Boy Wonders



I told a middle aged friend I was interviewing the Pet Shop Boys. “Oh, are they still together?” he asked, revealing himself to be the only person in the developed world who didn’t see them rock this year’s BRITs with a dazzling nine-and-a-half-minute set to celebrate their Lifetime Contribution To Music Award. “Um. Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, they are.”

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been doing their own thing now for 25 years. Since the original release of West End Girls in 1984, the duo, who first met in a hi-fi store on the King’s Road, have become a pop behemoth. Along the way, the hits have piled up: Suburbia, It’s a Sin, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Go West, I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing, Domino Dancing, Being Boring, and so it goes on. The tally of their collaborators over the years is nothing short of bloody impressive. Highlights include Dusty Springfield, Derek Jarman, Liza Minnelli, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Sam Taylor-Wood, Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue, Bruce Weber, Martin Parr, Madonna, Matt Lucas and Brandon Flowers.

Today, the Pet Shop Boys are taking tea in a poky suite with overpowering green flowery wallpaper at Home House private members’ club in Marylebone. “Looks like the whole place is on the skids a bit,” grimaces Lowe, pointing out the shredded upholstery on the arm of my chair. Tennant chimes in: “Do you think that’s a design statement, or just carelessness? And have you seen the curtain in the bathroom?” I have: it’s a cheap-looking blind faded to the colour of a prosthetic limb. “Dreadful.”

I change the subject, get the conversation rolling, offer congratulations on their BRITs triumph. “Thank you,” says Tennant. “It took us two months to get the show together, oh it took a lot of work. I watched it on YouTube. It looks great, a bit more magic somehow because it’s blurred. I love the bit when I’m talking and my enormous head’s talking in the shot behind me. And Chris is just there, not saying anything.”

Lowe says nothing, just carries on eating his chocolate bar. He has the benign look of a dog who’s just had his dinner. I begin. “Okay, well, this Favourite Things piece is just a bit of fun,” I say. There is a short pause. “We don’t really do fun, we do ranting,” deadpans Tennant. Lowe chirps up: “Neil’s only done two rants today.” And Tennant bats the ball straight back: “I’ve done being gay and politics…” This, then, is the essence of their double act: one serves, the other returns. “Let the games begin.”


Neil: Train set. Actually it was my cousin’s train set, it was passed down to us. It was on a green board. Potter’s Bar station. Even now when I get the train to my house in Durham and I go through Potter’s Bar I think of it. It didn’t even occur to me it was a real place until I moved to London.

Chris: I had, it was like a Scalextric but it wasn’t. I think it was called Minitrix, but it was made by Hornby and the two were linked together. My brother had a train set so you could have a level crossing and you’d have to stop the car to let the train go past. It was fantastic.

Neil: The train going round the villages and little plastic cows… I would have fantasies about where it was. I still would now. I have a very strong fantasy life, which is probably why I do what I do. I could look at this coffee table and imagine it was a country.


Neil: History. Still my Favourite subject.Myhistoryteacher,FrankKeegan, [goes into hysterics] used to be known as Underpants Frank because he wore big Y-fronts and he tucked his shirt into them. He was actually ahead of his time – underwear above his trousers in the 1960s.

Chris: [A little nonplussed] That is weird. I didn’t have a favourite subject. I was a bit of a swot but school was just a means to an end, so I could get to university to do architecture.


Chris: Well, I spend a lot of time comatose in front of the telly…

Neil: Going through my iTunes finding artwork for tracks I haven’t got artwork for.

Chris: …I’ll spend hours flicking through the hundred-and-odd channels on Sky. Just going round and round and round. I really like doing nothing. Literally nothing.

Neil: What do you mean, literally nothing?

Chris: Watching the television. Flicking.

Neil: Chris has always liked watching television. I was reading this book about John Lennon and I’m thinking, “Who does this remind me of…?” Chris! John Lennon is just at home all the time watching the television and sleeping!


Chris: I’m very happy in a very nice hotel room. Anywhere.

Neil: You’re probably in your bathrobe.

Chris: Luxuriating in the bathroom, with all the products. You switch your phone off. No one knows where you are. You’re lying on fantastic Frette bedding… Maybe you’re in Miami, or something like that.

Neil: And you’re filling out the card for breakfast. [Laughs] I only learnt to drive last year. I passed my test on the first attempt. There’s this big moor close to where I live near Durham, where I love driving. I have my dog in the back of the car. He’s a Lakeland terrier called Kevin. So, Kevin’s looking out of the back and he’s hoping he’s going to get a walk. And I might stop the car and just smell the air, which is really peaty and fresh…


Neil: Breakfast. First thing in the morning the day is full of expectations.

Chris: Lunchtime.


Chris: Spring, because you can sense the season’s change and you think, “Great, we’re back” and you feel “Weh-hey” and you can see all the buds and leaves growing.

Neil: Mine’s ruled by hay fever. I had a hay fever injection this morning. I’m allergic to trees. The beginning of summer; although it’s all a bit sad because you think it’s going to end. And at the end of autumn, I love walking home at half-past-four and everyone’s got their lights on and they haven’t shut their curtains yet. It’s cold but you’re going to have a nice cup of tea when you get in.


Chris: Dog. I love dogs. I just find their faces so funny, they crack me up. They always look so happy when you’re all in the room together, it’s like “Ah, we’re all here.”

Neil: Mine’s a dog as well. But I like guinea fowl.

Chris: Because you can eat them?

Neil: I had a load in my garden. The only thing is they make a bit of a mess, they shit everywhere, and they make a lot of noise. They’re not that favourite actually. But they look so funny because they have tiny little heads and these great big bodies. And they walk right round the garden, round the perimeter, and it takes them all day. They look like dowager duchesses.


Chris: Well, the other day I bought a load of tulips.

Neil: Tulips! That’s mine. That’s my answer.

Chris: They’re such gorgeous colours. They are like a pink.

Neil: I will buy, like, just white ones, and I like them crammed in one vase. I like arts and crafts furniture and the tulip is often a symbol in them because it’s a very beautiful shape.


Neil: I don’t have a favourite colour. But I always buy everything black.

Chris: I think the colour I would go for most would be blue.

Neil: Blue for a boy.

Chris: Although I do like wearing outrageous colours as well. Like cerise.


Neil: I think I am one of those people that likes the smell of wet grass in the morning.

Chris: I used to love – I still like – the smell of the London Underground.

Neil: When I first came to London I used to get the Northern Line to Kentish Town and recently I got the Northern Line and I thought, “God, It smells exactly the same.” It smells different from the Circle Line. And the Victoria Line still has a slightly new smell; when I first came to London it had just opened.


Neil: I had a house in Rye in Sussex for ten years and in some ways I regret selling it. I sometimes think about it, and mentally walk around it. My bedroom had a bay window and you could see the harbour.

Chris: I liked this bungalow that we all lived in when we were kids in Blackpool, and there was a big field opposite and a rose garden, and a bit round the back where we could play on this big tree.


Neil: I sleep on my right side.

Chris: I toss and turn a lot.


Neil: Smash Hits. I was the Assistant Editor at Smash Hits in a great period of pop music, 82-85.

Chris: I went from being a student to this. But I always had summer jobs in Blackpool, and I think the most fun one was being a ride operator on the Pleasure Beach. It was a bit – what was that film?

Neil: That’ll Be The Day [1973 cult hit in which David Essex and Ringo Starr pick up girls on the dodgem cars].

Chris: It was all a bit like that [belly laugh].


Chris: I can’t keep saying The Sound of Music. What else?

Neil: John Waters?

Chris: What are you going to say?

Neil: I always say The Servant. Although actually it tails off, the last half hour is not very good.

Chris: Actually, the last half hour of The Sound of Music’s not brilliant.

Neil: There’s a very strong argument for The Sound of Music finishing at the wedding.


Neil: I very much like Marlene Dietrich. I like that icy glamour. The thing about Marlene Dietrich is that she’s not really that good-looking. Truly glamorous people are not normally beautiful. Jackie Kennedy is not beautiful – she’s funny-looking.

Chris: I’d probably say James Dean.

Neil: [Aghast] Do you like his films?

Chris: That wasn’t the question. Didn’t say the films had to be any good.


Chris: I could run you through my viewing: I get up at nine o’clock to watch the papers being reviewed on The Wright Stuff, then I switch to This Morning. Then there is the joy of Loose Women. Then it’s Countdown, then maybe Neighbours and Home and Away.

Neil: It’s a whole day’s work.

Chris: I don’t like the cooking programmes, got no interest in them.

Neil: I’m afraid I simply don’t watch the television. I live in Chelsea in a late-Georgian house and my television is in the basement.

Chris: I’ve got a television in every room. [Laughs] I never want to be far from a telly.


Neil: Well. It used to be the notorious Neil Tennant grim stir-fry, which is brown rice, broccoli and soy sauce. That’s it. Surprisingly tasty. It’s all about the soy sauce. However, I now cook roast chicken. But to be perfectly honest, in London, when you live near Jenny Lo’s Tea House, there’s no reason to cook for yourself. The only reason I don’t have it every day is that it’s the same guy who delivers it and I get embarrassed. I always give him a massive tip. It always costs £15 and I give him £20.

Chris: None of my dishes are favourite, or anything I like that much. They’re just functional, eating things. So maybe Penne Arrabbiata. I always cook the same things. I often get pre-prepared chicken pies from Marks & Spencer – they only take 30 minutes. I should really go the whole hog and get a microwave: dinner in six minutes.

Neil: You love your chicken pies.

Chris: Chicken pies. Chicken kievs. [Laughs] They do good breaded chicken. What I like is everything is ready to put in the pan, all washed and everything.


Neil: Red wine. I only drink red wine and champagne. Very occasionally I drink beer in Germany because it’s very good. And if I was in Russia I might have a vodka.

Chris: I like all of them. Depending on the time of day. Sometimes there’s nothing better than an ice-cold beer, is there?


Chris: Steve Coogan. I was really honoured – I went to see him recently at the Hammersmith Apollo and he made a very cruel joke involving the Pet Shop Boys and I was thrilled.

Neil: Who’s Mr G, what’s his real name?

Chris: Oh. Chris Lilley.

Neil: Chris Lilley. Summer Heights High. My favourite character is –

Chris: Ja’mie.

Neil: Ja’mie! [They both laugh]


Neil: Dusty, I think. I can’t believe it’s ten years since she died. And she’s onwards” as well. now a genuine legend. Pet Shop Boys appear live on June 18 at Manchester Apollo and June 19 at London’s

Chris: Yeah. Dusty. I’d agree with that. 02 Arena.


Chris: [Camping it up] Oh I never have anything to wear! I wear these Y3 trainers all the time because they are incredibly comfortable. If I like something I tend to wear it to death, until it has to be thrown out.

Neil: I have a pair of boots that I like. Which are not these. I actually don’t like these very much. [Sticks out his foot over the coffee table and inspects it] I’m wearing these Yamamoto Dr Martens and I think they’re too clumpy. I made a decision at lunch not to wear them again.

Chris: [Teasing] It’s good that they were really cheap then, isn’t it?

Neil: These were 230 quid.

Chris: [To me] Can you imagine? For a pair of Doc Martens!

Neil: I’m going to take them to Durham and use them for walking in… Um. I’ve got a pair of Patrick Cox – when Patrick Cox was still Patrick Cox – boots that I wear all the time. But I’ve stopped wearing them recently because they have become part of my official outfit. I wore them at the BRITs, with that Gareth Pugh coat. I was wearing the Patrick Cox boots with the trousers tucked in and the stylist said it looked great so suddenly they went, “Hello, I’m now part of the Pet Shop Boys’ wardrobe, hands off me!”


Chris: Oh, that’s too big.

Neil: I can’t think of any songs at all now, of course.

Chris: Ain’t No Stopping Us Now by McFadden & Whitehead. That is my default position.

Neil: My default song is I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore by Dusty Springfield.

Chris: [Jokes] Well, don’t listen to it then.


[Long silence]

Neil: It changes. I don’t think about it very much. We are writing this ballet. There’s a piece of music, the duet, but I can’t remember what we’ve called it. It’s Scene Six.

Chris: Last night I was going through iTunes and I listened to The Survivors by us, which I thought was really good.


Neil: They’ve all got something going for them… actually my least favourite is envy.

Chris: Envy, lust are bad ones, because going through life being lustfu is just obscenity. Sloth’s pretty good. [Laughs]

Neil: You’re definitely more slothful, I’m more gluttony meets – what’s drunkenness called?


Neil: You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken shit.

Chris: [Laughs] It’s Tom, our old producer [Tom Watkins was the Pet Shop Boys’ manager from 1985 to 89].

Neil: It’s completely stupid, it sums him up. We still say it though.

Chris: We just tend to repeat people that we know’s catchphrases. We had another manager and she used to say, “Well, you’ve had a good go.”

[Laughs] Old Mitch [Mitch Clark , 1998-2003]. She was “Upwards and onwards as well’