Princes of pop reveal new kind of rhythm

The Pet Shop Boys’ recent album, Yes, sheds new light on an old act

The Pet Shop Boys have a reputation for saying no. No to awards ceremonies, to celebrity, to making anything that might sound like boring rock music, and, with their tight-lipped, scowling publicity shots, no even to smiling.

But, after 25 years, one of the most successful duos in pop seems to have taken on a new glow of Obama-inspired positivity. Last month they accepted a Brit award for outstanding contributions to music, in recognition of more than 50 million records sold worldwide, handed to them by a gushing Brandon Flowers of the Killers.

Now their new album is out, appropriately called Yes. It narrowly missed hitting No. 1 in the British charts, but has been hailed as a magnificent return to form.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are chatty and smiley as they sit for their interview in a hip east London members’ club. With their soft northern accents and endless jokey banter, they are less like the terrifying Gilbert & George of modern music than a cuddly Wallace and Gromit. What happened?

Tennant, the loquacious lyricist, admits: ‘There are a lot of contradictions in the Pet Shop Boys. We established our own ideology in the ’80s, and then after a while you start to think in the third person – is this the kind of thing the Pet Shop Boys do?’

Lowe, not even trying to live up to his reputation as the grumpy, silent one, declares: ‘We do set up our own rules, but we can break them. The fans get so upset. They say, ‘I’ve signed up for your manifesto and now you have broken it, so I am never buying your records again.”

Tennant says: ‘I do sympathise with them. But, as Noel Coward said something along the lines of, in this changing world you might as well go with the flow. And technology has changed everything.’

Indeed, the recipe conjured up in early ’80s London, when Tennant, a journalist for the music magazine Smash Hits, crossed paths with Lowe, an architecture student, in a synthesiser shop, could be boiled down to ‘Coward to the tune of modern technology’.

And the results, from the first hit they had with West End Girls, were pure pop alchemy. Sandwiched between the death throes of the new romantics, a scowling indie underground, and the saccharine pop of Stock Aitken Waterman, the Pet Shop Boys sounded like nothing else.

‘We were the very first sample band,’ Tennant says. ‘When we recorded West End Girls with Bobby Orlando in New York, everything on the record was sampled. It was a real eye-opener for us. You could suddenly have an orchestra or James Brown singing on your record. It was the future. We were always kicking against formulas, in the way we sounded but also in the way we presented ourselves and did stage shows. It was about maintaining our dignity and not being fake.’

The Pet Shop Boys’ definition of ‘keeping it real’ is unique. Anyone who saw them on the Brits, emerging out of two giant projections of their heads – Lowe, who will be 50 this year, in a Britney Spears-style pink wig, Tennant, 54, in a bowler hat and bovver boots, surrounded by ballet dancers – could testify to that. Ten albums down the line, they are still managing to be unlike anything else in pop.

While other ’80s bands have broken up and reunited, or are on the nostalgia circuit, the Pet Shop Boys have continued to sell millions of records and be treated as a contemporary act. And, despite diversions along the way into writing musicals, scoring soundtracks to silent Russian films, art exhibitions and producing a new ballet, it is clear that Lowe and Tennant have never fallen out of love with pop.

‘The great thing about pop music is that it makes difficult things sound natural. And anything can be brought into it. It is like a newspaper for the world,’ Tennant says.

Yet, while the media are full of fear and confusion, the new album, recorded with the Girls Aloud producers Xenomania, is underpinned by a Tiggerish mood of optimism.

‘We did feel quite positive making this, because you could sense the times changing,’ Tennant says. ‘It was the same as at the end of ’88 when we recorded our version of It’s Alright. The Berlin Wall was coming down, Nelson Mandela was coming out of prison, acid house was starting. It was an astonishing period of change. And last year, it was the same. When Obama was fighting Hillary it was like the future versus the past, and George W. Bush was finally going.’

Lowe says: ‘I think it is a good time to have an uplifting pop record. Dance music is about forgetting and taking yourself out of the situation you are in.’

Not that any Pet Shop Boys record could be that simple. Among the shiny pop on Yes, there is as much, if not more, classic Tennant wistfulness, regret and subtle recriminations. This remains the Pet Shop Boys’ power – elevating and illuminating the murky complications of modern life with a relentless desire for beauty and modernity.

Yet, after living through three prime ministers, four American presidents, three recessions and the life and death of a thousand other bands, it’s tempting to read the album’s final song, Legacy, as perhaps their swansong.

‘Not at all!’Tennant says. ‘I would never talk about our legacy, that would be narcissistic. Other people talk about us as an influence, and I usually disagree with them.’

The Pet Shop Boys are clearly not ready to be relegated to the footnotes of pop history. ‘All musicians want a hit record. It means you are part of what is going on … We want our songs to be on the radio and to mean something to someone.’

Taken from: The Sydney Morning Herald
Interviewer: Bernadette McNulty