Pet Shop Boys, Naturally: Music Week Article Feb 2009

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Drico One
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Pet Shop Boys, Naturally: Music Week Article Feb 2009

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By Adam Woods

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are surprised to have been chosen as the recipients of the Brits’ outstanding contribution to music award, due to be presented this Wednesday. But after 25 years, 22 Top 10 singles and 12 Top 10 albums, who better than the Pet Shop Boys?

"Depeche Mode would be my tip,” suggests Tennant, unprompted. “They don’t get the recognition they deserve. If we hadn’t got it, I think it should have been them.”

Brits chairman Ged Doherty says awarding the Pet Shop Boys the honour was “one of the easiest decisions we have ever made at the Brits. There wasn’t a single dissenter”.

But Tennant still sounds like he is trying to reconcile himself to winning. “We didn’t think we were the type of act that got this type of award,” he says. “I always imagine it is going to go to a rock band, and that we just aren’t on the radar.”

Modesty is a rare thing in a band that have sold 50m records; particularly a band that once put together one of the lengthiest sequences of truly great singles by any British act.

Of all the stars of their original era, the Pet Shop Boys are the ones who have never gone on hiatus, run aground, chased fashion or generally faltered in their ongoing mission to slip something clever and unusual into our pop diet.

There have been commercial ups and downs, but they have never broken stride. “It’s always onwards and upwards with us,” says Lowe.

High-brow but oddly unpretentious, funny but serious, they are northerners who gave a soundtrack to decadent, conflicted Eighties and early-Nineties London, demonstrating rare ambition while only too happy to be classified as pop.

“We don’t live for awards,” says Lowe of the Brits, “but I think it is really nice that pop music can be recognised, because I think sometimes it isn’t.” And particularly intelligent, challenging pop music, one notes. “That’s what we try and do,” he confirms.

A month after the Brits, a new Pet Shop Boys single, Love Etc, will arrive, heralding a collaboration with Xenomania’s progressive-pop hothouse that appropriately unites two generations of intellectual pop technicians. The album Yes is released a week later, on March 23, with three Xenomania co-writes and an overall production job by Brian Higgins and his team.

It goes without saying that the pairing of the Pet Shop Boys with the most esteemed British production and songwriting unit of recent years is a sound commercial one – a fourth Tennant-Lowe-Xenomania song, The Loving Kind, was a Top 10 hit for Girls Aloud in January.

While the platinums of the Eighties and Nineties have become golds and silvers over the course of their last handful of albums, there is a sense that the Pet Shop Boys are too clever, too good and too engrained in the pop landscape to leave it at that.

“That is how I sort of look at it,” says Higgins. “It is very difficult to reclaim things in the music business – it’s hard to do that. Certainly, they are a very successful touring group. But I think there’s a sleeping giant there, and I hope that we can awaken it.”

A few days before their Brits rehearsal, snowbound in London when they should be in Xenomania’s Kent studio, Tennant and Lowe take it in turns on the phone.

One of the most hard-wearing truths about the Pet Shop Boys – that Neil Tennant is the one who talks, while Chris Lowe offers only the occasional snigger or yawn – is immediately and predictably confounded if you speak to them separately.

Lowe, as it turns out, speaks in loud, functional bursts that are usually followed by a laugh. Tennant, true to form, makes elegant, considered observations, refers knowingly to the cultural climate, remembers chart positions.

Lowe remains a huge dance music fan. Tennant takes a keen interest in the pop and club biosphere but errs more towards classical music, according to long-serving engineer and programmer Pete Gleadall. “And if you put those two things together,” he notes, “it is pretty much the Pet Shop Boys.”

They are a self-contained unit, though they are also keen collaborators, sparking off producers – Xenomania, Trevor Horn, Craig Armstrong, Rollo, David Morales, Harold Faltermeyer, Stephen Hague – and other artists – Dusty Springfield, Liza Minnelli, David Bowie, Electronic, Robbie Williams and too many more to mention.

The duo’s 2003 collection, The Hits, spread their singles across two discs entitled Pop and Art, and it is the ‘art’ side of the Pet Shop Boys which has been the more evident in recent years.

Their 2002 album, Release, was a fan-dividing exercise in more-mature-than-usual pop, for which they called in former Electronic confederate Johnny Marr, toned down the beats and, in the process, temporarily shrugged off their reputation as “The Smiths you can dance to”.

In 2004, Tennant and Lowe composed a score for Sergei Eisenstein’s silent masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. Their return to proper album-making, 2006’s Fundamental, was an ambitious, dark song cycle, but the fact that it was produced by Trevor Horn indicated a renewed lust for accessible excess.

With Yes, the duo’s pop side is back in full force. “Our last album was very much a sequence of songs – we had sort of an agenda for it,” says Tennant. “This album, we didn’t – it is a collection of pop songs.”

With all due respect to the band’s recent work, a poppy, outward-looking Pet Shop Boys album is probably the kind most neutrals want to hear about, and the same goes for Parlophone, their label since 1986.

“This album is very direct, and I think that is what we love best about the Pet Shop Boys, or have done in the past,” says Parlophone president A&R labels Miles Leonard. “I think Brian wanted to go back to what he felt was the direction the Pet Shop Boys had taken in the past, without being retrospective. There was a real, concerted effort to try to go back to that approach.”

As with previous albums, Tennant says, the sound of these songs didn’t exactly arise from the collaboration so much as inspire it.

“The songs we write before we go to the producer set the tone for an album, and then we choose the producer that goes with them,” he says. “On the last album, we wrote some of those quite epic songs and we just thought Trevor Horn would be so good – the man who produced Two Tribes.”

Tennant and Lowe had considered Xenomania for Fundamental, though news of the producers’ ultimately abortive collaboration with New Order had deterred them. This time, the songs clearly pointed the way down to Kent. “We thought, this is going to be an amazing electro-pop album,” says Tennant, “so who better to produce it than an amazing electro-pop production team?”

This time, a phone call was followed by a lengthy discussion and an exchange of recent music. The Pet Shop Boys came away convinced, says Higgins, who thinks long and hard before taking anything on. He was happy once the duo had agreed to co-write some additional songs and demonstrated that they were game for Xenomania’s notoriously deconstructive production process.

Some of the songs they brought down to the lengthy studio sessions remain close to their demo versions, recorded by Gleadall at Tennant’s home studio in County Durham. Others were the subject of extended musical surgery.

“They allowed us to experiment, and experiment, and experiment with the various bits and pieces, and they were very objective about that,” says Higgins. “We want to push things as far as we can, and you have to be given the freedom to do that without people panicking, but they came in every day with a wonderful spirit.”

Leonard says Yes is a big priority for Parlophone. Tennant and Lowe are apparently not among EMI’s dissident artists, and the changes at the company have left little mark on the band. They say they are still largely working with familiar faces, including label head Leonard, A&R man Jamie Nelson and press handler Murray Chalmers, who is independent now but still on board.

The duo’s management, however, has changed hands once again in time for the new campaign. Angela Becker, former personal manager to Madonna, last month became the fifth person to assume the role in 25 years, following on, in reverse order, from David Dorrell, Mitch Clark, Jill Carrington and Tom Watkins.

Love Etc had its first radio airing last week. Radio Two and Absolute are early fans, according to Parlophone’s head of radio Kevin McCabe, and its overall reception over the coming weeks is likely to be a critical factor in the success of the new album.

As Lowe puts it, “There seems to be a direct correlation between how big the first single is and how well the album does.” Every Pet Shop Boys album, with the exception of Release, has managed to send at least one single into the UK Top 10. Their four UK number ones come from the years between 1985 and 1988, when their album sales were at their first peak.

The singles chart does not work like it did even a few years ago, but Love etc is certainly a promising first card to play – a hook-stuffed but understated Xenomania co-creation with a fascinatingly peculiar, call-and-response chorus.

“We worked on that song from May last year until just before Christmas,” says Tennant. “Brian kept endlessly tweaking it, but I’ve never got sick of it. It sounds like us, without really being like anything else we have ever done.”

Employing a theme from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, second single All Over The World is discernibly the work of the band that has sung about putting Debussy to a disco beat and dancing to The Rite of Spring. Gleadall thought it was a hit the first time he heard it.

Higgins identifies The Way It Used To Be, which bears another of the three Xenomania writing credits, as a personal favourite. He cites Tennant’s vocal performance as a highlight, while giving credit to the singer’s lyrics in general.

“I’m a big admirer of theirs,” he says. “Particularly, I guess, their earlier work in the Eighties has been an influence on Xenomania. I think Neil’s lyrics define the decade in which they broke, in many ways. He is a fantastic commentator on our society and I was keen to get his take on the modern things, so I was gently pushing in that direction.”

It might be too much to expect the Pet Shop Boys to define our times as definitively as they did the Eighties. Their singles of that period, from the barren 1985 breakthrough of West End Girls to 1990’s ruminative Being Boring, now appear to offer a concise guide to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, from dubious boom to regrettable bust.

Even when the pair are right on song, their chart positions have not always been the best measure of their material. 1990’s Behaviour is regarded by many as the true gem of their catalogue, but it also gave a first intimation of commercial mortality after the heady highs of 1986’s Please and remix counterpart Disco, 1987’s Actually and 1988’s mini-album, Introspective.

“Behaviour didn’t perform as well as people thought it should, and now it’s the one everyone goes on about,” says Tennant. “Being Boring [the second single from the album] was either 19 or 20. That was one of those panic-at-the-record-company moments.”

“And it’s possibly one of our best songs,” says Lowe. “Love Come Quickly was a disaster after West End Girls,” he adds, laughing. “And the whole Release album didn’t do very well at all.”

Before that low, there were further highs. With 1993’s Very, Tennant and Lowe showed that they could do both unalloyed pop and foolish costumes, though their cover of Go West was laced with enough Soviet imagery and gay pride to refute any suggestion that they had put away the clever stuff.

Bilingual in 1996 and Nightlife in 1999 rounded out the decade, yielding five more Top 10 UK hits but marking the beginning of the slowdown in the band’s album sales.

Even when they have not been on chart-topping form, they have never gone away, and never really appeared to struggle for inspiration, partly because of their steady flow of extra-curricular collaborations, which will shortly include a ballet for Sadler’s Wells.

“It started because of Dusty Springfield all those years ago, when we wrote What Have I Done To Deserve This?” says Tennant. “That record became such a big hit that we did some more work with Dusty, and because of that we were offered Liza Minnelli.”

The Pet Shop Boys became known as willing collaborators, and they have never stopped. Kylie, Robbie Williams, Elton John, Tina Turner, Madonna, Yoko Ono, The Killers and Rufus Wainwright have all been duetted with, remixed, written for or creatively mentored in the years that have followed.

Tennant and Lowe also had cameos on the first two Electronic albums, forging a relationship with Johnny Marr that has sustained to the current album. “Bernard and Johnny are pop pals of ours,” says Lowe, with verbal inverted commas. “Johnny describes himself as the [long-time David Bowie guitarist] Carlos Alomar of the Pet Shop Boys.”

A first-time collaborator on Yes is Owen Pallett, who records as Final Fantasy and as part of the Arcade Fire and arranges strings on two songs here. “Neil particularly loves The Last Shadow Puppets, and Owen did the strings for that, so I think he just emailed him,” says Lowe.

The Pet Shop Boys’ one-night-only collaborators for their nine-and-a-half-minute Brits performance are yet to be revealed, but Ged Doherty reveals that there will almost certainly be two guest stars.

There is no doubt that Tennant and Lowe, while still perhaps underdogs in their own minds, have more than enough gravitas and style to pull off another show-stopper at the Brits.

They have come a long way from their days as a Smash Hits journalist and a trainee architect who shared a passion for Hi-NRG disco.

All the same, Tennant still remembers the excitement of being given a stack of records by a
product manager when the Pet Shop Boys struck their first, abortive deal with Epic. Lowe admits that, over the years, “there has not been much planning going on”.

Now, as they prepare to receive their pop knighthood, the question is whether the award comes at the perfect time, or whether it will yet prove to be premature.
The pale kid that hides in the attic behind his PC...

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