On the afternoon of September
12, the day
scheduled for the performance of the Pet
Shop Boys' new score to the film, The Battleship Potemkin,
in the middle of Trafalgar Square, Neil and Chris meet at
the Trafalgar hotel, barely 100 yards from where they will
be performing. In the square, preparations are still
continuing, though the giant screen on which the film will
be projected above the heads of the Pet Shop Boys and the
Dresdner Sinfoniker is already in place. It has already
been projected onto and tested out at five o'clock this
morning, before first light.
They sit in a hotel
bedroom and consider what lies ahead tonight.
tell you," mutters Neil, "after this I'll feel like doing
They discuss this afternoon's press
conference. Neil realizes that the orchestra's conductor,
Jonathan Stockhanimer, may not have been invited to it and
worries that this may be a serious error in protocol. It
is quickly arranged. "He can answer all the questions,"
Neil points out.
First is the soundcheck. While
they wait to be told that everyone is ready for them,
their manager, David Dorrell, mentions that the American
cult author, j t Leroy, is keen for them to write a score
for a movie of one of his books, and that he is a big fan.
He asks whether they need an hour to sound check.
wouldn't have thought so," says Neil.
Word comes, and
they walk across, past the lions, to the stage.
"We don't do pop any more," Chris points out.
their places next to the orchestra, behind a light mesh
screen: thin enough to be seen through but thick enough to
catch the light of the film projection at night.
love the gauze," coos Neil.
"It's so cozy in here,"
They run through one of the score's two
vocal songs, "After all (The Odessa Steps)", then are told
to stop. There is a problem with the click track - the
regularly timed click rhythm which musicians often hear
through their earpieces to keep them in time but which the
audience is unaware of.
"We've still got click issues,"
Chris sighs. "Even at this late stage. It's been dominated
by clicks, from Berlin onwards?' He sits down and looks
out. This is a very public final rehearsal - a crowd of a
few hundred has already gathered. "How did we end up doing
this?" he asks.
Pete Gleadall is sorting out the click
issue, something which has been thrown up unexpectedly due
to a late demand from the orchestra. Quietly, he's not too
happy with them. "I felt like stabbing them one by one
yesterday," he says.
"I love the carpet," says Chris.
"I wasn't expecting carpet. That's where the budget went."
His mind wanders. "Can we point out that Arsenal are 45
games unbeaten in Literally?" he requests.
the clicks are sorted, and as far as they can tell the
sound is fine, so they leave. This time, heading back to
the hotel, they are Lightly mobbed.
"It's like being in
a Michael Moore film," observes Chris.
As Neil walks up
the hotel stairs - Chris takes the elevator - he says, "I
had a dream last night; I told Tony Blair to resign as
Prime Minister. He laughed. And then we had a very earnest
The press conference will be in a few
minutes, in Room 101. Chris disappears to get ready "For
lunch," Neil says, "I had two boiled eggs and
.i.e. the contents of my fridge."
Jeffi7ey, who is
doing their wardrobe, arrives.
"I had to fight through
the square with my
ironing board," he explains. "I
think they'd never
seen one before?'
quite honest, there's enough people there already for a
concert," says Neil. Everything seems good. "I love the
gauze' he repeats. "Gauze is the way to go." He considers
the evident conflicts between the usual Pet Shop Boys
touring personnel and the orchestra, and instinctively
offers a defense of the orchestra. "We have the usual
suspicion in rock'n'roll of outsiders;' he points out.
The one worry is the weather. The forecast suggests that
high winds and rain may be on the way Neil has arranged
for a message to be put on the Pet Shop Boys website
advising people to wear waterproof clothing. In the worst
case, mutters David Dorrell while Neil is on the phone,
they have an arrangement to cancel the concert and to
stage it instead on the following night. But no one wants
that to happen.
Neil gets a phone call from his father
who had been watching, and listening, from the square
during the sound check. There is now a new thing to worry
about - Neil's father says that Neil's vocals were
completely inaudible out front. Further calls are made. It
turns out that the people at the sound desk over on the
steps in front of the National Portrait Gallery hadn't
been able to respond when Neil had asked whether everyone
was happy and the Pet Shop Boys decided to finish the
sound check. They still wanted to work on his vocals but
had been forced to assume that Neil and Chris had had
Jefli7ey puts some make-up on Neil for the
press conference. Neil mentions that he won't need much
later tonight. "There is mesh' he says. "It's like having
a pillbox with a veil. It's a nice feeling - like being
"When did we agree to a
he half-heartedly moans. "Was I
party to it?"
Neil nods and says that a friend has
twice to wish them luck.
Chris accepts some
"Is powder enough?" he asks. "At this stage in
my life? The Botox Years...
"Their new album: Botox'
murmurs Neil. He
stands up. "Is Mike Skinner ready?" he
asks. "I'm not Mike Skinner today;' Chris objects. "I
think he's trying to be you," says Neil. It's time.
just don't do press conferences" Chris reminds him, but
without any force. And off they traipse to Room 101.
It was Philip Dodd, the director of the Institute Of
Contemporary Arts. who first approached Neil in April 2003
with this idea. The ICA had been given Trafalgar Square
for one night to stage an event, and he suggested that the
Pet Shop Boys write a new 73-minute score for Sergei
Eisenstein's classic Russian silent movie from 1925 and
perform it along with the film. Though it is Neil who has
always been deeply fascinated with Russian history, an
interest that has seeped into previous Pet Shop Boys songs
and performances, he always imists that it was Chris who
was keenest on this project. "I didn't think Chris would
want to do it," Neil says. "And when I mentioned it to
Chris in a very downbeat kind of way, Chris expressed
interest in it."
"Something different, i suppose;' says
"I didn't really want to do it to be honest at
the beginning," says Neil. "I thought, it's a lot of work
and we won't get paid anything." He laughs. "And it was,
and we didn't."
"You just get fed up of doing the same
thing all the time," says Chris. "If all we'd ever done
was trot out albums, one after the other, it'd be really
boring. At least we've tried to do different things - even
if they're not successful it's good to do them?'
work out how they might approach it, they
the film together twice on DVD.
"It was a challenge to
see if we could write a
long piece of music;' says
Neil says that was partially inspired by seeing
the Philip Glass Ensemble perform music for Jean Cocteau's
Beauty And The Beast. They were told that Eisenstein had
said he'd like a new soundtrack written for his film every
ten years. They wrote about half the score in August 2003
their studio in the North East, long before the
event was confirmed. The opening theme, "Comrades!", had
already been written by Chris when they were writing songs
for Pop Art, in the same few days that they wrote "Jack
and Jill party". (They even played what became "Comrades!"
to Adam F, who liked it but wasn't interested in working
They wrote the music in order.
the structure of the film," Neil explains. "So the second
piece of music, which is called 'Men and maggots'~ follows
what's happening on the ship - the men are going about
their chores but there is an undercurrent of rebellion and
violence, and so we have this relatively repetitive piece
of music with an undercurrent of violence and dissent,
hopefully expressed in the music. Occasionally we put real
sounds in - he smashes a plate, we put the sound of a
smashed plate. We decided from the word go we were going
to have us and electronics and strings. We knew what the
arc of the film was and we went with it."
completed the second half of the score in the spring of
2004. "In main, the lyrics were inspired by the
subtitles," says Neil. "So the song 'This is no time for
tears'.. .there's a subtitle comes up: 'this is no time
for tears'. I just took it from that." For "After all (The
Odessa Steps)" Neil was also influenced by looking at
photographs of Trafalgar Square and of all the things that
have happened there, and thinking about the whole idea of
it as a centre of dissent in Britain. "I'd had this vague
idea for an anti-war song - 'if you didn't really
understand the rules.. .how come we went to war?' - and I
thought it would be quite interesting to have a song that
was an expression of dissent in Trafalgar Square. And also
it kind of fits with the famous Odessa Steps sequence
where they're getting massacred, which is kind of like a
"We used quite a limited palette of sounds
actually' says Chris. "We used very few sounds so that it
has a coherence from beginning to end. Because when we're
doing a pop album, quite often the tracks are completely
distinctive. In this there's a continuity in terms of
Even once they'd written it they were still
slightly skeptical as to whether the finance would
come together; for a free event in Trafalgar Square would
have to be totally paid for by sponsorship.
the German composer, Torsten Rasch, to write the
orchestrations because they'd heard his album Mein Herz
Brennt based on the music of the German metal band
Rammstein. (Neil simply sent an email to the address on
the back of the CD and reached the Dresdner Sinfoniker who
performed the record. The man who co-runs the orchestra,
Sven Helbig, put them in touch with Rasch, who agreed to
collaborate.) "Torsten Rasch has a sort of dissonant
style$' says Neil. "We were intrigued by the idea of
trying to take pop music and harmonise it in a much more
avant garde kind of way." But his first demos of the
orchestration were too dissonant. "We realised that to do
that thoroughly we would have to drop out of the project,
basically;' Neil says. Rasch agreed to rein himself in a
In July, they went to Berlin and
recorded the score with the Dresdner Sinfoniker.
Eventually, after several delays and crises as sponsorship
fell through, it was finally agreed that the piece would
have its public premiere here today
The Pet Shop
Boys are greeted at the doorway
of Room 101 by Philip
Dodd. Neil and Chris line up behind a table covered in a
brown cloth. To Chris's right is Torsten Rasch. To Neil's
left is Sven Helbig and the conductor Jonathan
Stockhammer. The first question is about what this means
to the Pet Shop Boys compared to their other work.
"Well, it represents a big challenge for us," says Neil.
"When Philip asked us if we'd like to write a score for
the film The Battleship Potemkin, and perform it as a free
concert in Trafalgar Square, we sort of thought it was a
slightly ridiculous idea and an appealingly ambitious
idea. And we discussed it between ourselves and thought it
was a real challenge to see if we could write an
hour-and-a-quarter of continuous music, and what it would
be like.. .we really got very involved in it and very
intrigued by it, and so for us it represents a completely
new departure. The film itself is quite a romantic and
film, and I think with the music we've
tried to bring out those aspects of it, and also to bring
out the emotion of it as well - the excitement, the
horror, the freedom...all those things."
says Chris. "Gold star."
In answer to the next
question, Neil says that only three weeks ago he bought a
book about Battleship Potemkin he happened to see in
Waterston's, and as they were mixing their music to the
scene where the battleship is speeding and pistons are
seen pumping and he read that Eisenstein had wanted the
music here to sound like machines, which was exactly what
they had already done. "So I kind of felt at that point
that maybe Eisenstein might have approved of some of it."
"I think at least on that point he would
Torsten Rasch echoes.
"At least on that point," laughs
Neil talks about the collaboration between the
Pet Shop Boys and Torsten Rasch. "Traditionally we work
with very, very skilled and talented pop arrangers on our
records, and on this we just had the idea: what would it
be like to work with someone who is a composer, whose
sense of harmony is outside pop music?"
"It was maybe
for both sides, for you and for us, quite a difficult and
interesting joumey to coming closer together, because we
started on a level, in my opinion, which was a little bit
more apart says Torsten Rasch.
"Yes," Neil agrees.
"Oceans apart~' Chris interjects.
together," says Neil.
"Yes," continues Torsten Rasch,
"then we worked towards coming closer together... I had no
experience whatsoever in the field of pop music, like you
said.. it is certainly different.. .1 think we now came to
something which really works together."
A man from
Russian state television asks
whether there is any
possibility that they will be
taking the film back to
the Russian public.
"Yeah, we've actually had two
approaches to perform this in Red Square. There's nothing
settled yet but we have actually been approached by two
different organizations:' He points out that next year is
the hundredth anniversary of the 1905
seems a further good reason for doing it there. He says
they'd also love to do it in places like Australia and
There is another question asked and answered
and then debated, at great length, in German by the German
members of the panel and press, during which Chris gets
the giggles and sets Neil off.
"Right' suggests Neil at
its end. "Back to
English now, please."
asked about the relationship between "the almost sheer
political content of the film" and their previous work,
which the questioner characterizes as "rather mainstream,
though with a certain aspect of art".
"I think the
music that we've written for this is still pretty much
mainstream with an aspect of art, as you eloquently put
it' says Neil. "I think politically.. .when we started
work on this, I'd read a lot about Russian history and
what have you, and I said, 'of course it's just a
propaganda film, this, really', and Chris pointed out that
it's an ideal really It's an ideal of a revolution. It's a
romantic film of people struggling against oppression to
find freedom. And that's why I think it works totally
outside the communist context. People can be oppressed in
various economic contexts and this film could still speak
to them, I think. I think in Russia as it is at the moment
this film will still resonate with people. If we show it
in Red Square it's not just going to make people think,
'Oh, wasn't it great under communism?' It's not going to
mean that. It's a very stirring film, and I think we've
tried to bring that stirring and idealistic quality out in
One more question, says Philip Dodd. They're
asked whether they were daunted and overwhelmed to take on
what is known as an all time classic.
think we were overwhelmed by it," says Neil. "When
something becomes set as 'a classic' I always think
there's a danger that people stop thinking about. It's 'a
classic', like an alabaster monument or something. And
with this, I think it makes you look at it fresh and
that's the good thing. I think it's amazing how modem it
looks. When you see it on that big screen later
tonight, it looks really modem. It's not the kind of
Rudolf Valentino style of acting, it's quite a modem style
of acting, and it was filmed almost 80 years ago. And I
think that the music, I hope, helps to bring that out. So
we didn't feel frightened because it was a classic, no.
And the other thing that really appealed to us was the
Trafalgar Square thing - the film is sort of a political
film and Trafalgar Square is the political space in
London, where meetings, demonstrations, have carried on
since it was first built in the 1840s. And the staging,
which is done by Simon Mc Burney of the company
Complicite, is going to bring that out beforehand. There's
a sort of presentation before the film starts which is
about Trafalgar Square and takes us back in time then
takes us to Russia, so it puts the film in the immediate
context of us all being in Trafalgar Square and then in
some of its historical context, which is quite an
ambitious thing - I think it's really exciting."
Another question comes: what is it like for the Pet Shop
Boys to be conducted by a conductor? Neil points out that
they are not really being conducted, though there is one
point where he wants the conductor to indicate where he
comes in. He says that yesterday's rehearsal in a
rehearsal studio was the first time they had done anything
live with an orchestra.
"Can I tell them what your
first comment was in the rehearsal?" asks the conductor.
"What?" asks Neil.
"'Don't make me laugh'," he says.
"Yes," Neil concedes, "having this guy waving a stick to
Chris and me. Chris and I can get the giggles sometimes
and we don't want to get the giggles during this."
while children are being shot," says Chris.
the press conference, they both rest for an hour in
separate rooms, then Neil changes into the suit made
specially for him by Dior Homme which he has only worn
once before, on Parkinson. He won't be able to wear it
many more times the public pop life of clothing is limited
- so soon it will be recycled to one friend or another. He
points out that some of the
clothes he gives away get
sent by one friend to his family abroad: "There are people
in a village in Sri Lanka wearing Helmut Lang jeans and
Issey Miyake shirts."
He struggles with his
neckwear. "Tying skinny ties is a real bore," he says.
"When you think how long I've worn a tie for.. I'm still
useless at it." He looks out the window. The square is now
fairly crammed with people. "The funny thing is, it looks
exactly like a political demonstration. It looks like Red
Square, and the Cossacks are about to kill them. Is it too
late to arrange a police baton charge?"
conversation in the room drifts, and someone mentions
taking their daughter to see a Greek tragedy at the
"I've never seen a Greek tragedy,
I'm ashamed to say," says Neil. "Well, not that ashamed to
say..." The play The Duchess Of Malfi is mentioned.
was in The White Devil when I was 12," says Neil. "I
remember a lot of people were killed. It was at Newcastle
University, so it was exciting. About 1966. It was when
students still wore corduroy jackets."
He realises that
his watch is four minutes slow - "I'd better go to the
loo," he says - and worries that Chris is yet to appear.
"Is anyone thinking about Chris?" he enquires. "He's quite
likely to be asleep." Jeffrey is sent to knock on his door
while Neil does vocal exercises in the bathroom. He
wonders whether he should have worn a red tie. "But," he
realizes, "I haven't got one. And it looks like you're
making some kind of slightly spurious point."
appears, full of cheery fatalism.
"Oh, we might as well
go out in style," he says. "It was always a very foolish
idea..." He laughs, and begins imagining tomorrow's
reviews. "'Makes Closer To Heaven seem like a triumph..."'
He announces he doesn't want to go to the after-party.
"Maybe you'll be on a high," someone suggests.
never on a high when I come off," says Chris. "I have no
problem sleeping right away."
"It's true," Neil sighs.
"It's kind of crushing."
"I feel a sense of shame when
Off stage," Chris explains, "and I want to hide
under the blanket."
Debates have been going on all
evening about how the Pet Shop Boys are prepared to be
photographed during the performance so that their photos
will best be used in the papers. The photographers insist
on being able to shoot them close up on the stage, inside
the gauze, but Neil and Chris are holding firm. One last
attempt is made to persuade them.
"We want the Pet Shop
Boys and a huge crowd and projected film' says Neil. "We
don't want a picture of us from the side. What we want are
event shots. I would like a photograph of us playing in
front of a huge audience."
It's just one more reason
for Chris to like the gauze.
"We've thought of
everything," he says. "A baffler between us and the
audience. At last we've built the fourth wall."
There are later estimated to be about 20,000
gathered in Trafalgar Square when Simon McBurney begins
his hyperactive rant and film collage, about the political
history of Trafalgar Square, which precedes and sets the
scene for the main event. At one moment he appears to be
onstage; the next - far sooner than he could possibly have
got there - on top of the church of
St-Martin-in-the-Fields at the side of the stage. Most of
the crowd seem more diverted than engaged by what is
happening - perhaps partly because this seems a less
politically-motivated crowd than most of those that have
preceded it in this space, and perhaps partly out of the
modem habit of not getting too excited by the support act.
But from the very beginning of Battleship Potemkin,
everything is very different. Quite what it was going be
like to be with 20,000 people outdoors in the centre of
London at night, watching a Russian black-and-white silent
film while music pulsed and cascaded over you in sympathy
with, and often directly in time with, the images in front
of you, had been difficult to imagine. The reality of it
is just as difficult to describe, except to say that
everywhere one looks people seem captivated both by the
spectacle they have come to see and by the whole
experience. Not long after the film begins, the rain
begins to fall, but it never progresses beyond a firm
drizzle and the night is warm enough, and so all the rain
seems to do is to bind everyone here more closely together
in sharing this experience. Near the end of the movie, a
peasant woman in a shawl, straight from the film screen,
appearing to carry a baby, walks through the crowd.
After the film's climax, and the applause, Neil thanks
a list of people. "We haven't really got an encore," he
says, "so we're going to reprise one of the songs." They
perform "No time for tears" again, and then Neil remembers
to thank some people he has forgotten: Torsten Rasch, Sven
Helbig and the Dresdner Sinfoniker. "And, finally, the
brilliant filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. Thank you very
much. Good night."
"Well," says Chris, back at the
hotel, "we got through it. That was exhausting."
doing nothing most of the time is exhausting," Neil
They are, nonetheless, in the mood for
celebratory drinks. Fine Champagne has been ordered, but
stubbornly refuses to appear.
"So," says Chris,
"we're having to raid the mini-bar. That's what it's come
to." He rummages around. "Half a bottle of Moet."
says how annoyed he was by the people at the front who
cheered at the beginning of the Odessa Steps sequence. "I
could have killed them," he says.
"That was stressful,"
says Chris. "The computer only crashed once."
"We had a
little moment," Neil explains, "where Pete Gleadall said
'the Apple's crashed'." It sorted itself out.
starts to receive congratulatory texts on his phone. More,
better Champagne finally arrives.
"I don't know why
we're celebrating," says Chris. "We haven't got the
reviews yet. That's what always happens with us. That's
why we're going to Ibiza."
They are both on a plane in
the morning, though this time they will be escaping little
Copy rights Literally 2005 Issue 28.