Neil: That started with something Chris wrote. Chris: I’d just set up a little keyboard in my flat, and just to see if it was working, I programmed some drums, programmed a bass and a top line… and then I thought it was quite good, so I took it into the studio to work on it. It was just a groove, really. Then Neil added a middle bit.
Neil: That was much later. I had the title “Psychological” written in my phone. I’d been reading this book about Oscar Wilde and I read – I was quite fascinated by this when I read it – that when the word “psychological” first started to be used, people used to use it to mean “gay”. Homosexual. They’d say, “Oh, he’s rather psychological?
Chris: Like the word “earnest”.
Neil: When Chris played me what he’d written, I sang this psychological thing, and then I had this idea of just having a list of creepy images. It didn’t
take that long to write. In the studio I’ve got a book by a writer from the thirties and forties, Walter Benjamin, which Dave Rimmer gave me, and “an undertaker with a bowler hat” came from that. It was one of the first songs we wrote for the album and we liked it, this very strange, minimal, funky groove. And then I thought that, as a pop song, it should sort of explain what it was about – I’ve realised that the middle sections of our songs either explain the song or give an opposite point of view. We had it in our manifesto for this album that we were going to write songs about what was going on in the world today, and the middle section is about the culture of fear, saying it’s funny that people like to be scared by horror films,
and do they like to be scared by threats of terrorism or bird flu or dirty bombs? And is there anything there to be frightened of? “Is it your imagination?” That’s the point of the middle bit. Then the song goes into a bit that reminds me of “Vogue” by Madonna, this dancey widescreen bit. I think the message of the
song, and the beginning of the album, is: fear is in the mind, as much if not more than in the external world.
The Sodom and Gomorrah Show
Neil: This was a title I also already had. We went to Naples at the end of February, 2005, and we had a programmer called Luca Baldini, who’s an Italian dance producer and DJ who lives in Berlin, and we decided we were going to do an update of the Patrick Cowley sound.
Chris: Is that right? We wrote it in Naples but I thought we did the Patrick Cowley bit in London, because we got Patrick Cowley’s record in and worked out the scale. We spent ages to work that out.
Neil: I thought we did that in Naples. Anyway, the demo was terribly rough – all three songs we did in Naples were very, very rough.
Chris: It wasn’t four-on-the-floor when we wrote it. Neil: We were having a very frustrating time and then we suddenly came up with a really good chord change. The studio was owned by these Italian guys called Planet Funk and they said, “Hey! Great chord change! Great tune!” We weren’t sure about it, so it was quite encouraging. It could have had an “It’s a sin” sort of feel, but when we were working on it with Trevor Horn we wanted to get away from that. We spent ages working on it – this and “Luna Park” are the tracks we spent the most time on. We gave Trevor a copy of the remix of The Killers’ “Mr Brightside”, the Thin White Duke mix by Stuart Price, because that’s sort of four-on-the-floor but rocky, and he took that on board. Trevor changed the chords in the first two verses, and then it goes back to the original chord change. Chris: There were too many chords.
Neil: It was too musical.
Chris: It was chord overload. He simplified it. Neil: And we got Anne Dudley to do strings on it, and she arranged that brass at the beginning. Chris: Neil said that he wanted a classic Trevor Horn moment in it.
Neil: Trevor said, “Oh, you mean you want a gag?” I said, “Yes, I want a gag”.
Chris: He calls them gags.
Neil: I said, “I want a gag on every track:’ Chris: That’s that “sun sex sin…” bit. Neil: We wanted a boys’ church choir singing it, and Trevor had a school that was going to do it, and then they saw the lyrics. I said, “There’s nothing
wrong with the lyrics – it comes out of The Bible!” Anyway, they didn’t do it so we got singers in to do it. And I put that breathy vocal part on as well… Chris: Dollar.
Neil: Yes, because I wanted it to sound like Dollar. I was trying to do the greatest hits of Trevor Horn. And the speaking – that was a gag too.
Chris: We tried to visualise where the song existed. Neil: So it starts in the desert – you hear the wind in the desert – and you’re approaching the club… Chris: … and the door opens and you hear a blast of the band playing inside the club.
Neil: And then we got this guy, Fred Applegate, who was in The Producers. He was a really nice guy. He came in and we got him to say a few things and then Trevor edited that together. So we got a great intro out of it. And the piece of music at the start, the brass thing, was from a tape someone gave me which I made with some friends in 1979 and it had me playing a sort of honky-tonk thing on the piano. It took a long time, this track.
Chris: It’s quite an epic track.
Neil: I had the title first and I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I knew it was something about the modern world. I got the bit from the Bible from the Internet – I googled “Sodom and Gomorrah” – and so there are references to the Bible. “Took it with a pinch of salt” is a reference to Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt escaping from Sodom. And “I never dared to venture out to cities of the plain” – Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of the plain, and I’m sure you don’t need telling that “Cities Of The Plain” was of course the name of two volumes in A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu by Proust. I quite like that there’s a pretentious reference in line four.
I’ve read half of the first book of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu – it was boring. Anyway, when we brought the song back to London, I kept thinking: what does this song mean? I couldn’t work out what it meant. And then I realised that The Sodom and Gomorrah show was the world as it is on the television, with everything exaggerated. Sexed up. Only the bad bits. The ways news is presented as a kind of exciting show. I came to the middle – “there was a place down below lit was there I realised / the meaning of the show” – and I thought, “That’s a really good line”. But I couldn’t think what the meaning of the show was. It took me months to work that out. And then I realised the meaning of the show was obviously love. “You’ve got to love to learn to live where angels fear to tread” – I think that’s quite a good line. In the song, the narrator is the same person as
in “I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing”, the reserved, quiet person who doesn’t really live in the world and thinks that falling in love is something other people do.
In this song he started participating in the world. He realises that the only way the world won’t be destroyed – and we live in a world that is presented as endlessly on the brink of destruction through, truthfully or not truthfully, a dirty bomb or climate change or Asian bird flu or secondary smoking; any Daily Mail cover any day of the week – is through love because only through love will we respect each other, and live together, and not destroy the world. It’s not enough to avoid the world, you’ve got to participate in it. And by participating in it you will find the love that will enable you to survive or live some kind of fulfilling life. Trevor Horn said he thought it was about a guy going out to New York clubs and coming out. And in a way it is also about a guy who never goes clubbing. And someone else said to me last week that it was about a guy who survives the Aids crisis. Who knows? It can be whatever you want it to be. Bob Dylan doesn’t have to explain his lyrics like this, does he?
I made my excuses and left
Chris: We’d been to see A Minute Too Late by Simon McBurney – I keep thinking it was the opening night of The History Boys but apparently I’m wrong – and I left the party afterwards and decided to walk home. It was raining slightly and I just started singing, “I’m all alone again, I’m all alone”. I don’t know why. It just kept going round and round in my head. And I remembered that my phone had a record capability so I sang that into it. I was just off the Strand. And then we Bluetoothed it to the computer the next day and did an arrangement around it. At the time I thought it would just be a funny little interlude between two songs.
Neil: We were thinking about the album having like links – they call them skits in rap records, don’t they?
Chris: But Neil then said he had some lyrics, so for the second time – the first time being “You choose”
– Neil presented me with completed lyrics and I wrote music to them.
Neil: I think I was finishing the lyrics in the studio in London. They were sort of inspired by reading, in the first autobiography by John Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, called A Twist Of Lennon, the story
of her coming back from holiday in Greece and coming into their house in Surrey and she opens the living room door, and Yoko and John are sitting on the sofa. She says, “Do you want to come out for dinner?” and John just looks at her and says, “No:’ And she walks out of the house and she realises her marriage has broken up. When I read her account of this in her latest autobiography I was quite impressed by how accurate the song is to her retelling of it – I only read it recently after we finished the album. But I always remembered that story – it seemed so sad. The song is not totally meant to be Cynthia Lennon but it takes that, and then at the end of the song it goes back into the original melody and goes up to a coda where the woman is looking back and thinking that what she thought was just the end of her life was the beginning of a new life. Another perennial Pet Shop Boys theme. Another strong woman strides through our album.
Neil: The idea for “Minimal” came when we went to holiday in Ibiza the year before last, the day after Battleship Potemkin in Trafalgar Square. Chris had some Italian friends there and they liked minimal house music, and they kept saying “minimal” in this Italian accent. I put “minimal” in my phone as the title of a song, and then when we started writing songs in our studio last year Chris was playing something and I just thought “in-i- n-i-m-a-l… minimal”. Chris phoned up an Italian friend and said, “
After four, say ‘minimal’ – so we could record it – and he went “uno, due, tre, quattro which was so perfect so we used that as well. He was in some coffee bar and finally he said “minimal” in this slightly annoyed voice – I think he thought Chris was taking the piss out of him -and he had a girl with him and she said “minimal” too, so we used both voices in the chorus. The words of the song are simply about minimalism. There is nothing more going on. I think the middle bit’s really lovely: “an empty box, an open space, a single thought leaves a trace”. It makes me think of Grapefruit by Yoko Ono. There’s something very beautiful about a plain white piece of paper with one word written on it: “yes”. When we played Trevor and his wife the demos, he liked this immediately, but then, being Trevor, he made it rather maximal at the end. There’s a sort of discord at one point which is really great, and there are
marimbas right at the end – the first time marimbas have appeared on a Pet Shop Boys record. There’s the minimalist composer Steve Reich who often uses marimbas.
Chris: Steve Reich in the afternoon… Neil: This was nearly the first single, but we wanted something with a bit more attitude.
Neil: It seems quite nice that “Minimal” is followed by “Numb”, one of the biggest orchestral-sounding tracks we’ve ever done. We originally recorded it in 2003 for PopArt. It was Chris’s suggestion that we got Diane Warren to write a song for us because we had to write a hit. She gave us three songs – one of the others was called “Kisses On The Wind” which keeps getting mentioned in interviews. She sent me a text message about it saying, “‘Kisses On The Wind’ still hasn’t been recorded… and yes, my best friend is a parrot.”‘ We liked “Numb”, which she was honest enough to tell us had been turned down by Aerosmith because they were doing a blues album. We decided to keep it for this album, and I think it really works here. If there’s a theme of the album being a reaction to the contemporary world, in “Numb” the person singing it wants to turn off the TV.
And it’s true – sometimes you see events unfolding on the news and you don’t know what to think and you just wish they weren’t there really. It was all finished in 2003 but we did a slight remix last year at the same time as I changed one line. Diane Warren is American, and I’m singing “I wanna be numb” which is quite surprising – I did try singing “I want to be numb” but it just sounded stupid. But I did change “don’t want to hear the news, what’s going down…”. “Going down… is so American, so I changed it to “…what’s going on”.
Neil: Chris had the idea that we should have the introduction to the album, and he wrote the chord change. On auto tune, which is a programme on which you can tune voices or change the sound of them, I’ve always been interested by the fact that they’ve got different scales, so rather than just the normal western scale they’ve got ones with quarter tones. They’ve got an Arabic one, and I’ve always wanted to put my voice through it, so I was doing
my version of the kind of call to prayer you hear when you’re in Muslim countries, and I sang about ten tracks of that. It ended up reminding me a bit of David Bowie on Low or something like that. Then we put them all through this programme. I don’t know if it does sound Arabic in the end but that was the idea. I called it “God willing” because that’s the translation of “Inshallah” which is what a Muslim will say – “I’m going to the shops, God willing, Inshallah”. I quite like that it suggests that you don’t take anything for granted.
We spent a long time working on this track – originally it was twice as long. We put it at the beginning, but it didn’t work there. Now, on the vinyl version of the album, it’s the start of side two, and I think it has that effect on the CD as well. After the incredible down-ness at the end of “Numb” it kick-starts the whole thing, and then it cross-fades into “Luna Park”.
Neil: This was originally written in 2003 when Chris and I were writing songs for PopArt. We wrote a lot of songs at the time – “Casanova in Hell” is on the album, but there’s also a song called “Baby” which we gave to Alcazar. Unfortunately they broke up before they recorded it, which was a shame. There’s another called “Blue on blue”. The idea for the lyric of “Luna Park” came from being on holiday in Nice and seeing the Luna Park funfair. There’s also one in Moscow, and I think in the film The Third Man the funfair is a Luna Park. I’ve always liked the phrase “luna park”. The demo was half this length.
Chris: For a while it became a big rock track. Neil: It was the point in making the album where we said to Trevor, “We must remember: the Pet Shop Boys is an electronic duo”.
Chris: With orchestra.
Neil: We’re going to release that mix at some point, the one where I said, “I don’t know why we don’t get Axl Rose in to sing this’ because it’s just big, like “November Rain” by Guns ‘N’ Roses. Chris: There was a big vocal thing at the end, like Dark Side Of The Moon.
Neil: This backing singer called Lucinda vibed out. Chris: This is the song Trevor thinks sounds like Pink Floyd anyway, doesn’t he?
Neil: Yeah – I’ve genuinely never listened to much Pink Floyd of their main success period. It’s quite rock because it’s based around percussive piano. A lot of it was written by me on the piano but it didn’t
have a chorus and Chris wrote the chorus. Chris: The reason it sounds like a fairground ride is because I thought it could sound like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”.
Neil: I went for a run and when I came back Chris had done the whole arrangement of it. It’s sort of psychedelic. Trevor loved that. I think the song’s about America. Luna Park is America. A lot of the words were inspired by the Michael Moore film Bowling For Columbine – originally I had a line about killer bees in it. Like “Psychological”, it’s the fact that people find being scared exciting. Also, as ever, I’m also fascinated by lives lived at night. Luna Park’s a night thing; it’s still open during the day but what interests me is the fact that during the day it’s still technically night there – it’s still all about ghost trains and lights and the thrill of night, even during the day. That’s why “it’s always dark in Luna Park”.
I’m with Stupid
Neil: This was the first song we wrote when we started writing songs in our studio last year. The song title came from the t-shirt. Chris wrote the music. I thought it sounded like Michael Jackson -“Smooth Criminal”, maybe, or “Bad”. It was all written quite quickly.
Neil: I thought, “I’m with Stupid… oh, Blair and Bush”. It’s sort of a satire: Blair thinking Bush is the stupid one. The pivotal moment in the song is where it says, “Is stupid really stupid, or a different kind of smart?” I love that the website Popjustice now says “Popjustice – a different kind of smart”. The song’s funny, but it does have an element of seriousness about it. I think it’s a much better political song than George Michael’s one, “Shoot The Dog”. It’s amazing when you think about it, and look at the political times we’ve been through in the last ten years – has anyone written a good political song?
Casanova in Hell
Neil: Also written in 2003. It’s about Casanova.
Chris: In Hell.
Neil: The idea of Casanova in Hell is Casanova not being able to have sex – that’s his idea of Hell. I read a couple of books about Casanova that inspired it. It’s one of those things where you’re
proud to put something that’s not normally in a pop song, i.e. the word “erection”. The word “masturbate” was in originally but I took it out because I thought it was too much. It was Picasso’s idea of “hell is having to masturbate” – it said “his aging fate to masturbate, Casanova in Hell”. But when we were recording, it was during the Michael Jackson trial period and there was so much talk about masturbating it put me right off. I thought it was a bit creepy. But it’s one of my favourite tracks on the record.
Chris: It has a big Las Vegas ending. Neil: Chris wrote the music in my house in the North on the piano. I changed the melody though because the melody was actually slightly more schmaltzy.
Chris: Schmaltzy! That’s a great word.
Neil: The last track written for the album. The demo was programmed by Chris rather than by Pete Gleadall. I’d had the idea for the lyric for ages:
“sometimes the solution is worse than the problem”. I was thinking of communism – that as a solution to the problems of the world, the problems weren’t as bad as the solutions. It’s attacking that very Twentieth Century idea that one big idea can solve everything. I think thehistory of the Twentieth Century proves conclusively that one big idea is not going to solve everything, that human activity is too complicated and detailed for one thing to solve everything, and applying that kind of idea simply leads to mass slaughter.
Chris: The end’s very good.
Neil: I love the electro groove it’s got. This is the track where we went back to the minimal electro vibe that was the idea right at the beginning. It’s not actually that different from the demo, apart from the fact that we put the acoustic guitar middle bit in. I notice a lot of people think it’s the weakest track on the album, and I totally disagree with them. Chris: I think it’s the weakest track on the album. Neil: I think it’s very unusual.
Chris: Yes, it’s unusual-sounding.
Indefinite leave to remain
Neil: The other song on the album that we wrote
in Naples. I was reading a book about Bach meeting Frederick the Great, the Prussian king who was a hero of the Enlightenment. He was a
sort of philosopher king. And in one chapter it mentioned a Bach chord change so I read it out to Chris who played it, then he changed it slightly. That’s why it’s got a slightly hymnal chord change. I’d had the title “Indefinite leave to remain” because a Sri Lankan friend of ours~ his passport had been at the Home Office for years, and he finally got it back stamped “indefinite leave to remain”~ which was a great moment for him because his status in the country had been rather precarious. I thought it was a rather beautiful phrase~ and one of our ideas for the album was to write the songs based on contemporary events and there has been all this debate about asylum. So I thought of writing a love song where the language of it is almost like someone applying for residency to stay in the country; a boy or whatever wants his girl to live with him and is saying she’s like a country. I like it – it’s a passionate idea delivered in a very dispassionate way.
Chris: Interestingly, the time signature doubles up in the middle bit, which you get twice. Neil: It originally had words as well, that bit. Chris: It worked much better without words. We almost took out the whole part and then I thought, “actually, you could just keep the music and not have the words”.
Neil: It was something like “Visas, and passports, may keep us, apart…”.
Chris: It was very Broadway musical. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of space. Neil: It’s nice, because I like the fact that it starts off with the brass band and then it goes incredibly synth. It reminds me a bit of that American group The Postal Service. We suggested the brass band.
Chris: To me, it sets it in a northern town like Bradford or somewhere like that, where you’ve got brass bands but you’ve also a large Asian population, so you’ve got that contrast between the two cultures.
Neil: It’s a classic Pet Shop Boys bit of a
tearjerker. It’s very sincere. We always thought the song would be near the end of the album if not the last track.
Neil: We started writing it in our studio in London but Chris didn’t like it.
Chris: I kept going “Is it crap? Is it crap?”
Neil: If Chris thinks it’s crap, it normally means it’s really catchy, by the way, readers. I said, “No, it’s great:’
Chris: I was, “Is it total crap?”
Neil: I don’t even know where the idea came from. Chris: Wasn’t ID cards one of the things on our manifesto?
Neil: Yes, it was. Authoritarianism. I’d already had the idea of “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”. Because that’s what they keep saying, isn’t it? It sounded like a song from a show, and I thought it was great that we’d got a four-on-the-floor stomper which we haven’t done a lot of recently. It’s always quite nice to have. Trevor liked it as well.
Chris: I played it to a friend and that helped me change my mind. And then lots of other people said how much they liked it. I’m very easily swayed. Sometimes, when something comes easily, you tend to not value it. The three bits to the song just came really easily.
Neil: The idea is that it’s sung from the point of view of the authoritarian New Labour-style government. “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear” is always used as a justification for ID cards. What we object to about ID cards is that they’re intelligent cards with a data strip that can link to a central database containing personal information which may be shared with America; when you say you don’t want that, they always say that if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to hide. But I think we all have a right to privacy. I feel it’s a move that suggests we have to justify ourselves to the state before the state will trust us, and I think it’s for us to trust the state and not the other way round. I think the government has to win our trust, not us win their trust. We put the lyrics on the website earlier this year when there was a fuss brewing about ID cards, and Chris had phoned me up to say that some junior minister had used the word “integral” in defending it. There was a big article in the Evening Standard about the song. But the song has got a wicked kind of humour as well. It’s meant to be’ someone giving a speech really, madly justifying all of this, with a lot of energy behind.
Chris: It’s quite authoritarian, the music. Neil: Yes, it’s quite Stalinist, I think, and the music really reflects that. It’s really catchy, though.
Chris: It’s a great way to end the album. It’s in the “Go West” spot.