Beyond the Suburbs to Utopia: The Pet Shop Boys-Part Gilbert and George, Part Jeeves and Wooster-On Texting Cameron, Russian Homophobia and Being Too Old for Radio

By Rogers, Jude | New Statesman (1996), September 20, 2013 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Suburbs to Utopia: The Pet Shop Boys-Part Gilbert and George, Part Jeeves and Wooster-On Texting Cameron, Russian Homophobia and Being Too Old for Radio


Rogers, Jude, New Statesman (1996)


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 mirror-ball," 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, dog-filled 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 B-side "We're All Criminals Now", they even wrote about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes ("Waiting for a bus in Stock well/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 off-duty 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).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 Bjork are also on its roster). Electric arrived only eight months after 2012's introspective Elysium and the process seems to have revitalised them. …

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