A little bit of politics

Their new album may tackle Bush and Blair, but Pet Shop Boys are still more pop than agitprop, says Dan Cairns

Reunited with the producer Trevor Horn for the first time since 1988’s magisterial Left to My Own Devices, Pet Shop Boys encountered an unexpected problem. The man responsible for overblown epics such as Relax and Poison Arrow wasn’t giving them the Horn they were looking for. So they didn’t have to rein him in? “Au contraire,” answers Neil Tennant. “We were trying to rein him out.”

In the end, as Tennant and Chris Lowe’s new album, Fundamental, proves, they got what they wanted, but it wasn’t without a struggle. “We kept saying to him, ‘We’re making a Trevor Horn album here,’” recalls Tennant. “The reason we started working with him again was because of that tATu single, which was proper Trevor. We thought, ‘Oh, he’s doing pop again’: first of all, a pop record; second, a pop record with two Russian lesbians. I said to him, ‘You know, you should only work with homosexuals.’”

The great man’s sonic imprint is all over new songs such as Casanova in Hell, Minimal and The Sodom and Gomorrah Show. On the first, the cellos detumesce down the scale seconds after Tennant has sung: “He couldn’t get an erection.” “Actually, we nearly cut those out,” says Tennant, “because we thought they might be too arch.” “What’s wrong with arch?” asks Lowe. On Minimal, Horn ignores the tenor of the song by pelting it with pizzicato strings that are straight out of ABC’s The Lexicon of Love. And on S&G — a giant journey from innocence to depravity to regret — well, Tennant admits he cheated. “We were trying to do a real Trevor there,” he says, “and I thought, ‘You’d have backing vocals here, wouldn’t you?’ So I put them on — and it sounds like Dollar.”

Tennant in the mood he’s in today is unstoppable. Flitting from one subject to another in the space of seconds, he’ll marvel at the 24-hour nature and vapidity of contemporary celebrity-mag discourse, then veer off down memory lane about Dollar. “I interviewed them for Smash Hits (which, famously, he once edited). I went and bought make-up at Boots with Thereza Bazar.” He’s off. “David Van Day is a surviving kind of guy. I know he’s got the chip van, but he also tours with a version of Buck’s Fizz.”

“He was never in Buck’s Fizz,” Lowe protests. “But there’s a kind of weird logic that the guy from Dollar is in Buck’s Fizz,” reasons Tennant. Do you ever do pub quizzes, Neil? “I’ve never been in a pub in my life,” he splutters. “Although someone said to me, ‘You know, everyone who knows you agrees that if they were on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, you’d be the friend they’d phone.’”

They’re not always like this. Lowe, cruelly inaccurate though the stereotype of him as monosyllabic and scowling beneath his baseball cap is, can play to it when he wants. And Tennant in picky, guarded mode can be a scary prospect. If the joke’s on you, beware; on him, and you can relax. Asked to settle, once and for all, whether it’s Pet Shop Boys or The Pet Shop Boys, he pokes fun at his penchant for pedantry. “It’s Pet Shop Boys. We confuse the issue by calling ourselves the Pet Shop Boys.” He pauses before pouncing. “With a lower-case ‘t’.”

Yet critical reaction to them can also be contrary, and sometimes wilfully ignorant. Quite apart from releasing some of the greatest pop singles of the past 20 years, PSB have also made at least three classic albums, with Fundamental now making it four. Detractors dwell on their apparent archness or snag on the perceived contradiction between their innate melancholia and giddy, hi-NRG hedonism. This misses, surely, PSB’s uniqueness, which is that they locate the sadness that always resides somewhere in silliness, and vice versa.

Tennant’s droll vocal style has also attracted criticism. “Some people think my voice sounds disengaged,” the singer acknowledges. “But I think that gives the songs emotional punch. When people take a song and drag it by the scruff of the neck, they don’t necessarily get emotion out of it.” On the great new track I Made My Excuses and Left (a very PSB title), the subject of the song walks into a party to discover his lover with someone else. Tennant’s delivery of the line “I walked into the room/Imagine my surprise”, manages, by being conversational and resigned, to set the tragic scene with visceral power. He once, famously, told the American songwriter Diane Warren: “We don’t do passion.” By which he meant? “That I’m not Mariah Carey.” And you imagine Carey lathering that same line with demented coloratura and know immediately what Tennant means. Warren has contributed a song — Numb — to Fundamental, though she was keen for PSB to cover another of her compositions. The title proved a problem. “She couldn’t get why the Pet Shop Boys wouldn’t sing Kisses on the Wind,” Tennant laughs. “Imagine getting the label to say: ‘The great new Pet Shop Boys single — Kisses on the Wind’.”

Fundamental’s political content is coming under scrutiny. Their current single, I’m with Stupid, addresses the relationship between Bush and Blair, and the track Indefinite Leave to Remain uses a phrase from current political terminology and fashions from it a song that is about ID cards and asylum-seekers, and is also a love story. Very PSB, again. But they’re wary of being labelled too narrowly.

“We’ve just been doing these European interviews,” sighs Tennant, “and they’ve all been saying, ‘So, this is your most political album, I think?’ But we did actually write a little manifesto at the beginning of the album. We wanted the songs to be about fear and…” He turns to Lowe. “What was the other one on the list?” “I’ve forgotten,” he replies. “You can’t expect me to remember things.” “Authoritarianism,” says Tennant.

They’re uneasy, too, with their defenders’ habit of evangelising on their behalf by intellectualising what is, after all, pop music, albeit some of the most thrilling ever made. “What we’re always seeking in pop,” says Tennant, “is those moments of ecstasy. It’s not the singing performance necessarily. Hearing True Faith by New Order can be a really ecstatic experience, but he isn’t singing it like that. It’s a non- intellectual thing that you can, yes, then intellectualise about, but it’s not done from that perspective. If you’re thinking ‘This is so intelligent’, actually, it’s sort of failed.”

He can — well, in fact, he does — go on like this for hours, tying himself in knots, highbrow and lowbrow, sacred and profane fighting for airspace in his busy brain.

Periodically, Lowe rouses himself from the sofa. We’ve returned to “arch” again, arguing about whether it’s an adjective or an adverb. “We used to parse at school,” Lowe says suddenly. “You’d go through every word in a sentence and say what it was.” “That’s the most animated he’s been in the interview,” shrieks Tennant.

It’s 20 years since West End Girls was first a hit: the beginning of a career that has encompassed working with Dusty Springfield, scoring Battleship Potemkin and performing it in Trafalgar Square, having a Christmas No1 with Always on My Mind, writing a musical and coming up with Being Boring, arguably the sweetest and saddest dance single of all time. Those of us who proclaim their genius from the rooftops should probably chill a little. It’s as if, after all this time, Pet Shop Boys — with or without the definite article — are realising what they’ve accomplished. Releasing a new album that’s up there with their best joins a long list of achievements. “I’m sick of lists,” says Tennant. What, all of them?

Taken from: Sunday Times
Interviewer: Sunday Times