Pop veterans the Pet Shop Boys get middle-age blues

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 new 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,’ Neil Tennant sings 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 performed earlier this month.

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 Tennant, 58, and Lowe, 52, who, since forming the Pet Shops Boys in 1981, have sold more than 100 million records.

‘It reflects our current experience of life,’ Tennant says 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 50s, although people in their 50s 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.’

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 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.

‘Some lad came up to us the other day and said, ‘My dad used to really like you,’ ‘ Tennant continues. ‘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 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 1980s — to the kind of music they made. ‘We put together a cassette tape featuring all the bits of other songs we liked,’ Tennant explains. ‘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 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. The Pet Shop Boys were the first band to celebrate what had been viewed previously 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 says. ‘As for ‘feel’, human feel . . .’ The thought of it makes him pull a face. ‘People do make disapproving comments about my voice sounding detached.’

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

The detachment may be partly 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 such as Left to My Own Devices, alongside a throwaway B-side such as 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?

‘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.’

Across 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. 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.’

Taken from: The Australian
Interviewer: Will Hodgkinson