A “former new wave snob”, he’s led the Pet Shop Boys from near-collapse to Olympic triumph. So, after three decades of grandiose hit-making, why does Neil Tennant still feels like “the loyal opposition”? As Pet Shop Boys get ready to return to Glastonbury, read our 2013 interview in full.
When MOJO arrives at east London members club Shoreditch House to meet Neil Tennant this late April afternoon, an efficient concierge-type bars the way, crisply stating that he has to personally sign us in. Fortunately, his fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe soon appears to vouch for us. He’s leaving after a joint interview with Tennant, his musical partner of 32 years, in which he said he couldn’t imagine not being in the group.
Seated by a window in the uncrowded, modish top floor bar, the voice and co-songwriter of Pet Shop Boys says he can’t conceive of it either. He’s a well-preserved 59, smartly turned-out in Swedish denim brand Acne (all black) and dazzlingly white plimsolls. An erudite and composed presence, his clear enunciation – not greatly dissimilar to his confiding, English singing voice – is periodically seasoned by the rapid intonations of his native Tyneside.
He’s wary of distractions. When muzak suddenly pipes up, he walks across the bar – where mobile phones are forbidden, except for discreet texting – and politely asks the staff to turn it off. Later, he grows unimpressed when considering online privacy, observing how Google records everything you do (“It’s like being in some paranoid thriller, without the thrilling bit”) and questioning the appeal of too much interacting on the internet. “I think the old cliché that familiarity breeds contempt is 100 per cent true,” he says.
They may have sold in the tens of millions across the planet since West End Girls became their first hit in 1985, but you could never accuse Pet Shop Boys of mere familiarity. Rather, their three-decade voyage in superior, literate pop – see the compilation Pop Art to gauge how well they’ve sustained – has succeeded in being wholly chart-accessible while maintaining a captivating sense of distance. Belonging to that same subversive strain of British music as The Smiths and New Order (PSB have, indeed, worked with Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner on several occasions), they’ve remained as comfortable collaborating with David Bowie and Yoko Ono as with Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue. Experiments in instrumental composition, meanwhile, have extended their reach even further, making them one of the few groups equally at home on Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4.
It’s an ongoing story; their euphoric 12th LP Electric is imminent, boasting a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s Last To Die and, aptly for a lyricist with a history degree and an interest in Russia, the curious but anthemic Love Is A Bourgeois Construct. “When you write pop songs, you make something out of nothing,” he says, smiling. “It’s sort of strange and peaceful. I think I’ve never lost that feeling.”
As a title Love Is A Bourgeois Construct is very Pet Shop Boys…
The lyric was inspired by the novel Nice Work by David Lodge, when a university lecturer in English, as a project, has to shadow a guy who runs an industrial company in Birmingham, and of course ends up falling in love with him. There’s a great, quite famous scene where she says something like, “There’s no such thing as love, it’s a 19th century construct.” And I just got this idea in my head, writing a song with this ridiculously academic title. It’s a sort of tragic comedy – the woman’s partner’s whole life’s collapsed because she’s gone off, and he’s really waiting for her to come back.
On the subject of departures, you’ve recently left your label, too.
Yes, we’ve left Parlophone after 28 years. The contract came to an end, they had an option to take up two more records, they didn’t want to pay the large advances that went with that, and I don’t blame them actually. It sort of went on for a long time and suddenly we thought, “The music business is changing, let’s go with someone [Kobalt Label Services] who’s not used to us, and see where it leads us, at this stage of events.”
There have been many stages before this one. Musically, what was the first?
I was born in 1954, so I’m there right at the beginning, so to speak. In the ’60s, I’m obsessed by pop music. I mean, the first time I remember going to the cinema was to see the The Young Ones, which I loved. The summer of 1963 was my first real pop summer – the summer of She Loves You. Me and my sister were obsessed by The Beatles; I remember sitting at home in pyjamas and dressing gown when we were allowed to stay up and watch them on the Royal Variety Performance, so I’d be nine years old then. It might, astonishingly, have been Bruce Forsyth introducing it – and you could hear the screaming outside the London Palladium, on the television in Newcastle. And I remember this, God, this sick feeling of excitement. We had all The Beatles singles and we used to play them relentlessly on a little Dansette. That tense feeling of excitement, it stayed with me.
Were there influences other than pop?
In 1965 my parents bought a stereogram, and we had the soundtracks of The Sound Of Music and My Fair Lady. I realised only recently, what an astonishing influence this soundtrack had been on me, as someone who writes lyrics. (Sings) “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? This verbal ‘clarse’ distinction by now must be antique!” Well I mean, it’s practically the Pet Shop Boys, isn’t it?
Did you have a rock phase?
The first band I ever saw, at the Newcastle Festival in 1968, was Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum, a jazz/progressive rock band. Then I saw Led Zeppelin at Newcastle City Hall in very early 1970, when A Whole Lotta Love was quite new. And I had a friend who was into The Incredible String Band – he played me Wee Tam… and I remember thinking, “This is truly the most ghastly thing I have ever heard in my entire life.” But then I was sort of indoctrinated into it, and I got to really like them.
Long-haired Neil Tennant is a curious notion.
It was as long as you were allowed to have your hair at St Cuthbert’s, the school I went to, which wasn’t that long – you couldn’t have it touching your collar. I wasn’t very happy at St Cuthbert’s. It wasn’t even just that it was authoritarian, it was the culture of the school. It was very football, which wasn’t my thing at all. So, I taught myself the guitar and the piano, and then there was the cello – I started with that because you could go to the music room at lunchtime. I used to write songs, by myself. I used to really like that – just seeing what you could do with just the harmony, and wondering how it worked. I taught myself a lot, and discovered the accidental magic you create just by putting your fingers on the wrong key. Which, today, still fascinates me.
What completed you, so to speak?
Davie Bowie and then Kraftwerk. It’s funny because everyone goes on about Bowie’s Top Of The Pops appearance [on July 6, 1972], which I remember, but to me, the impact was when he was on the Old Grey Whistle Test [February 8, 1972]. They did Five Years and the cameras were right in his face, and I thought, “This is totally amazing.” I fell in love with the whole idea, immediately. But it was The Beatles that made me (whispers) want to be a pop star.
You’re whispering it…
Even now I find it a bit embarrassing, to say that I wanted to be a pop star. I sort of vaguely wanted to be an actor, until I realised I couldn’t act, as you can see if you’ve ever seen our film [1988’s It Couldn’t Happen Here]. So I concentrated on music. From the age of 12, I wrote songs, by myself. I went through various phases – my Beatles phase, my kind-of ’70s balladeer phase, my trying-to-play-disco-music-on-an-acoustic-guitar phase, my rock phase, my Elvis Costello new wave phase… until I met Chris, in [hi-fi shop] Chelsea Electrical, it was called, in 1981.
Was there immediate musical agreement?
Oh no, we liked totally different things. I was quite shocked that Chris said he liked Body Talk by Imagination. Of course, I secretly liked it, but because I was a new wave snob, I wasn’t going to say I liked it. He was a happy-go-lucky disco fan. But he also liked Bowie, that’s where we met. There were other things we had in common – the emerging electro-pop, the 12-inch mixes that were coming in with dance music and hip hop.
How soon after you met did you start collaborating?
If I looked in my diary it would be within two weeks of meeting him. I’m playing acoustic guitar and he’s playing these bass lines on a monophonic synthesizer. He’s an experienced musician and can play the keyboard very fluently. Remember, at this point I’m 27, 28 years old… bass lines had never even occurred to me. We sort of released something in each other. There was immediately something there. At the beginning of 1983 we wrote Opportunities, I think we wrote Rent, It’s A Sin, West End Girls, Love Comes Quickly, a load of stuff.
When did you discover your singing voice?
When we made the first demo, I had to sing because I was used to making tapes of myself singing. Really when we started to very gradually think we might do something with this, I was always vaguely thinking, “Get someone better in” [to sing]. When we went to New York in August 1983, to record with [producer] Bobby O in a proper studio, in Unique Studios off Times Square, the first thing we did was West End Girls – we had this engineer called Steve Jerome who actually had made Popcorn, the first synth-pop record ever. Anyway, he had this assistant called Tracy and I remember Tracy said, “Oh, your voice is so easy to listen to!” And I thought, “Wow, really?” That’s when I thought, “Oh maybe it’s all right me being the singer.” And once the die was cast with that record, that was that. I realised on that record that I had a distinctive voice. I then realised, not very long after, that double tracking [the vocals] sounded super poppy.
You were also assistant editor at Smash Hits from ’82 to ’85. Did you find pop wanting?
Not at all. I was at Smash Hits, in my opinion, during a golden age of pop music. People forget how experimental mainstream pop music was then, you know. In terms of 7-inch singles and on to dance pop, the beginning of 12-inch remixes, the beginning of hip hop, electronic music – I was obsessed by Planet Rock when it came along, and you had what later became called hi-energy, all of those things that sort of came together in what we did. It was an intensely exciting time. I liked the whole video world that just been embarked on, I also liked the way Smash Hits presented it with wit, and the sort of playfulness of it. Pet Shop Boys were banned from Smash Hits, though. They were only ever mentioned when I went on holiday, when someone would immediately put a reference to them in the Bitz [news] pages. I tried to, um, not have the association.
Smash Hits was renowned for asking pop stars curious questions. Remember any good ones?
My famous question was “Does your mother play golf?” Which I thought was an interesting question because it revealed a lot about your family background. My mother did play golf and got narked by the question because she thought it was a dig at her. Chris Heath always asked, “What colour is Tuesday?” A good question because I’m immediately going to say “Green”. The influence Smash Hits had on me was, I wasn’t afraid of humour. I also got it from My Fair Lady, and before that when I was in HMS Pinafore at school. That you can be serious but you can still be funny. One of my favourite writers, Evelyn Waugh, is like that. It’s funny, but it’s really bitter, quite nasty, actually.
Evelyn Waugh and chart pop is a slightly unusual combination. Did you think you were doing something new?
We thought very much that we had the secret of modern pop, the pop that came after Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which was going to combine hip hop, hi-energy, electro with emotion. And with songs about real life.
Your lyrics were immediately arch.
The idea was that you had dramatic music with sort of prosaic lyrics that expressed an unexpressed emotion. I come from an era when people didn’t talk about sex at home, where a lot of things were unsaid. So you sort of had to read between the lines, to the extent that one could even, oneself, not know what the songs were about. [1987 single] Rent’s funny – I was imagining a woman who was being kept by a politician, but when people would ask, what is the missing word between “I love you” and “you pay my rent?”, I’d say “I don’t know, really”. The title came about because we used to like the idea of provocative titles. That was a punk thing.
The breakthrough is West End Girls, a Number 1 in Britain in November ’85 and in America six months later.
At this little studio we’d go to, we’d just actually jam, and out of that came West End Girls. We’d recorded it with Bobby O in New York, and then what happens is, we sign to EMI, we release Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money), which costs an astonishing amount to make, and is a flop, so we have no option but to remake West End Girls. It’s a very strange and unusual, enigmatic record. I always was obsessed, and still am to some extent, by The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, this collage of different voices that merge into each other – you think, “What’s he on about?” but it’s kind of great. So we do that, and it just flies.
How was that early period of pop fame?
The time in the ’80s, with the Pet Shop Boys’ pop success, has great moments. We were on Soul Train! Don Cornelius interviewed us – he said, “You guys are very funky.” The Soul Train dancers all dancing to West End Girls… we thought it was amazing. We were doing television shows every day of the week – strange Italian pop shows, strange German pop shows, strange Dutch pop shows. But a lot of it is very tense, saying, “No, we don’t want to do that.” There was a lot of not being swayed from what we want to do. A lot of arguments, like, being in Germany and they want to photograph you with a lot of teddy bears for the cover of Pop Rocky magazine. There’s always tons of tension going on about photography. Tons and tons and tons.
Why so much tension? It’s pop, after all.
It’s because we were going to be kind of real. We were very concerned from the beginning about our visual presentation, full stop; we weren’t going to present ourselves as being pop stars of the Duran/Culture Club mode because it’s not what we’re like anyway. Remember, I was older than all of them before we even started. But then we release Love Comes Quickly and it’s Number 19, Opportunities struggles, and it all feels a bit shaky, anyway. You know, I remember thinking we felt like a one hit wonder in the first part of 1986.
Opportunities still gets played whenever anything financial happens.
It’s a simple message, isn’t it? I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money. A very insensitive thing that was meant to be a satire of Thatcherism. Actually, we’d written the Thatcherite anthem. But it’s very difficult to think, now, that there was a period before money culture. That was the changing moment. It wasn’t even an original thing to say because it was at the same time as Loadsamoney, Harry Enfield. It was that period where suddenly one’s sensitive left-wing soul was shocked by everything being about money. Now, of course, generations have grown that haven’t known anything else. The line itself, by the way, came from Chris.
Then, from being one hit wonders, you put out the wildly successful Actually in 1987.
We had three Number 1s, almost in a row, in the space of a year. I remember being astonished, and you know, that was the first point where I felt there was a commercial pressure. It’s become a different Pet Shop Boys, with It’s A Sin, which is super high energy. It’s become grandiose, over the top. And then, almost by accident we do Always On My Mind for a TV show…
To some listeners, that kind of grandiose dance number is your signature. Does that sting, at all?
What stings, to use your word, is people wanting you to only do one thing, because they think there’s only one thing that you do. And that Thing, is the It’s A Sin Thing, which is then Go West. Actually, if you go to the whole catalogue, there’s not many songs like it, really. There are many different styles of Pet Shop Boys but everyone is sort of thinking, “Oh you’re going to do a big dance pop anthem” and that’s not necessarily what we want to do all the time. Although we just sort of have done on the new album.
You commenced the all-dancing, theatrical PSB live experience in 1989, which has become an essential part of the experience.
The whole thing is designed to be an overall experience with the music, the visuals, the lights, that you hope is exciting. And entertaining. And it’s good, you know, when you go on stage and feel larger than life. It feels otherworldly. Famously, on stage, I always tend to wear high-heeled shoes, because I like to feel more powerful, and I wear makeup, but you probably wouldn’t even notice I was. It’s part of the ritual for me – you put your costume on, you’re ready to go on stage, you’ve turned into one of the Pet Shop Boys. Quite an important thing. I like it, it’s a good feeling, ha ha!
Your career’s been largely undisturbed by personal dramas.
Yes. We haven’t had any ‘then tragedy struck’ moments. We’ve just had the reality and the ups and downs of every day life. Sometimes very dramatic things happen to people, like, as you say, Dave Gahan dies for 30 seconds, well, it’s probably been leaked anyway so he’s going to talk about it… we haven’t had moments like that.
Isn’t this relative reticence incongruous in the over-sharing times we live in?
I don’t think anyone’s really inclined to ‘share’. My thing about social networks is that it’s fundamentally insincere. I know from the record company perspective it’s part of the marketing process, and the fans can communicate with you… but it creates a fake intimacy, which in my opinion results in frustration and ultimately makes people angry. And I think that’s why, on Twitter, you see so many, or indeed in the Guardian comments, every-thing turns into a row, and it’s because it’s presented as though they care what you think, but you realise they don’t, and then it turns nasty. It’s a sort of fake democracy. And we prefer to be not fake.
You talked about being gay in an interview with Attitude magazine in 1994. Was it a professional or personal decision to not do so before?
Professional. Well, it was two things. In the late ’80s, I wasn’t in a serious relationship with anyone. When I did the Attitude thing, I had just come out of a serious relationship and had gone into another one. And, in the ’80s I thought that to be an out gay would simply dominate the agenda of the Pet Shop Boys. I think it’s fair to say that after that, maybe it did dominate the agenda of the Pet Shop Boys, to a certain extent, that you’d become “gay pop star Neil Tennant”.
Do you think it affected your career?
Did it? Well… y’know, in 1996 we signed with Atlantic records in America. And our marketing was done by ‘the Gay Marketing Division’. And we were quite surprised by that. I mean, I like the gay audience thing and I like the fact that they have a gay marketing division actually. But I think they think, “That’s it.” And I think they use it to marginalise you. When Dusty Springfield died, I did some interviews at the request of her management and the first person said to me, “Why was she such a gay icon?” and I said, “To call her a gay icon is simply to marginalise her, it’s to say, ‘She’s only of interest to gay people’, and you have this stereotyped idea of what gay people like.”
But that mentality is getting rarer, isn’t it?
Society’s moved on. Being gay, as I always thought it should be, shouldn’t really matter.
I mean if you go back to me talking in the early ’90s, I’m always saying, I don’t believe in the ‘gay community’, I think we should have one community, and we shouldn’t divide ourselves into all these little communities with supposed community leaders. And I think we’re sort of arriving at something a bit more like that, where to be gay is just a fact of life, it’s not a bloody massive big deal. You get someone now like John Grant – I didn’t even know he was gay from the first album, which I loved. I love the second album too, we saw him play in Berlin a few weeks ago. And he is someone who is even gay in the agenda of a songwriter, particularly on his latest stuff, but is it ‘gay music’? Is there such a thing as ‘gay music’? I would argue that there isn’t, and it annoys me because there’s a lot of sort of ghettoising that goes on with it. Because you know, gay people like Oasis as well, believe it or not.
In the last decade you’ve also fitted in various extra-curricular activities. How do they relate to Pet Shop Boys?
We’ve done the Battleship Potemkin soundtrack , we’ve done the ballet [based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Most Incredible Thing, 2011]. We call those ‘Tennant/Lowe’ now. That happened by accident, due to the credit of Battleship Potemkin – we thought, “Oh, Tennant/Lowe do this, because they’re not the Pet Shop Boys.” We like doing instrumental music that does not have the structure of a pop song – it’s very refreshing, and very much a learning experience and it stretches you. The only worry is whether it turns into progressive rock. But maybe that’s not even a problem either. Next year we have the project we’ve written about Alan Turing, The Man From The Future, which is eight scenes from his life, which is an amazing story, with music. It’s quite a beautiful piece, unusual.
Has there been a defining Pet Shops Boys moment in the past 30-odd years that you would take with you?
Glastonbury 2010. It was a perfect moment. We were headlining the Other Stage on Saturday night with Muse on the main stage at exactly the same time, and y’know, I was actually ready for 8,000 people to watch us. Glastonbury told us afterwards that 50,000 people had watched us, which was as many people as Muse, and it was on the telly four times, they kept on repeating it. We’d done this show already a year and a half at this point, and it was just flying, the mad dancers with boxes on their heads, all giving it 110, as we now say. And people aren’t getting bored during the ballads. Actually we’d never set out to try to play a rock festival, but after all the things that we’d been through, that we’d put everything in our lives into this show, the music, the visuals, the design, it was a perfect statement of what we are and how there’s only us like it, maybe. And it totally worked.
You sound surprised that you went down so well. Do you feel appreciated?
It depends. Sometimes I think we are really appreciated, sometimes I think we’re amazingly underrated. I’ve always said there’s a consistency in our records and songwriting – though consistency’s a rather boring thing, isn’t it? But if you play a song from Actually next to a song from Elysium, the song from Elysium_sounds as fresh and up for it as the song from _Actually does, from 25 years ago. And I don’t think we’re appreciated for that as much as we could be, and I think if some other people put out some of the songs that we do, everyone would think it was amazing. But people are used to us – if something comes out by Pet Shop Boys, it’s obviously going to be good quality, with a very strong melody and maybe be funny or ironic or wistful. I don’t know, it’s what we do. People very easily get used to you. But sometimes you think, does no one notice that the track Invisible on our last album is really amazing, and it’s got the most amazing video? Or is it only me that thinks that?
But you’ve been having hits for 29 years now. You’ve sung with Bowie, played West End Girls at the London Olympics, won BRIT awards and an Ivor Novello – don’t you feel part of the nation’s pop fabric?
You know, we’ve never felt, although we’d like to… we try to operate in the mainstream pop culture, but we have never felt, at any given time, of pop culture. In the middle of Britpop, we’re doing a Latin record, Bilingual. We’re not doing what everyone else is doing. And so we always have a tendency to feel oppositional. That’s really inherent in what we do. Doing things in our very own way, in our own culture – like The Incredible String Band did. Feeling like, a lot of the time, the loyal opposition.
This article originally appeared in MOJO 237