Boys could almost have been a gay-dance-act. Isn’t it the case, I suggest, that what passes for mainstream entertainment now – fast electronic music, bare flesh and designer drugs – was pre-figured or invented by the gay NRG scene of the 80s? “That was mass entertainment in the 80s when I worked in New York with Bobby,” recalls Neil. “Places like Paradise Garage were huge. And I used to go to Heaven on a Saturday night in 1982 and it was heaving.” “But Neil, it wasn’t mass across the country,” corrects Chris. “It was the house explosion that made the difference.”
“There was a time,” remembers Neil, “when hi-NRG seemed like a gay underground movement – when I was at Smash Hits I used to sit near the record player we had for checking the lyrics on records. And I used to get these Bobby O records and gay records and play them all day long and at incredibly loud volumes in the office – before that they used to sit there in silence. And I realized it was a kind of pop thing as well because the records had great vocals, big melodies and it was good to dance to as well.” Chris then points out that hi-NRG then became the sound of mainstream pop thanks to producers/writers like the Stock, Aitken and Waterman team. “Which is where we came in,” says Neil. “You seem to find that the underground dance sound at the beginning of an era is normally the mass pop sound by the end of that era. So you have disco in the 70s, the gay hi-NRG of the 80s and by the end of the 90s it’s the music that came out of heavy sampling – I wouldn’t know what to call it really but it’s led to Fatboy Slim and what could have been regarded as rave music going into the charts at Number One.”
And while much has been made of the Pet Shop Boys’ relation to dance – their song ‘It’s alright’ was a cover (plus additional Tennant lyrics) of the Sterling Void early Chicago house record – they seem to like the dance music that bears most relation to gay NRG and pop. They might work with artists like Derek Jarman or Sam Taylor-Wood but when it comes to music (remixes by Motiv 8 or the covers of Culture Beat’s ‘Mr. Vain’ and Corona’s ‘Rhythm Of The Night’ that formed part of their live shows) they seem to avoid the likes of Aphex or Derrick May. “We like what we like,” says Chris. “We like Derrick May just as much as we like ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ by Snap.”
“I hate snobbery in music,” says Neil. “In the 1970s snobbery dictated that you had to like progressive rock but all everyone now remembers from that period is Slade and disco music. I think there’s an unbearable amount of snobbery around music nowadays and I wonder what people will really remember in ten years time. It’s more likely to be records from the pop end of things that endure.” Although Felix Da Housekatt is their latest remixer of choice – cutting two mixes for the current single. “He’s fantastic,” enthuses Chris. “He manages to do the 80s sound but update it to now. I don’t know how he does it because whenever I tried it still sounds 80s”.
A minion appears to tell us that the next journalist is ready. Two more minutes. Quick then. Do Neil and Chris still go to clubs?
“I was out last night,” says Chris. “Were you?” asks Neil. “Where did you go? I don’t get out much myself.” “You should go to Bedrock,” suggest Chris. “I don’t want to stay up after 3am,” complains Neil. “I know that’s an incredibly unfashionable point of view. I like to be up by ten every morning. Like when we were in New York we went to see Danny [Tenaglia] play and I was asking what time does he come on? Like seven in the morning – I’d rather he came on at nine at night.” “You could always go to bed before he came on and get up extra early,” offers Chris. “It’s down to the influence of drugs and ecstasy,” sighs Neil. “When I used to go out in the mid 80s the clubs used to close at three. I had to be up for work. Don’t people work now? I don’t know how they do it because the clubs are always full.” One minute left. So why do the Pet Shop Boys think people are drawn to nightclubs? “I think you can get into a lifestyle where you can’t see an alternative to it,” decides Neil. “I think it becomes a way of life where you get into a biological rhythm of staying up all night and sleeping all day. And of course there’s a basic human need to meet other people and socialize.” “And there’s casual sex,” offers Chris. Thirty seconds. And drugs. What about drugs? “You can’t talk about drugs anymore,” snaps Neil. Ten seconds. What about pop music then. What’s pop music? Neil sighs. “Pop music is music that is easy to listen to but contains hidden depths that stirs your emotions.” Times up.
‘I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’ is out now on Parlophone. Pet Shop Boys headline Creamfields at the old Liverpool Airport in Speke on August 28th. Their new album, “Nightlife”, was released in October 1999.