Pet Shop Boys
October 24, 2006
Neil Tennant recalls a friend who ran a record label telling him that the Pet Shop Boys were the “start of the rot of Top of the Pops because we came on stage and didn’t do anything”.
Chris Lowe, Tennant’s musical partner, lets rip his best evil-genius cackle. “It worked. Top of the Pops has gone. We did it.”
The Pet Shop Boys have long revelled in their difference. It’s there in the album covers — in the early days, acres of white space with stark images, later superseded by bold colours, textured CD cases and inventive graphics. It’s there in the intelligent, complicated riffs on love and loss. It’s there in the musical forms they choose, always going against whatever the trend has been, although Lowe’s on-stage decks-spinning was widely copied. The current vogue for electro and electropop, which they have been experimenting with for 20 years, has meant — as Tennant puts it — that they feel “the most sense of belonging we’ve ever had”.
A new book, Catalogue, brings together 20 years of Pet Shop Boys visuals: all their record and CD sleeves, videos, concerts and photoshoots. Next week, an exhibition of portraits of the pair opens at the National Portrait Gallery (a clear attempt by the gallery to attract a younger, fashionable audience), while a new album — Concrete — features the Pets performing versions of their classics backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Rufus Wainwright guests on Casanova in Hell, Robbie Williams on Jealousy. It’s a typical genre-crossing Pets project: Planet Pop isn’t their only home.
The duo have always played on the contrast between the loquacious, besuited Tennant and the withdrawn, muckily-sexy Lowe. In person they play their parts: Tennant erudite and sharp, Lowe mostly mute until riled (mention Tony Blair and stand well back). They have played with film, musicals, camp, homoeroticism and, on their latest album, politics. They don’t leap about on stage, but as Tennant says: “We are doing something.”
In their current incarnation, the Pets — currently on a world tour — appear surrounded by facsimiles of themselves, dancers who bound around a huge coloured cube designed by Es Devlin. Tennant (as well as his many doubles) is dressed in top-hatted showman’s garb and later regimental dress; Lowe (and his doubles) pouts away in lemon-yellow sports top, cap, jeans and trainers.
Tennant says they’ve had two distinct images — “the pointy hats” (first seen in Can You Forgive Her?) and “the orange wigs” they sported in 1999 around the release of New York City Boy. “The rest of the time it’s really been extensions of us,” he says. They started off quite tame: their first single, West End Girls, had them in white T-shirts, the second, One More Chance, in sweatshirts and jeans.
In Opportunities, a more distinct aesthetic took shape: Tennant started wearing a suit and hat, while Lowe skulked like a hustler in the background. One of Tennant’s favourites is the cover of Suburbia, which has Lowe wearing a stripey T-shirt and outrageous Issey Miyake sunglasses. The cover of Rent has both men looking moody in a pool of light on a deserted railway platform. “I think it’s fiercely heterosexual myself,” deadpans Lowe, but in retrospect it’s amazing that in 1994 Tennant’s “coming out” was any news at all: the images, plus all those lyrics about longing and self-denial, make it all seem so obvious.
Tennant explains that, besides the beautifully shot imagery (Derek Jarman directed a few of their videos, beginning with It’s a Sin in 1987), the intention was to make their songs “narratives”, so the titles acquired inverted commas and full stops. Being Boring is an aching, elegiac poem to times past and lost loves ones that also, says Tennant, confronted the “cliché” of the Pets as boring “with a song that was anything but”. For the picture that graced the cover of It’s a Sin (shot in the sacristy of Christ Church, Spitalfields), Tennant was inspired by Sickert’s painting Ennui. They invited the architect Zaha Hadid to design sets after Tennant fell in love with models of her designs for a railway station. The Pets have worked with Sam Taylor-Wood, Bruce Weber and Wolfgang Tillmans, though sifting through the many jewels in Catalogue and the NPG exhibition the most memorable images, playing with sexuality and anonymity, have been taken by Eric Watson.
“We’ve always taken art and design seriously,” Tennant says. “Chris trained as an architect, I worked in book and magazine publishing. We wanted the videos to look filmic. Our sleeves were regarded as austere, although it very rapidly became the style of the business.” Their spare lyrics and record design contrasted with their lavish and theatrical stage performances. “We always thought there was something a little bit tragic about rock shows. It always seemed to be about how many fairy lights there were. To this day there’s this macho thing: ‘How many trucks have you got?’ Directors like David Alden [known as “opera’s Sam Peckinpah” for his bloody and chaotic renderings of old classics] became well-known. We liked their iconoclasm.”
Tennant always loved performance: at the age of 9 he wrote his first musical, The Girl Who Pulled Tails, about a little girl who pulled cats’ tails. “Eminem has a Ferris wheel but that’s it, it’s not going to do anything else. Very few people approach their concerts as theatre, as we do: Madonna and maybe U2.”
Did they expect their careers to last more than 20 years? “No,” says Tennant. “I think we both would have been fairly amazed if you had told us 20 years ago that we’d be sitting here today with a book and the whole thing, but we’ve never had any sort of a plan. A lot of things are done spur of the moment — like the pointy-hat thing. We were worried we were going to look like complete prats, obviously, but it worked very well. They were made of cardboard; it’s quite easy to make one of your own.” Lowe adds: “When we put lights on them, we felt like the Blackpool illuminations.”
Have they ever thought about giving up? “Yerrrrnnnooo,” says Tennant. “I don’t think seriously.” Lowe: “Maybe if something better came along but it hasn’t. What’s better than pop star? Professional footballer.” Tennant roars. “An antiques shop in Hove.”
For a time in the late Eighties they became known for working with icons such as Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli. Who would they like to work with next, having just produced Robbie Williams and Kylie? “Chris would like to work with Randy Crawford. For me, Stevie Nicks,” says Tennant.
Tennant notes bitterly how the critics “slagged off” Closer to Heaven, the musical about clubland kids that they did with Jonathan Harvey. But Lowe interjects: “It was great working in the theatre. There are meetings about what the song should be doing, where a scene should start, where it should end. You don’t get that kind of intellectual critique in pop music.”
Lowe seems quite chatty: does he just pretend to be the sulky one? “No, it isn’t a pose,” he says tightly. Does he hate being in the public eye? “Yes. That’s why I wear all the disguises,” he says, looking as if he is chewing glass.
Disguise features over and over again in the Pets’ projects: pictures of them are blurred on their CD covers, on stage there are the doubles. “I think disguise is powerful,” says Tennant. “I never go on stage without wearing make-up. It gives me something to hide behind. I wear high-heeled boots when we perform. They make me feel stronger, more confident.”
Lowe just hates being looked at. “I always tell the lighting guy not to put lights on me. I’m furious if they do. I’m not the singer. Why do you think we’ve got a cube of flashing lights behind us?” But that doesn’t help to hide them: a dancer once said to Tennant that despite all the diversions — films, lights, insane costumes, the dancers — “all they [the audience] do is look at you”.
Are they planning anything large-scale and grand along the lines of scoring and screening Battleship Potemkin, which they did in 2004 in Trafalgar Square? “We’re thinking of writing a ballet,” Tennant says. “I wouldn’t mind writing a musical that had no dialogue. I think pop stars trying to do something outside their immediate environment tend to get slagged off and I don’t think that’s fair.”
People thought you two were together at the beginning, I say. “People are going to assume you are going out with each other ‘cos you’re always seen together. Everyone thought Simon and Garfunkel were going out when I was a kid. No, we never were.”
Lowe grumbles that he doesn’t have a love life, to which Tennant guffaws — “That’s rubbish. A blatant lie” — adding that he wouldn’t take advantage of the new gay partnership laws. “I’d only marry for the money,” Lowe says, with a dirty leer.
They have become blatantly political: anti-Blair and Bush rhetoric litters their latest album. Lowe says: “I hate the man [Blair]. I haven’t got the vocabulary to express my hatred ‘cos the words don’t exist. It’s a gut feeling that wrenches at my heart.”
Tennant says: “The well of politics has been poisoned by the non-appearance of weapons of mass destruction. The sensible thing for him to have done two years ago was say: ‘Sorry, guys, I was wrong. I’m resigning’. ” Tennant is annoyed by bureaucracy, ID cards, over-regulation. Lowe snarls: “Is 1984 still a textbook in school? It’s all in there. Orwell just got the year wrong.”
What are their remaining dream projects?
Lowe: “I’d like to become a male porn star.”
Tennant: “I grew up a devout Catholic and wanted to become the Pope and then when I died to become a saint: Saint Neil of Newcastle. I’ve given up on that. I want us to carry on doing fantastic, interesting projects and writing beautiful pop songs.” He pauses, considers that and adds dryly: “That’s quite an ambition, really.”