Pet Shop Boys grow old gracefully

They have quit the dancefloor to write songs

about middle age – accepting

that they no longer attract attention

Pop music is still a young art form but as the first generation of rock’n’rollers — Chuck Berry and Little Richard — reach their twilight years, we need pop stars to address the realities of getting older. Thank God, then, for the Pet Shop Boys. Invisible, from their forthcoming album, Elysium, is a downbeat acceptance of the way that, after a certain age, you no longer attract interested glances from strangers.

“After being for so many years, the life and soul of the party, it’s weird. I’m invisible,” sings Neil Tennant in a semi-whisper, over Chris Lowe’s subdued synthetic beats. “Am I tragic or a joke, wrapped in my invisibility cloak?” You can imagine Tennant surrounded by the young and the beautiful, asking himself that question as he stands at the bar, alone, or isolated backstage at the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics (where they are tipped to perform tomorrow alongside young Ed Sheeran and One Direction).

Invisible is a dignified song, approaching a subject head on in the way a novelist or playwright would, rather than perpetuating the myth of endless youth as so many elder pop stars do. The song is going through my head as I head over to a record company office in West London to meet Neil Tennant, 58, and Chris Lowe, 52, who, since forming the Pet Shops Boys in 1981, have sold more than 100 million records: honesty and intelligence in pop clearly doesn’t have to be a bar to commercial success.

“It reflects our current experience of life,” says Tennant, when I put it to him that Elysium is rare in being a modern album that addresses middle-aged concerns. “People didn’t expect pop musicians to be performing in their fifties, although people in their fifties have always been writing pop songs — the guy who wrote Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head was the guitar player in Mud. We can do it because from the very beginning we wanted to create our own Pet Shop Boys world. You can invite people into that world, like Dusty Springfield or Johnny Marr, but you’re not competing with others, you’re following your own rules.”

Tennant is as wry and as friendly as you would expect, while Lowe, the man who stands impassively behind keyboards in concerts while Tennant connects with the crowd, is quieter, more sardonic. There’s always the feeling that their entire career in music, right down to Lowe’s fondness for adolescent rave wear, is all part of a massive joke between the two of them although, with Elysium, they have turned the joke in on themselves. Your Early Stuff, for example, is composed of remarks made to Tennant by cab drivers.

“Oh, taxi drivers can be brutal,” he says. “‘My mum really likes you’ is one we get a lot. Worse than that is, ‘I used to really like you’. And that’s meant to be a compliment.”

“Apart from when they think you’re Holly Johnson,” adds Chris Lowe, from the leather sofa he is slouched in.

“Some lad came up to us the other day and said: ‘My dad used to really like you’, ” Tennant continues. “Well, thank you for that. And ‘your early stuff’ comes up constantly. People always like the early stuff.”

“Funnily enough,” Lowe says, “I like the later stuff. I only liked Elvis when he went to Las Vegas. There’s more emotion in the later work.”

“People assume your later work becomes artificial because you learn technique,” Tennant adds. “Actually, technique is liberating.”

This is at the heart of the Pet Shop Boys’ approach: nothing is left to chance. At the very beginning, Tennant and Lowe worked out what the Pet Shop Boys were, from their stylistic choices — sober and underplayed, to contrast with the excesses of pop in the Eighties — to the kind of music they made. “We put together a cassette tape featuring all the bits of other songs we liked,” Tennant explains. “It would have, for example, a section from a Sharon Redd record that had hand claps panning across the speakers. People say to us: can we hear the cassette? The answer is: no you can’t, because that contains all the secrets of the Pet Shops Boys. And besides, we left it on a plane.”

They certainly don’t want human imperfection to come along and ruin a Pet Shop Boys’ concert. When they started out, Tennant and Lowe were unusual in making a virtue of hardly playing anything live. This allows them to turn concerts into performance art pieces: their recent Pandemonium tour featured a box theme complete with box-headed dancers, a wall of boxes that fell down and was then built up into various shapes, and even a soap opera-style fight between two box-headed lovers for the song, Jealousy. Now it’s commonplace for pop concerts to be preprogrammed. The Pet Shop Boys were the first band to celebrate what had previously been viewed as unacceptable fakery.

“In the early days, when we worked with [American producer] Stephen Hague, we had to fight with him to make everything more programmed and less live,” Lowe says. “We wanted to be like Kraftwerk. The last thing we wanted was human error. If we were going to have mistakes we wanted machine mistakes. Love Comes Quickly features an old sequencer that shifted the beat by accident, but we liked that.”

“Yes, yes … the machine did it, not us,” Tennant muses. “As for ‘feel’, human feel … ” The thought of it makes him pull a face, like he has smelt something unpleasant. “People do make disapproving comments about my voice sounding detached.”

“You’re hardly Bruce Springsteen,” says Lowe, in a tone that suggests he intends this as a compliment.

“I think of my singing style as repressed emotion. That’s more emotional than over-emoting. The goal of the singer now is to visually do things emotionally, with hands flapping and eyelashes fluttering and so on. Not us.”

“Neil has always sung the melody, too. He’s not singing around the notes.”

“Not deliberately, anyway.”

The detachment might partly be a product of Tennant’s tenure as a journalist on the now-defunct pop magazine, Smash Hits. Journalistic observation has given him the space to write quietly emotional classics like Left to My Own Devices, alongside a throwaway B-side like The Truck-Driver and His Mate, a stomping disco tune that imagines a burly truck driver dancing about in a lay-by with his special friend. “That was inspired by a Yorkie Bar advert in the 1970s,” Tennant explains. “The line went: ‘Big enough for the truck driver and his mate’. How homoerotic is that? Salman Rushdie wrote it when he was a copywriter, funnily enough.”

You would think that being a pop star would eradicate the journalistic voice, as it’s hard to remain observational once you’ve joined the party. A song from Elysium called Ego Music, however, skewers the self-obsession of most modern pop stars, with Tennant reciting in a deadpan fashion: “What can I tell you? I’m an artist. It’s humbling”, which is exactly the kind of thing pop stars say on a daily basis. Tennant is a pop star. How does he retain a degree of objectivity to his situation?

“That song reflects a generational point of view,” he replies. “All [younger pop stars] do now is talk about themselves. It merges into one thing: marry a footballer, get divorced, talk about it in the papers, and write a song about it. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s brazen, and an assumption of people’s interest in you that I find slightly embarrassing.”

Who is he talking about? “I’m not naming names, but I’m not leaving anyone out either,” he replies, lightly. “The journalistic approach to songwriting has always been part of the Pet Shop Boys’ thing. You can hear it in West End Girls. That’s written from my perspective of coming to London as a northerner, an outsider.”

Over the three decades since they began, the Pet Shop Boys have done everything from resurrecting the career of Dusty Springfield to staging their own opera. They have released their 55th single, the Olympics-friendly Winner. What ambitions remain? “We did want to work with Nina Simone, but then she died,” Tennant says. “We don’t want to start acting or anything like that. Pop stars make terrible actors and vice versa.”

I have a suggestion for them. There is a song on Elysium called Give it a Go. It sounds like a theme tune for a television series yet to be made. Have they ever thought of presenting a show about making things happen for kids, and calling it Give it a Go with the Pet Shop Boys?

They like the idea. “It’s the format we’ve been looking for,” Tennant says. “‘Have you always dreamt about parachuting with one of the Arctic Monkeys? Give it a go!’”

Chris Lowe looks up, nods, and says: “I think we’ll give it a go.”

Taken from: The Times
Interviewer: Will Hodgkinson