|Interviews With Eric Waltson
|Eric Watson has directed twelve of the Pet Shop Boys promotional videos and recently directed the forthcoming tour video.
He was also the first person to photograph the Pet Shop Boys and has since photographed them more often than anyone else. Like Neil he is from Newcastle, but the two of them didn’t meet until 1974. Neil was living in a flat in Tottenham with a friend, Krysia (who now lives with Eric).
A school friend of Neil’s lived in Wood Green and his new flat mate, just down from Newcastle to take a degree in Fine Art at Homsey Art College, was Eric Watson.
“Very funny but a bit snotty,” was how Neil first struck Eric. “He was a bit more Newcastle then, but I guess we all were. It was eighteen years ago. He was still a student. It was glam time – Disco Tex and the Sex O Letters, and all this ludicrous dance music. I could tell you some great stories about platform shoes and white hair…”
When Eric went round Neil’s flat he remembers Neil “making up terrible obscene musicals” on the piano. It didn’t even cross Eric’s mind that something might come of this. “Never in a million years … I didn’t realize
there was anything there at all until he started doing the demos with Chris, and even then I was laughing. He came round one night with this tape of ‘West End Girls’, really roughly recorded, and I have to admit I had to repress a titter at first, because I just thought this is , you know, not right. We’d all been working in pop music by then and so weren’t exactly naive, so the idea of him suddenly turning up with this music was quite frightening. People like us didn’t do that kind of thing.”
By this time Neil and Eric were both involved with there aspects of pop music. Whilst working in publishing Neil had been asked to edit a Madness book Take Jr. Or Leave It, the companion to their autobiographical film of the same name. He had asked Eric to take the photographs and Steve Bush, design editor at Smash Hits, to design it. Soon Neil had taken a job at Smash Hits too and Eric was taking most of the magazine 5 cover photographs.
At first, when Eric had met Chris, they didn’t get on. “It was quite funny,” says Eric. “He was an incredible puritan. He used to sneer at people who drank. And he always had this thing about playing the underdog to the hilt, which now he’s out of He’s a very nice person now. But I remember when we were doing the first video for ‘Opportunities’ he skulked around and his big moment was when he went up to the catering truck and they told him to go away.
They thought he was just some guy off the street trying to beg food. We never heard the last of that
Despite his initial reservations about their music, after the Pet Shop Boys began recording with Bobby 0 (who at the time only released their singles in America), it was Eric who started taking their songs round to British record companies. The head of one company listened to the tape including “West End Girls”, “One More Chance” and “Opportunities” and, upon hearing the instrumental “Pet Shop Boys”, announced “I think there’s novelty record in there”. Wham! first label, Innervision, were keen but wanted worldwide rights. Eventually Eric took the tape to Gordon Charlton at CBS who released the Bobby 0 version of “West End Girls”.
The first Pet Shop Boys photos had been taken a while before, just after Neil and Chris came back from New York for the first time:
the Pet Shop Boys in white T-shirts with a band of light across their eyes, Pet Shop Boys in sportswear (still not yet fashionable in Britain) next to some large speakers, the Pet Shop Boys with a tennis racket. The first look became the British sleeve of “West End Girls”, the second the Belgian sleeve of “One More Chance” the following year. “They still weren’t entirely serious about it. It was just something to do at the weekend.”
Just before they were signed to Parlophone in 1985 they decided to do another set of photos. From these came what Neil and Chris call “the famous ugly photographs” (those shown on The South Bank Show) and the alleyway shots that appeared on the Parlophone version of “West End Girls”. Eric had just shot the campaign for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and Paul Morley had brought him out of his shell. Instead of asking for a photo of smiling pop stars he’d say
“I want to do the Russians invading Disneyland!”. To Eric it was liberating, as though he “was being allowed out of this trap of photographing four little heads stuck in a row all wearing tartan shirts against a green background”; he decided to apply this new enthusiasm to the Pet Shop Boys. When there was a meeting to discuss the Pet Shop Boys images at XL management Eric simply said “Wiseblood”.
Wiseblood was a black-and-white film directed by John Huston and starring Harry Dean Stanton, based on the book by Flannery O’Connor, in which a man who returns home to find no-one there sets himself up as a fake preacher who believes in nothing, his lack of belief eventually driving him to self-mutilation. The first Pet Shop Boys look – Neil in Eric’s long Stephen Linard coat, both in these photos and the first “Opportunities” video – was “Neil Tennant as the fake preacher. The video was this man stuck down a sewer and a car runs over his head and he shouts off about making money. I ended up kind of styling Neil,” says Eric, “but Chris went his own way. Chris had such firm ideas anyway. Chris has always been strong at looking after himself.” The other influence on the early photos were some photos by Richard Avedon in Portraits By Avedon, particularly a photo of Ezra Pound and some portraits of Avedon’s father before he died. “It seemed like it wasn’t really about pop music: it was about bringing other values into it.”
As time passed, some Pet Shop Boys sleeves and videos have been shot and directed by other people. Eric is keen on very few of them.
Of the videos he says “J like the monkey on roller-skates in ‘Being Boring’ and I like the bit in the car with Joss Ackland in ‘Always On My Mind’, but otherwise …” His usual objections to their other videos is that “they’re made part of a scene – say a dinner party scene – and it’s all inflected: it’s all an irony-free zone with the Pet Shop Boys getting involved. And I just can’t stand the sight of the Pet Shop Boys being involved, because it never seems to work for me. I always preferred the idea that they are these two voyeurs, these two people who are just there while everyone gets on with things. Of course at times my attitude can be slightly self-defeating because they’ll say ‘what great idea have you got this time?’ and I’ll say ‘well, you’re not going to be doing anything…’ But as far as I’m concerned they don’t really ‘do things’ very well.”
Inevitably, they occasionally argue. “It’s always been an intensely personal relationship and at times there’s been some awful rows.” After the “Left To My Own Devices” he thought they might never work together again:
“I thought I’d pulled it off, but they were furious because it was so dark”. Nevertheless he has made their last three videos and the performance film. “The version that went out on BBC at Christmas wasn’t edited by me and was an abomination – the film doesn’t make any sense whatsoever the way that the BBC cut it.” Eric’s full version had a clear rationale: “I released that all people in the audience were seeing all the time during the shows was a wide view – the whole stage – and they didn’t see any of the detail, which was what was really interesting. There were all sorts of things you never saw unless you saw the show repeatedly. In the video you can see the narrative sense that was built into every song. It’s really fast cut because there’s so much information.”
Eric Watson says his favorite Pet Shop Boys videos, in descending order, are “DJ Culture”, “Suburbia” and “It’s Alright”. He discusses those, and all his others, on the following pages.
“Wiseblood. Neil’s character reminds me of the main character in the film and the novel, standing on the street corner, saying they believe in God but just getting money out of people. At the time I was so cynical that I just believed that everybody who was involved in culture was just making a fast buck. I see it differently now, but at the time I thought everybody was saying all these things but they couldn’t really believe them for a minute.”
“West End Girls” (1985)
“Tom Watkins said ‘we’ve got to do some kind of travelogue around London.’ it was a journey through the East End up to Leicester Square, the West End, at night when it’s all glittery. Andy Morahan and I went out about six o’clock one morning with video 8 cameras and went round Aldgate and places like that, filming. There was a bunch of skinheads and we told them we were on an art school project. Chris didn’t want to be seen playing keyboards or anything, and we released there was something about somebody singing and somebody else doing nothing – just looking, then looking away – that adds a hideous tension. It’s creepy but also, I suppose, charming. It was only later we released we’d created a … product.”
“Love Comes Quickly” (1986)
“A complete disaster. I wanted this images of Chris whirling over on this giant webbing, with Neil just this singing head. It was all supposed to be disconnected, because the song was all float and ethereal, but the technique defeated us And when we shot it there wasn’t a great deal of Chris in it, so it had to be reedited. It’s nowhere near as good as the song.”
“One of my favorites. I’d been raving about Penelope Sphere’s film for donkeys years, in particular the poster, which was a little punk kid with a nohawk on a tricycle with a rifle outside a suburban home. It was such a great images. We wanted the video to be partly suburban Los Angeles and partly suburban London, so it was shot partly in this town north if Pasadena, and panty in Kingston-on-Thames, and it goes here-there, here-there. I don’t think anyone noted, but you can see all these boxes, partially open, and the idea was they’d suddenly become really wealthy but they didn’t have time to get the things out of the box.”
“What Have I bone To Deserve This;?” (1987)
“This is utterly fab, apart from Dusty. She quite wasn’t ready to come back. The rest of it had some good gags, like the girl with the thick glasses. We just wanted to do something about show-business, but in a terrible son of English way. Because of Dusty, I guess. First there are people getting ready and then
it’s this show with all these layers.”
“Domino Dancing” (1988)
“We wanted somewhere full of really pretty young people so I suggested Puerto Rico. I had this bee in my bonnet at the time about women being objects, so I did this thing about this girl older than the boys basically having them all on. It was a bit like those magazine photo stories, but a bit more stylish. It was the video that everyone liked. Neil and Chris pop up every so often – they were basically sunbathing and every so often they’d turn up, say ‘this is good fun’ and about an hour later they’d go away again.”
“Left To My Own Devices” (1988)
“I got into trouble for this. I’d made a video for an Australian band called Big Pig which was shot through layers and layers of prospect and I was really hung up on this technique. I wanted to create this sort of Dante’s Inferno, everybody walking on space. I wanted it to be like a painting; keep the same point of view with events running through it. Somebody who managed another pop act said it was the most terrible piece .Of negativism because at the end the Pet Shop Boys are stamping all over everyone. I thought it was really funny but it didn’t really appeal to a lot of people’s sense of humor.”
“It’s Alright’,’ (1989)
“They said they wanted to do something with babies. I said ‘OK, but it’s Robert Mapplethorpe’s babies’. I’d given up photography a while before, and I was just releasing that I like photographs again. The idea was that all you’d ever see would be babies, except for men in leather jackets. Chris and Neil were there for the wide shots, but for the close-ups it was my assistants in the same clothes holding the babies. In one of the shots Neil is singing and there’s a baby at the front with his hands over his ears.”
“So Hard” (1990)
“This was billed to the record company as ‘Domino Dancing goes north’. Gritty realism and all that, and we wanted to do a story. But when you go to Newcastle it’s quite a heavy place, especially on a Friday night. And I think people like the exotic -palm trees and so on – and trying to sell people cranes instead of palm trees is difficult. There’s an unreleased version with dialogue – all “what day’s mean? I wasn’t looking at her. I was just looking at her” – but the dialogue went against the music
“At the time the record industry was doing all this self-censorship, so I wanted things in there about race, and also this terrible violence. Which (laughs) was terribly negative, but a hell of a lot of violence does go on, and most videos quite happily skip over it and just have the word ‘ecstasy’ in them all the time.”
“Di Culture” (1991)
“An extravaganza that cost a lot of money. It’s a line-by-line interpretation of the lyric, completely literal. They asked Jacob Marley to come up with dance sequences for me to interpret filmically. I was using all the things I’d learnt about Computer Graphic Television – one of those shots of hippies in the river is a composite of something like fifteen different elements. When it gets to some of the montages at the end I did ridiculous things like having Neil as Oscar Wilde in front of the Acropolis with Chris in the background as a football fan shouting ‘Arsenal!’.”
“Was It Worth It?” (1991)
“The Stock Aitken Waterman revival. I got this tape of lots of dance films – we really liked Hairspray and Saturday Night Fever – and we said ‘what’s good about them?’. And we were all going down to Kinky Gerlinky and it seemed really vibrant and a bit of a laugh, all the cross-dressing. And I also had this thing about creating completely unnatural lighting. So it’s a good time dance film, though as I said to Neil afterwards ‘how can it just be a good time dance film when half of the women are men?’ Again you get Chris doing nothing on one side of a piece of glass while everyone else is having a good time, but he was wearing that high orange hat so he didn’t really need to do anything whatsoever.”
Copyright Areagraphy Ltd: All Articles have
been Taken From Literally Issue 8