Muse magazine interview
An album called “Nightlife” marks the return of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe to the centre of things. Have they changed? Have they hell. Gary Terratzo takes his gerbil by the paw and meets the Pet Shop Boys.
Upstairs in the tattered splendour of London’s St Pancras Railway Station, Neil Tennant is grappling with one of the great questions of the modern age – are boybands any bloody good? The answer is no, of course, but for the refreshingly intellectual Tennant such a pat summation simply won’t do.
“Boybands are so old,” he says. “If you look back at the great eras of pop music, like the Sixties or the early Eighties, a group like The Human League had a following which was very young. Culture Club had a very young following. Culture Club was a cultural idea, four different people, a gay guy, and the music was a real mixture, but nowadays with the boybands there’s not really any musical ambition there, they do covers of Dr Hook songs.”
“There’s a weak R&B element and it’s all ballads,” interjects Neil’s musical partner, Chris Lowe. “That’s the only level it’s aspiring to. Even if it’s for five to eight year olds, when I was five to eight I was into The Beatles. The first film I saw was A Hard Day’s Night.”
“I don’t think entertainment for kids has to be completely anodyne and boring,” continues Neil. “When The Human League were big you had a lot of twelve year olds up the front. Originality is not even an issue with most boybands anymore. The one thing I will say for some boy bands is that they can sing. Boyzone can’t. Westlife can because I’ve seen them do the cliché of the Nineties, the boyband singing a capella on MTV.”
The Pet Shop Boys should know a thing or seven about pop aesthetics. Tennant is an ex-editor of Eighties’ pop bible Smash Hits, while Lowe, a former student of architecture, collects Warhols. Since forming The Pet Shop Boys in 1983, they’ve charted, in song and grand gesture, pretty much every spasm and convulsion of the wonderful world of pop. The duo’s first hit, the still-sparkling “West End Girls”, seemed to supplant grey London into a eurodance paradise, while follow up singles like “Suburbia” and the delicious worldwide smash “It’s A Sin” combined the rush of anthemic electrodance with some of the most elegant lyrics of the past two decades.
In between they’ve even found time to bridge the gap between art and dance, diss U2 with their take on “Where The Streets Have No Name” and knock off a few songs for Patsy Kensit (who can forget Eighth Wonder?) and the late and very great Dusty Springfield. Neil also sang on Robbie Williams’s “No Regrets”. So Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are the ultimate purveyors of perfect pop. Unquestionably.
Their new album “Nightlife” features, among other things, the gayest song ever written, “New York City Boy”, a David Morales-produced homage to The Village People and ode to Studio 54. “It’s not just Studio 54,” says Neil. “We showed different eras of New York in the video which were exciting to us. So you see West Side Story, breakdancing from the Eighties and it ends up in the ultimate nightclub, Studio 54. I don’t think it’s an exact recreation, but we did do something on Bianca Jagger’s friend’s birthday party, where she’s led in by a naked man on a horse. But we don’t have a naked man because TV wouldn’t like it.”
Tennant compares the new album to Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning”. It’s an album of and for the night, drifting in and out of focus as the nocturnal feel creeps around you. People and places become distorted, different and exaggerated. Producers Craig Armstrong, best known for doing strange things with strings for Massive Attack, and Rollo from Faithless have certainly given PSB a claustrophobic feel they didn’t have before. Lowe, on the other hand, likes to describe “Nightlife” as “Rachmaninoff with a hip hop beat underneath it.”
“This new album is not personal. It’s about things I’ve seen in my life since I was a teenager,” says Neil. “Y’know, some girl goes out with a boy and you can see right from the start that this person is going to be bad news. I think we all have friends who have done that. I haven’t personally gone through that. The opening track, “For Your Own Good”, is quite a trancey song. The voice doesn’t matter in that song, it’s the sound. “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” is slightly personal to me, so is “Happiness Is An Option”, but by and large, a lot of it is about the sound and not the words.”
The sound indeed. “Radiophonic” is a straight lift from the Kraftwerk auto manual but it’s “In Denial” that emerges as a real curio on “Nightlife”. That perfect post modern pixie Kylie Minogue duets with Tennant on a track about a gay dad (yup!) coming to terms with his sexuality in front of his daughter. “We wrote that song as a duet and Kylie just seemed to be the only person to ask, the most obvious person to ask,” says Neil. “I thought her voice resounded with my voice and I know that Kylie has this urge to do different things. The song has this really unusual lyric and she really loved that.”
Tennant and Lowe have only toured four times in their sixteen year career, something that is unheard of for most big bands. The main reason is that they have no great love for being on the road plus they tend to lose a lot of money. Thus, their visit to Dublin this December should be something to look forward to. “This tour will have a very futuristic setting,” promises Neil. “On stage we have four guys who sing on “New York City Boy” who sound uncannily like The Village People and the backing singers actually help change the setting, it changes throughout the show. It’s much more futuristic than theatrical.”
When Tennant and Lowe first heard New Order’s “Blue Monday”, they reckoned it was “the future.” They reckoned right. The Pet Shop Boys are second only to Wham and The Everley Brothers as the most successful pop duo ever, but what keeps them going? “We still feel fresh about things,” says Neil. “I always think pop music is meant to be popular. If it’s not popular there’s something wrong.”