February 17, 2007. As Neil searches for the
Backstage entrance to Koko in Camden, north London, he mentions that it has been a while since he last performed onstage in this building. “The last time we appeared here was 22 years ago,” he says, “for the Alternative Top Of The Pops:’ Back then the building was known as the Camden Palace, and the Pet Shop Boys, yet to have their first hit, appeared on a bill with Curiosity Killed The Cat, Swing Out Sister and a number of other up and coming groups
|They mimed “West End girls”. Tonight, the Scissor Sisters are headlining a concert in aid of the charity Body And Soul, and Neil has agreed to sing a song or two with them. Increasingly, this has been causing him some concern. For one thing, he has been slightly unhappy at the way his performance has been billed: his name is nearly as big on the posters as the Scissor Sisters’, and in this week’s edition of the London listings magazine, Time Out, for instance, they blithely refer to Neil Tennant’s “solo show”. (He has put a note up on the Pet Shop Boys website explaining that he is only expecting to sing one song, in case fans might be misled; tickets for the event are £100.)Even more worryingly, he doesn’t really know|
what he is doing. A vague plan has filtered through
that he will sing a song from the Scissor Sisters’
first album, “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”, and the Pet Shop Boys’ “Love comes quickly” but he knows nothing more – what the arrangement will be, what key the songs will be in, if and how they will be joined, and how he and Jake Shears may share, duet or otherwise perform on the songs. He has been trying to get in touch with Shears by phone for the past few days, unsuccessfully. “I have this frequent nightmare, an anxiety dream, that I am onstage and all the audience is there and I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “And that’s what we re going to be doing tonight:’
Inside the backstage door, he asks where the stage is. A security guard points about two yards to his right.”Oh,” says Neil. “That’s why those keyboards are there:’
They were scheduled to rehearse at three o’clock – right now – but no Scissor Sisters are here yet. Neil waits in the dressing room which, even for an old venue like this, is reached by a remarkable warren of staircases which go down then up and unexpectedly twist back on themselves before you find your destination. Sitting there, he explains that he has also got a bad shoulder from slipping on some ice the previous week up north. Jeffrey, who will be sorting out Neil’s wardrobe, hair and make-up tonight, shows Neil the sleeve of a very early Ultravox album from back when John Foxx was their lead singer.”God, they look awful,” says Neil, failing to appreciate fully the groundbreaking fashion aspects Jeffrey points out. “We worked in Billy Currie’s studio once. We wrote ‘So hard’ there:’
He starts reciting the lyric to “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”. “Sailing through the tunnels in the morning by yourself there’s a very special feeling, true sensation all is well…” He sighs. “I’m never going to remember this. That’s why I’m nervous about it:’
A woman from the charity comes in.
“There’s some potential interviews lined up,” she says, beaming, as though this is good news all round.
“I probably won’t be doing them,” Neil points out, politely.
When Shane from the Pet Shop Boys’ management company arrives, Neil asks him to let everyone know he won’t be doing interviews tonight, and to make sure that any press already here – and there are some – aren’t t allowed to watch the rehearsal and sound check. It will, after all, be the first time he has ever sung this.Still waiting – it’s gone half past three and still no Scissor Sisters in sight – Neil talks about The Killers, and how Brandon’s wife apparently plays “Home and dry” when her husband returns from trips, and about the latest flavour-of-the-moment, The Klaxons. “I bought the album and dutifully listened to it, because we all have to like it,” he confesses, “and I can’t remember anything about it.” He’d hoped, for all the advance hullabaloo, that it might be one of those life- and opinion-changing records that make you think about music differently, but it wasn’t. “I remember when we finished Release and Johnny Marr gave me Sigor Ros’s album and I was, ‘Uhhhhh… why didn’t you give me that six months ago?”‘Dave Dorrell arrives.
“I’m nervous about it,” Neil says. “This song, I can’t sing it.” He explains that it has also been suggested he sing a third song, “Laura”. He hasn’t said that he wouldn’t because when he read the title “Laura” in an email he confused it with another Scissor Sisters girl’s-name song called “Mary”, which he likes much better. He doesn’t want to sing “Laura”.
Jake Shears sweeps in, apologising for the reasons he hasn’t been in touch which involve an absurd travel schedule to the other side of the globe over the last week, changed mobile phones, and over-ignored partner’s ultimatums. They run though the plan for tonight. Neil explains about “Laura”.
“Why can’t you sing ‘Laura’?” Jake asks.”It doesn’t fit my voice,” argues Neil. “I don’t bring me to the party:’
“You can sing the verses,” persuades Jake.
“It’s not really my persona,” Neil insists.
They move onto the songs Neil is happy to sing. Neil wonders whether they can sing some of “Love comes quickly” in the middle of “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”, but technologically that’s impossible, so they decide to sing a sparsely instrumented version of “Love comes quickly” after which “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough” will klck in.
“That’ll be fun,” beams Jake enthusiastically. “We can do this by the seat of our pants.”
Neil frowns. “I have, literally, nightmares about not being rehearsed,” he explains to Jake. “It’s a frequent nightmare I have.”
Jake says they can rehearse it now at soundcheck, and rehearse some more in the dressing room afterwards if need be.Neil tells him that “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough” has “a tricky melody”.
Jake seems surprised, as to him it’s a song which
borrows very heavily from the Pet Shop Boys in the first place.
“Yeah,” Neil acknowledges, “but in fact you do things that we wouldn’t d&’
“Really?” says Jake.
“The thing that sounds like us,” says Neil, “are the ‘Oooooh’s.”
Jake dashes off for a few minutes, then returns.
“I need to leam one of the verses for ‘Love comes quickly’ ,” he says.
Neil nods. “I have them:’
“Can you just try ‘Laura’?” Jake asks one more time.”I’ll try it at the soundcheck,” says Neil, clearly still dubious. “It’s so… Scissor Sister-y. If I was Elton…” He lets this hang there. “I don’t think the crowd wants to hear me do this song:’
“Do you want to just stick to ‘Love comes quickly’?” says Jake.
“I think it’ll be a lovely moment:’ says Neil. “I mean, we can try it in the soundcheck:’
“I just think on those verses…” says Jake, excited again at the idea. “Just the verses:’
“We can try it:’ Neil agrees. “I just can picture the whole thing, and I can’t picture myself in it.”
They talk of other things.
“When did we last see each other?” Neil asks.
“Serbia,” says Jake.”Serbia!” exclaims Neil. “My birthday!”
They walk down towards the stage. On the way Neil is warmly greeted by the show’s host, Ben Elton.
On stage, Neil confers with Jake, Baby Daddy and the Scissor Sisters’ touring keyboard player, John, who plays the “Love comes quickly” chords. (The keyboard player is, someone mentions, apparently the son of The Goodies’ Graeme Garden.) On their first attempt, Jake doesn’t come in where he’s supposed to, and seems pretty unsure of what is happening, but each time it gets a little bit better. After a few tries, Jake and Neil work out a way of harmonising the chorus, with Jake trying a couple of different, high melodies.”That’s good:’ says Neil eventually.
Then they try “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”. Now it is Neil’s turn to seem unsure of both the structure and the melody. (The lyrics are less of a problem only because he has a sheet of paper in his hand with them printed upon.) Eventually, they run through the whole medley, stopping and starting.
“If we do that whole thing one more time…” Jake suggests.
“Absolutely:’ says Neil, who perhaps wouldrather do it many more times. “Definitely?’ This time it is Neil who messes up the “Love
comes quickly” lyric, repeating the “you can live your life lonely” line.
“From the top again,” he suggests. This time, there are no mistakes. “What did you think of that?” Jake asks. “I thought it sounded good,” says Neil. There is only five minutes left for soundcheck.
They discuss what they are going to do onstage, and decide that Neil should come on first, down the stairs at the side of the stage. Jake should appear for the first chorus, but they shouldn’t look at each other until the second chorus. It’s agreed. And instead of rehearsing more now, they decide to meet in Neil’s dressing room at nine o’clock to practice further.Neil goes home for a few hours, and returns a little after nine. On his way he has picked up the fashion designer Hedi Slimane. This time it is Jake who has been popping in every few minutes, wondering where Neil is. In Neil’s dressing room a keyboard has not only been set up – it is baianced on top of two rubbish bins with a space between them – but has been left on, emitting a fairly loud but quite pleasant pulsating ambient drone.
“I like it,” Neil declares when he walks in. “You could just put this stuff out.”
A copy of lyric to “Laura” has been left beside the keyboard, but no-one will ever mention it.Jake comes in. He says that this is the Scissor Sisters’ final show for a while, and that tomorrow he will be retreating to his parents’ farm in Virginia. The keyboard player, wearing a t-shirt that says I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING
ABOUT, comes in to play the chords while Neil and Jake sing. Jake loosens up his voice in an unexpectedly operatic way.
“You could sing baroque opera, you know,” Neil tells him.
“I couldn’t’ says Jake.
“Yeah, you could,” Neil insists.The keyboard player asks whether the keyboard sound is OK.
“It’s pretty horrible:’ says Neil, “but it’ll do?’
They practise “Love comes quickly”, which is now sounding pretty good. Neil tells Jake that he has been practising “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”, and that he also printed out the lyrics bigger when he went home so that he can read them more easily. They decide that they’re ready.
“I’m super-happy with it,” declares Jake.
They discuss what plans they might have after the show. It’s Sunday night. There’s some suggestion they may meet up with Rufus Wainwright, who is performing his version of Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall concert at the London Palladium tonight. This decided, Jake goes off to get ready.Neil points to plates of unpalatable cheese and cold meats, still covered in cellophane and stacked on top of the fridge, and says to Hedi, “It’s in our normal rider to ask for no food. Why do you want a plate of cheese with Clingfilm over it? But that’s rock’n’roll…” He tells Hedi about the recent song writing he and Chris have been doing, and mentions double-tracking. Hedi asks what this is, and Neil explains in some detail what happens when you record a second vocal in unison with the first. “That’s when I turn into me, when I double track,” he points out. “When I put one track on, it doesn’t really sound like Neil Tennant.About five minutes after he left, Jake returns, ready for the stage, now wearing a remarkable, garish multicoloured suit covered in Disney characters, over an orange shirt. He says that he recently wore this outfit to Tokyo Disneyland:
“People freaked out.” He says that he’s worried about remembering “Love comes quickly”‘s second verse.
Neil’s appearance is scheduled for the beginning of the encores. He watches the first half of the Scissor Sisters’ set from the side of the stage, then goes back upstairs to get dressed. There are no coat-rails here, so whoever is on hand has to hold up the hangers with his clothes on. “My mother always used to say, ‘You should have a valet,”‘ he says. He has to re-tie his tie three times, to his annoyance. “Whenever I’m late going out at night, it’s because I’m faffing about tying a tie. And when you think I’ve been wearing them since primary school…” Next, he spills water on his shirt. “It’s only water,” he says. Now he worries about the fraying label on his tie, and decides that Jeffrey should cut it off. He’s also slightly frustrated to discover that he can’t fix on the battery pack which powers his in-ear monitors up here, as he would normally do as part of his routine before going onstage, because they can only get it from the Scissor Sisters’ guitar tech once the Scissor Sisters have left the stage before the encores. So, as with many things about Neil’s appearance in this concert, it will be a little last minute.
After “Filthy Gorgeous” the Scissor Sisters burst sweatily into the room at the side of the stage.
“I’m going to totally forget my lyrics,” Jake tells Neil.
“No, you’re not:’ says Neil, in a tone that
Suggestions both supportiveness and instruction.
“‘You can live a life of luxury…”‘
“You can mouth it to me:’ says Jake, perhaps
forgetting that they’re not supposed to be looking at each other at this point in the song.It all goes well. There is much whooping when Neil appears. Jake forgets no lyrics, though he does completely change the way the verse lyrics sit over the music, following the first line immediately with the second, he waits for the correct moment to sing the third line and rushes onto the fourth line in the same way, so that it seems like an unusual stylistic decision rather than a mistake. For “It Can’t Come Quickly Enough”, Neil refers to the piece of paper in his hand whenever he needs to. At the end, they hug, and Neil leaves the stage while the Scissor
Sisters remain to finish the show with “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing”.
“You know,” Neil says on his way up the stairs, “if I hadn’t had the lyric sheet I wouldn’t have
remembered a word. I don’t know how actors do it.”
In the dressing room, the champagne is opened. Jake soon joins them. He talks to Neil about the writing block he suffered while writing the second Scissor Sisters album. “Our third album I felt that – that we might never write a song again:’ says Neil. “And we made a six-track album. So, actually, it was our fourth album, Behaviour, where I thought maybe we’d never write a hit song again.”The going-into-town plan has been abandoned, and so the after-show party turns out to be in Neil’s dressing room. The conversation wanders down a number of unpredictable by-ways, so that someone wandering in for a moment might hear Neil tell of how he used to put make-up on his teddy bear as a child (“I wasn’t very pleased with the results”) or of how “about three times a year I have a half of Guinness”. Eventually Jake gets up to go, triggering preparations from his security people.
“He’s got his coat on!” one of them hollers down the stairs. “Let’s do it!”