They wouldn't normally do this kind of thing …but this week, the ever-humble Pet Shop Boys take a rare moment to celebrate their success, just for the VO5 NME Awards 2017. Mark Beaumont meets the recipients of our 2017 Godlike Genius Award
As kaleidoscopic orbs spin overhead, the duo sit stoically, barely flinching, one in a gold-lined showman’s blazer, the other wearing a helmet resembling a giant metallic Malteser. They are Pet Shop Boys, NME’s 2017 Godlike Geniuses and the electronic legends who’ve spent the last 35 years creating dazzling onstage spectacles, building a canon of unmatchable synthpop and elevating pop music to the status of theatrical drama, social commentary and high art. “We were never afraid of appearing to be pretentious,” says Neil Tennant, escaping the NME photographer’s blitz of pink neon.
Pet Shop Boys have soundtracked rebellions aboard Russian battleships. They’ve staged pop operas full of breakdancing angels, been CGI space dunces and performed with Lady Gaga dressed as a porcelain teapot (her, not them). And now they’re recipients of NME’s ultimate accolade. What have they done to deserve this? Come with us now on a journey through the six ages of PSB, beginning, as we must, in a restaurant in a West End town…
Poetry with dance music – 1981-1989
Well, OK, a Chelsea electronics shop. Neil Tennant, music journalist, met Chris Lowe, architect and accomplished stander-at-the-back, on King’s Road in 1981. Two years later, Neil, in New York to interview The Police, blagged a meeting with prolific pop producer Bobby Orlando. “He said, ‘Hey, let’s make a record!’” Tennant recalls. “I said, ‘You haven’t even heard anything yet!’ Three weeks later we were back in New York in a studio off Times Square. The first song we played was an instrumental we’d written. I’d subsequently realised you could speak a rap over it, and that was ‘West End Girls’. When the first version came out, [writer] Charles Shaar Murray in the NME gave it this incredible review, saying, ‘As an evocation of glamour and danger it is almost perfect.’”
After a few false starts, ‘West End Girls’ became a huge international hit in 1985 and Pet Shop Boys emerged as an antidote to the swashbuckling New Romantics. “Our ethos was to make dance records that had the sort of lyrics that didn’t get into dance records,” Tennant says. “More like the sort of lyrics you got in new wave music or Bob Dylan. Some poetry with dance music.” Politics too. “[Second album] ‘Actually’ was meant to be a picture of Britain in 1987,” Tennant explains. “‘Shopping’ was inspired by selling off all the nationalised industries, and it ends with the song ‘King’s Cross’, which in those days was a very run-down, dangerous area. We were using that as a metaphor for people that got left out of the new, bright Thatcherite Britain.”
From the outside, by contrast, Pet Shop life in the ’80s was a riot. They used their vaulting popularity to work with heroes including soul legend Dusty Springfield and Barbara ‘Peggy Mitchell’ Windsor, and to indulge their high-art ambitions by injecting references to T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare into their songs. Yet Tennant has described this period as a “bitter 24-hour struggle” full of “arguments”. Why? “There was so much promotion,” he says. “We were pop stars with a Number One hit in America. You could do interviews 24 hours a day and it still wouldn’t be enough.”
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Sci-fi art pranksters – 1990-1994
In the ’80s PSB had the brains, they had the looks, but they didn’t have the money they needed to play live. It wasn’t until 1991 that PSB fully realised their onstage vision. The Performance tour was a surreal cabaret extravaganza featuring pumpkin-headed women, pig bankers and a bit where Lowe sat reading Playboy in his pants. “It was produced to look like an opera,” Tennant remembers. “We didn’t acknowledge the audience between the songs. We all come on dressed as schoolboys, Chris sits down and all he does in the first song is hold up an apple. It’s a very beautiful moment.”
In 1993, ‘Very’ brought candy cane dunce hats and computer-generated videos that looked like Willy Wonka directing Barbarella. “It was a reaction to grunge,” Tennant says. “The grunge thing was, ‘Hey man’, letting it all hang out, which was very much not what we are.” “There’d been an explosion in video game technology,” Lowe adds, “and we thought it’d be good to look like we were part of a video game.”
“We always wanted to be like a cartoon,” says Tennant. “To create our own world, a universe of our own that doesn’t necessarily apply to everything else that’s going on outside. We sort of achieved that with ‘Can You Forgive Her’, and with ‘Go West’ we went even further. In the final video, ‘Yesterday, When I Was Mad’, Chris was just a lamp.” Lowe laughs. “My favourite performance in a video. I didn’t even have to turn up.” Their cover of Village People’s ‘Go West’, which Tennant considered “ghastly” until Lowe pointed out it shared a chord progression with Pachelbel’s Canon, became their biggest ’90s hit. “I never know whether ‘Go West’ didn’t establish such a strong idea of us in the public eye that it became an albatross,” Tennant shrugs. “It’s such a strong thing, it’s difficult to escape from – assuming you want to escape from it. People expect you to do doof-doof, four-on-the-floor and we don’t necessarily do that.”
Entering the establishment – 1995-1997
As Britpop smacked its Union Jack Gibson into the knackers of the mid-’90s, the ever-contrary Pet Shop Boys went ‘world music’. They toured South America, embraced Latin samba rhythms on 1996’s ‘Bilingual’ and began cosying up to the biggest names in the rock firmament – Tina Turner, Bowie, Elton. But Tennant insists that they were something of a scalpel across the throat of the establishment.
“When David Bowie asked us to do a reworking of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, that was a career high point,” he says. “But the song only had one verse and Chris in the studio suggested we cut up ‘Space Oddity’ to make a second verse – ‘Ground to Major bye-bye Tom / Dead the circuit countdown’s wrong’. David Bowie phoned up to ask how it was going and we said, ‘We’ve cut up the lyrics of ‘Space Oddity’.’ Silence. ‘Sounds like I’d better come in.’ We completed the Major Tom trilogy: ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and suddenly ‘Hallo Spaceboy’. I said to David Bowie, ‘It’s like Major Tom is in one of those Russian spaceships they can’t afford to bring down,’ and he said, ‘Oh wow, is that where he is?’”
Getting weird again – 1998-2000
In the late ’90s, PSB re-embraced the weird in order to give themselves some alien distance from Tennant’s most personal lyrics to date. How weird? They wrote soundtrack music for an eclipse. They re-created the drawing room from 2001: A Space Odyssey onstage at Creamfields. They sported an android shock-wig look that Chris describes as “a combination of samurais with The Little Prince”. And, during a residency at the Savoy Theatre in London, they literally leapt from the screens.
“[Artist] Sam Taylor-Johnson came up with this brilliant idea of filming a party with two sofas,” Tennant explains. “We’re on the sofas and we walk off the sofas and onto the stage while the party carries along on the screens behind us. At the end of the first half we walk off the stage and back onto the screens. It lost £12,000 a night. In effect we were giving every member of the audience £10.” Luckily, PSB have a fairly blasé attitude to cash. “We earn money but we’re not super-rich,” Tennant admits. “My friends think I’m richer than I am. A close friend of mine was astonished to learn that I got paid a salary. People think that vast waves of money crash over you and it’s just not like that. Pop stars now will have a fashion line – the music is just part of the brand. People see themselves as entrepreneurs now. We’ve never been entrepreneurial. We’ve always been much better at spending money than making it.”
Intentional downsizing – 2001-2007
As the millennium dawned, PSB were in a rarefied position. They’d played their first ever festival show as headliners of Denmark’s 130,000 capacity Roskilde Festival. They had their own musical, Closer To Heaven, in the pipeline. They’d sold 50 million records and would never again have to rent out a fancy dress costume. They had it all, but Lowe pined for less. So, in 2002, on the back of Blair-baiting, guitar-leaning album ‘Release’, PSB toured student unions. No s**t. “I always felt our career’s gone in reverse order,” Lowe says, “so I thought in that case we should end up doing the student circuit, because we’d never done it.”
“Our first proper gig in London was at Wembley Arena,” says Tennant. “We wanted to reboot the idea of the Pet Shop Boys, to get away from ‘Go West’. Famously in 1972 Paul McCartney and Wings got into a van and turned up at student unions saying, ‘We’re going to do a gig.’” “Neil drew the line at the van,” says Lowe. “And, ‘We’re not staying at the Travelodge.’” The duo played the Camden Barfly for War Child and 20 years into their career they did a BBC John Peel session for the first time. “John Peel said, ‘If you’re having trouble listening to this, just imagine it’s an obscure German techno band,’” remembers Tennant.
Pop vs art – 2008-present
In the recent past, PSB have known no creative boundaries. Their high-art leanings have been ramped up to the max with performances of their soundtrack for 1925 Soviet silent film Battleship Potemkin in Trafalgar Square, a ballet called The Most Incredible Thing and a laser-blasted stint at the Royal Opera House featuring luminous inflatable sumo wrestlers. “Andy Warhol can do an Andy Warhol version of the Mona Lisa,” Tennant argues, “so that’s our view of pop music.”
At the same time, they’ve keyed into cutting-edge contemporary pop and the visual zeitgeist like never before. “Something started for us when [early-2000s dance scene] electroclash happened in London,” Tennant reveals. “We used to go to Nag Nag Nag every week with Sam Taylor-Johnson. That rejuvenated our interest in electronic music. We started doing remixes for people – The Killers, Madonna, Rammstein, Yoko Ono.” And performed alongside Lady Gaga dressed as a teapot at the 2009 BRITs? “She said, ‘As you’re English, I’m going to be dressed as a teapot.’ We said, ‘Oh great!’ She had this very beautiful Wedgwood teapot costume.”
Pet Shop Boys will clearly leave the pop world a very changed beast from when they found it – more surreal, cultured, articulate and liable to dress entirely in Ming. And besides their undeniable influence, their Godlike standing is assured by the fact that their music has always been a document of their times. “Someone pointed out to me that our songs are a bit like a social history of Britain during that period,” Tennant says. “When the last song is written, whenever that is, I think that will be quite an impressive catalogue of songs that will say something about life in Britain, and indeed the world, in the era.”
And when they look back upon their lives, it should be with a sense of omnipotence.