Flipside interview – 1999
Never mind the bus, cocks.
It was, on the face of it, a simple assignment: seek out the Pet Shop Boys, possibly Britain’s greatest, certainly Britain’s perennially coolest pop band and, using the finest gadgets developed by Q, discover the truth behind the band. No matter how sinister.
Flipside agent 003.5 (half the man of James Bond) is rattling the cage that guards the entrance to the grand and over-intricate Victorian hulk of the St. Pancras hotel, a building that has lain deserted for more than fifteen years…
A guard opens the gate in the wire mesh and gives 003.5 a sinister once-over. The waiting room is huge, a long, curved space; holes all over the once ornate plaster ceiling; convoluted, heavily coloured frescoes peering through the bland coats of whitewash. Fifteen minutes later, their minion, M, appears and bids 003.5 to follow him down a long, echoing corridor to a sweeping Addams Family-friendly staircase in the very bowels of the building. The pace quickens, the two pairs of footsteps echoing around the empty rooms.
A word about these Pet Shop Boys. Here are two guys who had their first No.1 with their debut single, ‘West End Girls’, fourteen years ago, back in an age (80’s where a debut No.1was a really big deal. It also hit the top spot in the States. Following their initial success, they just kept putting out the hits. With an absolute disregard for the rules of pop stardom, they carried on writing and releasing more songs that would effortlessly sit in the upper reaches of the charts while being more wittier, more eloquent and more intelligent that The Late Show’s finest minds.
Flick through the soon-to-be-released Now That’s What I Call Music! Sixteen CD ‘Millennium’ pack and you’ll find a Pet Shop Boys track on pretty much every disc – each song always sounding completely different, each sounding precisely like a Pet Shop Boys track and exactly like nothing else. “We try to make something different,” Neil says later, “but then I sing on it, and it turns into the Pet Shop Boys and that’s that. There’s no getting away from it”.
They’re still at it, of course, as their new single, a quietly anthemic emotional storm by the lugubrious name of ‘I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’ more than amply testifies.
They also have a penchant for inappropriately grand sets and theatrics for their gigs. Hiding a space station in a volcano is nothing for people who have known to hire performance artists to kit out the bastion of poshness, the Savoy Theatre when they played a two week stint there. They have now hired a world renowned Iraqi architect (Zahia Hadid) to design the staging for their forthcoming tour.
They revel in wearing brightly coloured, often very silly uniforms. Pointy hats and primary coloured suits have previously been all the rage in PetShopland. Now, in their new video, Neil and Chris don a very fetching Japanese-samurai-meets-Kajagoogoo in 1960’s Harvey Nic’s look, all in all the sorts of things make The Village People look the model of camouflaged sobriety. Worst of all, they are both well spoken, one with a soft, authoritive, slightly posh English accent, the other boasting a more rumbustious Northern accent and a gleeful cackle. Sure signs, as any Hollywood producer will tell you, of untold, heinos, world-threatening villainy.
At the top of the stairs stands Denton, who has the sort of physique that would have brick out-houses for the use of elephants at London Zoo running in terror. Is he here to let me out or them in?
There’s no time to let the enormity of Denton sink in. M ushers me through a door concealed in a wall of deep burgundy and golden fleur-de-lis. The other side is a corridor. Dogs bark from a room to the left, apparently approaching quickly. It turns out only to be a tape recording. M is already striding purposefully ahead, past the rows of bare, dusty rooms, towards the video image that fills the end of the corridor. Medical needles squirt bright green liquid, thick red liquid flows through even thicker vessels: it could be Campari being poured over ice, it could be blood rushing through the tubes of some trauma equipment. Cruelly comedic eyebrows are being surgically implanted. The rest has to wait: M is leading the way into the Boys’ inner sanctum.
The room is white. In the middle of the floor is a raised dias, also white, with a clear perspex top covering lots of bright lights. Neil ‘Blofeld’ Tennant and Chris ‘Dr-Evil’ Lowe, dressed in identical grey plastic combats and ultra-designed, chocolate-coloured jackets made out of similar, cheap-tent-groundsheet material, are sitting on a pair of chrome and plastic office chairs. 003.5 climbs up onto the platform, taking in the lime green, Barbarella-friendly reclining seats closest to the Boys.
“Aha. You sat in that chair,” Neil Tennant observes. His voice is as smooth, precise and distinctive as it is on his records. “All the others chose the other one.” He nods to the other chair.
“You’re just part of an experiment,” smiles Chris Lowe.
“You.” Chris emits the first burst of his devious, persistent cackle.
What happens afterwards?
“You don’t want to know that.”
Neil interrupts: “No one leaves this building alive. We should tell you: the drains are blocked.”
Meet the Pet Shop Boys. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.
Neil: “The first time my mother heard ‘It’s A Sin’, she burst into tears. Apparently, she took it all seriously – that I apparently had this incredible burden of Catholic guilt since school and all the rest of it. I had to assure her that I’d written the song in ten minutes flat and that it was actually meant to be sort of funny, really.”
Were it not for his pop star attire, Neil Tennant could, in a certain light, almost be your Dad: advancing middle age has softened and rounded – but not disguised – his once stark face, while his hair has now finished greying and has busily started thinning. Ultimately, though, just like his voice, he’s too distinctive to escape the fame game. No such problems for Chris. Here is a man whose photograph has appeared on numerous top-selling records and yet, despite his spiky hair and cheekbone-to-cheekbone grin, could easily walk down the busiest in London wearing a T-shirt marked ‘I Am A Pop Star’ and no one would bat an eyelid. He’d certainly enjoy the irony of the situation.
Today, the pair are especially beneficent, having just completed a week of Japanese interviews.
Chris: “They all ask quite lengthy questions…”
Neil: “…and they’re being translated.”
Chris: “They’re all about meaning. It’s like exam questions at university.”
Neil “And they’re all obsessed by The Chemical Brothers, Underworld and Fatboy Slim.” A mildly dismissive tone has crept into Neil’s voice. “Just like the rest of the world.”
The Pet Shop Boys are promoting their new single, ‘I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Any More’. It is yet another classic Pet Shop Boys moment – sweet, gleaming synth chords that instantly mark out a Pet Shop Boys track from anything else, lap around Neil’s vocals, as they have done on all their other singles, the beautiful melancholic melody, chronically understated, weevling its way into the memory centre of the brain in about ten seconds flat.
“It’s about the end of a relationship, where two people are no longer communicating,” Neil explains. “It’s all over… but it hasn’t happened yet. The title is almost paradoxical, don’t you think?” It certainly is – but this is the Pet Shop Boys: such paradoxes are exactly the sort of thing upon which they thrive. Even Radio One’s Chris Moyles has noted that it doesn’t seem to make sense.
“He’s a smartass though, isn’t he?” counters Chris, before admitting, “Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to him. What time’s he on?” Ah. I’m normally having an afternoon kip at that time, preparing myself for the evening.”
Neil returns to the original question in hand. “Well I thinks it’s quite clear what it means. I don’t know what you want but I can’t give it any more. In other words, no matter what you want from me, our relationship is in such a state that I’m not prepared to give it to you.”
As pop song concepts go, it’s certainly no Vengaboys – and far more complex that the run-of-the-mill chartbound love song. In fact “I Don’t Know…” is one of those increasingly rare things a pop song that deals with the messy, confusing strife and torture of real relationships, a love song that is honest about the tricky realities of love, a song that’s actually about something significant.
“It’s partly from a personal experience and partly because I liked the phrase,” admits Neil. “The phrase did occur to me one day I mean, I just thought it. It was probably on the train to Charing Cross from Ashford. I used to have a house in East Sussex. I don’t drive so I’d get the train. Actually, I quite often write lyrics on trains. There’s something about the rhythms of the train on the track.”
Chris is looking at Neil with a look of mild amusement.
“It’s definitely nothing to do with Ashford, though. There’s always a cloud over Ashford.” Neil pauses for a moment’s reflection. “I wrote ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ on that train as well.”
Unfortunately for Neil, this is a source of inspiration that has already run dry.
“Now I’ve bought a house in the North East of England, I get the Great North Eastern Railway – ‘Intercity 125’, as people used to say. I don’t like those because they’re quieter. It’s something about noisy trains…”
Back to the song.
“I have this little Psion organiser…”
Chris butts in with a mischievous chuckle: “He’s got this little songwriting program.”
Neil likes the idea. “If only I did. That would be great. I would be like David Bowie! He has that cut-up program which comes up with lyrics…”
He’s lost in a moment’s reverie before getting back to the matter in hand.
“The main thing about writing lyrics is to know what you are writing about. Sometimes when you write a song, a phrase comes into your head with a melody, and then you’ve got to make sense of it. That’s quite difficult. You’ve got to work out what the song is about. It can take ages before you know that.”
The song is inspired by my own experiences, my own relationships. It’s not an exact description of one. The last album [1996’s Bilingual] was quite personal for me, but this new one is less so. You can write songs from imagination, or from things you’ve read or from other people’s experiences. It’s not all non-fiction, that’s what I’m saying, whereas Bilingual was.”
Of course, putting any amount of biographical information into a song could lead to potentially embarrassing situations, something Neil is only too aware of. “When it’s too obvious, you can hurt people – and I don’t want to do that. There have been a few people who’ve complained. Actually, and I was very surprised by this, the first time my mother heard ‘It’s A Sin’. She burst into tears.”
Chris bursts into laughter.
Neil continues undeterred. “Apparently, she took it all seriously – that I apparently had this incredible burden of Catholic guilt since school and all the rest of it. I had to assure her that I’d written the song in ten minutes flat and that it was actually meant to be funny, really.”
Chris has almost regained his composure. “Were you there?”
Neil replies. “No I didn’t go, ‘Mum here’s the next single’.”
Chris’ mirth gets the better of him again.
Neil continues, ignoring him. “But you do have to think about things like that. I think it’s weird when you write something about somebody, about relationships, and then they hear it on the radio. The must be so strange. It’s like – do you know Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively Fourth Street’? It starts up with the line, ‘You should stand in my shoes’, and finishes with, ‘And then you’d see what a drag it is to be you’. He wrote that about a girl he was going out with. I always thought, you know, ‘Fucking hell – she’s stuck with this’. She’ll be in her mid-fifties and the radio will play Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively Fourth Street’, ending with that. That will have dominated her entire life. She will be the person ‘Positively Fourth Street’ was written about. When she dies, some paper write that she was the person Bob Dylan wrote those lines about.”
Chris is back: “She really must have upset him.”
‘I Don’t Know What You Want…’ was produced by Chris and Neil with David Morales, the muscle-clad garage DJ don of ‘Needin’ U’ (last year’s monsteroonie, pianos-in-the-air Ibiza anthem) fame, in New York. “We’ve actually worked with three people on the album: David Morales, Rollo [Faithless’ backroom controller] and Craig Armstrong [orchestrator to Massive Attack, Madonna and the stars]. We wanted Craig because we wanted to have an orchestra on a lot of tracks, but we didn’t want to use it in the big, bombastic way that seems to be common nowadays. Rollo, we’ve worked with him before, he’s done a couple of remixes for us and he’s made a lot of records we like… And David Morales simply makes great records.”
Chris: “It was a whole experience, working with David Morales. I was like… I didn’t want to do anything in case he thought it was crap – but he had this idea to do a disco anthem like The Village People, so we just listened to a load of Village People records again, just to get the vibe!”
“It was a whole experience, working with him.” Chris is reminiscing. “It’s not just in the studio – it’s like hanging out with him in New York, walking down the street, with this macho Puerto Rican man, always on his mobile, walking very slowly, taking you under his wing. You become part of his family. You meet in the street, go for a bite to eat, and then you go to the candle shop. He loves candles, buys half a dozen imported candles from France, gives you one, which is nice, and lights them. It’s not how we work at all. Everything was very slow, lots of phone calls, moody lighting, everyone a bit unsure of where they fit in. I was like… I didn’t want to do anything in case he thought it was crap – but he had this idea to do a disco anthem like The Village People, so we just listened to a load of Village People records again, just to get the vibe!”
“That’s probably going to be the next single. With [“I Don’t Know What You Want…”], he added this Giorgio Moroder quality, that Trans Europe Express, Orient Express kind of dark glamour, slightly sinister quality to it, like Kraftwerk had.”
003.5 coolly raises an inquisitive eyebrow.
“I think it’s quite a sinster track. There’s a lot of cruelty in this song. The words, they’re phrased as a kind of crime. Was it cracking the code, or just filling in time? Was that all? So then, why do you go back to the scene of the crime? Did he call? I mean, it’s like being under surveillance. That’s what was intended. There’s lots of surveillance in our society, which is something that fascinates and horrifies me.”
“I want to go round and paint over all of them.” Chris’ previously hidden anarchist streak suddenly comes to the fore.
Neil continues to crack up the paranoia. “Your journey here, for instance, will have been recorded by three, four, five even more video cameras. When Jill Dando died, there she was in her supermarket. They just brought that in, proving it was of no help to anyone. It’s an infringement of our civil liberties and it’s even very helpful. And don’t you think it’s weird to be put on a video which may be kept, possibly forever?”
Luckily, Neil and Chris have got plenty of other grand schemes to distract them from such dark worries, namely a headlining slot at August’s massive Creamfields festival. “They asked us and it sounded like a good event. Our roots are in dance music and it’s on the August Bank Holiday.” It won’t be the Boys’ first festival experience. Two years ago, to pay for Somewhere, their previously mentioned arty residency at London’s Savoy Theatre, Neil and Chris agreed to do the European festival circuit. “I think it’s great,” declares Neil. “The first time you go to a festival and it’s Roskilde, the biggest in Europe – and you’re headlining. It was pouring down with rain. We came on at about quarter past one in the morning and there was this big cheer… mainly because the rain had just stopped.”
Chris is somewhat more enthusiastic. “I went to V98 and the Hare Krishna tent was fantastic. It was so good. Me and me mates were in there for hours. It was the only thing I did. That and a bit of Robbie Williams.”
Ah, yes, the infamous Mr. Williams.
“I worked with him for that track on that Nöel Coward album I put together, and then he asked me to sing on that song of his, ‘No Regrets’. He just phoned me up and said he thought it sounded like the Pet Shop Boys, so would I come and sing on it? I have to admire that approach: “it sounds like them so why not get them to sing on it?”
Chris decides it’s time to fill in some background gossip. “We’ve known Robbie quite a bit – since he was in Take That. We knew them when they were just starting, when they used to play all these little clubs all over the place. We had an act, Cicero [or their now dormant/defunct Spaghetti label], who was on the same circuit, so we’d all be hanging out backstage. Except they never knew who I was until later.”
Neil drags up some more Robbie-related memories. “I remember seeing them in Cambridge. They were all really nervous but they were great. I really enjoyed the show. Then it was just a case of bumping into them, occasionally seeing Robbie in The [notorious Soho media hangout] Groucho Club in the slippery slope years. Yeah, he’s really nice.”
So has he been leading the Boys astray in the field of festivals? Neil looks shocked. “Oh no. It wouldn’t be him leading us astray…”
And so it goes. The Pet Shop Boys’ plans for global pop subversion continue apace. This is, after all, the British band credited with the first ‘rap’ No.1 in America (‘West End Girls’), who are now toying with the idea of repeating the Sound Of Music medley they played a recent gig for the gay charity Stonewall at Creamfields. “I really enjoyed doing that,” Chris sighs. “It’s the best film ever made.”
Meanwhile, Neil, the ghosts of his heroes, Nöel Coward and Oscar Wilde, looming ever closer behind his shoulders, is busy writing a musical of his very own with playwright Jonathon Harvey. “Hopefully it will be finished next year; but it is a slow process and we want to get it right. Maybe, though, it will never happen; we’ll just work at it for years and it will become the great lost musical we’d always promised ourselves.”
The whimsy is clashed as Chris suddenly has a hip hop thought: “Actually, when we were working with David Morales in New York, we were at the recording studios where Tupac got his ball shot off.”
“Did he actually get his ball shot off?” Neil immediately hones on salacious detail.
“Erm, there’s a book about it which I haven’t actually read…”
Neil interrupts Chris’ truth-dodging get-out-clause with another newly remembered, dubious titbit: “It’s will this thing I saw these pictures of famous dead people: Tupac, John F Kennedy… a magazine article about some Internet site. It was horrible. Called something like Celebrity Morgue.”
Chris is hooked. “I’m going to be looking forward to that all day,” he laughs, irony, as per usual, in overdrive.
This is the band, the sinister, grandiose, pompous and all-too-human duo who might yet save pop music. “There’s no pop music being made with any integrity any more,” laments Neil, the former Smash Hits writer in him coming to the fore. “Maybe it’s a generational thing, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just not happening. Are the Sterophonics pop music? Catatonia? I mean, when The Human League were making records, it was a great time because they were changing the sound of pop music – but they were still interested in being popular. Today, ‘Smash Hits’ pop music has probably never been less interesting.”
Chris gets in a well-placed sneer: “They all went to stage school!”
Neil’s diagnosis continues. “It’s like it was before The Beatles. It’s just showbusiness. There always been and element of showbusiness in pop music but now it’s just people doing cheesy cover versions in the same styles as the originals, which I think is really weird. I mean, we do cover versions but they always turn into Pet Shop Boys songs…”
M reappears. 003.5’s time has run out. There’s just enough minutes left for one final question from the files: these days, pop stars can’t get enough of films, and films, especially American films, can’t get enough of English pop stars to play evil villains. So which baddies do the Pet Shop Boys most identify with?
Chris is first to hit the metaphorical buzzer.” The guy from The Spy Who Shagged Me, Dr. Evil. No – Mini-Me, actually!”
Neil, meanwhile, looks perplexed. Luckily, Chris has an answer. “Oh. I’ll tell you who you’d be good at – Dr. Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, played by Charles Gray. He’s posh.”
Neil is intrigued, flattered even, but not convinced.
“No… Now what would I play?” Inspiration hits. “I know. You know Sister Act? I could be the Abbess, as played by Maggie Smith. I could do that!”
And with that, the criminally excellent pop duo of Chris ‘Mini-Me Lowe and, ahem, Abbess Tennant leave the room, free to wreak yet another decade of wry, intelligent, perfect pop subversion on the world: mission, once again, accomplished.
PET SHOP BOYS were interviewed by Robert Heller
© Flipside Magazine 1999