|DESERT ISLAND DISCS|
On February 4, Neil appeared on the radio show
Desert Island Discs, on which guests are asked to choose the eight pieces of music they’d wish to have with them were they a castaway on an island, as well as one non-musical luxury and one book (aside from The Bible and The Complete Works Of Shakespeare which, in the rather odd but surprisingly revealing and enduring thought experiment, they are already provided)
|It’s sort of an honour being asked to do Desert Island Discs’ says Neil, “because in Britain it’s a very, very famous programme, and a sort of recognition you exist. It’s such an institution – it was on when I was a child.” He didn’t find it too difficult to make his choices. “I decided I wasn’t going to choose my eight favourite tracks of all time because I think it’s impossible, whereas to talk about music that’s had a big impact on you at different times in your life is quite easy to do and quite interesting to do. I would be surprised if people hadn’t guessed what I was going to have had because I’ve done many things to do with favourite records, and everybody knows I like Dusty In Memphis and Shostakovich and David Bowie and the Beatles. It would have been very contrived if I hadn’t put anything like that in. Madonna nearly made it – probably ‘Holiday’ – but I chose Shannon in the end because musically it was an inspiration for us, more so than Madonna was. And I nearly put ‘Planet Rock’ in but I thought Shannon kind of covered that area. I very much wanted to have a 1983 New York record because that was such a transition year for us.”|
The interview was conducted by the show’s current host, Kirsty Young. It went like this:My castaway this week is the Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant. He is as untypical a pop star as you’re likely to find, having hit stardom at the relatively
late age of 30, and resolutely refusing to succumb to the populist packaging and promotion of a regular chart topped “West End girls” was the mould breaking single that catapulted the group to world stardom in the Eighties. It sounded at the time like a classic one-hit wonder – more than 20 years later the duo has sold tens of millions of records and holds a significant place in pop history. Since he was a child he says he’s always hated being taught what to do, and prefers to find out for himself It’s an independence of spirit that’s allowed him to take creative risks and plough his own furrow in an industry famed for its disposable tendencies. Would it be fair to say Neil, that you are known, in Pet Shop Boys terms, as the tall, less grumpy one?Um, maybe to the outside world, yes. I became a singer by accident. I only was the singer in the Pet Shop Boys because Chris wasn’t going to sing. I remember when we first did the video for “West End girls” we just did what we normally did, which was, I’d stride ahead and Chris walked slower than me, and I’m slightly taller than Chris. So that kind of image was kind of fixed by that.When you were on Top Of The Pops in those early days I remember certainly Chris – Chris Lowe, this is your partner in the Pet Shop Boys – on keyboards, static. It appeared he was using only one finger – I don’t know if he was – and there you were in your big, black, severe coat. I mean, it was very much against the trend at the time, which had been the sort of big sound, the New Romantic trend, boys in a lot of make-up and frilly shirts.Yeah, we were trying to be ourselves, was the idea. In the first half of the Eighties, which was a great time for pop music, when I worked for a magazine called Smash Hits, it was very much a sort of party on Top Of The Pops – and it was great. But that phase was coming to an end. And we wanted to do something different, something that was more influenced by dance music. Our specific idea was to make dance music with kind of intelligent lyrics. In fact if you look at the footage now, Chris in fact is grooving quite a lot – I just guess at the time it didn’t really seem like that.”West End girls” was the big hit. Did you think that it was going to be a big hit when you wrote it?I remember when we first recorded it in New York playing it to a close friend and he phoned me up and said, “You know, that record could be number one:’ And I said, “Yeah, I know what you mean:’ i said, “It won’t be, though, but I know what you mean – it’s sort of different, isn’t it?” But when we first started writing, Chris and I, together, we didn’t imagine we’d have success. We were just doing it because it was a thrill. We did it for the fun of it.This seems like a very good time then to ask you about your first record.My first record is… one of my first experiences of music is, we used to go on Sunday afternoons to my mother’s father’s house – my grandfather – and he was very into what you now call hi-fl. What even then you called hi-fl. And he had this very big record player in a sort of mahogany case…Those were stereogram’s, weren’t they?Yes, they were stereogram’s…Huge things, upholstered in fake wood.Yes, because in those days record players were furniture. And we just had a little portable record player at that point. And at the time everyone’s parents had the soundtrack of the musical My Fair Lady and I loved that way that Rex Harrison talked and sung sort of simultaneously. I also liked the wit. It’s a very, very witty musical. The lyrics were really, really clever. And this is his first song, “Why Can’t The English Teach Their Children How To Speak”.Rex Harrison “Why Can’t The English Teach Their Children How To Speak”Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins and “Why Can’t The English from the original soundtrack to My
Fair Lady. And a fabulous key into your psyche and what it is about writing songs that you love: it’s the words and it’s the lyrics and it’s the tightness that there is in that song.Yeah, and the wit. Choosing that record to play today… it had never occurred to me before that the influence has just seeped into my bran from listening to something like that.Have the words always come easy to you? I mean, were you a wordy little boy?No, I wasn’t the sort of boy that wrote poetry. I wrote songs. I got a guitar when I was 12 years old, and I taught myself the guitar chords, and then I worked out how to play the guitar chords on the piano we had at home, and I learned a lot about chord changes from playing Beatles music, really. And after a while I couldn’t be bothered to play those songs so I’d learn a new chord and I would write a song around it. This was when I was 13 or
14.I read that you wrote your first musical when you were nine. Is that right?Yes, but we made up the songs in our heads. Me and a girl at primary school decided we were going to do a musical. I mean, this would have been 1963 Musicals were very hot in those days. And so we wrote this musical called The Girl Who Pulled Tails about a naughty girl who used to pull the tails of cats and how she got into trouble doing this.~So it took a firm sort of moral tone?Yeah, I think it did. It’s a very hazy memory now.Can you remember any of the words?All I can remember is the first song was called “Has anyone seen my cat?”. It was bit Rex Harrison-y. I can’t really remember the words now. It was sort of, “Has anyone seen my cat, the one with the long tail?” I can’t remember how it went after that. There was only one performance, in her back garden, and about two people came to see it, and they got a bit bored halfway through, but we carried on and finished it.Did you feel the thrill of performance as you were up there?No, I felt a slight disappointment that it wasn’t quite good enough.So you were born in the mid-Fifties. You grew up on the outskirts of Newcastle?Yes, I was born in North Shields which was a
fishing port… still is a fishing port. And then when
I was, I don’t know, six or seven we moved to
Gosforth which is a suburb of Newcastle.And you mentioned the piano at home. Was it a musical home? There was music around?Yes, there was always music, from both sides of my family. I was the end of that generation that grew up with the Light Programme where you would have this mad combination of music playing, so you’d be used to hearing Frank Chacksfield and his orchestra playing “Moon River” or something, and it would be followed by Gerry And The Pacemakers or Cliff Richard or what have you. So that there was that weird thing of easy listening and new pop music being played together.And so your second record is?My second record is to me the first pop record that really, really made me an obsessive pop fan. I mean, at the time this record was so famous it was like a nursery rhyme – you would hear children just singing it in the street. And it’s “She Loves You”.The Beatles “She Loves You”The Beatles and “She Loves You” from 1963. You mentioned listening to them on the radio. Did you watch them as well, on TV?Yes, I remember we were allowed to stay up and watch them on Sunday Night At The London Palladium, and on the television you could hear, from the street outside the London Palladium, you could hear crowds screaming. It was under siege from Beatles fans. It was the day Beatle mania started and it was live on the television.And it was a Catholic family. Was it a happy family?Yes, it was. I have two brothers and a sister.
What did your dad do?My father was a sales rep. We used to like that, because in the summer holidays we used to travel with him, so he’d be going down to Darlington from Newcastle and my brother Simon and I would sit in the back of the car and get driven to Darlington and wander round Darlington. We used to go out to visit transport cafes for what I would now call lunch.What would you have called it then?I don’t know – I’d probably call it dinner then, I think.It sounds all very secure.Yes, it was very secure. It was just the way the world was. And we were Catholic and I was an altar boy. From about the age of nine until I was 14 or 15. When I was at primary school I used to go and serve the eight o’clock mass so, at the age of nine, me and the priest would do the whole Latin mass in less than 20 minutes. And I used to like that because you didn’t have to go to school assembly. You would take your breakfast in a little Tupperware box and, while they were having assembly, I’d be having this little breakfast my mother would have made for me.So you liked the church?I’ve always been interested in religion, and religions. Systems of belief. But I think when I was a teenager… you know, you start to question all of that.Of course one of your most famous records is “It’s asinYes, it is. When I was writing the lyrics I sort of meant it… as something like a joke. I didn’t really take it very seriously, anyway.And the gist of the song, for people who are not aware of it…?The gist of it… I guess it just came from my subconscious that when we were at school you always seemed to be taught that everything was a sin. Everything you wanted to do was a sin. And so I put that in a song.Did you feel that, given that you were a good Catholic boy and given that you got this reaction once the song was released, did you feel any sort of residual guilt? Do you think: I’ve given them a bad press and they don’t deserve it?No. [Laughs.] No, I didn’t. I mean, “It’s a sin” was also an early example of the Pet Shop Boys trying to bring a different kind of subject matter into pop music.Did you enjoy riling the Catholic Church then?I don’t know that they were riled. I wouldn’t have minded if I had. But I was just surprised that actually there was a sort of minor debate about it. We were on the cover of the Salvation Army’s magazine, the War Cry – they thought it was wonderful that we’d brought sin back into the public agenda.Tell us about your next record.The next record… all of my adult life I’ve listened to classical music as much as pop music. And the first classical music I can really remember affecting me was when I was at school, St Cuthbert’s Grammar School in Newcastle, one day… we used to have the music lesson, for some reason, in the big hall where assembly was held, and he said he was going to play this music, and it was Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis”, which is a very English piece of music, and he put it on and I just felt I’d never heard anything like this before. The richness of the harmony with this plaintive folk melody really hit me sort of physically. I was just really, really moved by it.Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Talus”Part of Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis” played by the Symphonic of London conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. What about formal music tuition then? You said that the first time you heard that Vaughan Williams it almost hit you physically when you were a young boy in school. Did you have any tuition?No. We did music the first three years and then you dropped it, you know. But I learned the cello – I played the cello for three years at school. One of the reasons I liked playing the cello was because
you could go in the music room in the lunch break, and I used to go and play the piano, actually, in the music room. I didn’t used to practice the cello.And you were a bright boy and you passed your eleven-plus and you got a scholarship?Yes, I was sort of relatively bright. The school I went to was a difficult school for me in a way because it was a very sort of sporty school. You know, Newcastle’s a great football place and I wasn’t really interested in football.And were you lonely in school? Were you isolated?No. No, I wasn’t. I always had a couple of good friends. I liked the feeling of not belonging. It consolidated that feeling in me that I wasn’t like the rest of them and that I was going to do something special with my life, and I would do whatever I wanted and I would have no fear about it.Did you think – and this is a very interesting point and sometimes comes up when you speak to people who ‘ye been very successful – they say that as a youngster, as a child even, they always knew something was going to happen.I always used to tell people when I was about 16,
17, that I was going to become a pop star, and that
I would be really famous.The difficulty with those sort of pronouncements though, if you dare say them when you’re 16 or 17, is that people think you’re snooty, or you perceive yourself as superior~ and it makes people not like you.Yeah, when I was at school I was a bit snooty. But that was a protection device, I think. And also I wasn’t really that bothered about being liked. All my friends – I had a very tight group of friends from all around Newcastle, and we used to go to The People’s Theatre which is this very big amateur theatre company and that’s where I formed my first group which was a folk group called Dust. At that point I was writing songs really quite seriously – from the age of 16, I would say, I was quite a serious songwriter at that point.Tell me about your next piece of music.The next piece of music is by David Bowie. Therewas this terrible period at the end of the Sixties, the beginning of the Seventies, where the most popular music was progressive rock and I really hated that period. And then the dark ages at the beginning of 1972 when we were watching The Old Grey Whistle Test and David Bowie came on, and he was charismatic and I just found him completely entrancing. He was an amazing performer and there was something very, very thrilling… We used to go to the main record shop in Newcastle and they had these stereo booths you could listen to classical music in, and we used to go after school and go to the classical bit – “Oh yes, you can go in there,” – and we’d say, “Oh, can we hear Hunky Dory by David Bowie, please?” and they’d be really narked. The opening of this song, “Changes”, used to sound so amazing in this stereo booth, marvellous speakers. I still think it’s a brilliant song, this.David Bowie “Changes”David Bowie and “Changes”. How would Neil
Tennant have looked then, in those early, mid-
Seventies. What would you have been wearing?Well, when that record came out I was at school, but that year I left school and moved down to London to go to college. And I remember I got a summer job. So I went for an interview at the British Museum, and I was dressed head to foot in white – I had white Oxford bag trousers which we wore in 1973 and a white shirt and a white tank top, and on my feet I was wearing sort of multicolour shoes, yellow and blue shoes with wedge heels, which were actually women’s shoes, very thick soles.What size were they then?They were one size too small for me.So you were suffering?I was suffering. And I had my hair dyed red as a sort of David Bowie tribute.That’s quite a look.Yeah. And no one said anything, and they gave me the job.Through all of this, though, in the back of your mind, still the plan to be a pop star?
Yes, I, at this point, was living in a little flat on the King’s Road, and I was still writing songs and I’d play them to friends – throughout the Seventies I was doing that. And I was doing it for pleasure, but I thought I’d missed the boat really.So you thought it might never happen?Yes. But nonetheless I carried on doing it.Had you at any point in this period actually tried to launch yourself as a singer-songwriter and get out there and do it?Yes. When I came to London in 1972 I used to visit music publishers. And it seems impossible to imagine this now, because people just wouldn’t let you do this anymore, but I would go there with my guitar and I would sit in front of their desk and play them three songs, and then play one on the piano in the office. I went to see Rocket Records when Elton John founded that in the early Seventies.And did these people ever give you any sort of encouragement and say, “you know, you’ve got a bit of talent there, Neil” or ‘frankly, go off and work for Marvel Comics”?Yes, they said – and this was when I was a student, actually, still – they said “you’ve got something, but I think it’s not quite developed yet”. And actually they were right. Because it would have been a catastrophe actually if I had released a record in 1974 that would have done nothing by this singer-songwriter called Neil Tennant, a rather wistful album of piano ballads. It would have been a catastrophe because it would have just killed me off, probably, creatively.Tell me about your next record.In the Eighties I was sent by Smash Hits to America to launch the American version of Smash Hits which was called Star Hits. And this record is by Shannon and it’s just typical of the sound of the time. What I really like about it is it has the inherent drama I’ve always liked in music, but it’s got this hard, street, New York sound. And it’s got this keyboard – “ding-dingdinnng, ding-ding-de-dinnng” – which also became pretty much a stable of the early Pet Shop Boys’ sound.Shannon “Give Me Tonight”Shannon and “Give Me Tonight “. Let’s talk about that infamous meeting then with Chris. You were living on the King’s Road and you went to, well, a little electrical shop on the King’s Road to try to…Yes. Chris Lowe, it turned out, was studying architecture – he was working in an architecture practice in Chelsea, just off the Kings Road, and I lived in this little studio flat on the Kings Road. So I went to the electrical store on the Kings Road in Chelsea and Chris Lowe walked in and we started talking about music and I thought he was very funny and he lived round the corner. And I told him I wrote songs and I gave him my phone number, and about a week later he phoned me up, and we met in a pub over the road. And we started writing songs literally immediately.You said a little while ago that if you had had any early success with any of those record companies that you’d knocked on the door of and sat across the desk from the executive playing your guitar, had given you a record deal, it would have been a disaster When you met Chris did you feel that the part of the jigsaw that you needed to put in place was then finished. Did you think “I can make music with this man – I can make music that will sell”?Yes, I thought I would be able to… we would be able to make music that was more relevant. That was different. And yes, I did feel that I had a second chance now with this. And so Chris and I now for years – ’82, ’83, ’84 – would go into the studio two or three nights a week and we’d write a song. And in a period at the beginning of 1983 we wrote “West End girls”, “It’s a sin”, “Rent”, “Love comes quickly”, a lot of other stuff – we were really getting somewhere.Tell me about your next record.My next record is a totally different side of music. I think my favourite singers tend to be women, and in the early Seventies we had in our flat in Tottenham a record called Billie Holiday, The Lady Sings The Blues, and someone had knocked together a compilation of Billie Holiday to tie in with the film. And we used to play this record back to back with Ziggy Stardust and Transformer by Lou Reed, and Billie Holiday has this power to
take a melody and a lyric and totally make it into.., it sounds like an organic production of her. It’s difficult to think that someone actually sat down and wrote the song. And it’s also like a voice that you can’t pin down. It’s like smoke or something. It’s a kind of music that enthrals me to this day. And it’s “Good Morning Heartache”.Billie Holiday “Good Morning Heartache”Billie Holiday and “Good Morning Heartache”. So, Neil, how did you come to write “West End girls”?Well, I was at my cousin’s house one night and we’d watched some old James Cagney gangster movie, and as I got into bed and turned the light off this line came to my head: “Sometimes you’re better off dead / there’s a gun in your hand and it’s pointing at your head”. I think it was inspired by the movie. And I thought, “Oh, that’s quite good,” so I got up and wrote it down, and then I carried it on and wrote this whole rap piece which I then recited to Chris. And then Chris and I wrote this other instrumental piece of music one day – very big rich string chords and this “dum dum dumdum” bassline – and I realised when I got home that I could say the rap over it, but then when the music changed you would sing the “in a West End town…” bit. I thought, “Oh, that’s good isn’t it?” So it’s a record that wasn’t deliberately written – it’s a song that came together.I described it in your introduction as a classic onehit wonder song – it was one of those songs at the time that sort of smacked everybody between the eyes, but you thought “well, that will be that thenI think our record company maybe thought we’d be a one-hit wonder. And obviously a difficult record to follow up because it’s very unusual. But of course what Chris and I knew was that we had up our sleeve all these other songs like “It’s a sin and what have you. And once you’ve had a big hit and another big hit, and then you have another big hit, which with the next record was “It’s a sin”~ you feel slightly more secure. Although, you can never feel secure in pop music.I’m thinking about that 17-year-old boy who said to his friends in a moment of blatant confidence, “I’m going to be a pop star” When you were onstage atTop Of The Pops or when you were looking out at the crowds of the people who knew all the lyrics to the songs you’d written, how did that feel?Well, it’s a funny feeling, because it’s a slightly insecure feeling, because one thing that happened is that suddenly we became performers, and I’d had very little performing experience of music, and so it was a funny feeling of insecurity and self-consciousness. And, at the same time, excitement. I remember when “West End girls” was number one and we were on Top Of The Pops and, as the camera was panning over to us, Chris hissed at me, “Don’t look triumphant.” Because the Eighties was a triumph list kind of time, and we didn’t want to be part of that. So I didn’t look triumphant. I don’t know if I was going to anyway, but I certainly didn’t after that.Of course importantly also we must remember, too, that you were 30. Thirty’s quite a strange age to suddenly become a pop star.When I left Smash Hits to be in a pop group at the age of 30 – actually almost 31 in fact – I felt myself there was something slightly embarrassing about it. That it was sort of a ridiculous thing to do. But at the same time I had a confidence in us. And I thought, well, at the very least I’ll get the gap year I’ve never had. And they wrote a funny sort of obituary about me in Smash Hits saying “he’ll be back in a year”. And I sort of think.., that was a joke, but it was also sort of serious as well. It was pretty much how I felt about it.You’ve sold tens of millions of records… have you made millions and millions of pounds?Yeah, but we’ve also spent a lot on our career. On tours. Making videos. You invest a lot of it back in the career.And what you do you spend it on in your real life, if I can call it that. Your personal life?In my real life, I have a very nice house in London, I have a house in the country, in the North-East, I buy paintings…Because I’m not imagining Neil Tennant driving his car into a swimming pool.Well, Neil Tennant doesn’t drive…
That’ll be that then.He’d be in a Dial-a-Cab.What’s your next piece of music?The next piece of music is by probably my favourite singer of all time who we were very lucky enough to work with, Dusty Springfield. It’s a great song called “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore”.Dusty Springfield “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore~~Dusty Springfield and “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore” from 1969. And when you worked with Dusty Springfield that was towards the midEighties, sort of ’86?End of ’86 when we first worked with her, yes.And her career was nowhere. She was all washed up.Yeah, it’s funny, that’s not how we thought of her, because Dusty was to us – and to a lot of people probably – a legend, and when she came into the studio, they finally tracked her down…Where did they find her?She was in Los Angeles. When we actually met Dusty she was living in a pay-by-day Hollywood motel. She was really at rock bottom. And it was just a sublime moment hearing Dusty Springfield sing our music.You also recorded with Liza Minnelli?Yeah, we were asked to work with Liza Minnelli by her record company. That was an amazing thing.You chose these women with notable historical baggage – they were women who’d travelled, they are women who are iconic survivors of the lives that they’ve led. They are two gay icons. Now I know that you always bristle at any…I hate the phrase “gay icon”.Why?Because I don’t really believe in it. I don’t reallybelieve that people’s musical taste is totally rooted in their sexuality, that’s why. And also the gay icon thing always implies that to be gay, there’s something a bit tragic about it so you like tragic music.And what about being out yourself?It wasn’t a big deal for me, that. I mean, when we were first pop stars I actually liked the fact that people will speculate about you. I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be stereotype~ but people will think of you as “gay”. It’s the first thing you might think about the Pet Shop Boys: gay. If someone is heterosexual is the first thing you think “he’s heterosexual”? It’s not, is it? You just assume their sexuality.No, but the life that they lead does indeed have an impact on how you interpret the word that they do. I mean, I’m a married mother of two children and some of the questions I ask, people think, “Well, of course, she’s asking that because she’s a married mother of two children – that’s her take on it.” If you sing a song somebody might think well, of course, that is uniquely an experience that comes from the perspective of somebody who’s from Newcastle and is gayYes, I think the big difference – and you’ve just hit on it there with your “married mother or two” thing
– is not having children. I think not having children gives you a completely different way of life. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I realise that my friends, who are gay and straight, the ones I have a lot in common with probably don’t have children.Would you have liked to have had children?Yeah… it’s not too late. I’ve chosen not to, I suppose.But not necessarily not to in the future.I probably have ruled it out now. I used to think about it quite a lot at one time. Yeah… no, it won’t happen now, I don’t think.Does that make you sad?No, not really. It’s just not what my life is.
What’s your next record?
My next record… throughout my life I’ve always been interested in Russian history and in Russian music. When I was a kid I got given a book about the Russian revolution, and there’s something about the country and the people and the history and the culture that is completely fascinating. This is one of my favourite pieces of Shostakovich: it’s the Symphony No 5 and this is from the opening movement.Shostakovich Symphony No 5 in D MinorPart of the first movement of Shostakovich ‘s Symphony No S in D Minor played by the New York Philharmonic and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. So, of course, we give you, Neil Tennant, The Bible, The Complete Works Of Shakespeare. You’re allowed to pick one book to take with you. What would it be?It is one book, really, but it’s in many volumes, it’s The Human Comedy – the Comedie Humaine – by Balzac. Which is actually about 25 books, I think. It’s a fantastic picture of France in the Napoleonic period up to the mid-nineteenth century. It’s the story of thing you need a lot of time… it’s a lot of different, fascinating stories. I know that once you’d got to the end of it, you could just start again.Well, it’s sort of cheating…Yes….but we’ll give you that.What about your luxury?My luxury is going to be a DVD projector and a huge box of DVDs, so I can sit on my desert island and tie a sheet up to a pair of trees and sit there at night watching fabulous movies.And of course you’ve chosen eight discs but I’m going to ask you, ~f the waves were to wash onto the shore and threaten to take away your discs, which one would you run rapidly through the sands to save?It’s a difficult choice but I think I’ll keep Dusty.Neil Tennant, thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs.