It’s a formula they’ve well applied to the new album’s lead single Love, etc. “It’s saying that what makes us happy and satisfied and fulfilled is not shopping in Ikea or Selfridges, it’s love, and affection, and friendship, and meaning,” he says emphatically. “That’s what keeps you fulfilled. The idea of shopping is really to reinvent yourself every single day with the retailing experience. It’s never going to be profound. Ultimately to be happy, people want something profound, but often they don’t even look for it.
“And what’s striking sometimes in travelling around is people live lives where there’s so much surface. Surface is so boring. I suppose that’s why people take anti-depressants all the time. It’s so banal. There’s no philosophy to it, there’s no art to it, no beauty to it. I think they live like that by eating sugary drinks and shopping.” Love, etc. is, he says, “broadly speaking a political song, although it’s an anti-consumerist, anti-market song, if you like, to a certain extent.”
Elsewhere his lyrics don’t always have linear meanings, such as on Building A Wall. “It’s various impressions put together to create an atmosphere. It occurred to me, walking down the street reciting it to myself. I did actually build a wall,” he remembers. “Well, not personally; I had a wall built in my garden. I was just thinking about walls. The Berlin Wall. The Roman Wall, just up the road from where I was brought up. It got me to thinking about my childhood, and how different Britain is now. And how with ID cards and that kind of thing we are building a wall in many ways to keep ourselves in, not to keep people out. It’s a world in which your people are deliberately restricting their options out of fear.”
- Neil Tennant
On their last studio album Fundamental, particularly the final track Integral, Tennant’s lyrics rounded on New Labour. On the surface Yes may appear to be a less political record, but Tennant feels otherwise. “The last song Legacy is in my Tony Blair trilogy,” he explains, “after I Get Along and I’m With Stupid. Tony Blair’s last words to the House of Commons were, ‘That’s it, the end’. That’s the opening line of Legacy. The idea behind it is a Tony Blair situation where someone has all that power and they leave it, and it’s unbearable. They have to go from this great, heroic stage they bestrode to suddenly…”
He pauses. “Did you see that film Margaret, where Lindsay Duncan played Margaret Thatcher?” I did, I say. “There’s a bit at the end where she goes, ‘What am I going to do?’ That’s what Legacy’s about. Someone giving up power, status. I was just struck by politicians, when they’re in power, talking about what their legacy will be. It seems to me an incredibly vain way to behave. I don’t think Harold Wilson talked about legacy, or Churchill. It’s a very narcissistic way of looking at things; everything is a reflection of yourself. And then you come back to earth with a crash – at the end of the song, it says about when the Carphone Warehouse boy has been on the phone, he wants to upgrade the mobile you own, it’s just that that’s your lot – you’re going to (live a) real life now. And it wonders whether you can deal with it.”
Tennant is, of course, erudite on the New Labour project more generally. “Tony Blair’s government equalised the age of consent and brought in civil partnerships,” he reasons. “And I think they’ve genuinely tried to do things about child poverty. But what distresses me about what happened to New Labour is what the last album was about. ID cards, surveillance, locking people up, trying to get rid of habeas corpus, all of these civil liberties things. For some reason when a centre-left politician comes to power they feel the need to be macho about law and order.
“They have this obsession with creating a database, basically spying on the citizens, using the terrorist issue, not trusting the citizens. We went through the entire IRA campaign and we didn’t lose civil liberties because of that, nothing like what’s been proposed since 9/11. It’s absolutely absurd and very dangerous. It changes our entire relationship with the state. We’re now coming to the situation where we don’t approve of the state, the state approves of us. Or not. I think it’s horrible and sinister. I don’t even know that the politicians doing it are thinking of it like that. I think they think opposition to it is just hysterical. But they are putting together an apparatus which is creating that kind of situation.”
Has Tennant been on Question Time? He’d be good. “I now vote Liberal Democrat, but I don’t know how effective they are,” he continues. “Political parties in this country were based on different economic opinions, but now they all have the same opinions. I suppose you also vote tribally. I could never vote Tory, but in many ways that’s a tribal thing, not an intellectual thing.”
He may well never bring himself to vote Tory, but Pet Shop Boys recently gave away a CD of their music through the none-more-Tory Mail on Sunday. Some Pet Shop Boys fans were, to put it mildly, amazed at the tie-up. But, as with Blair’s legacy, he sees two sides to this. “I think they’re small-minded and ber-bourgeois, and when you come from the north they seem very south-east. But I seem to remember that the Daily Mail led the campaign helping Stephen Lawrence’s parents to identify the killers,” he says.
“I wouldn’t buy the Mail. But the music business has changed, and that’s how people do things nowadays. They pay you a load of money to release it, we get a lot of CD advertising. You send a Trojan horse into 2.2million homes, if you like, of Pet Shop Boys music, which we’re happy for people to have in their homes. I don’t think (the Mail papers are) any more homophobic than society generally is. I don’t think they’re racist, do you? I think it’s just something people like to get on their high horses about, but it doesn’t really bear scrutiny.”
Indeed the music business has changed, and it’s to their credit that Pet Shop Boys are moving with the changes. “It’s a totally different way of operating,” he says. “Your records are made in technologically a completely different way. People consume them in a completely different way. We didn’t make this album in a big 1,500-a-day proper studio; we made it in my house in County Durham and Brian Higgins’ place in Kent. That’s all changed, and the way it’s distributed has changed. Things like the Mail on Sunday thing – it would’ve been inconceivable for us to do that a few years ago. Whether one likes it or not, it’s how music is promoted nowadays.
“The Mail on Sunday is, in this instance, a radio station playing the Pet Shop Boys. All music artists now are multi-platform; we can’t just release a record on vinyl and take it down to a record shop. It worked like that when we started but it doesn’t any more. And you have to accept it.”
Given the changing nature of the music industry, what does he think new artists starting out should do to get their music heard? “I’d almost think that if they didn’t know what to do then there’s no point doing it,” he sighs. “It’s all so superficially democratic now. I assume they’d do the MySpace thing, and all the rest of it. Even if I’m not totally convinced it produces talented artists, I know that record companies take notice of that.
“When Chris and I were taking round cassettes of four songs in 1983, we put them through the door of EMI. But you were never going to get anywhere off a cassette. In many ways, having a MySpace site is no different to having a cassette, but for some reason, maybe because it’s got pictures attached to it, it seems to have more credibility.”
And what of artists emerging in 2009, 25 years after he and Lowe did? “We’ve just booked Frankmusik as support for the O2 Arena show. He looks good – I’ve seen pictures of him,” he says. “And I like the remix he’s done for us. But the amount of hype new groups get can be a dangerous thing. People are going to turn on you very quickly if they don’t like what you do, and that would worry me.”
He cites another of the class of 2009′s Next Big Things as an example. “Florence And The Machine got this award, BRITs critics favourite or something, and I didn’t think it was a very good idea having that award and also accepting it. I thought it was likely to turn people against (the winner) and maybe raise expectations that can’t be fulfilled. Estelle got it last year. Or was it Adele? I think it’s better when people emerge organically, but it’s quite rare now.”
Pet Shop Boys will emerge organically into the O2 Arena in June. “We’re playing one night; Michael Jackson‘s playing 50,” he laughs. “We’ve not played anywhere that big for a long time, at least in Britain. We’ll be doing a world tour after it.” After a quarter of a century, does he still love heading out on the road? “We are carrying on. The Pet Shop Boys always carry on. I don’t know if we’ll carry on touring for ever – as I get older I might get fed up with that. But Pet Shop Boys always do things they say they’re never going to do.”Read Part I of this interview
Pet Shop Boys’ album Yes is released through Parlophone on 23rd March 2009. Pet Shop Boys, with support from Frankmusik, play the Manchester Apollo on 18th June and the O2 Arena, London on 19th June. They headline the Latitude Festival’s final day, 19th July 2009.