Pet Shop Boys are social satirists, not rappers

Pet Shop Boys are social satirists, not rappers

Long before The Streets and Lady Sovereign made British rap fashionable, there were Pet Shop Boys. Most people don’t think of the dance-pop duo as a rap act, but lead singer Neil Tennant begs to differ, calling the new-wave classic ‘West End Girls’ an early example of U.K. rap.

He’s half-joking, but he can make his case. In the early 1980s, Tennant and his keyboardist cohort Chris Lowe were recording at Manhattan’s Unique Studios and soaking up the city’s burgeoning hip-hop culture. Tennant recalls being particularly impressed by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message.’

‘One night, I decided, ‘I’m going to write a rap in the style of Grandmaster Flash, but I’m going to do it in an English accent,” Tennant says, speaking by phone recently from London. He demonstrates briefly, rhyming in his distinctively nasal voice, ‘Sometimes you’re better off dead/There’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head …’

He laughs: ‘I’m a very underrated rapper.’

In the 20 years since ‘West End Girls’ became a No. 1 hit in the United States, Pet Shop Boys have dropped the rap and instead made a name for themselves as social satirists, openly gay icons and restless musical experimenters (they recorded a Latin-flavored album called ‘Bilingual’ and wrote the musical ‘Closer to Heaven’ with playwright Jonathan Harvey). They also stand as two of the best songwriters in pop, able to match their cheeky, often cynical lyrics to snappy dance-floor tunes.

Their latest album, ‘Fundamental’ (Rhino), is their most politically pointed yet, but the messages are anything but overt. ‘I’m With Stupid’ describes the relationship between Tony Blair and George W. Bush (it’s sung from Blair’s point of view), but it also works as a bitter ballad about a romance gone wrong. ‘Indefinite Leave to Remain’ could be a simple plea from one lover to another, but the phrase also refers to a type of U.K. visa for foreign visitors.

‘A lot of our album has this contrast between the personal and the political,’ Tennant says, ‘which I think is quite a nice balance.’ Even the song ‘Twentieth Century’ cuts both ways, he explains. ‘I tried to sum up the 20th century in one sentence, and that is: Sometimes, the solution is worse than the problem. There are many instances of that, and the 21st century seems to be following in that tradition.’ He adds, ‘But it’s also a love song, with the guy saying, ‘Let’s stay together.”

‘Fundamental’ features one of Pet Shop Boys’ least likely collaborations, with songwriter Diane Warren, who has written hits for Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Ricky Martin and others. She gave the duo ‘Numb,’ originally written about her mother’s death. But even those lyrics (‘Don’t want to hear the news/ What’s going on’) have another meaning for Tennant.

‘When you look at what’s happening in Iraq, you think, ‘I want to feel numb about this,” he says. ‘It’s a beautiful song.’

Taken from:
Interviewer: RAFER GUZMÁN