On the afternoon of September 12, the day
scheduled for the performance of the Pet Shop Boys’ new score to the film, The Battleship Potemkin, in the middle of Trafalgar Square, Neil and Chris meet at the Trafalgar hotel, barely 100 yards from where they will be performing. In the square, preparations are still continuing, though the giant screen on which the film will be projected above the heads of the Pet Shop Boys and the Dresdner Sinfoniker is already in place. It has already been projected onto and tested out at five o’clock this morning, before first light.
They sit in a hotel bedroom and consider what lies ahead tonight.
“I’ll tell you,” mutters Neil, “after this I’ll feel like doing something camp.”
They discuss this afternoon’s press conference. Neil realizes that the orchestra’s conductor, Jonathan Stockhanimer, may not have been invited to it and worries that this may be a serious error in protocol. It is quickly arranged. “He can answer all the questions,” Neil points out.
First is the soundcheck. While they wait to be told that everyone is ready for them, their manager, David Dorrell, mentions that the American cult author, j t Leroy, is keen for them to write a score for a movie of one of his books, and that he is a big fan. He asks whether they need an hour to sound check.
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” says Neil.
Word comes, and they walk across, past the lions, to the stage.
“We don’t do pop any more,” Chris points out.
They take their places next to the orchestra, behind a light mesh screen: thin enough to be seen through but thick enough to catch the light of the film projection at night.
“I love the gauze,” coos Neil.
“It’s so cozy in here,” says Chris.
They run through one of the score’s two vocal songs, “After all (The Odessa Steps)”, then are told to stop. There is a problem with the click track – the regularly timed click rhythm which musicians often hear through their earpieces to keep them in time but which the audience is unaware of.
“We’ve still got click issues,” Chris sighs. “Even at this late stage. It’s been dominated by clicks, from Berlin onwards?’ He sits down and looks out. This is a very public final rehearsal – a crowd of a few hundred has already gathered. “How did we end up doing this?” he asks.
Pete Gleadall is sorting out the click issue, something which has been thrown up unexpectedly due to a late demand from the orchestra. Quietly, he’s not too happy with them. “I felt like stabbing them one by one yesterday,” he says.
“I love the carpet,” says Chris. “I wasn’t expecting carpet. That’s where the budget went.” His mind wanders. “Can we point out that Arsenal are 45 games unbeaten in Literally?” he requests.
Eventually the clicks are sorted, and as far as they can tell the sound is fine, so they leave. This time, heading back to the hotel, they are Lightly mobbed.
“It’s like being in a Michael Moore film,” observes Chris.
As Neil walks up the hotel stairs – Chris takes the elevator – he says, “I had a dream last night; I told Tony Blair to resign as Prime Minister. He laughed. And then we had a very earnest discussion why”
The press conference will be in a few minutes, in Room 101. Chris disappears to get ready “For lunch,” Neil says, “I had two boiled eggs and
salami.. .i.e. the contents of my fridge.”
Jeffi7ey, who is doing their wardrobe, arrives.
“I had to fight through the square with my
ironing board,” he explains. “I think they’d never
seen one before?’
“To be quite honest, there’s enough people there already for a concert,” says Neil. Everything seems good. “I love the gauze’ he repeats. “Gauze is the way to go.” He considers the evident conflicts between the usual Pet Shop Boys touring personnel and the orchestra, and instinctively offers a defense of the orchestra. “We have the usual suspicion in rock’n’roll of outsiders;’ he points out.
The one worry is the weather. The forecast suggests that high winds and rain may be on the way Neil has arranged for a message to be put on the Pet Shop Boys website advising people to wear waterproof clothing. In the worst case, mutters David Dorrell while Neil is on the phone, they have an arrangement to cancel the concert and to stage it instead on the following night. But no one wants that to happen.
Neil gets a phone call from his father who had been watching, and listening, from the square during the sound check. There is now a new thing to worry about – Neil’s father says that Neil’s vocals were completely inaudible out front. Further calls are made. It turns out that the people at the sound desk over on the steps in front of the National Portrait Gallery hadn’t been able to respond when Neil had asked whether everyone was happy and the Pet Shop Boys decided to finish the sound check. They still wanted to work on his vocals but had been forced to assume that Neil and Chris had had enough.
Jefli7ey puts some make-up on Neil for the press conference. Neil mentions that he won’t need much later tonight. “There is mesh’ he says. “It’s like having a pillbox with a veil. It’s a nice feeling – like being enclosed.”
“When did we agree to a press conference?”
he half-heartedly moans. “Was I party to it?”
Neil nods and says that a friend has phoned
twice to wish them luck.
Chris accepts some make-up.
“Is powder enough?” he asks. “At this stage in
my life? The Botox Years…
“Their new album: Botox’ murmurs Neil. He
stands up. “Is Mike Skinner ready?” he asks. “I’m not Mike Skinner today;’ Chris objects. “I think he’s trying to be you,” says Neil. It’s time.
“We just don’t do press conferences” Chris reminds him, but without any force. And off they traipse to Room 101.
It was Philip Dodd, the director of the Institute Of Contemporary Arts. who first approached Neil in April 2003 with this idea. The ICA had been given Trafalgar Square for one night to stage an event, and he suggested that the Pet Shop Boys write a new 73-minute score for Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Russian silent movie from 1925 and perform it along with the film. Though it is Neil who has always been deeply fascinated with Russian history, an interest that has seeped into previous Pet Shop Boys songs and performances, he always imists that it was Chris who was keenest on this project. “I didn’t think Chris would want to do it,” Neil says. “And when I mentioned it to Chris in a very downbeat kind of way, Chris expressed interest in it.”
“Something different, i suppose;’ says Chris.
“I didn’t really want to do it to be honest at the beginning,” says Neil. “I thought, it’s a lot of work and we won’t get paid anything.” He laughs. “And it was, and we didn’t.”
“You just get fed up of doing the same thing all the time,” says Chris. “If all we’d ever done was trot out albums, one after the other, it’d be really boring. At least we’ve tried to do different things – even if they’re not successful it’s good to do them?’
To work out how they might approach it, they
watched the film together twice on DVD.
“It was a challenge to see if we could write a
long piece of music;’ says Neil.
Neil says that was partially inspired by seeing the Philip Glass Ensemble perform music for Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast. They were told that Eisenstein had said he’d like a new soundtrack written for his film every ten years. They wrote about half the score in August 2003 at
their studio in the North East, long before the event was confirmed. The opening theme, “Comrades!”, had already been written by Chris when they were writing songs for Pop Art, in the same few days that they wrote “Jack and Jill party”. (They even played what became “Comrades!” to Adam F, who liked it but wasn’t interested in working on it.)
They wrote the music in order.
“We followed the structure of the film,” Neil explains. “So the second piece of music, which is called ‘Men and maggots’~ follows what’s happening on the ship – the men are going about their chores but there is an undercurrent of rebellion and violence, and so we have this relatively repetitive piece of music with an undercurrent of violence and dissent, hopefully expressed in the music. Occasionally we put real sounds in – he smashes a plate, we put the sound of a smashed plate. We decided from the word go we were going to have us and electronics and strings. We knew what the arc of the film was and we went with it.”
They completed the second half of the score in the spring of 2004. “In main, the lyrics were inspired by the subtitles,” says Neil. “So the song ‘This is no time for tears’.. .there’s a subtitle comes up: ‘this is no time for tears’. I just took it from that.” For “After all (The Odessa Steps)” Neil was also influenced by looking at photographs of Trafalgar Square and of all the things that have happened there, and thinking about the whole idea of it as a centre of dissent in Britain. “I’d had this vague idea for an anti-war song – ‘if you didn’t really understand the rules.. .how come we went to war?’ – and I thought it would be quite interesting to have a song that was an expression of dissent in Trafalgar Square. And also it kind of fits with the famous Odessa Steps sequence where they’re getting massacred, which is kind of like a war anyway”
“We used quite a limited palette of sounds actually’ says Chris. “We used very few sounds so that it has a coherence from beginning to end. Because when we’re doing a pop album, quite often the tracks are completely distinctive. In this there’s a continuity in terms of sound.”
Even once they’d written it they were still
slightly skeptical as to whether the finance would come together; for a free event in Trafalgar Square would have to be totally paid for by sponsorship.
They asked the German composer, Torsten Rasch, to write the orchestrations because they’d heard his album Mein Herz Brennt based on the music of the German metal band Rammstein. (Neil simply sent an email to the address on the back of the CD and reached the Dresdner Sinfoniker who performed the record. The man who co-runs the orchestra, Sven Helbig, put them in touch with Rasch, who agreed to collaborate.) “Torsten Rasch has a sort of dissonant style$’ says Neil. “We were intrigued by the idea of trying to take pop music and harmonise it in a much more avant garde kind of way.” But his first demos of the orchestration were too dissonant. “We realised that to do that thoroughly we would have to drop out of the project, basically;’ Neil says. Rasch agreed to rein himself in a little bit.
In July, they went to Berlin and recorded the score with the Dresdner Sinfoniker. Eventually, after several delays and crises as sponsorship fell through, it was finally agreed that the piece would have its public premiere here today
The Pet Shop Boys are greeted at the doorway
of Room 101 by Philip Dodd. Neil and Chris line up behind a table covered in a brown cloth. To Chris’s right is Torsten Rasch. To Neil’s left is Sven Helbig and the conductor Jonathan Stockhammer. The first question is about what this means to the Pet Shop Boys compared to their other work.
“Well, it represents a big challenge for us,” says Neil. “When Philip asked us if we’d like to write a score for the film The Battleship Potemkin, and perform it as a free concert in Trafalgar Square, we sort of thought it was a slightly ridiculous idea and an appealingly ambitious idea. And we discussed it between ourselves and thought it was a real challenge to see if we could write an hour-and-a-quarter of continuous music, and what it would be like.. .we really got very involved in it and very intrigued by it, and so for us it represents a completely new departure. The film itself is quite a romantic and hard-hitting
film, and I think with the music we’ve tried to bring out those aspects of it, and also to bring out the emotion of it as well – the excitement, the horror, the freedom…all those things.”
“Good answer,” says Chris. “Gold star.”
In answer to the next question, Neil says that only three weeks ago he bought a book about Battleship Potemkin he happened to see in Waterston’s, and as they were mixing their music to the scene where the battleship is speeding and pistons are seen pumping and he read that Eisenstein had wanted the music here to sound like machines, which was exactly what they had already done. “So I kind of felt at that point that maybe Eisenstein might have approved of some of it.”
“I think at least on that point he would
approve,” Torsten Rasch echoes.
“At least on that point,” laughs Chris.
Neil talks about the collaboration between the Pet Shop Boys and Torsten Rasch. “Traditionally we work with very, very skilled and talented pop arrangers on our records, and on this we just had the idea: what would it be like to work with someone who is a composer, whose sense of harmony is outside pop music?”
“It was maybe for both sides, for you and for us, quite a difficult and interesting joumey to coming closer together, because we started on a level, in my opinion, which was a little bit more apart says Torsten Rasch.
“Yes,” Neil agrees.
“Oceans apart~’ Chris interjects.
“We sailed together,” says Neil.
“Yes,” continues Torsten Rasch, “then we worked towards coming closer together… I had no experience whatsoever in the field of pop music, like you said.. it is certainly different.. .1 think we now came to something which really works together.”
A man from Russian state television asks
whether there is any possibility that they will be
taking the film back to the Russian public.
“Yeah, we’ve actually had two approaches to perform this in Red Square. There’s nothing settled yet but we have actually been approached by two different organizations:’ He points out that next year is the hundredth anniversary of the 1905
revolution which seems a further good reason for doing it there. He says they’d also love to do it in places like Australia and China.
There is another question asked and answered and then debated, at great length, in German by the German members of the panel and press, during which Chris gets the giggles and sets Neil off.
“Right’ suggests Neil at its end. “Back to
English now, please.”
They are asked about the relationship between “the almost sheer political content of the film” and their previous work, which the questioner characterizes as “rather mainstream, though with a certain aspect of art”.
“I think the music that we’ve written for this is still pretty much mainstream with an aspect of art, as you eloquently put it’ says Neil. “I think politically.. .when we started work on this, I’d read a lot about Russian history and what have you, and I said, ‘of course it’s just a propaganda film, this, really’, and Chris pointed out that it’s an ideal really It’s an ideal of a revolution. It’s a romantic film of people struggling against oppression to find freedom. And that’s why I think it works totally outside the communist context. People can be oppressed in various economic contexts and this film could still speak to them, I think. I think in Russia as it is at the moment this film will still resonate with people. If we show it in Red Square it’s not just going to make people think, ‘Oh, wasn’t it great under communism?’ It’s not going to mean that. It’s a very stirring film, and I think we’ve tried to bring that stirring and idealistic quality out in the music.
One more question, says Philip Dodd. They’re asked whether they were daunted and overwhelmed to take on what is known as an all time classic.
“I don’t think we were overwhelmed by it,” says Neil. “When something becomes set as ‘a classic’ I always think there’s a danger that people stop thinking about. It’s ‘a classic’, like an alabaster monument or something. And with this, I think it makes you look at it fresh and that’s the good thing. I think it’s amazing how modem it looks. When you see it on that big screen later
tonight, it looks really modem. It’s not the kind of Rudolf Valentino style of acting, it’s quite a modem style of acting, and it was filmed almost 80 years ago. And I think that the music, I hope, helps to bring that out. So we didn’t feel frightened because it was a classic, no. And the other thing that really appealed to us was the Trafalgar Square thing – the film is sort of a political film and Trafalgar Square is the political space in London, where meetings, demonstrations, have carried on since it was first built in the 1840s. And the staging, which is done by Simon Mc Burney of the company Complicite, is going to bring that out beforehand. There’s a sort of presentation before the film starts which is about Trafalgar Square and takes us back in time then takes us to Russia, so it puts the film in the immediate context of us all being in Trafalgar Square and then in some of its historical context, which is quite an ambitious thing – I think it’s really exciting.”
Another question comes: what is it like for the Pet Shop Boys to be conducted by a conductor? Neil points out that they are not really being conducted, though there is one point where he wants the conductor to indicate where he comes in. He says that yesterday’s rehearsal in a rehearsal studio was the first time they had done anything live with an orchestra.
“Can I tell them what your first comment was in the rehearsal?” asks the conductor.
“What?” asks Neil.
“‘Don’t make me laugh’,” he says.
“Yes,” Neil concedes, “having this guy waving a stick to Chris and me. Chris and I can get the giggles sometimes and we don’t want to get the giggles during this.”
“Not while children are being shot,” says Chris.
After the press conference, they both rest for an hour in separate rooms, then Neil changes into the suit made specially for him by Dior Homme which he has only worn once before, on Parkinson. He won’t be able to wear it many more times the public pop life of clothing is limited – so soon it will be recycled to one friend or another. He points out that some of the
clothes he gives away get sent by one friend to his family abroad: “There are people in a village in Sri Lanka wearing Helmut Lang jeans and Issey Miyake shirts.”
He struggles with his neckwear. “Tying skinny ties is a real bore,” he says. “When you think how long I’ve worn a tie for.. I’m still useless at it.” He looks out the window. The square is now fairly crammed with people. “The funny thing is, it looks exactly like a political demonstration. It looks like Red Square, and the Cossacks are about to kill them. Is it too late to arrange a police baton charge?”
The conversation in the room drifts, and someone mentions taking their daughter to see a Greek tragedy at the National Theatre.
“I’ve never seen a Greek tragedy, I’m ashamed to say,” says Neil. “Well, not that ashamed to say…” The play The Duchess Of Malfi is mentioned.
“I was in The White Devil when I was 12,” says Neil. “I remember a lot of people were killed. It was at Newcastle University, so it was exciting. About 1966. It was when students still wore corduroy jackets.”
He realises that his watch is four minutes slow – “I’d better go to the loo,” he says – and worries that Chris is yet to appear. “Is anyone thinking about Chris?” he enquires. “He’s quite likely to be asleep.” Jeffrey is sent to knock on his door while Neil does vocal exercises in the bathroom. He wonders whether he should have worn a red tie. “But,” he realizes, “I haven’t got one. And it looks like you’re making some kind of slightly spurious point.”
Chris appears, full of cheery fatalism.
“Oh, we might as well go out in style,” he says. “It was always a very foolish idea…” He laughs, and begins imagining tomorrow’s reviews. “‘Makes Closer To Heaven seem like a triumph…”‘ He announces he doesn’t want to go to the after-party.
“Maybe you’ll be on a high,” someone suggests.
“I’m never on a high when I come off,” says Chris. “I have no problem sleeping right away.”
“It’s true,” Neil sighs. “It’s kind of crushing.”
“I feel a sense of shame when I come
Off stage,” Chris explains, “and I want to hide under the blanket.”
Debates have been going on all evening about how the Pet Shop Boys are prepared to be photographed during the performance so that their photos will best be used in the papers. The photographers insist on being able to shoot them close up on the stage, inside the gauze, but Neil and Chris are holding firm. One last attempt is made to persuade them.
“We want the Pet Shop Boys and a huge crowd and projected film’ says Neil. “We don’t want a picture of us from the side. What we want are event shots. I would like a photograph of us playing in front of a huge audience.”
It’s just one more reason for Chris to like the gauze.
“We’ve thought of everything,” he says. “A baffler between us and the audience. At last we’ve built the fourth wall.”
There are later estimated to be about 20,000
people gathered in Trafalgar Square when Simon McBurney begins his hyperactive rant and film collage, about the political history of Trafalgar Square, which precedes and sets the scene for the main event. At one moment he appears to be onstage; the next – far sooner than he could possibly have got there – on top of the church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields at the side of the stage. Most of the crowd seem more diverted than engaged by what is happening – perhaps partly because this seems a less politically-motivated crowd than most of those that have preceded it in this space, and perhaps partly out of the modem habit of not getting too excited by the support act.
But from the very beginning of Battleship Potemkin, everything is very different. Quite what it was going be like to be with 20,000 people outdoors in the centre of London at night, watching a Russian black-and-white silent film while music pulsed and cascaded over you in sympathy with, and often directly in time with, the images in front of you, had been difficult to imagine. The reality of it is just as difficult to describe, except to say that everywhere one looks people seem captivated both by the actual
spectacle they have come to see and by the whole experience. Not long after the film begins, the rain begins to fall, but it never progresses beyond a firm drizzle and the night is warm enough, and so all the rain seems to do is to bind everyone here more closely together in sharing this experience. Near the end of the movie, a peasant woman in a shawl, straight from the film screen, appearing to carry a baby, walks through the crowd.
After the film’s climax, and the applause, Neil thanks a list of people. “We haven’t really got an encore,” he says, “so we’re going to reprise one of the songs.” They perform “No time for tears” again, and then Neil remembers to thank some people he has forgotten: Torsten Rasch, Sven Helbig and the Dresdner Sinfoniker. “And, finally, the brilliant filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. Thank you very much. Good night.”
“Well,” says Chris, back at the hotel, “we got through it. That was exhausting.”
“Even doing nothing most of the time is exhausting,” Neil agrees.
They are, nonetheless, in the mood for celebratory drinks. Fine Champagne has been ordered, but stubbornly refuses to appear.
“So,” says Chris, “we’re having to raid the mini-bar. That’s what it’s come to.” He rummages around. “Half a bottle of Moet.”
Neil says how annoyed he was by the people at the front who cheered at the beginning of the Odessa Steps sequence. “I could have killed them,” he says.
“That was stressful,” says Chris. “The computer only crashed once.”
“We had a little moment,” Neil explains, “where Pete Gleadall said ‘the Apple’s crashed’.” It sorted itself out.
Neil starts to receive congratulatory texts on his phone. More, better Champagne finally arrives.
“I don’t know why we’re celebrating,” says Chris. “We haven’t got the reviews yet. That’s what always happens with us. That’s why we’re going to Ibiza.”
They are both on a plane in the morning, though this time they will be escaping little but praise.
Copy rights Literally 2005 Issue 28.