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?

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era