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  Literally Issue 29 Recording      Back
 
June 15, 2005. Angel Studios, Islington, London.

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 three songs.
“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’ here.”
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 says. “Bar
33.

One, two.. After a while, there’s a huge melodramatic symbol crash.
“Sounds a bit over the top, doesn’t it?” sniggers Chris.
They’re still finding their way, and Neil worries whether they’ll be in tune. “Sounds a bit like a school orchestra,” he worries.
“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 reading it.
“Discipline, discipline,” mutters one of the musicians.

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’ recorded track.
“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 ‘

Telstar’?” he asks. “Don’t you like ‘Have I The Right?’ by The Honeycombs?”
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 thought.”
“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.
“It 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 points out.
“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 observes.
Nick Ingman gives the string section new instructions. “Instead of what you have please play your lowest D.”
“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:
“If 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...”
Chris reads 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.
They play along to the track again.
“I wonder when the kitchen sink is coming,” sniggers Chris.
“With the harp,” says Neil.
“Fireworks...” Chris says.

“We recorded fireworks once,” Neil recalls.
“Did we?” says Chris.
“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.”
“The harp’s arrived,” Trevor announces.
“Someone wearing a top hat...” predicts Neil.
... some jugglers coming,” adds Chris.

Neil continues the fantasy: “We’re recording some mime artists this afternoon...”
After a 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
was recorded in 2003.

“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 the fans.”

“I think it sounds threatening more than uplifting,” says Neil.
“Musically it’s a bit triumphalist, don’t you think?” says Chris.
“Yes,” Neil agrees. “Threateningly triumphalist.”

“Yes,” says 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,” says Chris.
“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 interviews.)
“I’ve always like the phrase ‘Luna Park’,” says Neil.
“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 Chris.

“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 terror song.

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 scared.”
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.”

Once the kettle has boiled at the back of the
control room, Trevor Hom makes his own cup of tea and stares at the jar of chocolate biscuits. “Biscuits around the place, it’s deadly.”
“Don’t go there, Trevor,” counsels Neil.
He has one biscuit anyway while the strings run through “Luna Park”. Chris points out a bit of the arrangement that he doesn’t like.

“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.”
“Which is 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 background.
“That sounded a bit better than I thought,” says Trevor.

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.
“You asked that the strings sort of comment at the end,” Trevor reminds him.
“Did I?” says Neil.
“We can cut it,” says Trevor.
“No, no, what did I mean?” Neil says, wondering. “It might have been a good idea.”
Nick 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.
“Lovely,” says Neil.

“Much better,” Chris agrees.
Another 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.”
Neil says 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.

“There’s a sort of chamber thing about it,” Nick Ingman tells him.
“It’s nice to have something a bit eighteenth century,” Neil agrees.
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 park?”

“Do you want to get the blowers in?” Nick Ingman asks Trevor. (He means the brass players.)
“The 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 pitch.”

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 and they
only have the percussionist, Frank, to record. “Frank played congas on ‘Close (To The
Edit)’,” says 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 laughs.

“That was fine,” he says.
“It’s like 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 implements.
“The thundersheet,” exclaims Chris. “It’s the first time we’ve had a thundersheet on the record,” says Neil.
“How come it’s taken us so long?” Chris wonders.
 
 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.

“Oh, that’s right,” he says. “F major, A minor, B minor.”
“I’ve 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:
“You II”, “I Want You To Remember Me”, “Why”, “Will I?”, “Rising”, “Snow Falls Silent”, “Onochord”.
Neil goes over to speak with Yoko, to clear up any confusion. “The reason we were here was to rehearse with the band,” he explains.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, and adds, “they’re so nervous.”
“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.”
Neil 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.

In Yoko 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.

“Bravo,” says Neil after the end. “That’s fantastic. You’ve got the part.”
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.
“She was great,” says Chris. “Totally fantastic,” says Neil. “It’s not often you get a private performance
from Yoko Ono,” Neil notes. “It’s an art performance, isn’t it? She really emotes.”
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
and her 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 following year.

“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,” lies Neil.
“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
tied 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