Wednesday March 2nd.
In the huge orchestra room of London's CBS studios 46 musicians prepare
to play. Some practice phrases off the music in front of them, paring
or fiddling or tooting until they're happy. Some tune up.
The brass players
shake spittle out of their instrumOthers exchange musically chitchat,
peppering their conversation with terms like "legato".
They all sit in a loose semicircle facing a small podium
at one side of the room. On it stands Anne Dudley, best
known as one half of the Art Of Noise though she's also
one of pop music's most respected arrangers of orchestral
accompaniments. In her hand she holds a cream plastic
phone, every now and again muttering into it.
door is a smaller, thin room full of recording equipment
connected to the other by a thick wide glass window. A few
technicians drift around. The CO-producer, Julian
Mendelsohn, paces about, looking thoughtful. On the couch
sits Chris Lowe. In front of him, sitting at the mixing
desk, is Neil Tenant holding an identical cream phone to
Anne Dudley's - they're talking about the orchestra's last
run-through. Next to him is Liza Minnelli, sitting on her
hands and quietly singing through "Tonight Is Forever", a
typed lyric sheet in front of her. The atmosphere is
surprisingly cheerful and lighthearted - the general
consensus is that the song's orchestral backing sounds
quite wonderful. Except, everyone agrees knowledgeably,
for one thing, the frugal horn, which is flat.
main subject of conversation revolves around the technical
matter of how, exactly, the orchestra should play. At
first Anne Dudley is told to conduct them in time with a
click track - a percussive click of steady speed to ensure
an even tempo - that is being played through her
headphones. Much earnest debate takes place about whether
the best speed is 125 beats per minute. Or maybe, it is
suggested, 126. Or even, perhaps, 127. Neil and Chris have
decided because even though at the moment they intend the
finished song to be just Liza and the orchestra they want
to have the option of changing their minds and adding
electronic drums later. "In case we want to turn it into a
disco stopper," explains Chris.
soon change their minds. At
an even speed the song
doesn't sound quite right. Neil picks up the cream phone
and suggests to Anne Dudley that she may pace the song as
she wishes. She looks relieved.
A couple more
run-throughs are done and they're ready to record the
whole thing with Liza singing. She scatters off to a vocal
booth - walking, as she does so, through the orchestra and
receiving a round of applause - the orchestra strikes up
and she sings the song. It's quite breathtaking. "Tonight
Is Forever" first appeared on the "Please" LP as a brisk
hi-energy affair; this new version is much slower and the
orchestral arrangement is completely over-the-top. Near
the end there's an extended crescendo that sounds both so
good and so ridiculous that everyone in the small room
Seconds later Liza reappears. "How did it
sound?" she inquires nervously.
"Liza," agrees Neil, "you sounded
Liza, clearly delighted by the approval,
does a quick schoolgirl jig, swinging her hips and
punching the air. "My boss is happy," she exclaims, and
Congratulations over, there's more
earnest discussion about the tempo (and the frugal horn)
then Lint is asked to return to the vocal booth. "I'll
slide, literally, back into the room," she announces.
"I've never had on such slippery shoes and I've never been
on such a slippery floor." Hearing this one of the studio
people scuttles off to find her a mat to stand on.
She sings the song again and it sounds just as good.
"It's exiting, isn't it?" mutters Julian Mendelsohn to
no-one in particular. "That's another song," says Chris,
putting on his most blaze voice, once Liza has finished.
"Let's go to a restaurant." But they don't. They start
ironing out a few finicky problems with the orchestra.
Meanwhile Liza, who has been told I'd like to ask her some
questions, wanders over. "Well?" she says "What do you
want to know?" I take out my tape recorder and stay where
I am on the floor, holding it up to her on a swinging
chair next to me. She says that she wanted to work with
the Pet Shop Boys because "I'd always admired them. I
thought they were fantastic." When I ask her when they
first met she furrows her brow but can't remember. She
"Oh God, you need to speak to Neil," says
Chris, protesting that he can never remember details like
that. Neil is in the toilet. Liza decides it was last
"I like all of that stuff," she continues
(at this stage Chris decides it is going to be far too
embarrassing to listen to Liza talking about the Pet Shop
Boys and disappears.) "I think they do things that aren't
- let me see, how can I put this? - they do things that
are rhythmic and kind of familiar and yet the way they do
it sounds brand new, they always add something extremely
different and they're meticulous in their production.
Plus, they're so nice."
She can't remember the first
Pet Shop Boys song she heard but with some prompting
decides it was probably "West End Girls". "I like Neil's
voice"' she volunteers. "He sounds like a choirboy."
Neil, who has now returned to the room, overhears this and
chuckles loudly. "I know my choirboy voice," he says.
Liza, meanwhile, talks about how much she likes Neil's
"Re writes almost like what I call pop
poetry. Even with a driving beat and an intent that's out-
and-out rock'n'roll he's saying something too on top
of it, which does make a difference to me, that the words
are often important. Neil writes, I think, in images and
you can see places in the songs. Almost every song on the
album is like that."
They first met, she suddenly
decides, at London's Mayfair hotel where she was staying.
"I opened the door, they were standing there and I said
"Hi! Come in!" she recalls precisely. "We got along very
well right away, I guess because none of us think we're
really more than what we really are, which is just
musicians and workers."
So were they different, I
wondered, to the people she'd expected from listening to
"I didn't think they'd be as funny as
they are," she confesses, "I didn't think we'd end up
laughing so much. I thought maybe they'd be a little more
serious and more ..." She struggles to find the word she
means and finally plumps for ". . .
fact," she continues, "they're enormous fun to work with
and when you're working this hard one of the things that
saves you is you get hysterical, laughing a lot, otherwise
you can make it through. Right?"
The last part of the
sentence is addressed to Neil, eavesdropping again, who
laughs. She carries on. "They're different from anyone
else. They're unique in this business." And are they not
"ethereal" at all? "Oh yes they are," she insists' "in
their bizarre sort of way." "Are we what?" asks Neil,
still half-listening. "Ethereal," says Liza. "1 said I
though you'd be much more ethereal in person."
don't think we're very ethereal," says Neil.
busies himself with something else and Liza returns to the
subject of this lyrics. "I think it's a love of the
English language that makes Neil able to express himself
in his songs He loves words. He likes the sound of words
when they come out and you can tell that when he writes a
song. He's a poet, you know? I really think that."
explains that her friends in America arc very puzzled by
the combination of Liza Minnelli and the Pet Shop Boys.
Whenever she tells them about it, she says, they first
assume that she must have offered to do some Pet Shop Boys
backing vocals as a favorer to them.
If not that
then her friends assume they might be making a single
together. "I say 'they've consented to produce my album'
and they look at me in a stunned silence," says Liza,
proudly. "It gives me time to move away. It gives me time
to get out of the room so I don't have to answer any more
questions. I think people are intrigued by it, and they
should be. But they Neil and Chris) know my music. Neil
knows the kind of songs I like to sing. He knows
always liked Author, that I like words, that I like to
paint pictures, because that's what he likes to do."
She says that she was never really involved in any plan of
what son of LP it should be. When they first met they just
chatted about other things. "We didn't really talk about
anything in particular, just kind of were, you know what I
mean? I just trust them so much I didn't have to ask any
questions. I just said 'I'll do whatever you want because
this is new to me - you're the boss.
want me to do I'll do it.' I never asked any questions.
They just did it." According to her they didn't even talk
about whether the songs should be old or new, theirs or
someone else's. "I just put it completely in their hands.
The ultimate trust. And H's weird because I've been
working for 30 years and to for somebody who you like
enough and trust enough and respect enough to say 'forget
it, I'll do whatever you want' is quite amazing."
try things out she and the Pet Shop Boys up in a studio in
New York. Coincidentally the first thing they tried out
was "Tonight Is Forever" in a version about halfway
between the old Pet Shop Boys version and the one being
recorded here tonight.
Then they went away and a
few months sent her demo versions of everything on the
album. She was delighted. "They were right in every case"'
she says. "I thought everything was very strange and very
avant grade and yet with that down-home bottom section
going - such a nice groove, such a nice feel and, over the
top, these beautiful lyrical songs
by Neil who announces that he's time to start work again.
She returns to the vocal booth and suddenly the voice that
had been laughing and chatting away a few seconds before
is soaring all over the place quite brilliantly.
She decides that she wants to sing the huge crescendo
before the last chorus in two parts - to sing". . . when
we fall in love" one time and then to join that together
with her beginning the chorus "tonight is forever . .
Eventually she's persuaded to sing it all in one go and
manages splendidly. The song has been arranged so that it
ends with her singing "tonight tonight tonight
forever" three times but Neil suddenly has the idea that
it might be better if she leaves out the "is forever" for
the first two goes. Anne Dudley is called in for
negotiations. She makes a few small changes in what the
orchestra play and the song is changed; simple as that.
Back in the control room Liza is rabbiting away
about some friends of hers - "Frank" has apparently been
up to this and "Sammy" thinks this about that and so on.
It takes a while to realize that the names she's
sprinkling around are actually Frank Sinatra and Sammy
Davis Jnr., With whom she is to appear in a couple of
weeks time at the Royal Albert hall. She talks about the
concert and starts eulogizing about legendary band leader
arrangers like Nelson Riddle and George Jerkins and says
how much she loves to sing old classic songs with a big
orchestra. Meanwhile Neil remarks how much he likes
timpani's. "They make me think of Shakespeare."
there such a thing as a drop of tea here?" asks Liza.
Someone disappears to find out.
"Shall we repair
the vocal?" Julian Mendelsohn asks Neil. Neil doesn't
answer. He's sitting facing the glass screen between the
two rooms, staring into space, in a world of his own and
completely oblivious to everything that's going on.
"He's just making a movie in Australia for a moment,"
chuckles Lira, as Neil suddenly releases that everyone is
talking about him.
Liza's tea arrives. It's in a
rather unmajestic, UN-Hollywood plastic cup. There's no
spoon so she tries to stir it with a cheap pink plastic
cigarette lighter and burns the tips of her fingers.
Julian asks her to sing the song once more.
should I do it?" she asks Neil and Chris (who returned the
moment Liza finished her interview). "Less expression?
More expression?" The song has sounded so good every time
she has sung it that the question seems a little
"I have no criticism at all, I'm
afraid," apologies Neil.
Before she leaves the room
she sings little bits of old show songs and declares, to
no-one in particular, that "Tonight Is Forever" should be
in a movie. Then she chats about clothes. She prefers
black, she says. Today she is wearing a black jumper and a
black leather miniskirt. Chris and Neil are joking
about the orchestra. Orchestra's are employed under very
strict union rules - they have to have a 15 minute tea
break (which they've just taken) and you have to pay a
fortune in overtime if the session runs only five minutes
over. At the moment, however, it looks as though the
session will finish early.
"We should make them
stay," suggests Chris mischievously.
"Make them play
scales," chuckles Neil.
"Or make them play something
For us," laughs Chris.
"Maybe the Pastoral symphony,"
says Neil, pretending to give the matter deep and serious
thought. "Or a little Sables."
They do finish early,
despite continuing problems with the frugal horn, and of
course they do let the orchestra go. Originally at the end
they'd planned to record the orchestra on its own to a
click track but now they decide not to bother. If they
really want to piece together a version with drums it's
always possible to add electronic drums manually by
tapping a pad along in time - this, they explain to
everyone's horror, is how they used to record with Bobby
0. He didn't have a drum machine so they'd take the tempo
from the synthesizer sequence and play the electronic drum
pads live in time to the synthesizer rhythm.
the end of the final take, as the final straits of the
orchestra are spiraling away, Liza whispers through the
microphone "Thank you Neil, thank you Chris." It's
"It was nice, I nearly
cried," says Neil when they play it back a couple of
"I nearly cried," says Anne Dudley. "I
didn't," says Julian Mendelsohn stubbornly, deciding
things are getting far too soppy.
And it's all
over. Everyone gathers their sessions and Liza compliments
Anne Dudley and asks for her card. Liza adds that she
still wants the song to be a duet with Neil. "Yes," sighs
Neil bashfully. "I'm going to do my Ivory Novella bit on
it." "Let's go to a restaurant, says Chris once more. This
time they do.