|NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
On the evening of January 11, 2007, Neil appeared onstage at the National Portrait Gallery at an event billed as Pet Shop Boys: Neil Tennant In Conversation. From October 30 to March 4 the National Portrait Gallery had been showing a small selection of photographs from the book Pet Shop Boys Catalogue in the modest downstairs space next to their bookshop, and for tonight Neil had agreed to talk about these and other Pet Shop Boys images and surrounding
|The onstage interviewing was done by the esteemed author and cultural critic Michael Bracewell and alongside Neil, occasionally aiding and abetting, were Philip Hoare and Chris Heath. (Literally, with a certain logical inevitability, was also present at the event.) Towards the end, the audience was invited to ask questions. Afterwards, everyone onstage was taken round the closed galleries to see the exhibit of David Hockney portraits.
Below is a summary, and transcript, of what took place onstage, accurately conveying all but
how often, and for how long, the audience was drawn to laugh by Neil’s account of these matters:
The evening begins with an introduction from Sandy Naime, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, during which the signer at stage right is introduced and people are asked to stop taking photographs, and in which Sandy Naime says, “We regard the Pet Shop Boys as fantastically innovative and original in their contribution to thinking about portraiture,” then introduces Michael Bracewell “who will be known to many of you as a writer — he’s a biographer of Roxy Music”.
Michael Bracewell then offers his own introduction. “I just want to preface my little intro with a comment that Brian Eno from Roxy Music made to me a couple of years ago. He said that he had never felt that pop music was about making music in the traditional sense of the word. He’s often said that pop was about creating new imaginary worlds and inviting people to join them.
And I think that Pet Shop Boys has got to be possibly the greatest example of the truth of that theory, certainly in the last 20 or 30 years of British pop music — probably international pop music:’ He then introduces each person onstage. Chris Heath is, the audience is told, a writer “who takes you into the objective reality of the subject… kind of like a cross between Truman Capote and Big Brother or something — it’s an astonishing combination”. His book Pet Shop Boys versus America is tonight described as “one of the greatest books ever written about pop music — it’s up there with Nico: Songs They Don’t Play On The Radio as a real view, an interview into the strange world of pop music:’ Philip Hoare is introduced as “one of the great anatomists of the consciousness of his subjects”, author of, amongst other books, “what is considered perhaps the definitive biography of Noel Coward”, “two astonishing studies of the gothic”, and Serious Pleasures: “perhaps the only biography that managed, to a contemporary audience who had maybe been brought up with pop music or glam rock or style culture, and the whole industry of glamour, to relate it back to its roots in the bright young things of the 1920s”. Michael Bracewell further explains that Philip Hoare is currently working on a BBC Arena film, Leviathan, about Moby Dick and whales, then describes his last book, England’s Lost Eden, as “about Victorian spiritualists and non-conformist religious cults”, and notes, “What better person to write about the Pet Shop Boys?” As for Neil Tennant, says Michael Bracewell, “What can you say without sounding like a big girl? I mean, this is somebody who has sold, I think, over 50 million records, who has managed with his partner Chris Lowe in Pet Shop Boys to make a form of music that links the head and heart to an awareness of visual culture that I seriously believe would give an awful lot of contemporary artists who only make art and don’t make hit records as well, a real run for their money:’
Images from Catalogue are projected on a screen behind the panel as Michael Braceweli prompts the conversation.Michael Bracewell: This was the cover of your first single which came out in 1984, at which point you had been working on the other side, as it were, as the editor of Smash Hits, and you must have been very, very aware of the context into which you were trying to place your new project, Pet Shop Boys. Can you tell us a little bit about how this initial sleeve came about?Neil Tennant: Well, the sleeve came about because of course we had the record coming out, but the photograph had actually been taken a year before by Eric Watson, who is actually here tonight. And we went to New York — we made a record, probably everybody knows the story, with Bobby 0, but when we were
about to go, I’d told Eric about this and he said, “Well, maybe I should take some pictures.” Eric was doing a lot of work for Smash Hits where of course I was still working. So this was actually our first ever photo session. We’d never done any photographs before. And it’s interesting because the idea was completely Eric’s idea, to do the thing with the eyes. We had no kind of image, and hadn’t even thought about anything like that. I mean, we’ll talk about this more, but I’m not really sure actually how much thought Chris and I had ever really put into that, and how much it just happened sort of organically. So this was the first photograph ever taken of the Pet Shop Boys. And also it was taken at a time where we decided we would call ourselves the Pet Shop Boys. The story is totally true that Chris had three friends working in a pet shop in Ealing, and we used to call them the Pet Shop Boys and we used to say to them, “it sounds like a rap group” and all the rest of it. And anyway, we knew we needed a name for Bobby 0; he said, “What are you called?” and we said, “We’re called the Pet Shop Boys”. And when we became successful, which we never imagined, we were always worried that the real Pet Shop Boys in Ealing would sue us. But they never did. Which is very kind of them. And also, what you have in that photograph too is the logo. When the record was coming out on Epic, through CBS, the product manager brought in this guy called Tom Watkins who I knew — I’d worked at Marvel Comics in the mid-Seventies, and he managed a group called Giggles and they used to borrow our Spiderman suit. So when this large guy came in I thought, “It’s Tom Watkins!” And Tom was running a design company, and they designed Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s records who, in 1984 when this record came out, were the biggest thing of the time. And they came up with this logo. And even to this day when we sign autographs Chris will quite often do the long “E” thing. It’s the only logo we’ve ever had, actually.Michael Braceweli: By the time you came to have this [the second “West End girls” sleeve], because this was taken a year later, when the single was reissued you look to have far more of “a look” there. Had you, by that time, given some thought to image and so on?Neil Tennant: When the initial Bobby 0 version that we just saw came out again, famously, it was a hit in Belgium, and a minor hit in France, and I was still at Smash Hits, but we’d got Tom Watkins at this point to become our manager, and he had this company called Massive Management we were asked to go on a Belgian TV show. This was the first ever TV appearance we made. And Tom looked at us and said, “Maybe we should get some clothes together for it” And, again, for the only real time in our career we have a stylist now, but he just, like, goes shopping with us a guy called lain R. Webb, who later became fashion editor of the limes, went shopping with us, and complained that all Chris wanted to do was buy an expensive watch. Anyway, I lived over the road from the BOY shop. You can see the t-shirt Chris has got on the shop is still there, actually – is the BOY t-shirt.Michael Braceweli: On the King’s Road?Neil Tennant: Yeah, on the King’s Road. And we’d collected other clothes, and then lain R. Webb had this idea that we should wear new clothes and then vintage things, like the jeans Chris is wearing maybe, and the shirt round the waist. And I bought these trousers. And then Eric Watson who again took the picture, outside the studio – I’m wearing, I think, his shirt, and maybe his tie, or maybe the stylist did the tie. And the parka. We had a lot of discussions, us and Eric, at the beginning, about… you mentioned before that I worked at Smash Hits – what I got from Smash Hits was sort of a negative thing, which is true of how we work to this day: we tend to know what we don’t want to be. And we didn’t want to be Spandau and Duran and whoever, all the rest of these people who I’d all interviewed, and I thought made great records, records I still like, actually.., but we didn’t want to do that. And we sort of had this idea that we wanted them to be a bit like film stills. And that extended to the music – “West End girls” begins with someone walking down the street and then the string chord comes in. We wanted to sound a bit like a film. And then EMI gave us the money and we did a two- or three-day, even, photo shoot in east London.Of course we were fascinated by east London and of course it was “East End boys, West End girls”. I see you’ve got the video here [“West End girls” video still on screen] and again the coat, Chris is wearing the jacket that he bought with the stylist, and Chris hasn’t really become Chris yet, if you know what I mean. Eric had the Stephen Linard coat, and I bought one at his recommendation, and I became me, I think, with this look. I mean, it’s not really radically different from this [points to what he is wearing today]. But it was the coat. I liked the coat because the coat has got movement, and if you’re not feeling confident it has a feeling a security and enormous power about it. And I wore that coat in two videos – I wore it in the video before, and wore it on Top Of The Pops, and it became a trademark thing. And what I think did get established in this video, which came from our personalities, and also the fact that I was the singer and Chris wasn’t, is that Chris kind of loiters in the background, looking like he doesn’t want to be there. The first video we did, of course, he famously announced he had a doctor’s appointment at three o’clock in the afternoon. I don’tthink he did on this one. But it sort of worked. It’s a very odd thing, you know, to make a video, when you’re 30 years old or something, and suddenly you see yourself presented as a kind of product.Michael Braceweli: Because I mean, running forward of ourselves a little bit, I’m interested looking at this now, because it kind of signs up this particular relationship you’ve had with London. You’ve worked visually with a lot of London, right up to the stuff we’ll look at later by Wolfgang Tilimans or Martin Parr. Was that something that you consciously wanted to do? That you felt very much you wanted it to be a London thing? That you wanted to declare a…?Neil Tennant: It was something Chris and I… actually Chris talked about, really. When we first started writing songs… I had written songs on my guitar in my bedroom since I was a child really, and it was all kind of singer-songwriter. Chris and I first met when Soft Cell had just happened, and Chris said, “Can’t you make the lyrics more sort of sexy, and write about Soho and going out We used to go out a lot – we still do
– in Soho and in London. And that’s definitely where the idea of East End boys and West End girls came from. And also, once you start writing songs, of course, and you get an idea like that, you follow it through. Also, Chris and I were both northerners. There was not only West End and East End, there was North-East and North-West going on in this group, and North-East and North-West are very different things. North easterners tend to be earnest; North westerners tend to be slightly more morose but also have a fantastic sense of humour. There’s all these comedians that come from the Northwest. So you’ve got that within the group. And also Chris and I both, even though we both lived in London, both felt slightly alien there. Even to this day I can still feel that I am someone who has come to London rather than I’m of it. And so it did become a big subject matter.Michael Braceweli: It seems interesting that fairly soon after that, within a year – I mean, this is a Mark Farrow design, this sleeve [the “Opportunities” sleeve], and it’s almost like one of the other components that we all come to know and love about Pet Shop Boys is that kind of love affair with minimalism as well, right through to the recent track “Minimal”. The only song which contains a rhyme “decisional”… what can I say?Neil Tennant: Cheap rhyme.Michael Braceweli: It pleases a certain kind of person. But was the minimalism… because, Philip, one of the things you mention in your essay is that Factory,
obviously, and Pete Saville had been very, very influential at this time, the designs he’d done for New Order and so on.Philip Hoare: And the expression of the aesthetic of a group in a graphic sense, rather than in a photographic sense. I mean, I think in a way a cover like that says “Pet Shop Boys” as much as any photograph, as any of Eric’s photographs does.Neil Tennant: Yeah, well I think you have to remember that of course Chris was a qualified architect and had quite a lot of interest. And Chris likes concrete. You know, the live album’s called Concrete. And he likes that kind of minimal aesthetic. And I like it – I don’t like it to live in. But if we were look at all the other records that came out the same week as this in 1986 they would have very elaborate sleeves. There was a designer called Malcolm Garrett who did a lot of work at the time, like Culture Club and Simple Minds, and they were very, very elaborate sleeves. In the way that in the songs – in this song, for instance, we just said “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money”, it was meant to be a very bleak statement of the obvious, the sort of thing people didn’t say in songs, which was one thing we were trying to do with our songs – this sleeve sald this. In fact actually at the time Chris and I weren’t that keen on this sleeve. I think we thought it was slightly bland. But the great thing is, it hasn’t sort of aged, really. I think the album cover, Please – in these days, of course, albums were only on vinyl – that was a fantastically strong minimal statement, with the little photograph, like a postage stamp in the big white square, and we did that partly because Mark came up with it and we thought it was great, but also it was sort of a wind-up for the record company.Remember, a lot of what we did at the time.., it’s always easy to think, “Wow, it must have been great then – everything was a hit,” and actually everything was sort of a battle. Everything was a baffle. We were always criticised for not doing anything on the television, for having a sleeve like this [“Love comes quickiy”] with no title on it. That became a sort of clicbe; when this came out in 1986 people didn’t do sleeves like this, unless maybe they were Factory records where they’d have an appropriated image from an old painting or something. And so it was always a bit of battle going on.Michael Braceweli: Chris, you’ve kind of over the years got this amazing sort of role as a writer, sort of as a literary project, you’ve kind of amongst other things been sort of Pet Shop Boys’ writer-in-residence. I mean, I remember when you did the University tour – you may remember a few years ago Release came outand Pet Shop Boys did the University tour, and the idea was that this was all going to be terribly pared-down and straightforward, it was just going to be the band playing, and I took our son to go and see them in Keele, great show, great evening, so we thought maybe it’ll be all pared-down and straightforward backstage. And Chris and Neil were backstage being filmed, photographed, their every word being written… it was like being on the set of a war film.Neil Tennant: Never done anything with it, mind.Michael Braceweil: I remember you were there, Chris, literally sort of filming everything. How did that role come about? Did you…?Chris Heath: It sort of came about slowly, over time, sort of a bit by accident, I think. I mean, I started working at Smash Hits just towards the end of Neil working there, and we got to know each other a little there, and Chris would come in at the end of the day and I knew him slightly, and then I’d interview… I think I wrote the first cover story for Smash Hits on the Pet Shop Boys, and would write about them, and then when they finally decided to go on tour in 1989,1 think your sort of impulse was: most people take a photographer on tour, why don’t we take a writer?Neil Tennant: I was always obsessed by this book about the Beatles called Love Me Do…Chris Heath: Which had always obsessed me to. By Michael Braun.Neil Tenant: It was a book about the Beatles when they were just becoming famous in 1962, ’63, and in fact I sold Faber & Faber a book by my friend Dave Rimmer about Culture Club, and again it was meant to be like Love Me Do. It’s one of these great ‘one idea’s. And I think we thought about doing a book like that. And at the same time the reason Chris has always been around ever since is because we have this project, which is we do this magazine, which is meant to come out three times a year and probably comes out twice a year, also called Pet Shop Boys, Literally. And Chris writes it. And I think a lot of the fact that we’ve recorded in writing everything we’ve done since 1989, which is a long time now,I think we probably couldn’t have done the book really to some extent without giving our thoughts at the time. Because of course you tend to revise maybe unconsciously what you thought about something, and they’re there in black in white. And I think Chris has a personality similar to ours in that he has that obsession thing to record it as it happens.
Michael Bracewell: Because, from a writing point of view, reading the accounts of being with Chris and Neil, going on the tours and so on, it is sort of eye of the camera. You put the reader in the room with them. Do you just have amazing recall?Chris Heath: No, no, no, I have terrible recall. I manically write things down, endlessly.Michael Braceweil: Film?Chris Heath: Just occasionally. But on the first tour I had these great big notebooks, and I’d literally often be standing by people while they were dancing on the dance floor.Neil Tenant: With the notebook.Chris Heath: With the notebook, listening to what they were saying to the person they were dancing with. But amazingly, pretty quickly, everyone just got so used to it, it was unbelievable. Including me. I thought it was a normal way to act.Neil Tennant: Actually, people around us know that that happens. It is a bit weird.Michael Bracewell: This sleeve, the Actually sleeve, it seemed to me to sort of flag up one of those words that has drifted around your career which is the ‘irony’ word. And I know that you’ve long managed to weary, both you and Chris, of journalists asking you whether or not you’re ironic. But I did read somewhere the rather great line by a writer who said that “it wasn’t so much that Neil’s voice was detached as semi-detached” which I thought was quite…Neil Tennant: You know what he means.Michael Bracewell: Was this just of a sort of accident, this image?Neil Tennant: The image itself was an accident. We were doing the video with Dusty Springfield for “What have I done to deserve this?” at Brixton Academy which Eric Watson was directing, and therefore we had a photographer. You know, in those days everything was less planned. So, for instance, this photograph was taken about six weeks before the album came out. Nowadays the record company would… it’d be on the Internet three-and-a-half months beforehand. And so we were pretty last-minute with this. Cindy Palmano took the photograph and it was a classic long shoot, got there at seven in the morning or something, and towards the end of the day it was time for CindyPalmano’s photographs and we sat down and I just yawned. And we were wearing these clothes in the video – Chris hates this picture by the way – and I yawned, and then she took endless reels of it, and Mark Farrow got the photographs in, and we all thought it was great because, again, it was a bit of a wind-up, in a way – saying to the record company that we’re going to have a picture of me yawning on the front cover of this gorgeous shiny pop record. But also it was part of our attitude. Famously when “West End girls” was number one and we were on Top Of The Pops and the camera came over to me Chris hissed, “Don’t look triumphant.” This is the same thing: don’t look triumphant. And we had the title before we started making the record, Pet Shop Boys, actually, because we’d realised everyone thought we were very English and we didn’t mind that they thought that. And also we’d taken on board the irony thing. Because we did write “. . . (let’s make lots of money)” as a major ironic pop song. I mean, I’ve always thought the Pet Shop Boys is a kind of sustained exercise in romanticism, really, but it’s leavened with humour and irony to get over the embarrassment of the level of commitment there is in a lot of the songs. I remember when the album Behaviour came out, I was embarrassed thinldng of sending it out to journalists. And so this: again, the record has some very romantic songs like “It couldn’t happen here” and “King’s Cross”, political songs, and “What have I done to deserve this?”, and so presenting it like this, in this seriously modem and slightly detached way…Philip Hoare: It’s very English thing though, as well,
isn’t it?Neil Tennant: Yeah. The embarrassment…Philip Hoare: Because you don’t want to feel as though you’ve set yourself up to fall. And also the notion of being slightly amateur about this sort of thing…Neil Tennant: Yeah. We were always suspicious, to this day, of professionalism. Or of professionalism being the point. Nowadays a lot of pop music is about professionalism. And of course in many ways we are very professional, but we don’t think it should be about that.Michael Braceweli: Just coining back to what you were saying, Philip, just now… because this is one of my favourites… this is an Eric Watson portrait [“It’s a sin” sleeve], fantastic for so many different reasons, but it seems to tap into what you’ve written about quite a lot, about this idea of the romantic, about how does,
particularly with English romanticism, that sort of lineage going right back to mid-Nineteenth century…Philip Hoare: Also, the lyrical notion of romanticism as well, because the way an image can pick up on the sense of place. And this is shot in the Presbytery, is it, Neil, of Christchurch?Neil Tennant: Yeah, we hired this church for an afternoon, and it cost £2,000 to hire it. And then we did most of the photographs in this little shitty office. I mean, the twelve-inch is in the church. This is not even the presbytery – it’s the caretaker’s office or something. I can’t remember that Eric lit it or not – he probably did light it – but it’s just a beautiful composition. I say in the book it reminds me of that painting Ennui by Sickert, which it does.It was when we established the fact that we weren’t scared of looking bored – this is actually before Actually comes out. And again it was a very uncompromising image, and if you were to look at all the other singles coming out that week it would look ridiculously uncompromising. And also, you probably can’t really see it, but we did this thing of putting the “It’s a sin” in quote marks, trying to make the title of the record a caption to the photograph, so in other words there’s a sort of implied narrative going on in the photograph.Philip Hoare: It’s like a pre-Raphaelite painting.Neil Tennant: Yes, it’s very like that.Michael Braceweil: Just kind of scooting ahead a little bit, because I’m slightly behind on time, this is famously the Derek Jannan video for “It’s a sin”. And in a lot of ways one of the things the Thames & Hudson Catalogue picks up on is that right from the beginning you and Chris have made a point of working with, if you want, big name contemporary artists. Derek Jarman…Neil Tennant: Yes, but it’s not so much… it’s also the idea of going to people outside pop music. In the way that in the songs we’ve tried to bring in subject matter outside pop music, and not just the conventional subject matter of pop music. We were finishing this record off
– Stephen Hague was mixing it in Advising studios – and the film Caravaggio by Derek Jarman was on Channel 4; again, at that time there was huge controversy that they had short season of Derek Jarman films; they were regarded as obscene at the time. We just thought, “Oh…” because this record was so sort of Catholic, and Caravaggio… we suddenly thought he could do a very Catholic-looking video. That was our brief. And the idea was that I was going to be burnt at the stake at the end. Which is actually implied at the
end of the video, because you see a fire being lit. Derek came up with the idea. This was shot in Dockiands – they’d just filmed Full Metal Jacket in this particular warehouse, which is probably now a block of luxury fiats or the offices of The Sun or something.Michael Braceweil: Duggie Fields at the top.Neil Tennant: Duggie Fields at the top, and RonMoody, who of course played Fagin in Oliver is in it.Philip Hoare: Stephen Linard…Neil Tennant: Stephen Linard is in there. But yeah, we like the idea of people coming with a different aesthetic coming from outside; without a pop aesthetic. One of the problems about working with people outside pop when you get them to do a pop video is they often think, “Oh, you’ve got to do a pop video”. We always say, “Don’t look at any pop videos – we want you to do your thing?’ Just like when Dusty Springfield said, “What do you want me to sound like?”, we said,”Dusty Springfield?’ With Derek Jarman, we said we wanted it to look like Derek Jarman. And it did, although he made a better film for it when we did the tour with him in 1989.Michael Braceweil: It’s interesting, because we jump straight from that which is quite febrile and very recognisably Derek Jarman into this [“Rent” sleeve]. And we in the faculty of Pet Shop Boys studies, around about year two start looking at: Do Pet Shop Boys have a continued fascination with the tension between artifice and naturalism?Neil Tennant: Um… I don’t know the answer to that question.Michael Braceweil: Well…Neil Tennant: I think there’s a lot of subtext goes on in Pet Shop Boys, there’s a lot of things that aren’t said. And in this picture we’re dealing with the fact that we’ve got a single coming out and it’s called “Rent”, which has evidently come from the phrase “rent boy” and it’s part of the romanticism of writing about the street, and making it romantic. Although the song itself
– that was the inspiration for the title of the song – the song itself is about something slightly different. I think that we might have thought that we would go with the rent boy image for this picture – the two shadowy men on a station platform. You know what?I can’t remember really. I actually can’t remember. I think it’s great the way someone’s holding a light behind us, which is causing the shadow, and you can’t see him.Michael Braceweil: But, just in the Pet Shop Boys trivia stakes department, is it true that on a television event not dissimilar to this one that Chris Lowe actually fell asleep?Neil Tennant: That was when “West End girls” was just happening, I think – we were interviewed by Selina Scott on breakfast television. It was very early in the morning, it was like a quarter to eight. She had to wake him up to answer a question.Michael Braceweil: This is a fabulous image. It’s on the set of the video for “Heart” with Sir Ian MeKellen in it. And I just wanted to ask you, Patrick – it’s not often you get to look at pictures of the Pet Shop Boys next to an expert on the gothic, and I just wondered – do you think Pet Shop Boys play with the gothic a lot? Do you think it’s a strand in their imagery?Philip Hoare: Well, it’s funny, because what you’ve been talking about up till now just makes me increasingly think that they could be a nineteenth century pop group. That if there was a pop group around the time of Wilde, that is how they would have operated. Because what they’re drawing on – very English themes, but there are always subtexts, and of course the gothic is always about subsumed sexuality in another form. I mean, that’s what the vampire is about. And I think this video was directly based on Nosferatu, wasn’t it?Neil Tennant: Yeah.Philip Hoare: So, yeah, increasingly when I look at them, and some of the later images as well I think are very nineteenth century in a way… and I don’t know what it is. I mean, I don’t know whether it’s because I know Neil’s own cultural references in private, as it were – what you read, the fact you’ve taken a single title from Trollope… I don’t know. But those are the things that increasingly occur to me…Neil Tennant: Well, I think we also like the clothes. The sort of nineteenth century clothes. But at the time that video was made I was living, you may recall, in a flat in Fulham which was decorated in the sort of gothic style. I don’t particularly like it now so much, but…Philip Hoare: But it’s a great counterpoint because…Neil Tennant: It is. I’ve always thought in pop music – and of course we had the sexuality issue at this point – and I think the mystery of wondering about someone is much more interesting than knowing everything about someone. And I think it’s one of the powerful things about the Pet Shop Boys in the late Eighties that,
although in our interviews we were sort of funny and Smash Hits-y, you didn’t really know that much about us. And we liked to present in some of the imagery a sort of darker side. And also humour – that Heart video was actually quite funny as well. We used to call them “costume dramas”. We did the kind of more, I don’t know what the word is, realistic videos and then we did the costume dramas.Michael Braceweil: Again with this Bruce Weber portralt, an image taken on the set of “Being boring”. Again, Patrick, it seems to remind me that it could be straight out of Beaton or Noel Coward, one of those house party shots from the 1920s.Philip Hoare: Sure. And I think that’s what Bruce Weber was trying to recreate. Well, specifically he was taking the Fitzgerald quote out of “Being boring”, it was shot in Long Island… and also that sense, again, of reticence and nostalgia and longing, and these things which militate against the emotion of probably my favourite Pet Shop Boys song in a way, and also one of the most emotional of Pet Shop Boys songs in a way. You have to strive to get to the emotion of the song, in a way, through the…Neil Tennant: I think Bruce Weber heard the song and just thought it was about youth. And he was right, because it’s about what you wanted to be when you were young and what you became when you were older. That’s kind of the idea of the song. And so he just went for the youth thing. And it says about having a party in the song. My friends in Newcastle used to have what we thought were sort of crazy parties. And Bruce Weber did this very glamorous party, and the fact that it’s shot in black and white somehow made it look like the past in the present. It gave a slightly mythic feel to it. And also what we liked about it was it looked very luxurious.Michael Bracewell: It reminds me of Bailey and Lichfield’s Ritz newspaper.Philip Hoare: Yes.Neil Tenants: Yes, it’s a bit like that.Philip Hoare: But also you have to say that the shadow of AIDS is hanging over that image.Neil Tennant: Over the image? Do you think? It certainly hangs over the song.Philip Hoare: I think the film, too.Neil Tennant: Do you think? I don’t get that.Philip Hoare: Well, because it’s so sexually celebratory, in a very nostalgic way. You feel as though that’s been lost.Neil Tennant: Yes, that’s a good point. I hadn’t thought of that. Because they’re sort of shagging at the end of
it.Michael Braceweil: Speaking of shagging… this is from the Performance tour, called the Thompson Twins outfits, and I actually wanted to ask you, Chris, a bit about this, because you were on the whole of the Performance tour.Chris Heath: The whole American part of it.Michael Braceweli: Most of it. And I suppose because you’ve probably studied Chris and Neil when they’re actually working, closer than almost any other… certainly writer – do you think it’s right to say that there’s an incredible mix of, if you want, kind of high and low, fine art and popular culture, head and heart stuff going on in Pet Shop Boys. Do you think it is a sort of formula like that?Chris Heath: Well, I think all of that’s there, but it’s not a formula in the sense that I’ve ever heard anyone say, “Oh, we need a dollop of high art now:’
Michael Braceweli: Really? That’s quite surprising, because I can almost imagine one of them saying, “What this needs is a touch of…?”Chris Heath: Well, they might say it for humour…Neil Tennant: Yes.Chris Heath: …but I think it’s quite instinctual. I think that’s why it works. I think, watching it really close up, it’s amazing watching the incredibly pop elements and what might be seen as sort of arty intellectual just sort of pile in all at once and all together. Does that seem fair?Neil Tennant: Yes, and this is also David Fielding, who designed the Performance tour, it’s his interpretation of us, or one of them. As you can see from all these photographs from this tour, he has the most fantastic sense of colour. And the moustaches were just really funny. And I think the Thompson Twins in Tintin are a very English archetype. And there was always the thing about us with Gilbert and George…Michael Braceweli: Yes, I was going to come onto that.Neil Tennant: .. and it’s sort of a bit Gilbert and George-y in a way.Michael Braceweil: I think there’s one interview that’s in the Thames & Hudson book where you say – I don’t know if the interview was done around this time – where you say that you were quite pleased with the comparison to Gilbert and George.Neil Tennant: I mean, they weren’t deliberate, but when people said that we quite liked it, because we like Gilbert and George’s work. And also they’re such a sort of brand, aren’t they, that we were quite flattered to be compared to them. But I think partly it’s in the same way that we get compared to Sparks who neither of us has ever had much interest – because there’s a keyboard player who doesn’t smile and a singer. You’ve obviously got it all from Sparks. And you can say, “Oh, it obviously all comes from Gilbert and George.” It’s because there’s two of you.Michael Braceweil: Pet Shop Boys trivia department again calling in: is it true that you once shouted through George’s letterbox on Foamier Street?Neil Tennant: No, I looked through it. We were going to do a tour in 1986 and we had this idea that we would get Gilbert and George to design the poster for it. The tour never happened anyway. And so Chris, me, and Mark Farrow turned up – because of course everyone knows where they live – turned up at their house at nine o’clock in the morning and knocked on the door. So I looked through the letterbox. At this point.., who’s the English one?Michael Braceweli: George.Neil Tennant: George answered the door as I was kneeling down at the letterbox. We explained who we were and all the rest of it, and I said, “We’d like to ask you if you’d design a poster for us:’ And he said, “Oh, well, we don’t do anything for a purpose’ I was rather flummoxed by this, and Chris said, “Oh, that’s OK, it doesn’t have to have a purpose.” And he said, “Oh, you d better come in then:’ In fact Gilbert’s father had died the night before, so our timing was very bad. And we went into their house with all the ceramics and everything, and that was it – we never heard anything. But I spoke to them about it many years later and they both remembered it.Michael Bracewell: It’s interesting that by the time you get to 1991, Pet Shop Boys had become sufficiently, if you want, established kind of as an institution – certainly within pop music, and also I would say within broader culture – to the point that you could use fan folk art, little kind of major dolls of yourself, on the cover. [“Was it worth it?” sleeve] Was this a Japanese…?Neil Tennant: We toured Japan on the Performance tour, and we’d been given these dolls, and they were particularly good dolls. Actually over the years from Japan we’ve had some great dolls. We didn’t have a new image for this – “Was it worth it?”, isn’t it? – and also it was Christmas, and it looks a bit Christmas-y, dolls, and they’re just really cute, and also we liked the fact that it was someone else’s… in the same way that “It’s a sin” is Derek Jarman’s representation of us, this is some Japanese fan’s representation of us.Michael Braceweli: Would you ever – given how slippery pop culture is these days – would Chris and yourself ever endorse the idea of there being a Pet Shop Boys cartoon? Or Pet Shop Boys figurines? Or…Neil Tennant: I don’t think there’s a market for figurines. I mean, we try to do cartoons – we’re probably going to come on to that, so maybe we’ll talk about it. I mean, this [“Can you forgive her… ?”] was our idea of… this is two years after that, and we’ve got a new album coming out, we’re sort of thinking we’re bored of being Pet Shop Boys as was, and our American manager, called Arma Andon, said to us:
“You do this amazing tour with all these costumes – why don’t you do something like that in your videos?” And so we had this idea of approaching David Fielding, who designed that Thomson Twins stuff I was talking about, to come up with a look for some videos. And also there was new technology available, and we were going to do a lot of these high tech videos, all shot against a blue screen.What we were aiming for, and Chris particularly was aiming for, was that they’d have an artificial version of us so we wouldn’t have to be in the videos. Howard Greenhalgh, the video director, his heart sank the day Chris said that to him. Because we did sort of finally get there. But these were meant to be like digital cartoons. And also we liked the fact that you had this trademark image with these pointy hats. To this day, in a Pet Shop Boys concert in Mexico City, there’ll be five people wearing pointy hats. And we love that. Also, again, at the time, everyone just sort of remembers, “oh, yeah, the pointy hat thing It was quite a brave thing to do.Michael Braceweil: Particularly in Russia, where I gather that the ceiling height…Neil Tennant: We had to do a press conference wearing them in Russia and we came out and the ceiling was really low.., there were as many people as this there, and all the Russians just sat there and not one of them smiled. It was a bit embarrassing.Michael Braceweli: This is some of my absolutely favourite Pet Shop Boys imagery [“Go West” videoNeil Tennant: Totally, yeah. In the early Nineties they had a season of Powell and Pressburger films on BBC or Channel 4 and I videoed them all, and I loved them and I still love them. We had a meeting at my house about the video for “Go West” and I put on A Matter Of life And Death, the famous scene where they’re going to heaven on a big staircase. Howard Greenhalgh said, “Oh yeah, that’s greaC’ And David Fielding designed some new helmets and things, and we just went with the staircase. Again, this is super-cartoon-y. You probably don’t imagine that someone like us would think like this, but we were always aware that we had quite a lot of young fans. Children used to like the Pet Shop Boys. And we liked the fact we were doing something that the children of friends of ours would like as much as adults thinking it was all ironic and funny. It had a Saturday morning cartoon-like feel about it.Michael Braceweil: One of the points you’ve made in the book, Catalogue, which I think is very good is that this work was being made in 1993 when in London young British art was really gathering speed, as a kind of cultural brand and so on. And that there’s almost a sort of sense with this, it’s the point at which you just go for images that don’t have to mean anything, they become almost meaningless, and gloriously so. Did you have a sense then that you were kind of jettisoning the idea that it had to necessarily be about anything? It could just be…Neil Tennant: David Fielding always had an idea for what these things were about. Like, for instance, the pointy hats were dunces’ caps, and it comes from the line in the song, the school reference. But yet we liked the fact that this was a glorious colourful.., notice that it’s still a grid, of those surfboards in the background. Which is very Chris – Chris always likes a grid. But we liked the fact that it did have an abstract quality about it. I mean, Mark Farrow’s team had a lot of fun just playing round with the various images. Like this one [“I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing” image], this is totally created by Mark Farrow and his team. We did all these photographs, David Fielding designed these outfits that looked a bit Sixties because the song sounds a bit Sixties, and we went with these wigs which I always really liked, for whatever reason… and Mark came up with this. It was meant to be terribly, tenably, terribly artificial.Michael Braceweil: It’s odd, actually – that previous image, I often wonder whether Tim Burton maybe watched that prior to styling Willie Wonka, because there’s aspects, definitely. Have you see Charlie And The Chocolate Factory?
Neil Tennant: I haven’t.Michael Braceweil: It’s fantastic. The OompaLoompas even do your dance.
Neil Tennant: Do they? And then he goes and does
The Killers…Michael Braceweil: This is the Somewhere tour at the Savoy Theatre. Some of the staging was made by Sam Taylor-Wood; a very, very powerful piece, I think, and still one of my favourite pieces by Sam Taylor-Wood. Patrick, I remember you saying about how interesting you found seeing Pet Shop Boys in the Savoy Theatre in this very Cowardian kind of setting, under the arch, and so forth.Philip Hoare: That whole sort of silver art deco proscenium arch, framed like that, but within it having this ultimately extremely modern presentation – incredibly modern and incredibly minimalist, almost like one of the album covers comes to life, where you walk out of the film Sam had made of you partying with the YBAs, with Jay Jopling and Cerith Wyn Evans, and you walk out of the film into the stage, into this clinically-lit, very minimalist box. But, counter pointed with that, there was this incredible feeling of warmth, because the audience was there, as close as we are now. There wasn’t that distance between us. So the whole relationship, which you lose in pop now so much, the relationship between the performer and the audience – and the one wouldn’t exist without the other – that was so much back there. I’m sure many people here were at some of those performances, and it was an incredibly emotional performance.Neil Tennant: Yeah, it was unusual because, you’re right, the audience was as close as this. And the interesting thing was, we did it for two and a half weeks – we did 15 performances on consecutive nights. And it was instead of doing a tour. Sam had the idea… we went and looked at the theatre, and Chris and I had this very complicated idea that we were going to call the show Somewhere so -. even then we were obsessed by CCTV cameras and that whole thing of always being spied on and filmed – we had the idea of having cameras in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. A very pop star-y, Nick Rhodes kind of idea. She said, “Yeah, I’ll think about it,” and then she came up with this much cleverer idea that there’d be two sofas and she’d film one this way and one that and Chris and I would walk out, and we’d film a party with the backing tracks so they’d exactiy sync in, and they’d get drunk and dance to it, Chris and I wandering in and out of the party. It was a very simple idea, and a very clever idea.Somewhere live show.Michael Braceweil: But technically, for you and Chris,
to have to get the timing to walk in and out…Neil Tennant: That was just a bit of luck, really. Either Chris or me once forgot to walk off at one point. And a lot of people thought there was a party backstage, because we wanted to give the idea of a CCTV camera or closed-circuit television or something.Philip Hoare: This was before Big Brother, wasn’t it?Neil Tennant: Oh, ages before. And you mention the YBA thing – that’s simply because they were the people that Sam hung round with. I mean, we knew Jay Joplmg, and we’d met Cereth Wyn Evans… and there’s various other people… Johnny Shand-Kydd. Some of them were a bit embarrassed about it – I don’t think they quite realised they were going to be at the Savoy Theatre for two-and-a-half weeks. They get really drunk by the end.Michael Braceweil: We’ve already hit eight o’clock and I’ve been instructed that we have to be out of here for ten past eight… I’m sure some of you have very good questions that you’d like to ask, and I want people to have a chance to do it. Anyone?What next for the Pet Shop Boys?Neil Tennant: What next? We’re not really doing “next” at the moment. Although actually we’re going in the studio next week – we haven’t written any songs for two years, pretty much, so we’re going to write some new songs. And we’re touring more in the first half of this year, hut with the production we’ve been doing. And we’re thinking of writing a ballet for a friend of ours. We’ll see whether that actually happens. You know, we’ve never thought that far ahead. Often it’s a perception that we plan things ahead – we tend to do things on the spur of the moment.You mentioned Brian Eno in your introduction – it would be a music fan’s wet dream for the Pets to do an album with him. How come it’s never happened?Neil Tennant: Well, we got to know Brian Eno right after the Somewhere shows – we went to St Petersburg when he was living there; that’s why we went, actually, because we met him. And when we were starting to plan the musical Closer to Heaven, Brian Eno was going to produce the record of it. He had a great idea about making computers sounds human, and we did a day in the studio with him where he recorded a version with us of this song called “Something special” from the musical. And then we were going to do the album, and then I don’t know what happened. He was living in St Petersburg and then the musical got delayed… it just never happened. But I agree, it would be an interesting idea. But Brian Eno has a thing he does. One his great things he does is he gives people strategies to write songs, if he’s working with U2 or James or someone, and we arrived at this session with a cassette with 12 finished songs on it, so it would be a different sort of Brian Eno project, I think.The video of “Numb” is very interesting. Could you tell us more about it?Neil Tennant: Are you Russian?No, I’m Polish.Neil Tennant: Polish, sony. The video for “Numb” came about because we had this idea that “Numb” was going to come out in the winter, and we had this sort of Russian snow idea. [“Numb” sleeve image is projected] This is not from the video, even though it’s a very interesting image… It’s probably the video we’ve had least to do with in our entire career but it’s very beautiful, but they took pieces of old Soviet black and white feature films and edited them together with different backgrounds. It’s an incredibly beautiful and clever video.., for which I can take no credit.
Have you ever preferred a remix to an original song you’ve written?Neil Tennant: Very rarely. I’ve probably sald this before, but there’s a song we have called “Young offender” on the album Very, and Jam & Spoon did a remix and we definitely prefer that to our version. I think it’s the best remix we ever had done. There might be a couple of others, but that’s the one that springs to mind.In your DVD of A Life In Pop, there’s scenes from the ’89 tour that haven’t been seen since ’89 – does that mean the film of it is finally going to come out?Neil Tennant: Yes. Derek Jarman filmed the 1989 tour, and EMI at the time wouldn’t pay for it to be shot on film so it was shot on high definition video and we really hated the way it looked. Anyway, we’ve decided to have another look at it, and maybe it will come out. The guy who actually made A Ltfe In Pop worked at PMI, which is EMI’s video company, in those days, and he’s kind of in charge of that. So it may do. It’d be nice if it did.Have you and Chris ever had an idea for an image where you thought, “that’s a good image but it’s just too over the top, almost”?Neil Tennant: I think, if you go back to the dogs picture [“I don’t know what you want…” sleeve], I think this is an amazing picture. I wasn’t at the marketing meeting at Parlophone, but our manager then, Mitch Clark, was, and I think it was quite a difficult meeting. It’s brave, you know, but I think it’s an amazing image. We were just trying to do something striking, sort of slightly alienating.Michael Braceweil: Because you even did performance interviews, didn’t you, at the old St Pancras Hotel, where the writer would go up through the building…Neil Tennant: Ian MacNeil designed it, the light box we sat on, and we wore the clothes. It was great, actually. It was funny, actually, because most journalists didn’t refer to it. I mean, they went into a deserted hotel, walked up this massive staircase, as soon as you opened the door dogs started to bark, and at the end of a dark corridor the video was playing, then you turned a corner and sitting on a light box were us, dressed like us. We did this for three days and I think one journalist mentioned it. It’s incredible. We were just trying to do something, because when you’re writing it’s quite good to have context, you know, and we thought it gave quite good context to the album.Michael Bracewell: Is it true that a journalist from one of the papers who was a big fan turned up already wearing the same outfit?Neil Tennant: Yes. He was Spanish or something like that. So anyway, your question… and when we did this, we did actually alter it slightly. Originally the mouths were like rectangles, and we thought they looked too ugly, and then we changed the wigs to make them more sort of cosmetically attractive as the project went on. We wore these things at the Zaha Hadid tour. I think that when we did this video [“Home and dry” video still] – again, I wasn’t at the marketing meeting at Parlophone – we approached Wolfgang Tillmans to do a video because we’d met him and liked his work, and we planned a whole video, and then we went to see it and he said, “You know, I had a different idea…” And he said, “I was just thinking about home and travel” And he showed us this.We thought it was great. I thought it was brilliant. If you haven’t seen it, it’s mice in Tottenham Court Road tube station. It seems a very clever image, of home – it’s their home – and it’s about travel. But the only MTV company that showed it was MTV Russia, to their enormous credit. Again, I think, in hindsight, I think it’s really good. I think if it had been shot on film, and not shot on video.., because there’s a thing about video, people think, “Oh, I could have done that… I could have done it on my telephone…” And you couldn’t. You know, it took him five days just waiting for these blasted mice to appear. But I think if it had been shot on film and lit in a kind of a cute way… I thought it was like a sort of Walt Disney idea, to be honest. I thought you could have made a cartoon out of it.You touched on cartoons earlier~ Are we going to see a Pet Shop Boys visit South Park?Neil Tennant: No. Not at the moment. I think we could do a good cartoon, but there’s no plans for it.Are there any plans to exhibit any of the costumes?Neil Tennant: Actually this book, Catalogue, came about because this American curator, Terry Meyers, had an idea for doing a show in American art museums based on the collaborations of our live shows: Derek Jannan, Sam Taylor-Wood, Zaha Hadid etc, and it was going to end with a new collaboration with someone. Anyway, people are still talking about it but I don’t
think it’s ever going to happen. We were going to then. We do have them all. They’re all in storage.Costumes, you know, always look disappointing, though, close to. Because costumes aren’t fashion, they’re costumes – they’re meant to be seen from a distance. It’s sort of interesting to see them, but they always look a bit rough and ready when you’re looking close to them.I’d just like to ask, “It couldn’t happen here”, which is a very ambitious song on Actually, I was wondering why you didn’t do it on Concrete when you had an orchestra?Neil Tennant: Well, on Concrete, which was the album we made with the BBC Concert Orchestra last year, we made a list of all of the songs with orchestras on, and actually there’s quite a lot of them, you know. And we were going to do “It couldn’t happen here”… and I can’t remember why we didn’t do it. We should have done it, probably. I don’t know. Maybe the orchestra arrangement’s too big or something. It’s a shame we didn’t, I agree.Do you have a favourite video and image, one that you’re actually most proud of throughout this whole career of creativity?Neil Tennant: My favourite videos we’ve done are “It’s alright”, which is the one with all the babies, which I think is very beautiful – we had 50 babies in the studio, and I think it was a really good idea and it’s beautifully shot and it’s sort of moving. You can do those kind of very optimistic Michael Jackson-y kind of things which are really corny, whereas this is very disciplined and beautiful. I love the video for “Being boring” as well, and I love the video for “Can you forgive her?”, because I think it’s just a sort of perfect cartoon. It’s also very ingenious. I don’t know if you remember those bits where we’re sitting at a table pushing things to each other. And it somehow doesn’t look that contrived, weirdly. It’s got a real flow about it. I like the imagery in it. All the three videos are really very different and represent different sides of us and our music. And the lady mentioned “Numb”, I think “Numb” is a really great video as well.Michael Bracewell: That seems like a very good last question…Neil Tennant: I thought we were here until nine o’clock. I’d have been talking faster…