|January 15, 2009. Studio B, Spring Studios, Kentish Town, London.|
Today the Pet Shop Boys are to be photographed for the inside artwork of their forthcoming Yes album, and also to stockpile some images which can be used in the press surrounding the album’s release.
The photographer is Alasdair McLellan who photographed Neil and Chris last year for Pop magazine.
They arrive promptly at the designated 11 o’clock start time, just before a plate of freshlycooked scrambled eggs is carried in, followed by the other components of a full English breakfast. “Oh my God,” Chris exclaims. “Sausages have appeared.” As Chris eats and Neil doesn’t, there’s a discussion as to how a DJ they know who has a day job manages to DJ half the night and then still get in to work on time, looking fresh.
“He’s young,” sighs Chris.
“Remember youth,” says Neil. “I now regard it as cheating.”
Chris says that his cab driver got lost on the way here but that Chris was able to direct him using the real-time map on his iPhone. He seems to have found the whole experience quite invigorating. “It’s great seeing that blue dot…”
The photographer arrives.
“The stylist isn’t here yet,” the photographer says, as though this somehow justifies his absence until now.
“Don’t think we haven’t noticed,” says Neil, as though making clear that precisely no one is to be let off the hook, but then soon is distracted by a discussion of EMI records.
“It’s funny being part of a bankrupt company,” he says, with perhaps a slight but understandable degree of exaggeration.
“It’s a bankrupt country,” Chris sighs.
Neil nods. “A bankrupt company in a bankrupt industry in a bankrupt country in a bankrupt world.” He considers this. “There must be a song there somewhere.”
They’re told that in an interview scheduled in a few days time for The Word magazine they will inevitably be asked about EMI.
“I’ll just say ‘no comment’,” says Chris. “Neil can rant on…”
“So,” says the photographer, indicating the hairdresser, “he has bought some wigs.”
“Great,” says Chris.
“They’re quite bright-coloured,” the photographer says.
“Good,” says Chris. “It makes a change from hats.” He considers this. “Do we have any hats?”
“Katy has some,” says the photographer. Katy is
Katy England, the stylist. Her assistant is here but she is apparently feeling unwell.
There are several racks of clothes across the room, as well as a table covered in hats and glasses. While Chris breakfasts, Neil wanders over and tries on a top with a ruffled collar.
“It’s a bit ecclesiastical, you know,” he says, in a way that suggests this is probably no bad thing.
‘~Black Adder,” murmurs Chris under his breath.
As is often the case at the beginning of photo shoots (and also, similarly, video shoots), things seem to be moving very slowly, as though there are a number of languorous rituals which must take place before anyone can do anything so vulgar and hasty as clicking the shutter of a camera.
“It’s going to be a long day, isn’t it?” predicts Chris, then adds, darkly, “someone mentioned five set-ups.” He somehow manages to make the notion of doing five set-ups — that is to say five distinct sets of photographs in completely different outfits — sound like the moral equivalent of child slavery.
“Right,” Neil declares, “I’m going to put some make-up on. Are we thinking about starting at some point?”
Someone comes to take away Chris’s finished breakfast plate.
“That was delicious, thank you,” he says, and looks at his watch. “Two hours until lunch.” Then he strolls over to inspect the clothes. He picks up a customised orange Adidas top with large sequins all over it.
“Oh, I like this,” he says. “That is brilliant.”
“You’ll be taking that home with you,” Neil predicts.
“I could wear that to the Brit Awards,” Chris considers.
The music is switched on — a playlist the photographer has put together especially for today’s session. It begins with the Italo-disco Eighties classic “Self Control”.
“I already feel more relaxed,” says Chris. “Did music ever get any better than this? Hopefully with the recession music will retum to being a bit more fun.”
He perks up again when “History” by Mai Tai comes on, and reminisces about listening to Tony Blackbum on the radio. “I didn’t have ajob then,” he says.
Meanwhile, Neil rounds off a few final details of a diatribe conceruing an irritating singer that couldn’t reasonably remain unsaid. “Anyway,” he concludes, “we’ve been ranting on in this mode for 25 years now, and frankly I’m bored with it.”
“You’ve had a haircut recently,” the photographer observes.
“Yes,” says Neil. “There’s not a lot of hair there.”
They finally go over together to inspect the clothes rails properly, and are immediately impressed by a rack of clothes by the designer Gareth Pugh.
“It’s definitely where we’re at,” says Chris, admiring one particular huge and unwieldy jacket. “It’s like the blow-up thing.” He tries it on. “It weighs a ton.”
“It’s very Pet Shop Boys,” says Neil.
“I really like this,” Chris agrees. He decides this might be the perfect outfit for the Brit Awards performance. “Too bad I won’t be able to play the keyboards,” he says, with more glee than sorrow.
Neil tries on a huge ribbed Gareth Pugh coat, and tries to work out whether he would be able to reach the microphone with his mouth while wearing it. Then he tries on a hat with it. “Is it too fashion?” he asks about the hat, a question that is greeted, given what else he is wearing, with a fair amount of laughter.
“Do you feel comfortable in it?” Chris asks him, about the coat.
“Yes, of course I do,” he says. “It’s doing most of the work.”
He tries a different jacket, glasses and hat on, and looks in the mirror.
“That’s very East German,” he declares “I like that,” says Chris.
The photographer wonders whether they’re ready.
“I’m just waiting for the wig,” says Chris. A few yards away, an assistant is sitting wearing the wig intended for Chris while the hairdresser cuts it into the required shape.
Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” comes on.
“I never liked this,” says Chris, idly looking at a hoodie with an elaborate graphic design on it. “I could see Tim Westwood wearing that,” he says in a way that seems lightly disparaging of both Tim Westwood and the hoodie. The song continues. “This is where Michael Jackson lost it,” he says. It is followed by Madonna’s “Borderline” which meets with his approval. “I don’t think there’s any need for bottoms at the moment,” he says. (The first shots will be waist-up only.) Nonetheless Neil looks at some trousers. “I don’t think these will fit,” he says. “They’re 32. I’m a 34.” Chris tries on some extremely-odd sunglasses, and tries to work out whether the Batman-style hooded piece between the lenses is supposed to cover his whole
nose or perch slightly higher up. “I might wear them to the Brits. They cover a lot of face.” (No photos have yet been taken, and right now there also seems to be a slight adjustment to the agenda. For the moment the Pet Shop Boys seem slightly less interested in posing for photos than seeing whether, in this grand selection of clothes, they can find things that will solve the dilemma of what to wear at the Brit awards.)
Perhaps trying to steer them back on track, the photographer consults with them about an idea he’s had to use coloured gels. He shows them some test shots he has taken with assistants standing in place of the Pet Shop Boys.
Neil nods. “I like them.”
“I don’t really like yellow,” says Chris. “Blues
are good, though. Yellows and greens are two
colours I don’t like.”
“Let’s do red and blue,” the photographer
For the first shot, they wear the most extreme,
large Gareth Pugh outfits. The photographer shows
them a Polaroid.
“We’ve got it,” says Neil. (A wave of both lessened and heightened apprehension seems to spread around the room at this pronouncement. Lessened because the shoot is going well; heightened because there seems to be the lurking insinuation in what Neil has said that the shoot, which has only just started after all this time, might soon be declared to have been triumphantly completed.) Meanwhile Chris is distracted by the sound of a song he likes but doesn’t know. (It is Frankie Valli’s northern soul classic, “The Night”.) This leads to a discussion of the photographer’s DJing days.
“In a horrible place,” says Neil, “you’re much more likely to have a good time.” He mentions that this morning he finished Phillip Norman’s new biography of John Lennon, a book he probably wouldn’t have read had he not been given a copy for Christmas by his brother Simon. “It’s still a bit of a surprise when he gets shot,” Neil says. “Tears came to my eyes. Then I put on Double Fantasy.”
He is called to pose for some solo shots.
“I don’t know what to do with my hands in this,” he says, looking down at the coat. He tries crossing them until the photographer encourages him to just let them hang down.
“Are you hot?” asks the photographer.
“Very hot,” he replies.
Chris meanwhile sits in his wig, waiting. “I love wigs,” he says. “I couldn’t wear one, though.” He
means in real life. “They’re really hot. And if I
Yes photography session at Spring Studios, London, January 2009.
wore a wig I’d have to keep taking it off to scratch.”
They discuss clothes for the next shot. Neil considers a stripy shirt. “Very new wave,” he says. “It reminds me of Ian Dury and The Blockheads.” They pause to debate what the familiar rave anthem now playing is. They have to check the iPod. (It is The Nightcrawlers’ “Push The Feeling On”.)
Chris, who didn’t hear Neil’s previous discussion of John Lennon, says that he listened to “Imagine” on headphones last night. Bobby 0’s “I’m So Hot For You” comes on, and he laughs approvingly at the lyrics.
Katy England makes an appearance, clearly still struggling. “Are you alright?” Chris asks. “The clothes are brilliant, by the way.”
“It’s good seeing some new clothes,” says Neil. “We gave you a terrible brief because we didn’t know what we wanted.”
She gives them each a twelve-inch single, the Andrew Weatherall mix of Primal Scream’s “Uptown”, a gift from her husband. (Her husband is Bobby Gillespie.) She says that Bobby had wondered whether they’d still have record players.
“I have two,” says Chris.
Neil asks about her husband. “He’s still got his hair, he’s still thin — how does he do it?” he asks.
She leaves just as lunch arrives. Neil looks at the twelve-inch. “Apparently it sounds a bit like the Pet Shop Boys,” he reports.
Sam Taylor-Wood is on the phone to the Pet Shop Boys’ publicist, Murray Chalmers. Her recent short film has just been nominated for a BAFTA award. Chris takes the phone to congratulate her.
Over lunch, they debate the similarities between Morrissey and Cliff Richard. An English remake of “Self Control” comes on. He says he likes the way the photographer has put on both versions.
“Which do you prefer?” the photographer asks him.
“The Italian, of course. I’m a purist.”
After lunch, Neil wears a green jacket with a leopard hat and the glasses he feels make him look East German. Chris wears a leopard top and a beige baseball cap. The photographer asks Neil, who is looking up and away to one side, to look at the camera. “I was being Kraftwerk,” Neil says.
The day continues. Perhaps past the point of interest or exhaustion, they are persuaded to do one final shot.
“The last one’s always a bit painful,” says Neil,
“Come on,” urges Chris, when lights are being endlessly adjusted. “Hurry up. I’m getting hot”
He poses for a final shot, alone, in a hoodie.
“That’s the best picture you’ve done today,”
encourages Neil. “If you can’t see my face, I’m happy,” he says. It’s over. “Oh, I’m absolutely shattered after that,” says
Neil. “It’s standing there.”
Chris heads for the door. “The real work starts
now,” he says. “Retouching…”
When the finished photos are viewed, Mark Farrow dissuades them from using the photo of them in the Gareth Pugh costumes and Chris in his wig as part of the album artwork. He prefers something black and white, and chooses images from later in the session. (A selection of the finished photographs will appear in the next issue of Literally.) Two weeks after the session, while travelling on a train between Brussels and Cologne with Literally in attendance, the Pet Shop Boys reflect on the experience:
What thoughts did you have beforehand of how you did or didn’t want to lookfor this album?
Neil: I don’t think I had any thoughts whatsoever. Chris: I remember going around the shops and trying to find some decent clothes and not seeing anything at all that I liked.
Do you feel under pressure to look distinctive for each new record?
Neil: Yes. Also, for a few years we’ve worn Hedi Slimane’s clothes from Dior Homme and he left Dior a couple of years ago, and actually since then it’s been very difficult to find someone in men s fashion whose clothes you wanted to wear. There are things one likes, of course, but I haven’t felt interested. Hedi Slimane always seemed to come up with lots of good things. On our last tour he made the clothes. I was rather regretting we hadn’t asked him for this, but he’s not doing fashion at the moment.
Chris: We knew we weren’t going to be on the cover of the album, so that was some pressure off us.
Neil: We wanted it as a shiny pop record — to look shiny — and sort of colourful; that didn’t seem to imply a picture of us.
How far had you got in choosing the clothes before you went to the session?
Neil: We hadn’t got far at all. We’d been busy doing various things. Anyway, we got a stylist Katy England, to get a lot of clothes together.
Chris: You’d mentioned Gareth Pugh.
Neil: I’d mentioned Gareth Pugh. Gareth’s clothes are more like costumes.
Had you ever worn his clothes before?
Neil: No. He’s doesn’t make many men’s clothes. Anyway, we’d had a meeting with Katy and we talked around various ideas. Actually we just moaned that we didn’t like anything in fashion.
Chris: It was a very broad brief, which included everything — including wigs.
Neil: I said my favourite clothes are like uniforms.
Why don ‘tyou like anything in fashion?
Neil: I sort of feel like we’re at the tail end of something, or the beginning of something. We’re at the end of the skinny jeans kind of thing. Sort of the opposite of the late Seventies with flares. I wandered round the shops before Christmas and the new collections were already in and I thought, oh, I don’t really like anything. I should probably really start buying vintage clothes. I’ve thought of having clothes made for me in Savile Row or something. Chris: I felt the same.
I put a lot of effort in, wandering around the shops, all the usual places, and there wasn’t very much happening. It’s not a great time of year, really December, trying to find clothes, because most of it’s the tail end of the sales and not all of the new stuff is in. But also the trouble is it’s the spring summer collection which is never as good as the autumn winter collection. It’s all pastel shades and flimsy little shirts and stuff like that, whereas you want substantial heavy stuff really, don’t you?
Neil: Yeah, summer clothes are never as good as winter.
Chris: It’s all white trousers and pink shirts. Boring isn’t it, really? Summer clothes.
Neil: Also, you’ve got to have a really good body for summer clothes.
Chris: Yeah. Nowhere to hide.
Neil: Summer clothes, broadly speaking, reveal your body, and winter clothes broadly speaking disguise it. I’m into disguise.
Chris: So it was a bit difficult really.
So do you remember what you thought when you walked into the photo studio?
Chris: I remember being very impressed by the Gareth Pugh stuff hanging on the rack. It looks so sculptural. The coat I wore literally could stand up on its own. It didn’t need the hanger. It all looked very solid, very strong shapes. Impossible to wear, mind.
Neil: Also they had some quite good jeans by J. Lindberg. They were really good.
Chris: I liked all the customised Adidas stuff. Neil: Also they’d got a great selection of hats. Actually, although I wore a top hat on the last tour as part of the look, I don’t normally wear a lot of hats, because I don’t normally suit them, but they had loads of great hats. And glasses.
I’ve rarely if ever been photographed wearing glasses — I’m wearing glasses as we’re talking but I’ve not been photographed in them. Glasses and hats together seem to work — I found that quite fun, putting those
And you immediately liked the Gareth Pugh stuff Chris: I loved that coat but it was impossible to wear. It was almost impossible to walk in because it bent your back forwards and you couldn’t lift your arm. So the idea of wearing it for the Brits, it doesn’t really work. But hopefully he’s going to do a range of clothing that is rather more wearable than that rather extreme version. I’m hoping he’s going to have something great because I really like the sculptural quality of it. And it was a bit out there, wasn’t it?
Neil: When I looked at the Gareth Pugh clothes I thought, “They look amazing but one could never possibly wear them,” but then when I put on this big coat thing, and I was wearing boots anyway, it immediately looked quite good on me. I suddenly thought, “Wow, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be able to get away with that.” Also, it makes you feel kind of strong.
Like Cruella De Ville or something. So that was quite a good moment.
Chris: There aren’t many outrageous clothes in the shops generally. Once Issey Miyake stopped doing his menswear…
Neil: Issey Miyake’s silhouettes never changed really.
Chris: He used to do blow up stuff and weird stuff
— you don’t get any of that now. It’s all sensible clothing.
At the time, you thought that first shot in the Gareth Pugh coats would be the look, didn ‘tyou?
Neil: We probably did, yes. But then you see the pictures. It was very strong. I wasn’t totally sure about the hat I was wearing with it but I thought it was very strong, sculptural, memorable.
And you seemed to like the wig, Chris.
Chris: I thought it was very flattering. The pictures look great. I like wigs on men. And it’s an alternative to a baseball cap which I’ve kind of
stuck with. It’s quite a nice disguise. It’s great colour as well. They don’t come that shape — the stylist cuts them into that shape.
Neil: It looks really good.
Chris: Yeah, I like wigs. A lot.
Neil: I didn’t wear one. I wasn’t allowed to, I think.
Whats it like being photographed?
Neil: Being photographed? Normally your mind’s a bit of a blank, really. In fact it’s probably good if it is a bit of a blank.
Chris: That particular photographer, he always has really good music playing. And I’m normally just thinking how good the records are.
Neil: You just stund there. There’s a feeling of achievement when you’ve done one shot and you move onto the next one. We got a lot of looks done this day, and that’s actually quite a good feeling.
Chris: A lot of the lights used were very hot. And that Gareth Pugh coat weighed an absolute ton.
Neil: Mine did, but yours really did — yours was like wearing an armchair. Chris: It wasn’t comfortable.
But you don ‘t actively hate the experience of standing there? Chris: Yeah, of course we do. Neil: No, I don’t actively hate it. Chris: Oh, I do. I don’t like being photographed, for starters. I don’t like looking in the mirror as the make-up’s being applied.
It’s sort of uncomfortable and it’s quite hard work, really. I don’t think people realise what it’s like for models, to stand still for long periods of time. It doesn’t sound like hard work, but it is. They’ve got quite a lot of stamina, I think, models. It’s not something you ever look forward to, a photo session. Except when we’ve had a look where we’ve thought oh this is fantastic, it’s going to be great. Like getting the Issey Miyake sunglasses — “this’ll make a great photograph” — and you look forward to doing it. They’re the exception really. It’s normally quite a long day as well, a photo session. Neil: Yeah, it is. The last set-up’s always torture. Chris:
You don’t know what’s going to work as well. And I generally buy clothes without trying them on because I can’t be bothered trying them on
— I just say, “I’ll take them an ay.” And it was like that all day long — trying clothes on. Neil: I quite enjoyed the day actually. After the relative success of the first shot, we then just experimented more with putting things together. Chris: It’s a great studio. And breakfast was exceptional.