The Pet Shop Boys, that unlikely pop duo with a penchant for sharp suits and lairy sportswear, are back in vogue, says Alexis Petridis. They’re writing hits for Girls Aloud, being feted by the Killers and have a new album on the way. Just don’t call them a national institution …
As Neil Tennant points out, the Pet Shop Boys have a very strong public image. Twenty-five years after the release of their first single, they are, he says, for ever enshrined in the collective imagination as ‘these two stony-faced men who look a bit pissed off at being wherever they are’. At this exact moment, however, Chris Lowe – usually the more stony-faced of the two – looks anything but impassive. Indeed, his face has sharpened into an expression you might easily mistake for a filthy look. ‘What do we think about being a beloved national institution? We certainly don’t think about that,’ he snaps. ‘No, never give it any thought.’
You can see why Lowe might take exception to the description. It implies cosy familiarity, a certain predictability, and the Pet Shop Boys have spent a quarter of a century striving to do unexpected things, to remain at the cutting edge of pop music. Their new album, Yes, is produced by Britain’s most innovative and acclaimed hit-making team, Xenomania. At 54 and 49 respectively, Tennant and Lowe are by some stretch their oldest clients. The recording process involved the Pet Shop Boys writing a hit single (The Loving Kind) for Xenomania’s most famous charges, Girls Aloud, and, more bizarrely, having their own songs marked out of five by Xenomania’s shadowy mastermind, Brian Higgins. ‘At first I thought, ‘This is a bit weird,’ ‘ Tennant admits. ‘ ‘Does Morrissey do this?’ ‘ But they’re enthusiastic about the end results. With the album completed, they have to finish scoring a ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale for Sadler’s Wells, which isn’t really something you can imagine any of Xenomania’s other clients, or indeed anyone else in the Top 40, turning their hand to. It’s equally hard to think of another extant pop band who would write a score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, then perform it live in Trafalgar Square, or devise their own stage musical about drug dealing in London’s gay nightclubs, or indeed start a record label called Lucky Kunst to release the musical efforts of Sam Taylor-Wood (the artist, who has a studio in the same building as theirs, is apparently ‘very good at this kind of sexy heavy breathing’). ‘We’re very much events-driven,’ Tennant notes drily.
Yet the Pet Shop Boys are a beloved national institution in so far as they seem to occupy a unique place in the public affections, long after most of their 80s pop peers have vanished: it’s perhaps worth noting that when their first hit, West End Girls, reached number one in 1986, it was fighting off stiff competition from A-Ha, Five Star and Paul ‘N-N-N-N-Nineteen’ Hardcastle. There are websites devoted to arguing that their 1990 single Being Boring is the greatest song ever written, bands and club nights name themselves after their songs, museums ask to host exhibitions of their stage costumes. They declined that offer. ‘Clothes never look very good hung up in a museum, do they?’ Lowe says. ‘They always look a bit grubby.’ They’re noticeably more positive about the existence of Pet Shop Bears, a Berlin gay club aimed at the more hirsute homosexual. ‘Wolfgang Tillmans told me it was the hippest club night in Berlin,’ Tennant nods.
He has a theory as to why people continue to love the duo (‘There’s a codified Pet Shop Boys way of doing things,’ he says. ‘Even after all these years, people can still look at things and say, ‘That’s very Pet Shop Boys’ ‘), but then Tennant seems to have a theory about everything. I once encountered him in a north London greasy spoon – improbable enough – staring quizzically at his plate, which contained a vertiginous pile of scrambled eggs on toast. ‘A lot of vertical food around at the moment, isn’t there?’ he mused. ‘We went to Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s the other night and the food was all presented vertically there as well.’ Today he points at a speaker that’s playing the White Stripes’ 7 Nation Army: ‘Is this the only truly great rock record released this decade?’ This morning’s newspapers are full of another one of his theories, about The X Factor: ‘Pet Shop Boy slams Simon Cowell’ reads one headline. ‘I was actually just trying to think of a way to make the show better,’ he protests. ‘We met Cheryl Cole, and I thought she was absolutely charming and delightful, and she’d just started doing X Factor, so I started to Sky Plus it. But it’s too narrow for me. Why is it never 60s week? Why is no one ever going to sing Life On Mars by David Bowie or Don’t You Want Me or Pretty Vacant? They should have a punk night – that would be brilliant.’
Lowe sighs. ‘I have,’ he says heavily, ‘completely lost interest in The X Factor.’
They make quite a double act. Tennant, hugely erudite, enormously witty and a little haughty, might be pop’s answer to Stephen Fry. His answer to a question about a single lyric on Yes variously takes in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Tony Blair’s final speech to the House Of Commons (‘He flounced off, didn’t he?’), the Kerensky government’s evacuation to the Urals of Tsar Nicholas, TS Eliot, the Iraq war, a childhood holiday to Fort William, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, and the Carphone Warehouse: this sort of thing, it scarcely needs saying, doesn’t happen when you ask Chris Martin or Lily Allen or the bloke from the Arctic Monkeys about their lyrics. Lowe, as per his public image, doesn’t say much, but is bluff and funny and still very northern, decades after he left his home town of Blackpool. Tennant explains the role a dramaturge plays in transforming music into a ballet score, Lowe is irresistibly amused by the name of the choreographer they’re working with. ‘Javier De Frutos!’ he hoots. ‘I mean, come on, how ideal for the Pet Shop Boys is that?’
If they don’t quite sell records in the quantities they used to – ‘I was reading in a book about EMI that we were their most successful artists in the world in the second half of the 80s,’ Tennant says, ‘but nobody told us at the time’ – they still seem weirdly immune to the passing of time and the vagaries of fashion. The last time I met them was in 2002 when, as Tennant puts it, ‘it was totally the world of Coldplay and associated things’, and the Pet Shop Boys seemed like a last surviving remnant of a lost era when pop music could still be witty, intelligent and ambiguous.
Six years later, with the indie bubble apparently burst and intelligent, witty pop music once again in the ascendant, here they are, writing hit singles for Girls Aloud, feted at this years’ Brit Awards by Lady Gaga and the Killers’ lead singer Brandon Flowers, even though Flowers had been on the receiving end of another of Tennant’s theories. ‘The thesis that I’ve had for many, many years about beards is that pop music always goes wrong when pop stars grow beards, because they’re going serious, they’re going natural, they’re letting it all hang out. So I mentioned to a journalist about Brandon growing a beard, which I found very alarming, because he has a great pop voice, a great pop sensibility. But he seems to have stuck with the beard. I read this great quote, where a journalist asked him, ‘What are you going to do when you shave your beard off?’ He said, ‘I’m going to put all the hairs in an envelope and send them to Neil Tennant.’ Anyway, they haven’t arrived yet.’
But even in a music world that appears to have come around to their way of thinking once more, the Pet Shop Boys cut idiosyncratic figures. Nobody really sounds like the Pet Shop Boys. Certainly nobody dresses like them. At the Brits, Tennant took to the stage wearing a coat by designer Gareth Pugh that he correctly describes as ‘really extreme’, while Lowe solemnly sported a fluorescent pink wig, the latest in a long line of remarkable costumes. ‘My role in the Pet Shop Boys stylistically is really to be the straight man,’ Tennant says. ‘He’s in sportswear, or a blow-up jacket by Issey Miyake. I’m in a nice suit. That’s sort of what the double act is. It’s a totally natural thing, it’s what we’re like. When we got money, I wanted to buy nice suits and Chris wanted to buy outrageous sportswear.’
‘Outrageous sportswear is far too young for how old I am now,’ Lowe admits, ‘but I can’t help it. Those are the clothes I like and I’m not going to compromise. You can’t help the clothes you like.’
In addition, nobody guards their privacy like the Pet Shop Boys. After 25 years, the general public has somehow ended up none the wiser about Tennant’s or Lowe’s day-to-day existence: no partners are ever mentioned, no scandal has attached itself to them and, though Tennant came out in 1993, Lowe has never even publicly confirmed the assumption that he’s gay. Tennant, in particular, has managed to pull this off while leading a high-profile life, palling around with David Walliams and Janet Street-Porter, visiting the Paris menswear shows in the company of David Furnish and Elton John. Famous, rich, gay, celebrity friends: it seems almost inconceivable that the tabloids have never taken an interest. Tennant frowns. ‘Oh, it doesn’t work like that.’ Needless to say, he has a theory about this, too. ‘You have to signpost these things. Some people instinctively talk loudly on the bus on their telephones so everyone can hear what they’re saying, and some people don’t. Well, that’s what fame’s like – people do it as a deliberate strategy, whether or not they think they’re doing it. There’s no reason people shouldn’t be like that, it’s a great thing, a great thing for the media that people are soap operas.’
The pair ready themselves to leave, a mysterious national institution with a ballet to rehearse. ‘Actually, you could have made a soap opera out of us,’ Tennant adds, ‘but we didn’t do it in public. The Pet Shop Boys don’t talk loudly on our telephones on the bus.’
Taken from: The Guardian
Interviewer: Alexis Petridis