How To Be Pop Stars - Pet Shop Boys

How To Be Pop Stars - Pet Shop Boys

Posted 24 Jul 2017


Not long before the Pet Shop Boys released their 2013 album, Electric, which among references to Soviet-era Russia, love being a bourgeois concept, and dance-floor beats included a Bruce Springsteen cover, Neil Tennant revealed his and bandmate Chris Lowe’s greatest influences.

At the top of the tree were the Beatles, David Bowie and Kraftwerk. But not far behind would be Elton John and Giorgio Moroder, Smash Hits and Top Of The Pops Elvis Presley and Dusty Springfield - but despite the cover of "Where The Streets Have No Name", probably not U2.

"I think there is common ground between the Pet Shop Boys and Bruce Springsteen because we both are telling stories about the world as we see it,” Tennant said. “Chris's sister suggested we do this and when we played it in the studio, we could imagine doing it with the big guitar riff changed to a vocal riff and the chords are so beautiful and it has drama.”

Tennant and Lowe were and are fans: of pop music and dance music, film and literature, high culture and trash. The truth of that can be found not just in a career-length reissue series of their first 11 albums but in the “further listening” bonus discs with the full scale of their wider listening and experiments, available on all formats here.


In this 2007 interview, Tennant went some way to explaining what fired them, what grounded them, and what kept them from being like anybody else.

HOW TO BE POP STARS by Bernard Zuel

It is midnight in the UK and Neil Tennant is alone at home dialing my number.  What, no lackeys? Given his venerable position after more than 20 years of success with his musical partner Chris Lowe in the Pet Shop Boys, the Newcastle-born singer is both figuratively and literally the grey eminence of international pop.

Surely then putting an international call through for an interview is exactly what minions were created for.

"We travel quite lightly. We don't like to have a big entourage or anything," an amused Tennant says as I express my surprise. "I think it's just being an adult. I don't know how [those with a lot of lackeys] can afford it. "I've never liked to wander around in a huge group of people."

Maybe that's because when the Pet Shop Boys had their first hit, "West End Girls", Tennant was already 30, with seven years in publishing and three years as a writer on the British pop culture magazine Smash Hits behind him. He had a chance to be an adult before he became a pop star.

"I think it probably was that," he says. "I think that if that had happened to us when we were 18 we would be completely different people. But that Smash Hits period was a great time, all that '80s pop stuff like Frankies [Frankie Goes To Hollywood].

"I think [PSB] were a reaction to that kind a group, we were the next generation, very, very different from them."

How different? it wasn't just that Lowe and Tennant's eminently hummable pop songs folded into electronic rhythms were less in thrall to glam and disco than their compatriots. Nor even that Tennant's lyrics were spare but pointed, amused but never impersonal.

While their immediate predecessors had been wildly flamboyant, the publicly taciturn and motionless-behind the keyboard Lowe quickly adopted the uniform of casual (if expensive) street wear, permanent cap, sunglasses and expressionless face.

Meanwhile Tennant affected the elegant tailored look of the moneyed set and the droll delivery of a refugee from the Bloomsbury crowd with moves more Noel Coward than David Bowie.

And it worked a treat, giving them 36 top 20 hits and ten top ten albums in the UK alone.

What's interesting about the Pet Shop Boys throughout this was that even at the height of their fame they could probably still wander about more anonymously than far less successful figures.

"I think the Pet Shop Boys were more a brand name for a time," Tennant says. "I do get recognised all the time actually but in a very mild sort of way."

Is some of the distance people keep from Lowe and Tennant a reflection of the distance that the pair have quite deliberately put between them and the standard behaviour of a pop star?  That "please come love me" message implicit in pop stars is missing from the duo.

"That's quite a good point. I don't know that that's deliberate but what I am," explains Tennant. "Morrissey wants the audience to throw themselves at him, that's what he wants; with us, there is more of a dignity thing. We would be embarrassed by that behaviour, and we don't really want to be embarrassed. We do want the audience to love us [he laughs] but it's a matter of how it's displayed."

The downside to creating that distance, engendering that public decorum, is that quite often particularly outside the UK the Pet Shop Boys have been seen as ironic, playing with the emotion of the song and with the state of being a pop star even as some of their songs delved into much deeper waters than dance pop acts ever consider.

"I've never been able to understand that," says a slightly annoyed Tennant. "Because I think you can feel the emotion, sing the emotion, without having to do it in a conventionally emotional fashion. You can do it [sing the emotion] without going over the top about it. It's not in my nature to do that and it's more honest [for me] to do it my way.

"Nowadays people often think that for an artist to be an artist he or she has to very, very, very overtly express their feelings.  But for me art has to have artifice to be art: you create something. It's not a case of it just is. That sort of sentimental wallowing glosses over, paints over all the cracks and shoddy workmanship and I don't feel like that.

"My favourite singing stars have tended to be conversational. I often think that approach expresses more emotion.  What you don't express, what you don't give, makes for a pop performance."

 This interview was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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