It’s the ultimate Big Brother nightmare now

On the eve of the Pet Shop Boys’ Dublin concert,
Neil Tennant talks about Tony Blair, journalism and dying to Donal Lynch

In an empty restaurant at the back of London’s famous Groucho Club, Neil Tennant cuts a rather lonely figure. Three days ago, his close friend and security man-cum-assistant, Dainton ‘the Bear’ Connell, was killed in a car crash in Moscow. Chris, the other half of the Pet Shop Boys, is still in Russia handling the arrangements for the body to be flown back.

‘Dainton was in high spirits and the group in the car had been drinking. It was raining heavily and they lost control of the car and it went through some quite substantial railings into a river. So I believe it was actually death by drowning,’ Neil says while staring forlornly down at his Bloody Mary.

‘It’s just a terrible waste.’ People have been good; messages of support have come in from all over the world.

‘Dainton was well-known in the music industry. He was friends with Robbie Williams from the Take That days. Elton John phoned up yesterday about it. Johnny Marr has been in touch. It’s funny, Chris was just saying to me Dainton was the most famous non-celebrity he’d ever met.’

It should have been a week of triumph for the Pet Shop Boys. A winter tour — which will go ahead — is selling out all over the world and will take in Dublin as part of Some Days Never End later this month at IMMA.

The latest album, Fundamental, came out last year to enthusiastic reviews and marks a return to form for the group. Lyrically it touches on themes such as regime change, the introduction of ID cards in Britain and the War on Terrorism.

The title track, I’m With Stupid, satirises the relationship between George Bush and Tony Blair and marks quite a departure for Tennant, previously a staunch Labour supporter.

‘I can’t vote for them anymore and I won’t even get into Iraq. It’s a civil rights issue. They can now use technology to monitor us in this country. They can now use phone records and share that with various agencies. It’s not different from opening someone’s mail, which they do in fascist states. It’s the ultimate Big Brother nightmare and the argument that ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear’ is no argument at all.’

There’s a sense with Tennant that, more than most pop stars, he knows the importance of giving good copy and rendering his convictions into digestible sound bites.

This is no surprise, perhaps, given that he got his first foothold in show business as a journalist. His first big interview was with Marc Bolan (‘He had to show me how to use the Dictaphone. It was mortifying’) and he went on to become the editor of the pop bible Smash Hits. When Madonna posed for the famous photo of her sucking lasciviously on a lollipop, she was talking to Tennant off camera.

‘I interviewed her in 1983, before she was famous. She arrived on the subway. She was chunkier in those days and looked more Italian, with those big eyebrows she had. We went for a pizza afterwards. I mean, can you imagine that happening with her today?’

I can’t, but Tennant inviting me for a pizza would not be completely surprising. Unlike most stars, he puts no time limit on the conversation, has no entourage to speak of and amiably agrees to move when the waitress informs us that a staff meal at a nearby table is going to drown us out.

He’s frank at times, talking of the ‘sadistic nuns’ who educated him in Newcastle — who inspired (if that’s the word) It’s A Sin — and he has a mordant sense of humour, dropping sly little asides about his fellow pop stars.

It’s shown in his music. The Pet Shop Boys came along at the end of the 1980s and were sandwiched in between ‘Eighties music proper’ — Duran, Duran, Culture Club, Wham, and so on — and the syncopated dance revolution to come.

‘We were less shiny and happy than the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stuff, which was just taking off then,’ Tennant remembers. ‘It was all a bit more deadpan with us.’

In the Smash Hits days he would hang around nightclubs in London, gossiping with Bananarama and George Michael, but not everyone was thrilled with the arrival of a journalist into the ranks of the stars.

‘I wrote a bad review of a Culture Club record and I was afraid they were going to beat me up. Boy George still goes on about it. I was saying to Chris the other day that we should have a party for 25 years of bitterness about that review!’

He escaped a lot of the ‘who was out and who wasn’t’ sniping of the mid-Eighties, which went on between Boy George, Jimmy Somerville and George Michael, but eventually in 1994 he came out in an interview with Attitude magazine.

‘We had quite a teenage girl following; we still have to an extent. And I had thought it was more interesting not to comment on my sexuality. Another reason was that I sort of balked at what I saw as ‘gay’. I’d go to Heaven [a big gay nightclub near Trafalgar Square] and I had a girlfriend at the time and I’d see these muscle clones and just not really feel a part of it. It seemed like another kind of conformity. Gay has become sort of banal and it’s used to marginalise you.’

In the Eighties, he says, the spectres of HIV and AIDS hung over him.

‘I was absolutely terrified of getting it, as many people were. A close friend of mine died of it and there was such press hysteria around it.’

He tells me he is surprised by the recent admission from his friend George Michael (in an interview with Stephen Fry) that he doesn’t get tested for the disease because he doesn’t want to know the result.

‘Yeah, that doesn’t sound like George to me.

‘I would’ve thought he was more of a ‘get-things-sorted’ type of person.’

He professes a kind of impatience with activism in pop music but he’s dedicated the new record to the two Iranian teenagers, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, who were executed on July 19, 2005, for having sex with each other.

‘They looked so stoic. And you know they weren’t hung; they were strangled to death in front of 2,000 people. I heard the Iranian president saying they have no gay people in Iran. If that’s the case then why did he allow these young men to be murdered? Why does he allow women to be stoned to death?’

Tennant is just finishing this point when a familiar figure appears over his shoulder. It’s his long-time friend and sometime co-habitant Janet Street-Porter. The two of them are off to the theatre — Macbeth is playing around the corner. I tell her I enjoyed her autobiography and she screeches with delight and tells me the next instalment is going to be called Life’s Too F**king Short. She also playfully warns me of her contacts in the Irish media. So if I’m not nice to Neil she can have me killed? The two of them take a sip of their drinks and exchange amused glances. ‘Yes, something like that.’

The Pet Shop Boys play at Some Days Never End, IMMA, on October 27. Other acts performing at the event, which runs from October 25-31, include the Frames, Groove Armada, Jose Gonzalez and the Buena Vista Social Club.

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