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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

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