June 15, 2005. Angel Studios,
Midway through recording their
new album, the Pet Shop Boys have booked an orchestra
session to record string and brass parts on three of their
new songs. Neil and Chris sit at the back of the studio
control room, off to one side behind the mixing desk.
Through the glass they can see the musicians filtering
in and unpacking their instruments. Trevor Horn, the
producer, comes in and Neil moves to get up. “Trevor, you
can sit here,” he says.
“No, I normally sit down
there,” explains Trevor, pointing to a position in front
of the mixing desk as close to the musicians as possible
while staying on this side of the glass. He says that they
need to get moving if they’re going to get through all
“I might go home,” says Chris, though he
makes no move to do so, and seems happy enough here; it
just seems to be the kind of thing he says at times like
this. Instead, he and Neil chat about the Michael Jackson
trial verdict from the day before.
Trevor tells the
string arranger, Nick Ingman, that they’re going to do the
song called “Integral” first. “I’m just going to nip to
the loo before we start,” he says.
“‘Nip to the
loo’,” repeats Neil. “Sounds like a folk song.” He points
out that they have recorded strings in this studio before.
“We did ‘Rent’ for Liza Minnelli here. ‘Getting away with
it’. Quite a few things. We did ‘Dreaming of the Queen’
The microphones are on in the orchestra’s room;
we can hear them talk to each other.
“What time is it?”
one says to another.
“Well after half past three,”
comes the answer. They were booked to begin at half past
three. The rules are very strict when you employ classical
musicians — you either finish three hours later when the
session is due to finish, or pay heavily for any overrun.
“Good afternoon,” Nick Ingman tells them.
“‘Integral’.” Pages rustle and flap on music stands. “Into
bar nine, ‘Integral’, avec mci, please,” he instructs.
They play the arrangement he has written, by sight; this
is the first time they have seen it. “Jolly good,” he
One, two.. After a while,
there’s a huge melodramatic symbol crash.
“Sounds a bit
over the top, doesn’t it?” sniggers Chris.
still finding their way, and Neil worries whether they’ll
be in tune. “Sounds a bit like a school orchestra,” he
“Don’t worry,” Trevor reassures him. “They’ll
be in tune.”
The orchestra chatter. “Are you marked
‘forte’?” one asks his neighbour.
Chris picks up a copy
of Private Eye that is lying on the mixing desk and starts
“Discipline, discipline,” mutters one of
Trevor queries one of the percussion
sounds. “Frank, is there any way you can get any more tone
out of the spanner?” he asks. He suggests that the
orchestra now start playing along with the Pet Shop Boys’
“Bit of track coming, folks,” Nick
Ingman tells the musicians, as though it is some kind of
gentle warning. They play along. “Could we have another
five per cent of the vocals?”
In the control room,
Neil picks up an aviation magazine called Pilot and starts
browsing through it. “I thought it was a yachting
magazine,” he says, as though this would somehow explain
his interest. Soon he puts it down and shows Literally the
brochure for a new play, Telstar: The Joe Meek Story,
which he is planning to see as soon as it opens. It’s
about a legendary eccentric record producer who made a
series of remarkable, sonically innovative records then
met a sorry end. “Don’t you like ‘
asks. “Don’t you like ‘Have I The Right?’ by The
The musicians do a full run-through. Neil
and Chris laugh, amused at the most over-thetop moments.
“We might not use it all, you know,” Neil says. Trevor
says that they need to split the musicians up into smaller
groups. “There’s a lot of racket,” he says. “Exciting, I
“That timpani roll,” laughs Chris.
“Hilarious,” says Neil. “From their new album, Hilarious.”
They listen back to the recording of the orchestra.
Chris raises his fist.
“Very Wagnerian,” nods Neil.
“It sounds like the overture to a show” says Chris.
does, doesn’t it?” Neil agrees.
Gavin, who leads
the strings, comes into the control room to have a listen.
Trevor tries to introduce him to Neil and Chris but they
point out that they have known him for years — since the
recording of ‘Left to my own devices
“‘Left to my own
devices’ was the first string session we ever did,” Neil
“Twenty years ago?” suggests Gavin.
“No~” corrects Neil. “Seventeen years ago, to be precise.
Studio One, Abbey Road.”
Neil picks up Pilot once more
and Trevor explains that the best bits in the magazine are
the details about safety matters and recent crashes.
“Trevor has an unhealthy interest in plane crashes,” Neil
Nick Ingman gives the string section new
instructions. “Instead of what you have please play your
“D? Or B?” queries one of the players.
“D,”says Ingman. “For ‘disaster’. And as big and loud
and juicy as possible.” The instructions continue: “...
Pete, you know that quaver thing?” “It’sforte from bar
nine, the m.f has gone...” and so on. He chats with Trevor
about the fact that the harp player hasn’t turned up yet.
The song’s relentless chorus hammers out:
you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to fear. If
you’ve something to hide you shouldn’t even be here.”
Nick Ingman asks them to stop because the cellos are
lagging behind. “It’s not getting to 4 when I expect it
to,” he frets.
“A different world,” observes Trevor,
quietly. “The skill it takes to do this...”
about Camilla Parker Bowles in the newspaper. He doesn’t
appear to be paying much attention, though occasionally,
without looking up, he’ll say something like, “We’ll have
to have a proscenium arch for the next show.”
Trevor points out that you can’t get strings recorded for
pop records to sound like this in
America. (He lives
and works in Los Angeles some of the time.) “They’re
working in a factory
— they don’t dig it,” he explains.
“These guys sort of understand what you want.” And in
America it’s hard to get the A-list players anyway for a
pop music session — they’re always working on a Stephen
Spielberg movie soundtrack or something like that.
play along to the track again.
“I wonder when the
kitchen sink is coming,” sniggers Chris.
harp,” says Neil.
“Fireworks...” Chris says.
recorded fireworks once,” Neil recalls.
“Did we?” says
“Julian recorded them at J.J.’s party for the
‘Always on my mind’ twelve-inch,” Neil says. “They weren’t
that good though — they didn’t explode in time.”
harp’s arrived,” Trevor announces.
“Someone wearing a
top hat...” predicts Neil.
... some jugglers coming,”
Neil continues the fantasy: “We’re
recording some mime artists this afternoon...”
while, Trevor says that he’s happy with what they have.
“You can always fix the timing,” he says. “It’s hard to
fix the pitch.” He has two suggestions. One is to the
orchestra. “Why don’t we move on and do ‘Luna Park’ now?”
The other is to Neil. “Shall we put the kettle on?”
At a later date, Neil and Chris explain to
Literally the background to today’s session.
“Originally on this album we weren’t going to do
strings...” Neil explains.
“Or guitars,” laughs Chris.
“Our original idea in writing the album was to do
minimalist electric-pop,” says Neil. “Consequently as a
result we’ve made an album of sweeping epics, one after
another really. I don’t know how we’ve managed that.”
Trevor suggested that they used Nick Ingman for the
arrangements. This is the first time they have been in the
studio with him, though he arranged the strings on “Numb”
which will also be on this album but which
“With the style of these string
arrangements, they’re not incredibly intrusive strings,”
Neil notes. “They’re used as a rich texture.” As he
pointed out in the studio, the first time they ever used
live strings was on the first song they recorded with
Trevor Horn, back in 1988, “Left to my own devices “It was
the first time we worked with Richard Niles who did the
arrangements, and he did a massive arrangement and we
edited some of it out. It’s exciting doing strings,
because it makes the harmony sound much richer, which I
really like. I always like hearing the strings playing by
themselves as well — it gives you a completely different
idea of what the music could be.”
They point out
that sometimes orchestrations don’t work. “In this case
not at all — I’ve liked everything — but we have had
situations before,” says Chris. “But the great thing is
that you don’t have to use everything. We’ve had occasions
before where we’ve cherry-picked the bits we liked and not
used the other bits.”
They talk through these three
songs. First, the anthemic “Integral”.
“One of the
ideas for the album is that we took the themes of the
songs from contemporary events,” says Neil. “‘Integral’
was inspired by the issue of ID cards in Britain, whereby
everyone in Britain is issued with an ID card which has a
smart strip on it which collates all of your social
security information, any criminal convictions, and other
stuff, which also is going to be shared with the United
States of America. And it seems to us to go against all
British traditions of liberty and freedom. So we wrote
this song which is a kind of satire, sung from the point
of view of the people who are issuing the ID cards, and
sums it up by saying ‘your lives exist as information’
which is kind of how things are going in a way...
integral’ because you’re integral to the government’s
concept; it’s what everyone says: ‘if you’ve nothing to
hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’; the point being that if
you have got something to hide you’re not integral to the
concept of modern Britain. But we only really like people
who’ve got something to hide.”
“They’re certainly more
interesting,” says Chris. (He adds one more practical
objection to ID cards: “It’d be a nightmare for Batman and
all those superheroes.”)
They wrote the music in
their London studio.
“You started writing the music,”
Neil reminds Chris. “You didn’t like it to begin with.”
“It’s alright,” says Chris. “It’s the sort of thing you
might get annoyed with after a few plays. It was just
trying to be uplifting really. It’s not easy. People think
it’s easy doing uplifting four-on-the-floor stompers but
actually it’s quite difficult, particularly when you’re
not in the mood. When you’re feeling like Chris Martin on
a good day, it’s not easy to do. But we try. We owe it to
“I think it sounds threatening more than
uplifting,” says Neil.
“Musically it’s a bit
triumphalist, don’t you think?” says Chris.
agrees. “Threateningly triumphalist.”
Chris. “It’s the state — it’s an overpowering state.”
“It actually has an influence from Rammstein as well,”
says Neil. “It reminds me a bit of Rammstein’s song,
‘Amerika’.” He starts singing: “We’re all living in
Amerika... wunderbar ...“ “Intregal” also reminds them of
Pink Floyd’s The Wall. “Trevor thinks a lot of things on
this album sound like Pink Floyd,” says Neil. “I, of
course, have never really listened to Pink Floyd so it’s
very difficult for me to judge this. I was never a fan.”
The second of these three songs is called “Luna Park”.
“It was written about two years ago,” says Neil, “in the
north of England...”
“I think it was done in London,”
“You might be right,” says Neil.
“They come from the heavens anyway,” notes Chris. “We’re
just a vessel through which they pass. If anyone else
likes it, it’s a bonus.” (Literally readers may like to
consider at their leisure whether this represents Chris’s
true opinion or is a savage parody of pompous pop star
“I’ve always like the phrase ‘Luna Park’,”
“You don’t get them in England,” says Chris.
“We have Blackpool Pleasure Beach.”
“In Nice there’s a
Luna Park,” says Neil.
“All across Germany,” notes
“Luna Park is their name for a permanent
funfair,” says Neil, “and obviously it means something to
do with the moon, that you go there at night, lit by the
moon. I’ve always thought there were a lot of
connotations. ....... lunatic, for instance. So there is
that notion that it’s madness, and that’s specifically
what I liked about it — the mixture of fun, fear and
madness. It struck me as a good metaphor for America. So
in the song Luna Park is America. It’s basically a war on
There’s another song on the album
called ‘Psychological’ which has a similar theme. It’s
basically about how you imagine things, of how being
afraid of a directionless terrorism in a way is like being
afraid of the dark. In the dark you don’t know what’s
happening, and with terrorism you feel where information
is concemed you’re in the dark so you’re irrationally
The third song is called “Casanova in Hell”.
“We wrote that in the north of England,” says Neil.
“Chris started writing a song on the grand piano which
I’ve got in my house, and I’d had the idea of writing a
song called ‘Casanova in Hell’ from reading a book about
him... It’s a short novel, Casanova ~ Homecoming, by
Arthur Schnitzler who was the Viennese writer at the tum
of the twentieth century and it sort of draws upon the
idea that Casanova is getting older, and so the song is
about Casanova. A woman laughs at him because she thinks
he’s too old to have sex with her, and he confronts that
realisation and gets his revenge by writing his memoirs.
And it was his memoirs that made him into a
historical figure as well as a literary figure — he
recorded all of his sexual conquests as well as other
things in these books. It’s got this very pretty melody
that has these sort of dissonant notes in it. When the
conductor was introducing it to the orchestra he said
something about the words... One word has been changed,
though. The word
‘masturbate’ has been changed to
‘contemplate’. It was just too icky.”
“We didn’t want a
parental guidance sticker on the album sleeve,” deadpans
Chris. “We’re not that type of band.”
kettle has boiled at the back of the
Trevor Hom makes his own cup of tea and stares at the jar
of chocolate biscuits. “Biscuits around the place, it’s
“Don’t go there, Trevor,” counsels Neil.
has one biscuit anyway while the strings run through “Luna
Park”. Chris points out a bit of the arrangement that he
“We should have Axl Rose singing on
this, really,” says Neil. “He’d sing it really well.”
“This has got more rock, hasn’t it?” Chris observes. “I
don’t mean in a bad way.” He shares his reservations with
Nick Ingman about the opening passages.
“We can schmoot
them up a bit,” Ingman suggests.
“I think they’ve got
to do it aggressively,” Neil agrees. “I think it needs to
sound rushed. It’s got to match the piano.”
obviously being played percussively,” states Nick Ingman.
He talks the strings through the song. “There’s the famous
semi-quaver passage at 65... “he says at one point.
“Famous,” says Neil, who is enjoying tea and a banana.
“People talk of nothing else.” He says that he sat next to
the notorious art critic Brian Sewell at a dinner the
other night when he was presenting the BP National
Portrait Gallery portrait prize. (Neil took the
opportunity to note how old-fashioned portrait painting
was and reasoned that it must, consequently, have
something going for it.)
“This is about Casanova in
hell,” Nick Ingman tells the string section. “Listen to
the words. They’re very good.”
Neil chats with Chris
about Sondre Lerche. Chris laughs when the
already-recorded Neil sings the word “erection” in the
“That sounded a bit better than I thought,”
Neil worries that some of the string
parts sound a bit inconsequential, and says that he
doesn’t understand the discordant part at the end.
asked that the strings sort of comment at the end,” Trevor
“Did I?” says Neil.
“We can cut it,”
“No, no, what did I mean?” Neil says,
wondering. “It might have been a good idea.”
Ingman talks to one of the viola players. “You’re a tiny
bit flowery for me,” he says. “Because you’re the bottom
viola, if you’ll excuse the expression...” They do another
runthrough and he praises them. “Lovely,” he says. “Very
limp. Beautifully limp.”
They consider the
problematic end passage. “This ascending chromatic thing
which may get cut,” as Nick Ingman describes it to the
players. Chris thinks it should stay on one note; Neil
wonders whether it should hold and then slide down. They
eventually decide it should just hold.
“Much better,” Chris agrees.
playback. Chris teases Neil about his vocal timing.
“It’s my signature style,” Neil says.
“You just can’t
wait for the beat,” says Chris.
“I think it’s too
corny,” Neil explains.
Nick Ingman is worrying about
something else. “You can get rid of the semi-quavers at
the end of bar 69. They’re not a big deal.”
he’s happy. “Great,” he tells Nick Ingman. “I loved the
flaccid penis.” He’s referring to a part of the
orchestration which amplifies the lyric.
sort of chamber thing about it,” Nick Ingman tells him.
“It’s nice to have something a bit eighteenth century,”
The engineer picks up the phone then asks
whose Mercedes it is in the studio car park — it is
blocking someone. Chris is exasperated, though not for the
obvious reason. “How many years have we been coming here?”
he exclaims. “And now we discover there’s a bloody car
“Do you want to get the blowers in?” Nick
Ingman asks Trevor. (He means the brass players.)
blowers,” says Chris. “And get the
fluffers... “He has
a question for Neil, the question that usually looms
during a Pet Shop Boys recording session. “Where’re we
going to eat then?” he asks.
“We’ll worry about that at
the time,” Neil says.
Trevor returns to “Integral”
to record the harp part.
“Why isn’t there a men’s choir
on this, Neil?” Chris asks. “Would that be going too far?”
The harp is quickly recorded and the “blowers” take their
place. (The percussionist is frustrated that he is being
left till last, but he is only one person.) As the tuba
plays Neil comments, “I expect Harry Secombe to start
singing.” By now, Neil has taken over the copy of Private
Eye. The brass play “Casanova in Hell”. “I think that’s
fine,” Trevor says. “There may have been a bit of air
between the two French horns at the end, in tenns of
Nick Ingman suggests that they re-do it
from bar 63.
“Two bars before the quaver,” he
instructs. “Done,” says Trevor, triumphantly. “Not bad
going,” says Chris. They are well within the three hours
only have the percussionist, Frank, to record.
“Frank played congas on ‘Close (To The
Trevor. “He played with Tina
Charles in 1981 on ‘I Love
To Love’.” (Trevor’s
first modest success was as a bass
player for the
British disco sensation Tina Charles.)
Frank adds some timpani to “Casanova in
Hell” then some
thunder noises to “Luna Park” by shaking a sheet of metal.
When he does so, Chris and Neil look perplexed and Trevor
“That was fine,” he says.
sex,” Nick Ingman notes. “You hang around for three hours
and it’s all over in two minutes.”
Frank plays some
timpani on “Integral” which reminds both Neil and Chris of
the beginning of University Challenge. Then, finally, he
plays the spanner. At 6.04 pm, 24 minutes early, the
session is over. Frank packs up his strange sonic
“The thundersheet,” exclaims Chris. “It’s
the first time we’ve had a thundersheet on the record,”
“How come it’s taken us so long?” Chris
Yoko Ono and Neil onstage at the Royal
Festival Hall. June 16, 2005. Yoko Ono and the Pet Shop
Boys have agreed to meet in a South London rehearsal
studios at 6pm. Tomorrow, Yoko is performing at the Royal
Festival Hall as part of the annual Meltdown festival,
this year curated by Patti Smith. For her final number,
“Walking On Thin Ice”, she is to be joined onstage by Neil
and Chris who recently remixed the track. This evening
they plan to rehearse a little.
Yoko arrives early
with her assistant, and seems a little frustrated that no
one else is here and that everything may take a long time
to set up. In fact there seems to be a little bit of
confusion all round; the Pet Shop Boys thought they needed
this rehearsal because they would be performing with
Yoko’s band, lead by her son Sean Ono Lennon. But the band
have finished rehearsing some time ago and have left, and
a decision has apparently been made that the Pet Shop Boys
and Yoko should appear on stage without any other
musicians, something Neil and Chris will only discover
when they get here. That decided, there really isn’t too
much for them to rehearse.
Neil and Chris arrive
punctually, greet Yoko, and move over to the two keyboards
they’ll be playing. Quietly, they confer. Neil wonders
whether he can remember the chords.
right,” he says. “F major, A minor, B minor.”
written all the chords out,” Chris shows him. Chris
suggests that they hide from the audience the fact that
his top keyboard is the machine known as a Radar, through
which most of the backing track is being played.
“Otherwise they’ll think it’s all on Radar,” he reasons.
“And it is on Radar.” He looks around him. “This is where
we did the Potemkin rehearsals, late into the night.” He
and Neil will be playing new keyboard parts over the top,
but he’s still not sure why they’re here. “There’s no
point in this,” he says. “I know what I’m going to do.” He
gestures to Neil’s keyboard. “And Neil’s going to dick
around on that.”
Neil is asked by Yoko’s tour
manager how they want their keyboards set out on stage,
and Neil talks to him about how strange it is to have
discovered that they will now not be playing with Yoko’s
band. The tour manager seems to suggest that this decision
can be reconsidered with Yoko, an option Neil immediately
vetoes. “We have no opinion on anything,” Neil says. “We
are expressing no opinion. We have no opinion either way.”
There’s a set list for tomorrow on the floor:
II”, “I Want You To Remember Me”, “Why”, “Will I?”,
“Rising”, “Snow Falls Silent”, “Onochord”.
over to speak with Yoko, to clear up any confusion. “The
reason we were here was to rehearse with the band,” he
“I’m so sorry,” she says, and adds, “they’re
“I thought it was quite exciting, doing it
with the band,” says Neil. “It’s a good song to jam on. If
they don’t want to do it, that’s fine as well.”
and Yoko put their arms around each other, and Neil
suggests that they run through the song like this anyway.
“Right,” says Chris, a finger hovering over a button on
the Radar, “shall we start then?”
Yoko pulls off her
black jacket as the drums start up, and begins to dance,
her white scarf flying around. This rehearsal studio is a
fairly unglamorous, grubby place — there is no real stage,
so she is simply performing on the soiled, threadbare
carpet — but from the moment the music starts she seems
completely into it. After a few moments, she steps up to
the microphone, and the screaming begins.
Ono’s music career there has been a lot of screaming. She
can sing in her own way — there is a fine half-sung
half-spoken vocal for “Walking On Thin Ice” which is
playing as part of the backing track — but often she has
preferred to express herself by screaming in her own
idiosyncratic way, and that is how she chooses to perform
this song. She doesn’t just have one way of screaming,
either. Many of the noises that come out of her are more
like yelps — this evening she often crouches down to fully
let these out. Before they started, she told Neil that she
had lost her voice, but it is hard to imagine that she is
holding anything back.
To one side, Chris plays
some new riffs and Neil creates a series of siren-like
whooshes on his keyboard. As the song builds to its
climax, Yoko shouts, over and over, “Never.., never...
never.., never... NEVER...” At the end she whispers some
words that can’t be heard. It would be an incredible
performance in front of thousands; in an empty rehearsal
studio it is quite remarkable. Over the years, critics
have sometimes questioned how serious and passionate Yoko
Ono is about the music that she makes; no one who saw ten
seconds of this could remain in any doubt.
says Neil after the end. “That’s fantastic. You’ve got the
She smiles shyly, waves, steps towards the door
and says, “See you tomorrow.”
After she is gone, Neil
and Chris mess around a little more. Neil says that it is
weird that their keyboards aren’t side by side, and
wonders whether that can be changed. Chris agrees.
“Because then we can chat during it,” he says. They run
through the whole track once more, jamming fearlessly and
layering all kinds of extraordinary noises over the song.
At the end, Chris plays an intricate part that moves up
and down the keyboard over and over. “Very prog rock,
that, wasn’t it?” he says.
They discuss Yoko.
was great,” says Chris. “Totally fantastic,” says Neil.
“It’s not often you get a private performance
Ono,” Neil notes. “It’s an art performance, isn’t it? She
Chris agrees. “I’m still glad we did
it, even though it was a waste of bloody time,” he laughs.
“Walking On Thin Ice” was the song Yoko
husband John Lennon had been recording on the evening in
1980 which ended with him being shot dead outside their
New York apartment building. A wonderful, strange,
haunting song, it was released as a Yoko Ono single the
“It’s amazing,” says Chris. “I
bought this record when it came out.”
“I bought it the
day it came out,” says Neil.
“I bought it the day
before it came out,” fibs Chris.
“Yoko sent me a copy,”
“I was there when she wrote it,” counters
Chris, adding to the fiction. “Anyway, I always loved the
song so it’s a great honour.”
“I was knocked out by it
at the time, because actually I didn’t really particularly
like the John Lennon stuff from Double Fantasy,” says
Neil, “although in retrospect I now quite like that song
‘Woman’. I thought it was a bit corny at the time but I
guess I got over that. But ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, I
thought this was really... and them finishing recording it
and they came back to the Dakota... “He doesn’t need to
finish his sentence.
Over the years, Neil has
followed her art career. (Before she made any music, or
met John Lennon, she was known as a conceptual artist.)
Neil saw her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in
Oxford: “There’s this famous piece she did in the sixties
where you’ve got a board on the wall with a hammer
to it, and there’s a bucket of nails on the floor, and you
get a nail and you hammer it into the wall. I thought,
‘Wow, this is the thing where they had that exhibition at
the ICA in 1967,’ or whenever it was, and I picked up the
nail and a steward at the gallery rnshed up and said,
I’m sorry sir, this is no longer an interactive
piece.’ I thought that was a shame in a way, that the
piece had become a historical piece in effect, because
there were the nails that had been hammered in the
sixties. Anyway, I quite like her work — it’s very
philosophical. And, without being corny, it’s very
Japanese, to take simple everyday natural elements like
pebbles, for instance, and make a point with them. The
song ‘Imagine’ comes from a piece by Yoko Ono from her
book Grapefruit where she has all these instrnctions like
‘imagine the sun’. I think they’re kind of fascinating.
They’re all quite good ideas, a