Pet Shop Boys: 'The acoustic guitar should be banned' – The Guardian,

Pet Shop Boys: 'The acoustic guitar should be banned' – The Guardian,

T he new Pet Shop Boys album is, they say, the third in a trilogy. Hotspot follows ‘s (Electric and ‘s Super , all collaborations with producer Stuart Price , all examples of the duo’s return to “electronic purism” after a succession of albums where, as Neil Tennant puts it, they variously “pretended to be a rock band” (Release), “made a zany one with everything and the kitchen sink on it ”(Yes) and“ went to LA and made an album about being old ”( Elysium ) .

“That was your big idea, being old,” says Tennant, nodding in the direction of his fellow Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe, who is sitting alongside him on the sofa in a record company office in the City of London . “He explained that to our manager and she was absolutely aghast. She looked completely horrified. ”

It is worth noting that in recent years the Pet Shop Boys have also written scores for Eisenstein’s (silent film Battleship Potemkin and a ballet based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale ‘s The Most Incredible Thing ), as well as premiering A Man From the Future – a kind of pop oratorio based on the life of Alan Turing – at the Proms. They also provided the music for a theatrical adaptation of Stephen Frears’ film My Beautiful Laundrette and a one-woman Edinburgh festival show by actor Frances Barber , based on the character of Billie Trix, the washed-up pop star she played in the Pet Shop Boys’ musical Closer To Heaven. Its revival was also noticeably more successful than the critically savaged original production. “It was a very outrageous piece for 2001, loads of drugs in it, somebody dies, ”notes Tennant. “Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s company produced it and I remember him saying:‘ Well, sorry guys, I guess it was a bit too much for everybody. ’”

Set against this backdrop, the Electric / Super / Hotspot trilogy does seem like a return to what you might call Pet Shop Boys basics. They began their career in 2001, working with hi-NRG producer Bobby Orlando , transforming the predominant sound of the era’s gay clubs into a very British and brainy brand of pop music, shot through with a streak of social comment so subtly done that people frequently missed the point entirely. Thirty years of the duo patiently explaining that Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) was a satire of 100 s excess doesn’t seem to have dimmed TV documentary directors’ enthusiasm for playing it in the background during footage of yuppies shouting into enormous mobile phones or spraying champagne; s Shopping was a withering portrait of London consumerism between the Big Bang and Black Monday, so shrewdly drawn you could imagine a City boy of the era banging the wheel of his Ferrari and bellowing along, oblivious to its real intent.

A lot has changed since 1987, though. For one thing, the Pet Shop Boys have sold m records. But while the vast majority of their 100 s contemporaries have long been consigned to the nostalgia circuit or vanished entirely – “down the dumper,” as Tennant memorably put it while working as a journalist on Smash Hits – the Pet Shop Boys have become a kind of curious national institution. Still close enough to the heart of pop that younger stars flock to work with them – Hotspot features Olly Alexander of Years & Years , who, Tennant dryly notes, “is of a different generation to us, sings in a different style, more R&B, whereas Chris always says I sing like Julie Andrews” – and yet sufficiently highbrow that all the ballets and oratorios and scores for silent films feel like a natural fit rather than an affectation.

The duo long ago reneged on their refusal to play gigs, although, as Tennant points out, his celebrated s line about how he “liked proving that we can’t cut it live” was meant as a joke, on account of their inability to make their grandiose plans for shows work financially – their first US tour was both a vast success and lost half a million pounds. Now, however, they are a reliably stadium-filling, festival-headlining act – a – date greatest hits tour of European arenas begins in May. It’s a state of affairs they seem to enjoy, but it’s not without its hiccups. “I announced I was going to retire,” sighs Tennant, “when we played a half-empty venue in Grimsby on my birthday in . ”

And yet here they are, in 2020, roughly where they were in 2001, occasional residents of Berlin (they own a flat in the city, its kitchen converted into a recording studio, complete with “a vocoder which we never use because I don’t know how to plug it in,” says Lowe), making music at least partly inspired by the city’s nightlife. They are regular visitors to its notoriously hedonistic techno mecca Berghain , although their approach to the club seems impressively genteel , as befits men in their s. “We go on Sunday lunchtimes,” smiles Tennant, “around o’clock. We treat it as pre-lunch drinks – we go up to the Panorama Bar and have a glass of prosecco. You get the people who’ve been there all night, they’re absolutely twatted, but then there’s a fresh crowd coming in as well, and it’s a very interesting atmosphere. And it’s great to walk in from daylight on to the main dancefloor, which is completely dark, there’s just a kick drum playing four-to-the-floor, and it’s really, really exciting in an alienating way. ”

If the duo’s penchant for satire seems less present on Hotspot, says Tennant, that’s because it was “siphoned off” on the 01575879 EP Agenda, home to Give Stupidity a Chance and What Are We Going to Do About the Rich? , by some distance the angriest songs the Pet Shop Boys have ever recorded. “What was the reaction to them? Probably generally negative, ”laughs Tennant. “I mean, if you’re doing something to wind people up and they get wound up, I suppose your job’s been done.”

In fact, a careworn song about the refugee crisis aside, the tone of Hotspot is often rather romantic. “Berlin’s quite a romantic place,” says Tennant. “People in Britain tend to think of Berlin, even now, as the wall and Bowie making ‘Heroes’. But it’s got 80 lakes in it, you can be in the countryside in minutes, it’s such a beautiful place in the summer, you have pubs on the river. So that’s why I think it sounds warm and romantic. ”

The duo are famously entertaining interviewees, Tennant’s background as a music journalist clear both in his theorising about “the discipline of the pop single” and an awareness of how things look in print. When talk turns to the current crop of earnest post-Ed Sheeran troubadours, he first, perhaps rashly, suggests: “I think the acoustic guitar should be banned, actually.” Then offers a headline for a feature based around that quote: “Pet Shop Boys Blast Lame Rock Rivals ”.

Lowe, meanwhile, contrary to his public image – stony-faced and silent beneath an unending selection of preposterous hats – is drily funny about everything from his partner’s singing voice (“Neil is not from the gospel tradition, despite having been an altar boy ”), to the Americanization of British culture:“ I can’t believe schools have started having prom dances. As if school isn’t bad enough anyway without a prom at the end of it. They never end well in films, do they? We’ve all seen Carrie. ”

But nevertheless, an old-fashioned element of mystery and distance remains intact: what they do when they are not being the Pet Shop Boys remains largely unknown, their private lives off limits throughout their career. They don’t do social media, or rather they did, then reconsidered when they realized that it involved “interaction”, a word Tennant says with comic horror. “We were early adopters of Twitter,” says Lowe, “and early leavers. The only thing I liked about it was blocking people. I loved to block. ”

“Chris,” smiles Tennant, “is the sort of person who, if he’d been a pop star in the s, would have posted a turd to someone he did not like. ”

They do feel a little out of place in the current pop climate’s obsession with authenticity and ordinariness (“authenticity is a style,” notes Tennant, “and it’s always the same style”), its lyrical penchant for what they waspishly term “narcissistic misery”.

“We’re always looking for euphoria and excitement in music,” he says, “that sort of feeling we got the first time we heard Bobby O’s records, or Helter Skelter by the Beatles, or even She Loves You , going right back to being a child. That euphoric thing came back in with the rave scene in the s, but it isn’t really at the core of pop music now. Its context is social media; social media has actually created and defined the form of popular music and I think, unfortunately, that takes it down the narcissistic misery route. It doesn’t have the importance it once had, and that’s been the case for quite a while. It’s become a facet of social media. You know, everything we do, there’s people working out how to edit it down to 20 seconds, literally everything. I wonder what would happen now if you released Bohemian Rhapsody.

Then again, says Tennant, they never did fit in. “When we started off we really did think we were going to create our own world that might reference other things, like a novelist writing a series of novels set in a particular era or something like that, where we were characters. And when we did collaborations, we judged them very carefully. So our first collaboration was with Dusty Springfield [on 1987’s What Have I Done To Deserve This?]. Our label didn’t want us to work with her, they wanted us to work with Tina Turner or someone like that. I remember the director of EMI going: ‘I can get you Streisand!’ But ”- he thumps the coffee table before him for emphasis -“ we wanted Dusty. Then we worked with Liza Minnelli

and that was sort of politely greeted with horror, but everyone went along with it and it worked, because it’s our world. ”

Of Top of the Pops, he says: “We were never the kind of performers who were going to enter into it wholeheartedly. Chris established early on that we weren’t allowed to look thrilled to be there. Whenever the camera came over to us, he’d say: ‘Don’t look triumphant!’ But we used to quite enjoy Top of the Pops, you know, being glared at by some singer because you’d said something nasty about them in the press. ”He laughs. “I always liked the way that British pop stars always hated each other. When I worked on Smash Hits, I remember the editor saying: ‘We should do a piece on Paul Weller, because he’ll slag everyone off.’ The feuds! Duran Duran and Spandau, Boy George and Pete Burns arguing about who had those sort of gay dreadlocks first. ”

“I don’t think bands do that now,” nods Lowe. “When we tour, we’ve got this band, young musicians, and it’s so refreshing because they’re so nice. They feel part of a musical community, they all know each other, they play on each other’s records, they’re all linked in. It wasn’t like that when we were around. ”

But, of course, they are still around. Their albums – if not their singles – are inevitably Top hits and sprinkled with songs that rank alongside their best. The Billie Trix cabaret show, Musik, is about to transfer to London, and there are excited rumors abounding that they are playing Glastonbury this year – “which we can’t talk about, which is annoying” – after their guest spot on the Killers’ headline set in .

“Making music, there is still a magic about going into a studio and finding that sort of euphoria and excitement of something new,” says Tennant. “There’s a magic to realizing there’s nothing more you can add to something, it’s finished, and then judging its value or whatever. It’s a supremely enjoyable and satisfying career, and, you know, you can’t stop doing it. I mean, if you run out of ideas, that’s when you stop. ”

“I’m quite looking forward to that actually,” nods Lowe. “Running out of ideas.” He grins. “Because that’s when you go and work with Brian Eno.”

Hotspot is out today Read More

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