Pet Shop Boys

Inside a conference room at their record label Parlophone’s head office in London, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of synthpop deities Pet Shop Boys are signing copies of their 15th album ‘Nonetheless’, as riotous anecdotes tumble out of them, and names are nonchalantly dropped like cigarette butts.

There’s the time Tennant encountered then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at a party, who solicited the frontman’s advice, comparing his relationship with the Prime Minister to pop’s biggest-selling duo. “‘What’s the secret to how you and Chris Lowe get on so well over such a long period of time?’, he asked,” remembers Tennant. “’I’m just thinking of me and David Cameron…’”. Or backstage at a New York gig when comedian Mike Myers sheepishly admitted he combated insomnia by writing fake Pet Shop Boys songs in the middle of the night. “I replied: ‘Do you have any good ones? Any we could use?” laughs Tennant, who retains a former Smash Hits associate editor’s penchant for verbally italicising words for effect. Keyboardist and co-conspirator Lowe, meanwhile, remembers Liam Gallagher eagerly informing him at an early Oasis afterparty: “‘You’re like me. You don’t really do anything onstage, do you?’”

“Whereas we all know you do a lot!”, says Lowe to Tennant, tongue lodged in cheek. “I’ve seen the DVD! You and George Michael – I don’t think anyone puts more mileage into a performance!”

“I once measured all my steps during a performance,” sighs Tennant. “I thought: is that all?! It was nothing!”

Watching the pair’s dynamic feels like being a bottle of wine plonked in the middle of the table at a good dinner party, as they spark off and revel in ribbing each other. Wearing a chic black roll neck jumper and rimmed glasses, Tennant (urbane, erudite) takes the conversational lead, while hoodie-clad Lowe – today sans his signature sunglasses and headwear that renders him an enigmatic presence onstage – mischievously slings in sardonic punchlines like stink bombs.

Since they first met randomly in a hi-fi shop on London’s King’s Road in 1981, they’ve remained  dedicated to holding pop to a higher standard, applying high-art ideals to low culture, with a diverse CV that encompasses 22 Top 40 singles, West End Musicals, ballets, avant-garde films, and collaborations with David Bowie, Liza Minnelli, Derek Jarman, Brandon Flowers, Dusty Springfield and Johnny Marr.

Their peerless catalogue teems with cultural references, and tackles a panoply of subjects ranging from using the strobe-light of the dancefloor to illuminate ‘80s greed on their 1986 debut ‘Please’, to serving up a tenderly-drawn imagined one-night-stand between a schoolboy and Eminem on the 2002 track ‘The Night I Fell In Love’. Their musical styles have spanned italo-disco to classical music samples; for a snapshot of the sheer breadth of their palette, you need only glance at Tennant’s end-of-year Spotify wrap-up.

“Which I find simultaneously interesting and intrusive,” he says. “You think: oh, you’ve been counting?! Like when you turn on Word and it says ‘Welcome back’. You think: why? What’s been happening when I wasn’t here?” Anyway, his most streamed track was by the “13th century mystic and composer Hildegard von Bingen”, nestled alongside Gorillaz’s ‘Silent Running’ and Harry Styles’ ‘As It Was’, which Tennant instinctively amends to ‘As It Were’.

“If Neil ever sings ‘of’ instead of ‘have’, it will be the end of the Pet Shop Boys,” deadpans Lowe. “If our next single is called ‘I Should of Told Ya’, PSBs are RIP,” agrees Tennant.

English synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys at the MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles, 5th September 1986. They are Chris Lowe (left) and Neil Tennant. (Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images)

Their eclecticism and unassailable quality control is undiminished on ‘Nonetheless’ (released April 26), mainly written during the COVID-19 lockdown, where Tennant taught himself how to program using GarageBand, with Lowe’s encouragement. In contrast to the back-to-basics electro purism of their Stuart Price-helmed trilogy of albums (2013’s ‘Electric’, 2016’s ‘Super’ and 2020’s ‘Hotspot’) ‘Nonetheless’ sounds more lusciously orchestral, and saw the pair work with producer James Ford, chosen to combine the ”heart-tugging strings” of his work with The Last Shadow Puppets with the analogue synths of his band Simian Mobile Disco. Additionally, Tennant admired his recent work with Arctic Monkeys’ 2022’s ‘The Car’: “I like the Arctic Monkeys when The Fans think they’ve gone a bit weird,” he opines.

One of ‘Nonetheless’’ standout tracks is the Proustian poppers-rush of ‘New London Boy’, a coming-of-age vignette that Tennant describes as happening between the second and third verse of their masterful 1990 single ‘Being Boring’. It details the Bowie-loving crimson-haired Tennant’s arrival into the capital in 1973 sharing a flat with “all kinds of glam-rock 18-year-olds with dyed hair and Oxford bag trousers,” dipping a tentative platform-heeled toe into Soho’s gay nightspot Chaguaramas. “It’s about learning your sexuality and I wanted to become a pop star so the line: ‘Will I go all the way?’ is a double-entendre,” says Tennant.

Midway through, he raps: ‘Skinheads will mock you / Call you a fag / Last laugh is yours / There’s a brick in your bag’, referencing both the abuse hurled at him by far-right thugs, and a drag queen in his home city of Newcastle who concealed a brick in her handbag for self-defence. “The spoken-rap bit is reviving the ‘West End Girls’ style – that, by the way, is my instinctive rap style…”

“Instinctive or only?” quips Lowe.

“No, no, I’ve done other rap styles,” counters Tennant. “But as you keep pointing out, modern rap takes up a lot more words, whereas the classic early ‘80s Grandmaster Flash style, which is the school I belong to, doesn’t take up as many words. Also, I like the rhythm of it because you can understand the lyrics.”

“We should have just autotuned you and turned you into Drake!” concludes Lowe.

Although ‘Nonetheless’ started as a collection of songs, Tennant feels it’s subconsciously imbued with a gay sensibility. “I think this is our queer album,” he announces grandly, before Lowe undercuts the point by mock-gasping: ‘Really?! I’m taking my copy back…”

Tennant – an interviewee unafraid to show you his working-out in the margins – cites its dramatic closing track ‘Love Is The Law’, which details Oscar Wilde’s post-prison stay in Nice, France, watching cruising on the Promenade de Anglais. “So the language I’m trying to use is of sexual transactions – ‘trade’, ‘trick’ – American slang for picking someone up.”

The sumptuous, ‘60s French-pop-sounding ‘A New Bohemia’ evolved out of a demo Lowe titled  ‘Avant Garde’, and partially took its cue from an exhibition Tennant had viewed about the 1970s queer conceptual art troupe Les Petitis Bon-Bons, who were affiliated with Lou Reed and ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Reel)’ trailblazer Sylvester. Furthermore, the video to lead single, the punchy ‘Loneliness’, features a glory-hole, while the shimmering disco of ‘Dancing Star’ chronicles gay ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from Russia to the West during the Cold War.

Tennant came out as gay publicly in Attitude magazine in 1994, fearing Pet Shop Boys would be reductively pigeonholed as a ‘gay band’. Does he feel things have changed? Presumably Troye Sivan and Olly Alexander are less likely to face the ‘gay pop star’ prefix?

He isn’t so sure, highlighting a 2023 Saturday Night Live sketch where actor Timothée Chalamet portrays Sivan as a hip-swivelling twink-demon. “I mean, you basically want Timothée Chalamet to take over the Troye Sivan project because he does it so well. But they say, ‘he’s not famous, he’s gay-famous’. So I’m not sure whether your thesis holds up, ‘cause I think people still think a little bit like that.”

“What I think now is that what you might call gay culture has become mainstream. Several years ago, I went to see Jake Shears in Kinky Boots on Broadway. It was an essentially straight audience, and when the drag queens came on, they all went ballistic. I thought: ‘Wow, this whole thing’s just gone totally mainstream’ – and I think it’s ‘cause of RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

“It’s like with the It’s a Sin TV series,” he continues, referencing the 2021 Olly Alexander-starring Channel 4 drama that cribbed its name from the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 chart-topper. “You feel the straight community finally faced up to the AIDS crisis.”

Spanning a number of decades among a group of friends whose lives are changed irrevocably by the arrival of AIDS, where death and desire became cruel counterparts, It’s a Sin managed what Pet Shop Boys had already achieved in their songwriting, where Tennant had channelled the diagnosis of his childhood friend Christopher Dowell, with whom he’d formed his first band, the ‘70s folk-outfit Dust, into 1987’s torch-song ‘It Couldn’t Happen Here’; his funeral was movingly recounted in the 1989 B-side ‘Your Funny Uncle’. The aforementioned ‘Being Boring’ (a track so transcendent that Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose once complained to Tennant backstage at a gig that they didn’t play it) culminates in the devastating lyrical pay-off: ‘All the boys that I was kissing / Some are here and some are missing in the 1990s”

“Oh God, I found It’s a Sin painful to watch,” says Tennant. “We put that into songs at the time, then you move on, but it’s like soldiers remembering the First World War. It wasn’t discussed for a long time, but it’s still lurking in your history, in the back, in your memories, the pain is still there.”

In 2021, the Pets produced a duet of ‘It’s a Sin’ between the show’s star Olly Alexander and Elton John, with proceeds going to the latter’s AIDS Foundation. A year before, they had released the Alexander-collaboration ‘Dreamland’ – its title inspired by Alexander’s trip to the eponymous Margate amusement park that evolved into a pro-immigration anthem – as the lead single from ‘Hotspot’. However, they reveal it was originally written for, then ultimately rejected from, Years & Years’ 2018 album ‘Palo Santo’. “The Other Two”, says Tennant referring to ex-Years & Years members Mikey Goldsmith and Emre Turkmen, “came in and one of them said it sounded like [The Weather Girls’] ‘It’s Raining Men’. Didn’t make me very happy, that remark!”

Apart from It’s a Sin, high profile needle-drops in Saltburn, where a karaoke version of ‘Rent’, sung by Barry Keoghan, is used to emphasis class difference, and All of Us Strangers, where audiences were liquidised by tears by the use of their euphoric 1987 Christmas Number One ‘Always On My Mind’, have meant that Pet Shop Boys’ current cultural currency has arguably never been stronger since their Tennant-coined imperial phase. “What I love is that in each of those different films, our songs are used as plot points,” praises Tennant.

Sleaford Mods attempted to gain their own festive chart-topper with a reverential cover of ‘West End Girls’ (replete with a Pet Shop Boys remix), while our Eurovision entry this year, Alexander’s ‘Dizzy’, sounds like a Xeroxed version of ‘It’s a Sin’ – a comparison Tennant dismisses.

“When I read people saying it sounded similar, I immediately listened to it and I don’t think it does,” he says. “But personally, I always think Pet Shop Boys sound like something else to what everyone else does,” he observes. “I think I hear what it’s meant to sound like.”

GLASTONBURY, ENGLAND – JUNE 26: Olly Alexander of Years & Years performs with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys perform on the Other stage during day five of Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton on June 26, 2022 in Glastonbury, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

This month marks the 40th anniversary of ‘West End Girls’ – the original version guided by hi-NRG producer Bobby Orlando, as opposed to the more cinematic Stephen Hague mix they reached Number One with in 1986. Having been inspired by nascent New York hip-hop, they now count rappers such as Cardi B among the most devout Petheads. Indeed, when they received NME’s Godlike Genius Award in 2017, Skepta could be spotted down the front singing along to ‘West End Girls’ at the top of his lungs. Drake even hit the headlines last year for an unauthorised interpolation of the song; a situation that prompted the pair to call him out on social media.

“It’s all sorted now, but I must say I thought it was a really nice bit in the record. He sang it very well,” demurs Tennant. Still, he brushes any notion of acceptance by the rap community aside, like lint off a jacket. “I don’t think people regard it as a rap record, even though we did. If you read a book about rap, no one will ever mention ‘West End Girls’ in it’”, before Lowe interrupts: “Hang on, you won the bloody BRIT Award for Best Hip-Hop/Rap/Grime Artist this year!” spotlighting Tennant’s heartbreaking singing (and lyrics) on the award recipient Casisdead’s ‘Famous Last Words’.

Tennant remains evangelical about pop, but laments the loss of artistry and poetry in the charts and a narrowing of focus. “People are using songwriting as a diary now, but it’s basically writing about previous or current partners and dissing them or feeling sad about it,” he says. “One of the great liberating things about writing lyrics is you can write in character and pretend to be someone else. That’s why I think a lot of pop writing now is boring because to write about yourself assumes you are interesting.”

As a former Smash Hits editor, does he still judge a pop star by the metric of who he could put on the cover? “Sort of,” he agrees, before questioning: “Is there that many though?” So, we find ourselves throwing out names at him. Matty Healy from The 1975? “He would be good because he’s very opinionated and unfiltered. You always want someone who’s going to slag people off.” Taylor Swift? “That’s just an omnipresent thing,” disclaims Tennant. “It’s like the weather or something…”

Suddenly, his trail of thought is disrupted by label employees singing ‘Happy Birthday’ from the next room. “Awww Neil, it’s for you” mocks Lowe. “A cake is on its way with seventy candles on it!’”. With Tennant approaching the landmark birthday in July and Lowe aged 64, they’re showing no signs of slowing down, with a continuing Dreamworld Greatest Hits tour and a musical based on The Emperor’s New Clothes, a parable Tennant feels is more salient than ever “in the time of rise of the political strongmen” like Trump and Putin.  “We have a lot of energy,” adds Tennant.

When they signed to a seven-album deal with EMI in 1985, their then-manager Tom Watkins blithely said they’d only last three years. “I thought: I’ll show you!” remembers Tennant. They’ve been through their ‘80s infallible imperial phase and their ‘90s “survival phase”, but to use the modern parlance, what ‘era’ are they in now?

“The ‘Nonetheless’ era,” replies Tennant, and showing why they continue to  straddle the tightrope between timeless and future-facing, concludes: “Pet Shop Boys are always in the era of now.”

Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Nonetheless’ is released April 26 on Parlophone

The post Pet Shop Boys: “This is our queer album” appeared first on NME.


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