Last March the Pet Shop Boys
did their first
live performance ever as a synch duo,
without any other musicians, in the small 200-capacity
North London club Barfly as part of a series of charity
concerts. The roots of this performance were partially
seeded the previous November when Neil and Chris went into
the XFM studios and played live on the radio for the first
time. Both times, Literally was there.
24,2003. Neil and Chris are running
late after an
interview on Radio Five Live with Simon Mayo. They rush
into the studio and look at the modest equipment which has
been set up for their performance today
"Talk about a
synch duo," laughs Neil.
"This is high risk, this is,"
"I think we should have an escape route
in case we press 'go' and nothing happens," worries Neil.
Pete Gleadall assures him that the music is all backed up
on DAT, but after all this effort they'd rather not have
to use it. "Performing with technology," Neil points out,
"is much more live than someone sitting there with an
acoustic guitar." Neil suggests they should do a complete
run through of the four songs they intended to do today.
"Yes," Chris agrees, "because I've forgotten what I'm
going to play."
They play "Opportunities" twice. Chris
wants to do it a third time.
"No," beseeches Neil. "Do
you know what you re doing there?"
"I do now,"
Chris says. "I won't."
They have programmed the three
old songs they will be playing from scratch. Originally
they did so to play at a party to celebrate the release of
Pop Art, but when that fell through they decided they
still wanted to find these new versions of old songs an
The next song starts up: "Rent".
says Chris, as though the whole song, never mind its
stripped-back electro arrangement, has come as something
of a surprise to him. "It's this."
They do "Rent"
twice, still clearly working things out then move onto
begins playing a trance
riff and Neil reads through the lyrics as he sings.
"Talk about under-rehearsed," smiles Chris.
alright, that, in my headphones," says Neil.
Someone pops in and asks Neil whether he'd like a drink.
"I wouldn't mind a hideous herbal tea," he says.
hideous herbal tea?" the man says. "I'll see what we've
They do "Flamboyant" again and Chris goes astray
"I shouldn't do that there," he says, and asks for a pen
so that he can make a note.
"'West End girls',"
Chris says that he hasn't written down
which sounds he is supposed to call up on his synthesizers
for this song. He asks Pete Gleadnll for help.
on the little one in the intro and A58 for the lead
sound," says Pete.
They begin the song and Chris goes
completely wrong. "What note was it?" he wonders.
"Shall we start again?" suggests Neil.
"Yeah," he says,
trying out some notes until he finds what he is after. He
nods. "It's B."
They get through it this time.
"Rubbish," Chris declares. "Well, I don't know what I'm
playing on that one. There you go."
"Do you want to do
it again?" Neil asks.
Chris declines. "I've not got
anything else to play," he says.
notionally appearing on the Zoe Bali
show, but she has
called in sick after losing her voice (it was her birthday
at the weekend) and Lauren Laverne is standing in. Through
the glass into the studio where she is DJing a TV can be
seen on the wall. It is tuned to the Ceefax entertainment
pages and the story on the screen relates to the way the
Pet Shop Boys supposedly slagged off groups like Cold play
and The White Stripes in the previous issue of this
The part of the show the Pet Shop Boys are
appearing on is called Zoe's Jukebox. The idea is that the
guests on the show will play whichever
listeners request. (It shouldn't come as a surprise that
such segments may perhaps be a little less freeform than
they pretend to be. Though the Pet Shop Boys have picked
three very popular old songs to perform alongside their
next single, all of which are likely to be requested,
there is next to no chance of them suddenly launching into
something they haven't rehearsed at all.) Fortuitously,
there is a text requesting "Rent": "one of the best love
songs ever written". Chris gets ready.
"I've got to
concentrate here," he frets.
"Just make sure you do the
right song," says Neil.
"I don't start this, do I?"
Chris asks, alarmed.
"No," says Pete Gleadnll.
"Do I play at the start?" he asks.
"You can do," says
Pete. "Are you on the right patch? A14?"
"Oh God!" he
says, and changes it. "That's a very good point, Pete."
Lauren Laverne introduces them live on air and asks how
"We're fine," says Chris, evenly
fine" says Neil. "We're about to make our live UK radio
She refers to them as the most successful duo
of all time.
"In terms of hits," agrees Neil. "I
think Simon and Garfunkel have sold more records."
"We've had a slurry of texts..." says Lauren Laveme. She
asks them about "Rent" and Neil talks about how they wrote
it in a small studio in Camden with two synthesizers and a
piano. They play it, and it sounds rough and wonderful
though Chris gets confused at one point. Once it is
finished - they have a gap of about 20 minutes off air
between each song - he talks through the structure with
Pete GleadnIl. "Oh, is that what threw me?" he says. "I've
always had a problem with that song."
good," says Pete.
"Don't sound so surprised," says
Already they're beginning to enjoy this new
stripped-down Pet Shop Boys.
"It's going to be much
cheaper, touring," says Chris.
"This is it," says Neil.
"This is the Pets on the road now"
"We're going to have
to have some very good visuals," says Chris.
prepare to play "Opportunities". Pete plays them the first
part of the backing track and Chris looks confused. "Oh
God, the structure of this always gets me," he says.
"That's because we've changed the structure," says Neil.
"Do I play the...?" asks Chris, and plays a riff.
"Yes, you do," says Pete.
"You know we have sheet music
when we play live," Neil tells the XFM studio engineer,
who is looking slightly bemused. "Because he can't
Chris and Pete Gleadall run
through the whole of the song's structure one more time.
"It's good to sort things out four minutes before," says
Waiting, they discuss whether there is any
possibility that the film Love Actually could be worth
"I met someone who saw Love Actually yesterday
who said it made them want to leave the cinema and hug
"Oooh," says Chris. "Was this someone who
also liked Dido?"
"I think it was," Neil concedes.
The Offspring are playing on the radio. Chris asks
whether Pete can count him in to the instrumental chorus.
Lauren Laveme starts talking to them, back on air, with
listeners' questions. (Chris's mobile goes off, on air.)
Chris is asked about his appearance on Neighbours, and
Neil is asked whether he really fancies Guy from Coldplay
("Guy from Coldplay has got a real thing about this," says
Neil. "I think you'll have to speak to him about .....
.also, he's grown his hair now ) and about making records
with David Bowie and Dusty Springfield.
"Opportunities", perfectly well, Pete quietly counting
Chris in where requested.
"Cor, it's nerve-racking,"
They listen back to the broadcast
"All these tracks sound like our early demos,"
Neil points out, "only in time and in tune:'
on the sofa, they discuss whether they should do some
concerts with just the two of them. Maybe they should.
They could do
homecoming shows in Newcastle, Blackpoll
and London. And, suggests Neil, maybe also New York. And
Berlin. And Moscow. And Tokyo.
"'Do I fancy Guy from
Cold play?"' says Neil. "What a question."
through the lyrics to "Flamboyant", doing some late
"So," Chris says to himself, "the riff comes
back in in the chorus...
"Flamboyant" is being
played live for the first time and, on air, Neil is asked
to explain something about the song. "As you'll hear from
the lyrics, it's about the importance of flamboyant people
in our way of life. So I'm thinking of people like Oscar
Wilde and Quentin Crisp, Boy George and Marilyn, Elton
John and David Beckham, so.. you'll understand when you
"Anyone with a bit of sparkie," she suggests.
"Anyone with a bit of sparkle," Neil
After "Flamboyant" they give way to Black Rebel
"Another cock-up there," Chris says.
"I've done one out of three without any mistakes."
discuss how "Opportunities" is their most famous ironic
song, something Chris now chooses to dispute.
make lots of money' - I never said it was ironic," he
insists. "The other member of the group may have thought
it was, but I never did:'
They go back into the studio,
and back on air.
"We have half an hour every time
to get nervous again between songs," Neil tells Lauren
Chris is asked whether he has copied David
Beckham with his new hairstyle.
"I've just grown it for
a bit," Chris explains. "and I've found it's gone very
curly, which is a surprise."
"And it's blond, as well,"
Neil points out.
"Yeah, but that's not natural," says
Neil tells the tale of how he introduced
Rick Astley, dressed as an astronaut, to Michael Stipe at
Elton John's fiftieth birthday party. He is asked to
explain a little about "West End girls" and he explains
how they were really influenced by rap music at the time.
"Which people probably don't think of us as being
influenced by. And the idea
was for this song, to do a
record like Grandmaster Flash but to do it in an English
"Oh fantastic, oh excellent, yes says Lauren
"So think of it like that when you listen to
it," says Neil.
"Good rock fact," she says.
"Thanks, guys. Take it away. Cheers...
This version is
close to the Bobby 0 version, with its James Brown grunt
"I like that version of that, by the way,~'
says Neil once it has finished. "You can't beat a bit of
"Yeah - what did Stephen Hague bring
to that record?" asks Chris dryly.
David Dorrell says
how different it sounded.
"Based on the original," Neil
"But hearing it as a rap song David says.
"But that's what it was meant to be," Neil says. "It's the
first American rap number one, really, though no one ever
says it is."
"Perhaps we should reappraise that," David
"I've always thought of myself as a bit of a
rapper on the side, though nobody else does," Neil says.
"You know, 'Left to my own devices' and all that."
puts on his glasses, then immediately takes them off to
have his photo taken. "I officially don't wear glasses,"
"Well, it's a huge
comedown now, isn't it?" says Chris. "Huge comedown. Back
to the hotel on your own...
In fact, instead of going
home, they go to a small, smart restaurant in the centre
of London, where they talk about both the good aspects and
the strangeness of having been Pet Shop Boys for so many
years. If you carry on being popular for a long time,
somehow it always ends up being weird," says Neil. "Like
the endless question about how Chris and I can still get
on with each other:
'don't you find it weird?' I
don't find it weird. Why can't you get on with each
Chris says that their way is the opposite of
Jade on Celebrity Wife Swap: "her way of getting on is to
row all the time".
As the coffee arrives, Neil reflects
earlier ambitions. "When I was a kid I used to
think, 'My birthday's not a saints' day - it's waiting for
me'. Saint Neil."
The appropriate laughter follows.
For all its under-rehearsed nervousness, and perhaps
even to some extent because of it, today has gone well.
"Well, I think we put together a bloody good show," says
Chris. "And I say that as a fan."
"Not a big one,
though," says Neil.
"No," Chris concedes, "but as a
minor fan, that's a bloody good package we put together.
And to think that we didn't want to do it."
says Neil, "we're always like that..."
2004. This evening, the Pet Shop Boys will be performing
on a tiny stage in the upstairs room of this pub where
they are currently trying to rehearse and sound check. As
well as playing live in public as just two people onstage
for the first time since the very beginning of their
career, they have spent five weeks reprogramming new (and
generally much sparer and more electronic) versions of
some of their most popular songs, and of songs they either
have not played live for years or, in some cases, have
Right now, there's a problem. The
"'It's a sin' has been
corrupted," explains Pete Gleadall, without irony
Eventually it starts working again, but then Chris's
"OS X isn't really desigued for
music," sighs Neil.
"Oh, let's just not do it,"
says Chris exasperated. He leaves the stage. "Call me when
Neil says he is feeling under the weather.
Chris returns and they run through "We're the Pet Shop
Boys" without any hitches.
"That's not the
best-sounding track, and it sounded good," Pete Gleadall
"What are the other bad-sounding tracks?"
asks Chris, meaning that they should do another one of
"Shall we try 'Jealousy'?" suggests Neil. They
"Medley?" suggests Chris, afterwards.
"Medley," repeats Neil. "Good idea." The medley is of the
four songs they
performed months ago in the XFM studios
("Opportunities", "Rent", "Flamboyant" and "West End
girls"), now all stitched fairly seamlessly together. They
begin to run through it, but Neil comes in too early on
his keyboard. "I've totally lost the plot there," he
apologises. "Start again."
The second time,
"That's a medley, that is," says
Chris at the end, with some satisfaction. He looks down at
his computer. "This is going to be nerve-wracking. I've
never had so much control. I can sabotage the whole
They have a go at "I'm not scared", then Neil
asks, "Do we think that's enough?"
"Do we need to check
that they all work?" worries Chris.
Pete Gleadall agrees. "And we should check ... . .married
When they do so, Neil complains that he can't
hear properly when everything is turned up.
rehearse, the metal sheets which will serve as the
backdrop to tonight's show are still being put into place.
They run through "It's a sin" then Chris suggests they
call it a day As they step offstage they are offered
towels by Andy, the production manager.
Pet Shop Boys don't sweat," says Neil, accepting a towel
nonetheless. "They glow"
He looks at the tatty, empty
room, a bar only a few feet away at the far end. "It's
only 200 people," he says. "I'm looking at it like a
concert in my house:'
"Does your house have mirror
balls?" asks Andy.
"Just a mirrored ceiling," suggests
Neil worries some more about the computers.
He asks Pete Gleadall whether they need to ask the
audience to turn their mobile phones off so that the
signals don't interfere with the electronics and wireless
signals. Pete says that shouldn't be a problem. (They have
an agreement that all smoking will be
banned in the building - primarily to protect Neil's voice
but also, one suspects, because they so dislike it.
Particularly Chris who keeps saying, triumphantly, "we
have brought non-smoking to the Barfly".)
As they leave
through the side door to go back to their respective homes
for a while, they are surrounded by fans. Chris is quizzed
about his hair.
"I'm going to cut it off after
we've toured," he says. "What's worrying is if David
Beckham cuts his off first. Everyone will think I'm
copying him. Which I will be."
A man tries to get Chris
to sign his shirt. Chris doesn't want to.
"When are you
going to Switzerland?" another asks. He's clearly heard
"Tomorrow' says Chris.
the fan. "Skiing?"
"What else is there to do in
Switzerland?" asks Chris.
The fan who wants his shirt
signed insists further but Chris won't do it. Eventually
Chris agrees to sign his face.
Neil walks into the
dressing room for the night at 8.35 and asks for a "half
and half", the mixture of white wine and water he often
finds settling before live performance. Chris appears a
few minutes later.
"I don't know why we're doing this,"
"Have we found out how much we've
raised?" asks Chris. (The tickets are both auctioned off
and given away as part of a phone lottery where each call
made raises money for charity. They are part of a short
season of bands - The Cure played here yesterday, and The
Darkness play soon.)
"No, but we got more calls than
anyone else," says Neil.
"So we won," says Chris.
Neil nods. "I shall restrain myself from saying that
onstage, but it will be a battle:'
"I'm a bit nervous,"
Neil nods once more. "It's a bit real,
isn't it?" he says. Most previous Pet Shop Boys concerts
have been about denying or avoiding or transforming
realness in some way, and perhaps it will be a shock to
find themselves as themselves performing as they are in
front of a small crowd.
"No, it's not that," says
Chris. "A PowerBook's not the most reliable instrument."
He says he needs to speak to Pete Gleadall, to run through
exactly what they do if the computer crashes.
Dorrell comes up and reports from the audience. "It's
packed down there," he says.
"What are they like?" asks
"Still in their coats," says David.
bloody tight to use the cloakroom," says Chris.
Gleadall comes in, and talks Chris through emergency
computer procedures. At the very worst, there is a back up
of the music in a file called Barfly Show.
"Brilliant' says Chris. "I think I can remember that. The
other thing is that my Bluetooth is switched off, because
it's quite likely to start downloading emails in the
middle of the show"
"To think," says Neil, "that Robert
Smith was sitting in this chair last night."
their scheduled start-time come and go.
them a couple of minutes," says Neil.
"We're always so
bloody keen," Chris agrees.
And then they make
their way down.
They begin with three songs they have
never played in concert: Bobby 0's "Try it (I'm in love
with a married man)", "Tonight is forever" and My Robot
Friend's "We're the Pet Shop Boys". "This is a very
special gig for us tonight," Neil tells the crowd after
the first of these. "As someone once sang, we wouldn't
normally do this kind of thing. Over the past few weeks,
just to let you know what is happening technically, Chris
and I have reprogrammed 14 songs into Chris's PowerBook..
.tonight we're hearing the result." After the second he
says, "Now, I've got a bit of a cold, actually... now,
this is a song about us, but it's not by us."
"Jealousy" (which Neil explains how it
is the first
song they wrote together), "I'm not scared" (there's a
cheer when, while explaining its genesis, Neil mentions
"the mid-Eighties") and "Being boring" (in which Neil
sings "now I sit with different faces/ in Camden town and
other places ) they perform the second song they wrote for
Dusty Springfield, "In private", themselves in public for
the first time, using the arrangement of their recent
as-yet-unreleased version featuring Elton John.
"Right," says Neil, sitting down. "Like West life, I sit
down for ballads. This is another song we've never played
live before, and it's a really ancient one but it finally
made its way onto the album Behavior, and it's called
After that, there's the new version of
"It's a sin" with its new keyboard melody line and "Love
is a catastrophe" ("although the next song is a ballad,
I'm going to stand," he explains), and then the
"Opportunities"! "Rent"! "Flamboyant"! "West End girls"
medley. He explains to the audience that they would have
gone off before the medley but that it's logistically
impossible, and that they should consider this the encore.
He suggests that they could sing along to these - "I mean,
it's Saturday night, for god's sake" - and during
"Opportunities" he gets the audience to sing the chorus.
Back in the dressing room, Chris says that there were
a few computer scares during the show. "It said 'Core
audio close to fail'," he reports; while he didn't know
exactly what that meant he assumed that it wasn't a good
thing. He hit "continue" three times and it only agreed to
comply on the third attempt. Still, he obviously enjoyed
it, though he declares himself quite exhausted. "I've gone
from doing nothing," he says, "to running the whole show."
Chris's sister, Vicki, talks to Neil about his stage
"Well, what do you do for the thunderclap in
'It's a sin'?" says Neil. "You do the dying fly. I quite
enjoy doing it, actually."
They discuss how they had
agreed to make a quick getaway but, for the moment, do
nothing about it.
"How great is 'It's a sin'?" says
Chris. "It's worth re-releasing it just for the riff."
Copy rights Literally 2005 Issue 28.