The onstage interviewing was done by the esteemed author and cultural
critic Michael Bracewell and alongside Neil, occasionally aiding and abetting,
were Philip Hoare and Chris Heath. (Literally, with a certain logical
inevitability, was also present at the event.) Towards the end, the audience
was invited to ask questions. Afterwards, everyone onstage was taken round
the closed galleries to see the exhibit of David Hockney portraits.
Below is a summary, and transcript, of what took place onstage, accurately
conveying all but
how often, and for how long, the audience was drawn to laugh by Neils
account of these matters:
The evening begins with an introduction from Sandy Naime, the director
of the National Portrait Gallery, during which the signer at stage right
is introduced and people are asked to stop taking photographs, and in
which Sandy Naime says, We regard the Pet Shop Boys as fantastically
innovative and original in their contribution to thinking about portraiture,
then introduces Michael Bracewell who will be known to many of you
as a writer hes a biographer of Roxy Music.
Michael Bracewell then offers his own introduction. I just want
to preface my little intro with a comment that Brian Eno from Roxy Music
made to me a couple of years ago. He said that he had never felt that
pop music was about making music in the traditional sense of the word.
Hes often said that pop was about creating new imaginary worlds
and inviting people to join them.
And I think that Pet Shop Boys has got to be possibly the greatest example
of the truth of that theory, certainly in the last 20 or 30 years of British
pop music probably international pop music: He then introduces
each person onstage. Chris Heath is, the audience is told, a writer who
takes you into the objective reality of the subject... kind of like a
cross between Truman Capote and Big Brother or something its
an astonishing combination. His book Pet Shop Boys versus America
is tonight described as one of the greatest books ever written about
pop music its up there with Nico: Songs They Dont Play
On The Radio as a real view, an interview into the strange world of pop
music: Philip Hoare is introduced as one of the great anatomists
of the consciousness of his subjects, author of, amongst other books,
what is considered perhaps the definitive biography of Noel Coward,
two astonishing studies of the gothic, and Serious Pleasures:
perhaps the only biography that managed, to a contemporary audience
who had maybe been brought up with pop music or glam rock or style culture,
and the whole industry of glamour, to relate it back to its roots in the
bright young things of the 1920s. Michael Bracewell further explains
that Philip Hoare is currently working on a BBC Arena film, Leviathan,
about Moby Dick and whales, then describes his last book, Englands
Lost Eden, as about Victorian spiritualists and non-conformist religious
cults, and notes, What better person to write about the Pet
Shop Boys? As for Neil Tennant, says Michael Bracewell, What
can you say without sounding like a big girl? I mean, this is somebody
who has sold, I think, over 50 million records, who has managed with his
partner Chris Lowe in Pet Shop Boys to make a form of music that links
the head and heart to an awareness of visual culture that I seriously
believe would give an awful lot of contemporary artists who only make
art and dont make hit records as well, a real run for their money:
Images from Catalogue are projected on a screen behind the panel as Michael
Braceweli prompts the conversation.
This was the cover of your first single which came out in 1984, at which
point you had been working on the other side, as it were, as the editor
of Smash Hits, and you must have been very, very aware of the context
into which you were trying to place your new project, Pet Shop Boys. Can
you tell us a little bit about how this initial sleeve came about?
Well, the sleeve came about because of course we had the record coming
out, but the photograph had actually been taken a year before by Eric
Watson, who is actually here tonight. And we went to New York we
made a record, probably everybody knows the story, with Bobby 0, but when
about to go, Id told Eric about this and he said, Well, maybe
I should take some pictures. Eric was doing a lot of work for Smash
Hits where of course I was still working. So this was actually our first
ever photo session. Wed never done any photographs before. And its
interesting because the idea was completely Erics idea, to do the
thing with the eyes. We had no kind of image, and hadnt even thought
about anything like that. I mean, well talk about this more, but
Im not really sure actually how much thought Chris and I had ever
really put into that, and how much it just happened sort of organically.
So this was the first photograph ever taken of the Pet Shop Boys. And
also it was taken at a time where we decided we would call ourselves the
Pet Shop Boys. The story is totally true that Chris had three friends
working in a pet shop in Ealing, and we used to call them the Pet Shop
Boys and we used to say to them, it sounds like a rap group
and all the rest of it. And anyway, we knew we needed a name for Bobby
0; he said, What are you called? and we said, Were
called the Pet Shop Boys. And when we became successful, which we
never imagined, we were always worried that the real Pet Shop Boys in
Ealing would sue us. But they never did. Which is very kind of them. And
also, what you have in that photograph too is the logo. When the record
was coming out on Epic, through CBS, the product manager brought in this
guy called Tom Watkins who I knew Id worked at Marvel Comics
in the mid-Seventies, and he managed a group called Giggles and they used
to borrow our Spiderman suit. So when this large guy came in I thought,
Its Tom Watkins! And Tom was running a design company,
and they designed Frankie Goes To Hollywoods records who, in 1984
when this record came out, were the biggest thing of the time. And they
came up with this logo. And even to this day when we sign autographs Chris
will quite often do the long E thing. Its the only logo
weve ever had, actually.
By the time you came to have this [the second West End girls
sleeve], because this was taken a year later, when the single was reissued
you look to have far more of a look there. Had you, by that
time, given some thought to image and so on?
When the initial Bobby 0 version that we just saw came out again, famously,
it was a hit in Belgium, and a minor hit in France, and I was still at
Smash Hits, but wed got Tom Watkins at this point to become our
manager, and he had this company called Massive Management we were asked
to go on a Belgian TV show. This was the first ever TV appearance we made.
And Tom looked at us and said, Maybe we should get some clothes
together for it And, again, for the only real time in our career
we have a stylist now, but he just, like, goes shopping with us a guy
called lain R. Webb, who later became fashion editor of the limes, went
shopping with us, and complained that all Chris wanted to do was buy an
expensive watch. Anyway, I lived over the road from the BOY shop. You
can see the t-shirt Chris has got on the shop is still there, actually - is the BOY t-shirt.
On the King's Road?
Yeah, on the King's Road. And we'd collected other clothes, and then lain
R. Webb had this idea that we should wear new clothes and then vintage
things, like the jeans Chris is wearing maybe, and the shirt round the
waist. And I bought these trousers. And then Eric Watson who again took
the picture, outside the studio - I'm wearing, I think, his shirt, and
maybe his tie, or maybe the stylist did the tie. And the parka. We had
a lot of discussions, us and Eric, at the beginning, about... you mentioned
before that I worked at Smash Hits - what I got from Smash Hits was sort
of a negative thing, which is true of how we work to this day: we tend
to know what we don't want to be. And we didn't want to be Spandau and
Duran and whoever, all the rest of these people who I'd all interviewed,
and I thought made great records, records I still like, actually.., but
we didn't want to do that. And we sort of had this idea that we wanted
them to be a bit like film stills. And that extended to the music - "West
End girls" begins with someone walking down the street and then the
string chord comes in. We wanted to sound a bit like a film. And then
EMI gave us the money and we did a two- or three-day, even, photo shoot
in east London.
we were fascinated by east London and of course it was "East End
boys, West End girls". I see you've got the video here ["West
End girls" video still on screen] and again the coat, Chris is wearing
the jacket that he bought with the stylist, and Chris hasn't really become
Chris yet, if you know what I mean. Eric had the Stephen Linard coat,
and I bought one at his recommendation, and I became me, I think, with
this look. I mean, it's not really radically different from this [points
to what he is wearing today]. But it was the coat. I liked the coat because
the coat has got movement, and if you're not feeling confident it has
a feeling a security and enormous power about it. And I wore that coat
in two videos - I wore it in the video before, and wore it on Top Of The
Pops, and it became a trademark thing. And what I think did get established
in this video, which came from our personalities, and also the fact that
I was the singer and Chris wasn't, is that Chris kind of loiters in the
background, looking like he doesn't want to be there. The first video
we did, of course, he famously announced he had a doctor's appointment
at three o'clock in the afternoon. I don't
did on this one. But it sort of worked. It's a very odd thing, you know,
to make a video, when you're 30 years old or something, and suddenly you
see yourself presented as a kind of product.
Because I mean, running forward of ourselves a little bit, I'm interested
looking at this now, because it kind of signs up this particular relationship
you've had with London. You've worked visually with a lot of London, right
up to the stuff we'll look at later by Wolfgang Tilimans or Martin Parr.
Was that something that you consciously wanted to do? That you felt very
much you wanted it to be a London thing? That you wanted to declare a...?
It was something Chris and I... actually Chris talked about, really. When
we first started writing songs... I had written songs on my guitar in
my bedroom since I was a child really, and it was all kind of singer-songwriter.
Chris and I first met when Soft Cell had just happened, and Chris said,
"Can't you make the lyrics more sort of sexy, and write about Soho
and going out We used to go out a lot - we still do
- in Soho and in London. And that's definitely where the idea of East
End boys and West End girls came from. And also, once you start writing
songs, of course, and you get an idea like that, you follow it through.
Also, Chris and I were both northerners. There was not only West End and
East End, there was North-East and North-West going on in this group,
and North-East and North-West are very different things. North easterners
tend to be earnest; North westerners tend to be slightly more morose but
also have a fantastic sense of humour. There's all these comedians that
come from the Northwest. So you've got that within the group. And also
Chris and I both, even though we both lived in London, both felt slightly
alien there. Even to this day I can still feel that I am someone who has
come to London rather than I'm of it. And so it did become a big subject
It seems interesting that fairly soon after that, within a year - I mean,
this is a Mark Farrow design, this sleeve [the "Opportunities"
sleeve], and it's almost like one of the other components that we all
come to know and love about Pet Shop Boys is that kind of love affair
with minimalism as well, right through to the recent track "Minimal".
The only song which contains a rhyme "decisional"... what can
It pleases a certain kind of person. But was the minimalism... because,
Philip, one of the things you mention in your essay is that Factory,
obviously, and Pete Saville had been very, very influential at this time,
the designs he'd done for New Order and so on.
And the expression of the aesthetic of a group in a graphic sense, rather
than in a photographic sense. I mean, I think in a way a cover like that
says "Pet Shop Boys" as much as any photograph, as any of Eric's
Yeah, well I think you have to remember that of course Chris was a qualified
architect and had quite a lot of interest. And Chris likes concrete. You
know, the live album's called Concrete. And he likes that kind of minimal
aesthetic. And I like it - I don't like it to live in. But if we were
look at all the other records that came out the same week as this in 1986
they would have very elaborate sleeves. There was a designer called Malcolm
Garrett who did a lot of work at the time, like Culture Club and Simple
Minds, and they were very, very elaborate sleeves. In the way that in
the songs - in this song, for instance, we just said "I've got the
brains, you've got the looks, let's make lots of money", it was meant
to be a very bleak statement of the obvious, the sort of thing people
didn't say in songs, which was one thing we were trying to do with our
songs - this sleeve sald this. In fact actually at the time Chris and
I weren't that keen on this sleeve. I think we thought it was slightly
bland. But the great thing is, it hasn't sort of aged, really. I think
the album cover, Please - in these days, of course, albums were only on
vinyl - that was a fantastically strong minimal statement, with the little
photograph, like a postage stamp in the big white square, and we did that
partly because Mark came up with it and we thought it was great, but also
it was sort of a wind-up for the record company.
a lot of what we did at the time.., it's always easy to think, "Wow,
it must have been great then - everything was a hit," and actually
everything was sort of a battle. Everything was a baffle. We were always
criticised for not doing anything on the television, for having a sleeve
like this ["Love comes quickiy"] with no title on it. That became
a sort of clicbe; when this came out in 1986 people didn't do sleeves
like this, unless maybe they were Factory records where they'd have an
appropriated image from an old painting or something. And so it was always
a bit of battle going on.
Chris, you've kind of over the years got this amazing sort of role as
a writer, sort of as a literary project, you've kind of amongst other
things been sort of Pet Shop Boys' writer-in-residence. I mean, I remember
when you did the University tour - you may remember a few years ago Release
and Pet Shop
Boys did the University tour, and the idea was that this was all going
to be terribly pared-down and straightforward, it was just going to be
the band playing, and I took our son to go and see them in Keele, great
show, great evening, so we thought maybe it'll be all pared-down and straightforward
backstage. And Chris and Neil were backstage being filmed, photographed,
their every word being written... it was like being on the set of a war
Never done anything with it, mind.
I remember you were there, Chris, literally sort of filming everything.
How did that role come about? Did you...?
It sort of came about slowly, over time, sort of a bit by accident, I
think. I mean, I started working at Smash Hits just towards the end of
Neil working there, and we got to know each other a little there, and
Chris would come in at the end of the day and I knew him slightly, and
then I'd interview... I think I wrote the first cover story for Smash
Hits on the Pet Shop Boys, and would write about them, and then when they
finally decided to go on tour in 1989,1 think your sort of impulse was:
most people take a photographer on tour, why don't we take a writer?
I was always obsessed by this book about the Beatles called Love Me Do...
Which had always obsessed me to. By Michael Braun.
It was a book about the Beatles when they were just becoming famous in
1962, '63, and in fact I sold Faber & Faber a book by my friend Dave
Rimmer about Culture Club, and again it was meant to be like Love Me Do.
It's one of these great 'one idea's. And I think we thought about doing
a book like that. And at the same time the reason Chris has always been
around ever since is because we have this project, which is we do this
magazine, which is meant to come out three times a year and probably comes
out twice a year, also called Pet Shop Boys, Literally. And Chris writes
it. And I think a lot of the fact that we've recorded in writing everything
we've done since 1989, which is a long time now,
I think we
probably couldn't have done the book really to some extent without giving
our thoughts at the time. Because of course you tend to revise maybe unconsciously
what you thought about something, and they're there in black in white.
And I think Chris has a personality similar to ours in that he has that
obsession thing to record it as it happens.
Michael Bracewell: Because, from a writing point of view, reading the
accounts of being with Chris and Neil, going on the tours and so on, it
is sort of eye of the camera. You put the reader in the room with them.
Do you just have amazing recall?
No, no, no, I have terrible recall. I manically write things down, endlessly.
Just occasionally. But on the first tour I had these great big notebooks,
and I'd literally often be standing by people while they were dancing
on the dance floor.
With the notebook.
With the notebook, listening to what they were saying to the person they
were dancing with. But amazingly, pretty quickly, everyone just got so
used to it, it was unbelievable. Including me. I thought it was a normal
way to act.
Actually, people around us know that that happens. It is a bit weird.
This sleeve, the Actually sleeve, it seemed to me to sort of flag up one
of those words that has drifted around your career which is the 'irony'
word. And I know that you've long managed to weary, both you and Chris,
of journalists asking you whether or not you're ironic. But I did read
somewhere the rather great line by a writer who said that "it wasn't
so much that Neil's voice was detached as semi-detached" which I
thought was quite...
You know what he means.
Was this just of a sort of accident, this image?
The image itself was an accident. We were doing the video with Dusty Springfield
for "What have I done to deserve this?" at Brixton Academy which
Eric Watson was directing, and therefore we had a photographer. You know,
in those days everything was less planned. So, for instance, this photograph
was taken about six weeks before the album came out. Nowadays the record
company would... it'd be on the Internet three-and-a-half months beforehand.
And so we were pretty last-minute with this. Cindy Palmano took the photograph
and it was a classic long shoot, got there at seven in the morning or
something, and towards the end of the day it was time for Cindy
photographs and we sat down and I just yawned. And we were wearing these
clothes in the video - Chris hates this picture by the way - and I yawned,
and then she took endless reels of it, and Mark Farrow got the photographs
in, and we all thought it was great because, again, it was a bit of a
wind-up, in a way - saying to the record company that we're going to have
a picture of me yawning on the front cover of this gorgeous shiny pop
record. But also it was part of our attitude. Famously when "West
End girls" was number one and we were on Top Of The Pops and the
camera came over to me Chris hissed, "Don't look triumphant.
is the same thing: don't look triumphant. And we had the title before
we started making the record, Pet Shop Boys, actually, because we'd realised
everyone thought we were very English and we didn't mind that they thought
that. And also we'd taken on board the irony thing. Because we did write
". . . (let's make lots of money)" as a major ironic pop song.
I mean, I've always thought the Pet Shop Boys is a kind of sustained exercise
in romanticism, really, but it's leavened with humour and irony to get
over the embarrassment of the level of commitment there is in a lot of
the songs. I remember when the album Behaviour came out, I was embarrassed
thinldng of sending it out to journalists. And so this: again, the record
has some very romantic songs like "It couldn't happen here"
and "King's Cross", political songs, and "What have I done
to deserve this?", and so presenting it like this, in this seriously
modem and slightly detached way...
It's very English thing though, as well,
Yeah. The embarrassment...
Because you don't want to feel as though you've set yourself up to fall.
And also the notion of being slightly amateur about this sort of thing...
Yeah. We were always suspicious, to this day, of professionalism. Or of
professionalism being the point. Nowadays a lot of pop music is about
professionalism. And of course in many ways we are very professional,
but we don't think it should be about that.
Just coining back to what you were saying, Philip, just now... because
this is one of my favourites... this is an Eric Watson portrait ["It's
a sin" sleeve], fantastic for so many different reasons, but it seems
to tap into what you've written about quite a lot, about this idea of
the romantic, about how does,
particularly with English romanticism, that sort of lineage going right
back to mid-Nineteenth century...
Also, the lyrical notion of romanticism as well, because the way an image
can pick up on the sense of place. And this is shot in the Presbytery,
is it, Neil, of Christchurch?
Yeah, we hired this church for an afternoon, and it cost £2,000
to hire it. And then we did most of the photographs in this little shitty
office. I mean, the twelve-inch is in the church. This is not even the
presbytery - it's the caretaker's office or something. I can't remember
that Eric lit it or not - he probably did light it - but it's just a beautiful
composition. I say in the book it reminds me of that painting Ennui by
Sickert, which it does.
It was when
we established the fact that we weren't scared of looking bored - this
is actually before Actually comes out. And again it was a very uncompromising
image, and if you were to look at all the other singles coming out that
week it would look ridiculously uncompromising. And also, you probably
can't really see it, but we did this thing of putting the "It's a
sin" in quote marks, trying to make the title of the record a caption
to the photograph, so in other words there's a sort of implied narrative
going on in the photograph.
It's like a pre-Raphaelite painting.
Yes, it's very like that.
Just kind of scooting ahead a little bit, because I'm slightly behind
on time, this is famously the Derek Jannan video for "It's a sin".
And in a lot of ways one of the things the Thames & Hudson Catalogue
picks up on is that right from the beginning you and Chris have made a
point of working with, if you want, big name contemporary artists. Derek
Yes, but it's not so much... it's also the idea of going to people outside
pop music. In the way that in the songs we've tried to bring in subject
matter outside pop music, and not just the conventional subject matter
of pop music. We were finishing this record off
- Stephen Hague was mixing it in Advising studios - and the film Caravaggio
by Derek Jarman was on Channel 4; again, at that time there was huge controversy
that they had short season of Derek Jarman films; they were regarded as
obscene at the time. We just thought, "Oh...
this record was so sort of Catholic, and Caravaggio... we suddenly thought
he could do a very Catholic-looking video. That was our brief. And the
idea was that I was going to be burnt at the stake at the end. Which is
actually implied at the
end of the video, because you see a fire being lit. Derek came up with
the idea. This was shot in Dockiands - they'd just filmed Full Metal Jacket
in this particular warehouse, which is probably now a block of luxury
fiats or the offices of The Sun or something.
Duggie Fields at the top.
Duggie Fields at the top, and Ron
of course played Fagin in Oliver is in it.
Stephen Linard is in there. But yeah, we like the idea of people coming
with a different aesthetic coming from outside; without a pop aesthetic.
One of the problems about working with people outside pop when you get
them to do a pop video is they often think, "Oh, you've got to do
a pop video". We always say, "Don't look at any pop videos -
we want you to do your thing?' Just like when Dusty Springfield said,
"What do you want me to sound like?", we said,
Springfield?' With Derek Jarman, we said we wanted it to look like Derek
Jarman. And it did, although he made a better film for it when we did
the tour with him in 1989.
It's interesting, because we jump straight from that which is quite febrile
and very recognisably Derek Jarman into this ["Rent" sleeve].
And we in the faculty of Pet Shop Boys studies, around about year two
start looking at: Do Pet Shop Boys have a continued fascination with the
tension between artifice and naturalism?
Um... I don't know the answer to that question.
I think there's a lot of subtext goes on in Pet Shop Boys, there's a lot
of things that aren't said. And in this picture we're dealing with the
fact that we've got a single coming out and it's called "Rent",
which has evidently come from the phrase "rent boy" and it's
part of the romanticism of writing about the street, and making it romantic.
Although the song itself
- that was the inspiration for the title of the song - the song itself
is about something slightly different. I think that we might have thought
that we would go with the rent boy image for this picture - the two shadowy
men on a station platform. You know what?
remember really. I actually can't remember. I think it's great the way
someone's holding a light behind us, which is causing the shadow, and
you can't see him.
But, just in the Pet Shop Boys trivia stakes department, is it true that
on a television event not dissimilar to this one that Chris Lowe actually
That was when "West End girls" was just happening, I think -
we were interviewed by Selina Scott on breakfast television. It was very
early in the morning, it was like a quarter to eight. She had to wake
him up to answer a question.
This is a fabulous image. It's on the set of the video for "Heart"
with Sir Ian MeKellen in it. And I just wanted to ask you, Patrick - it's
not often you get to look at pictures of the Pet Shop Boys next to an
expert on the gothic, and I just wondered - do you think Pet Shop Boys
play with the gothic a lot? Do you think it's a strand in their imagery?
Well, it's funny, because what you've been talking about up till now just
makes me increasingly think that they could be a nineteenth century pop
group. That if there was a pop group around the time of Wilde, that is
how they would have operated. Because what they're drawing on - very English
themes, but there are always subtexts, and of course the gothic is always
about subsumed sexuality in another form. I mean, that's what the vampire
is about. And I think this video was directly based on Nosferatu, wasn't
So, yeah, increasingly when I look at them, and some of the later images
as well I think are very nineteenth century in a way... and I don't know
what it is. I mean, I don't know whether it's because I know Neil's own
cultural references in private, as it were - what you read, the fact you've
taken a single title from Trollope... I don't know. But those are the
things that increasingly occur to me...
Well, I think we also like the clothes. The sort of nineteenth century
clothes. But at the time that video was made I was living, you may recall,
in a flat in Fulham which was decorated in the sort of gothic style. I
don't particularly like it now so much, but...
But it's a great counterpoint because...
It is. I've always thought in pop music - and of course we had the sexuality
issue at this point - and I think the mystery of wondering about someone
is much more interesting than knowing everything about someone. And I
think it's one of the powerful things about the Pet Shop Boys in the late
although in our interviews we were sort of funny and Smash Hits-y, you
didn't really know that much about us. And we liked to present in some
of the imagery a sort of darker side. And also humour - that Heart video
was actually quite funny as well. We used to call them "costume dramas".
We did the kind of more, I don't know what the word is, realistic videos
and then we did the costume dramas.
Again with this Bruce Weber portralt, an image taken on the set of "Being
boring". Again, Patrick, it seems to remind me that it could be straight
out of Beaton or Noel Coward, one of those house party shots from the
Sure. And I think that's what Bruce Weber was trying to recreate. Well,
specifically he was taking the Fitzgerald quote out of "Being boring",
it was shot in Long Island... and also that sense, again, of reticence
and nostalgia and longing, and these things which militate against the
emotion of probably my favourite Pet Shop Boys song in a way, and also
one of the most emotional of Pet Shop Boys songs in a way. You have to
strive to get to the emotion of the song, in a way, through the...
I think Bruce Weber heard the song and just thought it was about youth.
And he was right, because it's about what you wanted to be when you were
young and what you became when you were older. That's kind of the idea
of the song. And so he just went for the youth thing. And it says about
having a party in the song. My friends in Newcastle used to have what
we thought were sort of crazy parties. And Bruce Weber did this very glamorous
party, and the fact that it's shot in black and white somehow made it
look like the past in the present. It gave a slightly mythic feel to it.
And also what we liked about it was it looked very luxurious.
It reminds me of Bailey and Lichfield's Ritz newspaper.
Yes, it's a bit like that.
But also you have to say that the shadow of AIDS is hanging over that
Over the image? Do you think? It certainly hangs over the song.
I think the film, too.
Do you think? I don't get that.
Well, because it's so sexually celebratory, in a very nostalgic way. You
feel as though that's been lost.
Yes, that's a good point. I hadn't thought of that. Because they're sort
of shagging at the end of
Speaking of shagging... this is from the Performance tour, called the
Thompson Twins outfits, and I actually wanted to ask you, Chris, a bit
about this, because you were on the whole of the Performance tour.
The whole American part of it.
Most of it. And I suppose because you've probably studied Chris and Neil
when they're actually working, closer than almost any other... certainly
writer - do you think it's right to say that there's an incredible mix
of, if you want, kind of high and low, fine art and popular culture, head
and heart stuff going on in Pet Shop Boys. Do you think it is a sort of
formula like that?
Well, I think all of that's there, but it's not a formula in the sense
that I've ever heard anyone say, "Oh, we need a dollop of high art
Michael Braceweli: Really? That's quite surprising, because I can almost
imagine one of them saying, "What this needs is a touch of...?"
Well, they might say it for humour...
...but I think it's quite instinctual. I think that's why it works. I
think, watching it really close up, it's amazing watching the incredibly
pop elements and what might be seen as sort of arty intellectual just
sort of pile in all at once and all together. Does that seem fair?
Yes, and this is also David Fielding, who designed the Performance tour,
it's his interpretation of us, or one of them. As you can see from all
these photographs from this tour, he has the most fantastic sense of colour.
And the moustaches were just really funny. And I think the Thompson Twins
in Tintin are a very English archetype. And there was always the thing
about us with Gilbert and George...
Yes, I was going to come onto that.
.. and it's sort of a bit Gilbert and George-y in a way.
I think there's one interview that's in the Thames & Hudson book where
you say - I don't know if the interview was done around this time - where
you say that you were quite pleased with the comparison to Gilbert and
I mean, they weren't deliberate, but when people said that we quite liked
it, because we like Gilbert and George's work. And also they're such a
sort of brand, aren't they, that we were quite flattered to be compared
to them. But I think partly it's in the same way that we get compared
to Sparks who neither of us has ever had much interest - because there's
a keyboard player who doesn't smile and a singer. You've obviously got
it all from Sparks. And you can say, "Oh, it obviously all comes
from Gilbert and George." It's because there's two of you.
Pet Shop Boys trivia department again calling in: is it true that you
once shouted through George's letterbox on Foamier Street?
No, I looked through it. We were going to do a tour in 1986 and we had
this idea that we would get Gilbert and George to design the poster for
it. The tour never happened anyway. And so Chris, me, and Mark Farrow
turned up - because of course everyone knows where they live - turned
up at their house at nine o'clock in the morning and knocked on the door.
So I looked through the letterbox. At this point.., who's the English
George answered the door as I was kneeling down at the letterbox. We explained
who we were and all the rest of it, and I said, "We'd like to ask
you if you'd design a poster for us:' And he said, "Oh, well, we
don't do anything for a purpose' I was rather flummoxed by this, and Chris
said, "Oh, that's OK, it doesn't have to have a purpose." And
he said, "Oh, you d better come in then:' In fact Gilbert's father
had died the night before, so our timing was very bad. And we went into
their house with all the ceramics and everything, and that was it - we
never heard anything. But I spoke to them about it many years later and
they both remembered it.
It's interesting that by the time you get to 1991, Pet Shop Boys had become
sufficiently, if you want, established kind of as an institution - certainly
within pop music, and also I would say within broader culture - to the
point that you could use fan folk art, little kind of major dolls of yourself,
on the cover. ["Was it worth it?" sleeve] Was this a Japanese...?
We toured Japan on the Performance tour, and we'd been given these dolls,
and they were particularly good dolls. Actually over the years from Japan
we've had some great dolls. We didn't have a new image for this - "Was
it worth it?", isn't it? - and also it was Christmas, and it looks
a bit Christmas-y, dolls, and they're just really cute, and also we liked
the fact that it was someone else's... in the same way that "It's
a sin" is Derek Jarman's representation of us, this is some Japanese
fan's representation of us.
Would you ever - given how slippery pop culture is these days - would
Chris and yourself ever endorse the idea of there being a Pet Shop Boys
cartoon? Or Pet Shop Boys figurines? Or...
I don't think there's a market for figurines. I mean, we try to do cartoons
- we're probably going to come on to that, so maybe we'll talk about it.
I mean, this ["Can you forgive her... ?"] was our idea of...
this is two years after that, and we've got a new album coming out, we're
sort of thinking we're bored of being Pet Shop Boys as was, and our American
manager, called Arma Andon, said to us:
"You do this amazing tour with all these costumes - why don't you
do something like that in your videos?" And so we had this idea of
approaching David Fielding, who designed that Thomson Twins stuff I was
talking about, to come up with a look for some videos. And also there
was new technology available, and we were going to do a lot of these high
tech videos, all shot against a blue screen.
What we were
aiming for, and Chris particularly was aiming for, was that they'd have
an artificial version of us so we wouldn't have to be in the videos. Howard
Greenhalgh, the video director, his heart sank the day Chris said that
to him. Because we did sort of finally get there. But these were meant
to be like digital cartoons. And also we liked the fact that you had this
trademark image with these pointy hats. To this day, in a Pet Shop Boys
concert in Mexico City, there'll be five people wearing pointy hats. And
we love that. Also, again, at the time, everyone just sort of remembers,
"oh, yeah, the pointy hat thing It was quite a brave thing to do.
Particularly in Russia, where I gather that the ceiling height...
We had to do a press conference wearing them in Russia and we came out
and the ceiling was really low.., there were as many people as this there,
and all the Russians just sat there and not one of them smiled. It was
a bit embarrassing.
This is some of my absolutely favourite Pet Shop Boys imagery ["Go
Totally, yeah. In the early Nineties they had a season of Powell and Pressburger
films on BBC or Channel 4 and I videoed them all, and I loved them and
I still love them. We had a meeting at my house about the video for "Go
West" and I put on A Matter Of life And Death, the famous scene where
they're going to heaven on a big staircase. Howard Greenhalgh said, "Oh
yeah, that's greaC' And David Fielding designed some new helmets and things,
and we just went with the staircase. Again, this is super-cartoon-y. You
probably don't imagine that someone like us would think like this, but
we were always aware that we had quite a lot of young fans. Children used
to like the Pet Shop Boys. And we liked the fact we were doing something
that the children of friends of ours would like as much as adults thinking
it was all ironic and funny. It had a Saturday morning cartoon-like feel
One of the points you've made in the book, Catalogue, which I think is
very good is that this work was being made in 1993 when in London young
British art was really gathering speed, as a kind of cultural brand and
so on. And that there's almost a sort of sense with this, it's the point
at which you just go for images that don't have to mean anything, they
become almost meaningless, and gloriously so. Did you have a sense then
that you were kind of jettisoning the idea that it had to necessarily
be about anything? It could just be...
David Fielding always had an idea for what these things were about. Like,
for instance, the pointy hats were dunces' caps, and it comes from the
line in the song, the school reference. But yet we liked the fact that
this was a glorious colourful.., notice that it's still a grid, of those
surfboards in the background. Which is very Chris - Chris always likes
a grid. But we liked the fact that it did have an abstract quality about
it. I mean, Mark Farrow's team had a lot of fun just playing round with
the various images. Like this one ["I wouldn't normally do this kind
of thing" image], this is totally created by Mark Farrow and his
team. We did all these photographs, David Fielding designed these outfits
that looked a bit Sixties because the song sounds a bit Sixties, and we
went with these wigs which I always really liked, for whatever reason...
and Mark came up with this. It was meant to be terribly, tenably, terribly
It's odd, actually - that previous image, I often wonder whether Tim Burton
maybe watched that prior to styling Willie Wonka, because there's aspects,
definitely. Have you see Charlie And The Chocolate Factory?
Neil Tennant: I haven't.
It's fantastic. The Oompa
do your dance.
Neil Tennant: Do they? And then he goes and does
This is the Somewhere tour at the Savoy Theatre. Some of the staging was
made by Sam Taylor-Wood; a very, very powerful piece, I think, and still
one of my favourite pieces by Sam Taylor-Wood. Patrick, I remember you
saying about how interesting you found seeing Pet Shop Boys in the Savoy
Theatre in this very Cowardian kind of setting, under the arch, and so
That whole sort of silver art deco proscenium arch, framed like that,
but within it having this ultimately extremely modern presentation - incredibly
modern and incredibly minimalist, almost like one of the album covers
comes to life, where you walk out of the film Sam had made of you partying
with the YBAs, with Jay Jopling and Cerith Wyn Evans, and you walk out
of the film into the stage, into this clinically-lit, very minimalist
box. But, counter pointed with that, there was this incredible feeling
of warmth, because the audience was there, as close as we are now. There
wasn't that distance between us. So the whole relationship, which you
lose in pop now so much, the relationship between the performer and the
audience - and the one wouldn't exist without the other - that was so
much back there. I'm sure many people here were at some of those performances,
and it was an incredibly emotional performance.
Yeah, it was unusual because, you're right, the audience was as close
as this. And the interesting thing was, we did it for two and a half weeks
- we did 15 performances on consecutive nights. And it was instead of
doing a tour. Sam had the idea... we went and looked at the theatre, and
Chris and I had this very complicated idea that we were going to call
the show Somewhere so -. even then we were obsessed by CCTV cameras and
that whole thing of always being spied on and filmed - we had the idea
of having cameras in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. A very pop
star-y, Nick Rhodes kind of idea. She said, "Yeah, I'll think about
it," and then she came up with this much cleverer idea that there'd
be two sofas and she'd film one this way and one that and Chris and I
would walk out, and we'd film a party with the backing tracks so they'd
exactiy sync in, and they'd get drunk and dance to it, Chris and I wandering
in and out of the party. It was a very simple idea, and a very clever
But technically, for you and Chris,
to have to get the timing to walk in and out...
That was just a bit of luck, really. Either Chris or me once forgot to
walk off at one point. And a lot of people thought there was a party backstage,
because we wanted to give the idea of a CCTV camera or closed-circuit
television or something.
This was before Big Brother, wasn't it?
Oh, ages before. And you mention the YBA thing - that's simply because
they were the people that Sam hung round with. I mean, we knew Jay Joplmg,
and we'd met Cereth Wyn Evans... and there's various other people... Johnny
Shand-Kydd. Some of them were a bit embarrassed about it - I don't think
they quite realised they were going to be at the Savoy Theatre for two-and-a-half
weeks. They get really drunk by the end.
We've already hit eight o'clock and I've been instructed that we have
to be out of here for ten past eight... I'm sure some of you have very
good questions that you'd like to ask, and I want people to have a chance
to do it. Anyone?
for the Pet Shop Boys?
What next? We're not really doing "next" at the moment. Although
actually we're going in the studio next week - we haven't written any
songs for two years, pretty much, so we're going to write some new songs.
And we're touring more in the first half of this year, hut with the production
we've been doing. And we're thinking of writing a ballet for a friend
of ours. We'll see whether that actually happens. You know, we've never
thought that far ahead. Often it's a perception that we plan things ahead
- we tend to do things on the spur of the moment.
Brian Eno in your introduction - it would be a music fan's wet dream for
the Pets to do an album with him. How come it's never happened?
Well, we got to know Brian Eno right after the Somewhere shows - we went
to St Petersburg when he was living there; that's why we went, actually,
because we met him. And when we were starting to plan the musical Closer
to Heaven, Brian Eno was going to produce the record of it. He had a great
idea about making computers sounds human, and we did a day in the studio
with him where he recorded a version with us of this song called "Something
special" from the musical. And then we were going to do the album,
and then I don't know what happened. He was living in St Petersburg and
then the musical got delayed... it just never happened. But I agree, it
would be an interesting idea. But Brian Eno has a thing he does. One his
great things he does is he gives people strategies to write songs, if
he's working with U2 or James or someone, and we arrived at this session
with a cassette with 12 finished songs on it, so it would be a different
sort of Brian Eno project, I think.
of "Numb" is very interesting. Could you tell us more about
Are you Russian?
No, I'm Polish.
Polish, sony. The video for "Numb" came about because we had
this idea that "Numb" was going to come out in the winter, and
we had this sort of Russian snow idea. ["Numb" sleeve image
is projected] This is not from the video, even though it's a very interesting
image... It's probably the video we've had least to do with in our entire
career but it's very beautiful, but they took pieces of old Soviet black
and white feature films and edited them together with different backgrounds.
It's an incredibly beautiful and clever video.., for which I can take
Have you ever preferred a remix to an original song you've written?
Very rarely. I've probably sald this before, but there's a song we have
called "Young offender" on the album Very, and Jam & Spoon
did a remix and we definitely prefer that to our version. I think it's
the best remix we ever had done. There might be a couple of others, but
that's the one that springs to mind.
In your DVD
of A Life In Pop, there's scenes from the '89 tour that haven't been seen
since '89 - does that mean the film of it is finally going to come out?
Yes. Derek Jarman filmed the 1989 tour, and EMI at the time wouldn't pay
for it to be shot on film so it was shot on high definition video and
we really hated the way it looked. Anyway, we've decided to have another
look at it, and maybe it will come out. The guy who actually made A Ltfe
In Pop worked at PMI, which is EMI's video company, in those days, and
he's kind of in charge of that. So it may do. It'd be nice if it did.
and Chris ever had an idea for an image where you thought, "that's
a good image but it's just too over the top, almost"?
I think, if you go back to the dogs picture ["I don't know what you
want..." sleeve], I think this is an amazing picture. I wasn't at
the marketing meeting at Parlophone, but our manager then, Mitch Clark,
was, and I think it was quite a difficult meeting. It's brave, you know,
but I think it's an amazing image. We were just trying to do something
striking, sort of slightly alienating.
Because you even did performance interviews, didn't you, at the old St
Pancras Hotel, where the writer would go up through the building...
Ian MacNeil designed it, the light box we sat on, and we wore the clothes.
It was great, actually. It was funny, actually, because most journalists
didn't refer to it. I mean, they went into a deserted hotel, walked up
this massive staircase, as soon as you opened the door dogs started to
bark, and at the end of a dark corridor the video was playing, then you
turned a corner and sitting on a light box were us, dressed like us. We
did this for three days and I think one journalist mentioned it. It's
incredible. We were just trying to do something, because when you're writing
it's quite good to have context, you know, and we thought it gave quite
good context to the album.
Is it true that a journalist from one of the papers who was a big fan
turned up already wearing the same outfit?
Yes. He was Spanish or something like that. So anyway, your question...
and when we did this, we did actually alter it slightly. Originally the
mouths were like rectangles, and we thought they looked too ugly, and
then we changed the wigs to make them more sort of cosmetically attractive
as the project went on. We wore these things at the Zaha Hadid tour. I
think that when we did this video ["Home and dry" video still]
- again, I wasn't at the marketing meeting at Parlophone - we approached
Wolfgang Tillmans to do a video because we'd met him and liked his work,
and we planned a whole video, and then we went to see it and he said,
"You know, I had a different idea..." And he said, "I was
just thinking about home and travel" And he showed us this.
it was great. I thought it was brilliant. If you haven't seen it, it's
mice in Tottenham Court Road tube station. It seems a very clever image,
of home - it's their home - and it's about travel. But the only MTV company
that showed it was MTV Russia, to their enormous credit. Again, I think,
in hindsight, I think it's really good. I think if it had been shot on
film, and not shot on video.., because there's a thing about video, people
think, "Oh, I could have done that... I could have done it on my
telephone..." And you couldn't. You know, it took him five days just
waiting for these blasted mice to appear. But I think if it had been shot
on film and lit in a kind of a cute way... I thought it was like a sort
of Walt Disney idea, to be honest. I thought you could have made a cartoon
out of it.
on cartoons earlier~ Are we going to see a Pet Shop Boys visit South Park?
No. Not at the moment. I think we could do a good cartoon, but there's
no plans for it.
any plans to exhibit any of the costumes?
Actually this book, Catalogue, came about because this American curator,
Terry Meyers, had an idea for doing a show in American art museums based
on the collaborations of our live shows: Derek Jannan, Sam Taylor-Wood,
Zaha Hadid etc, and it was going to end with a new collaboration with
someone. Anyway, people are still talking about it but I don't
think it's ever going to happen. We were going to then. We do have them
all. They're all in storage.
you know, always look disappointing, though, close to. Because costumes
aren't fashion, they're costumes - they're meant to be seen from a distance.
It's sort of interesting to see them, but they always look a bit rough
and ready when you're looking close to them.
like to ask, "It couldn't happen here", which is a very ambitious
song on Actually, I was wondering why you didn't do it on Concrete when
you had an orchestra?
Well, on Concrete, which was the album we made with the BBC Concert Orchestra
last year, we made a list of all of the songs with orchestras on, and
actually there's quite a lot of them, you know. And we were going to do
"It couldn't happen here"... and I can't remember why we didn't
do it. We should have done it, probably. I don't know. Maybe the orchestra
arrangement's too big or something. It's a shame we didn't, I agree.
Do you have
a favourite video and image, one that you're actually most proud of throughout
this whole career of creativity?
My favourite videos we've done are "It's alright", which is
the one with all the babies, which I think is very beautiful - we had
50 babies in the studio, and I think it was a really good idea and it's
beautifully shot and it's sort of moving. You can do those kind of very
optimistic Michael Jackson-y kind of things which are really corny, whereas
this is very disciplined and beautiful. I love the video for "Being
boring" as well, and I love the video for "Can you forgive her?",
because I think it's just a sort of perfect cartoon. It's also very ingenious.
I don't know if you remember those bits where we're sitting at a table
pushing things to each other. And it somehow doesn't look that contrived,
weirdly. It's got a real flow about it. I like the imagery in it. All
the three videos are really very different and represent different sides
of us and our music. And the lady mentioned "Numb", I think
"Numb" is a really great video as well.
That seems like a very good last question...
I thought we were here until nine o'clock. I'd have been talking faster...