Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant Talks About American Homophobia
For more than a quarter-century, Pet Shop Boys Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have brought wit and edge to electronic dance music without abandoning the pop smarts that made them the biggest duo in British recording history. Now, fresh from a performance at the London Summer Olympics closing ceremony and coming up on the release of their new album, Elysium, out September 10, VF Daily caught up with Tennant, who told us about the pair’s hits and misses, their scandalous peers, and American homophobia. Highlights from our chat:
VF Daily: Now that it’s behind you, what was it like to be part of the Olympics closing ceremony?
Neil Tennant:Very exciting. They asked us to do it about four months ago and showed us the plan. They wanted to have this section about London, a traffic jam that turns into a street party—and they had a little model of us wearing the pointy hats.
I was going to ask about the pointy hats.
They’re from a video for a song called “Can You Forgive Her.” The designer of the closing ceremony thought this was the right image so we went with it. It’s quite interesting. We did something with pointy hats years and years ago, almost 20 years ago, and people still remember that image of us.
You performed your first hit, “West End Girls.” Do you still consider that to be your signature song?
There was no discussion of the song choice. They wanted it because it’s a song inspired by London. It was already worked out going into One Direction and then “Waterloo Sunset” with Ray Davies. It seemed an appropriate song to do. There aren’t that many famous songs about London. It’s not like New York. Obviously we’d rather have done the new single [laughs] like some artists did.
You’re talking about George Michael? He also did “Freedom ’90.”
Would you had rather he done “Careless Whisper”? I, of course, would rather hear the new single.
There’s a great song on Elysium called “Your Early Stuff,” which seems to repeat people’s criticisms about your band.
It’s things London taxi drivers have said. I live in London and I don’t drive, so I get a lot of taxis. Black cabs, as we call them. Every line in the song has been said to me by a taxi driver. “I suppose you’re more or less retired now?”—a taxi driver said that to me. It was a few years ago when Top of the Pops was still on. I said, “No, actually you’re driving me to the BBC to record Top of the Pops.”
The Pet Shop Boys’ popularity is surprising. You’ve always been a part of my record collection, but I was shocked by how many records you’ve sold.
It’s because we’re a pop group. There’s always been this ancient war between pop and rock. Rock is meant to be significant, therefore people write about it in terms of significance. Pop is meant to be throwaway.
You weren’t exactly writing pop lyrics in the 80s. “It’s a Sin” and “Opportunities” seem prophetic now.
A lot of them [were] about what was going on at the time—but we do it through the idiom of pop. People don’t even necessarily have to realize it’s about that. That’s how we operate. The Pet Shop Boys are a kind of cult, really.
You’ve always had such great taste in covers. They’re unpredictable and you totally make them your own, from Elvis to U2 to the Village People.
The new one is a Bee Gees cover: “I Started a Joke.” We did it as a tribute to Robin Gibb. Such a beautiful song. We’ve always liked that one. Normally the cover versions are Chris’s idea. With “Go West,” Chris said, ‘There’s this Village People record—it’s really great for us.” I said, “That’s really horrible. I hate it.” He ignored me and said, “No, you’re going to love it. It’s got the same chord changes as Pachelbel’s Canon.”
You two have navigated 25 years of pop stardom without a single scandal. Stars like George Michael or Madonna, not so much.
George likes a good scandal. Scandal is Madonna’s vocabulary, really. I guess we operate under the radar. Madonna and George Michael at their very base sell sex. When you sell sex, there’s going to be an incredible focus on who you’re having sex with, to put it at its most brutal. A huge focus on your private life.
The Pet Shop Boys have a tremendous gay following. Brandon Flowers of the Killers has said that this might have ultimately damaged the run of hit singles you had in America.
Something happened to us in America. The theory is it was the video for “Domino Dancing.” I never really believed it. America is quite homophobic, but it’s also totally gay. It’s really weird. America is traditionally a country of extremes living side by side.
Taken from: VF Daily
Interviewer: Marc Spitz