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
The photographer is Alasdair McLellan
who photographed Neil and Chris last year for Pop
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.
“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 stylist isn’t here yet,” the photographer
says, as though this somehow justifies his absence until
“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
“It’s funny being part of a bankrupt
company,” he says, with perhaps a slight but
understandable degree of exaggeration.
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
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...”
the photographer, indicating the hairdresser, “he has
bought some wigs.”
“Great,” says Chris.
quite bright-coloured,” the photographer says.
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
“It’s a bit ecclesiastical, you know,”
he says, in a way that suggests this is probably no bad
‘~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
“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.
declares, “I’m going to put some make-up on. Are we
thinking about starting at some point?”
to take away Chris’s finished breakfast plate.
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.”
taking that home with you,” Neil predicts.
wear that to the Brit Awards,” Chris considers.
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”.
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.”
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.
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
“Yes,” says Neil. “There’s not a lot of hair
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.
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.
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.
you feel comfortable in it?” Chris asks him, about the
“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.
photographer wonders whether they’re ready.
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
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
“I don’t really like yellow,” says Chris. “Blues
are good, though. Yellows and greens are two
“Let’s do red and blue,” the photographer
For the first shot, they wear the most
large Gareth Pugh outfits. The photographer
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.
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
real life. “They’re really hot. And if I
Yes photography session at Spring Studios, London, January
wore a wig I’d have to keep taking it off to
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
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,”
Neil asks about her husband. “He’s still
got his hair, he’s still thin — how does he do it?” he
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.
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
“Which do you prefer?” the photographer
“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
The day continues. Perhaps past the point of
interest or exhaustion, they are persuaded to do one final
“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
Chris heads for the door. “The real
now,” he says. “Retouching...”
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:
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?
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.
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.
mentioned Gareth Pugh. Gareth’s clothes are more like
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.
said my favourite clothes are like uniforms.
‘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
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
Chris: Yeah. Nowhere to hide.
Summer clothes, broadly speaking, reveal your body, and
winter clothes broadly speaking disguise it. I’m into
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.
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
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,
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.
Cruella De Ville or something. So that was quite a good
Chris: There aren’t many outrageous clothes in
the shops generally. Once Issey Miyake stopped doing his
Neil: Issey Miyake’s silhouettes never
Chris: He used to do blow up stuff and
— you don’t get any of that now. It’s all
At the time, you thought that first
shot in the Gareth Pugh coats would be the look, didn
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
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
Chris: Yeah, I like wigs. A lot.
didn’t wear one. I wasn’t allowed to, I think.
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.
That particular photographer, he always has really good
music playing. And I’m normally just thinking how good the
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.
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
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.
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.