The Pet Shop Boys on texting Cameron and Russian homophobia

Part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster, the group are apparently too old for radio.

Earlier today, the two middle-aged men before me were sitting in a bus shelter in Acton, west London. The shorter of the two was wearing a hat. It covered his whole head. “It’s a very nice environment inside the mirrorball,” Chris Lowe says. “It’s like an internal disco ball, really . . . So nice. You can wear whatever you want and just plonk it on.”

His colleague, Neil Tennant, wore a matching glittery bowler: not conventional attire for someone who will be 60 next summer. Yet this ordinary/extraordinary scene sums up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys. Take any everyday environment – a central London scene where you’ll find West End girls, dogfilled suburbia, a bus stop on the Uxbridge Road – and this peculiar pair will infuse it with flamboyance, archness and fondness.

Behind the sparkle of the Pet Shop Boys’ music, deeper things have always lurked. First, there is their fascination with both the high and the low arts. In 2011, they put on a ballet at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and they are currently composing a song cycle about the life of the cryptographer Alan Turing; they have also written B-sides called “Sexy Northerner” and “The Truck Driver and His Mate”. Then there are their subtle explorations of big issues in song. In “Being Boring” (1990), Tennant wrote about a friend who had died of Aids. In their 1993 rejig of Village People’s “Go West”, they added new lyrics to comment on life after communism (it was a huge hit in Russia). For the 2009 Bside “We’re All Criminals Now”, they even wrote about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes (“Waiting for a bus in Stockwell/ Cameras on my back”).

Their longevity is impressive, too. It has been 32 years since Tennant, then an editor for ITV Books, and Lowe, a University of Liverpool architecture student in London on a placement, met each other at a hi-fi shop in Chelsea and got talking about dance music while waiting to be served.

Four and a half years later, they went to the top of the charts with their first hit, “West End Girls”, a song inspired by T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, with a new, atmospheric, electronic sound. In the video, they also looked very different from other popular male duos of the time: Tennant strutting around Petticoat Lane in a funereal black coat while Lowe stood behind him, blank-faced,fading into shuttered shopfronts. This dynamic – part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster – has remained their preferred mode on video and onstage ever since.

In the flesh, Lowe is slightly more vocal and funny but Tennant remains the band’s warm, urbane spokesman. This afternoon, we are in the Pet Shop Boys’ white-walled PR office in Kensington and they are in offduty wear: jeans, polo shirts and sweatshirts, no OTT millinery. Lowe has even brought a tub of M&S flapjacks with him. “Posh!” he hams, his Blackpool accent still ringing clearly. Tennant’s Tyneside upbringing is softly present in his voice, too, more pronounced than on the records. The pair drink tea from mugs with single words on them, the kind you get in fancy knick-knack shops. Tennant’s says “God”. Lowe’s says “Whatever”.

We are here because the Pet Shop Boys’ latest album, Electric, is their most successful in years (it reached number three in July, their highest chart placing in two decades). This followed a slew of high-profile activities: a much-praised support slot on Take That’s blockbuster Progress tour in 2011 and a memorable appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony (they arrived on winged rickshaws and wore orange pointy hats).

An upbeat mix of disco, house and pop, Electric is also their first album to be released not by Parlophone but by their own label, x2, in partnership with Kobalt, a new company that allows artists to retain rights over their music (Paul McCartney and Björk are also on its roster). Electric arrived only eight months after 2012’s introspective Elysium and the process seems to have revitalised them.

“I think we’ve learned that people don’t want from us a depressing album about ageing,” says Lowe, wiping flapjack crumbs from his mouth. “People want fun from us, a bit of a party, a bit of irony, with something a bit intellectual thrown in, the odd historical reference.”

All these things are found in their infernally catchy new single, “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”, written about a character in David Lodge’s 1988 novel, Nice Work. The song’s protagonist mills about at home trying to pretend he’s not in love and spends time “searching for the soul of England/ Drinking tea like Tony Benn”. “He’s reverting back to the extreme leftism of his university years and so we’ve mentioned one of the biggest figures of the Labour Party of his youth,” Tennant explains. “I quite like doing things like that.”

It’s not the only such reference on the album, at least according to the Libération writer who told Tennant and Lowe that Electric was the most left-wing album the Pet Shop Boys had ever made, dwelling in particular on its second track, “Bolshy”. The song plays around with the etymology of its title – “bolshy” comes from the word “Bolshevik” – and it includes passages in Russian about starting feuds and hesitating to intrude. “Bolshy” also confirms the band’s long-running interest in Russia: as well as the update of “Go West”, the Pet Shop Boys made a new soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in 2004.

But now there is the new anti-gay “propaganda” law from Vladimir Putin and the Duma, I say. The band has always supported gay rights, albeit sometimes subtly (Tennant came out in 1994, to the surprise of nobody). One of the best-known Pet Shop Boys songs, “It’s a Sin” (1987), was a narrative about growing up gay and ashamed in the guise of a club hit (sample lyric: “At school they taught me how to be/So pure in thought and word and deed/They didn’t quite succeed”).

“Our idea in those days was to be slightly subversive, to say things without really following through,” Tennant says, “which I think is quite a good approach. We never wanted to preach or anything like that, because politics in pop music is a very tricky thing.” The only two songs that have succeeded in that vein while being explicit, he says, are the Specials’ “Ghost Town” and Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” (the former about inner-city deprivation, the latter about the Falklands war).

In 1988, the Pet Shop Boys played a gig protesting against Section 28 and Tennant sees direct parallels between Margaret Thatcher’s and Putin’s politics. Was Section 28 frightening for him? “It felt weird, more than anything,” he tells me. “Like one of those things Thatcher did every now and then to vibe up the Tory right wing. You know, normally you pass a law when there’s a problem – when people are marching in the streets saying, ‘All they do these days is teach the kids you’ve got to be gay.’”

Tennant thinks that Putin’s attitude has much to do with the revitalised power of the Russian Orthodox Church. “It’s regained its position in Soviet society and Putin has schmoozed them as a result. He schmoozes everyone, actually, doesn’t he?” He remarks that if you go to Moscow or St Petersburg, you meet metropolitan, liberal people who find their government embarrassing. The band last played in Moscow in June: “I hasten to add, before this law was passed.”

On Electric, the Pet Shop Boys also tackle war. They do so in a surprising way: by covering Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 album track “Last to Die”. That song was inspired by a question John Kerry asked about Vietnam while testifying to Congress in 1971 (“How do you ask a man to be the last man to diefor a mistake?”). Lowe says that Springsteen’s opening riff is what won the pair over. Nevertheless, Tennant also changed a lyric to make their version more explicitly political.

“I changed ‘a mistake’ to ‘our mistakes’,” he says firmly. “So then the song casts more blame on us, as individuals in a democratic society, and the responsibility that we have for what happens in our name.”

Tennant finds public disillusionment with politics worrying and extends this to the current debate about digital privacy. “The public couldn’t care less about being snooped on and that’s very odd. Imagine a politician saying they were going to open your post before they delivered it to you, photostat it, then deliver it. On the internet, it doesn’t feel like crime because you can’t feel the crime happening. It’s the same way that people think of stealing music, to turn to that hoary old argument.”

Lowe has been quiet for a while. I ask him what he thinks about music being stolen online and he shrugs.

“I’ve sort of given up on it, really. I don’t think we expect to make any money from our music any more, do we? Music is just something that we do because we enjoy doing it. We just make money from touring.”

The Pet Shop Boys shy away from the internet in other ways (they aren’t fans of Twitter) but they do occasionally post messages on their website. Recently Tennant posted one in response to a campaign by the anti-Israel group Innovative Minds asking the band to cancel a gig in Tel Aviv in June. “What bugged me was that this group called Israel an apartheid state. That’s factually incorrect. That position actually does the cause – a cause we would probably to a large extent sympathise with – harm.”

The Pet Shop Boys didn’t play in South Africa in the 1980s, he adds, and tried to stop EMI releasing their records there. “If we’d played a concert there, it would have been to segregated audiences. When someone is buying a ticket in Tel Aviv, there is no segregation.”

The problem with modern political protest, Tennant believes, is that opinions are given precedence over facts. “Politics are too emotional now. Contemporary culture generally is too emotional, really, especially in music. These days, a performance can only be regarded as wonderful if it makes people cry. It’s that X Factor idea – that to properly sing a song, you’ve got to try to stop your mascara running. I’d rather people looked to the truth.”

Tennant and Lowe have other bugbears about the modern music industry. “I’ve realised recently just how ring-fenced pop musicis,” Lowe says. “Pop music wasn’t like that before. It’s now a very closed world.” Their age – Tennant is 59 and Lowe 53 – doesn’t help them, they say; the singles from this album, big, poppy, in-your-face songs, have barely been playlisted.

Tennant leans forward. “Radio people actually say to us now, ‘Oh, we won’t ever play your records, because you’re too old.’” Honestly? “Yeah. They’ve actually said that. They’re quite blatant about it. And someone else – who shall remain nameless – said, ‘If yours was Daft Punk’s next single, we’d have played it automatically.’” He shrugs. “Then again, they’re only 38.”

Why does that happen? “Because the system is unbelievably conservative and enclosed. For us to get played on the radio, we’d have to try a trick, do it under a different name.” BBC Radio 1 also takes YouTube hits into account when compiling their playlists. “These figures are called ‘measurables’. Don’t forget your measurables.” Tennant sighs. “That’s the world we live in.”

Perhaps the band’s next single after this one – “Thursday”, featuring the 31-year-old London rapper Example – will finally tick the boxes that radio producers are so keen on. But for now, there are more pressing commitments. By Christmas, they plan to finish their 45-minute work on the life of Alan Turing, A Man from the Future.

“It’s called that because of the scientific aspect but also because of his attitude to homosexuality,” Tennant explains. “Turing told his sister he was homosexual – she was appalled – in 1946! He refused to be anything other than matter-of-fact and honest about who he was.”

As I leave, Lowe puts the lid on the flapjacks with a wink and Tennant gives me some back issues of the Pet Shop Boys’ fanzine Literally which tell me a little more about the band’s passion for Turing. The fanzine also reveals one of their subtlest political acts yet.

A month after the closing ceremony for the Olympics, the Pet Shop Boys were begged by Boris Johnson and then David Cameron to play at the winners’ parade on the Mall. Despite initial concerns about overexposing themselves and with other commitments overseas on the same day (they were eventually flown back to Britain by the government, by private plane), they ended up playing and enjoying the event.

So Tennant texted David Cameron’s assistant to say so. His message read as follows: “Thanks for asking us – actually it was really worth doing. And sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”

In the week when Electric was released, the government announced that the third reading of the bill pardoning Turing had been tabled for October. Sometimes pop and politics do shimmer together, after all.

“Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” will be released as a CD single on 30 September (x2/Kobalt, £7.99)

Hat trick: Chris Lowe (foreground) and Neil Tennant are still pushing the limits of fashion and going where the air is free

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
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A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times