|Interview with Ray Roberts
| In May of 2010 the Pet Shop Boys were contacted
by a friend of Ray Roberts, who ran a small demo studio in London, to tell them of his death. It was at Ray Roberts’ Murray Street studio in the north London suburb of Camden that the Pet Shop Boys recorded, and sometimes wrote, many of their first songs, and he played a small but significant role in the Pet Shop Boys’ early evolution.
“I don’t think we’d seen Ray for 25 years,” says Neil. “We first met him in, I think, 1982. We’d written a few songs and I had some redundancy money in the bank. I got the phone number of his studio out of the Melody Maker small ads and called him up, and he said he’d record a four-hour session, mix it afterwards and give us one metal cassette and three normal cassettes or something like that. And we went in there and we recorded ‘Bubadubadubadum’, I think, and ‘Jealousy’. I can’t really remember now.
Then the next lot of demo s we spent forever working on with him. He thought we had something about us, and he said we could use his studio for free if he could have a share of our publishing, and so that’s when we started going into his studio in Camden Town regularly. He’d be playing gigs — he used to play in pubs and things like that— and we’d be in his little basement studio on Murray Street. He had an upright piano, two keyboards and a little eight-track desk. Chris used to play the keyboards and I used to sing and play the piano, and also sometimes I used to sing while playing with the reverb on the desk. We used to have quite a lot of fun doing that. The original demo of ‘If looks could kill’ is amazing because when I went ‘…but if looo-oooks…’ I’d push up the reverb to maximum and then pull it down again. Of course in a proper studio you can’t do that.” “They won’t let you,” says Chris. “They would look at you aghast,” says Neil.
“That went on for some time. We did demos of ‘It’s a sin’ and maybe ‘Later tonight’. With Ray we were actually tying to produce something that sounded l ike a master — that was definitely the idea with ‘It’s a sin. “We spent ages on a song called ‘It’s not a crime, says Chris. “The last verse of which,” Neil points out, “I just put into ‘Left to my own devices’: ‘it’s not a crime when you look the way you do / the way I like to picture you’. Actually it was quite good.” “It sounds amazing given where it was recorded,” says Neil. “When Ray invited us back in to record something properly we were going to record ‘It’s a sin’ and that’s when Chris said that he had a new idea instead and the new idea was ‘It’s not a crime’. So we sort of wrote the song in the studio, me and Chris, and we spent ages doing that.” “He was in the studio with us on that one,” says Chris. “And on ‘It’s a sin’,” says Neil. “The version that had a different Euro start. But usually he had it set up and he would leave it and go and do his gig. We finally mixed these tracks and sent them out — this is when we were called West End. I remember getting a response from Cherry Red records and they said they liked ‘Jealousy’. We might even have recorded ‘Rent’ there.
I think we did a backing track for it, because when we played at the Eridge in Brixton in 1984 we recorded the backing tracks at Ray Roberts’ studio. In fact he even came to the gig and stood with the sound man. We definitely wrote ‘Rent’ at the studio. We also wrote the music for ‘West End girls’ at Ray’s, though we never put the vocals and music together until we worked with Bobby 0. But he was part of our publishing company, Caged Music, when it started, and Tom Watkins very sensibly told us that we should buy him out of it because it was a bit complicated. And so we bought him out, and in fact he was very pleased, because he got a sum of money. That was probably the end of 1984, or the beginning of 1985. And I guess we never saw him again, though when the first album came out we gave him a ‘thanks to… credit, and we sent him a gold disc for Please, and he sent us a note.
That was probably the last contact we had with him. But he was a very sweet guy, a working musician. I actually sang on a demo he wrote — he had a singer who sounded a bit like Hazel O’Connor and he had this very beautiful Euro backing track, and she was singing in a robotic voice. And I said to him, ‘No, it’s very romantic, this song.’ It was called ‘At The End Of The Day, Do You Get Love?’ I changed the verse melody so it was all very romantic and wistful and sang it for him. Nothing ever happened with it. But it was quite a nice song, actually.” “I was living in Liverpool,” Chris remembers.
“It was nice coming down to London for the weekend and going in the studio. I obviously would have done much better at architecture school if I hadn’t had this distraction…” …. .that’s interrupted your architectural career,” says Neil, with feigned sympathy. “My architectural career, which will never be the same again,” says Chris. “So everything has a downside. But I used to look forward to coming down to his studio. He was a really nice bloke, and he was a really good engineer.”
Though the Pet Shop Boys had no direct contact with Ray Roberts after the Please era, when Chris Heath was making the radio documentary About the Pet Shop Boys in 1996 they suggested tracking down Ray Roberts and interviewing him. In fact, he wasn’t hard to track down at all — he was still at the same Murray Street address. The few words he spoke in the edited documentary came from a much longer interview that was conducted on November 15, 1996. The rest of the interview has remained unheard until now:
Do you remember getting the initial call?
Indeed. It was just totally by chance — I was running an eight-track demo studio and, the usual thing, advertising in Melody Maker. Being a musician myself it was just something that I did to make a living. I wasn’t particularly interested in doing demos for other people, I was interested in doing my own stuff But I advertised and I got this phone call, and Neil said that they wanted to come down and make some demos. I said ‘fine’, and we arranged it. We had a little chat about how he wanted to go about it — he said he hadn’t had too much experience from a studio point of view, and if I could help with the arrangements, and if I played keyboards could I add strings or whatever was necessary and draw on some of my experience? I said ‘fine’— I’m always willing to do that sort of thing.
So they came along. I think Neil just brought his guitar along, actually, and strummed away — reasonably, not brilliant and sang a few songs. And I thought ‘that’s interesting’. I thought it was a little bit different from the average person that was coming in the studio and trying to copy everybody else. So anyhow we carried on from there and they came along regularly over the next few weeks, putting down some stuff, and I Yeah, yeah.
Do you remember the first time they came down here what impression you got of who these two people were, what they looked like, what you thought they were like?
There was no impression one way or the other to be perfectly honest. They were very friendly, and it was basically just a question, as I said before, that they just had come in… I mean, obviously Neil was the spokesperson out of the two of them if you like. The spokesperson for the group, even though there was only two of them. Chris was more reserved, and I could see that it would take a little while for him to feel more relaxed. He was a bit shy, I guess. Neil wasn’t, obviously — as he was a journalist he was used to everyday situations and set-ups, and he seemed more relaxed than Chris, but I got the impression that Chris, underneath that shyness, that there was a great creative talent there. Because I noticed that when it came to programming drums and the rhythmic side of things he had a special talent.
Although he did it instinctively, you could see that patterns he was coming up with… either he was drawing on his influence from records, but it all tied in somehow or other with Neil’s idea of melodies and lyrics and Chris’s idea of melodies… not so much lyrics. In fact hardly at all, I think. Neil was definitely the lyric writer. And it kept on that friendly basis — it never became a difficult situation in the fact that I would norn~ally not get involved and say to people ‘Look, I really believe in you, I’m sure we can make a success of this, you can have the studio, we’ll make a deal…’ or anything like that. It was just that I really was genuinely interested in seeing what we could come up with, and pushing, extracting their talent, making the most of it. And that made it really interesting for me, because, as I say, running a demo studio, 99 per cent of people are totally boring, I’m afraid. So you just do it as a gig, take the money and run, as it were.
As you watched them work together, how did the two of them relate to each other then?
Well, again, amongst themselves they wouldn’t argue but they would have differences. I mean, obviously, it’s like anybody working in a partnership. They were obviously working towards
the same end, although I get the impression that Chris wasn’t so much music-career orientated, he was just thinking about the music. After all he was, I think, studying to be an architect up in Liverpool, and that was definitely the most important thing career-wise at that point in time. Neil I could see was frustrated… I could sense that he had this enonnous amount of creative ideas inside him and, working in the business, he just felt somehow or other he had to have a vehicle for getting these demos done, getting these songs done, and seeing what they could do. He was very determined from that point of view. Again, Chris would listen.., he would follow what I was suggesting most of the time, and then as he got more confidence, as they got more confidence, then it was like they would say, ‘Well, can’t we have strings in there or whatever?’
I think when they first came they had a batch of three songs that they just wanted to get recorded. Do you remember those at all?
Gosh, that’s a tricky one, because there was quite a lot of songs. Was one “It’s a crime”? “It’s a sin”? It was “Bubadubadubadum”, “Jealousy” and “Oh dear”…
I remember them vaguely, but I must admit they weren’t the ones that registered with me. They were early efforts that I wasn’t… you know, in the beginning it was just another gig for the studio and I was just going through the songs with them. The way I was involved, like early on with any group, I wouldn’t probably even remember the names of the songs because I was doing so much. Just another two people in the studio.
Do you remember the first song that actually caught your attention?
Well, look… I know we’re on the tape, but if you can give me an idea I’ll tell you because I can’t remember… I mean, I remember several songs that made an impression on me but in chronological order it’s impossible to remember it.
No, just talk about it how you remember it. Just tell me the ones you remember.
Well, several of the songs seemed unusual, not so much in their construction but just in the lay of the gradually began to realise that there was something a bit different about their songs. Particularly from the lyric point of view. Because the lyrics were just… it’s difficult to explain, but they just were different from the average moon and June kind of lyric, so I really began to get it, and I really got drawn into what they were trying to do. It was obvious that Neil had a considerable amount of background he could draw on from the point of view of music and influences and everything else, but there was definitely something original there. But beyond that at that particular time Ijust thought, ‘well, let’s see what we can do’. And over the next few months we concentrated a lot on getting really good demos.
The equipment was pretty basic. I had some old Roland synths which we used for putting strings down, and an old Dr Rhythm drum machine which we tried to make sound really upfront. And they actually started to come out rather well. Now the other strange thing was that Neil’s voice gave me a bit of a shock at first. Because I thought ‘this is an unusual voice’. Quite high-pitched. A little bit sort of reedy, a little bit thin. I thought, ‘Well, is he going to sort of present himself as singer and songwriter?’ And it was evident that Neil was determined that he was on a career path. Obviously he told me about working at Smash Hits and all that sort of thing, his background as a journalist. And so we carried on and we came up with some pretty good demos, and the boys were pleased, and sometimes.., in fact, we got very, very friendly, trusted each other, in that I could leave them in the studio sometimes if… I was doing some gigs at the time, playing keyboards, and I would leave them on the studio and they would just carry on once they got the basic idea of how the equipment worked. They could rehearse as well. And then I’d come in and just sort of point things up and say, ‘right, let’s try that…’ and ‘maybe that should be there and…’
Things like that. It was just a communal effort. Obviously from my point of view I wasn’t actually directly involved in writing the lyrics or the melodies but I could make comments, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It was a creative process, and gradually things were getting much better from that point of view. And the idea then was to get a bunch of songs together and we’d make a concerted effort between the three of us to try and get some interest in them. Neil obviously had some contacts, I did myself, and we’d made a little plan to go around some of the record companies and see what sort of response we could get.
Neil got a good reception because of where Neil was coming from, working for Smash Hits, and then we would make an appointment at one of the big record companies and we’d go on and the guy would say, ‘Well, they’re nice… leave them with me,’ but there was nothing… nobody just sort of said, ‘This is the new Beatles’ or anything like that. Or, ‘This is amazing.’ But we carried on, they did a few more demos and then — now, let me just get this right, sequence-wise — Neil had to go to America to do an interview and while he was over there he popped in to see a producer called Bobby 0 who he was very sort of interested in.
Were you aware of their growing obsession with Bobby 0?
Not immediately, no — it just came up in conversation one day that he thought that Bobby 0 was, like, a slightly left field producer that was in the dance area.
Because I think by that time they’d begun to be heavily influenced by Bobby Gin what they were doing.
Yes, I know that they were influenced. I didn’t know Bobby 0’s background or what sort of music he was involved in. He was an unknown name to me, to be honest. I wasn’t in the day-to-day, like Neil was, traffic of who’s who and who’s flavour of the month sort of thing. But I was aware that Neil was obviously able to know, and was very, very in depth — he obviously listened to a lot of stuff and he knew the various categories of music, and dance music in particular. And it was the dance music side of things that obviously they were leaning towards. Although there was obviously some ballads coming out, it was trying to get that energy in the music. Synth-orientated. There was no question that Neil was going project it guitar-wise. And that’s how things started to develop… Can we just pause a second? Sorry. No, I’m just trying to think. I want to continue… I don’t want to miss any…
Well, let me fire some things… picking up some things you mentioned.
melody, and catchphrases, the hooks like ‘It’s a sin’. I can’t imagine that anyone else would come up with a title like that in the context of the song. I do remember that one particularly… I must admit, my memory is hazy. I can obviously remember the early songs well but I just don’t remember which ones… you know, they were all developed slowly and gradually over a few months.
Which other songs do you remember?
“It’s not a crime”.., funnily enough I don’t remember if we did an actual demo here of “West End girls”, but that particular song I do remember when Neil had gone to New York with a bunch of demos, I think about six songs, and Bobby 0 was quite impressed overall with the presentation and the quality of the songs and that’s why he wanted to get involved and try something with them and actually master something, and they came back with the early version of “West End girls”, which as you probably know was a hit in Belgium, that made a big impression on me. They weren’t sure what the best ones were, and I said to them straight away, ‘That is a top ten hit…’
I said, ‘that comes across to me, that is so catchy and so unusual… I can hear that on the radio’. They were thinking more in terms of clubs. I said, ‘That is a crossover song, that could be enormous’. And they said, ‘Well, maybe…’ That was a stand out song, there’s no question about it. And I still think it’s the best song they’ve ever written in fact.
Did you ever imagine, in the studio while “It’s a sin” was being recorded, that this was a number one single?
No, I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t think any of us in their heart of hearts believed that we would make a big splash. We would do our damnedest to push the songs and try and get a deal, but I think although we all felt — and I felt in particular obviously — that these songs were very original, just because they were original obviously didn’t mean that they were going to be commercially successful, and their career would take off But I just felt that if somebody could see the thing as a whole, with Neil singing, then they definitely, with the right sort of push, they could do it. I remember one record company who we presented some demos to — one of the big record companies — and the response was, ‘yes, nice songs… but Neil’s got to take singing lessons’. And we all had a very good laugh about that.
Because, I mean, I could understand that Neil’s voice was a little bit of shock to some people, because it’s so distinctive, almost like a choirboy kind of sound, a brilliant sound to me, but a lot of people wouldn’t see it in the climate of the business at that time. So that was a bit depressing but that was a typical stock sort of answer where they say, ‘oh, the song’s rubbish, but the voice is great’ or ‘love the production, but don’t like voice’ or ‘you need some new songs…’ or whatever.
It’s very rare in this business that somebody will say ‘That’s it’. And that was the struggle we were going through. So we were banging our heads against brick walls, trying different places, different record companies, and just getting some reasonable response, but nobody jumped out of their seat and said ‘that’s it, that’s what I’ve been looking for’. At that point in time.
Can you describe to me physically the room and what everyone would have done after they turned up?
Well often we worked at the weekends, because of the fact that early on Neil was working at Smash Hits of course, and they would come in on a Saturday, maybe around about lunchtime, I’d have the gear already set up, and after everybody had got used to each other and they knew about the equipment, how to programme it and how to get it on to tape, I’d spend a little time sort of checking through what material we were going to do, what sort of sounds we needed, and then sometimes I could leave them to it, because I might have a gig or something and they’d be quite happy to stay in the studio on their own. I mean, it was a basic eight track set-up, and I think I had a Jupiter 4 synth. And, oh, yes, Neil had his Korg M520 which at that time was quite a neat little mono synth. In fact I think it eventually ended up at the Hard Rock Caf6 as a sort of museum piece. As I said we had the little Roland drum machine. And somehow or other we managed to get the essence of the song over on the demos. I think we were all quite proud of the demos, whatever else anybody could see in them. I think as demos they were very, very good.
Who’d stand where, doing what?
Well, Neil would normally come along, as I say, with his guitar, and if it was a new song we hadn’t worked on at all he would strum along and sing it. I’d work out the key, we’d settle on a key, and then we’d get a little drum machine pattern going. And sometimes the structure of the song was obvious, how it was going to go. Nearly every song had to have strings on it, that was the thing. Strings with a really solid dance beat behind it, which is the important thing. And I think at that time that was a little unusual, the way the strings were used as warm pads. And Chris would obviously, he’d get to know the drum machine and he’d be working out drum patterns. That was interesting because sometimes, although he wasn’t a drummer himself and it was obviously coming out of his head, he had this instinct for getting the right sort of feel, and that added a lot to the track. And then I’d concentrate on the overall sound, where the strings were going to fit in. And basically that was the way we worked.
How big was the room?
Well, the room was about, what, about 18 by 18. The room itself, because in those days studios were big and control rooms were tiny, and the control room was a little room under the pavement actually
— it used to be a coal hole, believe it or not, and I converted that into a little control room — and the main room of the studio was where we all worked. Later on of course, as you know, it becomes the other way round with MIDI and all that sort of thing, but in those days, right in the early Eighties, MIDI and digital sounds were a bit of a dream at that point in time, and very expensive. So you had to work within the confines of the technology which I do believe makes a big difference to the overall sound and production and the way people work. But as I said before the songs were there, definitely. There was no question about it. The songs were there.
When they went off to work with Bobby 0 were you pleased because something was beginning to happen or were you a little bit sad because you weren’t so much a part of that?
No, I was very pleased, actually, because we’d done what we’d set out to do, which was to present demos of a standard that hopefully a record company
would pick up on. And I thought actually that was a shrewd move, because Bobby 0 had the facilities to master. He was one of Neil’s heroes at that time and I thought, ‘Right, well let Bobby 0 see what he can do.’ He was obviously impressed enough that he wanted them to go back to America, and he set the whole thing up for the initial recordings. Then they came back and played me the masters and, as I said before, “West End girls” definitely was the stand out one at that time.
The other one that really stood out, which was a pretty outrageous strange song, was “Pet Shop Boys”. The sounds and effects on that which they’d come up with in America was quite original. Ex emely original. Ahead of its time, definitely. And that made that rather unique. But I didn’t see it as being particularly commercial. From there then it was a question that obviously they had got an opportunity in Belgium to get a deal via Bobby 0, but they weren’t able to capitalise on that success because of mismanagement and that sort of thing.
When did you get a sense that it was really going to happen for them?
Well, really what happened was, we were getting a bit frustrated, we’d been round a few record companies, we thought the demos were good, the presentation was good, we were making the right moves, but Neil wanted to do a gig. He wanted to do a live gig, using backing tapes, and singing over and playing a few instruments. And the idea was that they would book the Fridge and we would make a presentation there and try and get some faces down to come and see them live, and maybe that would add to the presentation and get people interested and see that they looked good onstage, or unusual, and that there was something there that a record company could get their teeth into. And that actually worked, because Tom Watkins from Massive Management, as a result of that gig — I don’t know whether he was there in person, or one of his talent scouts, but that was the thing that really started it going.
They needed that — I only could only do so much for them, but they needed that heavyweight. Literally, heavyweight presentation, from somebody m the business who’s had a track record that can make record company people take notice because he really believed in them and he could present it that way. The fact that he was currently very hot from a management point of view gave a tremendous weight, and then things really started to take off Then they got the big deal.
Did you go down to the Fridge?
I did. I was at the Fridge, helping out, sorting the tapes out. It was quite interesting. That sort of thing, singing to backing tapes, again was a fairly new sort of thing at that time, quite innovative, so we wanted to get it right, and it came over very well actually.
What did they look like?
What did they look like? Well, I think that Neil had started the look that they developed of being very, very cool, laid back, not smiling too much, rather serious looking, the music tremendous. And of course Chris being on the keyboards. That was the idea—he would be behind the keyboards, wearing dark glasses more often than not and looking very, very serious, which was kind of interesting because it was a very moody look. I mean, some of the songs were very moody, obviously, but this tremendous dance beat behind them. It sort of worked. It was a great image, and I think that came very early on, and that was obviously going to be the image. It wasn’t that suddenly they would change their ideas and totally go off on another tack, or listen to somebody say ‘look, guys, I think this is the way you should project yourselves’.
It was obvious that Neil and Chris had thought this through. Although I think in actual fact, basically, inwardly, they were just being themselves. They weren’t polished professional stage-hands that could just get up and do a fantastic act. They weren’t rock’n’roll. They certainly weren’t. It was almost like a video. Almost like black and white, if you like. It’s very difficult to explain, but they were very sort of laid-back. And I suppose that would put a lot of people off— they weren’t jumping into the audience saying ‘hey, come up on stage’ or shake hands and all that sort of stuff, it was very, very cool. And I think possibly because they lacked that stage background, or they hadn’t sort of thought much about that maybe, I think that that probably just fell into place, they felt comfortable with that. And it developed, obviously as you know, that that was going to be their image.
Do you remember the last time that you worked with them?
I don’t remember in the sense that on a particular date that was the last time we finished the demo or whatever. After they did the deal with Parlophone, it was obvious from that point of view that there was little more I could contribute to getting their career off the ground, so I took a back seat from that point, because I knew they were in good hands. They had top management which is the most important thing at that point in time. And the boys were very confident — they knew what they were doing.
Neil is a very organised chap. Chris isn’t, I don’t think. I don’t know — maybe he’s changed. But it was obvious that Neil was the spokesperson for the group. And that they were going to, as soon as an opportunity presented itself they would take it up. There was no question that they would hesitate. Very positive decisions were made, and it took off from there. And of course then there was the question of picking the song, and it was a brilliant move to redo “West End girls” with a new producer, and the production was so much better from a commercial point of view, from a radio-friendly point of view. I listened to the little things they’d put in the arrangement and it was just terrific — it had to be a number one. There was no question, apart from obviously if there was some other competition from some established artist. Michael Jackson or somebody. Whatever. But the timing was absolutely right.
Now, you’d had a publishing agreement with them as part of your arrangement…
And they bought you out of that somewhere around that time, I think.
Yes, we did form a publishing company, that’s correct. And then, without going into the technical details, when it all finished we reached a settlement and it was left at that.
And were you happy with that? Did it seem like a success at the time based on what you’d all done?
Those sort of situations you can always look back on and say ‘did I make the right moves from my point of view? Did I get what I wanted out of it?’ It always
pleases me when somebody makes a success when they deserve success. I don’t get very pleased when people are successful and… obviously in the pop business a lot of people appear to have much more talent than they actually have. I was very happy that they took off and they were very successful. The fact that I wasn’t part of the organisation subsequently didn’t worry me really. I have my own way of doing things, I write songs myself, I’ve done quite a lot of studio work as a keyboard player, I’ve done production, arrangements…
I’ve arranged for orchestra and that sort of thing, because I come from a classical background. And it was very interesting to find two guys that I was able to relate to that weren’t trying to copy somebody else. It was the originality of the whole scenario of the songs, and their presentation, and I was just more than happy that they really made it. But if somebody had asked me to place a bet on it, I would have said ‘I don’t know’. I don’t think any of us, as I said before, would have believed that it could have really taken off as much as it has. And the great thing is that they’ve sustained, they’ve kept the format the same and survived, and that is fantastic.
It’s because they are original. But basically, at the end of the day, they’ve come up with catchy songs, great little hooks, that anybody, whatever your likes and dislikes, you have to go along with that that the hooks of the song were great. And the lyric ideas. And I think that was what really caught the imagination. And also the fact that Neil I think was very positive at getting the right people around him. If he didn’t feel comfortable with somebody, a producer, I just know that he wouldn’t stick with them, even if they were supposed to be the greatest producer in the world. That’s I think another of his talents, that he knew who was the right person at the ught time, and that’s how it worked for them.
Was it strange for you when suddenly they were number one with “West End girls”, not long after they’d been messing about in here? I was absolutely knocked out, I was. I was, to use a well-worn phrase, gob-smacked. I thought, ‘My God, this is incredible’. To get off the ground with
a number one. I just thought it was unbelievable.
I mean, when you think of the history of that particular song, the fact that it had already been
released and been a minor hit, and it could have just got totally lost, been buried. Obviously there were a lot of hassles with regard copyright, and deals had to be done sort of thing, to get the song revamped, and I think that was very commendable, the fact that they got it totally reworked. But the song was just there. It was gilding the lily. It was just brilliant. I love that song. That would always be in my Desert Island Discs, whatever, even if I hadn’t worked with them.
When you’d hear their songs back then, what sense did you have of what the songs were about?
I must admit I was a little puzzled. I listened to the lyrics and, some of them, I couldn’t quite understand what the rationale behind them was. Except that they were like everyday.., obviously a lot about going out to clubs. I mean, often lyrics don’t seem to matter in pop songs — they just have to be an average type of pop lyric and provided the production is brilliant, provided the groups are brilliant, the presentation and all the rest of it, it will work. But it didn’t seem a safe sort of formula. Unusual lyrics. A little bit left field at that time. I would have thought if they were going to make it I didn’t think these were necessarily… I did not see these songs as, if they had a hit they could follow up with this particular song or that particular song. They were just slightly strange, put it that way. And the lyrics you could take to mean… you could see hidden meanings behind them if you wanted to or just take them at face value. A lot of people, the lyrics just wash over them. I think the average punter they do. Although Neil had a way of writing lyrics that connected with people. It was more conversational than sitting down and seeing what rhymes with what and that sort of thing. That was one of the things that came over to me.
That it was just like talking about everyday life. About what people do. If they go down to clubs, or where they are. And they were slanted in a certain way. I didn’t at the time realise there was a slight slant to them… but you can look at them any way that you want. You can see them as songs and just enjoy them or you can look for hidden meanings. Neil would bring in some strange place geographically which was interesting, and that would register. I thought that was clever or cute. I think it was interesting because it was being totally
themselves — they were just presenting what they felt. Now, to get that into a pop genre and make it commercial at that time I would have thought was a difficult path to go. But then again, because they were so strong on what they were trying to project with the songs, plus again the bottom line: the cat chines of the songs.., the melodic.., this little hook… I thought it was inevitable that if they did make it they wouldn’t just be a one hit wonder, there was no question about that. They wouldn’t have to have anybody else basically writing their songs for them. They were more than capable of coming up with the right material. And the fact that they’ve kept going with this sort of stuff I think is absolutely fantastic. I love what they’ve done and I love the way that they’ve developed their career — I think it’s absolutely brilliant.
Have you followed it keenly?
I have. I mean, personally I’ve taken a breather for a couple of years really from writing, recording, running a studio, although I’m getting back into now. So I don’t have a day to day diet of pop, and I just tend to listen to what I like. And I check the charts obviously and listen to what’s coming up. I admire the way also that they’ve got into the more creative side of things with videos and fihns, the fact that they’ve drawn on other artists to bring them into the Pet Shop Boys’ creative ideas, like Liza Minnelli and Dusty Springfield. That was a brilliant revival for her, the way they handled it. It was absolutely spot on. And the fact that they brought in that Italian arranger. But they never get stuck with one idea — if they’ve used him once and he’s made his contribution and it’s given that flavour to the song, the arrangement, then I can see that they keep moving on, and I like that. Because you can only go round in a circle in the pop business. You’re not going to break down the bafflers of artistic achievement. It’s all wallpaper. But it’s the kind of wallpaper you can leave on the walls for a long time, which I think is great.
What are your favourite of their songs, aside from “West End girls”?
“West End girls” definitely. In their best songs I always find something I can relate to, and I’ve never disliked any of their records that they’ve put out,
and they’ve obviously taken great care to put the right records out. I’m sure they’ve written some less than b-side songs which maybe they’ve just thrown away, but the ones that have succeeded, they’ve all deserved to succeed. I’ve just liked them all. “West End girls” to me, just purely personally, is a cut above the rest. Just from a commercial point of view and a crossover point of view, and friendliness for radio and clubs and everything — I think it’s a masterpiece in the world of pop.
Do you remember when they walked in and told you they’d settled on a name?
Well, yeah, variously names were kicked around, I do remember. The Pet Shop Boys hadn’t come up at all. I know that when they did the record “Pet Shop Boys” they’d obviously thought about it. It sounded completely wacky to me, absolutely wacky, and I didn’t know how to take it. It was the sort of name that you couldn’t forget, which was great. But then when you look back at some names, like The Beatles — would you have sat down and thought of that as a name for a group? My God, no. So, Pet Shop Boys, fine — why not? It just seemed as suitable as anything else. And of course once a name is established then who cares? But it is easy to remember and it doesn’t have any connotation really, it’s just a weird name that sticks in people’s minds so fine.
Why do you think they wanted to be pop stars?
Well, I think Neil, like anybody who has a creative urge in them, and you feel you’re in a job where you’re obviously meeting other people who are creative but you’ve got no way of expressing that creativity, as in song writing, I think Neil was just a very frustrated person who was doing very well in his career, doing what he enjoyed doing, but ultimately inside was that creative urge that had to get out, and he just had to put it down on tape, record it some way or other. I remember when he said, ‘Right, I’ve made my mind up — I’m going to leave Smash Hits.’ And I thought: ‘Are you sure about this, Neil? Because you’ve got a safe job, you’re doing well, we haven’t got any positive response…’ but he’d made his mind up. And I think that was the spur, that he had to make that decision: right, I’m going to now, wholeheartedly,
full time, change over. Very positive decision. And it worked. He could have been floundering. It could have gone on for another couple of years and I think everybody would have given up. And that was it, that enabled him, because he’s a very organised person, he was able to then concentrate full-time on the songs. But we were together in the studio it must have been a year-and-a-half, I think — quite a long time. Tramping around Soho and places, record companies. It was all very enjoyable. None of us really knew, but we got on great, we had a great time making the demos and everything. And as you probably know I got a gold disc — that was really nice of them. Because people tend to just move on and they forget everybody involved with them. [laughs] I think sometimes you prefer to forget people you were involved with. But it’s nice to know. We haven’t been in touch for a while but I’m sure one of these days we probably will do. And it’s just worked out really nice for them. They’ve certainly made their mark on the pop business.
What have you been busy with?
Basically I’m setting up a 24-track studio. It’s next door. At the moment it’s being refurbished. I do quite a bit of writing myself. I’m still fascinated by dance music — I love it. I like all kinds of music, I had a classical upbringing, studied at the Royal Academy of Music, that sort of thing, but I cannot leave music alone. I’m one of those people, I have to be involved in music — it’s my life’s blood. I’ve had quite a few songs recorded. Probably about 20 singles have been out there. A couple got in the lower ends of the chart. I don’t know if you remember a group called Sweet Sensation — I was involved with them for a while. I actually had a deal with Tony Hatch — I was writing with a very talented songwriter at the time, a chap called Mel Taggart, and we had quite a few records out. None of them made top ten sort of thing, but you leam as you go along. We were rather backseat boys in that organisation. Now I’m feeling very creative and I want to get back into writing and production. I’m still as eager in that direction as I ever was. And I’m getting some digital stuff, trying to keep up with the technical things. I find that fascinating personally. I know Neil and Chris were never interested in technical things, which was fair enough — I think
you can get bogged down in it.
Where’s the part where they used to record?
It was actually next door, here. I can show you next door, but it’ll be a house of horrors because it’s all higgledy-piggledy.
Do you ever listen to the old demos you did?
Not really, because what would be the point? I’ve got a lot of their records, and I’d rather listen to the finished product. You can hear the old demos and there’s still the spark in them, there’s still a touch of magic in them definitely, so they served their purpose, basically. I don’t think they could have been better presented from their point of view. I was quite proud of that.
Do you remember the last time you spoke to them?
I can’t remember the last time we spoke but certainly we had a meeting when they got their major deal and decided what the way forward was. That was when, as I say, we agreed that it was time for me to take a back seat then, because in all truth there wasn’t much I could do for them. I had made my contribution as far as I was conceded. And helping them organise from a business side, because in this business you can be a big success and not make a lot of money, and I thought these guys deserve to make a lot of money because they are so positive and their stuff is so good. The old days of people getting ripped off have now gone fortunately mostly, anyhow. There are so many bad stories about people having number one hits and never seeing any royalties.
So we made a little business plan early on regarding publishing and everything else, although obviously I was disappointed, because I’d been so involved in it, that there was no place for me basically, because they had all the right people around them. So it was inevitable. And it worked OK. I’m a creative person myself— I don’t want to be involved in management or promotion, that sort of thing. It’s not me. I could never work for one of the big record companies. I prefer to be at the side, doing my thing. I’m not a front of stage person. So that’s it.