The Pet Shop Boys’ Commandments
After two decades at the top, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are your perfect guides to the stars and the stalkers – and the business of pop. Interview by Miranda Sawyer.
Sunday October 19, 2003
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, as The Pet Shop Boys, are the most successful pop duo of all time: a statement which, in a stat-swamped world, means nothing, except that they’ve achieved their globe-smacking triumphs through consistently making ace records. ‘We’d have made more,’ says Chris, ‘but I kept forgetting to write songs down.’
The Pet Shop Boys are bringing out a double CD of their 33 Top 20 singles, called PopArt. The hits are split into Pop and Art, ‘which was easy’, says Neil. ‘The songs on Pop are classic, euphoric, and Art is more bitter and twisted.’ After almost 20 years in music (‘West End Girls’ was first released in 1984), Neil and Chris say, that if they started now, ‘we’d be different. We’d be Basement Jaxx’. Settle down at the back. Here followeth The Pet Shop Boys’ Ten Commandments of Pop.
1: Thou shalt find thy niche
Neil: In the beginning, you develop a patch of what you do: with us, it was funny songs with social comment, romantic love songs from a slightly different perspective or songs you can dance to. And that’s three quite big areas. We were doing that 20 years ago. I don’t believe in progression. I think you perhaps become more sophisticated, get more adept, but I don’t think you really, ultimately progress.
Chris: But artists can spend years until they progress to something that’s worth having. What about Cézanne? There was definitely a progression until he got it right.
Neil: No, he just turned into Cézanne late, he didn’t find his Cézanne patch until then. Recently, I had to find our demos for a Radio 2 documentary, and I found the one for ‘Let’s Make Lots Of Money’. I was thinking, ‘This is awful, doesn’t really sound like us’, and then, suddenly, something’s added, and you think, ‘Aha! The Pet Shop Boys are in the building’, and you’ve written your first hit.
2: Thou shalt write a hit
Chris: Ah, but what is a hit? We were at Number One in America once, and our A&R man said, ‘Yes, but is it a hit?’
Neil: He was right, because you do know a hit. This year we’ve had quite a few. Tatu, that was a proper four-weeks-at-Number-One type hit. Elton. Beyoncé. The Eminem one from 8 Mile , ‘Lose Yourself’. Fantastic record. We often sit down and say, ‘Today, it’s hit day!’ But our minds go blank…
Chris: … so we get in the car, drive to the local Woolworths and buy Now That’s What I Call Music 94 , and go through it, saying, ‘Ooh, don’t like that. Or that. Crap. Rubbish. God, I hate pop music!’ And then, we’re back to square one.
Neil: But it’s great going to Woolworths.
Chris: Woolworths in Consett, it doesn’t get more exciting than that.
Neil: We’ve never lost touch with the street, I’ll say that for us.
3: Thou must be prepared to be misunderstood
Neil: Some people think that with pop, everything you write is autobiographical.
Chris: Well, Robbie Williams’s entire back catalogue is about him.
Neil: With us, though, maybe because my voice sounds like it has a distance from the material, people think the opposite. They think everything we do is ironic.
Chris: That’s because you’re incapable of feeling such emotion.
Neil: But we’ve only ever written about three ironic songs, and it gets embarrassing, people thinking it’s ironic, when it’s not. There are people in America, who say to us, ‘I get you guys. I really get you guys. You know, they don’t get you, but I do.’ And you think, ‘What is there to get?’ They think they’ve got the joke.
Chris: But there wasn’t one.
4: Thou must be a bit crap for a while
Neil: We haven’t sold our shares in electroclash just yet. We really like it. It’s like what people used to call ‘sleaze’ in the early Eighties.
Chris: Electroclash is good because it’s stayed underground.
Neil: If I was to give the electroclash scene some advice, I’d say: carry on with what you’re doing. Although, someone should think about the songwriting a bit more. And also, just don’t sample attitudes from the past: being all cold and electronic, that never really goes that far.
Chris: The clubs are good fun, though. Having a laugh, really having a good time.
Neil: You know, there’ll be a man walking in wearing vegetables and you think ‘Great! This is what it’s meant to be about!’ And it’s not very professional. Everything is so bloody professional nowadays. You know, boy bands can sing. Whoever thought that would happen? It’s cheating! Absolutely cheating!
Chris: And they do harmonies! They’re not allowed to do that.
5: Thou shalt make sure they know who thou art
Chris: Shameless self-publicity works, of course: living your life as a soap opera. We never have been or will be about that. But today, you have to go to all these red carpet parties and be nice to the paparazzi, when they say, ‘You’re only here because of me. So therefore, you’re mine and this is my house you’re living in and I’ve every right to be on your doorstep.’ I just don’t follow that argument at all.
Neil: If you don’t want to do that, then you have to capture people’s imagination. Create something they’ll like and will want to go on being involved with. And you can do that purely through music, or you can do it with music and being sexy. Really, that’s the two important things: music and being sexy. Good looks have to be involved, I think.
Chris: Thank God for that. We’d be nowhere without our looks.
Neil: When you take the sex out of the equation – like with us – it’s much harder work. Though, when we started, Chris was always in Just Seventeen. Selling sex …
Chris: I did it for a laugh. I was even in My Guy once: I was the Cover Guy. My proudest moment. But you know, even the Beatles lived their lives as a soap opera.
Neil: Ultimately, The Beatles were a boy band.
6: Thou shalt be stupid
Chris: Stupidity combined with arrogance and a huge ego will get you a long way.
Neil: Well, if it’s combined with knowing what you like. Because then you’re an unstoppable force. It’s easier when you’re stupid, because you don’t doubt as much. Also, when you’re not doing things intellectually, you’re doing them instinctively, which is much better. In many ways, you don’t need an intellect for pop music.
Chris: We never let go. Ever. Even with punctuation. It’s frightening. I can’t see anyone from any record company ever writing an email to Neil and not getting it back, with corrections.
7: Thou shalt become a brand
Neil: Though the contemporary idea of brand didn’t really exist when we started, the idea of a group where the name and the songs were more important than the individuals has always existed. The Bee Gees were like that, and Abba. We’re a brand now, so fans always have advice for us. Actually, it’s exactly how I am about David Bowie. I met him backstage, and, being a fan type, I said, ‘Why haven’t you released ‘Hello Spaceboy’ as a single? It’s the only single on the album.’ Which is exactly what people do to us. They get annoyed, because these two stupid old gits – us – are ruining the Pet Shop Boys project.
8: Thou shalt understand the VIP area
Neil: The whole culture of posh places – art galleries, posh restaurants that intimidate you – when you get a bit of fame, you suddenly see through it and you’re not bothered. It’s like in Ab Fab, when they’re in the art gallery, and they go, ‘Oh, it’s just a shop.’ Exactly! It’s a shop selling paintings.
Chris: There are people that have that confidence, who march into VIP areas. I assume I won’t get in. I don’t say, ‘Do you know who I am?’, but sometimes I’m with someone who says it for you. Then, I pretend to be all, ‘Oh, please don’t shame me!’.
Neil: It happens in clothes shops as well. I went in one and they were looking at us as if we were thieves! And then, suddenly, it was, ‘Would you like glass of water, a coffee, some champagne maybe?’ They just realised. It’s like a ripple, you can see it. The whole thing, the scales fall from their eyes and they suddenly go from super-snooty, to super-grovelling. Which is almost as irritating.
9: Thou shalt go mad
Chris: I don’t think you ever know in yourself whether you have gone mad. You exist in a bubble. There comes a point where you suddenly feel not really a part of the world, you’re just passing through.
Neil: But that’s being prosperous, rather than being mad. I don’t think we ever went mad. Maybe on tour: the tour in ’91, we had some tense moments there.
Chris: Mostly over suites. If one of us got a better suite than the other one.
Neil: But that’s not madness, it’s not ‘My drink and drugs hell’. We’ve never had a moment like that. We just get on with it.
Chris: We believe in the stiff upper lip. We’re not touchy-feely-cuddly.
Neil: Actually, I went to therapy, once. I was claustrophobic. She told me it would take three years, twice a week, and do you know, the claustrophobia just fell away instantly. I think we haven’t gone mad because we’ve always been able to walk the streets, we’re not uniquely recognisable, like, say, Jarvis. The madness happens when you feel very exposed. Even Madonna is always about, on her bike, with her security guard clearing the way. I think the worst thing is to have fame and no money. When you’re at the bus-stop and people know you’ve been up there and now you’re not.
10: Thou shalt get a stalker
Neil: It’s weird, but I still get women pursuing me. There were the stalkers that came to marry me: one from Germany, one from Poland. And I had this one English girl, outside my house with her mum. I told her to go away and her mum was so rude: ‘Yes, I heard you didn’t really like girls’ – when she was practically selling me her daughter! And then there was the girl who tied a balloon to my house, every day, five days a week, for six months. Big helium balloons on my railings.
Chris: The really funny part was that the balloon would reach up to his bedroom window, so when he opened the curtains in the morning, that was what he’d see.
Neil: I’d get up, go downstairs, undo the balloon and let it float into the sky. And one day she attached a letter saying, ‘I’m coming for tea tomorrow at 4’o’clock’, so I spoke to the guy who looks after my house. She rang the bell, said ‘I’m here to see Neil’, and he said, ‘Yes, he’s got something for you’, and threw a bucket of water over her. She ran off down the street. It was a horrible thing to do, but I knew that once she was shocked out of it, she would stop, and she did. The weirdest thing though was when, on the escalator on Fulham Broadway station, someone had written my name and address on stickers and stuck them all the way down. Printed labels.
Chris: It would have been funny if you’d gone down there and personally scraped them all off.
Neil: They go through your rubbish, too. One girl came up to me and said to me, ‘My friend’s got all your old razor blades stuck on her bedroom wall’. Or, ‘She’s got all your Christmas cards, you know you threw them out last Tuesday’, and, at that point, I got a shredder in. An essential privacy technique. In fact, that’s my only commandment. When you get famous, you do need a shredder.