Last March the Pet Shop Boys did their first
live performance ever as a synch duo, without any other musicians, in the small 200-capacity North London club Barfly as part of a series of charity concerts. The roots of this performance were partially seeded the previous November when Neil and Chris went into the XFM studios and played live on the radio for the first time. Both times, Literally was there.
November 24,2003. Neil and Chris are running
late after an interview on Radio Five Live with Simon Mayo. They rush into the studio and look at the modest equipment which has been set up for their performance today
“Talk about a synch duo,” laughs Neil.
“This is high risk, this is,” says Chris.
“I think we should have an escape route in case we press ‘go’ and nothing happens,” worries Neil. Pete Gleadall assures him that the music is all backed up on DAT, but after all this effort they’d rather not have to use it. “Performing with technology,” Neil points out, “is much more live than someone sitting there with an acoustic guitar.” Neil suggests they should do a complete run through of the four songs they intended to do today.
“Yes,” Chris agrees, “because I’ve forgotten what I’m going to play.”
They play “Opportunities” twice. Chris wants to do it a third time.
“No,” beseeches Neil. “Do you know what you re doing there?”
“I do now,” Chris says. “I won’t.”
They have programmed the three old songs they will be playing from scratch. Originally they did so to play at a party to celebrate the release of Pop Art, but when that fell through they decided they still wanted to find these new versions of old songs an audience.
The next song starts up: “Rent”.
“Oh,” says Chris, as though the whole song, never mind its stripped-back electro arrangement, has come as something of a surprise to him. “It’s this.”
They do “Rent” twice, still clearly working things out then move onto “Flamboyant”. Chris
begins playing a trance riff and Neil reads through the lyrics as he sings.
“Talk about under-rehearsed,” smiles Chris.
“It sounded alright, that, in my headphones,” says Neil.
Someone pops in and asks Neil whether he’d like a drink.
“I wouldn’t mind a hideous herbal tea,” he says.
“A hideous herbal tea?” the man says. “I’ll see what we’ve got.”
They do “Flamboyant” again and Chris goes astray “I shouldn’t do that there,” he says, and asks for a pen so that he can make a note.
“‘West End girls’,” suggests Neil.
Chris says that he hasn’t written down which sounds he is supposed to call up on his synthesizers for this song. He asks Pete Gleadnll for help.
“A76 on the little one in the intro and A58 for the lead sound,” says Pete.
They begin the song and Chris goes completely wrong. “What note was it?” he wonders.
“Shall we start again?” suggests Neil.
“Yeah,” he says, trying out some notes until he finds what he is after. He nods. “It’s B.”
They get through it this time.
“Rubbish,” Chris declares. “Well, I don’t know what I’m playing on that one. There you go.”
“Do you want to do it again?” Neil asks.
Chris declines. “I’ve not got anything else to play,” he says.
They are notionally appearing on the Zoe Bali
show, but she has called in sick after losing her voice (it was her birthday at the weekend) and Lauren Laverne is standing in. Through the glass into the studio where she is DJing a TV can be seen on the wall. It is tuned to the Ceefax entertainment pages and the story on the screen relates to the way the Pet Shop Boys supposedly slagged off groups like Cold play and The White Stripes in the previous issue of this magazine.
The part of the show the Pet Shop Boys are appearing on is called Zoe’s Jukebox. The idea is that the guests on the show will play whichever
songs the listeners request. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that such segments may perhaps be a little less freeform than they pretend to be. Though the Pet Shop Boys have picked three very popular old songs to perform alongside their next single, all of which are likely to be requested, there is next to no chance of them suddenly launching into something they haven’t rehearsed at all.) Fortuitously, there is a text requesting “Rent”: “one of the best love songs ever written”. Chris gets ready.
“I’ve got to concentrate here,” he frets.
“Just make sure you do the right song,” says Neil.
“I don’t start this, do I?” Chris asks, alarmed.
“No,” says Pete Gleadnll.
“Do I play at the start?” he asks.
“You can do,” says Pete. “Are you on the right patch? A14?”
“Oh God!” he says, and changes it. “That’s a very good point, Pete.”
Lauren Laverne introduces them live on air and asks how they are.
“We’re fine,” says Chris, evenly
“We’re fine” says Neil. “We’re about to make our live UK radio debut.”
She refers to them as the most successful duo of all time.
“In terms of hits,” agrees Neil. “I think Simon and Garfunkel have sold more records.”
“We’ve had a slurry of texts…” says Lauren Laveme. She asks them about “Rent” and Neil talks about how they wrote it in a small studio in Camden with two synthesizers and a piano. They play it, and it sounds rough and wonderful though Chris gets confused at one point. Once it is finished – they have a gap of about 20 minutes off air between each song – he talks through the structure with Pete GleadnIl. “Oh, is that what threw me?” he says. “I’ve always had a problem with that song.”
“It sounded good,” says Pete.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” says Chris.
Already they’re beginning to enjoy this new stripped-down Pet Shop Boys.
“It’s going to be much cheaper, touring,” says Chris.
“This is it,” says Neil. “This is the Pets on the road now”
“We’re going to have to have some very good visuals,” says Chris.
They prepare to play “Opportunities”. Pete plays them the first part of the backing track and Chris looks confused. “Oh God, the structure of this always gets me,” he says.
“That’s because we’ve changed the structure,” says Neil.
“Do I play the…?” asks Chris, and plays a riff.
“Yes, you do,” says Pete.
“You know we have sheet music when we play live,” Neil tells the XFM studio engineer, who is looking slightly bemused. “Because he can’t remember otherwise.”
Chris and Pete Gleadall run through the whole of the song’s structure one more time.
“It’s good to sort things out four minutes before,” says Pete.
Waiting, they discuss whether there is any possibility that the film Love Actually could be worth seeing.
“I met someone who saw Love Actually yesterday who said it made them want to leave the cinema and hug someone.”
“Oooh,” says Chris. “Was this someone who also liked Dido?”
“I think it was,” Neil concedes.
The Offspring are playing on the radio. Chris asks whether Pete can count him in to the instrumental chorus.
Lauren Laveme starts talking to them, back on air, with listeners’ questions. (Chris’s mobile goes off, on air.) Chris is asked about his appearance on Neighbours, and Neil is asked whether he really fancies Guy from Coldplay (“Guy from Coldplay has got a real thing about this,” says Neil. “I think you’ll have to speak to him about ….. .also, he’s grown his hair now ) and about making records with David Bowie and Dusty Springfield.
They play “Opportunities”, perfectly well, Pete quietly counting Chris in where requested.
“Cor, it’s nerve-racking,” says Chris.
They listen back to the broadcast version.
“All these tracks sound like our early demos,” Neil points out, “only in time and in tune:’
Back out on the sofa, they discuss whether they should do some concerts with just the two of them. Maybe they should. They could do
homecoming shows in Newcastle, Blackpoll and London. And, suggests Neil, maybe also New York. And Berlin. And Moscow. And Tokyo.
“‘Do I fancy Guy from Cold play?”‘ says Neil. “What a question.”
He looks through the lyrics to “Flamboyant”, doing some late homework.
“So,” Chris says to himself, “the riff comes back in in the chorus…
“Flamboyant” is being played live for the first time and, on air, Neil is asked to explain something about the song. “As you’ll hear from the lyrics, it’s about the importance of flamboyant people in our way of life. So I’m thinking of people like Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp, Boy George and Marilyn, Elton John and David Beckham, so.. you’ll understand when you hear it:’
“Anyone with a bit of sparkie,” she suggests.
“Anyone with a bit of sparkle,” Neil agrees.
After “Flamboyant” they give way to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
“Another cock-up there,” Chris says. “I’ve done one out of three without any mistakes.”
They discuss how “Opportunities” is their most famous ironic song, something Chris now chooses to dispute.
“‘Let’s make lots of money’ – I never said it was ironic,” he insists. “The other member of the group may have thought it was, but I never did:’
They go back into the studio, and back on air.
“We have half an hour every time to get nervous again between songs,” Neil tells Lauren Laveme.
Chris is asked whether he has copied David Beckham with his new hairstyle.
“I’ve just grown it for a bit,” Chris explains. “and I’ve found it’s gone very curly, which is a surprise.”
“And it’s blond, as well,” Neil points out.
“Yeah, but that’s not natural,” says Chris.
Neil tells the tale of how he introduced Rick Astley, dressed as an astronaut, to Michael Stipe at Elton John’s fiftieth birthday party. He is asked to explain a little about “West End girls” and he explains how they were really influenced by rap music at the time. “Which people probably don’t think of us as being influenced by. And the idea
was for this song, to do a record like Grandmaster Flash but to do it in an English accent:’
“Oh fantastic, oh excellent, yes says Lauren Laverne.
“So think of it like that when you listen to it,” says Neil.
“Good rock fact,” she says. “Thanks, guys. Take it away. Cheers…
This version is close to the Bobby 0 version, with its James Brown grunt restored.
“I like that version of that, by the way,~’ says Neil once it has finished. “You can’t beat a bit of smashing glass:’
“Yeah – what did Stephen Hague bring to that record?” asks Chris dryly.
David Dorrell says how different it sounded.
“Based on the original,” Neil says.
“But hearing it as a rap song David says.
“But that’s what it was meant to be,” Neil says. “It’s the first American rap number one, really, though no one ever says it is.”
“Perhaps we should reappraise that,” David suggests.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a rapper on the side, though nobody else does,” Neil says. “You know, ‘Left to my own devices’ and all that.”
Neil puts on his glasses, then immediately takes them off to have his photo taken. “I officially don’t wear glasses,” he explains.
“Well, it’s a huge comedown now, isn’t it?” says Chris. “Huge comedown. Back to the hotel on your own…
In fact, instead of going home, they go to a small, smart restaurant in the centre of London, where they talk about both the good aspects and the strangeness of having been Pet Shop Boys for so many years. If you carry on being popular for a long time, somehow it always ends up being weird,” says Neil. “Like the endless question about how Chris and I can still get on with each other:
‘don’t you find it weird?’ I don’t find it weird. Why can’t you get on with each other?”
Chris says that their way is the opposite of Jade on Celebrity Wife Swap: “her way of getting on is to row all the time”.
As the coffee arrives, Neil reflects on other
earlier ambitions. “When I was a kid I used to think, ‘My birthday’s not a saints’ day – it’s waiting for me’. Saint Neil.”
The appropriate laughter follows.
For all its under-rehearsed nervousness, and perhaps even to some extent because of it, today has gone well.
“Well, I think we put together a bloody good show,” says Chris. “And I say that as a fan.”
“Not a big one, though,” says Neil.
“No,” Chris concedes, “but as a minor fan, that’s a bloody good package we put together. And to think that we didn’t want to do it.”
“Well,” says Neil, “we’re always like that…”
March 6, 2004. This evening, the Pet Shop Boys will be performing on a tiny stage in the upstairs room of this pub where they are currently trying to rehearse and sound check. As well as playing live in public as just two people onstage for the first time since the very beginning of their career, they have spent five weeks reprogramming new (and generally much sparer and more electronic) versions of some of their most popular songs, and of songs they either have not played live for years or, in some cases, have never played.
Right now, there’s a problem. The computer
“‘It’s a sin’ has been corrupted,” explains Pete Gleadall, without irony
Eventually it starts working again, but then Chris’s computer freezes.
“OS X isn’t really desigued for music,” sighs Neil.
“Oh, let’s just not do it,” says Chris exasperated. He leaves the stage. “Call me when it’s ready:’
Neil says he is feeling under the weather. Chris returns and they run through “We’re the Pet Shop Boys” without any hitches.
“That’s not the best-sounding track, and it sounded good,” Pete Gleadall tells them.
“What are the other bad-sounding tracks?” asks Chris, meaning that they should do another one of those.
“Shall we try ‘Jealousy’?” suggests Neil. They do that.
“Medley?” suggests Chris, afterwards. “Medley,” repeats Neil. “Good idea.” The medley is of the four songs they
performed months ago in the XFM studios (“Opportunities”, “Rent”, “Flamboyant” and “West End girls”), now all stitched fairly seamlessly together. They begin to run through it, but Neil comes in too early on his keyboard. “I’ve totally lost the plot there,” he apologises. “Start again.”
The second time, everything’s fine.
“That’s a medley, that is,” says Chris at the end, with some satisfaction. He looks down at his computer. “This is going to be nerve-wracking. I’ve never had so much control. I can sabotage the whole thing.”
They have a go at “I’m not scared”, then Neil asks, “Do we think that’s enough?”
“Do we need to check that they all work?” worries Chris.
“We should,” Pete Gleadall agrees. “And we should check … . .married man’:’
When they do so, Neil complains that he can’t hear properly when everything is turned up.
As they rehearse, the metal sheets which will serve as the backdrop to tonight’s show are still being put into place.
They run through “It’s a sin” then Chris suggests they call it a day As they step offstage they are offered towels by Andy, the production manager.
“No, the Pet Shop Boys don’t sweat,” says Neil, accepting a towel nonetheless. “They glow”
He looks at the tatty, empty room, a bar only a few feet away at the far end. “It’s only 200 people,” he says. “I’m looking at it like a concert in my house:’
“Does your house have mirror balls?” asks Andy.
“Just a mirrored ceiling,” suggests Chris.
Neil worries some more about the computers. He asks Pete Gleadall whether they need to ask the audience to turn their mobile phones off so that the signals don’t interfere with the electronics and wireless signals. Pete says that shouldn’t be a problem. (They have already got
an agreement that all smoking will be banned in the building – primarily to protect Neil’s voice but also, one suspects, because they so dislike it. Particularly Chris who keeps saying, triumphantly, “we have brought non-smoking to the Barfly”.)
As they leave through the side door to go back to their respective homes for a while, they are surrounded by fans. Chris is quizzed about his hair.
“I’m going to cut it off after we’ve toured,” he says. “What’s worrying is if David Beckham cuts his off first. Everyone will think I’m copying him. Which I will be.”
A man tries to get Chris to sign his shirt. Chris doesn’t want to.
“When are you going to Switzerland?” another asks. He’s clearly heard something.
“Tomorrow’ says Chris.
“Why?” asks the fan. “Skiing?”
“What else is there to do in Switzerland?” asks Chris.
The fan who wants his shirt signed insists further but Chris won’t do it. Eventually Chris agrees to sign his face.
Neil walks into the dressing room for the night at 8.35 and asks for a “half and half”, the mixture of white wine and water he often finds settling before live performance. Chris appears a few minutes later.
“I don’t know why we’re doing this,” says Neil.
“Have we found out how much we’ve raised?” asks Chris. (The tickets are both auctioned off and given away as part of a phone lottery where each call made raises money for charity. They are part of a short season of bands – The Cure played here yesterday, and The Darkness play soon.)
“No, but we got more calls than anyone else,” says Neil.
“So we won,” says Chris.
Neil nods. “I shall restrain myself from saying that onstage, but it will be a battle:’
“I’m a bit nervous,” Chris confesses.
Neil nods once more. “It’s a bit real, isn’t it?” he says. Most previous Pet Shop Boys concerts
have been about denying or avoiding or transforming realness in some way, and perhaps it will be a shock to find themselves as themselves performing as they are in front of a small crowd.
“No, it’s not that,” says Chris. “A PowerBook’s not the most reliable instrument.” He says he needs to speak to Pete Gleadall, to run through exactly what they do if the computer crashes.
David Dorrell comes up and reports from the audience. “It’s packed down there,” he says.
“What are they like?” asks Neil.
“Still in their coats,” says David.
“Too bloody tight to use the cloakroom,” says Chris.
Pete Gleadall comes in, and talks Chris through emergency computer procedures. At the very worst, there is a back up of the music in a file called Barfly Show.
“Brilliant’ says Chris. “I think I can remember that. The other thing is that my Bluetooth is switched off, because it’s quite likely to start downloading emails in the middle of the show”
“To think,” says Neil, “that Robert Smith was sitting in this chair last night.”
They let their scheduled start-time come and go.
“Let’s give them a couple of minutes,” says Neil.
“We’re always so bloody keen,” Chris agrees.
And then they make their way down.
They begin with three songs they have never played in concert: Bobby 0’s “Try it (I’m in love with a married man)”, “Tonight is forever” and My Robot Friend’s “We’re the Pet Shop Boys”. “This is a very special gig for us tonight,” Neil tells the crowd after the first of these. “As someone once sang, we wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. Over the past few weeks, just to let you know what is happening technically, Chris and I have reprogrammed 14 songs into Chris’s PowerBook.. .tonight we’re hearing the result.” After the second he says, “Now, I’ve got a bit of a cold, actually… now, this is a song about us, but it’s not by us.”
After “Jealousy” (which Neil explains how it
is the first song they wrote together), “I’m not scared” (there’s a cheer when, while explaining its genesis, Neil mentions “the mid-Eighties”) and “Being boring” (in which Neil sings “now I sit with different faces/ in Camden town and other places ) they perform the second song they wrote for Dusty Springfield, “In private”, themselves in public for the first time, using the arrangement of their recent as-yet-unreleased version featuring Elton John.
“Right,” says Neil, sitting down. “Like West life, I sit down for ballads. This is another song we’ve never played live before, and it’s a really ancient one but it finally made its way onto the album Behavior, and it’s called ‘Nervously’.”
After that, there’s the new version of “It’s a sin” with its new keyboard melody line and “Love is a catastrophe” (“although the next song is a ballad, I’m going to stand,” he explains), and then the “Opportunities”! “Rent”! “Flamboyant”! “West End girls” medley. He explains to the audience that they would have gone off before the medley but that it’s logistically impossible, and that they should consider this the encore. He suggests that they could sing along to these – “I mean, it’s Saturday night, for god’s sake” – and during “Opportunities” he gets the audience to sing the chorus.
Back in the dressing room, Chris says that there were a few computer scares during the show. “It said ‘Core audio close to fail’,” he reports; while he didn’t know exactly what that meant he assumed that it wasn’t a good thing. He hit “continue” three times and it only agreed to comply on the third attempt. Still, he obviously enjoyed it, though he declares himself quite exhausted. “I’ve gone from doing nothing,” he says, “to running the whole show.”
Chris’s sister, Vicki, talks to Neil about his stage moves.
“Well, what do you do for the thunderclap in ‘It’s a sin’?” says Neil. “You do the dying fly. I quite enjoy doing it, actually.”
They discuss how they had agreed to make a quick getaway but, for the moment, do nothing about it.
“How great is ‘It’s a sin’?” says Chris. “It’s worth re-releasing it just for the riff.”
Copy rights Literally 2005 Issue 28.