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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How Girls made an entire episode out of a single conversation about sexual assault

“American Bitch” is a claustrophobic and clammy exploration of horrible rape debates.

Recently, I was at a party in London that a friend had brought me to. I knew nobody else there, and was happily chatting complete nonsense with a total stranger. Somehow the conversation meandered to a problematic male celebrity accused of domestic violence.

I made an offhand comment about how I couldn’t support him any more. The man I was talking to objected. Should we believe everything we hear? In under five minutes, our conversation had reached a point where he said authoritatively, “Are you really going to confidently throw around statistics like ‘over one in 20 women are raped’? Listen, I know the legal definition of rape.”

The machinery in my brain gave a familiar, dull clunk. Oh, I’m in one of those conversations. One of those conversations where a man tells a woman about what counts as rape and what doesn’t.

It takes a few minutes to realise that the latest episode of Girls, “American Bitch”, is one of those conversations. It opens with Hannah approaching a lovely white pillared apartment block, politely telling the doorman “I’m here to see Chuck Palmer.” She reapplies her lipstick in the elevator. Is she interviewing someone for a magazine? Picking someone up for a date?

Chuck meets Hannah at the door, asks her to take her shoes off, line them up next to the others, without touching his suede boots, and mentions that the “special slippers” are “just for” him. In case we were in any doubt, he says “Yes, I’m that asshole.” We see endless copies of books with his name on the cover, and certificates branding them New York Times Best Sellers on the walls, a Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction, even a photo of him with Toni Morrison. This is a very famous writer.

When Chuck admits it was “good” that Hannah showed up, she replies, “I’m just surprised you found the article that I wrote. You must have an ass-deep Google alert on yourself, this was like a niche feminist website, it’s not the front page of the Times.”

“It’s just I’m hypervigilant these days,” he says. “Look, I’m not trying to get an apology out of you.”

“Ok, good.”

There’s a very specific edge to their conversation – we’re in familiar territory. “I’m obligated to use my voice to talk about things that are meaningful to me,” Hannah goes on. “And I read something about you that troubled me, that troubled me greatly – namely, that you’re using your power and your influence to involve yourself sexually with college students on your book tour, and whether all those sexual encounters were consensual or not –”

“Ok, hold up, because that’s where this line is pretty fucking messy, when words like consensual are thrown around.”

Oh, here we are. One of those conversations.

The scene carries on like this long enough for us to realise that this is probably a bottle episode - with limited characters and sets to keep costs down - like Season Two’s “One Man’s Trash”, featuring Patrick Wilson. That was another episode focusing solely on Hannah hanging out in the big luxurious apartment of a richer, older man. But this one is more of an ethical dialogue about the problems of accountability verses privacy. For the full half hour, Hannah and Chuck debate. Chuck claims his own kind of victimhood. His personal life has been invaded, a kind of groupthink has ended with the presumption of his guilt, and now, he can’t sleep, having nightmares about his daughter discovering the allegations online. “You remember what happened at Salem,” he says gravely. “I’m the witch!” (A few moments later, he compares himself to “some fire and brimstone preacher”, seemingly not noticing the irony.) Meanwhile, Hannah stands up for the girls who claim Chuck assaulted them, adding her own experience as a victim of sexual assault to the discussion to try and help him to understand.

Of course, this isn’t simply an ethical problem explored in dialogue. The texture of their debate is as telling as the basic argument itself. Chuck repeatedly interrupts Hannah, when she’s saying things like “women who have historically been pushed to the side and silenced an–”. He asks sarcastic, aggressive questions like, Did I put a gun to her head? Did I offer her a job?” and, even, “How does one give a non-consensual blowjob?”

At the same time, he also tries to charm Hannah, singling her out as special. “Listen, you’re clearly very bright, I could tell that from the first sentence you wrote,” he says casually, a minute or two into their first conversation. “Why would a smart woman like you write a very long and considered piece of writing on what is ultimately hearsay?” he says soon after. “Cause you’re smart, you write well, you write sharply,” he insists, when she asks why he invited her over instead of a different journalist.

And it works. Chuck is just self-deprecating enough that we see flashes of humanity in him. He asks Hannah questions about where she grew up, giggles with her, and talks about her dreams to be a writer. “Maybe one day you’ll be famous,” he says. “And a lot of people will know some stuff about you – some stuff. I mean, they’ll think they’ll know everything, but they won’t. Like what happened to me. You thought you knew everything, but you didn’t.”

Hannah shakes her head like a schoolgirl in trouble. “No, I didn’t,” she says.

At this point, I felt a squirming in my stomach. Viewers have always been quick to blur the line between fiction and reality when watching Girls, and we know that Lena Dunham has plenty in common with both Hannah and Chuck: yes, she’s a feminist writer who has spoken out about sexual violence, but she’s a famous writer who has faced a degree of public condemnation – and was even accused of sexually assaulting her sibling. “We just wanted to look at it from all sides,” Dunham told Vulture of the episode. Was Girls really telling the story of the poor, misunderstood, sexually aggressive male writer?

The next scene takes place in Chuck’s bedroom, where Hannah is awestruck over a signed copy of Philip Roth’s When She Was Good – Roth’s only novel with a female protagonist, Lucy, who repeatedly attempts to connect with and reform the disappointing men around her. “I know I’m not supposed to like him because he’s a misogynist and he demeans women,” Hannah says, in a comment that could easily refer to Chuck as much as Roth, “but I can’t help it.”

Chuck eventually asks Hannah to lie down on the bed with him – whilst encouraging her to “keep your clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you” – and when she does so, he unzips his fly, rolls towards Hannah, and flops his dick onto her thigh. Hannah surprises even herself when she touches it, panics, and tries to leave.

It’s a typical Girls moment - ridiculous, blunt, and sudden but still funny, and it reveals Chuck once and for all for the predator he is, whilst simultaneously portraying him as pathetic.

“People don’t talk about this shit for fun,” Hannah tells Chuck, and she’s right, these arguments are not fun. As Dunham told Vulture: “We’re having so many conversations about rape culture and assault and they’re really, really important conversations, but a lot of women walk around with a lot of shame about things that don’t look like rape in the traditional way.” Although there’s a grim humour in the familiarity of these scenes, this bottle episode feels claustrophobic and clammy, with shots of Hannah rubbing her neck or looking away awkwardly. It’s sweaty and stressful.

“Anyway, last year, I’m at this, whatever, warehouse party in Bushwick, and this dude comes up to me,” Hannah says earlier in the episode. The two are old schoolmates, and they talk about a former teacher, who Hannah calls out as a molester. “And you know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party, like he’s a judge, and says, ‘That’s a very serious accusation, Hannah.’ And he walks away.” Yup. Sounds like one of those conversations.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.