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 new Tate Modern building is perfectly designed for the Instagram generation

Almost every three minutes a photograph of The Switch House is uploaded to Instagram tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location.

It's a Tuesday morning in the Tate Modern Switch House”s “Living Cities” display.  A group of teenage girls charge around the room, phones in hand, paused on the camera screen, hunting down a potential Instagram post or Snapchat story. A young man is capturing shots of Mark Bradford”s 2004 “Los Moscos”,  a violent collage made from the materials found on the floor of his Los Angeles Studio. Ten minutes later the same man remains looking at his screen, observing the images he has taken on his iPhone camera. A group of tourists are posing for a photo on Marwan Rechmaouis”s “Beirut Caoutchouc”.  A young girl tells her Dad “that”s a really good photo that you took”. Kader Attia's “Untitled (Gharrdaia)” is surrounded by lenses of Canon cameras attached to bodies.

You can't miss it. The camera is literally everywhere: in every hand, in every room, in front of every painting.  

Downstairs, in the room “Between Object and Architecture” Yayoi Kusaama”s “The Passing Winter” (2005) seems to be a hotspot for the perfect Instagram post. People crowd around the cube, placing not their heads, but their iPhone cameras through the inviting holes. I too am part of this. Standing just outside the grey tape boundary, I take a picture of myself in the mirrored cube. Add a Clarendon filter, adjust the brightness and contrast, and tap post. By the time I've left the room, three friends have liked it.

But why do we insist of photographing the art around us? And what are the consequences of doing so?  A common criticism of social media is that it discourages us from living “in the moment”. As we constantly view the world from behind a digital screen, the tech-sceptics say, we neglect details of life at that very second. But there are even greater ramifications for the clicking, capturing and photographing of visual art for the sake of your Instagram feed. As you take a picture of Louise Bourgeois  À L”Infini (2008) and adjust the brightness, contrast, structure, warmth and saturation, then apply a filter of your choice:  Gingham, Juno, Crema Sierra, Nashville or Sutro, you become an artist with your own digital palette, transgressing the intentions of Bourgeois in terms of colour, tone and texture. While the intricate effects of Bourgeois's own work may be lost in the snapshot, your Instagram feed gains. It becomes a mini gallery, holding these appropriated and transformed works.

As you pose in the cube mirrors of Robert Morris”s “Untitled” (1965), or next to Andy Warhol”s iconic “Marilyn Diptych” (1962), it becomes clear that the gallery is an ideal space for capturing the art via selfies. If you'd like to convey to your followers just how “cultured” and “artistically engaged” you really are (just look at the Tumblr “Tinder Guys Posing with Art”), this space allows you to promote your own self-image with ease.

I ask the woman beside me viewing (or rather capturing) Lorna Simpson”s “Photo Booth” (2008), exhibited in the “Artist and Society” display of the Boiler House, why it is she is taking images of the work. She tells me she herself is an artist, and so sees this work as inspiration, capturing photos as a record for herself.  Art is photographed as a means of preservation. The content of a gallery is simultaneously static and fleeting. If you come back to the Tate Modern tomorrow, or a week later, chances are Lorna Simpson's “Twenty Questions (A Sampler)” (1986) will not have moved from that same space. You stand and observe the image, take it in, maybe read the detailed text beside it, and then move on to something that catches your eye in the next room.

The camera, however, offers a chance to capture the art forever. Will you ever come back to it? Perhaps not, but the image is stored away among your photos of a summer holiday, preserved as evidence of a piece of work that made you feel something. The camera provides a sense of security. It is a reassurance that you won't forget the image, just yet.

“But also”, the woman goes on to tell me “I think it”s really nice to share images. If I take a photo of this art, I can share it with my friends”. In his Ways of Seeing, John Berger talks of how the camera has changed the way we interact and engage with art. “The camera enables us to see something that isn”t precisely there in front of us”, he states, “allowing appearances to travel across the world in seconds”. I take a picture of a Gerhard Ritcher and Snapchat it to a friend with the caption: “Your fave!” A few seconds later, he opens the image and replies.

Indeed, in the corner of a display in the Boiler House, is a digital screen provided by the Tate that encourages an exchange of images between the gallery space and home. “When do you feel most creative? Post your photo on Instagram using #tatestudio and it may appear here”, it says. Alongside photographs of the studios of Claude Monet and Eva Hesse are square framed, edited images of the work spaces of @paulaclyde, @magpieethel and @rayofmelbourne. Social media, it seems, has become central to the identity of the Tate. Just look at its own Instagram feed, updated daily with times lapse videos and images of the art work in its collection. Access to free Wifi throughout the Tate Modern only epitomises the pertinence of social media to the art gallery experience.

When searching for “Tate Modern Switch House” in the Instagram search engine, you are presented with 194 posts with the hashtag #tatemodernswitchhouse, and a photograph almost every three minutes tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location. The most popular shots on Instagram, among Louise Bourgeois”s dresses and Marwan Rechmaouis”s immersive floor installation “Beirut Caoutchouc” are images of the concrete twisting staircases of the building and the newly expanded viewing gallery. This landscape of London, offering at various views as you walk around the external of the building, is perhaps one of the most photographed pieces of “art” to exist amongst the gallery space. There is a sense in which the Switch House has been built to be photographed.  And if you don”t bring your camera, you”re missing out.