Ahead of Pet Shop Boys’ 10th studio album Yes, Neil Tennant is in reflective mood on a career that first fired up with West End Girls a quarter of a century ago.
“We were singing at the beginning of Thatcherite deregulation,” he remembers, “and now we’ve arrived at the end of that cycle. The beginning of the next, one hopes, and we’re still writing about this kind of thing. And that’s because life and politics are inspirational.”
He remembers back 25 years ago to the miners’ strike, and being in a gay club somewhere in Camden. “The miners’ wives would address the gays, and collect money for them. It was fascinating, the miners’ wives and the gays facing each other. It really feels like, looking back at the ’80s, like it might as well have been the Second World War. A historical period.”
Since then Tennant and fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe have sold over 50 million records, relaunched the career of the late Dusty Springfield, collaborated with everyone from Rufus Wainwright to the BBC Concert Orchestra and penned a soundtrack for a Bolshevik revolutionary film. Now in his mid-50s, Tennant has hooked up with Girls Aloud‘s hit factory Xenomania to make the most poppy Pet Shop Boys album in years. It even sports that upbeat, one-word title: Yes.
“I can’t actually remember specifically when we called it Yes,” he muses, thoughtfully. “It just emerged about half way through recording the album. We actually thought of calling it Pandemonium at one point. We got our designer to do a design, but it looked really terrible written down. We had Yes on a list – it may have come from the Yoko Ono thing (her 1967 exhibition had attendees climbing a step ladder, picking up a magnifying glass and looking at a tiny word written on the ceiling, and the word was ‘yes’), which is such a great story. And for the same reason that John Lennon liked it; it’s an invitation, it’s a door opening, not a door closing. I think that’s what we wanted people to feel about themselves.”
As a duo, Pet Shop Boys are well known as remixers and producers in their own right. So it’s not immediately obvious where Xenomania entered the picture. “It’s good to get someone else’s perspective on what you do,” Tennant says of collaborating. “You want someone who’s got great sounds. They’ll say, why don’t you try that, and the track can be transformed.”
Of the new material he cites Beautiful People as the track most transformed by Xenomania. “It was a folky ballad when we gave them the demo,” he recalls. “It was a really nice demo, and Brian (Higgins, Xenomania’s head honcho) loved the music. These two young Australian guys who work with Xenomania put this drum beat and a guitar and stuff on it, and it immediately sounded a bit ’60s.”
Despite Duffy‘s success in 2008, it wasn’t written to be ’60s, or with her in mind. “But it had a lot more drama than the original demo. So we went in their direction completely and we have a much better record than we would have had. And that’s what you want (from collaboration). We’re happy to invite people in to make things better.”
- Neil Tennant
In this spirit they also brought in Final Fantasy‘s Owen Pallett to burnish the record with orchestral arrangements, as well as old Electronic cohort Johnny Marr. Tennant believes The Smiths‘ legendary guitarist is, despite his iconic work with Morrissey in the ’80s, still undervalued.
“The reason we like to work with Johnny Marr is that he’s a bloody fantastic pop guitarist. It’s an area of what he does that no-one notices. Very poppy, is Marr. He has that deep commitment. Something that comes out of his albums is a feeling of totally uncyncial enthusiasm for pop music – that’s how we can work with him.”
As for the internal Pet Shop Boys dynamic, for the lay observer the assumption is that Lowe is the keyboard wizard while Tennant writes the lyrics. “People tend to assume it’s much more delineated than it is,” he corrects. “Chris will do the rhythm track, but there are many production elements I do. The music’s written by both of us. I’m probably more interested in production techniques than Chris is. Chris likes it when he likes it – his favourite mix will often be the demo, because he likes the vibe. I admire that, but I’m always the one who wants to go into a proper studio and put an orchestra on, a percussionist, all the various things.”
And for the record Tennant doesn’t believe Pet Shop Boys are adequately described as a ‘synthpop duo’. “We’ve never really, at any point in our career, been restricted to synthpop. Even on our first album, West End Girls was not exactly just simple synthpop. We’ve always had different elements. We’ve always had guitars, actually, even though we officially slag off guitars – as a pop instrument they’re great.”
From the mid-’80s till now, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure are often mentioned somehow as ‘rivals’ in the synthpop stakes. They both have gay singers, sport synthpop aesthetics and are made up of just two people, one quiet on keyboards, the other loud on vocals. “But the only rivalry between Pet Shop Boys and Erasure is because of the public!” Tennant protests. “They’ve sort of thrown us together. I think our records and their records are very, very different. Vince Clarke is not quite, but verges on, being a synth purist, while Pet Shop Boys have always been quite orchestral. The tradition of pop we are in, we are electronic, but we’re pretty much in the tradition of Phil Spector really. It’s all hands on deck – not just synthesisers, but guitars, orchestras…
“Their songs are very different. But they’ve got some lovely songs, I think. If there has been a rivalry, it hasn’t really come from Erasure or the Pet Shop Boys. I’ve always found it a bit weird – I don’t really think about Erasure that much, and I don’t suppose they think about us, apart from the fact that we endlessly get compared with each other. We don’t know each other! I’ve only ever met Andy Bell maybe twice. I’ve never actually met Vince Clarke!” He laughs. “I’ve met Bono more times than Vince Clarke.”
But both acts’ focus on and understanding of what works as pop music has underpinned their longlasting careers. For Tennant, pop music “does two contradictory things. It is escapist, but it’s also real. It takes its inspiration from people’s experiences. Pop music is going through a phase at the moment of being almost social realist, with Lily Allen, Kate Nash, Mike Skinner… And I actually think some of that music loses out on imagination and artistry in the process, but it’s interesting that pop music can do both things simultaneously.”
He cites Beautiful People as an example of covering both bases in one track. “It’s very much written at ‘street’ level,” he explains. “I imagine a woman standing at a bus stop in the rain in Lewisham or somewhere, and she can see the news stand and it’s covered in Heat magazines and what have you, and Grazia, and she’s thinking she’d like to have that kind of life rather than standing waiting for a bus in the rain. The music represents the glamour that she’s aspiring to, but the melody has a kind of earnestness which is the reality of life.”
This juxtaposing of real versus escapism runs right through Pet Shop Boys’ catalogue. “A lot of our songs are about very real situations put against beautiful music,” he agrees. “If there’s a Pet Shop Boys formula, that’s what it is.”Continue to Part II 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.