Ahead of the Pet Shop Boys’ Sydney concert on New Years’ Eve, vocalist and co-songwriter Neil Tennant reflects on over 25 years at the cutting edge of popular music.
Neil Tennant requires only a slight pause to answer my question as to whether he has any regrets from his many years working with Chris Lowe as the Pet Shop Boys.
“No,” he says with a chuckle. “No, I can’t think of even a minor regret.” Since their single West End Girls hit the top of the charts over twenty-five years ago – at the time Tennant compared reaching #1 to “having a cup of tea” – the Boys have carved out their own distinct niche at the forefront of the pop milieu, marrying Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat in releasing ten studio albums and a host of chart-topping singles, collaborating with everyone from Dusty Springfield to Johnny Marr along the way.
But unlike the legions of other bands that have experienced more ephemeral dalliances with pop stardom since the mid-eighties, the Boys’ oeuvre has been characterised by an ongoing ability to remain ahead of musical trends and develop their sound. “As we go on, we learn more and more about music. If you compare the records, I think there’s a consistency of quality but in fact I think the musical style has changed,” Tennant affirms.
Listening back to early Pet Shop Boys cuts such as Violence, Rent, It’s A Sin – which was memorably utilised in the 2009 cult film Bronson – and of course West End Girls – which Madonna admitted she “paid homage to” on her ’06 single Jump – it is apparent that the music of the Pet Shop Boys has a salience that withstands the rigours of time and technology.
“It’s surprising how something can sound dated after five or six years, but after twenty years it ceases to sound dated in a way if you still like it, and it has a new relevance at that point,” the articulate Tennant offers. “I think that for some of our records from the ‘80s that’s happened now, whereas in the nineties you might’ve thought they sounded a bit dated. Twenty-five years later I think they sound quite fresh actually; musical tastes come around to things from a while ago, and I think that’s happened as well.”
In recent years, the Boys have demonstrated a readiness to venture far beyond the confines of the pop template that they’ve refined to an art form with projects like their soundtrack to the 1925 silent Russian film Battleship Potemkin, which Tennant reveals has been on the verge of coming to Sydney Harbour outside of the Opera House on three separate occasions, and their ballet score for The Most Incredible Thing, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous fable. “We’re always looking to do something that feels really special and thrills you, and that is what keeps us going,” Tennant elucidates. “It’s a very interesting process to come into a completely different world, a world of classical ballet and contemporary music. I think we will do another ballet because it’s a very fascinating world.”
Such projects are vastly removed from the early output of Tennant and Lowe, who were originally touted as a ‘singles band’. Though such a label does not account for the quality of many of the lesser-known Pet Shop Boys album tracks, ardent fans will also tell you that the Boys have released some of their best material as b-sides right throughout their career. These esoteric tracks have been collated on the compilation Alternative and its forthcoming sequel Format, which collects Pet Shop Boys b-sides from 1996 to 2009.
“We called it Format because when you release a single, you have what the record company calls ‘format’,” Tennant explains, discussing the shift from releasing 7” vinyl singles to the iTunes singles packages of the present day. “These formats enable you to use the songs you write that you’re not going to put on the album,” he continues. “When you’re doing something as a b-side you don’t have any sense of constraint whatsoever; nobody’s going to say ‘they’re not going to play that on the radio’ because they’re not meant to be played on the radio. Sometimes they are more eccentric songs, and sometimes they’re more dark or macabre kind of songs. They’re the songs aren’t really meant to be mainstream Pet Shop Boys.”
It is on these more esoteric tracks that one can glimpse a different side of the Pet Shop Boys, a side Tennant exhibited in an essay that was published in Details in 1992 in which he declared, “I hate positivity. The problem with positivity is that it’s an attitude that’s decidedly about lying back, getting screwed, and accepting it… sometimes you can only define yourself by what you hate.”
Of the 38 b-sides on Format, Tennant nominates I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today – which features Johnny Marr of The Smiths and Electronic on guitar – as one that he wishes had not been culled from the final album. “It was originally on the album Release, and I personally thought it was the most commercial track on the album,” he recalls. “Then we decided that it would be jarring the mood of the album to have this up-tempo, sixties sounding song on it, but actually I think that was a mistake, we should have left it on.”
Tennant’s last remark almost sounds like the most minor of regrets, a fitting segue to return to the moment in our conversation that we first came in on: whether there is anything that one of the true pioneers of pop music wishes he had done differently during his career with Lowe as the Pet Shop Boys.
“I know I have a minor regret. The running order of [the album] Bilingual I don’t think is right. But I don’t have many regrets in my musical life. I remember in the 1970s I worked for Marvel comics and I did a little series of interviews with pop stars who liked Marvel Comics because I was so pop obsessed. I interviewed Marc Bolan of T-Rex and he gave me a copy of his new album, Futuristic Dragon, and I was too cool to ask him to sign it; I’ve always regretted that.”
The Pet Shop Boys are currently working on their 11th studio album, which is due for release in 2012. Meanwhile, the band’s new b-sides compilation Format will be released on February 2.
The duo will be performing at this year’s New Year’s Eve celebrations in Sydney – Neil and Chris will be on stage for 90 minutes at Glebe Island from 7.30pm.