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Pet Shop Boys: “Labour could do with an infusion of idealism”

The pop duo on Keir Starmer, the royals, Marvel and the word “queer”.

By Kate Mossman

I meet the Pet Shop Boys in a small room at their record company office in Kensington. The room is set up for a TV interview, with two soft, low chairs under lights and a high, hard stool in front of them. Neil Tennant takes the stool, placing him three inches higher than everyone else, which feels right somehow. Chris Lowe takes a soft chair next to me, facing Neil: this suits Chris, because while he may be the most unknowable man in pop – I had to study his face before extending my hand, to be sure it was him – he tends to interview his bandmate in press encounters these days, like a husband still finding things out about his spouse of 40 years. 

Back in the mid-1990s, Neil Tennant, now 69, tried to buy the New Statesman. It had been rescued from bankruptcy by the businessman Philip Jeffrey, and Tennant has been a subscriber since the Seventies. 

“You never,” says Lowe.

“I did!”

How serious was he?

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“Oh! very!” says Tennant. “It was getting better, but still a bit dreary. Also, the political climate was changing away from Thatcherism – it seemed like Labour was going to get back into power; there were more ideas coming from the centre left.”

Tennant says the magazine was going for £100,000, but it came with £2m in debt, so after several lunches he decided against it.

“I was a New Labour donor in those days,” he continues, “for which, by the way, I wasn’t offered, and didn’t ask for, anything in return.”

“Like a peerage?” asks Lowe.

“Oh, for the money I was giving you wouldn’t get a peerage!”

Does he detect the same kind of buzz around Labour now?

“There will be a buzz when the election’s announced,” he says. “There’s a desire for trust rather than ideology, which Starmer represents perfectly. But there was a thing last week, when Rishi Sunak turned down an overture from the EU [a proposed youth mobility scheme for EU and UK students]. I thought it was upsetting that Keir Starmer turned it down, too, because the Labour project could do with an infusion of idealism. There could be a positive reason, other than potential stability, to vote for them. I think it’s a mistake not to appeal to people’s idealism – because otherwise that’s going to happen outside politics, and I think that’s a problem.”

Tennant once described the Pet Shop Boys’ musical approach as stating the obvious over a gorgeous, overproduced backing track. The one-word title of their new album, Nonetheless (they are always one word), was chosen for its gentle, mournful quality: part of the record was composed in lockdown. While their formula has changed little over the years, it was always unique enough to transcend fashion, and a song such as “New London Boy” (“I know where I have to go/To unlock the secret of me”) could be the story of a young gay man in 1974 or 2024. In July, they will take over the Royal Opera House for five nights for a career-spanning show called Dreamworld; they also have another in development, Naked, which reworks the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes and was inspired by “our era of the ghastly strongmen”. Tennant says modern times began on 1 January 2000, when Putin walked into the Kremlin.

When the Queen died, Chris Lowe (now 64) was in Yo! Sushi in St Pancras Station, due to attend Keith Allen’s new show Rehab: The Musical. After he heard the news, Lowe decided to head down to Buckingham Palace to pay his respects – despite the fact that the Pet Shop Boys famously “don’t do the royal family”. Lowe texted Tennant, who was in New York, having a watch mended on Madison Avenue. That night, Tennant embarked on the 500-mile journey from New York to Toronto for the first date in the Pet Shop Boys’ 2022 North America tour. His driver dropped him in Buffalo, where he stayed the night, and another picked him up in the morning. At one point, in the middle of nowhere, they stopped at a roadside bar so that Tennant could use the toilet. Six men were drinking in the middle of the day: “Sorry about your queen,” shouted one. “And I said thank you,” Tennant says softly, affecting a small sniff.

“One of the reasons I’m against the royal family is because I don’t think it’s fair on the participants. I think they are now isolated, with the whole culture that held them up having vanished: the culture of the hereditary principle, of deference. What was wrong with the feudal system? Everyone had their place and knew what they were!” Lowe warns that Tennant is joking. Tennant continues, “When I’m in Germany I like to say, ‘Was German reunification a good idea? I mean, seriously, was it?’ Actually, seriously, was it…?” His irony punches wormholes in several layers of reality. 

“It’s a strange combination, royals and pop stars,” he continues. “To be fair, when Prince Charles was Prince Charles, he sort of started it all, because Diana liked pop music. In terms of soft power, we have something no other country has. We have the Premier League, the royal family, and an endless stream of pop stars. Even America doesn’t have that. Last year, when we played South America, we had lunch at the British ambassador’s residence in Mexico City. There are only two hotels that famous people will stay in there, and in residence at the same time were Paul McCartney, Noel Gallagher, Pulp and someone like Blur. The whole place was in a frenzy!”

“Mick Jagger is never out of an embassy,” points out Lowe. “Lives in them.”

It is strange to think of Tennant being driven through the empty north, alone, at the time of the queen’s death, like Hank Williams on his last trip. He passed his driving test in his fifties. He spends a lot of time in Germany these days and is relatively good at the language: oddly, although he has always had trouble telling left from right, when he is speaking German, he has no problem. 

Tennant worked in publishing for ten years before becoming a pop star. For a time in the Seventies, he was London editor for Marvel Comics. “What people forget is that sci-fi was dead then,” he says. “Dead, dead, dead. Marvel means movies now.” Tennant attended comic cons in Bloomsbury church halls. He was responsible for putting three American strips into a UK edition each week, which was printed in black and white; he inserted adverts, changed the spelling of words such as “color” and, often, had to ensure that bikinis were added to the big-breasted fantasy swordswoman Red Sonja. In 1976, he managed the UK launch of Captain Britain, starring an Essex-born superhero in a Union Jack leotard. In the American comic strip, he says, Big Ben sat on Trafalgar Square, next to Nelson’s Column.

“Wait, you launched it?” says Lowe. “Was it your idea?”

“No, it wasn’t my idea – and it was a mistake,” says Tennant. “I called up New York and said, now, it’s 1976 and the National Front are huge. You’ve got the Stars and Stripes: the United States is a very diverse country, and there’s an ideology behind your flag. Ours, there isn’t. What it means to a lot of people is ‘Nazi’.”

Tennant used his time at Marvel as an excuse to meet pop stars, introducing a new slot where bands came in to talk about their love of comic strips: he still has the recording of his first interview, with Marc Bolan. He had a strong attraction to that strange breed, and a desire to talk to pop stars about things other than pop, which later came in useful as associate editor of Smash Hits magazine in the early Eighties. In 1983, he was sent to interview Sting in New York, and used the trip to slip the disco producer Bobby O some demos of his own band’s song “West End Girls”. An extract from that feature, which described seeing Sting’s band the Police playing Shea Stadium in Queens, New York shows the pop world through Tennant’s eyes:

“The Police are so hot in America at the moment that everyone at the stadium seems to want to get closer to them. Kids with tickets for the top levels of the stadium want to get to the lower levels. Kids on the lower levels want to be on the pitch. Kids on the pitch want to get in front of the stage and a lot of kids want to get backstage. People who’ve got backstage want to stand beside the stage just to see Sting, Stewart and Andy going on while the hangers-on beside the stage actually want to stand on the stage while the band play. That’s close.”

The Pet Shop Boys had had ten top-ten hits before they went on their first world tour in 1989. Their act featured only a keyboard and preprogrammed backing tracks: the biggest difficulty, says Tennant, when he started to perform live, was knowing what to do with his hands. 

“Chris could play the keyboards; I had to be a frontman. When I see old TV appearances by us, I’m always struck by my meaningless hand gestures.”

“I’ve noticed what you do,” says Chris. “You clap down here [he does a little ushering clap with his hands, to the right of his knee]. It’s not the rock ’n’ roll clap.”

“It’s a suggestion,” says Tennant. 

While other huge acts of their era – Depeche Mode, for example – meet only to tour, the duo are in regular contact all the time: “It is quite a relaxed thing really,” says Tennant. “This is what we do. We are quite accepting.”

Chris Lowe has an automatic inflatable bed backstage on which he is to be found sleeping, close to the start of a show. He wears no hat and glasses today, as he generally does in videos and on stage. Though he was an inspiration for the robotic Stig in Top Gear, Lowe has a raver’s easy energy. His brown eyes fix you conspiratorially, and there is much mental chinking of pint glasses. He will sometimes hear Tennant doing vocal warm-ups from his dressing room: “Little classic-y scales,” Tennant adds, rather than Freddie Mercury “day-ohs”. The new trend is a tube inserted into the mouth, with the other end in half a glass of water. One blows – “Whuuuuu”– and the bubbles vibrate one’s vocal chords. “Everyone on The Voice does the tubes…”

The Pet Shop Boys’ sound is driven by a powerful alchemy of surface and subtext. The heavy thrill of a song such as “It’s a Sin” (which gave its name to the 2021 Channel 4 drama about Aids) lay in its sense of restriction, enhanced by Derek Jarman’s rich Catholic iconography in the video. “But the real double entendre was with ‘Rent’,” Tennant says. “Which kind of meant ‘rent boy’, really, but then, you deny that…” 

Tennant came out by doing a cover story for Attitude magazine in 1994. Two years later, in the Independent, he reflected, “Actually part of me – I can say this now I’ve ‘come out’ – thinks it’s all a bit of a cliché anyway. We’ve invented this thing called homosexuality and now everybody is conditioned into having a way of life which is either gay or straight. I mean 50 years ago I’d have been married with three children and having affairs with men on the side and frankly, I’d probably be happier.” 

Tennant and Lowe are of a certain generation. They lost many friends to Aids (their 1990 track “Being Boring” mourned a friend from Tennant’s teenage days who had arrived in London from Newcastle at the same time). They played benefits in protest at Section 28 in the Eighties, when the prime minister spoke against giving children an “inalienable right to be gay”. A few years ago, I interviewed Andy Bell, the lead singer of Erasure, in a fringe theatre in Vauxhall, where he was doing a show. Two of his young male dancers ran past and Bell whispered, “They have no idea how easy they’ve got it.” What does Tennant think of the word “queer”?

“I always say, ‘I’m a homosexual,’” says Tennant, after a pause. “And it should be hoh-moe, because it’s Greek, not Latin. At school, in Latin class, the word homo (meaning man) came up. A boy said, ‘Homosexual!’ The teacher said, ‘I’m glad you said that, Smithers,’ – he wasn’t really called Smithers, although what a great name – ‘I’m glad you said that, Smithers, because homosexual is actually from the Greek word homos which means “the same”. Homosexual means love for the same sex, not the male sex.’”

“So, basically, everyone could just be an H?” says Lowe. “Get rid of all the other letters!”

“They used to say Uranian!” says Tennant. “No one’s going to say Uranian now!”

We move from a Ripping Yarns boarding school through Putin’s Russia (“He’s turning the clock back on it,” says Tennant, meaning gay rights, “though I sense his heart is not really in it…”) to Trump, with an anecdote about spilling white wine at his feet in Madison Square Garden, when they went to see Prince Naseem fight.

“Our position has always been, and continues to be, that it’s weird for people to identify you only by your sexuality,” Tennant concludes. “If you’re straight, you never get asked: ‘Has it been a problem for you, being heterosexual?’ Everyone thinks they can chat about it and label you, and it’s a bit irritating, and it’s a bit, as Madonna would say, reductive.”

But this isn’t really about personal life: it is politics. A gay friend of mine is always saying that real battles were won in his time: he can’t bear our vicious war of semantics. “He is probably right,” says Tennant. “And it’s possible to be flippant about it, when in fact, you know: what’s it like being gay in Iran?”

The Pet Shop Boys, protected by their doubleness, remain both entirely public and utterly private in a way that is not of this century. “When we became famous,” says Tennant, “it was at the high point of the tabloid newspapers. When ‘West End Girls’ came out, we did an interview with the Sun. Because we obviously didn’t want to talk about our private lives, we agreed to slag off everyone in the charts! And they had a piece: “Pet Shop Boys slam lame rock rivals”. We looked at that and thought, “Well, we’re not going to do that again! We haven’t married famous people. We’ve always had famous friends, though [Tennant organised Elton John and David Furnish’s stag do]. I think it’s a career decision we made – it was a choice. And I think it was the right one.”

Given that they still don’t have to move much on stage, you suspect they will be recording and touring in their eighties. 

“It is more than likely, providing one is still alive,” says Tennant.

“Yes, that would be the limiting factor,” says Lowe. “I am looking forward to our final album, Thank You.”

Thank You is supposed to be posthumous,” corrects Tennant: they have been talking about this imaginary record since 1986. 

“The great thing about a posthumous album,” says Lowe, “is that we won’t have to do any promotion.”

[See also: Madonna’s greatest hits tour shows why she is still the Queen of Pop]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll