Shop till you drop

THE nostalgia industry has been all over the Eighties like a baggy Katharine Hamnett T-shirt, but in their typically detached and sniffy way the Pet Shop Boys want no part of the revival. It is unwritten band policy that they never look back.

The night before our rendezvous, however, their music was all over a TV programme that ended with a dinner party of usual suspects – Ken Livingstone, Lynne Franks, Carol Decker – so I can’t resist asking who’d be on their invite list, were they ever to relax a stance so hardline you could almost call it Thatcherite.

‘Christ almighty,’ says Neil Tennant. Then Chris Lowe confirms: ‘I’ve never been to a do like that, not even in the 80s.’ Tennant again: ‘Oh I have. It was at Lynne Franks’ and Neil Kinnock was there. But that was in the 90s when, I’d like to remind you, we had our biggest hit.’ Rest assured that when the great 90s revival begins, they won’t be digging out their Pokemons. ‘We’ve no time to look back,’ confirms Tennant. ‘We’re too busy in the present.’

With mention of that nostalgia-party-which-wasn’t, Tennant, 54, might appear to be trumping Lowe, 49. He seems to do this quite often, or on the odd occasion the much quieter Lowe will instigate a topic, say architecture which he studied at uni, Tennant will interrupt, pick up the balustrade and run with it, if you like, and in no time at all, he’s lambasting Prince Charles for persuading the Qatar royal family to reject Richard Rogers’ design for a modernist redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks.

But he doesn’t mean to dominate the conversation, and regularly apologises for it. Lowe seems content in his secondary role (in interviews at least) and sometimes he’ll utter a single, loaded word to egg on Tennant, so that the singer becomes Bob Monkhouse on Bob’s Full House, free-associating about … go on, Chris, set him up … wheelie-bins. ‘We’re stuck with these bloody things – for ever. They’ll never decompose.’

So what’s it like, spending an afternoon with the indestructible Pet Shop Boys, pop’s most successful duo (25 years, 50 million records sold)? Re game shows, it’s been said they’re like an edition of Mr And Mrs, but today, in a private members’ club in west London, they more resemble an Alan Bennett play, a two-hander which for the sake of argument – Tennant is a Tynesider, Lowe Lancastrian – would be set in neutral Yorkshire, on a park bench.

Tennant seems to be playing his character in the style of Russell Harty. Try and recall Harty’s pronunciation of ‘monarch’ with its regal flounce; Tennant does this. And ‘bottom’, as if perched on the edge of the bench, cheeks firmly clenched – Tennant does this, too. For now we’re back talking about Carol Decker of T’Pau and those 80s we’re not nostalgic about: ‘I said something fantastically rude about her once, and the next time she saw me she slapped me on the bottom.’

I expected Tennant to be like this: eloquent and vivacious and restless over a wide variety of subjects. He jumps from Nik Kershaw to the Shah of Iran. ‘I’ve got a whole shelf of books on his downfall,’ he says, meaning the Shah, not the singer of No 3 groover ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’. And from there we’re on to media coverage of the recent Iranian uprising, the ‘narcissistic’ debate over CNN missing the start because it happened on an off-duty weekend, the role played by Twitter, and how newspapers ‘crop’ photographs differently, one cutting out some gung-ho grannies to completely alter perception.

But Lowe is the surprise. Seemingly mute for the best part of two decades, I expected him to impersonate Gilbert or George, whichever of the living sculptures is the grumpier. But, with trademark baseball cap doffed, he’s charming and funny, never missing the chance to send up his chum, the noted aesthete, when he’s in full and flowery flow.

To find out how well they know one another, I ask each what they reckon their associate would retrieve, in the event of a house fire.

Lowe: ‘He’d grab his first editions.’

Tennant: ‘No, it’d be my diaries. I’ve kept them since 1977. There’s no comment, or not very much. Today’s entry might read: ‘Met journalist from Scotland on Sunday who thought we’d be nostalgic.”

Lowe: ‘So do you use secret symbols?’

Tennant: ‘Like for when I had sex? No. But my first editions would be next out of the house. Graham Greene, George Orwell, EM Forster, Evelyn Waugh – I’ve got A Handful Of Dust with a letter inside written by Waugh.’

Lowe: ‘So are you going to bestow them on the British Library when you die? They could form The Neil Tennant Wing!’

Perhaps Alan Bennett’s little entertainment would be called Shopping For A New Woofer, on account of the fact they met in a musical equipment emporium where Tennant, an ex-Smash Hits! journalist, was buying a £150 synthesiser. ‘This disco lad from Blackpool taught me about rhythm,’ he says. ‘I liked the Bee Gees, but had no idea how you did that stuff.’ Tennant had been writing songs for a while – ‘piano ballads’ – including one about the Profumo affair which would later form the basis of their Dusty Springfield collaboration, Nothing Has Been Proved.

Tennant: ‘I was also struck by how funny Chris was.’

Lowe: ‘And I was struck by how unlike any of his friends I was – the rest of them were pretentious Geordies.

Tennant: ‘Absolument!’

At this year’s Brits, the Pet Shop Boys were honoured with a gong for Outstanding Contribution to Music presented by a gushing Brandon Flowers of the Killers. ‘That was lovely,’ says Tennant, who is of course reluctant to dwell overlong on their quarter-century, so we’re discussing the power of the photograph again, and a remarkable on-stage snap of Flowers, Bono, Chris Martin and Gary Barlow performing in a post-awards super-group. ‘It’s interesting in rock’n’roll how people are so competitive,’ says Tennant. ‘U2, Coldplay and the Killers have all said they wanted to be the biggest band in the world. How we play the game is by not playing the game. We do things the Pet Shop Boys’ way.’

Via the Iraq war, the genius of Bryan Ferry, the ballet they’re scoring for Sadler’s Wells and what sounds suspiciously like nostalgia for a disappearing London (Tennant: ‘You’ll never see Boy George and Marilyn living in a squat off Tottenham Court Road again’), we eventually get round to their latest album, Yes, produced by the Girls Aloud sound-doctors Xenomania. Their tenth, it begins by them disavowing materialism and ends with a nod to Tony Blair’s valedictory ‘That’s it’.

Lowe, by the way, would flee a burning house unencumbered – ‘I think that would feel incredibly liberating… possessions become a bore as you get older… I’d love to live in a hotel, like Elaine Stritch’ – and Tennant guessed this correctly. But wasn’t there a time when they conspicuously consumed?

Tennant: ‘Chris was much worse than me with all his cars.’

Lowe: ‘There weren’t that many.’

Tennant: ‘I can think of three straight off. Tell him about your Z1.’

Lowe: ‘Well, they were all a waste of money and I use public transport now. Neil, of course, has chosen this moment in history, what with the state of the environment, to learn to drive.’

Tennant only drives in the north-east where he has a retreat (‘I never thought I’d end up back there, I wasn’t nostalgic for it’), and only to collect the morning paper. And when Lowe recalls being a passenger for the maiden voyage as a ‘dizzying experience’, I’m thinking the Pet Shops Boys really should write the play of their lives themselves, but not yet, because there’s still some clever, ironic pop to be made.

What will each have played at their funeral?

Tennant: ‘Chris wants How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?’

Lowe: ‘That was a joke. It’d probably be Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now. Neil wants some pomp and circumstance.’

Tennant: ‘I want something beautiful.’

Lowe: ‘Important, you mean.’

Tennant: ‘Oh shut up!’
Taken from: Scotland on Sunday
Interviewer: Aidan Smith